Come Join Me in the Cult of The Witness
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Come Join Me in the Cult of The Witness

To be honest, when I first purchased Thekla Inc’s The Witness for PS4, I was…disappointed. Why was there so much fanfare around this game? The graphics were too bright and garish, the gameplay felt basic; it was just a simple, puzzle game that I’d finish in a couple of hours. I was so very wrong. Years later, I am deeply in the thrall of the cult of The Witness. I still play it, I’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen about it, and am still trying to work out what it all means. The Witness might just be one of the best games ever made. A fun, frequently frustrating study on mysteries, humanity and a love of true magic.

Set on a tropical island, the game is played in the first-person (with no mirrors, the only hint of what you look like is your shaggy-haired shadow), as you try to solve Day-Glo electronic puzzle boards to progress. It’s hardly a strain on all that PC/console processing power. The Witness pulls you in slowly. Drawing a line from point A to point B on each board makes it feel like there’s nothing to it, then electric cables light up, doors open and you can freely roam. You may come across a bamboo forest, a huge keep, a desert or a strangely mesmerising pond, before eventually realising that you are utterly alone. A small town with dilapidated buildings and an eerie windmill provides you with many new and colourful puzzles that feel impossible to solve. Bam! The game moves instantly from ridiculously easy to perilously difficult. Luckily, the open island means if something feels too hard, you just go elsewhere, and that’s what makes the game so addictive.

Every part of the island contains puzzles and each puzzle type has its own logic, with every victory leading to a reward, whether it’s a bridge to a new area, or a hidden cave door opening to reveal a strange hexagonal pattern. In fact, simply exploring the island uncovers many secrets. Click the flashing light of what looks like an old tape recorder and suddenly the game speaks to you. Is that you, God? Maybe. Or possibly it’s a discarded audio log recounting a tale from ancient philosophy. But what does it all mean?! Yes, the cult of The Witness grips gradually, but it grips tightly. There is no greater feeling than discovering something hidden in an area you’ve run past five hundred times, just by looking at it from a different angle, or by intently listening. The island is one enormous enigma, constantly delivering dopamine hits with each Eureka! moment, somehow all found from drawing that line from A to B. 

The Witness is also the ultimate bring-the-outdoors-in experience that makes you feel really smart. Don’t believe me? Google it. Or come join me on the numerous subreddits and websites devoted to the game. Like The Illuminati, The Witness lovers smugly see themselves as the chosen few, the enlightened. But we’re not a selfish bunch, we want you to join us, to see the light for yourselves. If you can’t solve a puzzle and refuse to (or fail to) brute-force it, we’re here to give you the gentlest of nudges to push you in the right direction.

Thekla Inc. is a small studio under the stewardship of director Jonathan Blow. After the success of adventure platformer Braid – known for its ability to rewind and adjust time, Blow wanted to make a game about finding clarity. It’s great to blow things up, but if it ever feels hollow, The Witness allows a re-set, to help us be mindful and to reassess everything that we see, hear and know. And when I say everything means something, I mean everything. Those garish graphics are a feature, not a bug, created using the game’s unique game engine, allowing graphics to change and move depending on perspective. 

Some people will hate The Witness. There are no multiplayer team-ups, no pounding enemies to let off steam; in fact, more than once its difficulty might make you might throw your controller across the room. Also, The Witness only delivers the illusion of freedom – wherever you go, there you are. But, it also rewards luck. Stumbling upon a random corner of the island will provide you with philosophical debate, hidden tunnels and fiendish games. And just when you think you’ve discovered every puzzle in the game, I guarantee that you won’t have. The Witness is not a game for anyone impatient or desperate to earn what looks like an easy Platinum trophy. But you can earn personal pride and value the environment (and the weather!) in a way other games don’t. Getting that coveted and really, really difficult Platinum was one of my finest hours.

The Witness is now even more relevant in today’s world. Thekla could not have realised how recent events would make us all feel more alone, yet the game prepares us for learning how to survive and thrive, making isolation a gift instead of a burden. And, lastly, The Witness even changes life outside of the game. After playing it for only a few hours, I defy you not to find yourself surrounded by similar shapes in the real world. Maybe our world is just the VR version of the Witness island? 

If I haven’t convinced ou enough, the game is currently free on the PS Store, so come and join the cult of The Witness, you won’t regret it.

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