The Witness — a visually stunning video game played out on an abandoned island — has an uncanny ability to make you feel like a triumphant genius and a clueless idiot in equal measure.
The just-released game, made by a team led by indie designer Jonathan Blow, will remind many of the 1995 puzzle-adventure classic Myst, updated with modern technology and with modern players' sensibilities in mind.
You find yourself on an abandoned island with no explanation of who you are, why you're there or what you're supposed to do. The only way you can interact with the game, other than walking around, are puzzles scattered around the environment.
Just about every puzzle takes the form of panels with a small grid. Much like a maze, you have to draw a line from one point on the puzzle to another.
It sounds simple and for the first handful of panels you find, it is. But before long, additional rules and criteria are needed to solve them, challenging your cognitive abilities and adding new layers of complexity.
You'll want to play through The Witness to unlock more puzzles to solve, but also to uncover more areas of the island in the hopes of learning what happened here.
Indie team led by Jonathan Blow
Gamers won't be surprised to hear about a game filled with mysteries and logic puzzles coming from Blow. His 2008 debut Braid was a puzzle-platformer meant as homage to — but also a deconstruction of — classic games like Super Mario Bros., with a lot of philosophical underpinnings to its narrative themes.
Braid was seen by many as the flagship for a crop of new games arriving that year, made by either small teams or a single developer. It was in stark contrast to games like Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed, made by studios with hundreds of people and costing millions of dollars to produce.
It was the beginning of the modern independent scene in video games. As such, Blow and his new team, Thekla Inc., have all eyes on them to deliver something that lives up to that legacy, especially since The Witness spent more than six years in development.
Puzzles are the language of The Witness
The Witness flies in the face of many of gaming's modern trends. There are no cutscenes, multiplayer modes, online leaderboards or add-on content to buy.
You can walk, look around and interact with puzzles. That's it. You have no maps to follow, you don't have to carry or keep track of any items, and you don't have anyone to talk to or anyone to shoot.
Learning how to solve the puzzles feels a lot like learning an entirely new language. Indeed, save voice recorders found scattered throughout the island containing short clips of nonessential dialogue, everything in The Witness is communicated without a single word.
You'll slowly piece together what all the lines, colours and patterns mean through simple osmosis. Simpler challenges introduce you to the concepts and then add new layers to what you already know, forcing you to get creative to move on.
By the end you might be mentally exhausted, but the rush you get from figuring it out will be worth it.
This flow of ideas, as Blow calls it, expands to the island itself. Through careful observation, you'll soon realize that, in a very real way, the island itself is the puzzle. And everything you interact with is a cog in the giant Rube Goldberg machine-like setting.
Early game of the year contender
The island offers a beautiful setting to boot: a lush environment painted with impressionistic brush strokes in bright, pastel colours. And while it isn't as huge a setting as the sprawling Grand Theft Auto 5, it's far denser: every detail, whether it be a simple tree branch or a rusty shipwreck, is potentially significant.
The Witness is not a game to rush. If you ponder a single puzzle panel for hours without a clue, you're free to wander around and find others around the island.
Many times I found myself stumped with a single panel, but after sleeping on it and coming back the next day, I'd look at it with a fresh perspective (sometimes literally) and figure it out immediately.
The Witness is a masterpiece of puzzle and environmental design, and the kind of experience that can only come from a video game. It will undoubtedly enter game-of-the-year conversations come December.
The Witness is available now for the Sony PlayStation 4 and PC, and will be available for iOS devices later this year.