The unheard message of The Witness

Today I’m going to talk to you about The Witness again. I spoke very briefly about it once before, but this time I’d like to take that analysis a few steps further, as well as discussing what it all means about why and how we play games, why this game has attained the dreaded label of “pretentious”, and how this all applies to our real lives.


First, let’s talk about the “plot”. At this point I suppose I should warn you of impending spoilers, though I’m not sure if the idea of spoilers really applies to a game that has no direct story at all. In The Witness, the game simply begins with you in a tunnel with no explanation of who you are, where you are, who created this place, or what you’re supposed to be doing here. You follow the tunnel, open the door at the end, and emerge to find yourself on a strange island filled with mysterious puzzle panels, and that’s all there is to it. It seems obvious that someone, or many someones, took great care in creating this place, and so surely there must be a reason for its existence. There must be some point to you solving these hundreds of puzzles, musn’t there? If only you can solve the final puzzle in each area and unlock that mysterious door atop the mountain, then there must be an answer waiting for you at the end of it all, right? But there isn’t. After hours and hours of white-knuckle puzzling, you make your way through the final level and enter a strange little elevator which flies away, taking you on a tour of all the locations you visited, forcing you to helplessly watch as each area’s satisfyingly solved puzzles and devices are reset to their starting positions. The tour comes to a close when you’re deposited back in the tunnel you started in, and that’s it. The end.

Alternatively, there is a hidden extra ending that can be achieved by walking out of the tunnel again and activating a puzzle in the very first room that you never even realized was there. It’s funny, because it’s such a simple thing that was right there in front of your face from the beginning, but you hadn’t yet been introduced to the more abstract environment puzzles and so you just walk right by it, not even recognizing that it’s something you could have interacted with. This right here is one of central themes of the game and how you must play it to succeed (I mean, aside from just looking up the answer), but hold on, I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Back to the alternate ending, it offers no more real explanation to your situation than the previous one. Inside the secret door you’re taken through several rooms containing audio logs that serve as credits to the game, as well as a few personal messages from some of the developers, and at the end of the area you’re treated to a cryptic video that shows a first person view of an unknown person apparently “logging out” of the game as if it was all a virtual reality game. The person walks around looking at things in the real world in a seemingly bewildered manner, even trying to trace circular objects he sees, as if still in the game world. In the end, he finds the exit to the building, walks outside, looks around in amazement at his surroundings, and then lies down on a nearby bench and stares at the sky, and that’s it again. The end.


So what does this all mean? There doesn’t seem to have been any point to all your hard puzzle work, does there? Where’s your satisfying conclusion? Where’s your ultimate reward? I’m afraid I have to ramble on a bit more before I can properly answer that. First, let’s go back to how the game forces you to approach it. The island is almost entirely open from the beginning. You can just wander to any given sub-section and start trying to solve its given puzzles, and while many of the puzzle mechanics are introduced and explained through simplified step-by-step sets of “guide” puzzles, eventually you’ll end up running into new puzzle types that haven’t been explained at all, and thus are almost certainly impassable until you can find out how they work. This can be pretty frustrating, but this is the game’s way of telling you to back off and do some more exploring. You don’t actually need to solve this puzzle right now. You’re perfectly free to wander off to other areas and solve other, easier puzzles, and eventually you will run into the guide puzzle that explains how the one you were stuck on works and you’ll be able to do all those kinds of puzzles afterwards.

The underlying message of all this would seem to be that putting all your focus in one direction may lead you to problems whose solutions lie outside your narrow field of view. Step back, take a deep breath, and search for answers elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that you’ve given up and it doesn’t mean that you’re not smart enough to figure it out, you simply haven’t attained the necessary knowledge yet. Once you know what to look for you can return to where you were stuck with a fresh perspective and breeze right through what was previously so elusive. You’ll see this at work in the optional environmental puzzles scattered around the island too, one of which opens the previously mentioned secret ending area door, where after you’ve realized what they are and how they work, you’ll be amazed to find that you’re suddenly seeing these symbols all over the place, and it becomes pretty easy to spot all these secrets that you probably walked right by several times before.

Throughout the game you’ll also find various audio and video logs that contain seemingly unrelated excerpts dealing with philosophy, religion, and science. These logs are all entirely optional and initially they don’t seem to have any relevance to your character’s situation, but they absolutely do, because it’s when you take the sentiments conveyed in these messages and apply them to the game world that it all suddenly starts to make a whole lot of sense. One video discusses things like the folly of searching for answers and personal purpose in works of art, because as beautifully complex and relatable as a work of art can be, it cannot give you solid answers about existence, it can ultimately only convey the relative perspective of its creator. Meanwhile, while empirical science may be able to provide you with more tangible answers regarding the inner workings of existence, and logic may be of great help in solving many problems you face in the world, they can’t answer the fundamental questions of life either. You know, like “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “Who created this place?”, “What’s my purpose here?”. Sound familiar? In the end, this video suggests that all you can really do is continue to seek knowledge to the best of your ability.


