‘The Witness’: A Game of Wandering and Wondering

This game's core themes -- attentiveness, curiosity, the value of Zen -- are conveyed intuitively through gameplay, allowing them to be internalized in a way that's personally meaningful.

Note: This article contains spoilers.

We wake in a dark walkway, a chink of light ahead inviting investigation. A closer look reveals a golden panel affixed to an exit, bearing a symbol that resembles a sperm cell: a single line with a circle at one end. We trace a path from head to tail and the door swings open. Gloomy greys are soon replaced by the lush greens and violets of a walled garden. Cables are draped across foliage and stone, hooked up to monitors that display simple, two-dimensional mazes. To beat these preparatory puzzles, we need only sketch a route from start to end. Once all are complete, we can unlock the looming garden gate and roam the world of The Witness as we please.

Well, almost as we please. The island on which the game takes place is split into themed sections, ranging from desert ruins to castle keeps, from treehouses to cherry blossom orchards. All are visually stunning; every plant and rock has been positioned with painstaking precision. As well as boasting a distinct aesthetic, most areas introduce a new rule or constraint to the ubiquitous gridded puzzles — join the dots, separate the shapes, find a symmetrical solution. Some sites and structures are blocked off by trickier challenges that combine multiple rules. Until we have learned how to tackle them, we will need to explore elsewhere.

These few restrictions aside, we can progress on our own terms, choosing which parts of the island to prioritize. In the absence of written instructions, we’re left to ascertain the game’s logic by trying — and, just as importantly, failing — to finish puzzles. In some instances, this approach can cause frustration, especially if confirmation bias leaves us clinging to flawed reasoning. In others, we may feel the rush of an epiphany when we find the route that verifies a particular rule. In the context of complexity theory, such a proof would be referred to as a “witness”.

The title also has a second, less esoteric meaning; The Witness’s still, near-soundless island is designed with calm, careful observation in mind. A common criticism of the game is that the picturesque setting is nothing more than window-dressing for an overpriced puzzle book, but this claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; many of the mazes are inventively linked to their surroundings. At various stages, we must take cues from the glare of the sun, the branches of a nearby tree or the relative pitches of birdsong. We come to realize that there are even secrets hidden within the environment itself; from a certain angle, we may glimpse a variant of the opening circle-and-line sign in a piece of railing or a patch of flowers.

This shape is the seed of all life on the island. We soon notice it everywhere. Once we draw over one of these natural wonders with our cursor or controller, a glowing glyph materializes on a nearby monolith, which keeps track of our discoveries. The sense of mystery is compounded by the series of statues that we see strewn about. Each person is depicted mid-action — wielding a weapon, playing an instrument, slumping by a laptop — but we are given no hints about how they came into being, or why they are now frozen. Many of them play tricks on our eyes. One man stretches towards a grail that perches out of reach, yet his shadow shows it to be already within his hand. It has been suggested that other statues represent real-life figures; a keen eye may discern doubles of physicist Richard Feynman and Johannes Kepler, a 17th-century astronomer and mathematician.

Outlandish as this theory may seem, it’s consistent with the audio logs that are scattered around the scenery. When clicked, each device quotes a renowned scholar of science, religion or the humanities. Far from providing us with an unambiguous, overarching narrative for the game, though, the excerpts complicate or even contradict each other. The video clips that can be viewed in an underground cinema are taken from similarly assorted sources. In one, broadcaster James Burke questions the arts’ reliance on subjectivity. Another features the ending of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 film, Nostalghia, in which a man makes several attempts to carry a candle across an empty pool and eventually succeeds, only to collapse to the floor. While the first piece of footage outlines the limits of interpretation, the other welcomes it.

The Witness’s interdisciplinary interest stems from its director and designer, Jonathan Blow, who double-majored in computer science and creative writing. Blow came to prominence in 2008 with Braid, a deconstruction of the puzzle platformer genre that both enthralled and infuriated. Its tricky time-turning mechanics were tied to a storyline that, in broad terms, focused on the pursuit of wisdom, the benefits of hindsight and the desire to change past choices.

Yet Braid’s exact message was more difficult to decipher. The game’s pernickety prose faced accusations of pretentiousness, due in part to its tangle of cultural references and defiant metafiction, inspired by postmodern authors such as Italo Calvino and Thomas Pynchon. Its unexpected conclusion, though well-crafted and thought-provoking, was seen as obstructively opaque. The fragments of meaning present — the damsel in distress trope, a failed relationship, the Manhattan Project – did not appear to fit together neatly.

There’s a passage in Claire-Louise Bennett’s recent short story collection, Pond, in which the narrator shares the familiar feeling of not fully grasping a work of fiction: “I have the horrible encroaching sensation that I’m getting everything all wrong or that I’m absolutely oblivious to something fairly accessible and very profound.” While Braid risked exacerbating this sense of discomfort, The Witness makes for a far more freeing experience. It revisits Blow’s preoccupation with the attainment of human knowledge, but replaces prescriptiveness with an emphasis on the power of perspective. Its core themes — attentiveness, curiosity, the value of Zen — are conveyed intuitively through gameplay, allowing them to be internalized in a way that is personally meaningful to each individual.

The game outlines several alternative forms of learning, typified by the diversity of the audio and video clips, and urges us to put each into practice within a virtual realm: the puzzles require us to test rigid hypotheses; the intentional loose ends encourage limitless speculation; and the intricate design prompts us to reflect on the complexities of the island, along with our place within it. We are led to contemplate the complementarity of scientific, artistic and spiritual thought in a manner that stays with us long after leaving the keyboard or console behind.

Upon beating the game for the first time, we may remember the efforts of the candle-carrying man from the Nostalghia clip. His circumstances — repeated exertion followed by ultimate relief — echo the concept of Samsara. Each flame that flickers out is a life lost; each new endeavour is a rebirth. His final journey sees him break from the laborious process, as if liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. When the last puzzle of The Witness is completed, we are sent hovering over the land in an elevator embellished with a gilded angel-wing pattern, only to be returned to the intrauterine imagery of the opening, to start again from scratch. The audio log closest to this point quotes the Dhammapada: “Through many births I have wandered on and on, searching for, but never finding, the builder of this house.”

By applying the game’s teachings, though, we may discover a hidden stage situated only seconds from this spot. The concealed route concludes with our escape from the island, and emancipation from its apparently infinite loop. In an apt twist, we watch through the eyes of Jonathan Blow, the “builder” of this game, as he awakens and interacts with ordinary objects in a manner that reminds us of the circle-and-line symbols.

Here, Blow wordlessly argues that video games can transform the way in which we comprehend the world outside our window. Just as a moment of enlightenment brought our in-game wandering and wondering to a close, we now approach the mundane and the material anew. After long spells on the island, our everyday life may be characterized not only by greater problem-solving skills, but also by a heightened awareness of and appreciation for our surroundings. Though The Witness’s ideas may meander and some of its maze puzzles may prove demanding, the culmination of each winding path rewards us not with a dead end, but with resolution.

John Wadsworth is Editor-in-Chief of Silent Frame, a site that introduces readers to ten artworks a week, from painting to poetry, dance to documentaries, fashion to food design. He’s also an award-winning composer, and the former Deputy Editor of The Oxford Culture Review.