the witness 4/4

I’ve been wandering around The Witness in completionist mode. There are environmental puzzles, where you look for specific pattern in the world around you: a connected circle, line, then semicircle. You mark them with the mouse, and gain an icon on a pillar. That’s it.

It’s rather like using your finger to follow a shape in the sky—the kind of thing I used to do when I was small and squeaky. To be honest, for me now, it has an edge of insanity. In consequence, there’s a mildly fearful delight in committing what might seem as, were anyone witnessing me in this virtual room, as dumb preparation for simplistic graffiti.

As I wander around this witness space, I find, like many games, there are many small corners of unexpected surprises. The Witness is full of them. For example, below, a kitsch statue of a small dog, the kind of thing that your embarrassing aunt might buy and display. There’s shadow play complete with gated background—such Freudian symbolism is the nearest you’ll get to porn here. Other vignettes abound—it’s really quite delightful. If you look in odd places, or look at angles, you may well spot something: it’s worth doing. These touches seem quite dense, in population terms, I think because the playspace of The Witness—the island—is actually rather small.

Apart from the architecture, the dominant visual art in this sculpted world, is sculpture, specifically statues of people. This faux Sark abounds with them. They’ve common in The Keep, The Town, and on The Mountain—three sections of the game—but they’ve everywhere. Whether they’re inspired by real world artistry or created afresh by the game designers, I don’t know, my knowledge of sculpture is too poor. Artistically, my one criticism is that they’re all of one style, a realist style, so one’s eyes become visually numb to them after a while, which is a pity.

What’s interesting, though, is that they cover most human emotion. (Most? I’ve not seen outright lust, but perhaps I’ve just not found that statue.) These statues are the only place you’ll find conflict in The Witness, normally a mainstay of a video game. The statues’ frequency and expressiveness makes me strongly suspect that they’re significant for the game’s backstory, something I’ve not discovered—unless it really is the game’s zen mythology.

And, talking about zen, one of its characteristics, indeed a characteristic of many religions, is contemplation. This witness world is built to provide the kind of peaceful place necessary for contemplation, as much as a virtual world can, but unfortunately essentials are missing. Apart from those enstatued, there are no animals nor mythical beasties in the game, so there’s not just no conflict, there’s not even natural predator prey conflict. The only things moving are you, your shadow, and one piece of transport, the boat. Contemplation in among the wild, beyond cities, inside cities beyond safe houses, for me at least, brings connection between self and existence, self and life, self and the stark nastiness of the Earth’s ecology—that predator prey cycle of death that gives rise to each and every one of us. That’s utterly missing in this game. I do feel that The Witness was built, partially, to give a virtual space for contemplation (perhaps I’m utterly misreading it), and, whether or not it was, it certainly has the potential for beautiful quiet. It’s not the same peace as a church, but it’s a peace available on your computer any time you care to run the game. My concern is that the absence of the creative nastiness of biological reality risks leading to an anodyne space.

Ach, I don’t know, I’m more likely reading far too much into what’s presented.

Anyway, for me, this game is not on the same plane as a favourite novel, but it is most certainly a place to revisit.

UPDATE: drat Intel! I’d almost got to the very end, I had one environmental puzzle, with a known solution, and the challenge—a series of timed, difficult, main game puzzles—to complete, and I’d have finished all the puzzles in the game. Instead, Intel updated some drivers in my (Intel) PC, and broke the machine so badly I had to reinstall Windows from scratch. Everything was lost. Ah well: I might well play the game again, but I don’t think I’ll revisit my challenge to myself to finish it completely—I still have other Christmas sales games to explore.