The Witness (2016) has acquired somewhat of a cult status the past years. This indie game, created by Jonathan Blow, was in development for eight years after he released Braid in 2008. The result of this hard labor is a unique first-person puzzle video game with a beautiful aesthetic. Location means everything as the player navigates a island through the eyes of an unnamed character. Different puzzles, most of them consisting of line puzzles on a grid, have to be solved in order for the player to reach the heart of a mysterious mountain on the island.
Other than audio logs, this game has little to no text, making it hard to find out what is really going on and being represented. By looking deeper into the symbols and locations, I unravel the meaning of the game in this blog, including the significance of its multiple endings. Overall, I argue that The Witness is best understood as self-aware art and metafiction. It is a unique and personal expression of the designer, but it is also a game about games, and what this medium can accomplish.
Games as Art
The Witness is a mesmerizing and stunning game. Its aesthetics are simple, but work through magnificent use of color and light. As Dan Griliopolous in Show Me The Games writes:
“The Witness, by contrast, doesn’t seek that realism, but trumps it. It’s coherent and consistent, never breaking the world’s rules. It also has moments of stark, exuberant beauty – and, yet again, feels like it’s a love story. The Witness is an art piece – meant to provoke without giving answers.”
The idea that games are art – meditative, reflexive, affective – is strongly present in The Witness. Different locations are related to craft and artistic practices, such as the quarry where stone is gathered and sculptures are made. There is a glass factory near the beach as well as a botanical green house. The island is filled with human artefacts, from gorgeous tree houses and hidden drawings to sculptures. Still, there is no sign of life, other than audio logs. When seen from on top the mountain or one of the towers, the island is a carefully construct art piece in its own right. A lot is open to interpretation from the player. Were those statues once citizens of the island? Are they art created by someone, and if so, who?
Through intertext, the game positions itself as art even more explicitly. The audio recordings that players can find quote the Buddha, B.F. Skinner, and Einstein. The player can even watch clips in a theater below The Windmill, such as excerpts from James Burke’s Connections series or the ending of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. Many of these contain spiritual, philosophical or scientific insights about the universe, life and art, such as:
“The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe.” -Albert Einstein
Spirtuality, science and art are key themes in the game, and Blow has stated before how much his education in physics inspired him in game design. In a very nuanced critique of The Witness in Destructiod, Sean Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan argues that the game does not succeed in its artistic ambitions though, and contributes to the “Romantic myth of the lonely genius, prominent in the art world and game design. He suggests that the game uses art motifs artificially and also paints a conventional outdated idea of art. The Witness speaks to a certain canon of white male art that needs to be disrupted:
“It’s a view of the world that can’t see that all art is influenced by philosophy, other media – not just ones that happen to cut and paste some quotes and videotapes into it.”
Perhaps he has a point. The central place of The Witness, the mountain, has a huge woman carved into it – a muse, a symbol of longing. The game could be a read as modern-day Pygmalion myth where we see the symbol of a woman through the eyes of the male gaze, and desperately wish her to be real. Many parallels could be drawn with Dear Esther here, which also enscribes the memory of a woman on an island, which I have written about here. While I have no doubt that this game is art, and I was captivated by the scenery of the island throughout, I concur that it is a gendered and exclusive expression, purposely embedded in a Western canon.
But there are moments where the game riddles me, and makes me think. When I look at those stone sculptures, I can’t help but wonder whether there is a deeper and more personal story behind this island.
The Mountain as a Museum
The final location of the game perhaps offer an answer. It functions a museum of sorts where we wander past different objects that are intimately related to the game. The last puzzles are interlaced with concept art of The Witness, early prototypes of certain locations, and quasi-game design studios. Digital assets are slapped together in a tower of sorts that the player can move through – a big mountain of virtual stuff. Even this junk pile of office chairs, tables, screens, puzzles and sculptures is put together like postmodern art, an oath to the modern game design work place. The history of IT is scrambled together in a single pipeline, a materiality of code and pixels.
At various points, the player can look at screens in The Mountain. Are they being observed or are they the observer? I think the latter. The player is a stand-in for the game designer. He is the creator of the island, and this mountain symbolizes his creative process. The game even confirms this an extend. The avatar has a shadow with a highly specific haircut that can be compared to different statues on the mountain. A figure solving puzzles. A figure working on his laptop. They are you.
You are the gamer designer himself, walking through his creation. Indeed, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems, Ozymandias, throughout my playthrough in which a traveller describes ruins and status of which “its sculptor well those passions read, which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”. This is the story of a sculptor, a game designer, an artist.
Back to the mountain then. These screens, sculptures and art works are testaments to how the island was designed. The mountain reminds me of the ending of The Stanley Parable. Both titles end in a museum space of sorts, but use that motif in different ways. The Stanley Parable lets you wander through the museum, but has a guide, a female voice helps us make sense of the game as an experience. I argued elsewhere on this blog that her role is that of a critic who pushes us to reflect on game design, and the tension between the male narrator (the designer) and the player.
