Do not dismiss Jonathan Blow as a game developer with a funny name.
That is exactly why you should fear him Ever since he stepped into the development scene in 2008, he has released a grand total of two video games, and yet both have revolutionized gaming as an art form in profound ways. Heed him, fellow students, for today we gather in this sacred critical space in order to pay tribute.
One video game was Braid, for Xbox Live Arcade, Windows, OS X, PlayStation 3, and Linux. It was a 2D puzzle-platformer that used Mario elements and time-based mechanics as a springboard for a rather Abstract Expressionist take on Modernist tropes. In other words: It was a really artsy and introspective game with brain-melting logic puzzles. (Many consider Braid to have been one of the most prominent pioneers of “The Indie Game Scene,” though many others considered it to be a pretentious puzzler with a really cool ending. Neither fact is particularly important for our purposes; I share them just to give bonus context for those who want it.)
The other video game was 2016’s The Witness, for Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, and macOS. It was a 3D first-person puzzle game that used Myst tropes and knowledge itself as springboards for– bear with me– a video game that was also an allegory for human history and ideals. In other words: Puzzles of maddening complexity, “ah-ha moments,” and an environment that would give La Sagrada Familia’s interwoven symbolism a run for its money. (The game’s only been out for a year as of this writing, so its “cultural context” isn’t particularly clear yet. But generally you either think it’s even more pretentious than the last, or you think it’s the manifestation of Enlightenment itself.)
But look, if you’re on this blog, you probably already knew about these games. (Or you just really like my rambles.) You’re here for the sweet stuff: The unspoken secrets. While I can’t promise you will find Enlightenment here, or an interpretative model that you find satisfying as a whole, I can promise you will come out of the experience aware of more evidence for you to reinterpret and reintegrate into your own understandings. Should you wish.
You seem skeptical. You have every right to be. But how about I appease you with this: I will make my intentions and goals clear, just this once.
In this blog, I will propose a model, supported by in-game evidence, of the “story” of The Witness.
Part of that evidence includes the architecture, part of it includes the puzzles, and part of it involves the artsy symbolism.
The model, in summary, will demonstrate the historical civilizations of the island, the evolving ideologies of the island, and the protagonist’s role on the island.
(Note that I split those two intentions into groups of three on purpose.)
And I will do all of this without concluding “it’s all a dream, so that means it’s anyone’s guess.”
The Witness is still fundamentally open to interpretation, don’t get me wrong. No matter what, it is a game about the elementary mechanics of an interchange of ideas– it is a game about learning and about teaching, two malleable concepts that will fit snugly inside anyone’s headcanons and readings. But it’s nice to examine the evidence, all the same, in pursuit of possible epiphany.
(This page is literally nowhere near Final. Also, I am not a natural at concise and structured introductions; I am a free-associative rambler at heart.)