Traces to Nowhere


Please note this article could be seen to contain SPOILERS for The Witness. It does not contain specific details of puzzles or their solutions, and is more of a response to the broader conceptual underpinnings of the game. But, if you have not seen the secret ending to the game, you should probably read no further.

This is an idealized world. The rules are much simpler here.

Everything around me has been constructed immaculately. These panels were placed here with great intent. They bring joy, and yet remain indifferent even to my agony. As I step away from the glowing panel in my living room, I realize that I cannot see a complete picture by studying within its boundaries.

Much like an Escher painting, this game struggles to pull itself inside out. To deconstruct itself down to its constituent parts, laying its internal organs bare for my inspection. A strange loop, both inside and outside itself at the same time.

As I close my eyes at night, I dream of mazes.

Who built this place? What was the nature of his character? There are signs of him all throughout this island. I grasp blindly. As I am put through the paces of this labyrinth, I cannot help but imagine his face.

Perhaps he is a sculptor, a man obsessed with splendor, magnificence, as well as hidden meaning and metaphor. His creations often remain incomplete, perhaps abandoned, yet their innate beauty is undeniable. They are solid and fully formed, cut off from future possibility. They cannot be improved without risk of destroying them. They are designed not to be changed, but merely contemplated. They hint at motion, but are forever lifeless.

Perhaps this creator is an artist. A visionary viewing the world through her own singular viewpoint, appreciating the utter aesthetic beauty of it all, and eager to capture her personal point of view. She stands poised to put paint to canvas. The colors shall be mixed. The possibilities remain endless, open.

Perhaps this creator’s face is as that of a preacher, a holy man who often denounces this whole endeavor as pointless. The preacher seeks the fulfillment of his spirit. He may occasionally find markers on this island, traces which point towards the divine, but perhaps this observation has more to do with himself than some innate aspect of this creation. He seeks to grasp at the infinite, but finds his mind cannot comprehend. He remains alone and unsatisfied with his answers.

Perhaps her face is that of the scientist, exploring the world through meticulous methodology. She probes outward at the universe, searching for understanding; not aimlessly like the philosophers and the religious, but instead with a strong rigor. “This is the way forward”, she says, “this is where Truth lies, insomuch as we can know it”. Her life is prescribed by the outline of a puzzle panel, content not to know what lies outside it. She is, in fact, satisfied in not knowing. And she is deeply skeptical of those who claim to know what they clearly cannot.

Perhaps the creator is in aspect all of these, or none of these. Perhaps this entire island lies only in the back of the mind of game designer, as he dreams away in his own personal virtual reality, utterly disconnected from the real world that lies outside it, yet obsessive in his attention to detail. He cannot help but see his real life distorted through the lens of his creation. Every situation, every interaction an opportunity for a new idea: a new grace note to round out his masterpiece. Seeing patterns everywhere, he digs his way outward. Maybe there is an answer out there. Maybe he has found it.

The creator is searching for truth, that cannot be denied, but of his approach we cannot be sure.

As I ponder the recesses of this island, I am left with perhaps one conclusion: this entire island is the surface of a mind. Its gnarled trees the synapses of the brain; some dead and disused, others flourishing. It is at once beautiful and full of life, and all the same desolate and lifeless.

One cannot truly understand the mind without probing at the brain. And one cannot probe very deeply while it remains alive.

Even still, I am disquieted. There is something else on this island. A malicious force. A calmness occasionally giving way to show sparks of anger. Branches twisted and snapped from trees. Panels smashed with such violence that the walls around them are distressed. A face twisted in agony, hidden beneath a mask. A torturous self-destructive entity that pushes you away when you get too close. That denies you when you seek to become intimate with it. That will never allow you to understand it in full.

It is serene on its surface, one could almost be forgiven for missing it, but there is pain in this place. A darkness which must not be named.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

I must go now. I am being watched.

Dear friend, please play The Witness

So, some of you may have heard me talk about this game, The Witness, over the past several years. I have not finished playing it, but I have played enough to say with certainty that it is both better than even I expected (and I considered my expectations unreasonable) and it is the single best puzzle game ever designed. It is a triumph, and as a designer myself I am so far behind I don’t know that I could ever reach it.

In a word, it is astounding. If you enjoy puzzle games, pick it up on PC or PS4. Don’t read any more about it. Don’t watch videos about it. If you get stuck (and you will¬†get stuck) don’t look up a solution online. Just sit down, get comfortable, play it alone, and prepare yourself for a revelation.

Pick it up on Steam here.

Or get it DRM-free (and support charity in the process) here!

Games Are Art.

Roger Ebert

So, are games really art?

Roger Ebert has quite famously come out to say that Games cannot be art, or as he calls it “high art.” ( Essentially meaning all forms of art that most people consider when they talk about art. Art as in “artist,” as opposed to “artisan.”) I’m not sure this distinction was entirely necessary to make. I don’t think that many people were attempting to argue that games should be considered art alongside dance or pottery. The question is really about whether games are or are not a medium for communicating ideas and emotions in at least the same capacity as film or books.

I am not simply dismissing the issue imposed by Roger Ebert’s statements, but it would seem to me that he does not truly understand games as an art form. More specifically, he does not understand that the way in which games function artistically is quite different from films and other media. Unfortunately, many modern game designers do not understand this distinction either. Viewed as works of art, most games are quite meaningless when compared to great works in other mediums.

So, can we solve the dilemma we face in dealing with Roger Ebert’s belief? He stated that “If you change [the ending of a story], you become the artist,” proposing, “Would “Romeo and Juliet” have been better with a different ending?” It is here that he makes his claim most poignantly.

Continue reading “Games Are Art.”