Taming the Inexplicable

The Witness’s potentially subversive message is lost inside a culture of relentless techno-utopianism and its creator’s own hubris

THE recent release of Thekla Inc.'s 3-D puzzle game The Witness has been a bit of a cultural event in the world of video games. The game, which took a highly publicized seven years and multiple millions of dollars to make, cleared $5 million in sales in its first week. It has also been met with wide critical acclaim. Its lead designer and creator Jonathan Blow, who has been glowingly profiled in The Guardian and The Atlantic, has writers seemingly falling over themselves to praise him as a genius video-game auteur.

The Witness expects a lot of its players, particularly those used to playing more typical repetitive video-game fare. It draws many tropes from the popular 1993 computer game Myst: It is set on an island occupied only by you, the nameless player, and you wander around interacting with several environmental puzzles, which sometimes open up new locations or help you understand more about the nature of the island. The Witness's more than 600 puzzles require immense patience and a curious mind willing to try out many strange and seemingly unintuitive possibilities to solve them. Unlike Myst, however, The Witness gives you very little information about who you are or why you're on the island, and you never go anywhere outside the island for the entirety of its 30-plus-hour play time.

The island of The Witness aims to be organic: Every nook and cranny brims with strange and colorful foliage, brambly trees, mysterious glyphs, and intently fussed-over crumbling architecture. Yet the island can also feel oddly plastic, which places it at odds with the game’s serious tone. Occasional details — like the mawkish, cornball statues of people gesturing plaintively that are strewn over the island — reinforce this dissonance. You are constantly reminded you that you are, in fact, playing a product of the game industry and not the game you might think you’re playing.

Each individual section of the island is highly distinct but combined together in a generic-video-gamey mishmash, as if different levels from Mario 64 were strung together in one contiguous space. There's a desert temple, a mountain, a swamp, a greenhouse, rocky cliffs, multiple forests, a quarry, a castle, a monastery, a windmill, a sunken ship — you get the idea. Of course, The Witness’s take on the Mario-style level is much more detailed, built with the help of a few architectural firms. Still, one reviewer criticized the shallow cultural tourism of these generic themes, arguing that the island looked more like “a minigolf course” than a genuine space. For better or worse, and in spite of their detail, these spaces are far more symbolic than realistic.

Virtually all the puzzles on the island involve the basic concept of completing a maze by drawing lines through a grid, presented in the form of iPad-esque LCD screens that litter the island. Often, puzzles are attached to aspects of their immediate environment. For example, a set of trees around a grid might make subtle suggestions to pay close attention to the their shape or the shadows they cast. Throughout the game, a theme emerges of exposing the deeper connections between the organic environment of the island and the abstract, mechanical world of the puzzle grids. This island, more than anything else, seems to want us to be acutely aware of the design underlying its nature and the nature underlying its design.

The simple puzzle mechanic of The Witness serves several practical purposes for its thematic structure. One, it allows for the game to bring uninitiated players into understanding its often highly complex design language more easily, and therefore able to take on much more advanced concepts as they become introduced. Two, it serves as a through-line for the entire game itself, tying all the puzzles on the island to each other. Three, it extends out of the game's fixation with complexity through simplicity, as well as other Eastern ideas like Zen Buddhism, which it directly invokes. The structure of the island seems to posit, deep down, that there’s a comprehensible formula underlying all of nature, even if we don’t understand what it is.

The inspiration for this seems derived in part from Blow's obsession with the traditional Chinese grid-based game Go. What distinguishes Go from other board games — and makes it very popular among game designers — is how its simple rules allow for endless variations of scenarios and strategy to emerge. This idea of achieving maximum complexity through simplicity has become game-design dogma. Complexity, in this case, is a synonym for organic. A game designer plays God to her world, constructing a base set of rules and actors. These then take on their own shape and evolve, much as nature does in our own world.

