The following are thoughts on The Witness, provided to me by Chris Bell, a game designer who has worked on Way, Journey, and is currently working on What Remains of Edith Finch. The original piece can be found HERE:
FIRST, A REQUEST
Please, before reading further, take the time to both play and consider The Witness yourself. If you have yet to do either, please bookmark this page and return to it afterward.
INTRODUCTION: “Through the glass window shines the sun, and I so young.”
At the time of this writing, The Witness is only a few short hours from release. Soon, The Witness will reveal itself to millions of players. Myself included.
For years I have pondered over what little has been officially revealed by Jonathan Blow and his team. Soon, I will know it.
But as Billy Wilder once said, “Hindsight is always twenty-twenty”.
And so, before the game releases unto the world, I list here my contemplations and assumptions of “The Witness” ahead of actually playing the game. A record of thoughts I’ve had over the last number of years about what The Witness is. In a way, a preservation of my ignorance.
In part, this is a practice in both game design and critical observation, extrapolating, dissecting, and (potentially?) discovering the significance and depth of what few details have been released before they are explicitly revealed in play. It is my belief that there is already a lot of work that we can do to make sense of the little bits of information we have, and that there is tangible value in doing this sort of mental work before actually playing the game. Before its actual teaching, meaning, and depth are given to us through play. Before we know what this island is or who we are. Or know for sure how the maze puzzles work, or what (and how) they mean.
Possibly more so, however, I write this in honor of how much the game has already inspired me — a testament to the countless times it has compelled me to stop and consider it.
Therefore, I will attempt to examine many aspects of the game, be they mechanics (such as the nature of the first-person perspective or the function and importance of the ‘maze puzzles’ throughout the island), narrative (the history of the island and what the island is both literally and metaphorically), or philosophy (what the nature of epiphany and the inherently meaningful search for truth can teach us about existing, and the religiosity/spirituality of existentialism).
In so doing, I will, of course, make naive distortions and wild misjudgments.
But my hope is that I can at least capture my awe of the game. That, even before playing, its themes and symbols and functions are so clear, so controlled, that like much of the puzzles themselves, what seemingly has meant nothing has been right there for us to consider all along.
A TIMELINE OF MY RELATIONSHIP TO THE WITNESS AND MY ACCUMULATED, PRE-EXISTING KNOWLEDGE
While I’ve known about The Witness since the earliest mentions of its existence, before Jon’s public talks about the nature of epiphany or on designing to reveal the nature of the universe at IndieCade 2011, this project dates back, more or less, to February of 2013 when the first trailer for The Witness released. It was then when I started to make more concrete attempts to consider what The Witness intended to be, and it was then when I began sharing my theories with those few friends and designers I am close with who are also close with Jonathan Blow and who had themselves already played the game.Designers like Marc Ten Bosch, creator of the 4D puzzle game Miegakure.
Since, I have tried my best to remain distant from details of the game. Never did someone reveal secrets of the game to me, and never did I encourage them to do so (not that they would have told me). At worst, they would nod, smile, and encourage me to keep going.
I do, however, have a couple disclaimers to make.
In October of 2015, I was perusing Professor Brian Moriarty’s site in order to listen to his seminal talk“The Secret of Psalm 46”, a talk I discovered while working on Journey (Thank you John Edwards). There, on the talk’s page, was the following note: “Below is a February 2010 studio recording of the lecture, produced for inclusion in Jonathan Blow’s game The Witness. It employs an excellent modeled piano by Mozart instead of a harpsichord.”
And so, I learned that “The Secret of Psalm 46” is featured in some capacity, in The Witness.
More important, however, is the second disclaimer:
In the spring of 2014, while sitting in the park with both Marc and Jonathan, I told Jonathan about my intent to record many theories and put them on the internet. My plan was to record them (many of which I had already been excitedly sharing with Marc), put them on the internet well in advance of the games release, get them time-stamped, and make them publicly available come release.
It didn’t quite go to plan.
9 months later, I was lying half-dressed in a hotel room in Vegas, rushing to compose an e-mail to Marc with a recording of my thoughts. Jonathan and the team at Thekla had just announced that The Witness would be playable on the PSX show floor, and I was rushing to get some thoughts recorded and e-mailed to Marc as evidence before I spoiled my naivety and spent some time with the game.
