A curious feature of games that seem to be the least bit intelligent is that they inspire people to believe that one True Meaning™ can be found in them. It’s a little bizarre. Games, like any work of art, tend not to be about One Thing; that’s not how creation works. Any work of art contains multitudes, not only because the creators have more than one idea in their heads but also because the interpreters are of wildly divergent backgrounds. Regardless, the temptation remains, especially when one auteur is primarily (and often erroneously) identified with the work. This approach has given us the unwieldy adjective “Spielbergian”. One hopes that no such neologism evolves from the name of Jonathan Blow, who led the production of, but did not solely create, The Witness.
I am not going to lay out the True Meaning of The Witness. Even if I thought that such a wide-ranging game could be collapsed into a single idea—and let me emphasize that this would be a very foolish thought—I’m not certain that my interpretation from playing the game would comport with Blow & company’s intentions when creating it. I would, however, like to lay out what I took from the game, to crystallize my thoughts at this time (they may change later!) and expand on my review.
That said, it may be easier to start with something that I think The Witness is not about.
I F***ING LOVE SCIENCE
Let’s talk about this guy: science historian and futurist James Burke. Or rather, let’s talk about the words he says after the ones shown in that picture. In a few sentences he asserts that art tells us much more about an individual artist than about any universal kind of experience, that science is a way of knowing free of ideology, and that art is easier to understand than science. These propositions range from the overstated to the ludicrously false. Burke is of course correct in that many people will disagree violently with him, and the nature of the world design and the relative simplicity of obtaining the key to this recording mean that many or even most players of the game will get to see this video. As a result, this message will stand out as a likely meaning for the game.
Of course, if the superiority of science to art is the message Blow is trying to send, he’s a bit of a hypocrite, isn’t he? I mean, the assertion here is that the Michelangelos and the Beethovens are wasting their damn time. And if they were, then Blow certainly is. Look at all this damn art he’s made when he could have been working with DE Shaw on ANTON, helping SETI@Home (or Folding@Home), or tinkering with FoldIt. He could spend a lifetime improving scientific software and barely make a dent in that tangle of ossified kludges, deprecated codebases, and garbage UX. So if he’s bent his talents to art instead, that might suggest that he doesn’t entirely agree with everything Burke is saying.
Well, maybe Blow is a hypocrite. But, if we’re going to derive a theme for The Witness from the recorded materials therein, leaping from Burke’s assertions to the True Meaning of the game seems pretty ambitious. After all, those sentences occupy some 30 seconds of a game where the recorded videos alone go on for two hours. Besides these, the game is stuffed with audio logs, many of which go on forever. Few, if any, reinforce Burke’s points. Indeed, many of them focus on religion—the antithesis of Burke’s favored form of knowledge—not only in the weak deistic sense of an Einsteinian god, but also the specific, sublime God of Abrahamic thought. So we have to find a way to cram, equally, both Burke’s scientism and Nicholas of Cusa’s reaching God through a “wall of invisible vision” into the True Meaning.
Or, perhaps, we should treat these recordings as something other than explicit declarations of theme.
Let’s come at this from another direction and consider, instead, the kinds of things one does when actually playing The Witness rather than just listening to it. Some of that involves just walking around the island itself. A large portion of it is solving the game’s maze puzzles, and it’s a good idea to ask whether they support Burke or not.
This sequence of puzzles, for instance, introduces an idea that areas of the grid containing different colored squares must be segregated from one another. One of the strengths of The Witness is that it introduces these ideas fairly elegantly (although some of these instruction panels seem redundant to me). There are several different variants of these puzzles, enforcing different rules that define what the “correct” route through each maze is. Some of them indicate that the path must go through certain line segments or intersections, others require the path to outline a certain shape, and so on. What these “rule” indicators have in common is that they define puzzles that can be solved by reasoning. Moreover, those solutions need nothing external to the puzzles themselves to be solved. One can work from within the system to realize them.
These are logic puzzles, defining their valid paths from fundamental rules and their combinations. As you can see here, The Witness introduces these puzzles and their “laws” through series of panels that build them up from simple demonstrations to ever more complexity. This procedure is roughly equivalent to laying out a series of experiments. Consequently these sequences form a kind of imitation of science: formulating basic physical laws from basic experiments and then applying those rules to more complicated problems.
If that were everything, then I guess we’d have to say the game agrees with Burke. It’s not, though.
