In his review of The Witness (2016) for Killscreen, Dan Solberg proposes that the game “does away with the façade that it’s anything but a designed space.” His argument, condensed, is that The Witness does not propose to be anything but an elaborate puzzle strung together by various geographic structures and environments, but never with the pretense that the island upon which the game is set is anything but artificial. It is the antithesis to an era of games striving towards some conception of realism, whether visually, thematically, or through an attention to detail.
It is a compelling idea as it positions The Witness’s lifeless atmosphere as something deliberate—a meta-commentary on how games are always designed and artificial. But this reading also seems to ignore the larger history of puzzle games The Witness builds upon, where the particulars of a game’s world are often unimportant or absent altogether in favor of pure logic puzzles.
Nobody cares if tetrominos have external lives, but merely that they continue to fall into place. Games like Myst and Professor Layton attempt to integrate puzzles more organically into their worlds, but even in these instances there is a clear binary between the puzzle world and our own, with the game being the interface between the two.
This is all to say that The Witness is only as explicitly “designed” as the games which came before it. Its island exists in service to its puzzles, but it also does not pretend to be entirely without thematic significant (on the contrary, its audio-diaries desperately attempt to ascribe unwarranted philosophical grandeur to your actions). Perhaps it is not that The Witness is honest about being designed, but that we notice it more due to how little it cares about being alive.
Writing for IGN, Chloi Rad describes her time wandering within The Witness as “compelling minute to minute.” She speaks of her evolving obsession with the games puzzles as if it is a phenomenon through which a larger purpose may be extrapolated. I do not want to take anything away from Rad’s experience. I do not doubt that she found the game compelling and her time meaningful.
But I do want to comment on those two particular ways she describes The Witness, as inspiring obsession and a sense of purpose. The Witness is designed in such a way as to appeal to some of the unhealthiest habits of a certain kind of player. Its emphasis on perspective, minute detail, and deliberate motion causes it to often feel closer to a science project or recipe than a puzzle game.
Though there are many puzzles solvable through an understanding of their internal rules, far more involve some manipulation of your own perspective to glimpse the solution within the environment. These manifest as a series of steps to the left, to the right, head down slightly, walk forward, adjust your color settings. It is a level of non-verbal instruction that is both agonizing and addictive. The puzzles are so purposeful that even the frustration of solving them is partially overshadowed by the excitement of proving yourself smart enough to have done so.
As I made my way through The Witness, I remarked to my girlfriend that I didn’t know why I was still playing. I wasn’t enjoying it, not as a game, anyway. And I wasn’t compelled by the central mystery of the island or any of the nonsensical monologue audio-diaries. I had no explanation other than some part of me felt I needed to solve it. To prove to myself I was capable. To turn on every laser just for the hell of doing so, knowing full well there was nothing but more puzzles as reward.
Not everyone is going to be psychologically tortured by The Witness the way I was, but I feel confident enough that it compels players forward by exploiting perfectionist tendencies to say that, at least for me, it was an unhealthy relationship I was unable to breakup with. I was obsessed, but I was not in love.
“That’s part of what makes the puzzles compelling, that the idea goes into your head a little bit. So what are the ideas? Are they anything? Not really.” In this except from a 2016 interview with Time, The Witness creator Jonathan Blow gets at one of the game’s fundamental tensions. It is a game desperate to find meaning in itself, but at the same time disinterested in any humanist reading. It wants to be about capital-T Things—physics, theories, and “the truth of the world.”
This explains the existence of the audio-diaries littered around the island, which on their own feel like obtuse mini-lectures, but in context with the larger philosophy of The Witness propose a thesis of what the game is trying to say.
Firstly, that everything is connected, and though the world may seem random it is ultimately deliberately designed. And secondly, that to concern ourselves with the mundanely human—emotions, religion, other people—we become misguided. As Julie Muncy wrote for Wired, The Witness “revels in the idea of knowledge, fascinated by how it's earned and what it signifies.”
My interpretation of The Witness as a text is that it fits into a line of atheist philosophy which prioritizes science and logic above all else. It does not contain meaning so much as the logic to solve its many puzzles, wherein the reward is the solving itself, just as the reward of science should be the act of discovery not the discovery itself. It is less concerned with the problems of individual people, of what the truth of the world might look like to those without the privilege to divorce themselves from society.
As I wander across The Witness’s island encountering people frozen in place, I cannot help but feel uneasy at how detached the game has become from these actors. They are human sculptures illustrating the frailties of human ambition, greed, and mortality, but we must not pity them. They are us, but surely we know better.
The comment that has resonated most with me throughout my time with The Witness comes from Dennis Scimeca’s review for The Daily Dot: “I’m not upset about how inaccessible so much of The Witness felt for me. I feel sad, because I think The Witness is an experience a lot of people are going to enjoy figuring out…” This line stood out to me, as it seemed to finally put into perspective what it was that was driving me to keep playing despite being at once angry, tired, bored, and confused with only minimal relief coming in the form of a puzzle solved.
Part of me felt I should enjoy The Witness, that solving it would be its own reward, or that I could not truly say I disliked it until I had unraveled it thoroughly. These are all ridiculous justifications for playing a game I knew early on I disliked. It is such a strong compulsion within the videogame community to compel yourself forward with critically acclaimed games that even your own opinion stops mattering as much for whether you play a game or not. It isn’t about what you think, or what other people think, it’s what you think other people will think. And in this case there is the impulse to believe others will enjoy solving these puzzles, because they are complex and complexity is king.
Only, most people don’t like feeling unsmart. Every time I activated a laser and saw the rare achievement marker pop up on my Xbox, I wondered if I was smarter than most players, or just more stubborn. Because The Witness doesn’t artificially gate most of its areas, these achievement percentages are actually fairly illustrative of player interest.
According to my achievement list, less than 6% of players activated any given laser, and even fewer made it to the end. I’ll confess that when I entered the mountain at the center of the island and stared down the cascading puzzles which led to its core, I decided I had had enough. Whatever was down there, it wasn’t going to justify the hours I had trudged across the island trying to convince myself there was something here I was missing.
I think that’s ultimately what The Witness is about. That pure logic does not produce meaning, at least none that will satisfy human needs. It’s machine logic, and it doesn’t care about how you feel.