In an interview with The Guardian, Blow said he wants to design games for people who read Thomas Pynchon. He aims to convey, unlike your typical video-game designer, an advanced understanding of art and wants his audience to engage in abstract philosophical discussion. And indeed, many elements of The Witness give off an enigmatic, mysterious, multifaceted vibe. The story is mostly nonexistent for the better part of the game, the island is eerily empty, and there’s something that feels ineffably strange. Yet the island is equally designed with commercial accessibility in mind: It’s colorful, attractive, detailed but reasonably generic, and any part of the island can be approached at any time. The constant tension between those two approaches is never fully resolved.

While playing the game, it’s hard to know exactly where Blow wants to place the audience. Because as cultural commentary, the island of The Witness feels pretty ... impotent. Hidden audio logs, read smugly by professional voice actors, use famous quotations to introduce players to concepts like the infinite complexity of the universe, the dangers of cognitive bias in science, Zen Buddhist philosophy, and the role of science vs. art. These quotations often feel arbitrary, not particularly profound even in the game context. Even if they are an optional feature, one wouldn’t expect the logs' lessons to so widely miss their mark.

If you look even harder, you can find secret codes that unlock video clips you can watch in a theater inside the game’s world. Two clips come from lectures on the value of inner awareness. I enjoyed these videos so much that, paradoxically, they made me all the more aware that I was watching them in an artificial video-game facade of a movie theater. If the game is telling me to pay close attention, then I can’t help but notice how hollow and constructed everything in its world really feels, in spite of its constantly trying to assert itself as some kind of symbolic representation of our own world. The Witness’s introduction to the world of philosophical inquiry feels similarly incongruous, its garish and oversimplified approach fundamentally at odds with its no-hand-holding approach to puzzles. Why such basic thoughts on top of such challenging design?

This is where it becomes apparent: Every part of The Witness’s world aspires for higher ideals but never comes close to realizing them. It is, instead, purely an escapist fantasy. It begs us to pay close attention to its nature and all the philosophical quandaries it invokes, but it never plunges us into anything like the multifaceted reality these quotes describe. The island exists in the walled-off fantasy world of the contemporary privileged white male, citing fragments of culture from contexts it could never hope to fully understand or know how to embody. It separates itself from our vastly more complex and grotesque reality to try to say something truer and more fundamental about the nature of things, yet it can’t even seem to say something insightful about the nature of its own reality. It’s filled with internal contradictions, imbued to its design-obsessed core with a strange cocktail of self-assuredness and self-destructiveness. It is the big, fat multimillion dollar vision of a Silicon Valley programmer awkwardly trying to refashion himself as an artist, which makes The Witness the perfect piece of art for a design-obsessed, art-illiterate video-game crowd.

The island’s version of nature, in the end, exists purely as another game mechanic, another place to be conquered. Its vague complexity is dark and thorny only to the extent that the dark thorniness lets players feel they've achieved some sort of revelation, after which they are done with it. Rather than manifesting Zen Buddhism in its design — upending the tightly controlled nature of the puzzles and introducing complexities, social or otherwise, which might call their internal harmony into question — the island invokes its ideas in a shallow, Orientalist way. Eastern philosophy is a mere prop to uphold the ultimate superiority of the game’s Western rationalist fantasy, where everything can be reduced to comprehensible puzzles. In general, there is an extreme disharmony between the philosophical ideas invoked by the game and the oversimplified, game-mechanic-filled plasticity of its world.

... And this might all be intentional.

Blow's previous work, the Mario-like puzzle platforming game Braid, features a protagonist, Tim, who tries to "game" his memories through the game’s main time-shifting puzzle mechanic as a way to understand and/or rationalize something bad he did to a girl he dated in the past. This past is revealed through text in between the game’s levels, and the memories are revealed abstractly through the many video-game references of its differently themed puzzles. Ultimately, in the game’s last act, he finds all his inquiry to be useless — he can't change the past. Braid brings up a lot of questions for players, ones not necessarily answered satisfyingly, even in its surprise ending. But at least the game deals in the "real world" experiences of a damaged relationship and acknowledges the dangerousness of a certain kind of rationalistic inquiry into subjective personal experiences.

