Fantasy Round 53: A Meditation on Theme
I’ve been playing the video game The Witness recently, and I’m only categorizing it as fantasy because I don’t really know where else to put it.
It’s an atmospheric puzzle game with plenty of soothing music. It doesn’t really have any plot or characters — just an island that you can explore at your leisure.
For those of you looking for a distraction from reality with food for thought but no need for fast reflexes or shooting monsters, this is a great game to try.
The puzzles themselves are beautifully designed. Even finding some of the puzzles can be a challenge, and I know that I felt very clever when I discovered one of them. They build up in complexity, using many simple but interlocking mechanics.
I note, however, that you’ll need to play the game with the sound on — it’s important, and not just for listing to the recordings. Similarly, there are some puzzles that are likely to be exceptionally difficult to solve for anyone who has a significant degree of colorblindness. I’m honestly not sure how to mitigate those issues.
In any case, there’s enough escalation of the simple maze puzzles into complex but aesthetically pleasing ones to keep the game fun for a long time.
In contrast to most other works in most forms of media, The Witness isn’t really about a plot or characters. Instead, the whole thing is held together by a common theme — which, in the absence of plot and characters aside from the player, is drawn to the forefront.
It’s all about exploring the world and experiencing it. It’s the journey, not the destination — appropriate in a sandbox-style game where wandering around randomly works out pretty well. It’s about that moment of understanding when you solve a puzzle, or discover the puzzles built into the world itself.
There are some voice recording and video portions built into the game that illuminate the concept, with selections from Feynman, BF Skinner, as well as Buddhism and other religious sources. I found one of the latter irksome — claiming that the only thing that exists is awareness is weird, and has some unpleasant implications. Nonetheless, the themes from these are woven into the surroundings. The many statues seem to be in medias res, and there are signs that someone was here before you… though you never see them. It’s a game of solitude and unanswered questions.
There’s no real title drop (at least, none that I’ve found yet), but after enough wandering and investigating, it seems fairly clear. The player is the witness, obvserving and exploring all of these things. This even fits nicely with the “ending” of the game, which I won’t spoil here. Go discover it yourself.