Puzzle games are predicated on rules.
They clearly establish things you can do and things you can't. Then they establish an outcome. And then it's your job to figure out how to use the former to achieve the latter.
Most puzzle games sculpt their challenge from that mystery. Whether it's colorful jewels or physics-warping portals, their rules are known, but the narrow, contorted paths to victory that they plot are not.
Jonathan Blow's "The Witness," however, is not most puzzle games.
The "Braid" developer's massive new work plays like them for some of its 600 or so puzzles, whose completion requires you to correctly trace lines through lattices. Sometimes, you know the rules.
However, sometimes you don't. Sometimes, the variables that determine how you must trace those lines — a vocabulary of symbols of different color and shape — have yet to be decoded. That's because the game tries to teach them to you in so minimalist and happenstance a way that you'll inevitably miss some lessons before you take their corresponding tests.
Several cryptically selected quotes aside, "The Witness" has little in the way of story. It takes place on a fruit salad of an island where the stone ruins somehow look as colorful as the fuchsia woods. Empty chairs at scenic overlooks and random stone effigies — a man wielding a sword, a teen transfixed by a laptop — tease some long-ago exodus. Or apocalypse.
The island's openness, mystery and beauty conspire against you — and against Blow — by beckoning you places for which your frontal lobe may not yet be primed. Still, it's admirable, the way he attempts to teach his tetromino puzzle language of tri-spokes and inset yellow blocks. He does so elegantly, neither spelling out the rules nor enforcing them too suddenly.
The first few in a sequence, often lined up in a sort of metastructure, take one attempt. Then the lattices expand, from two to nine to 16 to 25 squares, and your attempts keep pace. If you've learned the lesson from this act of visual deduction, you typically finish the sequence after no more than 10.
Again, though, that's the all-important "if" of "The Witness." And it's more problematic than the blank stares your ignorance produces.
With 600 puzzles spanning about a dozen haphazardly arrayed areas, it's almost inevitable you'll stray into one before it's time to tackle it. But you may not realize it when you do. You may think Blow's just introducing more iconography, or steepening the learning curve.
This uncertainty lingers, with every tough puzzle, until the end of the game. Every one becomes not just a question of "What's the solution?" but "Should I even know the solution?" When you should know it, it can be hard enough to actually piece it together. But it can be downright maddening to try doing so for 10 or 15 minutes with warranted doubts about whether you should even be trying.
(That's to say nothing about using a guide. The more you consult one, the more those doubts multiply.)
However, the reverse also holds true, and the result can be exhilarating. Solving puzzles in Blow's foreign languages can inflate the ego more than passing a test in a class you haven't taken. Solving the harder puzzles in "The Witness," even when you know you should be able to, can bestow the same high. It's a towering feat of game and puzzle design — just an unruly one.