The Witness uses its museum space differently than The Stanley Parable though. The Stanley Parable ends highly critical and reflexive (logos), whereas The Witness ends quietly and emotionally (pathos). The artefacts are presented to us as a hommage to the game design process, but as we proceed through the mountain we realize that this came at an expense. One of the last puzzles is in a dark cave, where the designer seems to slave over a puzzle. When the player walks out, there is a beautiful beach and an elevator that they have to activate.
The statue of a woman and a toddler watch you as you step into the elevator. At this point there can be no mistake. Those statues are not just filler-art, but actual art by the game designer that symbolize his life, his memories, his experiences. Is it the family he lost, or his own past that we see represented here? I find this statue a haunting one to be honest. To me it suggests that art, including game design, requires hard labor and sacrifices, and often comes at the expense of our personal life and relationships. The final statue we see is one of those we leave behind.
Stepping into the elevator leads to a literal and spirtual ascension. The player sees the island top-down and listens to the Diamond Sutra while seemingly referencing many objects on the island (as theorized about here on Reddit). The final words are “a phantom, a dream”, emphasizing the liminality of the island, a space that is in-between. Perhaps this is a personal story about game design and the toll it takes, but Brow also made it part of a larger universe and spiritual reality, a universal quest for meaning and expression.
At the very end, you (the game designer) are locked outside of that creation and you try again. It is a quest for perfection in art. Perhaps some of the sculptures signify these earlier runs. This is art reflecting on art, in a time when we are already post-postmodern. At worst, this message is kitsch; at best, it is a postmodern accomplishment. Jonathan Blow wants to be the Thomas Pynchon of postmodern game design and it shows.
The Secret Ending as a Virtual Reality
After finishing the first ending, the secret ending can be immediately unlocked through an alternative solution to an early puzzle. The player finds himself in a mysterious space, filled with screens and desks with symbols that appear to rising suns. The lobby, roof top and spa indicate that it is a surreal hotel of sorts.
The game clearly wants to evoke the idea that the player is a virtual tourist, a temporary visitor of this island who could at any point check-out and return home. The game is not real. It is a virtual space to visit, and that is how it is represented here. The hotel is littered with audio logs of credits, breaking the fourth-wall indefinitely. This is clearly a space where we have to exit the game, just like a movie theater.
But the game doesn’t stop there. The hotel space is exited through a long dark path across different rooms/screens, such as this almost-life like office, complete with art work of The Witness. When I first saw this space, I had no idea yet of the twist that was about to come. But I knew this room was important, and noted the ghost-like figure/corpse on the right. Another stand-in of the designer at his work space. That The Witness had dark undertones of burn-out and loss was clear to me at that point, but this symbolic dead of the author shocked me.
Then, the finale starts, a surprising live-action video where the player wakes up in the room above. The short film shows the player-designer waking up from this virtual reality, unplugging his catheder, falling down and struggling with his health. The character has problems connecting with reality, and treats each circle as the start of a puzzle. The video (view at 6:00 here) is littered with symbols, which a Reddit user carefully unpacked in this post. Most interesting to me is the poster Project TR which sounds as a VR company of sorts and perhaps is the company that facilitates the technology to the island.
What we see here, I would say, is how the designer has beta-tested his game, but is still immersed in the space and reflecting on the creative process. He wants to optimize it. He wants to think of more challenges and riddles. We see him fiddling with small, physical puzzles in front of the code that he has written. He has problems connecting with reality and his body, but he wants to keep designing puzzles. His creation has taken a toll on him, but he keeps working, interacting, and drawing inspiration from his surroundings. What we see here is a representation of the creative process and game design.
It’s an allegory. The game is not simply virtual reality, but rather suggests that art and media have the power to transport us to new exciting places. Making these spaces is not easy for designers, and the long development process of The Witness is in itself prove of that. This postmodern ending is one of stress. Of optimization. Of dissatisfaction.
If the beach is symbolic of the finale and the hotel represents the credits, then this is the making-off. The Witness is pure metafiction and can only be interpreted as such – a game that makes statements about games. But it’s set-up also comments on other art and narratives. It is in these final locations, that each function as story beats, that The Witness becomes especially interesting. Classic structures from films and blockbuster games are reinvented in this immersive indie game.
The Witness is not perfect, but I can’t help being fascinated by it. Don’t be fooled by the narrative media in this game, which are mostly flavor text. Look more closely at the architecture and locations to find the real story of The Witness – a reflection on art, sacrifice, pain and loss.
Read More Game Theories Here
Dear Esther | The Last Guardian | Deltarune | Night in the Woods | Oxenfree | Abzu | To The Moon | Contrast | Thomas was Alone | Final Fantasy VII R | Final Fantasy VIII | Death Stranding | Stanley Parable