The Witness is full of puzzles that don’t really respond to logic. Consider this puzzle, found in the desert. From the correct viewpoint, the path one needs to draw in this puzzle is totally clear. From most other positions, the puzzle is unsolvable. There’s no “rule” here from which to reason, and the only hint that anything will work this way is found on a piece of art on the path between the game’s starting point and this location. One must either intuit or simply realize that the right angle of light will reveal the solution.
Of course, once one knows the “trick” one can try to reason out where to stand or how to change the environment to get the necessary reflection. The crucial moment that allows the puzzle to be solved, however, is the epiphany that the reflection of light matters. Mazes of this kind cannot be solved from within; one must break out of the system to get to its truth. The Witness has all sorts of puzzles that depend on realizing that cues in the environment either indicate the solution to a puzzle, or even constitute a kind of puzzle in their own right. It is a game full of little revelations.
This doesn’t seem so friendly to Burke’s assertions, but The Witness actually goes a bit further. In its Bunker area, The Witness returns to the idea of segregating different colored blotches with the maze path. Having reintroduced this idea, it then twists it by posing puzzles that can only be solved by looking at them through panels of colored glass. That is, the logic depends on one’s perspective. One could take this as a rejection of Burke’s view that scientific knowledge is unaffected by ideology.
For a further rebuttal, we can also consider the second video in The Witness, consisting primarily of a lecture by Richard Feynman in which he asserts that there is a hierarchy of concepts ranging from very elementary things like fundamental physical laws to complex and layered ideas like hope and beauty. Contra Burke, he goes on to claim that trying to understand the whole hierarchy by working only from one end or the other is a mistake. And this idea comports more clearly with the actual experience of playing The Witness, a game in which one cannot embrace the whole complexity of the world without, every once in a while, abandoning reason.
STOP LOOKING FOR WHAT YOU WANT
Well, perhaps that’s a better answer than some of the others. The truth is, I don’t think Feynman’s lecture encapsulates the game’s True Meaning much better than Burke does. I don’t think these found materials ever explicitly state a core meaning for the game at all, though many point towards it.
That’s at odds with a long-standing habit of games, which is to reveal elaborate backstories through audio logs or environmental storytelling. The expectation, cultivated by games like BioShock, Gone Home, and Portal, is that materials in the game will explain what’s going on. The Witness openly tweaks this expectation in some late-game areas that evoke Portal’s architectural style, but never follows through with the expected reveal. Peeking behind the walls of the island reveals nothing but more puzzles. A few audio logs here and there, as well as the “secret ending” after the credits, suggest that the game is a kind of programmed dream, but even they never explicitly lay out why the island was made or what it is for.
Of course none of this has stopped the expected explosion of fan theories, but I think The Witness indicates that a minute examination of its materials won’t tell anyone its point. That seems to come through in the video of Gangaji telling people to “stop looking for what you want”. It’s reinforced by the little peninsula that’s home to this statue of a man reaching for something he doesn’t realize he already has.
That’s a curious little area, in that it’s completely dead. I don’t just mean the vegetation, mind you: this is one of the only places on the island that has no panel puzzles nor environmental tracing. It’s as if this little tableau has opened up a void around itself, and it seems like a warning. Reaching for a material answer is the surest way to miss the point.
The goal, then may not be to see into the island, to understand what it’s supposed to do or how it’s intended to work. Instead, the aim may be to see through it.
Because, it’s not really trying that hard, is it? I mean, the island is lovely, but it barely even pretends that it’s a real place. In under a minute or so one can walk from a grove of fruit-laden trees through a desert into an autumnal forest, then across a meadow into a jungle with a bamboo stand. Along the way the player can gaze at a village that appears to have been erected by somebody who saw a photo of a town once, but doesn’t have a firm grasp of what buildings typically contain or what they might possibly be used for. The island is a posed paradise, an almost obvious fake, but not, as opposed to Portal, an obviously artificial construct with a “real” world behind it. There is no central computer or door out; the only thing behind the island’s façade is the other side of the façade.
Because the island contains no real answer to its own mysteries, seeking meaning in it is pointless. Through contemplation of the island’s meaning, however, one can perhaps come to an understanding that has value.
CONSIDER THE KOAN
This intention would be reminiscent of the zen koan, which I mention not out of the blue but because zen and its koans are referenced in the game through audio logs. The questions or anecdotes presented in koans are intended to be understood in themselves, but in some traditions they are also valued as conduits to a deeper understanding of the world. In one log, the sciences and zen are contrasted as the apex Western and Eastern philosophies of seeing the world. So here we are coming back to that second kind of puzzles I mentioned. On the one hand, we have the imitation science present in the process of solving the logical puzzles. On the other hand, we have an imitation zen expressed in the revelations that illuminate the solutions of the epiphanic puzzles. Slap them together, and boom, you’ve got The Witness.
