a reflection on The Witness five years after its release and five years and three weeks after starting medications that make my skin smooth
I spent most of January 2016 alone. This was intentional, and it didn’t make me sad at the time. I had just come off of working two jobs 6–7 days each week in an attempt to try and dig myself out of the debt that came from being unemployed for a few months immediately after graduating from a college that still calls me to ask for money today. I quit the job I liked more because it gave me less hours and paid me less.
I was intensely stressed out from working so much that I didn’t often have time to think or worry about much else. I didn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing at the time, because it let me procrastinate on taking real steps toward becoming a person I actually wanted to be, a difficult and arduous process. Don’t worry, this habit caught up to me in my mid-20s. I told myself I would come out after I stopped working two jobs. (as a treat!!) My last day was on January 3rd, 2016. I came out to my parents the next day. I started hormones on the 5th.
For the rest of the month, I didn’t exist much outside of work and home. I spent a lot of time overthinking social interactions and voice fluctuations to the point of aversion. I spent a lot of time still listening to Drake’s 2015 mixtape “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late.” I would repeatedly sing one line from it like a personal mantra for the whole month.
i’ve been in the crib with the phones off /
i’ve been at the house takin’ no calls
Toward the end of the month, I spent a lot of time playing The Witness.
The Witness is a game about drawing lines to find solutions to puzzles. First through electronic panels, then the world. The game is beautiful, not just in aesthetics but in how it teaches the player. There’s only three instructional prompts at the beginning of the game that teach you how to move. From that point on, the game only offers a gentle hand that points you toward tools that let you learn on your own. It’s less a game about solving individual puzzles and more about learning a visual language and how those linguistics have shaped the world. At least at first.
As the game goes on, the player discovers environmental secrets carefully nested throughout the world. These types of interactions are different from the usual puzzles. You stumble upon them spontaneously when your mind, racing from thinking about various solutions to other puzzles, starts to wander. Your perceptions of the world start to slowly change until suddenly you think, “I wonder what would happen if I just… tried it. It seems weird, but why not?” You try to draw a line in the world and it clicks, activates, and explodes in a fanfare when you complete it. At this point, there is no going back. You cannot unlearn a fundamental truth about this world that you inhabit.
This might happen a few minutes into playing or it might take several hours. Some notable game critics even played through the entire game without discovering this! There is an ending to The Witness that you can find so you can say that you beat it for completion’s sake, but this just results in the game resetting all of the puzzles that you completed and putting you back at the start. The “true” ending to the game only comes after you’ve learned how to seek out the environmental puzzles and is revealed to have been accessible from the very beginning of the game.
It’s not surprising to me that this game about slow and thoughtful observation quickly became one of my favorites, especially at a time in my life where I was pumping my body full of chemicals that made me experience the world in a new way. It perfectly captured this moment in time when I finally gave up the idea that I was going to just drift through my life being unhappy with my body and choices because it would be too difficult to navigate outside of their typical frameworks. The Witness shows that the importance of the world doesn’t reveal itself to you when you just mindlessly complete the busywork of the puzzle panels and follow the colored wires that tell you where you supposed to go, but instead when you stop looking at those things your brain has been programmed to deem important. Only once you stop looking for meaning can you notice it in the things you’ve been tuning out around you.
The Witness was designed to be a “modern-day Myst,” and as someone who has very recently played both Myst and Riven all the way through for the first time, let me just say: The Witness is the Soylent of video games. I do not say this (entirely) as an insult. I grab a Soylent from the gas station sometimes when my executive dysfunction and indecision is so overwhelming that I just need to eat anything in order to keep living. (i have a weird relationship with food, okay?)
Myst and Riven came into the world fully-formed long before The Witness and they don’t need fixing, much in the way that meal replacements existed long before tech dudes came along and decided that they had a revolutionary idea with Soylent. In terms of their gamey-ness, not much changed for “first person puzzle adventure games” in the 22 years between Myst and The Witness.
