• Erik Luo

[Spoiler] A deep review and reflection of The Witness

This is a masterpiece!

Here is my review and reflection of the game:


The Witness is a masterpiece of game design, but it is not a fun game. You don't experience the same level of pleasure and entertainment as other games that's focused on letting the player overcome their fear easily. However, when you finish the game, you do feel a sense of accomplishment for how far you've come and how much you've overcome. The game doesn't make you a more skilled gamer since it does not require faster reaction or muscle memories to win. It gives you something much more valuable, the ability of contemplation. Its gameplay trains the player to become a deep and more focused thinker, for deep thinking is required to win the game. This is one of the few games that aim not only for entertainment, but also make the player a better person, and give them profound insights on the nature of life. The brilliance of the design of The Witness is not the design of fun, but the design of action, or the design of thinking. The difference between video game and other art mediums is action. In video games, the player must do things, and the design of action is the communication through action between the player and the designer. Music is the design of sound, visual art is the design of shape and colors, story is the design of character and events, and video game is all of that plus the design of action.

The Witness manages to convey complex ideas through nothing but action (Game Play). In the game, the puzzles were simple. A board with a beginning and an end, and to win all you have to do is to go from the beginning to the end. This applies to every puzzle in the game. After the beginning area, you are given access to all the areas and puzzles on this island. Each area has its own rule in addition to the first rule. The process of teaching the player these rules are not through sound or words but through actions. When you start at an area, the first puzzle you encounter is usually so easy that you will be able to solve 100%. And then the second or third one is usually one that requires your understanding of the new rule to complete. So by making WINNING = UNDERSTANDING, the player will have the motivation to think, learn, and understand the rules so that they can win.

Most puzzles use this loop of design:

Introduction of the rule ---> Understanding of the rule ---> deeper understanding of the rule ---> introduction of a new rule on top of the first one ---> Understanding of the new rule with the old rule ---> Deeper understanding of the new rule with the old rule ---> Introduction of new rule…

For example, the puzzle where you have to draw the shape that's shown on the block.

(Introduction to the rule, is logical and easy to do.)

(Rule #2: The block with the shape must be inside the shape but can be at any block within that shape.)

(Rule #3: You can merge the shapes if you draw them within the same area.) Notice the only way to win this is to try the way of the new rule, and once you win you will have understood the new rule.

(deepen the understanding of the rule)

(Combining all three rules)

(Rule #4: If the shape is at an angle, the drawing shape can also be any of the four angles This first one does not apply this rule, it only shows it. You notice that the shape is on an angle, but you solved the puzzle using the previous rules.

(Applying the rule) You are forced to tilt the shape because it would be impossible to do if you don't.

(Puzzles that requires knowledge and understanding of all four rules combined to solve) This will require the player think in complex, deep and focused ways, since their need to think about the solution with all the rules in mind.

(Rule #5: The blue lined shape can cancel out blocks in the yellow shape if they are in the same area. )

(Deepen the understanding)

(Rule #6: If the number of the blue block in the area equals the number of the yellow block, they cancel each other out, which the shape of the block is no longer needed to win.) A complex puzzle that requires the understanding of all six rules in order to solve.

The game teaches many different rules and mechanic throughout the game, and mix all of them in the late game to create super complex puzzles.

All the communication of the rules were done not through telling, but through doing, more specifically, through thinking and the desire to win.

Every action in a video game has two outcomes, win or lose.

And through those outcomes, the designer can make the rules that can communicate complex ideas through action.

But through what action?

In the case of The Witness, the action is simply drawing lines from point A to point B.

The understanding doesn't come from the action only, the action is there to correct the understanding, but the process of getting to that understanding is through thinking. Deep and focused thinking. The player is constantly trying to figure out what the designer is trying to say. The outcome of winning confirms the player that they got the idea right.

Farther more, there are the environmental puzzles and mechanic puzzles to make the game more complex.

The environmental puzzles are everywhere, anything with a circle shape can be a part of the environmental puzzles. You first realize this when you see this at the beginning of the game:

The environmental puzzles are like easter eggs. Their existence not only makes the player more appreciate the amazing environment of the game, it also makes them more aware of the environment. I found myself constantly looking around and asking why certain things are there. This also made the story more easy to understand since the environment tells a lot about the story.

The usable puzzles are puzzles that not only progress the game but also have a function in solving other puzzles or getting to areas the player wouldn't be able to normally. These type of puzzles usually have many solutions. Each solution will open a new path or unlock more puzzles. This is brilliant because the puzzles follow the rules of the area, so the player will deepen their understanding of the rules more, but with the new rule of finding new solutions. There will be parts where it let the player revisit an old puzzle they already solved and think of new ways to solve it.

