The Witness uses a number of different methods to tell its story. The player encounters panel puzzles, environmental puzzles and cassette tapes that present ideas to contemplate.
The panel puzzles, for example, attempt to teach the player lessons such as separating differently coloured squares. The game also aims to show that scientific truth is not the only kind of truth.
In a world full of digital clutter, The Witness is one of the rare games to make use of authentic voice work. The narrator’s conversation with the man about his sister’s death stands out for its eloquence and earnestness.
It’s a reminder that the truth is not necessarily rooted in the hard sciences. Poetry and art, as well as human interpretation and experience, have their place in finding “ultimate” truth.
The final location, a junk pile of concept art, puzzles and quasi-game design studios, is a commentary on the nature of game development. It’s a way of saying that even if the player never finds any big truths, it’s still important to keep looking. After all, it is how we create meaning in the world around us.
A large part of what makes The Witness compelling is how incredibly thoughtful it is about its own gameplay. Its puzzles are based on a variety of rules, communicated in a series of carefully crafted and masterfully hidden panels. The early ones ask you to draw a line from A to B on simple grids, while later panels ask you to form silhouettes or change your viewpoint.
And these rules are layered and combined for some truly devious puzzles. For instance, a sequence of symmetrical puzzles teaches you that a black dot in one field can be separated from a white dot in another by drawing a line between them. That information can be applied to other mazes later in the game, making them much harder.
One of the reasons that The Witness has blown up into one of this year’s most talked about games is its dozens of brain-testing puzzles. There are over 500 of them, and each of them introduces a new idea to the game.
The most common puzzle type is the line-based challenge, where you have to separate differently colored squares with a single line. These are some of the simplest puzzles in the game, but they’re still challenging to get right.
The Witness is also fond of adding in observational puzzles, which require you to notice environmental cues in order to solve them. These are often tricky, especially when they involve sound — a big problem since The Witness’s audio is mostly ambient. The bunker in the game’s castle is a great example of this.
While the puzzles in The Witness are fantastic, it is in the gorgeous landscape that one finds the most profound revelations. From desert ruins to fortress keep to zen monastery, each region embodies the philosophy of a pre-modern civilization that lived on the island.
The cassette tapes, for example, exhibit opposing viewpoints: Burke believes that one can understand objective reality through science while Spira contends that one can only comprehend subjective reality through personal experience. However, The Witness never outlines its intention of stimulating critical thinking with these tapes; the minimalist presentation deprives the player of context.
Additionally, the non-linearity of The Witness prevents the player from establishing that these quotes and ideas matter to its story content. As a result, the player is left to assume that these tapes and quotes simply exist in The Witness’s world for the purpose of being analyzed.
Unlike the mindless run and gun FPS’s that are so popular nowadays, The Witness relies heavily on the player to pay attention to their surroundings. That’s especially true when it comes to the sound design, since even slight inconsistencies between something as simple as footfalls could potentially reveal a puzzle solution.
The game’s sound designer, Andrew Lackey of Atlanta based Wabi Sabi Sound, knew exactly what he wanted the audio to feel like for The Witness, but that meant creating an entirely new set of sounds for this new world. He went on to describe the challenges he faced, as well as some of the more surprising results that came out of his work on this unique game.
Learn more about the Hall of Witness and Hall of Remembrance through this downloadable audio tour.