MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE WITNESS FOLLOW. UP TO AT LEAST THE THIRD SET OF PUZZLES ARE SPOILED. ROUGHLY THE FIRST 10-30 MINUTES OF THE GAME. ONE HIGHER LEVEL, BUT STILL EARLY, PUZZLE IS SPOILED AS WELL.
The Witness is a game about learning.
Well, every game is. Mastering a game and surmounting its challenges requires consistent skill growth over time.
More accurately, The Witness is a game about the process of learning.
Every game is unique. Pokémon games play differently than The Legend of Zelda. Antichamber couldn’t be further from Rocket League. Even games in the same franchise or genre change their own rules, like how Super Mario Galaxy handles gravity in comparison to Super Mario 64’s focus on traditional acrobatics. In order for players to have a pleasant experience, a game has to teach the player its rules.
Today’s games are massive, with sprawling, interconnected systems. It makes sense why contemporary games have lengthy tutorial sequences or pop-up textbox guides. It’s not the most intuitive or method but it’s easy. Teaching players is hard. Even the Pokémon series has a scene in every game where an NPC demonstrates how to catch a Pokémon.
Portal is famous for its spectacular tutorial. Extra Credits covers it here, but to summarize, Portal teaches its players slowly, only introducing one layer of complexity at a time. The player can only move forward after demonstrating mastery over a particular mechanic after time for experimentation. The Witness contains a less complex game space but it accomplishes the same goals by creating an environment for the player to learn by themselves.
The Witness starts by limiting the playable gamespace. All interaction with puzzles is done on the monitors that confine the interactable areas to 2D planes of maze puzzles. If the player believes that puzzles exist solely within the confines of the monitors, they waste less time looking for external factors to help with their solutions.
It starts with the introductory puzzles. To teach the player how to solve basic puzzles, they start with the purest form as the first door’s lock The straight line is followed up by one with a curve to demonstrate how turns work. The puzzles get more complex in this introductory area, showing what can stop your line from functioning, including objects between the player and the panel and breaks in the panels’ paths.
After the starting garden, the player is free to roam the island, limited only by their own knowledge and understanding of the puzzle systems. This is one of the first puzzles the player sees on their path. It sits alone, the lock to a tantalizing door.
Confused and bewildered, the player heads down further the road. It guides the player to a series of panels that demonstrate the most common way that The Witness teaches specific concepts to the player.
These panels teach that the black and white squares must be separated. With only three paths to take, the players learns that the top and bottom paths don’t work. When the middle line works, straight horizontal, the next panel turns on and the player graduates. The second panel is the same thing with a minor change in the start and end points.
Since these panels have few possible solutions, it’s possible to solve them by accident. The third panel alleviates this problem by providing more room for error. Even if the player progresses solely by accident, as the puzzles grow more complex, the chances of an accidental solution decrease. Previous completed puzzles then become evidence for the player to examine to find the truth behind them.
Subsequent panels deepen the player’s understanding of the puzzle’s systems with incremental adjustments. By the sixth or seventh panel, the players learns how to handle white and black squares separated from each other. In other words, not all white squares have to be grouped together. They only have to be separated from the other color. This eliminates another possible misunderstanding.
This same concept is reiterated throughout the game. Near the segregation puzzles, there is another series that teaches the importance of squares within the line’s path. One can observe this shot and see how the sequence is structured.
After these two tutorial sequences, the player has learned the meaning of two symbols, all without the game directly telling the player anything. There were no tutorials, no diagrams, no lengthy dialogue. The player learned through exploration and action.
By now, realization hits. That first grey monitor with the black and white squares and dots on the path makes perfect sense. The player returns to the puzzle, combines the concepts and solves it. The Witness is a game built on little realizations like this, the peaks of learning. It crafts and places its puzzles for maximum “Aha!” moments. As the puzzles grow more complex, the game reveals layers of depth. Every few hours sparks another “Oh, so that’s what that means,” or “I didn’t know you could do that!” Like many of the puzzles, sometimes all you need is a change of perspective to see what’s really going on.
If you’ve read this far and you haven’t played The Witness, you’re fine. I haven’t spoiled much. I encourage you to play and enjoy it before anything else is spoiled. Your experience will be enriched by further realizations of this game’s true secrets. I’m about to spoil one of the coolest moments in the game, so if you haven’t played it, run along now. Buy it.
If you have played The Witness, or don’t care about spoilers, read on.
The mountain is the cornerstone of the island. From any point, you can look up and see its snowy peak, the statue reaching out and the arches above. Curiosity drives the player up there, to see what it has in store. It’s a long walk.
After the player reaches the top and explores, they find this puzzle panel.
Then they solve it. It’s easy enough. But it doesn’t seem to power anything. There’s no cable running out of it and nothing turns on nearby. The player starts to leave. Hopefully, they see this.
The similarity is intended to be obvious. The player is meant to think, “No, wait… really?” They bring up their cursor and click on the pool of water and it glows. They trace the same line from the panel down the river, to the rounded end. When they click, the river sparkles, the puzzle completed. Something has been done; a puzzle has been solved.
This puzzle is supposed to be one of the first scenarios that reveal the environmental puzzles that litter the island. This moment, or an equivalent, change the player’s understanding of their surroundings. The gamespace suddenly expands when puzzles are no longer limited to just the monitor.
The Witness is careful to not make the player click on everything in search of an environmental puzzle. The player has already learned that puzzles only start at circles and end at the rounded nubs. On the island, there are no circles. Even wagon wheels are sculpted into a haphazard oval or angular shape. Now, the few circles that do exist will stick out to the player. Even now, I can think of where several environmental puzzles start. I just can’t find where they end.
This realization provides even more understanding of the island, its objects and its gamespace. If it wasn’t obvious before, by this layer, the player knows that the environmental puzzles are meaningful and not just a cool, one time easter egg.
These are just a couple of examples of how The Witness teaches its players through action and exploration. There are no traditional tutorials or pedagogical dialogue. It’s how people learn without teachers. By doing and exploring. The Witness depends on realizations that widen the player’s understanding of the gamespace. On a deserted island, the player’s interaction with their environment is all that they have. The Witness’ strength is that its environment is masterfully crafted for the player to learn on their own.
It doesn’t stop here either. I’ve played for over 25 hours and I’m not even close to the end. There are still so many puzzles that I don’t understand, concepts I don’t have a full grasp over. Every time I start it up, I learn something new. That’s one thing that I think The Witness teaches us as people instead of players. There’s always something to learn if you just look around.