Video Game / The Witness

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The Witness is a 2016 adventure/puzzle video game by Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid.

The game has you control an unnamed, unseen Player Character stranded on an island filled with beautiful vegetation and buildings but completely devoid of human life. Scattered across the island are audio recordings offering the esoteric backstory of this place and numerous puzzles that must be solved in order to progress further into various sections of the world. The player must ultimately activate seven of eleven total beacons in order to gain access to the island's mountain and discover just what this place is and what happened here.

The Witness began development shortly after the release of Braid; in all, seven years were spent making the game, resulting in a near-four year Schedule Slip for its release date. The game itself is a Call-Back to adventure games such as Myst, albeit through Blow's particular lens.

Not to be confused with the 1983 Interactive Fiction game from Infocom with the same name.


Tropes featured in The Witness include:

  • Alien Geometries: The resort unlocked in by the Easter Egg puzzle in the starting area. The walk from the entrance to the first scenic overlook is along a flat, level floor, but the overlook is about fifty feet above the entrance, and the structure is invisible from outside it. After this first overlook, there is an entrance to the mountain's caves, despite the mountain being in the opposite direction. Part of this cave features Wrap Around physics, as looking to the left or right will allow you to see The Challenge from different sides. Other scenic outlooks wrap around the entire island despite the very little distance traveled by the player, and this is before entering the Void Between the Worlds.
  • All the Worlds Are a Stage:
    • The town serves as one of these, requiring knowledge of all the mechanics introduced over the rest of the island to gain access to its beacon. Of course, unless the player is going for 100% Completion they can skip the town entirely as only seven beacons must be lit.
    • The inside of the mountain also qualifies, with a healthy bit of Interface Screw thrown in for good measure.
  • Anti-Frustration Features:
    • The player is entirely incapable of falling off of anything. Then again, they can't jump, either.
    • There are two sets of puzzles in the Castle, though only one of them needs to be completed in order to open its beacon.
    • Many puzzles require you to stand at the exact right spot to solve them. On some of them, if you stand close enough to the right spot, the game will pull your character to the right spot when you start the puzzle. In some cases, it's to give you a hint to how to solve the puzzle. In one case, it's to save you from wasting an hour waiting for an object to move to the right spot in case you happen to be off alignment even slightly.
  • Artistic License Biology: Out of all the rooms inside the greenhouse, the one with green light is probably the most prominent: it provides the main difficulty for the elevator puzzle, it's harder to reach compared to the other rooms, it contains an audio log and an environmental puzzle, and it's the only one which can be seen from the outside. It's ironic that the green room was chosen to be this way, considering it's also the most unrealistic. Chlorophyll absorbs light throughout the visible spectrum, but mostly in the blue and red regions and very little in the green region (in fact, of all the many pigments that plants use to absorb light, none of them absorb much green light).note  Plants look green because they reflect green rather than use it.
  • Author Tract:
    • The lengthy audio excerpt from NASA astronaut and aeronautical engineer Russell Schweickart's No Frames, No Boundaries, with how interconnected we can become with our surroundings, comes off as this. Bonus points for the audio recorder containing this message appearing on the top of the mountain, after you've probably explored everything else.
    • The projection room, where solving one puzzle six different ways shows videos elaborating on the theme of the game, including James Burke contemplating "the key to change is the key of the world" (from the "Yesterday, Tomorrow and You" episode of Connections); and of American guru Gangaji, who implores her followers to stop looking for what they want, "not cynically, but innocently and openly."
  • Beautiful Void: Lots of buildings and mechanisms abound, with nary a person in sight.
  • Brutal Bonus Level: The Underground Maze, unlocked by activating all eleven lasers, turning on a hidden switch at the top of the mountain, and then solving an otherwise-deactivated panel inside the mountain. It contains easily the hardest puzzles in the entire game and includes The Challenge, a particularly nasty set of panels activated by a record player that plays classical music. In addition to all of them being randomized and extremely difficult, you have to finish the entire series before the music stops; let the music finish or pause the game and you have to start the entire series over again. Your sanity wishes you the best of luck.