In a sense, the island itself is a giant puzzle. The goal of the game is to turn on laser in each area and point it towards the mountain. This design unifies all the different areas on the island in both gameplay and storytelling. The gameplay goal is to turn on the lasers. The story would benefit because the mountain will be the last place on the island where the player finishes the game. So as the player goes from area to area, they will have to get to the top of the mountain in the end, by then they will have finished all the areas thus have a good understanding of the story. This also solves the problem of open world storytelling since the player must learn all the story parts to finish the game, and the order of story is not linear, so the player must piece them together over time. The story is also a puzzle.


The story of the game is told through gameplay, environment, and the recordings. There is no dramatic storytelling in The Witness, the entire event from starting to finishing the game is the story. The player is the only character. On this journey, you go around the island trying to solve these puzzles, without knowing why they are there and why you need to solve them. Yet it is this not knowing that makes the player want to know and understand the reasons behind each puzzle, in fact, the main goal of the story is to solve all the puzzles and find out the truth. The story is also found in recordings of quotes by great seekers in history that talks greatly about the nature of life and truth. However, the profound insight I got after finishing the game is that the whole entire game is meaningless, and the main message that it tries to communicate is the fact that all of the puzzles are meaningless. It's only meaning is to prove meaninglessness. The act of searching for meanings in life is meaningless. It is because of the meaningless nature of life, that we can choose and find infinite meanings. Life is far more brilliant and interesting for being meaningless. Instead of searching for meanings in life, simply be that infinity at all present moments. Happiness and fulfillment can't be caused, to be happy or not in any saturation is the complete choice of the person. To reach enlightenment or god, one cannot seek and find, they can only be, for it is their true nature. The infinity that is stored in every second of every existence. That infinity is something incomprehensible for the human brain, for it is everything at every second. The searching for truth is a never-ending journey, for truth is false. For something to be infinite, it must not have a size, a number, or any form of separation. To be infinite is to be one, for it contains all the possible outcome in everything, every second, every universe, and every possible existence. To be infinite is to have no separation and no polarity. To be infinite is to be nothing, for nothing is also part of that infinite possibility. Enlightenment, is the complete being of this infinity, and it is filled with love, for when all things are infinite, all things are each other. That love is so great that through the experience of separation things suffer and die from it. The story of The Witness is one that's not told, or shown, but experienced and lived.


The art of The Witness is simple and colorful. The environment is not super realistic but it is stylized. The most impressive out of all is the environment design. The design of the island is unified. Each area connects to one another smoothly, and each area is so unique that you can never get lost. When you are in the area, it feels isolated from the rest of the island. It is designed so that each environment feels like its own area, but at the same time, all the areas are connected. Many of the environment design in the game also involves the design of environment puzzles. These environments are filled with hidden puzzles and easter eggs. For example, a pile of rock that looks like a woman when combined with its mirror reflection on the water when looking closely. Many environments are also a major part of the puzzles. A merging of environment and gameplay.


There's no music in the game, and I think that's a good decision since the game requires contemplation and music destruct the player. Also, it wouldn't make any sense to the story. If there were music playing in the background, where is it coming from? Since the game is a real experience, the sounds of the game are also very realistic. Most of the sound the player hear is their own footstep. However, The Witness manages to merge sound with gameplay. In most of the puzzles, sound were indicators of winning and losing. Some puzzle even require sound to solve, making the sound a part of the gameplay. It feels real, logical, peaceful, and brilliant.


The Witness is a true masterpiece of game design. Its gameplay is unified with the story, art, sound. In a sense, every part of the game has a gameplay purpose, and that gameplay is completely focused on conveying the profound insight of meaning, of life, of love, and of infinity.

More insights:

My goal is to make a game that gives profound insight to the players, but I have been struggling to find the balance between fun and profound. This game is not fun in the sense of pleasure but in the sense of profound. The most popular games out there now are designed to make the player play more. It doesn't give the player anything other than entertainment. Games that do manage to find the balance between fun and profound have two main rules:

#1. Make the profound insight a fundamental part of the gameplay(Action).

#2. Convey profound insights through a great story.



Insight: Overcome your fears and you will reach enlightenment(becoming the great one(god)).

Gameplay: Every action in the game is about overcoming fear.

Story: A journey of overcoming fear to reach god.

The Last of Us:

Insight: Love keeps us alive and survive.

Gameplay: Every action in the game is the action of love, whether you are Joe or Ellie. Your goal is to keep each other alive.

Story: A story of love between two characters through survival and suffering.

The Witness:

Insight: Life is absolutely meaningless, but at the same time infinitely meaningful.

Gameplay: You play the whole game trying to solve all the puzzles to learn the truth, only to find out that everything is just a meaningless dream. The whole entire time you are trying to win, trying to think, trying to find meanings behind the puzzles and the environments. All for nothing. But you finish the game understanding that. Which is more than profound.

Story: Love, present, obsession, desire, enlightenment, science, truth, contemplation, emptiness, life, meaning, meaninglessness, being, oneness.


Erik Luo

Game Designer

VR/MR Developer



©2017 BY ERIK LUO.