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

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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    phuzz says:

    This has been on my wishlist for a while, hopefully I’ll get a bit of time over the holidays to dig into it. It sounds like the sort of game that’s best play in big chunks, rather than quick bites.

    • cheese lol says:

      The line puzzles certainly benefit from longer, contiguous play sessions. It really is a “way of thinking” you fall into, and some may find they can fall out of it after being away from the game for some time. I think I would have been frustrated with the game if I had to keep re-learning how to do the puzzles, but I thought the whole experience was sublime since I had enough time to sink into it. It’s also a long game. I spent about 60 hours 100%-ing it.

  2. Lars Westergren says:

    Probably one of my top 5 games ever now. It’s sad that one of the coolest types of puzzles were spoiled for a lot of people watching let’s play videos. I suddenly got them, it was a jaw dropping moment.

    If I ever feel like getting cynical about “the state of modern games” I just remember this title got made, and sold fairly well.

  3. ksquaredftw says:

    It was a terrific year for big puzzle games: The Witness, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Obduction, and Shenzen I/O.

    Then there’s smaller stuff like Train Valley, Quadrilateral Cowboy, RYB, Pony Island, Yankai’s Triangle, Disoriented, Way Out, kocki, Beglitched, Rubek, Pan Pan, Four Sided Fantasy, and I’m sure about a hundred other games that I’m missing.

    What a year for puzzles!

    Edit: added more games

    • lukebee says:

      One of these days I’ll get around to buying/playing Shenzhen. Then again, I still haven’t finished Spacechem, TIS-100, or Infinifactory, so maybe I don’t need another Zachtronics game just yet.

      Not a PC game, but I’ve recently fallen in love with Picross 3D: Round 2 on the 3DS. At this point I’d say it’s my 2nd favorite puzzle game this year, right after The Witness.

      • blur says:

        I absolutely love the zach-likes, and they’re pretty much an insta-buy for me. But I bounced off infinifactory. Thinking on it right now, I think it’s because the game doesn’t constrain the player in the same way as all the others. Building in a 3D space is more freeing than trying to squeeze instructions into the little space of spacechem, or lines of code into each module in TI-1000.

        I also didn’t finish TI-1000 (it just got too hard) or Infinifactory. Shenzhen I/O, though, is just blissful. It’s way more polished than any other Zachtronics game, and has the right balance of squeezing the player into efficiency, and letting them explore the concepts.

    • shevtsov200 says:

      Thanks for the recommendations, my wishlist has grown a bit.

  4. FrancoBegby says:

    What I love about the Witness is that you have to put the effort into understanding the puzzles and observing your environment instead of putting it into executing and verifying your solution.
    In the Witness I could spend half an hour or in the ‘How is THAT supposed to work?’ stage, but once it clicked, putting in the solution took only 20 seconds – unlike, say, Infinifactory, which I stopped playing at the point where I could map out the solution in my head within a few minutes upon entering a level but knew it would probably take me 2 hrs to actually build it.

    For a while The Witness was quite easy-going and relaxing for me until I found the greenhouse where I was just stumped for quite a while. After numerous sketchings in my notebook which proved that there was indeed NO viable solution to the problem presented I took a step back (in the game) to just look at it from a different perspective and then… It clicked in such an astonishing way I found myself muttering to myself ‘You bastard! You utterly genious bastard!’ towards John Blow.
    It’s great.

    • Person of Interest says:

      Infinifactory is my least favorite Zachtronics game for that very reason: there’s so much more effort required to assemble the puzzle pieces in 3D. The interface is good, but it’s simply an order of magnitude slower to modify the puzzles in Infinifactory than in Spacechem or TIS-100.

      The Witness gave me so many of those moments you mention, where I would shake my head, grinning, at the cleverness of a puzzle or beautiful arrangement of an environment. I lived and breathed the game for a few weeks, then set it aside. It’s my GOTY nevertheless.

  5. Scurra says:

    I think what made me fall in love with The Witness was the slow reveal. Whereas The Talos Principle sometimes waved things in your face (putting crates and glyphs outside obvious areas and so on), The Witness invited you to look around and then look back as you saw something out of the corner of your eye.

  6. polecat says:

    To any waverers, I highly recommend this. I felt exactly the same as Alec plus I was worried it would be annoyingly pretentious. But it’s fantastic. There is so much game and so much satisfaction in there and he is spot on with ‘bliss out meets focus’. Have particularly enjoyed it on telly with a steam controller which it suits well.

  7. Nathan says:

    But this means that Hexcells can’t be the best puzzle game of the year! :O

    • lukebee says:

      No, that can’t be right, there’s no way RPS could make such a mistake… Oh my, they really did leave out Hexcells, the once and future king of puzzle games. Here, I fixed this great injustice for you: link to

  8. draglikepull says:

    I thought Tom Chick’s review nailed it:
    link to

    It’s a game about learning rules but never having anything particularly interesting to do with them. People have described it as like learning a language, but I think it would be closer to the mark to say it’s like being given a bunch of verb conjugations and being asked to fill in other similar verb forms without ever learning how to speak.

    Despite having some superficial resemblance to Myst, it misses all the things that make Myst interesting. Myst was about understanding how a world (or several worlds) work, about putting the pieces of a civilization to work to achieve some effect on the landscape. Myst asks you to use logic to bring machines to life. The Witness is just drawing lines in patterns.

