The Witness is a game about perception. On the surface, it’s an open world puzzle solving game, but from the moment you activate the first puzzle panel, you’ll realize that this isn’t an everyday title from the genre.
Playing as an unnamed character, you wander around a mysterious island filled with all manner of structures and natural features, coming into contact with panels that contain puzzles where you must draw a line (or lines) from one point to another. But where things take a turn is that there is no tutorial – not in the sense of conveying a purpose for solving the puzzles, nor in the sense of explaining the rules of each puzzle. No, you the player must figure out the rules to each puzzle before you can solve it.
When you have trouble solving a puzzle, rather than pulling out your hair (however tempting it may be), your best bet might be to (literally) take a step back from the puzzle, and look around. Something visual (or audible, for that matter) may be the key to understanding how to solve it. The puzzles range from fairly simple to incredibly complex, but the hardest part is constant: figuring out what is the key; not necessarily unlocking the door.
The way The Witness transfers knowledge of the rules to the player is by starting them off with an easy puzzle and leaving it up to them to interpret what the game wants them to do. Once they understand that, they have to apply those rules to solve each panel. The rules and ideas behind each area build from there – figuring out what the puzzle wants you to do, and then doing it, are the two parts to each solution. And this is where The Witness is different than your typical puzzler.
If you had never heard of or seen Picross or Sudoku puzzles, and you were shown a board, would you know what was happening? It would just look like a bunch of numbers around a square. You’d probably stare at it blankly for a while, because the rules were never explained to you.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” would be a normal thing to say aloud. And now you understand The Witness. Figuring out the rule is the first puzzle, solving it with the rule is the second.
The different regions on the island have different themes, in appearance but also in the aforementioned puzzle rules. There is a region where all the rules involve symmetry. Another where it relies on seeing the puzzle in the correct way using shadows cast on to the panel. In another region you must use your senses to draw connections and similarities between objects within the puzzle, and objects in the surrounding environment.
You can activate and solve most puzzles from different angles (in other words, not standing directly in front of it), and this is a requirement plenty of times and you’ll need to adjust the perspective so that solution reveals itself to you. A seemingly unsolvable puzzle may require juuuust the right positioning before it all becomes clear.
One of the most gratifying moments of playing The Witness is, as you may imagine, solving a puzzle – but especially once you’ve spent minutes or hours staring at it. Some of the puzzles can really test your patience and it can turn The Witness into a Hair-Pulling Simulator. While the puzzles have a wide range of difficulty, there are some that are deviously complex.
If you search for “witness puzzle explanation” on any medium, and read the comments, you rarely find self-deprecating sentiment, “oh, how did I overlook this obvious clue!? I’m so dumb!” It’s more typically along the lines of “this is ridiculous, I would never figured this out!” and I can attest that the latter is how I feel 100% of the time when I’m forced to cheat. Figuring out a puzzle, no matter if it takes one minute or one hour, is an excellent feeling – but your reward is typically an even more insane puzzle.
In fact, The Witness, in my opinion, is best taken frequent breaks from. Playing this game for hours on end is just not an option that’s on the table as it will fry your brain and make you question absolutely everything in your life. Currently, I am taking a one week break after solving ~100 puzzles in about 4 hours (there are over 500 puzzles), closing out only one single region, but I desperately need something easier on the mind to relax to.
A lot of puzzle games are relaxing – The Witness is absolutely not one of them despite the serene environments and overall calming atmosphere. The puzzles juxtapose the environment in a way that feels just a little bit off all of the time; you always feel like you’re being watched from afar while simultaneously being controlled by the puzzles themselves.
I think a hint system would have been nice to have, although I’m sure it would have broken the immersion – the whole point here is that you’re an unnamed protagonist that you’ll (presumably) learn about at some point later in the game. A hint system for the player would detract from that, and I understand it’s omission. However, if you’re looking for hints, there are plenty of guides that don’t directly give you the answers, but instead help you to ask the right questions. These are what you should be looking for, because even a single hint that helps you solve a single puzzle at hour 1 will undoubtedly prove useful when you least expect it in hour 10.
I highly recommend checking out The Witness (especially as it’s currently free as a part of PS+), but be warned – this is not for those who do not like a serious challenge, and absolutely not for the easily frustrated. It will test you, it will break you, and ultimately, it will force you to conform to it’s rules, obtuse as they may be.