Witness

This post has spoilers in it. I’m putting all the important stuff under a fold, but the internet is imperfect and I know I run plugins in my browser that can screw heavily with presentation; I can’t guarantee you won’t hit something you don’t want to know. No puzzle details will be revealed — I won’t tell you have to solve anything — but I do intend to talk quite a lot about what I found behind those puzzles. This has been your warning.

I’ve been playing a lot of The Witness with Keet lately. I’m not done with it yet, but I’m far enough along to have found what I think are the bulk of the Big Reveals; more on those behind the cut. It’s a gorgeous game, absolutely fantastic in terms of visual style. From the first moment of gameplay, The Witness grabs hold with its visuals, and they carry you.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the game mechanic through which one interacts with the game world in the Witness is drawing lines. This is a given in the gameplay trailer on the site. And yet, it’s wholly inadequate. Every conceivable way in which this idea could be explored, is. Progressing through the game adds constraints to what lines can be drawn where, and those rules get more complicated the further into the game one progresses. Some lines open up new areas; others seem to be present just to test knowledge of the rules. Eventually, if you draw enough lines in enough places, the game offers up rewards.

There is no “saving;” the game tracks progress near-religiously. Quitting and reloading — with a few very minor exceptions — automatically restores progress to the save point. There’s no death, either from falling or from failing to draw the right lines. There’s no permanent lockout, no real “score” beyond the number of puzzles. There’s no real way to lose. Finding the right path forward isn’t always easy, but it is always possible to find something to do.

Does this sound vague? It does to me too. I wish I could tell you out here more than this, because what I really want to discuss is what’s going in the spoilers section below, and yet before I get into the rich and loamy soil of the game, I at least want to review what sits at the surface.

The last thing I want to say about the Witness, before I dive into the depths, is that for all that I find the game gorgeous, it’s left me ultimately unsatisfied. However, the reason for that, I think, ultimately comes from my own head. I can’t say that this is a bad game; this is a brilliant game… for somebody else. The puzzles are fantastic, and I loved them, but… the game has really alienated me in some very phenomenal ways.

What is The Witness about?
As far as I can tell, The Witness appears to be a game about mindfulness. the entire thesis of the game appears to be “stop and look at what is.” Most of the puzzles in the main thread of the game are obvious; they take place on bordered screens and have wires coming into or out of them, showing where the next puzzle in a series is. There are no instructions, per se. Instead, almost every set of puzzles starts with a few trivial versions of the puzzles. In any given area, the puzzles always start easy and then work their way towards greater difficulty the further into an area one goes. None of the rules I mentioned before are particularly hard individually, but as puzzles layer them up, they take on a language of their own. Some rules interact with each other in ways that can always be understood but must be absorbed intimately. A lot of the puzzles have an a-ha component to them. They can’t be solved one rule at a time; they require stepping back and contemplating holistically in order to progress.

Adding to this, some puzzles are hidden in the landscape itself. Puzzles literally surround you at almost every side. They permeate the island to its very core. I promised I won’t give any hints on how to solve any of the puzzles in the area, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler of any kind to say that all around the island on which the Witness takes place, there are places to draw lines that require being in a very specific spot and looking in a specific direction to bring a puzzle into focus. Even just finding all of the puzzles requires being open to what’s right underfoot, every moment. It requires not thinking of the island as a series of puzzles to be navigated, but an experience waiting for discovery.

Hidden across the island are recorders, snippets of audio recorded by a small team of vocal talent, encapsulating the wisdom of ancient scholars, Zen masters, and Indian poets. Through every sample runs a familiar theme: what is right before us is impossible to see. Expectations and anticipation blind us to experience. Stop looking for answers and experience the ever-present now. Eventually, if you solve enough puzzles of sufficient difficulty, a sextet of puzzles will be revealed, which when solved provide video footage, all on the same theme. Slow down, open your eyes, and see.

Where's the problem?
For me, the problem with this as a theme started when I solved the first of the sextet, and the video footage revealed was one I already knew from another context. Perfectly reasonable though it might’ve been, Jonathan Blow used a clip from Connections, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite series. In the clip in question, James Burke is talking about why science and culture always seem at odds, and he proposes that it’s because it’s much easier to engage emotionally with culture than with science. Science has no reason; it simply is, and that’s not good enough for a lot of people who need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It’s important to try to engage with the science, he says, because it’s what causes change, but it can’t tell us what changes to make or why we should want to make them.