Here is a well-known zen koan from Hakuin Ekaku: You know the sound of two hands clapping. Tell me, what is the sound of one hand?
Two and one. A common (though far from the only) theme of koans is nonduality, but it is not only the province of zen. Consider Nicholas of Cusa’s “wall of invisible vision” or Feynman’s hierarchy of concepts linking hope to the Pauli principle. Their topics—the true nature of God and the true nature of physical law—could not be more different, but both point to a transcendental union of perceived opposites. Nonduality also gets an extended hearing in Rupert Spira’s talk describing the self as the “open, empty, luminous presence of awareness”.
A videogame, especially a puzzler, is a good vehicle for this idea. After all, a videogame is a process. It is tempting to say that it is an electronic process occurring in a computer, and from this idea we see a duality, where there is a game that is played and a player that is playing. The reality, however, is that the game is not happening without a player. There may be art and there may be puzzles and there may be a capacity for movement but these representations have meaning only when interpreted by a mind. A videogame is, to some extent, a thought its player is having, and thoughts, in a concrete, physical sense, are indivisible from the medium in which they are occurring. Thus the player, who is the witness to the island and all its art, is also The Witness.
Now maybe you don’t accept any of this. I’m certainly not a huge fan of some of it. Nicholas of Cusa seems to me to be scrawling contradictions on parchment to evade the impossibility of the actual divine, and I don’t have high regard for Spira’s mastication of Kant’s dessicated corpus, however thoroughly he washes it down with appropriated Buddhist teachings. The question at hand is not whether this is philosophically THE TRVTH, but whether it is something that coherently emerges from the game.
So we can’t just look at audio logs and videos, we have to look at the game’s apparent dichotomies. Consider, for instance, the apparent disconnect between the island and the puzzles that are on it. This is a distinction that falls apart once one finds and starts tracing the environmental paths listed on the obelisks. At that point the island is puzzles. This doesn’t address the key question implied by the recorded materials about zen and science. Does The Witness itself ever transcend the gulf between its two kinds of puzzles?
To be honest, I’m not so sure that it does. I’ve mentioned the puzzles in the bunker where the player has to adopt the correct perspective in order to solve a logic puzzle, and that’s not the only place where that appears. The puzzle that opens up the endgame forces the player to adjust eir perspective repeatedly in order to solve a logic puzzle multiple different ways while drawing lines around some sculptures (art!) standing on the grid. A little deeper into the endgame The Witness offers up a few last puzzles in this vein. In this one, for instance, an epiphanic perspective puzzle is combined with a logical segregation puzzle.
These, however, are combinations, superpositions. They indicate that logic and epiphany can work together, but this is a trivial point to anyone who has heard of Kekulé’s snake or reasoned through the lower-level meanings of a koan. The revelatory aspect of perspective puzzles has here been simply transmuted into a component of the logic. At best, this is still two hands clapping.
The subsequent endgame puzzles go ever further off this track. They use various visual tricks to obscure the logic of puzzles, but don’t meaningfully move in the direction of epiphany. The final puzzles could justifiably leave one with the feeling that the chasm between puzzle styles is real, that this duality cannot be transcended. Worse, the fact that the player is outside the system, which is the key to the revelatory puzzles, is in this area transformed into the chief handicap.
There is one place where things go differently. If a player activates all eleven lasers e can access an underground area where the below grid puzzle (and some others like it) can be found. By now, a player knows that the tilted symbols mean that a 3×1 grid must be segregated but that it can be oriented in any direction. What’s especially interesting here is that the central pole also has this property. By changing perspective to any of the cardinal dimensions the player excludes the same space as a tilted 3×1 symbol demands. The external, revelatory solution imposed by the post is the same as the internal, “scientific” demand of the symbol, and so the logical and epiphanic solution modes are not merely combined but collapsed into a singular thing.
I can’t deny, though, that this puzzle, however completely it matches my understanding of the game, is tucked away in an optional area many (or most!) players of the game will never reach. Although The Witness gestures towards the unification of its two modes in some key places, the final steps of the main game reinstate and even emphasize the duality. So this turn in the mountain became one of my great disappointments in the game. The mazes there felt like they were animated by a spirit of smirking trickery, awkward and even uncomfortable to look at, and contradicting the direction the game seemed to be building in. Despite this, I think The Witness largely points in the direction I have outlined above.
Perhaps that tells you more about me than it does about any larger truth.