The Witness: A Lesson in Doubt and Discovery

Video games have taught me many things. Game mechanics and strategies, timing and reflex training, entirely new vocabularies. But the knowledge gained from a single game is almost always self-serving. Tutorials teach us how THIS game is played, how it is set apart from that one. Any knowledge that is transferable to other games, or by analogy into “real life”, is tangential. The fighting game Tekken, for example, taught me the importance of managing opponent distance and combo chaining so that I could become better at Tekken. The fact that this knowledge helped me wreck several of my youth students recently in Injustice (a different fighting game with different mechanics) was never an intentional goal for the makers of Tekken. The Witness, the recently released game by Braid creator Jonathan Blow, is a different kind of game. While it indeed does an incredible job teaching its own rules and mechanics, it seems much more interested in exploring ideas outside of itself, ideas much closer to the player.

The game is a hard one to describe, because to do so clearly is to take away from the beauty of experiencing it for yourself (yes, that sounds cliché and indie, but… it’s also the true. So there). Put simply, The Witness is a puzzle game. You are the sole inhabitant of an island, separated into several different environments. Throughout these environments are panels, on which are maze puzzles. Lots of them. The way the game expands and builds on this one, simple concept is incredible, and in doing so, the magic of The Witness shines.

The Witness often plays with perspective. Here, two far apart statues appear to be interacting with each other when viewed from a specific angle.
The Witness constantly encourages you to seek new perspectives.

The more you know…

The game does not dictate anything to you; it leaves everything up to your deduction. And “everything” is quite a lot for a game about maze puzzles. The mazes get more complex and introduce augmentations to how they are completed, far beyond getting from point A to B. Multiple starting and end points, the implementation of various symbols within the puzzle that add new rules, and many things I won’t give away, are all used in conjunction with each other throughout over 700 puzzles in the game. The variety of the puzzles is extraordinary, and it doesn’t take too long to realize that all of the puzzles, and the island itself, are somehow connected.

The different environments are open to explore freely and in whichever order you choose, many of the puzzles directly accessible to you within a few minutes of beginning the game. But merely accessing a puzzle does you no good unless you understand the rules at play for that puzzle. You will quickly come across puzzles that seem impossible to you. But whereas in other games this would indicate that you need to find a key, hit a switch, or somehow alter the state of the world to solve it, in The Witness, the ONLY thing you ever lack is knowledge. If you can reach a puzzle, it CAN be solved, if you just know how to read the information being presented. Sometimes, the knowledge you lack lies just a bit further ahead (or behind), other times it may be hiding in a corner of the island you won’t discover for another 15 hours. But the knowledge is always there.

In The Witness, knowledge isn’t just power; it’s your currency, your inventory, your skill tree, and your life bar. It is everything. As I played through the game, I soon realized that the obstacle most often blocking my progress was not anything found in the game – it was myself. I had to explore my head as much as the island. It was one thing to find the answer, but another to recognize that what I’d found was the answer, and yet another to use that answer well.

Two Example of the varying complexity of puzzles in The Witness. One very straightforward, the other relying on lessons the game teaches over time.
Left: One of the game’s earliest puzzles. Right: Something a bit more involved.

Though any puzzle type may be found in any area of the game, each environment generally has one focus, introducing a rule to you using simpler puzzles, before expanding the concept and preparing you to use it in conjunction with other rules. I got caught many times making assumptions about the nature of some of the puzzle rules that ended up being terribly inaccurate. I would solve several of the introductory mazes, and through those believe that I had worked out the concept to move forward, only to be confronted with a puzzle that didn’t follow the logic that had previously worked. Initially I was annoyed, because I figured that I had stumbled into an unexpected solution that the game hadn’t accounted for, and rather than allow me to pass, it was punishing me for not solving it “its way.” In the context of most video games, this is an inevitable reality. In the case of The Witness, this is pure hubris.

I hadn’t outsmarted anything. I’d rushed ahead, failing to fully understand the concept being presented to me. I thought I understood, because my reasoning had proven correct up to that point. When I encountered a situation that contradicted my rules, my reaction was to suspect The Witness, not myself. But invariably, my halt was due to something I had missed or misunderstood. It was only by more deeply assessing things, sussing out some subtlety to the symbols I hadn’t noticed, or the environmental context I had dismissed, that I saw what I had thought was THIS way was actually THAT way. The puzzle that had stumped me had been perfectly solvable and in line with the concept. I had thought myself wise and been made a fool. The Witness had waited patiently for me to piece together what had been there all along. As the game consistently outsmarted me, in increasingly surprising and clever ways, it spoke to me about something games rarely get me thinking about: trust.

Questioning the witness

Games weigh in on many topics, but trust is rarely among them. Mechanically, games are inherently untrustworthy – they always break. I expect to outsmart a game at some point in playing it. The Witness taught me that it could be trusted. Every time I doubted it, it proved that its reasoning was sound; it did so not by mocking me, but by leading me out of my own faulty thinking. It demanded that I question everything — the puzzle’s language, its context and relation to other puzzles, the environment, and especially my own logic — but as an expectation of breakthrough, not a suspicion of deceit or fault. The Witness was smarter than me, but it longed to share its knowledge.

In the cynical time we live in, this was nothing short of astounding to me. My generation, by nature or nurture or both, is quick to suspect anything that doesn’t sprout directly from our own brainstems, while trusting anything that does as gospel fact. We throw our entire being behind our opinions, not based on their performance under scrutiny, but simply because they are ours. We are constantly questioning everything BUT ourselves. I’ve spent two decades defending my biases, my isolated  experiences, my selfish-by-nature attitude, and building around me a world that reflects myself back at me. Whenever something squeezes through the gaps in my world and contradicts it, I don’t question it – I interrogate it. I dismantle it so that it no longer threatens my own self-image.

Yes as I grow older (and at 25, I have plenty left to do) I’m realizing that most often, the thing in my life in need of questioning and refining is myself. Cultivating a world that only confirms to what I think and believe is not just inherently flawed, it’s also very small. I want to live in a big world, and I can only do that by putting trust in it, and admitting that it’s bigger than me. That by engaging it, I might have to give up some things I’ve held dear. That I’m going to be corrected. That something as apparently basic as a bunch of line mazes can stop me in my tracks and genuinely teach me something about myself in the process.

If we only doubt what we don’t already accept out of the need to prove our perspective, we must do so by making enemies with the world and others. If we instead question ourselves and the world around us, not to force it into the contours of our assumptions, but to more fully understand it and to be transformed through the understanding, every obstacle becomes an opportunity. Every challenge becomes an invitation. And every day is a chance to make our world a little bigger.