If you’d so prefer, you can read that e-mail here. Though as I mention to Marc in the e-mail, I spent more time trying to give context to what I was doing then getting anything of actual value down. At the very least you can read some of my early thoughts on how I believed the maze puzzles actually worked, and why they were so interesting.
I played the game for a few hours. I honestly didn’t make it very far. I learned some new specific examples of how the island interfaced with the maze puzzles. It surprised me in more ways than one. I literally fell out of my chair after one, memorable puzzle. Still, I believe the game held true to my expectations. That it was still operating, still communicating in the way I had long imagined it would.
Unfortunately, I delayed writing my thoughts down and, when it was nearly too late, rushed them into an e-mail.
And yet, I fear I’m repeating myself yet again. It is now 10:10pm on the night of Jan 25, 2016 and I’m rushing to publish this to the web. I may edit it again before I personally play The Witness (which won’t be until Wednesday the 27th at the earliest, I imagine), but it’s important I get it up before the game launches. And so.
Here are some of the many thoughts I’ve had about The Witness over the years. I’ll try and get the most important ones down, but in my flurry to get this published, I am sure to miss some. They are presented as discrete thoughts, lightly arranged, but in no particular order. At times, they are crude, redundant, more stream of consciousness then anything else. I’ve marked with an asterisk (*) any observations that emerged from my short play experience with the game at PSX
OBSERVATIONS & CONSIDERATIONS
The Witness has upset my life numerous times over the last 7 years. On countless occasions, caused me to go silent and ponder its grandeur. How incredibly far it’s reaching. How all encompassing, and yet eloquent, elegant, it aims to be.
A game about the meaninglessness of the universe, and our important capacity to create meaning. A game about the nature of epiphany. About being a conscious entity roaming and bearing witness to the universe. About being present. About the history of man, and man’s knowledge. About consciousness as spiritual practice. About puzzles, and meaning, and the harnessing and communicating of ideas. About the great puzzle of existence. This island, this universe, as puzzle. A game in which a single line can represent so many concepts of import.
It is a portrait of Existence as puzzle. Of the artist as island.
We are all islands unto ourselves. To live is to witness, and to be witnessed.
Like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, you literally emerge from darkness to an idyllic world filled with truths, bursting with ideas.
The computer terminals themselves are a means of acknowledging you understand something about the world, about the relationship of Things, about the connection of ideas…and transcribing these, abstracting these, by drawing a line with a terminal.
Sometimes a line’s shape may correspond to the way a tree grows, or how a noise sounds, perhaps others it will be used to delineate less physical things…but more, the relationship of ideas. Perhaps, the relationship of two civilizations on the island, or two opposing or divergent belief systems. This line can be used to say something deep, something significant, about the world. And about the construction of significance itself.
These lines, paired with the island (acting as context), and the bits of colored dots and graphical representation on the panels themselves, are used to denote new ideas, and to call attention to the islands dormant (ever-present) significance. Through the line, the significance of the island is revealed. The lines themselves become thoughts, expressions. The universe, the island, as context for the line. Empowering the line. Enabling it.
The game’s description says “Explore an abandoned island” but this could just as easily read “Explore an abandoned idea”. The island (like the Universe) is a thing to be considered, pondered, understood. The island *itself* is a construction of ideas. It is the creation of a team, no less. It’s biomes are symbolic, its formations layered with meaning. And yet it is also a physical place showcasing the work of past inhabitants who have themselves constructed ideas over time. Buildings that have been erected and repurposed through the ages. A physical history of growing consciousness, experimentation, and exploration by those who’ve existed here, who’ve learn to bend the world to their will — tilling the land, growing trees, manipulating color, redirecting light, all before erecting computer terminals to point back at the world. To call attention to it. Highlight its glory.
In one place on the island, no terminal exists. The dead tree in the sand is itself a reflection of an idea that went no where. A failed experiment. A dead end. A puzzle-less place. No computer terminal sits with the dead tree. And yet, is the significance of this dead tree not itself a puzzle? Meaning to be uncovered.