In the moment I watched this clip, I felt as though Jonathan Blow, with his focus on mindfulness and all the other statements about seeing the world as it is, not as we think it should be or wish it were, was taking Uncle James out of context. In that moment, a bit of the magic faded for me, because suddenly what had been very profound felt just a little pretentious.

Shortly after finding that video clip, Keet and I started making real progress — on both the environmental and what I can only call the panel puzzles — but soon we ran into our first major divide. Based on some early exploring we had done, we found a box on top of a mountain that had seven locks on it, and when we did enough of the panel puzzles in an area, we activated a laser that fired a beam and opened one of the locks. A-ha! A goal. And surrounding this box, stone statues of people: someone with a camera, someone giving a speech, two people arguing. It was a sign of past life. It was a hint of narrative in the game, and it was something on which I latched like a life raft in front of somebody who hadn’t realized she was drowning. Something, clearly, had happened here, and if we kept solving panel puzzles, we’d fire up enough lasers to open the locks and we’d get to find out what happened to all those people!

Except… we didn’t. I dragged poor Keet through the panels with dizzying speed, occasionally thrusting the controller into her paws when I was stuck on some specific thing and then practically wrenching it back from her. I had had a taste of story in all this puzzle, and by the Great Work I was ready for the payoff! And there isn’t one. We made it through the mountain, all the way down to what we lovingly dubbed the Wonkavator, without any actual sign of “what happened.” Just more puzzles. More and more puzzles. I knew when I got to the Wonkavator that there were some puzzles I hadn’t found yet, but I had explored every path of which I was aware. So, thinking I would at least unlock whatever new area lay beyond the mountain, I got into the Wonkavator and turned it on. And… I watched in abject gut-clenching horror as the game undid all my work, unsolving all my puzzles and dropping me back in the opening room with a poem about a dream.

I was outraged. I dare say I was actually offended. And yet, truth be told, nobody had lied to me. Jonathan Blow had very clearly said to look only at what was, not at what I wanted. My readings of story into what I had seen were my imagination and my desires, not anything actually in the game. It was my expectations that created my upset, not some actual promise of story that the game failed to deliver. The game did exactly what it said it would. It was precisely what it said it was: a lesson in mindfulness.

I had to leave at that point, to go to my bi-weekly Shadowrun game over at the Eyrie, but I couldn’t get what had happened out of my head. I’m almost grateful that I didn’t have much of a role to play that night, because I was too angry with The Witness to concentrate. And, with some small shame, I fully admit I spoiled myself. I think I actually searched for “witness what the fuck wonkavator” and that somehow got me to a page telling me that there was another ending available for finding all the lasers and getting access to a final area, as well as keys to finding them. So when I got home, I checked… and I had them all. I had spoiled myself on a huge piece of data that turned out to be useless to me.

For a night, I actually thought this would kill my participation in Keet’s playthrough. I couldn’t play with her on the grounds that I had data from an outside source. I wasn’t going to restart the game from scratch on my own and try to play up to that point. I really didn’t know how to proceed, and this tied me up in some serious emotional knots. I talked it over with a few people over a weekend, and I managed to calm myself down and Keet and I resumed playing, but I had to at least walk her to the data I had, see if she could find it, and talk with her about it at some length before she agreed she wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t told her, so we could proceed on equal footing.

Now, this is where I have to make another curious admission. I don’t play first person games. Like, ever. I find them disorienting for the most part; I don’t enjoy the sense of not knowing where my feet are, and I simply don’t enjoy not being able to see my own character. I know as Oculus games become a thing, this is going to be an issue, but up until now I’ve survived it. This also means I’m a bit weird with the camera controls, something that Keet has occasionally noted when we play. But the controller was in my paws, which meant that we walked right past what we needed to get to the panel puzzles we missed. Twice. When I realized it, I had another round of feeling like a poop sundae.

Here's the problem. (SERIOUS SPOILERS)
Opening that section revealed a new suite of puzzles, including a batch of puzzles labelled only as “the challenge.” It’s a timed section incorporating almost every one of the previous game elements in a single five-minute run. Fail to make it completely through, and the entire section has to be reset. And unlike everywhere else, the puzzles in this section are random, virtually walkthrough-proof. The concepts can be explained, but the individual puzzles have to be solved by understanding, not merely knowing, the rules that have been taught to this point. There’s no time to figure them out here.

