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The Witness is an argument. It uses game design, audio, and video to present its case about our relation to the search for truth.
Developer Thekla and designer Jonathan Blow’s puzzle game is a challenging adventure where you draw lines, listen to orations, and watch YouTube clips. It sounds simple, but as you go through that journey, The Witness uses these elements to make claims about the human experience while also providing evidence for those claims.
Put simply, The Witness is about exploration and the human need to reach out and understand the unknown.
But here is the progression of its thesis (because it’s not static) broken down into broad bullet points:
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- You have the capability to seek the truth.
- It’s noble to seek the truth.
- Interpreting the truth through common experience is important to understanding it.
- Truth isn’t a puzzle.
- You’ll never reach the truth.
- Stop seeking the truth.
The Witness claims that the search for truth is the story of humanity. Individually, we witness existence moment to moment, and then we collectively combine those experiences over eons to empower the next generation of explorers to witness something new as a representative of our species.
That’s a big case to make, and it all starts with you playing a game.
You have the capability to seek the truth
Playing The Witness in the context of its wider argument is about the importance of games throughout history to both people and animals.
In The Witness, you encounter confusing puzzles with esoteric rules. When you first try to solve these, they can appear daunting to the point of impossibility. Or you might assume that you’re not smart enough to figure these things out. But over time, you slowly begin building up a mental vocabulary that enables you to decode and conquer these mazes until you reach a level of fluency with the game’s world.
In this way, The Witness is no different from the games of other species. A lion cub plays with its siblings to help it get comfortable with moving and leaping. This is preparation for a life of hunting and fighting off competitors. Studies have also shown that rats (and some primates) play games to fine-tune their fight-or-flight responses.
The Witness is a way to help you fine-tune your fight-or-flight response in the face of challenging cerebral problems. If you battle through Blow’s puzzles, you may end up feeling more capable of taking the more complex ideas of the real world.
And having confidence in your capability to understand and solve problems is something The Witness reiterates in one of the first videos you play in the theater room hidden beneath the windmill.
The video is from the 1978 BBC science program Connections. It is from the final episode of the original series. Presenter James Burke sums up the core argument of his show, which is that understanding how the world works is how you have a say in its future.
Burke claims that the scientists and technologists who understand the fundamentals of nature are the “true driving force of humanity.” And he maintains that you can have that power, too. You don’t have to wait for someone to come around and give it to you. Instead, you have the capability to start asking questions and making discoveries for yourself.
And the fact that you’ve beaten The Witness is proof of your capabilities.
It doesn’t matter if you asked for help while playing the game. It isn’t a failing that you needed to ask someone to explain something to you slowly and clearly. All that matters is that you understood it in the end, and you were able to act on that understanding. You’re intelligent and capable and all of human knowledge belongs to you.
Burke goes a bit further and says that you don’t need to settle for second- or third-hand interpretations of the truth. To illustrate his point, he compares a slide of amino acids to a classical painting. He says that the amino acids are more difficult for people to understand than art and poetry because scientific knowledge removes opinion and ideology.
That might seem dismissive of the humanities, but Burke never says that art doesn’t matter. He only says that it isn’t truth — instead, it’s an interpretation of the truth by someone else.
Regardless of Burke’s feelings on softer pursuits, I don’t think The Witness is in any way criticizing the study of why people express themselves through art and culture. You can try to claim that Burke is saying that, but then you are only arguing against an old British television host and not The Witness.
The more important part of what Burke is saying is that you should have confidence in yourself to affect change. This is putting to words the experience of playing The Witness, and it is meant to link that to your experience of interacting with the rest of the world.
It’s noble to seek the truth
The Witness doesn’t just tell you that you have the ability to search for answers. It also repeatedly conveys that as something important and worth celebrating.
You get most of that motivation through the audio logs scattered throughout the world. These are excerpts of writings from famous people like Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, English astronomer Arthur Eddington, and theologian Augustine of Hippo. In all, The Witness has quotes from around 40 people, and while they have different motivations (science, god, philosophy), they all have one thing in common: they are searchers. Even Nicholas of Cusa, a Catholic scholar, speaks eloquently on his uncertainty and the importance of the hunt for truth.
If The Witness kicks off its conversation with Burke telling you that you are smart enough to look for answers, the audio logs are telling you that you should use that intelligence.
