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8 February 2016

The Witness asks whether a videogame should always have explicit meaning

Jonathan Blow's long-awaited game leaves you on a mysterious, abandoned island with no clues about what happened to its world.

By Emad Ahmed

When you’re confused or frustrated by something, you either scratch your head and try to figure out a solution right there and then, take a short break and return to the problem, or simply just walk away. When playing The Witness, you’ll always end up taking one of the first two routes and attempt to finish it to completion.
 
The Witness is a strange, open-world puzzle game, where you’re free to roam a mysterious, abandoned island solving unique line puzzles on panels scattered throughout game. It’s been in development for years and comes from Jonathan Blow, who kick-started the modern indie gaming revolution with his previous title Braid.


 
Is there anything else for me to say about the game’s premise and mechanics? Not really. You’re pretty much the only living being, moving back and forth across the different parts of the island, which includes an old town, a monastery, a small jungle of sorts, and many others.
 
Solving the puzzles in each of these areas activates a light beam, which points towards a “centre” in this colourful world, despite the fact one particular beam can be seen directing light away from the island.


 
Playing the game is very much a solitary affair. There are stone statues representing different eras dispersed on this island: a king-like figure, men and women wearing clothing styles from hundreds of years ago, and a guy with a guitar plugged into an amplifier. But make no mistake: there are no other living humans in sight.
 
It’s also a peaceful experience. I opened my window at one point during the game to the sounds of birds singing and chirping. After a short while, I couldn’t tell if the sounds I was hearing were arriving from the outside world or through the TV. There are particular sights and sounds to notice, however, which help you complete the various line puzzles. But the only words you’ll hear are strange, short monologues and quotes from notable figures throughout history. The voice acting is wonderful and clear during the eureka moments of discovering these audio logs.
 
Wandering around the island, you’re looking out for any potential quirks, other living beings or some sort of secret that could tell you more about the story of the character you’re controlling or the island itself. That doesn’t seem to happen, yet the game is so brilliantly designed, it didn’t change my overall impression of it. In fact, there are no tutorials or instructions of any kind; the game just starts by loading up this new world and you’re left alone to solve it in some way.


 
Eventually, you’ll activate all of the light beams and maybe have some remaining puzzle panels to complete. But will you ever “complete” the game? I’m not sure what that actually means in The Witness. And not to sound gloomy, but I’m not sure what any of it means. Perhaps this is why it’s the most philosophical game ever made.
 
It’s one of the few games I’ve come across that has constructed a living, breathing alternate reality of some sort, yet there are no moving figures to show this is the case. It’s just a mysterious, abandoned island. And maybe this is why the game will remain a being of some kind that continues to live. The strange quotes and statues might never be figured out in a way that tells us more about what happened in this world.

And I’m not sure if I want The Witness to have a linear narrative or purpose or meaning that’s simple to understand. I’ll just try and make sense of this world myself, by inventing my own mysteries in my imagination to complement the secrets of the island. 

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