B.F. Skinner is quoted at length in The Witness, which is apt given how Thekla, Inc.’s game wordlessly conditions the player to solve an increasingly elaborate and varied combination of mazes. But also quoted at length in hidden audio logs are mathematical scientists and philosophers like Albert Einstein and Arthur Eddington, which gives an idea of the game’s intellectual pedigree. It also suggests that The Witness’s fundamental principle isn’t to strip us of free will, but to put it to the test.
To do so, The Witness sets players loose on an enigmatic island, offering no direct guidance or—in a departure from the game’s most obvious predecessor, Myst—any sort of story. Instead, the game communicates its desires through suggestive design, with tantalizing scenery that encourages players to follow one road rather than another, but which never punishes us for wandering off the beaten path. If a discovered puzzle is too complex, requiring one to first learn the various symbology in another, easier location, you can simply walk away and find something more to your speed.
This freedom can be a bit overwhelming at times, but in that way it perfectly, and intentionally, mimics life itself. (Those looking for a more structured approach to gameplay or narrative would do well to pick up The Talos Principle.) In theory, there’s nothing that stops any of us from doing anything, save for untrained ability. The same is true of The Witness itself, as the only thing gating players is the speed at which they can translate the world around them via a series of puzzles, specifically mazes.
While that might not sound particularly compelling, these brainteasers are more complex than their pen-and-paper brethren, making full use of the digital medium to offer up solutions suggested by sound and spectrum, or by the unique physical properties of each distinct portion of the island. More impressively, over the course of well over 500 individual puzzles, developer Jonathan Blow rarely repeats a mechanic beyond the minimum required to allow a player to conclude how the various bits of symbolic language work.
Blow, of Braid fame, has built a living, breathing island around these puzzles so as to personify natural logic—to reveal the elegance in something as simple as a tangled series of branches, or the way we once told time by the shadow cast on a fixed point. That the main puzzles are a series of square grids through which you can trace light beams that connect one point to another makes the entire thing sound cold and impersonal. In truth, the puzzles reflect the world around them, some more literally than others. Wires connect simpler puzzles to more advanced ones, the electrical path of a successfully completed maze allowing players to activate the next; this is pretty much a diagram of how our minds make connections.
But if The Witness allows players to learn and wonder at all the symbolism at their own pace, to draw their own conclusions, the game’s final segment is irritatingly off-point. Instead of the open terrain of the colorful island, it takes place within a series of plain white chambers, and the puzzles rely less on insight and more on overcoming additional obfuscations: smudges on the panels, invisible lines, and both randomized and timed elements. Without the respite of the environment, the puzzles feel almost unrelentingly difficult, which might explain why similarly themed games like Portal introduce comic interlocutors to help alleviate the tension. All that symbolic language, so to speak, becomes needlessly verbose, losing itself in the process.
This small complaint isn’t meant to suggest that The Witness needs to dumb itself down, but merely to point out the jarring shift between the game’s modest Choose Your Own Adventure openings and its dense endgame, which communicates its language in a way that, while technically fair, can sometimes feel as unreadable as Finnegan’s Wake. One of the other philosophers quoted in the game suggests that opinions are “crutches” for those who cannot handle scientific facts, but The Witness proves the opposite. The artistry of the island, from those mysterious statues in the limestone quarry to the dye-mixing vats found in the swamp, is what lifts up the puzzles, and vice versa. Ah, but in the happy medium between Skinner’s brutal conditioning and the freedom afforded to players, The Witness comes close to what Einstein once called a “cosmic religious feeling.”