  • Bubblegloop Swamp: A swampy area is found in the easternmost part of the island.
  • Call-Back: One puzzle is solved with the help of a set of slow moving clouds, in a nod to a similar maneuver made by Blow in his previous game, Braid.
  • Damn You, Muscle Memory!: The puzzles in The Challenge change each time you have to restart it. Pausing the game will count as a fail.
  • Death Mountain: In the southeast lies a mountain, which you ultimately must scale to find out what happened.
  • Diegetic Interface: While you automatically center in on some of the panels, others can be activated and interacted with from different perspectives. Some late-game puzzles will require you to solve them from awkward angles.
  • Disconnected Side Area:
    • The mangrove with the treehouse has its land access initially locked. You must reach it by boat, then unlock a Door to Before once there.
    • A good portion of the tunnels under the windmill are initially inaccesible. They must be entered from the system of caves underneath the island.
  • Drone of Dread: As there is no score, the environments will give off subtle ambient cues — and some of the plot-heavy areas fall squarely into this trope.
  • Easter Egg:
    • The sand castle from the cover of Braid is found in the sand pits of a glass blowing workshop.
    • Several tableaux appear throughout the game and require the player to stand in a specific position in order to see them.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: The high-tech complex inside the mountain.
  • Empathic Environment: The items in the central lake will change and develop when certain tasks are completed, like turning on a laser or opening one of the vault doors.
  • Empty Room Psych: Solving the apple tree puzzles simply leads to a random table littered with drawings of human anatomy; there is no beacon, or indeed anything of use, in sight.
  • Fauxlosophic Narration: The game is littered with audio recorders that read out quotations from the likes of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, NASA astronaut Russell Schweickart, spiritual teacher Gangaji and astronomer Arthur Eddington; the quotes provide a very esoteric story for the game itself.
  • Gainax Ending: The standard ending includes a flyover of the island wherein the entire thing resets and the player is returned to the starting point, as an excerpt of the Diamond Sutra is read.note 
  • Genre Throwback: Blow made this to be like an old Adventure Game with all the "bad bits" — such as creating too many distractions in the field of view, and being Unwinnable by Design — taken out.
  • Ghost Ship: There's a derelict ship stationed in the northeast section of the island, accesible through a back door in the keep which leads a path across the cliffs. The game doesn't explain how it ended up in that state. It's somewhat empty, as it doesn't have any laser-related puzzles, containing only a few optional things such as an audio log, a discarded panel with a triangle puzzle and several environmental puzzles. However, what makes it creepy, apart from the feeling of abandonement, is the strange noises that can be heard in the cabin. They are merely dripping water and the ship creaking, and they're involved in one particular sound puzzle that's also found there, but the fact that no other part of the game features such sounds is quite disturbing.
  • Golden Ending: Completing the game normally returns the player to the start of the game with a 0 Puzzles Solved progress status. The true ending is revealed by unlocking a hidden exit concealed in the starting area. This ending also allows players to piece together the game's plot.
  • Guide Dang It!:
    • The mechanic of the orange triangle symbol can be hard to ascertain as puzzles with those are at first only found in oft-obscure locations across the map. This becomes a problem later in (and when trying to open)...
    • ...the Underground Maze. The same mechanic allows the player to turn the fence at the beginning back on, with the solution to that problem being found within the Underground Maze.
    • The game generally does a good job of giving you sufficient clues to the solution of any given puzzle, but there are definite exceptions. The puzzles in the jungle, for example, appear to have no visible cue, and that's because they don't; they're the only puzzles in the game (with the exception of one in the Keep and the infamous Red Door puzzle) that rely on an AUDIO cue, specifically the chirping of birds in the background.
  • Hacking Mini Game: What the game essentially consists of. Everything from doors and elevators to windmills and lasers are "hacked" and activated by solving the attached puzzle panels.
