A fairly straightforward question. Not a witness. The Witness. The game, Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to Braid, and a game I’d really looked forward to playing ever since I saw the first demos of it. Here’s a trailer for the most recent version, on PS4.
Yeah, that’s my kind of jam right there. Or was it? At first glance – puzzles, a weird island, an almost-real-but-not rendering style – it seemed right up my alley. But was it really? I mean after all, the game’s designer once said he wanted to make games for people who read Gravity’s Rainbow, and I’m exactly that lit-wanker audience.
I’ve recently completed my playthrough, and I think the game is very much up my alley, but not necessarily for its gameplay. I found I enjoyed it a lot based on the ideas that governed its construction. The rules, if you like, that let this thing exist.
A caveat: there will be some spoilers in this post about the game. It’s hard to spoil a game that is essentially narrative free, but there we have it.
The Witness is a puzzle game. It’s a very, very densely-packed puzzle game. There’s something like 650 puzzles in the game, though not all need be completed in order to finish the game. This Wired article articulates some of the fundamental weirdness of the game. It’s almost a disconcerting game to play. I suppose this echoes the beautiful sterility of Myst, a game Blow has dipped his lid to. It’s very beautiful, and very quiet – other than footsteps and some sound-specific puzzles, there’s nothing but vague ambient noises – and completely artificial. Statues dot the landscape, and there’s the air of an incomplete amusement park, with divergent biomes nestling close to each other. There’s a sense of perfection, kind of, and some of the tech at work is glorious: water, in particular, looks grand. Still, something in the setting reminds me of Ferris Bueller’s description of Cameron Frye’s house: like a museum. It’s very beautiful and very cold, and you’re not allowed to touch anything.
Then, there’s the gameplay. You walk around the island – annoyingly constrained by invisible walls and an inability to jump – and you progress and unlock further parts of the setting using a series of panels. They’re puzzles, masquerading as switches. The puzzles are simple, really. Or, rather, they begin simply – draw a line from a circle to a terminating point – and then ratchet up in difficulty. The game is nonverbal, and though there’s the now-standard voice recordings to collect, you don’t ever really read anything. You infer. You deduct. You build upon what you’ve learned, and you apply this knowledge to complete harder and harder puzzles. Should I pay attention to those shadows? Move to the left a bit? Line that bit up there? Listen? Theres many eureka moments to be had. And it’s incredibly satisfying and incredibly obnoxious at once.
Eventually, you must turn on lasers which point to a nearby mountain – and climb that mountain and discover it’s puzzles and girders all the way down. Here, though, is where I ran into trouble. At some points – and though I do feel bad about it, I am unrepentant as it enabled me to see what the game offered – I had to use a walkthrough to help complete some types of puzzles. Sometimes it was laziness, but mostly it was that there was a leap I couldn’t make, which is more a reflection of me than on game design. (I have a similar feeling when it comes to algebra and physics: I understand to a point and then it becomes something I can’t understand.)
I get that this could defeat the purpose of the game, to teach a player something without words, but it enabled me to see it through to the end.
Though my brain was a bit fried after completing the game – again, with help from walkthroughs, on occasion – I must admit that it would appear the New Game Plus mode (once you’ve ‘won’ the game, Wonka-style, you’re reset in the starting room of the experience, ostensibly to do the same thing again) is the real way to play the game. Because you’ve already learned about how the game works, about how the puzzles are ordered. But in the next game you’re able to look at the real world and find the puzzles that exist outside panels. Rivers and pipes. Cloud formations when viewed just so. You can trace all those lines, and there’s a load of them to find.
Playing the game is kind of like the pattern recognition version of the awareness one sometimes has for 11:11 on a digital clock: wherever you look in real life you’ll find the lines that Blow’s game has trained us to seek out. It’s a disconcerting feeling. But it leaves you feeling quite in the moment – more attuned to things you mightn’t have noticed before. Aware of synchronicity in a way I, at least, normally am not.
