Like many others ($5 million worth, not including the pirates), I’ve broken my brain over Jon Blow’s The Witness the last couple weeks. I made an agreement with myself that, unlike Braid, I wouldn’t look up any solutions, though a couple times I really wanted to (I’m looking at you, Zen Temple and Flower Bunker). I always felt I deprived myself the feeling of accomplishment by looking up answers for Braid, so I’m proud to say that I got to the end of The Witness without hitting up YouTube. A couple days went by where I hardly solved any puzzles until things finally clicked together and the rest went by in a rush. I haven’t finished the HAL 9000 monoliths or the last challenge room and I’m not sure if I will but I had a great time with this beautiful game. It challenged me to challenge myself by figuring out puzzles that left me stumped for hours or even days. I continually felt like a genius — when I didn’t feel like an idiot.
Some think The Witness is pretentious. I’ve read a few times that players felt as if Blow is showing off how smart he is or purposefully sticking it to the player, one article going so far as to say Blow hates the player. I’m not sure why people draw these conclusions. A lot of these comments are aimed at “the story” and the audio logs that seemingly deliver this story, though they’re mainly quotes from philosophers, writers and scientists. I argue that, much like Braid, they’re looking for a story that may not be there.
Over the eight years of The Witness‘s development, Blow’s been interviewed a lot. I recall, though I can’t find the link, that Blow called The Witness a very personal game. In Tom Bissell’s book, Extra Lives, he gives his interpretation of Blow’s previous game, Braid. Bissell argues that though Braid may appear to be about the development of the atomic bomb, utilizing direct quotes from Oppenheimer and atomic imagery, Braid is really about how Jon Blow’s dedication to games drove away a woman he loved. In an interview with Blow, Bissell asks if that’s really what the game is about. Blow’s silence is telling. More telling for The Witness is Bissell’s story involvement, in which he is thanked on an audio log placed in the easter egg ending, of which I’ll come back to.
The Witness takes place on a lifeless — save for the gorgeous foliage — island and the mysterious statues of people who obviously used to live there. The immediate question that comes to mind is, what happened to the people? Some are frozen in mid-task. Others look like they’re trying to avoid disaster. Others seems to perhaps be the cause of the disaster. But, despite the audio logs, hidden movies and hundreds of puzzles, there doesn’t seem to be any real answers. The last area of the game, which takes place inside the mountain that is the focal point of the symmetry lasers you spend the game activating, seems to provide no answers either. Loaded with concept art and surveillance footage of the island itself, the final area seems more like a send-off to the island, rather than an explanation for the island. The island’s development takes center stage. The frozen people and hinted at disaster take the back seat. Those looking for answers won’t find them so, much like Braid, we have to look elsewhere for the answers. We have to look to Jon Blow himself.
I can’t claim to know Blow that well. I’ve read some of his interviews over the years but I haven’t watched his infamous GDC speeches or anything like that. So maybe I’m way off when I say he shows signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. I haven’t heard many journalists outright say it but they always seem to dance around it. The descriptions that he’ll do Tai Chi while alone at parties, the repeated phrases that he doesn’t suffer fools, and the fact that money doesn’t matter to him except to make his next game. Jon Blow marches to the beat of his own drum. People with Asperger’s tend to only care about, well, what they care about.
Blow cares about games to the detriment of others or himself, as Braid illustrated. When the player character, Tim, finally gets to the Princess, an explosion goes off, leaving Tim disastrously alone. Blow knows he drives people away, but he also knows there’s little he can do about it if game development remains his passion. In The Witness, disaster has already struck. Everyone in the game, except the player character, is frozen, leaving the player character to roam the island alone to solve hundreds of delicious, maddening puzzles. Unlike Braid, where the game is about the disaster of being alone, The Witness may be about accepting loneliness, finding peace with it, and thriving within it. I argue that The Witness is Jon Blow’s artistic expression of making The Witness, even going so far as to literally show us through his eyes what it’s like with a hidden ending.
After the final area within the mountain, when the last puzzle is solved, you climb into an elevator and are treated to a fly by of the island. You watch as the symmetry lasers you’ve worked so hard to activate turn off, one by one, like a person shutting off the lights before they leave their house, until you end up where you started the game at. Then, your “eyes” close, a nice touch that also happens when you pause the game (something similar to Sands of Time‘s use of the pause screen to push the narrative). Your only option is to start a new game. This is a good-bye but not the player’s good-bye. It’s Blow, finally bidding farewell to the place he spent eight years at and setting the game up for the player — though I didn’t understand it at the time.
I started a new game immediately, thinking there had to be more to it than that. I walked down the long corridor and entered the opening courtyard. The first set of puzzles offered no challenge to me anymore and, thinking that really was all there was to it, I almost turned the game off. Then I saw it: a shape the game had been teaching me to see. I activated it and — boom — a new pathway opened. This led to the hidden ending which, again, is loaded with concept art of the island and its locations. The ending itself involves Blow “waking up” from the dream that is the game. The ending conveys that he’s given this game his all, showing the now-infamous catheter and jug of urine and that his legs have trouble working, seemingly from spending all his hours developing. Not only that, but he sees line puzzles everywhere. In cookies, in wood knots, on lights– everywhere. The Witness, one last time, is trying to convey what it was like to develop The Witness.
What’s admirable, I think, is that Blow didn’t just come out and say that was what he was trying to do. He leaves it up to us to piece it together ourselves. The much maligned audio logs of philosophical quotes may have nothing to do with educating the player and everything to do with charting Blow’s own discovery of how everything in this world is connected while creating this game. They’re almost like notes scribbled down in the margins. Some critics have complained that there are no hints, that the island is too open, that you can be stumped by one puzzle, leave in frustration, then be stumped by five more puzzles. Maybe they’re looking at it wrong. What do you think it was like for Blow to come up with those hundreds of puzzles? Going through the pain, discovery and joy of solving them may give us a glimpse of what that was like. You feel this throughout the game. You glean it from silent contemplation. You feel what he felt making the game by playing the game, and that’s always been the unique aspect to games: by making you feel something through play.
So, who’s the Witness? It’s the player, witnessing Jon Blow’s creation: a beautiful, mysterious, lonely island that he felt he had to share with the world. It may not be socially aware, or say anything profound about what it means to be human, it may not even be a game for people who read Gravity’s Rainbow. The Witness doesn’t have to be. It’s an art installation of itself and that’s okay.