One of my friends took a couple of days to beat this. Another has been working for a while and still hasn’t. I took about three-dozen tries and made it through. And solving that batch of puzzles — beating the challenge — is when the whole of the game sank home for me.

I’m autistic. Not only that, but I have an absolute fascination with storytelling and narrative. It’s in my bones, in my soul. Part of what got me in such emotional hell with this game in the first place was the sense that the game had this massive narrative potential and it squandered it. I had gotten so much built up in my own head about what would be revealed as the reason for the statues and the puzzles… and there isn’t one. Instead, there’s additional recorders, these having not only poetry about mindfulness but also debates between the vocal talent about their experiences when on the island and wanting everything to be perfect. It’s all for the project, they say. The project has helped them be more creative and think more clearly. The game spoils itself, revealing that whatever story will exist is not about the island and what happened there, but about the developers and what they hope to gain for building the island frozen in time with these puzzles encoded within it.

Then we found the key to the super secret ending, and we watched it, and… there isn’t even an explanation offered there. There’s a full-motion video of somebody waking up out of a computer simulation, stumbling around restoring feeling to his legs, and ultimately eating a cookie and wondering why the outside world doesn’t react to being poked and prodded like the game world did.

For all that I love puzzles, I’m not this game’s target audience. At once, the game hammers players over and over with lessons of paying attention and sidestepping expectations: puzzles hidden in the environment, passageways that can’t be reached but which obviously and demand further exploration, and clues everywhere to what puzzles exist and where that have to be interpreted in their own language. And yet, because I caught whiff of the possibility of narrative, I threw every scrap of mindfulness out the window, chasing down what mattered to me: the plot of the game. And the further I got into the game, the more the game chided me for believing in something so silly as a plot.

There is no plot, at least not one that I can discern. There’s no plot to the island; it was created as-is by a group of people for the purpose of exploring it in hopes of expanding their consciousness. It’s like playing the Witness, a game created by a group of people for the purpose of exploring it in hopes of expanding the player’s consciousness. It’s so meta even the acronym. It’s, like, five or six layers of irony deep. But as far as story goes, if there is one, I didn’t find it. And that’s what I really wanted, when I started asking “where did these puzzles come from and what’s going on atop the mountain?”

The game doesn’t answer those questions. Or it does, sort of, but the answers are “we put them there when we built everything else, and nothing because it’s a static composition and always was.” It’s like I’m asking for narrative from a still picture. Anything beyond “what I can see in the image” is speculation. The picture can’t tell me; it’s frozen in time. What I want out of a game, the Witness can’t give. Worse, it actively denies me, first telling me it won’t and then refusing to do so anyway. In that, it’s remarkably gifted, but ultimately frustrating.

And finally, to cap it all, finding out that I had slammed through the challenge with lightning speed compared to my friends just drove home the sense that my focus in all of this has been skewed by my biology. That my fixation on the panel puzzles to the almost-complete exclusion of the environmental ones — having written them off at one point as bonus points not relevant to the plot — was abnormal for most players. One friend chided me at one point for playing Witness like a puzzle hunt, not an exploration game. Even though they apologized afterwards, the criticism still stung, because I had been, because that was what I wanted to explore. I wanted to see where those puzzles led, because I was looking for answers. Answers that, ultimately, just weren’t there.

I actually broke down crying over it yesterday. It felt like the QED being written on the proof that I was Not Like Other People. It gives me hellish advantages in some spaces, but ultimately blinded me to the beauty of an experience because it dragged me emotionally in search of an esoteric satisfaction that didn’t exist, even after I had every shred of evidence telling me that it wouldn’t fulfill my desires.

Actually, in discussing this all with Keet, she suggested I could explain all of the above, much more succinctly, by pointing to a true Zen master.

The Witness might have been fun, but even as I found the puzzles themselves amazing and the gameplay wonderful, I found the game itself deeply unsatisfying. I can’t fault the game, however, because I was looking for something that the game not only doesn’t offer but says it doesn’t, and it was my fault for looking. In short, I have some serious problems with the Witness, but I think the real problem I had with the Witness is… me.

Sometimes, for a moment of bliss
And the passion, we’re craving
There’s a message we miss