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It’s hard to believe The Witness released in 2016. For that matter, it’s hard to believe it was released at all. During my time playing Jonathan Blow and team’s brain-bending puzzle adventure game I became so immersed, so engrossed in finding solutions that time almost didn’t matter. Of course it did (in fact, a review embargo added extra pressure to my frequently stalling journey), but never before had I allowed a game to dominate almost every waking thought (and nighttime dream). I once imagined a wall as a possible track in Trials while on a particularly slow bus commute, but that was nothing compared to the complete mind takeover carried out by The Witness.
On at least four occasions (this is a big number for someone who doesn’t really do social engagements) this year I’ve tried to explain/sell The Witness to friends. I don’t think any of those friends went on to buy the game, which is a shame but also highlights how hard it is to convey its layers of brilliance. The Witness is a line-drawing puzzle game, not dissimilar to what you might find in a 800-page bumper WHSmith’s best-seller or one of no doubt thousands of mobile games. But it’s also so much more than a line-drawing puzzle game.
As an example of good game design, The Witness is right up there with the best. While it never explicitly tells you anything, it does through every puzzle you solve. Gradually you build up knowledge and rules, allowing you to progress as if you’re a genius, when in actual fact the game is always telling you what you need to know. It’s brilliant. And the ‘standard’ puzzles, if you can even call them that, are just the start.
The Witness is at times a game whose creation I struggle to get my head around. I’ve got a background in software engineering so I get how video games are made from a technical point of view, but The Witness is something else. Like, how did this world ever get designed? I’m not going to spoil the more incredible parts of The Witness, as discovering everything yourself is essential to the experience, but just know that in my 12 or so years writing professionally about video games I’ve never before been so utterly gobsmacked by a game.
Over the course of a week I went ever so slightly A Beautiful Mind, cutting little shapes out and arranging them on my desk, taking pictures of puzzles on my phone in order to get a closer look at things, and writing lengthy messages to a man I’d never actually met so may not exist. The Witness is a game in which solutions seem so far away and impossible for your brain to compute one minute (or for hours), only for the answer to hit you square in the face the moment you weaken and ask for help. Even when you’re not actively thinking about it, you are.
In the weeks following my time playing The Witness I was clearly still wired in, noticing arrangements of buildings and trees in real life that could have been puzzles in The Witness. It became a bit of a thing to take pictures of them (after pretending to draw magic lines with my imagination). I was seeing ‘puzzles’ everywhere, and it felt cool, like I was in on a secret that only a few people knew about. To others I was probably just a man bizarrely staring into the distance while stood atop a ruined castle or sat in a beach-side cafe. I’m really quite normal, honest.
I was going to talk about a few of the other games I really enjoyed in 2016 (Inside, The Last Guardian, Doom, Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, Ratchet and Clank, Quantum Break, PES 2017), some of which are incredible games that could well top numerous game of the year lists, but honestly none come close to The Witness. Yes, The Witness is a line-drawing puzzle game, in which you generally map out a route from A to B. It just also happens to be an extension of that so fiendishly clever and well realised I’m not sure I’ll ever play a game like it again.
Oh, and goodbye.