Best Puzzle Game 2016: The Witness

An island full of mazes gave us the year's most satisfying enigma.

The Witness is our pick for best puzzle game this year, chosen by PC Gamer staff through voting and debate. We'll be posting an award a day leading to Christmas, along with personal picks from the PCG team. Keep up with all the awards so far here.

Chris Livingston: The most wonderful moment in The Witness came when I realized, after several hours of playing, that I wasn’t simply standing in front of a series of puzzles but actually standing in a series of puzzles crafted from the island itself. Beyond the linked flat puzzle panels, there are patterns in The Witness. They’re etched into mountainsides, formed by tree branches and shrubs, looped around staircases and paths, in the shadows, in the reflections of the water, and even in the clouds. Some I passed dozens of times without ever seeing them until I happened to stand in just the right spot and peered at just the right angle, and then suddenly it was clear as day. Best of all, once you begin to see these environmental puzzles, you’ve already been taught how to solve them by the panels you’ve been tracing designs on all along. It’s breathtakingly brilliant, and shows how well designed The Witness is, not just in terms of its puzzles but in every boulder, path, tree, and hill.

Tom Marks: The island itself is the most impressive part of The Witness for me. To start, it’s simply gorgeous. Its vibrant colors and perfectly reflective water is a wonderful contrast to the darker settings of most modern games, especially when compared to similar first-person puzzlers like Portal or The Talos Principle. But the island’s brilliance goes beyond visuals, as it’s been crafted to guide you through the game and teach you everything you need to know without ever saying a word. The puzzles themselves are simple enough, but the feeling of accomplishment The Witness’ evokes from exploring its world and slowly learning how those puzzles work is what truly sets it apart from other games.

Phil Savage: It's as brilliant as it's possible for 600+ maze puzzles in a row to be.

taking a break and wandering off is practically a requirement, as you tend discover the keys to solving certain puzzles by learning how the island’s other puzzles work.

Chris Livingston: At least, unlike many puzzle games, if you tire of the type of puzzle you’re working on (as I sense Phil did) you can wander off and work on some others. It can definitely get a bit exhausting to solve a series of panels, gain entrance into a new area, and find yet another series of panels awaiting you. That’s the beauty of The Witness’ open world, though. If and when you get stuck on something, or simply tire of it for the time being, you can go have a nice wander. You can try out some other puzzles, or try to find some of the environmental ones I mentioned earlier. In fact, taking a break and wandering off is practically a requirement, as you tend discover the keys to solving certain puzzles by learning how the island’s other puzzles work.

You can also say the hell with puzzles for a while! Simply stroll around and enjoy the scenery, which itself is littered with amazing detail that don’t involve puzzles at all. The discovery of the shadows caused by some branches on a wall, or sunlight through a windowframe, or interesting etchings on a rock, or a scene in a clearing that comes into view from a certain angle—there are so many brilliant little details to look for and find that don’t involve solving puzzles at all.

The Witness was a great game to play with someone sitting next to you—provided you work well together—and it was especially fun to see what other players had discovered online. Not just in terms of finding solutions to panels (though I for one certainly needed help from time to time) but to see secret endings, screenshots of interesting details, and share theories about what it all might mean. I know The Witness didn’t get the acclaim and attention of Braid, but it’s still a remarkable achievement of design and a game I’ll return to again in the future.

For more on The Witness, read our full review.