A wooden door opens before me, and I walk up the steel grate stairs and step onto a ledge that overlooks the courtyard where I just spent an hour pacing back and forth to solve four puzzles that together fill the yard below. I take in the view – huh, there’s a rusty shipwreck behind the castle wall that I can explore after this – and then step back to examine an oversized square tablet that holds the fifth puzzle.
These tablets – on which you trace lines to solve puzzles – can feel out of place among the fallen leaves of an autumn forest or left wantonly on a roof where a wanderer might step on it, but with hundreds of them on the island, they soon become a familiar part of the scenery.
As I gaze at the tablet, it dawns on me that the reason for its size is that it contains the four puzzles from the courtyard. The Witness is like that: it starts you off with a single puzzle element (like a white square) and to solve the puzzle you must experiment, observe, and think to learn the rules that govern that element.
‘Guess I’ll just squeeze the four previous answers together to solve the puzzle’, I think as I draw lines from memory. It doesn’t work.
Without instructions of the ‘go here – do A, B, C ’ variety that we’ve come to expect, it’s easy to misunderstand the elements of a puzzle. For me, the lesson sunk in as I sought to unfold a bridge in the treetops over a swamp: the first puzzles were trivial and the bridge had unfolded halfway when the puzzle elements began to change colour, and it became clear that I had misunderstood the unwritten rules of these puzzles. I would not get to the other side until I had made sense of it.
When you’re stuck like this, it helps to have pen and paper handy. The Witness revolves around rules and patterns that you must discover on your own, and sometimes it helps to write these down and look them up when unsure – if you forget or misremember a rule. Other times it’s useful to sketch, draw partial solutions to a puzzle, or just doodle for a bit and let the mind wander. Sometimes you just need to take a break from the problem, saunter a bit and see what else you can find – when you return, the seemingly insurmountable puzzles of yesterday may have become trivial.
Because the island is open-world, you can skip puzzles and work on something else, though this also means you’re likely to stumble across puzzles that contain advanced versions of elements you’ve not seen before. When this happens, it’s often better to find an easier version first and learn the puzzle mechanic before you return.
After hours of exploration, it still feels as though I have barely begun to scratch the oh-so-pretty surface of this mysterious island.