Another video gives dual lectures, one on the complex interconnected nature of all the various systems that make up our lives both physically and emotionally, and the following one returns to the topic of the search for purpose and answers, which goes on to suggest that while there are certainly some answers to be found, there is no ultimate, satisfyingly conclusive purpose to you or anything else’s existence to be found, but that that’s ok, it’s not something to be afraid of, it simply is what it is. There are several more examples, but I think these ones stood out as the most strongly and clearly relevant to the experience of The Witness.

So like I said earlier, simply take these ideas that you’ve been presented with and apply them to the game. The world of The Witness is full of amazing complexity and beauty, and when playing it we all automatically leap to the conclusion that there must be some secret purpose behind all this meticulous design and prevalent symbolism, yet the game never actually claims to offer any answers of any kind, it’s just something we assume because that’s just the way games usually are. It’s like the videos say, we feel more comfortable if there’s a story, if there’s some concrete reason for any given thing, because otherwise, why bother, right? That’s the thing though, The Witness never promises any answers and it never offers any. It never told you to walk out of that tunnel, it never told you to solve all those puzzles, it never claimed that there would be some grand reward waiting at the exit. We assumed all of those things and then proceeded to puzzle our way across the island for no real reason except that it was there and it was fun and beautiful, and that’s all there is to it. Is that really so bad?

The Witness simply is what it is, a massive virtual art installation bursting with logic puzzles, that exists for no reason other than to be interacted with. There is no higher purpose to it, and that’s ok. Like life, you can enjoy it just fine without knowing all the whys and hows, and that nothing really has any real purpose except for what we ourselves attribute to it. After all, don’t we spend hours, every day that we can, playing video games? How many times has a parent or other member of the previous generation(s) seen you playing a game and asked “What’s the point of that?”, and how many times did you reply with a disapproving scoff, wondering how anyone could ask such a stupid question? What is the point though? There is no actual physical gain from saving the princess or the galaxy. We simply do it because it’s there to be explored and conquered, and because it’s fun. I would think that anyone that spent the 20-40 hours on clearing all the puzzles in The Witness must have been having fun to some degree to have continued spending that much of their free time on it, right? Stop and ask yourself, did any of that time you spent having fun really suddenly retroactively cease being fun simply because you felt the ending was unsatisfying? And if you did spend that much time doing something that you didn’t enjoy at all, that you weren’t even getting paid for, is that really the fault of the game you were playing, or do you need to stop and take a look at yourself and your unfortunate tendency towards forcing yourself to play games you don’t like?


Now, let’s finally get back to that ugly label, “pretentious”. The word pretentious is defined as “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed”. Let me also add that while not strictly in the various definitions of the word, the implications of it are that a thing that is pretentious is condescending to you and insulting your intelligence in some form. I’m at a loss as to how this word applies to a game like this. The Witness offers no direction or direct narration of any kind. It doesn’t claim anything about itself within its own confines and it doesn’t say anything about you at all. In fact, the game is all about prompting and promoting the use of logic, the search for knowledge and self-improvement, and directly suggests that not knowing something does not make you stupid, it just means that you haven’t yet attained the necessary knowledge to solve a given problem, and that you most likely are fully capable and intelligent enough to overcome any problem if you simply put your mind to work. It tries to teach you to look at things from different perspectives, to explore and question, and to not be afraid to look for answers elsewhere or ask for help. Now you tell me, does this seem like a self-important, condescending message to you? Because if this is pretentious, I don’t ever want to be unpretentious.

Now if you feel that the game didn’t communicate its message well enough or if you simply didn’t like the message itself for some reason, or maybe you just don’t enjoy puzzle games that much, that’s fine, that’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it, but regardless, allow me to make this request of you. The next time you encounter a story, whether it’s a game, movie, novel, or comic book, and you find yourself feeling unsatisfied because you felt that the narrative was confusing and impenetrable, before you reach for that quick and easy reaction of “this is just pretentious nonsense”, just stop and take a breath and think on it. Think about what it could all mean, about what all those things you experienced could represent, and if it’s still not clear go ahead and look up theories and/or explanations online. Go ahead, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Actively seeking out information and knowledge, and asking for help, isn’t what stupid people do, it’s what intelligent people do. A challenging narrative can be just as fun to conquer as a challenging game, and it’s a lot more fun and satisfying to exercise your imagination to peel away the layers of a cryptic meta-narrative than it is to simply dismiss it and harbor feelings of frustration and resentment over it.