The Witness: A Master of Design

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An over-head shot of The Island.

In development since 2008, The Witness was meant to be a console-release game for the PlayStation 4 in 2013. However Jonathan Blow, who previously developed the indie hit Braid (2008), announced that the team needed more time. With every year added to the development, the project grew in scope and ambition. Finally, six years hence, on January 26th of 2016, the game was published to critical acclaim. Very few games live up to the hype that the public imbues on it. The ways in which The Witness delivers are worth mentioning.

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My past week’s rather straightforward: I’m sat in front of the T.V, with a book of graph paper and colored markers. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, plotting connections between random events. Instead I’m drawing out puzzles in the hope of solving them sooner. Every puzzle consists of a panel, where you are asked to draw a line. On the surface this might sound like a bore, however, you quickly find there is far more to it.

It reminds me of the days I played through Dragon Quest in the late nineties, keeping track of my acquired/required finances, weapons, items etc. However, unlike Dragon Quest, you will never fail to progress for not having the right item in your inventory, or precise amount of finances. The Witness always feels fair. The frustration of a difficult puzzle is part of a long-term joy within that world, as you progress. Every area is developed to teach you the logic of that puzzle. You need to be perceptive enough of the world to see the answer. 

One early area to discover on The Island.
One early area to discover on The Island.

Contemporary games typically try to steer clear from mechanics that frustrate the player on purpose.

Yet The Witness’ main mechanic – drawing a line to solve puzzles – can be extremely vexing at times; drawing the line is easy enough to do. However, visualizing the correct manner in which to draw it, many times, is not. Nonetheless, with every new puzzle you solve, and with every new environment you discover, frustration is swept away.  You are continually rewarded, be it a shortcut, audio tape, new area, or an answer to one of The Island’s many secrets.

A mysterious pondering statue. One of several scattered around The Island.
A mysterious pondering statue. One of several scattered around The Island.

Unlike many mainstream games in which mechanics are mixed in to cheaply empower the player, The Witness fleshes out one singular concept. There are a large variety of differing types of puzzles (whether they are color-, outline-, tetris-, or environment-based). However, they all take place within the confines of a panel in a variety of ways. The panel, that singular idea, is continually re imagined, and subverted. You will find your mind blown away by the sheer intelligence and diversity of their design.

Every area has a visual guide, consisting of panels, for you to understand the basics of that area’s puzzle.  Introductory puzzles explain the logic while ushering in one complication at a time. As someone who has solved 200+ of them, I’m impressed how it has never overwhelmed me.  The answer is always there, in the line you draw. It’s up to you whether you can see it.

Furthermore, very few games throw the player into an environment without any sort of written tutorial. Bloodborne is another exception, sure. Be that as it may, Bloodborne does it for the sake of grueling difficulty: you are meant to die if you wish to proceed. In a more honest approach – between developer and player -, The Witness finds ways to continuously teach the game’s language through non-verbal communication. With every new puzzle, you rediscover the logic in varying examples.

An example of the realistic architecture behind The Witness' design.
An example of the realistic architecture in The Witness.

In equal proportion to the urge to outsmart every puzzle, the will to discover is integral in pushing you forward.

The island in which these cultures of logic reside is created in careful deliberation. The reason for this is the uncanny mix between realism and surrealism in the environment. Tree-houses are accurately bolted into trees with 2×4 pieces of pressure-treated cedar. Ropes are tightly connected from the trees to the construct for further sturdiness. The authenticity of the design is always on show. You will come across a castle, a village, a bunker, and many other areas. Every area originates from a specific period in human history. Can you uncover the reason for these coincidences?

This realism is married with the surrealism of The Island’s prevalent colors. Some are bright red, purple, orange, blue, etc. The surrealism doesn’t end there. Fluorescent green, orange and pink trees populate different areas. You never know what you might behold. Its one thing to see these colors characterize the world. It’s another when you see the way their surrealism fluidly and logically implements itself in the puzzles you solve.

This tree-house area was designed with an architect advising Thekla Inc, the game developers.
This tree-house area was designed with an architect advising Thekla Inc, the game developers.

The Witness is splendid for so many reasons. For one: I’m not embarrassed to tell family and friends about it. It’s the kind of game I would advise to people who have no interest in the medium. For a game that took seven years to develop, it lives up to the hype in every way possible. Every color, every building, is layered with purpose.  The only way you can unearth its meanings is to explore. Do yourself a favor and give it a go!

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