The Witness

I’ve been silent on this blog for three weeks now, mostly because I’ve been preoccupied by a computer video game called The Witness [Wikipedia]. I posted about this on Facebook on July 19th, and will reproduce that post, lightly edited, here, with some follow-up, below.

From Facebook:

I have been a big fan of the Myst games, beginning back in 1994 or so when I first played that first game (thanks, Larry); it was followed by four sequels, with a side project called Uru (which I think was best of them all), which debuted in 2003 and expanded online in 2007, while the final two Myst games were released in 2004 and 2005.

I’m otherwise not a gamer. No interest in first-person shooter games, which seem to dominate the industry. I’ve checked out half a dozen or so different games over the past decade that I thought might be similar to Myst, but they were either lame, or defeated my PC’s graphics card, and not interesting enough to bother upgrading, to be worth finishing. (While for the Myst games, I do recall buying a new PC back in 1997 or so, a huge HP desktop tower (with, checking my records, a Pentium II 233, 48 meg ram, 56K modem, and 17” monitor), specifically so that I could play the second Myst game, Riven.)

Earlier this year I heard about a new puzzle game called The Witness, which I purchased and have been preoccupied by. It has hundreds of clever puzzles, arranged from basic to increasingly complex, situated on a desolate island environment that evokes the Myst games. In particular there is an implicit, science-fictional, setting — around this island are dozens of people frozen into stone statues, some holding weapons, some looking up into the sky. As you work your way through the game, solving ever-more difficult puzzles, the motive, my motive, was to discover what happened to this island? What happened to these people?

On the one hand, having ‘finished’ the game today [July 19th] (with, I’ll admit, some hints from one of the many walk-through sites for the game; life is short), I’m disappointed to discover that the end game involves no back story. No explanation for the stone statues and what happened to the island or why, for that matter, the game is called “The Witness”.

On the other hand… the game involves a number of ‘Easter egg’ audio recordings and videos that address various topics about.. epistemology. How we know what we know. Speeches by Jacob Bronowski, Richard Feynman. A couple are eerily reminiscent of the themes of Sean Carroll’s recent book — how there are hierarchies of meaning.

Exploring today some of the many websites that address the meaning of this game, I think there are still things to explore. It’s not a simple puzzle game, and was not intended to be. In particular, there is a huge ‘meta’ aspect to the game — many of the puzzles, which don’t however as far as I can tell involve the solution to any ultimate solutions — involve identifying patterns in the landscape around you, which can be seen as the same kind of pattern puzzles that do solve the game. (These involve the several obelisks scattered around the island.)

Yet having finished the game as far as it can be finished in terms of any solution or backstory… I’m not sure I’ll bother continue. There are many more environmental puzzles I haven’t found, but it doesn’t seem like they matter.

The purpose of the game, it seems, is that solving puzzles doesn’t matter; it’s, indirectly, about how our perception and understanding of the world is not about merely solving puzzles. OK.


Update today.

These games immerse you into worlds from which it is difficult to emerge. Which is to say, I’ve spent more than another week exploring this game, finding the various ‘environmental’ puzzles — paths like those on the puzzle boards which appear in the landscape around you — and frankly following a couple walkthrough websites. (In particular, this one turns up first in Google search, and does seem to be the best and most complete, compared to lower-ranking sites I’ve checked. And I’ve watched this compelling speedrun by YouTube’s FearfulFerret (who seems to live in Arizona), who traces every ‘line’ in the game over some three hours, though that includes a 58 minute wait for one puzzle that required gradual movement in a video showing an eclipse. (During which time, at midnight, he runs out for a burger.)

I am to the point of diminishing returns, and — the need to get back to a more productive daily life. (FearfulFerret apparently lives in his bedroom, in his parents’ house. Of course.)

But meanwhile — meanwhile! — there is news of a new game from the creators of Myst, called Obduction, due for release in August. I had thought that puzzle games like the Myst games were passe, but perhaps not; the previews of this are intriguing.

I’ve long wondered why a puzzle game hasn’t been developed that is explicitly science-fictional, based e.g. about waking up on a spaceship, in flight, without knowledge of how it began or where it’s going, who the passengers are, and so on. This is a common literary SF theme — recently, Alastair Reynolds’ SLOW BULLETS — but if there’s ever been a game like this, I’ve missed it.

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