The things I found more interesting about the game, though, weren’t the continual sense of achievement reached by completing or unlocking panels or lasers. It was stuff that wasn’t necessary to complete the game. It was stuff that was an open secret – extra rooms you had to look for, wherein you’d find codes for unlocking film footage, projected on screens in a theatre, hidden deep within the island. (This is most likely spoiler territory, folks.)
The bonus videos are from a variety of sources, and at once speak to the experience of the player and – so I assume – the mindset of its creator. An extract from Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia seems the best example of my experience with the game: a man tries to carry a candle across a pool without it going out. He has to keep trying, to persevere. It’s what the game is built on. Fucking up and doing it again. Another video, an excerpt from James Burke’s Connections series, discusses experience and interpretation, waving the flag for the scientific method, supported by an excerpt of a Richard Feynman lecture, which looks at how learning and testing leads to knowledge, and to the ultimate importance of interconnections – of history to psychology to the brain, to the chemistry that runs it all. The lecture is paired with a much later video excerpt which sees the bongo-lovin’ physicist lay out what he thinks science can do, and about how it’s OK to not have all the answers.
The next couple of videos were more mystical, I suppose, in that they referred to how to be in the world. First, there was Gangaji’s message, which was a real eye-opener in a game built on observation.
Stop looking for what you want… Whatever it is you want, however mundane or profound, just stop looking for it. And you will find more than you could ever want. Because more than what can be wanted is already who you are.
The rest of her video focuses on the idea of examining the self – so I suppose in some ways The Witness is a tool for player consideration. Gangaji talks about using the human mind for investigation without desire, and posits when you assume that directionless direction (like a dérive, maybe?) you will find that something fresh will be revealed. Something that’s not new, but something fresh. I guess it’s akin to how – once you ingest different puzzle approaches – the game’s areas appear different, more full of promise. The information to unlock the puzzles was always there – you just were looking for something else.
Next was a Rupert Spira talk on non-duality. Spira, a potter, also writes on experience. The talk was quite slow, but touched upon sensation and interpretation of that sensation. It mentioned that all there is is the present, that time is a theory with very little relevance to the real world, as we are only able to experience the present; the future and the past are exercises in thought only, and never experienced. Again, there’s the push towards basic experience through being in the now. It’s something I’d considered, sure – this stuff seems to be quite close to things like mindfulness, say – but watching this video after the Gangaji clip made me wonder how I could become more observant. Or, rather, what the benefit would be for me.
I have to say I’ve not had those considerations from other games. The lack of narrative here – or at least, the show, don’t tell approach – had worked so well that I’d sidestepped whatever story might be powering the game, and I’d made the game about my own feelings about the moment, and about learning. That’s a rarity, I suppose.
I quite like this take on the game. Another Wired article, found here, has some good points, though I disagree with the author on how much human warmth is in the game. There’s a lot of thought given, I think, to the way humans behave, as a game is merely a frame for behaviour. Rather than a click/bang/reward model, Blow has created something that asks the player to work on the stuff that’s discussed in the videos you find as bonuses through the game – observation, being in the moment, and applying what you see.
While I do agree that the game can seem cold and uncaring, I think that’s a misrepresentation of what it is – an amusement park of intellectual tools which reveals more the more the player explores. But you have to put the work in. Just like the hidden Mickeys of Disneyland, there’s so much here for those who look. This is something that’s discussed by Blow in this lecture. It’s also something echoed in the final bonus video: the lengthy Psalm 46 talk by Brian Moriarty, which discusses awe, encoding and the secretive in media, as well as the fact that often, awesome things aren’t hidden – everything you need is right there.
You just have to look.
I have just learned that there’s an additional ending area I haven’t seen that gives an extra layer of meaning to the game – are you a participant or a witness?
There’s a quotation by Zhuangzi – whose work shows up elsewhere on the island, albeit hidden – which seems to fit in with the dreamlike atmosphere of the game, and the ideas it’s exploring, particularly in light of the curiosity espoused in the extended ending, and the transformative nature of the initial endgame animation.
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
I see pathways wherever I look. My finger itches when I see trails in the decorative metalwork of elevators. Time – which apparently doesn’t exist – seems to slow and I’m lost in a moment of observation.
Who’s the butterfly now?