Myst focuses on individual puzzles that often are only linked to one or two more elements of the world that can be solved mostly on their own. Riven changed so the puzzles were mostly interconnected and part of a larger whole that you couldn’t solve without first learning the culture and environment of the island. In The Witness, everything is based off of a single system of circles and lines, only the context surrounding them changes. This isn’t to say that each of these games doesn’t have anything to say in their narratives.
Myst and Riven tell the story of a family of people obsessed with research, writing, and discovering, to the point where their drive for power and knowledge eventually tear them apart. They tell a cautionary tale of the danger that people of privilege pose to the communities they invade when they’re vying to dominate worlds. Underneath the meticulously crafted gadgets and pipes that form the puzzles of Myst and Riven, there’s a weird fantasy story about some terrible boys that kind of has something to say.
In comparison, The Witness’ story is primarily told through environmental cues and and voice recorders (because it was the 2010s) you find sprinkled throughout the island. The recordings pepper in famous quotes from philosophers and writers that try to act as guiding theses for the areas you find them in. Some are good, some are awful, but all of them feel like a ham-fisted way of guiding you toward a conversation. In the hidden lategame, you find more recordings and an FMV cutscene featuring gaming’s most infamous pee bottle that reveals that the island the player avatar has been on the entire time is just a VR simulation set up by a bunch of “creative visionaries” to try and bring about a spiritual enlightenment in its users. Surprise! You were inside the world of some tech startup all along! At least I think?
This content is all hidden in the last section of the game and is optional, and the game explicitly tries to hide its talking points, so it’s a bit difficult to tell what’s the Actual Story and what’s the player reading into the game too much. More than anything, the game’s narrative just feels scattered and overwhelming. It’s both inescapable and entirely ignorable. It feels strange that a game with this narrative would even try to have such a cohesive and decisive ending in the first place. It didn’t necessarily ruin my experience, but it certainly colored it in a way I didn’t expect. The game had served as guided meditation, a way for me to reflect and formulate my thoughts as I was relaxing and searching for secrets. I spent hours doing this at the end of every night. I looked forward to it during the day. I had personal revelations during this time. To have the game suddenly turn and say, “Yes, this is what this program was trying to do and that’s a bad thing!” felt weird to say the least.
This isn’t to say that this diminished my experienced. I mostly just shrugged it off and laughed saying, “okay, man, whatever you want lol” in the face of the game. The game felt like a distorted, one-sided version of the movie “My Dinner With Andre.” One where the entire movie’s conversation is dominated by one person, who you have similar interests to but differing viewpoints, with no chance to respond. I would hear voice recordings or see videos in the game that I would laugh at or disagree with, but there was never really a way to interject or influence the world through player choice. Not only this but the game has multiple conflicting viewpoints on the subjects that the recordings bring up, so it even goes as far to contradict itself. If the game is going to great lengths to talk over both you and itself in the dialogue it tries to inspire, why even try to have a conversation with its creators?
This conversation was inevitable.
There is no talking about The Witness without talking about its director/designer/producer, Jonathan Blow. The Witness occupies a similar space to Death Stranding (or any other post-Snatcher Kojima game) in being a game that is both made by a team of people who are not One Person yet inextricable from One Person. Rather than talk about the character of a person I don’t really know much about at all, I like to think about how his actions have changed people’s perceptions of The Witness post-release.
People online had hated Jon Blow for nebulous reasons before I even started paying attention. A lot of the critical reception to his earlier game, Braid, was positive, but much of the discussion surrounding the game was dominated by people calling him “pretentious,” despite most people wielding that word not knowing what it meant. Blow made matters more complicated when he began to respond to critics of Braid head on by trying to engage in comment sections, forum threads, and so on. This is well documented in “Indie Game: the Movie.”
So maybe the discussion around The Witness was tainted even before release. Looking at The Witness’ page on any user-review site will show you several people invoking his name in one- or two-star reviews, some of which are written by people who even went so far as to play the game to completion. But do these people have a point? In terms of art, I think The Witness waxes poetic a bit too much for many capital g Gamers’ tastes, which is to be expected. I can’t fault people for not liking the game’s tone in its non-puzzle content because I also don’t love it. This brings us to the creator himself and his activity outside of the game.