  • Hard Light: The bridges inside of the mountain.
  • Hedge Maze: The keep on the north side of the island features two different ways of activating the laser. One of them involves navigating through such mazes and inputting a specific path into the panel.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The environmental puzzles.
  • Homage: Blow said that this is one to Myst and first-person 3D adventure games in general. Much of the imagery also brings to mind many classic Surrealist paintings.
  • Interface Screw:
    • Objects such as trees and rocks can block panels depending on what angle they are looked at, preventing one from drawing lines through the obstructing objects and forcing the player to find the proper angle to observe the panel from.
    • The endgame area features increasingly broken puzzle panels whose grid rotates or moves, panels that flash rainbow colors and make it hard to discern the true color of symbols, and a set of panels which you control simultaneously and must solve all at once.
  • Interface Spoiler: After a while you figure out that if a mechanism moves verrrry slowly, it means there's an environmental puzzle nearby that can only be solved while the mechanism is in motion (which would be difficult to solve if the mechanism was moving at a more normal speed).
  • Island of Mystery: The game takes place in an island with both ancient ruins and abandoned technology, which features strange phenomena, such as the obelisks that are activated by drawing specific shapes around the island, as well as a high-tech complex inside the mountain.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: In a very literal sense. Not only does one have to solve puzzles in order to uncover the plot, but the plot itself is a carefully hidden puzzle, buried in a hidden section of the mountain, found in the form of audio recorders that provide their own clues as to what happened.
  • Jungle Japes: A jungle can be found in the southeast at the foot of the mountain.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: Blow made a point of noting in the run-up to The Witness' release that adventure games of the past didn't use this trope well: they would either render too many things in the game environment, confusing players on what objects to interact with; or, if text based, have a text parser so rudimentary that it couldn't be programmed with all of the nuanced phrases a player may randomly come up with. In The Witness, anything that can be interacted with is generally easy to spot (even if it's not easy to solve).
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The prize for completing a hidden, difficult-to-achieve reward is a lecture that talks about why hidden, difficult-to-achieve rewards shouldn't be the coolest part of a game. Naturally, the hidden achievement was one of the most talked about part of the game from players, because it was so cool (and the lecture was actually well-researched, too.)
  • Lighthouse Point: Interestingly, even though the game takes place in an island full of buildings, there's no lighthouse to be found. However, a peninsula in the southernmost section of the island features a ruined structure that is widely speculated to be a former lighthouse, considering its location (in a secluded peninsula which happens to be very close to the town).
  • The Lost Woods: Forests make up the greater portion of the island.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The island itself.
  • Metroid Vania: A unique example in that you progress though the island not by acquiring upgrades but by acquiring the knowledge in how the puzzle symbols work together.
  • Mind Screw: Many of the environmental puzzles come across as this, considering that you have to draw them on the sides of buildings, cracks in large objects, and even, in at least one case, the sun and that unlike most of the puzzles, which have a patient build-up, the game gives you no indication that they even exist.
  • Moon Logic Puzzle:
    • Usually averted. Even if a puzzle doesn't seem to make sense, there is a logical explanation for its mechanics. However, there's one particular puzzle in the jungle (specifically, the last puzzle in the first set) that's so excruciatingly hard and makes so little sense, that even the most hardcore fans who otherwise tell people not to use walkthroughs will make an exception with this puzzle, and often refer to it as "the one single puzzle I had to brute force". There have been many debates, after figuring out the solution, about exactly why is right. The puzzle requires to input a five-note audionote  into a panel that only has room for four notes (to complicate things further, there's another audio that is meant to be a distraction but does have four notes). The most commonly accepted explanation is that the puzzle asks you to think of the audio as one continuous sound, and sort of "plot" the local max and min pitches on the panel, although that goes against every single other puzzle in the area, whose rule is that the line has to match the notes precisely.