    What The Witness really felt like was sudoku given pretty colours and high-definition graphics. I understand that some people find something calming or fulfulling in doing repetitive abstract puzzle-solving, but for me I need the puzzles to feel like they’re actually connected to some broader world in a meaningful way, and The Witness just doesn’t have that.

  9. Joel Goodwin says:

    And if anybody wants to know what the game is actually about – including why it is called “The Witness” – then I made this earlier in the year: The Unbearable Now: An Interpretation of The Witness. Full of SPOILERS!!!

    Someone called it a video about The Witness more pretentious than The Witness itself so, uh, that’s the capsule review right there.

    • grimdanfango says:

      Thanks for that, a thoroughly interesting watch. The whole notion of “pretentiousness” niggles me these days… so much that is routinely written off as pretentious is simply something those people haven’t bothered to invest the time to understand.
      I thank you for highlighting that so well in your video, I’ve always tended to be a patient gamer, but you made me realise what worth there can be in giving my time to something.

      I found The Witness a sublime experience… one of those few games I so desperately wish I could forget, simply to relive the joy of discovery all over again. Alas, I’ll have to just wait patiently to discover the next.

      As an aside – have you ever played Antichamber? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that. A very different experience to The Witness, but I found it similarly absorbing.

      • Joel Goodwin says:

        grimfandango: Sorry I have been away for a couple of days – not sure if you will see this. Glad you enjoyed the film, I wanted to express what the game meant to me. On your question – no I haven’t played Antichamber yet but I do have a copy. I will get round to it one of these days…

  10. lordcooper says:

    I bounced off this game really quickly. Everyone seems to love the thing, but all I saw in my hour or so of play was an (admittedly pretty) world that served in lieu of a menu where you could pick from little maze-type puzzle things.

    Am I missing something fundamental here, or am I just an old fuddy duddy who isn’t down down with the hip kids and their little maze puzzles?

    • Joel Goodwin says:

      While some will say the island has an intimate relationship with theme and the puzzles themselves – all of which is true – we secretly just like “walking simulators” and it’s a lovely environment to wander around as we move from puzzle to puzzle. If you don’t like that, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to like everything.

      • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

        I’m in the “don’t think I’ll like it, so I’m not going to buy it” camp too. As soon as I saw what form the puzzles were in, I figured they wouldn’t be my kind of thing.

        I watched Joel’s video of it though (linked in his comment just above this thread), and highly recommend it. Far from spoiling the game, it made me appreciate what the game was doing far better, I expect, than I would have if I’d wrestled through puzzles I didn’t like for umpteen hours. But don’t watch it if you’d rather discover the surprises for yourself.

  11. caff says:

    I wanted to love it, but some of the puzzles were ridiculous. Crudely rendered shadows ruined this for me.

  12. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Put it on a backburner after fiddling with it for a while. Just not even sure what it’s trying to do. If it’s supposed to be an exploration game in addition to a puzzle game, then its wonky 3D world doesn’t really do it for me. If you actually are supposed to solve the puzzles before finding the explanation boards for new types, then I truly AM and idiot, because I never even came close. If you’re always supposed to find an explanation first, and then knock out all the puzzles of the type, then the pacing is really off, because I would sometimes, annoyingly, wander around for the longest time only encountering puzzles of new types but no explanations of the new rules.

    • grimdanfango says:

      The puzzles *are* the explanations of new rules. Each area you encounter starts you off with something that can only have a couple of possible solutions, and leads you into understanding the effect a particular symbol type is having. You won’t ever have the rules handed to you, you have to think… but give it the time it needs, and you’ll find it clicks, and each time it does, you’ll find others click easier, as you learn to put your mind into the right kind of state to spot the patterns.

      The rules are always simpler than you expect, and once something clicks, you’re treated to that wonderful feeling of suddenly seeing glorious meaning everywhere you look, where before all you saw was chaos.

      Additionally… the “wonky” world is mind-bogglingly meticulously crafted. The further you get, the more and more you realise the care with which half the rocks, plants, clouds, rivers, etc, are placed. You’ll be staggered at the simplicity of what was there right infront of your face since the very beginning, which you just didn’t know to see.

  13. Elgarion says:

    In my humble experience and opinion, the game was an absolute blast, excepted the end game. This last part in the mountain was awful, frustrating and useless.

  14. Banks says:

    I loved the game despite not finishing it. It went on for too long and late puzzles were needlessly difficult.

    Nostalghia’s clip was the best part of the game.

  15. satellytehye says:

    I just wanted to point out that, despite being excited about this game, I found broad swaths of it completely unplayable due to red/green colorblindness.

    The game includes no colorblind mode and Blow has said that he has no intention of adding one, so please go into this game with the knowledge that it’s completely inaccessible to those who can’t differentiate blue from purple, yellow from green, etc.

    Probably my biggest disappointment of the year, really.

    • El Mariachi says:

      A sort of simulated colorblindness (actually, a series of them) figures heavily into at least one of the puzzle areas. I can’t for the life of me figure out how that could be made accessible. Sorry you can’t play it, but I’m sure the heads-up is appreciated. It really should be more prominently noted on the store page.