The boat is something foreign that has washed ashore. It’s salvaged, torn apart. It’s metals are found throughout the island, and it’s technology is what gives rise to the computer terminals. Terminals which, when paired with the island that predate them, enable the communication of new meaning. New ideas. Terminals that simultaneously transform and reveal meaning that has sat idle within the island forever, waiting to be witnessed. This foreign thing, this ship… The island existed before it, and yet its arrival enables new meaning to be expressed.
I’m reminded of Shane Carruth’s forthcoming “The Modern Ocean”, in which numerous corporations, pirates, explorers are all at sea. That only place in our world which is truly unbounded, chaotic. Their intentions, goals, aimlessness which leads to them crossing paths. Their wares, their cargo, the ideas they carry with them, ideas which they trade and sell, fight over, all occupying and intermixing in the open ocean.
The Island is a history of the evolution of human thought. From the caves of early man, to medieval european castles, to the temples of asia. Throughout, our churches, our politics, the symbolic structures of our beliefs stand here, are torn down and new structures built in their place. The structures that shape, limit, and enable our worldviews. The structures of our co-mingling, intermixed, and collective conscious.
*The tree with the apple. How beautiful a puzzle! The tree, and apple, themselves symbols for knowledge. In the end, the person has taken the apple down, sliced it open, eaten it. They enjoy the taste as they sit back and watch you learn. They slice it open. Dissect it further. New shapes within the apple emerge. (A meta-puzzle?)
*Likewise, so too are the reflecting ponds beautiful. Self-portraits unto themselves, their images reflected back at them. It’s been clear for some time that this reflection would find its way into the line puzzles. At its most basic, how a line mirrored across an axis resembles a rock formation in a pool of water.
Each of the areas will represent a set of ideas, and each area will become part of one larger meta-puzzle (most likely at the end of the game). When an area is solved, a laser will cast its light, reflecting off a mirror toward the mountain top.
At the top of the mountain it grows cold. Death looms. You cannot live forever. A man literally lies, collapsed, with chisel still in hand. Working, chiseling, constructing meaning up and until his end.
I wonder how the game will end. At the start of the game, if you look back, there’s a *hatch. What’s back there? From where did you come? Is this a cycle, did you crest from the mountain only to emerge back in the cave. The mountain in the distance. The Meaning now visible. And who is it that sits beyond the cave drinking wine, enjoying their hard work. Free to relax, for they finally understand. Is it you?
In earlier screenshots, you emerged from what looked like a sterile apartment. I imagine this was from an earlier, unused narrative, but still, one that carries a similar echo of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Leaving the confines of our homes to go out and explore.
The description of the game says that the island has been abandoned, meaning someone actively left. But where did they go? Physically, across the ocean, in search of other islands? Or do they wipe their minds clean…returning to the darkness so that they can reemerge to and rediscover each epiphany again? Perhaps an eclipse brings darkness, only to reemerge from where we started. Wine in hand.
As much as I am compelled to play The Witness, I am already mourning the approaching hour when I’ve traversed the island once-over. When it’s puzzles are explicitly revealed to me and when every bit of earth has been covered. Still, I am excited by how much is there. How dense it is. And I trust that I’ll continue to return to meditate and consider it.
I think back to The Secret of Psalm 46. Moriarty states…
“…all of us peer at the world through the lenses of these great works.
They are the primary source documents of modern English thought, the style guides of our minds.
Contemplating these dazzling jewels of wisdom and eloquence gives rise to an extraordinary feeling.
A potent, rare and precious emotion with the potential to completely upset your life.
An emotion powerful enough to make a man abandon his wife and children, forfeit career and reputation, lay down his possessions and follow his heart without questioning.
That sweet, sweet fusion of wonder and fear, irresistible attraction and soul-numbing dread known as awe.
Awe is the Grail of artistic achievement. No other human emotion possesses such raw transformative power, and none is more difficult to evoke.
Few and far between are the works of man that qualify as truly awesome.”
“Computer games are barely forty years old.
Only a few words in our basic vocabulary have been established.
A whole dictionary is waiting to be coined.
The slate is clean.
Someday soon, perhaps even in our lifetime, a game design will appear that will flash across our culture like lightning.
It will be easy to recognize.
It will be generous, giddy with exuberant inventiveness.
Scholars will pick it apart for decades, perhaps centuries.
It will be something wonderful.
~ Brian Moriarty, “The Secret of Psalm 46”