Playing ‘The Witness’: Hands-On with the Next Game from the Creator of ‘Braid’

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The puzzles get progressively more complex as you explore The Witness‘s gameworld and they’re all centered around specific themes. A grouping right after the beginning location features a three-way lock for the gate keeping you from the outside world. One puzzle panel’s in plain sight and easy to solve, which leads to a wire powering up to the next node you need to activate, done with a simple button press. Repeating the pattern leads to another button, but it’s inactive.  Following the black, inactivated wires snaking through the environment reveals another, mostly hidden node behind a bush. Pulling a lever there activates another wire to that previous inactive node, which can now power up. Another line puzzle opens up the gate and out you go again into the larger unknown.

As you play, you find out you’re trapped on an island, supposedly by your own request, and the only way to make any sense of what’s going on is to roam around. Out in a small orchard, you come across a set of puzzle screens situated in front of a series of apple trees. One pattern, where a single line fans out into multiple forks, replicates itself at each station and you’re left to figure out what tracing path will solve the puzzle. It isn’t until you look around that you notice a single apple on a branch of each of the trees near the screens. The branching pattern of the trees roughly matches the one on the screen. A little bit of trial and error and you’re able to solve the puzzle. This made a tiny vibration of wonder work up my spine. How did I figure that out? It just kind of… happened.

However, that little bit of dawning gave way to my first bit of frustration with The Witness. I’ve doped out the scheme–find apple, draw a line to where it’d be on the forking diagram, proceed to next–but still couldn’t replicate the routine with consistency. A few things tripped me up: not being to find the apple on the next tree and then getting lost in the maze of forks when I did find the apple. It’s not like there’s a time limit or any such artificial stricture. It’s just me and the damn trees and the damned puzzle screens.

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Unbidden, that killer line from the Geto Boys’ hit song echoed in my mind, “Aw man, homey. My mind playin’ tricks on me…” Or was I playing tricks on my mind?

Stuck. What can I do, then? Blow assured me that the game hasn’t crashed all day and it’s been running smoothly, so I can’t assume that there’s a bug. He’s retired to the other room of the hotel suite we’re meeting in, and I yell weakly for him to come help. My heart’s not in the request, though. He didn’t hear me. Good. I don’t really want him to nanny me out of this cognitive cul-de-sac.

What did he say again? Oh, yeah… “It’s a work-in-progress for sure. Graphics are far from done. Everything is temp, really. Except the game design is far enough along that it’s a pretty good picture of what the game is going to be, except that… well, we’ll talk about that later.”

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