“You’re the first person to play this.”
Those are intimidating words to hear from the man who almost single-handedly designed Braid, a game famous for its time-twisting and mind-manipulating puzzles, but also notorious for its enigmatic and elusive narrative. I am sitting in Jonathan Blow’s apartment, on Jonathan Blow’s couch, about to begin Jonathan Blow’s first game in three years, The Witness. What if I can’t solve the obstacles about to be thrown in my path? Worse, what if I don’t understand them, or the entire point of this most likely metaphorical experience?
Honestly, at first I don’t… but keep reading.
The Witness opens simply and mysteriously with the player standing at the far end of a dark hallway. Ahead is a door with a blue square-shaped panel attached to its front, easily unlocked by drawing a straight line from one point on the square to another. Puzzle complete. The next door requires two straight lines. Second puzzle complete. Outside the hallway, in what’s revealed to be the front yard of a small house on a very large island, things grow more complicated and more interesting – but only slightly.
Five additional blue squares are linked by tubes, to each other and to a closed gate. Although tracing the solution line of each square now involves navigating a maze, and some of the squares are cleverly hidden behind foliage, I’ve finished the entire set and exited the yard within minutes. Gazing in every direction of the now free-to-explore island, however, all I see are the same blue squares. Blue squares on the beach. Blue squares in the orchard. Blue squares next to the windmill. Blue squares at the peak of the far-off mountain. How, I start to wonder and worry, can The Witness be as brilliant or as original as Braid if every puzzle is exactly the same? I don’t get it.
And then, suddenly, I do. Something clicks and, just like that, The Witness is filled with fascinating potential.
The epiphany occurs as I’m working on the squares in the orchard, trying to figure out what path my lines should follow – unlike the previous puzzles, this solution is not obvious from studying the surface of the square itself, and with a new branching pattern to navigate, any attempt at trial and error would take forever. Frustrated, I’m leaving to try my luck in a different area when I notice the orchard’s trees. That they seem arranged with purpose. That there is one tree for every one square. That a single red apple hangs from the branches of each tree. And that – eureka! – those branches split in the exact same pattern as the two-dimensional branches drawn on the squares. Trace the line to where the apple should be… and done.
A short stroll away is the beach, with more squares and even more ambiguity. But why are these particular puzzles translucent? What are those strange pillars emerging from the water? Now realizing that nothing in The Witness is a coincidence, I peer through the puzzle, trace the outlines of the distant pillars on the surface of the square… and done.