The tweet pictured above is Night in the Woods developer, Scott Benson, responding to just one of the now-deleted, headass things that Jon Blow has tweeted. The moment I saw this tweet while waiting to board a plane to cross the country to get a surgery to have my pussy installed, I knew that it would never leave my skull. There’s a long trail of ridiculous things that Blow has said online, and there’s also been an equal amount of pushback from people telling him to re-evaluate his ideas, so I’m not going to rehash them here like a bootleg callout post. Let me just say that without a doubt Jonathan Blow is a man guilty of the crime of Not Being Able To Stop Posting. (who among us is not???)
I don’t say this to defend him or attempt to rehabilitate his image, what he has said truly sucks. It’s just my perception of what’s happened. Over the years since The Witness’ release, Blow’s online presence has slowly faded, but the articles about what he’s said and the people he influenced remain. Almost all of his tweets have been deleted (whether out of regret and growth or avoidance of conflict is up in the air) and appear to be regularly scheduled to be deleted, and I can’t say I blame him! I know several friends who do the same to avoid being ripped apart by the queer community when someone finds one of their posts not to their liking. Blow lives in the new digital age just like the rest of us: terminally logged on. (just like the True end of The Witness, he was right!!)
And while Blow does head a game studio and hold social capital, how much power does he really wield? How many people outside of games even know or care about what he has to say? How much do his bad opinions influence social programs? He’s nowhere near on the level of techhead dipshits like Musk who hold actual terrifying amount of power. If that’s the case, then exactly how bad should I feel about still liking this game? How cancelled am I for recommending it to people?
I played The Witness all through February too. Even after I had finished the main and end-game, I played late into the night to find every secret the game had to offer. Every environmental puzzle, every voice recorder, every carefully placed statue. I vampire-sucked every bit of life out of the game until there was nothing left. And when that moment of 100% completion came, I was rewarded with nothing.
Jonathan Blow said that he made it a point to make hitting the 100% mark in the game have no reward and be intentionally vague to deny players the dopamine rush that games typically provide from completionism. I didn’t know about this choice until hearing this in an interview a few months later. When the moment came, I’ll admit I was a little confused. I went to online forums to see that everyone else had come to the same conclusion. I wanted to play more, but there was no game left to consume. I went back and completed the timed challenge over and over to try and improve my time. It was not fulfilling. I turned off my PS4. I wouldn’t turn it on again until Dark Souls III in the end of March.
I sat alone with my thoughts and no distractions for the first time in weeks. I reflected on my time with the game and how it made me think about my new transness. I laid in bed and thought up endless ideas for babyqueer thinkpieces that would have been terrible. (i think this one is okay tho, so just let me have it) I obsessed over the fact that The Witness teaches you that the most important thing was in front of you from the very beginning, you just didn’t know how to see it. It’s easy to think retroactively and say “god, if i could just be 14 again, if I could just go back to the beginning and do it over again, I would do it so much better.” But that would also be worthless. Being visibly queer and trans in my small, conservative hometown high school would have been an absolute nightmare, and I’m actually glad I had no idea I was queer. I’m glad that I spent so much time paying attention to the things that didn’t actually matter, because they let me know that I don’t need to let them control my life anymore. Without a terrifying adolescence, I might still be drawn to their siren’s call.
All of the best art in the world acts as a mirror for us to see parts of ourselves in. Sometimes good, other times qualities to be afraid of, but the most powerful thing is when it allows us to see things about ourselves that we didn’t understand in the first place. The feelings we couldn’t put into words but always knew were true.
Over the past five years, I’ve grown a lot as a person. I don’t endlessly worry about my gender. I’m not desperately anxious about trying to pass and love being a messy, weird bitch. I think a lot about how I felt when I was first starting to transition these days. I remember feeling like this was just a terrible, second puberty that would eventually let me make sense of my body. But five years, countless prescriptions, and a few surgeries removed, I know that there will never be an end to this.
There is no surgery that you can have that will make everything click into place. Reading all of the theory and discourse in the world will never complete your understanding of yourself. No amount of paperwork will ever let you hit 100% complete on your personhood and make you finally feel like a real human. You will always be a swirling mass of thoughts and you will never know why.