But the game doesn’t just shove a bunch of quotes at you to say “here’s smart people — you should be like them.” It argues that these pursuits are important because you are part of something bigger.
The candle scene, which is the third video in the screening room in The Witness, is from the 1983 Russo-Italian coproduction Nostalghia by director Andrei Tarkovsky. It is about a Russian poet longing for home while researching a composer in Italy. This particular scene is Tarkovsky’s attempt to portray an entire human life in one shot.
It is nine minutes of uninterrupted filming where Andrei Gorchakov, the protagonist, lights a candle, carries it across an empty pool, and sets it on a ledge before dying.
“Remember the candles in Orthodox churches, how they flicker. The very essence of things, the spirit, the spirit of fire.” –Andrei Tarkovsky
This scene conveys how life carries on from one person to the next. In Nostalghia, Andrei meets a mad man who hates the world but believes he can cure it if he can only carry a lit candle across his town’s mineral pool. The mad man never succeeds and eventually kills himself after leaving town and giving a speech asking people to grow kinder. But before he does that, he asks Andrei to complete his candle mission. Luckily for the poet, he finds that the town has drained the mineral pool.
In terms of The Witness, we’re seeing a scene where someone is trying to complete a seemingly meaningless task. He’s doing this because he believes it’s important, and he only thinks that because his dead friend convinced him it is worth seeing through.
It’s about one life building on top of another to accomplish a common goal. In that way, multiple generations of humans — all destined to have their flames flicker and go out — can have the spirit of their ideas outlive them.
The Witness reflects that by having you build ideas one on top of another until you’re equipped to defeat its challenges.
Thekla’s artists reference this idea using statues. The most notable example of this is one woman reaching down to pull up another (as long as you are looking from the right spot on the map).
This visual trick has a woman up on a perch pulling another out of the ground. This is an important visual metaphor where the mountain represents the huddling mass of life. This is why the peak has statues of exhausted designers and craftsmen building their masterpieces on the summit of human accomplishments. It is also why the mountain leads to the finale.
The mountain reaches into the sky like humanity, but only if we reach higher if we look back and pull up the ideas that we identify as valuable and worth saving. At the top of the mountain we see the opposite happening where a woman is shouting at a man clutching a book. She is backing him off a cliff. This is because his ideas are something we don’t want any more, and he doesn’t get to stand on the summit with us any longer.
All this pushing and pulling happens because humanity and all life is a single entity, and an audio log on the mountain’s peak explains that clearly.
The excerpt is from Apollo astronaut Russell “Rusty” Schweickart. In it, he talks about how space travel changed him.
During his time with NASA, Schweickart has landed on the moon and performed extravehicular activities (EVAs) while orbiting the Earth. He’s seen our planet as a tiny blue marble surrounded in every direction by cold blackness. From where he stood, he could cover this world with his thumb. And all of that gave him a perspective about life and his place in it.
This led to him to wonder what he did to deserve that perspective, but he realized that it has nothing to do with him — and that was the most profound revelation:
“It’s not a special thing for you,” he said. “You know very well at that moment — and it comes through to you so powerfully — that you’re the sensing element for man. You look down and see the surface of that globe that you’ve lived on all this time, and you know all those people down there — they are like you. They are you. And somehow you represent them when you are up there. A sensing element. [You are] that point out on the end, and that’s a humbling feeling. It’s a feeling that says you have a responsibility. It’s not for yourself.”
The astronaut explains that he keeps using the word “you” because it was all of us that did that. It wasn’t him. It was we.
Schweickart is essentially saying that he was merely a witness on behalf of the rest of us. He was the eye of the single organism called life. And all of us make up the various parts of life’s body. And we all contributed in the journey that took the first single-celled organisms out of the muck and onto the surface of another world.
We did that. And your flickering, burning spirit is contributing to it.
Interpreting the truth is important to understanding it
But life doesn’t only advance through scientific knowledge, like Burke suggested in his video. And The Witness brings in theoretical physicist and Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman to make that point.
In 1964, Feynman, who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb and investigated the Challenger shuttle disaster, gave a talk at Cornell University about the interconnecting hierarchies of life.