The Witness deals instead in grand universals and seems self-assured in the soundness of its rationalistic ideals. In fact, if you follow the story fully, it suggests the island is one big VR experience commissioned by a federation of different countries to increase worker creativity and efficiency. A hidden audio log from this team of supposedly commissioned developers references their desire to create a meditative experience away from the "petty realities of our current age."

This invites us to reconsider what’s going on: So many of the offensive things about this island make sense when we see that there’s an institutional interest behind its creation: The couches and pillows placed all over, as if the island were some sort of luxury vacation spot. The shallow, one-dimensional presentation of philosophical issues. The fact we spend the vast majority of time on this highly colorful island staring at rectangular screens that often feel like they’re presented more lovingly and organically than the game’s natural environments. The mealy-mouthed “universality.” The Western-centric idea that all of reality can be tamed by those aware enough, which seems extremely harmonious with the ideals of corporate tech incubators.

The island is revealed as really your own little place of escapism: In the game’s true, “secret” ending, you are sent through a portal into the lobby of a fancy hotel. All the game's pleasures, its quiet places of contemplation and abstract philosophical quandaries, are luxuries offered only to those who can afford them.

Then, if we move further, the game highlights the absurdity of its own game design mechanic for us. Right after we leave the hotel, the game’s world takes a strangely dark turn: We’re sent through a portal into a very strange video filmed in first-person. Our mystery protagonist, probably a developer working on this VR game, wakes up (hooked up to a urine catheter which became famous on twitter a few days before the game's release), pulls off his equipment, and tries in vain to do a series of line-drawing actions around his office, falling down multiple times. Eventually he wanders into the kitchen, the walls plastered with pictures of puzzles from the game, and then finally stumbles outside to a Buddhist backyard garden. Seemingly confused by nature, he resigns himself to lying down on a stone bench.

The suggestion here is that the game you were playing has ultimately failed. Our protagonist has entered into this reality and came out like a child who has to suddenly unlearn a largely useless set of skills he has spent the last 30 or so hours learning. Like he’s just deprogramming from a cult’s indoctrination. The island exists to teach conformity and compliance to its own ideals, not to teach you anything about the world.

The Witness thus seems to point to deeper, more disturbing implications about the way our culture, and particularly Silicon Valley, views technology as a panacea for all our cultural ills and a provider of enlightenment. Such a view is not only deeply dangerous; it’s a deliberate act of conditioning embarked upon to reinforce existing power structures. And the labor for this project usually comes from exploited workers. Escapism and self-exploration — the realm of video games — are one its major frontiers.

So how useful was it for us to spend all that time learning the nuances of The Witness’s game’s systems if it was actually bad for us in the end? Is this meant to help us to more fully understand the nature of this conflict? Or how culture — science and design and art and philosophy — is used out of context as part of a bland, bourgeois set dressing for those in power to maintain an image of cultural superiority?

In 2016, these points are so hard to see clearly in the cloud of manic optimism around the game and tech industries. “Indie game” culture has become about giving video games a public image more harmonious with other, more established aspects of culture. The Witness is treated by many, both inside and outside of the video-game world, as part of this larger effort to bring greater artistic and cultural legitimacy to the medium. This legitimacy translates, partly, to it being a bigger player in older institutions like art museums. It also validates that large chunk of "indie game" culture that exists as an extension of the booming, bloated tech industry and its high-minded libertarianism.

