What is an open-world puzzle game? In words, it explains itself. However, when compared to something standardized like an open-world RPG or shooter, there are preconceived notions revolving around those genres, so “open-world puzzler” needs some time to percolate. On that, the appearance of a brand new concept is nothing short of palpable, kindling curiosity in a way that mimics the greats of old. There are a few things to consider beforehand, because, unlike the other genres mentioned above, the universality found elsewhere is nowhere to be found here.
Note: Thekla Inc. has requested that all specific details on The Witness, especially regarding the puzzles themselves and how they interact with the world, to remain undisclosed for the sake of product integrity.
The flow of the game is spontaneous. Each area in The Witness boasts a series of puzzles, sprinkled with challenges of differentiated and non-progressive difficulty. Overall, progression is related to your ability to solve the puzzles, whether that’s based on natural observation, enlightened faculties, or dumb luck, as is the case with all games of this ilk. There is no tutorial. There is no written or spoken word in the living world, with the only exception being a random series of quotes from famous historical figures. All available resources are found in the world itself, and interpreting them is up to you.
The aesthetic of The Witness is much easier to grasp. The realistic-animated world has a combined air of Dr. Seuss and Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker with an err on the side of realism, and the result is beautiful. The dream-like landscape is enhanced by the minimalistic approach to audio. All sound revolves around footfalls and any tones coming from the puzzles themselves. There are no menu screens either, so entering and leaving the game is a matter of starting and closing the application. Added to the immersion is a lack of overlaying HUD or any sense of this being a game at all. All mechanical aspects of the game, like saving, are in the background with no visual cues to their happening.
There are telltale signs that you’re not ready for an area: different puzzles and different symbols appear, and the only thing that can be done to solve them outside of trial and error is to explore the rest of the island to work on opening another area. This is the closest thing to a saving grace that The Witness gives you. Getting around the island is rather simple, too, considering there’s no map on your person. Stationed at different corners of the island are boats which act as travel between other corners of the map. Here, on these boats, is where the only over-the-top visual representation of the island can be found. Ignoring the puzzles, navigating the island is a simple task, as the geography is unique everywhere and nothing is too crowded or alike. The vivacious map that The Witness delivers is organic, if not living.
Objectivity is a slippery slope when it comes to anything so dependent on skill, and anyone who has been torn apart by elitist games like Dark Souls can empathize by how the game affects not only your judgment but also how long the game can be appreciated. The Witness is in that same challenging ballpark. The fact that a game has silky-smooth visuals or impeccable gameplay is almost rendered irrelevant when the game cannot be accessed. I experienced multiple stonewalls every day of playing through The Witness, but I always seemed to be able to come back after a rest and figure out what I needed. Regardless of that, having to walk away so regularly taxes the way the game is viewed in the long run.
Once it comes down to it, The Witness is a series of mobile puzzles littered across an island that’s waiting to be explored. The struggle is very real here, and the feeling of solving each and every cumbersome puzzle is memorable in a way that no other puzzle game has ever been before. In that light, the core concept is still limited to the fact that hours and hours are spent solving little strings of areas in order to open up new ones with further exposure of the island as the only reward. Finding new areas yields a similar feeling to solving the hardest of puzzles on a grander scale, mimicking an opened locked door or a defeated challenging boss, but those moments are few and far and between, without any of the fanfare. Those who play The Witness will benefit the most from a guide.