These hierarchies represent the ways we talk about the world. On the one end is scientific knowledge and fundamental principles. To the extreme side of the spectrum, you wouldn’t use words like “heat.” You’d say that “particles are jiggling in a rapid way and producing excess energy.” Because heat is a higher concept and not a way of describing what is happening at the most basic level.
The spectrum whips from those fundamental laws to abstract ideas like “hope” and “love” that have very little direct connection to the building blocks of reality. While one side is based on empirical data and the other is based on human experience and interpretation, Feynman says that we need both and everything in between to reach a more “ultimate” truth.
The Witness embraces this holistic approach. Making a game is about combining poetry and math, the humanities and the hard sciences, into an experience by humans for humans. You don’t do that if you think all that matters is scientific truth.
Truth isn’t a puzzle
The Witness is not The Da Vinci Code.
One of the most difficult videos to unlock is The Secret of Psalm 46. You can only find it by completing the final, random challenge room hidden inside the mountain. The clip is an hour-long talk from renowned Infocom and LucasArts designer Brian Moriarty from Game Developers Conference 2003, and it is about Easter eggs and digging for hidden secrets.
Moriarty details a history of Easter eggs in works of literature and classical paintings that goes back hundreds of years. He points out that humans are often wired to look for hidden things where they may not exist. This leads to quasi-numerologists “finding” hidden truths in the Bible, in the music of J.S. Bach, and in the works of William Shakespeare. Of course, no one can ever corroborate those discoveries.
People go on quests looking for codecs that will help them understand the “real” meaning of Shakespeare like they are heroes in the Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code. That’s a story where Leonardo da Vinci hides secrets about the Illuminati and the secrets of Jesus Christ in this paintings for future generations to uncover.
Moriarity points out that da Vinci, Bach, and Shakespeare are not crucial to Western civilization because they are burying messages in their creations for anyone with the right decoder. These people are important because they shaped the human understanding of art, music, and language.
Great games should do the same, which is why we probably won’t find out in 20 years that someone unlocked some new message inside of The Witness.
More important, this is a message that sometimes the search for truth can go wrong. It can lead you into bottomless pits that have no purpose.
This most often happens when you start with a belief or idea — like Shakespeare is really Sir Francis Bacon — and begin searching for patterns in the evidence to support that notion. The Witness doubles down on the perils of beginning a search with an answer or even a question in mind in a second clip from Feynman.
In 1981, the physicist gave an interview with BBC where he talked about why it’s important for people investigating the world to never predetermine what it is they’re trying to do. This leads him to criticize the “special stories” of religions, which are nearly always guilty or providing certain, single solutions for subjects that are impossible to prove.
As a counter to that way of approaching the world, Feynman suggests that you should assume that “everything is possibly wrong.” It’s easier to accept new experiences and new evidence if you are purely seeking instead of trying to match the world to your preconceived ideas.
You’ll never reach the truth but it’s still important to seek it
The Witness has a story. You might not believe that because it is easy to miss, but a narrative pops up in a handful of the audio logs.
In these clips we get to hear conversations between the voice cast: Ashley Johnson. Phil LaMarr. Matthew Waterson. Terra Deva. But they are not quoting anyone famous. Instead, they are playing the people who curated the audio for this island that actually exists in the reality of The Witness.
We hear them talk about visiting the island. They reference how it changed them and how it puts them in a “very susceptible state.” They also discuss lucid dreaming and memory suppression along with some sort of test.
Here are all six of the story clips:
Thanks to this Reddit post for helping me find these clips.
The plot is loose and leaves lots of room for you to fill in the gaps. It starts with LaMarr and Waterson arguing about whether or not to include some raw conversations. It then includes an example of that where Waterson embarrasses himself by asking Johnson if she wants a sandwich. Another audio log has the team discussing the difficulty of including atheists. And it ends with the actors talking about visiting the island and how it has changed them and has them thinking about things differently.
But the story and who these people are isn’t nearly as fascinating as what they say about their work. The most important thing here is the discussion about authenticity.
LaMarr is trying to convince Waterson about the benefits of including authentic conversations, and the reason he wants this is another important point about the game and about every clever person The Witness holds up as an example of intelligence.
“In context, [including our conversations is] perfect because we’re not lecturing from on high,” says LaMarr’s character. “These recordings are part of an endeavor built by human beings. They aspire to ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T.’ But we have to remember that they cannot actually get there. We should be clear to the intrepid that we know this.”
