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The RPS 2016 Advent Calendar, Dec 8th – The Witness

2016's best puzzle game

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It’s the end of another puzzling year in which plenty of things have made us scratch our head and frown so hard that we have permanent crease-marks in our foreheads. The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games of the year, daily, and behind today’s door is…

The year’s best puzzle game: blow me down, it’s The Witness [official site].

Pip: I loved The Witness because the puzzles and the ability to wander came together in a really lovely way. The colour palettes and pathways that marked and linked the biomes were great at leading me round the island, but I’d punctuate those jaunts with periods of really getting my teeth into the puzzles which gate your progress.

I remember the game as being marked with all of these glorious “aha!” moments, both in terms of solving the puzzles that were clearly puzzles, but also in terms of figuring out the environments. It’s a pain in the bum to write about on the site because so many screenshots have the risk of spoilers and, if you’re sufficiently early in the game you might not even know that’s what they are which… is confusing.

I am also going to use this section to sneak in a little bonus mention for Stephen’s Sausage Roll. That’s not to detract from The Witness and force it to share the spotlight, but it’s to make sure we flag up Stephen’s Sausage Roll as a fantastic game in a similar vein so it functions as a kind of companion piece. Stephen’s Sausage Roll is about taking a 3D Sokoban-style premise – pushing gargantuan sausages onto grill pads – and forcing you to recalibrate hour understanding of the basic mechanics, time and time again as you work your way through the game.

Where The Witness gives you space to think in that you can explore the world, enjoying the vistas and pondering the story hints, Stephen’s Sausage Roll is a brutal onslaught of puzzles which will frustrate you right up until you figure them out. You’ll temporarily feel like the biggest genius on Earth and then the next puzzle will remind you that you are a feeble slug-brained idiot who cannot figure out two sausages.

Both leave you to try to learn the rules for yourself, but The Witness is more traditionally helpful, offering the puzzle form of on-ramps to let you figure out the rules of engagement. It’s also more traditionally attractive (although I love the art style of SSR). So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I nominated them both for the calendar for similar reasons, but that The Witness if the more accessible and less polarising option in large part because it offers you some respite from the puzzles if you’re stressed. To put it another way, the Witness is a game multiple people in the RPS Treehouse played and enjoyed. SSR seems to be mine and mine alone.

Alec: For quite possibly years I watched the Witness from afar, entirely convinced that I’d play it for ten minutes then bitterly turn off my computer. The Mystiness of it, the mathsiness of it, the sure conviction that I would feel too stupid for it, that its puzzles would seem too disassociated from its world and without satisfaction.

I didn’t play it until several weeks after release. I realised I’d formed an opinion on a game I hadn’t played, and I didn’t like myself for that. Better to embarrass myself in the game than potentially reveal my ignorance to the wider world.

Things fell into place remarkably quickly. The Witness is less about hardcore logic puzzles and more about falling into a way of thinking, somewhere strange hybrid of bliss-out and acute attention. Sure, there were stumbling blocks, particularly when a brand new concept was introduced, but by and large The Witness flows – and most importantly it makes its world a part of its puzzles, not two separate entities sharing a screen.

I didn’t expect to like this one bit, but came away impressed by how complete and approachable it was. Honestly, if you’ve steered clear because you think you’re as dumb as I think I am: don’t worry. You can do it, and it is worth it.

(I really must play Stephen’s Sausage Roll).

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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