Myst was a masterpiece, but it hasn't aged well. Its structure is rigid and its puzzles are obtuse, but there's still something about that beautiful, mysterious island that's just aching to be explored. There have been sequels, but Jonathan Blow's The Witness might just be the first proper successor.
It too takes place on a strange island filled with puzzles and weird technology. But it's also a completely open world, letting you explore wherever you want at your own pace. "Once you get out of the tutorial you can literally walk anywhere," says Blow. "It lets the player follow their curiosity."
The island of The Witness is a serene place, with peaceful streams and lush forests. You view the world from a first-person perspective, and you start out the game in some sort of underground room. Immediately you're confronted by a simple maze puzzle on a brightly lit panel. You have to guide a line through a basic path, and solving it opens up a door to the rest of the island. There are many more panels scattered throughout the island. You're given no instructions whatsoever, and there are no on-screen indicators to guide you. Instead, the panels serve as your primary form of interaction, and as you solve them, you learn more about how things work and how you can manipulate your surroundings. Eventually the panels can be used to operate machinery, for instance, letting you open shutters in a room or move a ramp so you can reach a high ledge.
"Doing good puzzles is the absolute primary thing."
For Blow, who previously developed the time-bending platformer hit Braid, those puzzles are the core of the experience. "Doing good puzzles is the absolute primary thing," he says, "and we build the world around that." While I didn't get a chance to experience this during my hour with the game, Blow says that the environment itself will provide many of the hints you need to solve those puzzles. The color of a plant or the layout of a building could well be the key to completing one of the panels. "In the tutorial the environment is incidental," Blow explains. "But as you go further and further out into the world, the environment starts to matter more. So by the time you get to the end of the game you're looking at everything around you."
This also means that The Witness takes place in a very dense world. The island isn't necessarily big — I watched Blow sprint from one end to the other in around a minute — but it is filled with important details. At one point I walked over a small bridge and Blow mentioned how he had been meaning to change it, and that he constantly notices things that need to be adjusted and tweaked to improve the experience.
The Witness also solves the most annoying aspect of adventure games: you can get stuck on a puzzle without being frustrated. Typically in a game like Myst, if you find yourself unable to solve a puzzle, there isn't much you can do until you figure it out. If you can't, you simply don't progress. In The Witness, if you get stuck you can move to another part of the island and start exploring there for a while instead, without having to bang your head against the wall or resort to a walkthrough. "The open world structure gives you the freedom to approach things in the way that will help you the most, which linear games don't do," says Blow. "They make you do it in exactly the order that they want you to."
The result is a large, intricate, and beautifully mysterious island that you can explore without much frustration. It's a game that forces you to pay attention to the tiny details, but doesn't rush you into spotting them. Walking through Jonathan Blow's virtual world was a peaceful, almost serene experience, and it made me want to dig even deeper to uncover everything the island has to offer. The game is expected to launch on the PlayStation 4 and PC towards the end of this year, and in my brief time with The Witness it offered me something I've never experienced before in an adventure game: a sense of control. As Blow explains, "I like giving players freedom."