Multiple Puzzle Solutions in The Witness
Despite its high points, it has to be said that I was massively underwhelmed by the game overall and bored before I reached the end. The attempts to make the game deep by throwing in an assortment of philosophical sound and video recordings sits somewhere between lazy and insulting. Wired have already done an excellent dissection job, though I would choose the adjective “hollow” to describe the experience of playing The Witness, rather than “empty”.
The distinction is subtle, but the game really does look great on the surface. Its desert island setting is covered with perspective tricks and puzzles requiring you to be standing in just the right place so you can trace paths between separate buildings or across vast landscapes. The design of the puzzles in general is great, with LOTS of them, and a minority that are pure frustration. It’s a worthwhile reward at the centre of it all that’s missing, and the game falsely implies you’re going to receive one with its enigmatic wrapping suggesting questions to be answered come the end. Instead, the only reward for solving puzzles are more pretty graphics and more puzzles.
But if you want a challenge, I’d still recommend picking up a copy of the game. Just don’t expect to find meaning, or plot, or satisfying conclusions in it. Most importantly, if you get bored, walk away and come back when you feel in the mood again. Pushing through the game because you’re expecting something to happen rather than because you’re enjoying solving the puzzles will just suck the joy out of the experience.
Enough harsh-but-fair criticism! The point of this post is to highlight one of the brilliant touches in The Witness: several of the puzzles have multiple solutions and those different solutions have different effects within the game.
I’ve made a video of just one puzzle in the game that has three different solutions. It’s in a treehouse section of the map where solving puzzles opens up walkways between the trees. It’s an epic section, with maybe 50 different puzzles to solve, each one taking you a tiny step further forward. In common with all the puzzles in the Witness, there are no instructions for solving them. Through trial and error you work out the rules for a puzzle and then apply those rules to the next puzzle, perhaps picking up some new rules as new symbols and features are added. The learning curve is steep but satisfying.In most of the games puzzles, you must draw a path from a start point to an exit through a grid. In the treehouse section, the path must separate differently coloured squares from each other. That rule is learned pretty quickly. Then coloured stars are added to the mix and you have to work out what they mean. I won’t spoil the full solution here.
The puzzle I’ve chosen has not one, but three exit points. To fully solve the puzzle, you must draw different paths to each exit. The walkway turns in the direction of the exit you reach, either straight forward, to the left or to the right. This allows you to reach different areas of the treehouse, which you need to do to complete the game.
In this video, the path to the right joins up with another walkway, giving you a shortcut through the treehouse. The straight path allows you to view a nice perspective trick where a blackened tree trunk and bright red leaves becomes a man starting a fire when looked at from just the right direction. The left path takes you onto the roof of that burnt-out hut, from where you can interact with a magical path hidden in the sand far below you.
I really like this way of designing a puzzle. Most logic puzzles need a single, unambiguous solution. If there’s more than one solution, it implies a flaw in the design. In The Witness, multiple solutions are a deliberate choice and are worked into the game in different ways. It’s one of the many lovely touches to The Witness that, despite its flaws, make it worth whiling away a few hours (or more) over.