The Witness (Xbox One)

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Observe, think and learn. That’s not too hard, is it?

Although The Witness is presented in its marketing as the story of a man marooned, the experience is as pure a distillation of its gameplay ideas as I can remember. Unencumbered by the shackles of narrative motivations, this first person puzzle game gives you an island to explore in whichever way you like, provided you can solve its myriad conundrums.

Devised by Jonathan Blow, this is a challenge of mental dexterity equalled only by its beauty. As a follow-up to Braid, I suppose it had to be. But that’s where the similarities end; The Witness does not slink in beneath the shadow of its forebear – rather, it resembles the true vision of what Blow might always have wanted to achieve, given the time and resources that Braid has afforded him.

The island is beautiful to behold. Famously announced at E3 2013 as a game without explosions, The Witness is steadfast in a commitment to stillness. Its blue skies and serene coastal walks feel frozen in time; a sense accentuated by the chiselled statues that inhabit this place, captured in a moment. Even bird song is rendered lifeless, played back over concealed speakers for the benefit of no-one.

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No-one except you. Emerging from a tunnel – though before that, who knows? – you encounter the grounds of a castle that, despite its ruinous state, projects an aura of resplendent permanence. Akin to the dreamlike world of The Unfinished Swan, it feels somehow unearthly while remaining comfortable. Staying here would perhaps not be so objectionable, but inquisitive minds will itch for the wider world.

As a timely parallel to Britain’s lamentable political landscape (though admittedly for me, everything is about that right now), this a world locked away within the limits of intellectual curiosity. It takes effort to peer beyond the narrow boundary of personal experience and interest, and The Witness is entirely about promoting widened horizons, both figuratively and literally. If this wasn’t implied clearly enough by the mechanics of play (which I’ll cover shortly), the point is hammered home via discovered recordings of pro-science figures urging evidence-based thought.

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This lesson begins, at the mouth of that tunnel, with a doorway. It’s adorned with a simple panel display upon which is shown a single line, terminating at one end with a prominent round spot. Pressing ‘A’ presents a cursor control, disabling movement of head and body while we deal with this task. Selecting the spot highlights it. Moving the analogue stick along the fixed confines of the line, then pressing ‘A’ again at its conclusion completes the endeavour.

In essence, this comprehensively explains the design principles of The Witness. What follows is a gradual elaboration of the concept; lines become mazes; shapes and colours present themselves within those mazes in a multitude of configurations, developing from simple variations before coalescing into complex riddles. I won’t go into further detail for fear of undermining your discovery, but the ways in which you learn are expertly delivered.

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Elements of the game’s abstract language are dispersed across the island, meaning that incomprehensible puzzles in one location can suddenly make sense once the foundations are understood in another. As the complexity grows, The Witness becomes a challenge not just of solving its individual puzzles, but of recalling the geographical associations behind their language. Understanding and being empowered by regional difference is fundamental to the game’s mission.

Despite the compelling liberal message, you might think that solving hundreds of these puzzles would become tiresome. Yet such is the variety of challenge within those interactive screens that I was insatiable. Even beyond the puzzle screens, the environment itself hides innumerable patterns akin to those early lines, requiring a keen eye for perspective and careful physical positioning to reveal them.

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Make no mistake then, finding and solving everything The Witness has to offer is an incredibly taxing venture. Taxing, but nonetheless fair: while I approach completion of almost 500 puzzles so far, many times I have felt that looking up a solution was my only way forward. I persisted on all but one occasion, where I couldn’t see the logic even after solving it. If that single instance of failure was the only issue I could find, the chances are that I’m the one at fault.

For all the times that The Witness works, the sense of accomplishment can be more intense than any explosion. Yes, Jonathan Blow came across as a little pretentious when he dared to say as much. Dismiss this as pretention at your peril – what you think you know about Blow may just ruin your experience of a stunningly clever production that offers a unique sense of fulfilment in this year’s release calendar. Drop the prejudice and let’s deal with the facts – The Witness is astounding.

5-star-rating

 

 

The Witness was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.

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