    • You progress by tracing the correct path through mazes presented on various electronic panels and other surfaces. Once you've played long enough, you may start to notice similar shapes in the surrounding environment. These can actually be interacted with and traced like any other maze.
  • No Fair Cheating: If you pause at any point during The Challenge, the entire sequence resets and you have to start all over.
  • Noisy Nature: When walking around the jungle, you'll hear lots of bird sounds like chirps. Subverted in that, as you'll soon realize, they're actually artificial sounds created by speakers placed around the area.
  • Not-Actually-Cosmetic Award: Completing the Challenge nets the player the final hexagonal puzzle for the projection room, which unlocks a 58-minute lecture on batteries, Shakespeare, rewards, and the concept of awe. Over a video of a solar eclipse. Which is part of an environmental puzzle. (As it happens, this lecture is Jonathan Blow's favourite of all time.) And you thought the cloud in Braid was bad....
  • Ontological Mystery: The player starts at the end of a dark metal tube shelter undeground, opening doors to climb up onto a castle's patio. The normal ending returns the player to the same spot, undoing all of the work they have done. The hidden Golden Ending as well as hidden in-game audio reveal this area to be the starting point of an elaborate virtual reality simulation.
  • Patchwork Map: There are an awful lot of different biomes close together on such a small island. It's possible to stand in one biome and see three others at any given time.
  • Ruins for Ruins' Sake: The desert at the northwest part of the island has lots of ruins whch don't seem to serve any apparent purpose.
  • Scenery Porn: The island has a very beautiful, stylized look to it. As soon as you open the gate in the tutorial area, you're able to climb up on the second level of the starting point and look out at all of it.
  • Sequence Breaking: Due to being able to activate a puzzle panel from any distance and the fact that the puzzles in the main game are not randomized, it is possible to complete the swamp area in under a minute. It is also possible to directly complete the last puzzle in the autumn forest without doing anything else (if you know the solution beforehand!), and the keep with only three puzzles instead of five. Needless to say, these skips are used heavily in speedruns.
  • Set Piece Puzzle: The landscape is incorporated into many of the island's puzzles. And in plenty of instances, the landscape is the puzzle.
  • Shifting Sand Land: The northwest portion of the island contains a desert and sandy cliffs, complete with a temple.
  • Shout-Out: An old game by CBS Electronics called "Mountain King" featured a timed challenge, all while two classical music tracks sounded: "Anitra's Dance" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King", both from Edvard Grieg. Players who have made to the end of this game will find similar to another timed challenge which also plays those two same tracks...
  • Songs in the Key of Panic: A weird example, but "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is the last song to play during the Challenge. If the ending kicks in and you're not almost finished, it's your cue to give up and just start heading back to the record player.
  • Spiritual Successor: Very much in the style of Myst (even more so its sequel Riven), with the lonely Beautiful Void and numerous puzzles aimed towards a common goal.
  • Techno Wreckage: All those wires and discarded panels scattered around the island definitely give this vibe, which only gets increased when you enter inside the mountain.
  • The Tetris Effect:
    • Invoking this effect is the basis behind the environmental puzzles. You can draw lines on parts of the island itself to activate the obelisks' markings.
    • The secret ending of the game suggests that the player has succumbed to the effect within the reality of the universe, if not actually have become a Reality Warper. This has elements of both Leaning on the Fourth Wall and The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You, since the only way to reach this point is to suffer the Tetris Effect yourself, since this is the only way (without reading a guide or otherwise being spoiled) of discovering the existence of environmental puzzles such as the one that triggers the secret ending.
  • Timed Mission: At least one door is timed and requires you to solve nearby puzzles in a specific fashion in order to get to it in time. There's also The Challenge, a sequence of randomized puzzles you have to complete before Grieg's "Anitra's Dance" and "Hall of the Mountain King" finish playing.
  • Tree Top Town: The northeast portion, by the shipwreck, includes one, accesible only by boat.