This is The Witness shouting in your face that it is not presenting any answers because everything in the game is about truth-seeking and contemplation. Even the most religious pieces of audio, from someone like Nicholas of Cusa, dwell on how humans know nothing and should always keep looking.
And many of us need to hear the game say that because otherwise we’d assume that the final solution to all these ideas is still buried somewhere within.
As a bonus, LaMarr’s point that this is “an endeavor built by human beings” and a clip where Johnson wants to try the Cusa quote for herself after visiting the island tie the plot into the central theme of The Witness. This a team of people working together to find the truth of their performance. They are also always learning from one another and building new skills, and this enables them to build something better.
Stop seeking the truth
Finally, the last major point of The Witness is that you should stop seeking the truth. I know this sounds like it is counter to everything that has come before, but it comes with a caveat: Stop seeking the truth if what you are looking for is peace, love, and happiness.
The fifth and six videos from the theater room touch heavily on this. The first of these is a man on a stool who talks about nonduality. This is Rupert Spira, a British potter and philosopher. His ideas of nonduality (which Hal Holbrook touches on in an the sixth season of The Sopranos) is that you are already complete. You are an entity that experiences consciousness and knowing, and that is enough to make you feel at peace. And your searching only comes in to serve the separate self that exists in a body that you perceive as having sensations and compulsions that need quenching.
This is an abstract way of saying you are already happy, and you don’t need external input for love.
The Witness builds on this idea in the second of these two videos, which features spiritual leader Gangaji talking about how to achieve peace.
She says that you can find out who you are by ending your chase for a career, romance, truth. Instead, let calmness and silence overtake you, and that will reveal to you that you have everything that makes you complete.
At this point, The Witness is discussing subjects that are well removed from the act of playing The Witness.
It’s possible that Blow is suggesting that you are discovering silence in the moments when your mind creates the solution to a puzzle in your head. Or when you step away from the game, and come back to find that you immediately have the answer to something that was stumping you for hours.
But it’s also possible that we are on the other end of a journey. We started with Burke telling us that we should ask questions and believe in our ability to get the answers. But he never said that would make us happy. And Spira and Gangaji are here to remind us that an outward search isn’t the key to feeling peace and love — to find those resources, you’ll need to stop and remember what is within.
I think it might be easy to take the message of Spira and Gangaji as an antithesis that undoes the rest of The Witness. Both of them suggest that you stop looking in order to feel love and peace. But love, peace, and happiness are not the only things that fulfill us as human beings. If they are, and Blow knows this, why even make a game?
Well, you make a game because you want to inspire people with awe.
Throughout the game people like Einstein, Feynman, and Nicholas of Cusa have repeatedly revealed why we look for truth even if it won’t make us happy. But developer Moriarty puts it best in his Psalm 46 video when he tells us that we dig into things like Shakespeare and Bach because their creativity is a revelatory experience that fills us with awe.
And this search is what drives us to the edge and convinces us that we need to go even further — even if that is sometimes dangerous and cruel.
It was awe that pushed Schweickart into space. It was our species’s collective desire for something awesome that led to the atomic bomb. It was our need to describe the awe-inspiring experience of human life that led to the West adopting Shakespeare as its spokesperson.
And as pretentious as it sounds, I think that Blow was going for that with The Witness. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it approaches that, but I think it’s worth applauding the ambition.
None of this means The Witness is above criticism. But I think it’s worth figuring out what something means so that I can figure out what is wrong with it. I do this to myself. I’ll do it with this game.
But I do think that playing this and breaking everything down has changed me. It helped me realize that I don’t need to immediately attack every idea before I let myself fully embrace it and understand it. I shouldn’t deflect everything. Instead, I can let all new notions in, and then — once they are a part of me — I can lop off what doesn’t work.
That’s exactly what the process of figuring out puzzles in The Witness is like. You let every idea occur to you and you shave away what doesn’t work until you are left with a solution.
Outside of games, we don’t have absolute “solutions” — but we can still use these skills to grow, to learn more, and to search farther. Just like we use the absolute rules of games like football and soccer to help us figure out an indefinite world.
And I don’t know if that revelation is something that fills me with awe, but I do know that I like it.
Oh, and I fully understand it if all this seems like horseshit to you because you are too busy paying bills and having fun with friends.
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