Indie Game: The Movie (2012), which featured Blow as one of its subjects, helped solidify the culture of independent-game-developer-as-celebrity for a larger audience. The game designers featured in the film, all white men, made a great deal of sacrifices to realize their vision, but in the end, they achieve massive commercial success. The film helps immortalize them as living embodiments of the “gold rush” mentality in indie game and tech culture. In 2008, when Braid was released to wide acclaim, the label "independent games" referred to a much smaller, more scattered, and often more experimental group of creators and designers. After Indie Game: The Movie, the number of developers seeking to achieve fame and fortune from their own creative visions skyrocketed.

Now, less than four years later, the industry is overrun by content, and developers are fighting for scraps. Tightly managed corporate monopolies like Steam and the App Store have solidified control over the market. The hope of striking it big as a game developer without a substantial budget or prior connections is basically gone. The new and promising talent constantly making its way into games enters a culture that no longer values smaller creators and is intensely close-minded toward all but the most marketable forms of artistic expression. Women, people of color, and queer and trans people also have to make a choice to be a constant target of harassment from an extremely paranoid and xenophobic culture or just be completely ignored. Many creators give up and quit after a couple of years.

Within this culture, we have Jonathan Blow and his public persona, of white middle-aged Silicon Valley boy genius inheritor of indie game celebrity and fortune, of “genius” puzzle designer, of someone who has openly talked shit on issues such as online feminism, of someone who has made it known how unaware he is (or how little he cares) of the material realities of most who exist in the extremely class-stratified independent game development world, of someone who just spent seven years and multiple millions on a project and now says he's going to spend 20 years on his next one.

Indeed, Blow has contributed much to the destructive and highly classist notion in independent games that designers need to spend multiple years developing a game for it to reach its full potential. Corrypt, a smaller arty puzzle game that embarked on a similar design path to The Witness, received some attention in part thanks to Blow's endorsement on Twitter. But at the same time, he and other established designers pressured its creator to spend more time and change its unique visual style to make it more accessible so a wider audience might see it. This sentiment, echoed by Blow’s friend, Spy Party developer Chris Hecker, might be well-intentioned, but it is also part of a culture of immense pressure to conform to specific ideals in order to have a hope of attaining broader recognition.

Corrypt and Starseed Pilgrim, another abstract puzzle game endorsed by Blow, aren’t necessarily great PR for “indie games.” They’re far too idiosyncratic to ever be widely embraced by the more traditional game culture, but they don’t match the "film-lite," middlebrow, white-washed NPR image of indie games either. So many of these games exist in a weird limbo — not largely understood or supported by those on either end.

The tragedy is that these two games, and others like them, feel more self-contained and well-realized than many of the more widely celebrated games in the culture. They hint at the computer as a strange, distinct new organism — not something that should or really can be tamed. Their visual abstraction might be off-putting for newcomers, but this quickly turns into an advantage for effectively conveying their complex ideas. These discomfiting experiences give way to a depth that exists beyond what we have adequate words as a culture to speak about. As a result, they’re often far more new and exciting and relevant than many games that get a larger platform.

This brings us back to the strange irony of The Witness — that its creator seems to embody and materially benefit from the culture his game also ostensibly criticizes. It’s thrown me a bit for a loop, to be honest, and made me constantly doubt my own reading of the game. Maybe Blow only made this point against techno-utopian escapism subconsciously, without being aware of all the potential readings or implications that might stem from it. Or maybe the “secret” ending isn’t the real ending but merely a bad consequence that exists in an alternate universe, separate from the game’s normal escapist narrative.

In any case, because of the cloud around it, The Witness cannot cut nearly as deep as it maybe should’ve — if it even hoped to cut deep at all. Meanwhile, Blow and “indie game” celebrities like him will still benefit materially from the positive press that polished middlebrow games like his receive, while games just as artistically adventurous but less commercially palatable, from developers with less resources, will continue to be ignored both inside and outside video-game culture. I can't take any of The Witness's possible points about how technology is used as a tool of bourgeois escapism to heart without tremendous reservations for all the deeply naive, self-effacing, and dangerous contradictions they embody.