  • Trial-and-Error Gameplay: A few (optional) puzzles have hidden elements that light up only when you miss them.
  • Try Everything:
    • A few puzzles have few enough possible path combinations that it's entirely possible, albeit time-consuming, to brute-force them. Many sets of panels attempt to prevent this by shutting off the current panel on failure, making you have to return to the previous panel and re-solve it (your previous solution remains visible, though).
    • Generally, the first few tutorial puzzles for each new symbol expect the player to brute-force them, then look back after three or four puzzles and spot the pattern that allows them to deduce the rule for that symbol.
  • Underground Level: The caves underneath the island that are accessed through a passage at the bottom of the mountain.
  • Unwinnable by Mistake: The game generally makes a good effort to avoid having Permanently Missable Content, or letting players get stuck in areas. However, the swamp may be the exception: it's a tricky area to navigate, with several sections involving platforms that move when an associated panel is activated. The problem comes when said platforms can be triggered to move without the player standing on them (which is actually required for some of the environmental puzzles), and the control panel unable to be used to move the platform back. Sometimes, you may be able to cimcurvent this by taking a ride on the boat or using one of the unlockable shortcuts to get to the now unreachable location. If that's not the case, you're going to have a really bad time finding a spot which gives you the perspective to activate a panel from a long distance that doesn't even allow you to see what you're doing (and that's if you can remember what the solution was). This is a particularly painful example.
  • Waiting Puzzle: A few optional puzzles require you to wait on a moving platform of some sort while other elements of the puzzle move in and out of view. One requires you to complete the Challenge (or obtain the reward through other means), and wait through the entire reward.
  • Wham Line: "What?" The line appears on an audio log that continues to run well after the quotation is read. It's usually the first audio log that players find in the Expert section of the mountain (the ones that spell out the plot of the game.)
  • Wham Shot: Arguably the game's final puzzle happens just before the end of the Golden Ending - a puzzle that turns on a light in a darkened room. The room is revealed to be impressively photorealistic - because it's actually represented by an FMV you control by walking backward and forward. Lying on the couch is a motionless figure with a sheet over it, hooked up to an IV and lying near a computer monitor. To find out who the figure is, simply walk to the end of the path...
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Subverted. The people who inhabited the Island beforehand are never brought up over the course of the game — unless you get into the hidden areas of the mountain where it is revealed that the Island is a human-engineered Lotus-Eater Machine, designed to flood the senses with metaphysical thoughts to find the true purpose of existence. The previous inhabitants were the programmers who built the island. But we still don't exactly learn what happened to them either, though the walls of the monastery hint that they all fell victim to the Island in some way.
  • Where It All Began: The Golden Ending is accessed by solving an environmental puzzle using the gate from the starting area. Of course, one of the first things the player does is turn the gate off, making solving it impossible; to turn it on again, they have to activate all of the lasers and complete most of the puzzles in the End to access the Caverns and find the gate's reactivation pattern. This journey clues the player in on the existence of environmental puzzles, which they'll need to find the ending, and, through audio logs, gives them backstory context they'll need to appreciate it.note 
  • Windmill Scenery: There's a windmill near the town in the center of the island. It's an important place to visit, since its basement features an underground theatre, as well as a shortcut to the cave system beneath the island. However, apart from a few environmental puzzles involving the sails, the fact that it's a windmill is not relevant and it could pretty much have been any other type of building.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: The hidden ending, as well as the hidden audio logs, reveal the true purpose of the Island (as well as the game's plot): an elaborate virtual reality simulation in which metaphysical thoughts are amplified. Once inside, it can become increasingly difficult to distinguish if the Island is real life or a simulation. The audio logs suggest that the first "proper" test of the Island will include someone coming back to reality only when they want to; the hidden ending reveals the player actually returning to reality, unable to interact with objects in a way outside of the Island's parameters.
  • You Wake Up in a Room: You start in a metal tube which leads up onto a patio, via a small cave.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/VideoGame/TheWitness