It’s natural, as human beings, for us to only breezily consider how we will engage with objects at the moment of proximity. Far less often do we take the time to think on the granular aspects of the object. A pencil is for writing things which can be erased; less often do we think of it as a narrow hexagonal or cylindrical tube of wood which smears an erasable residue. A shopping mall to people embedded within society isn’t a series of winding pathways which break off into smaller yet equally as complex nodes of space. It is, instead, a crowded place where you go to spend a lot of money on things you don’t need. People don’t get in a car and contemplate the majestic nature of its arcane engineering; they’re usually predisposed with estimating the overall cost-benefit analysis of the trip to come.
The Witness, by Thekla Inc. presents to the player a vast quantity of screens, each of which display a maze-like fabrication of their own. Solving one of these puzzles may or may not activate another panel or open a door, but even those panels isolated from their technological peers are intrinsically valuable to the player, each helping to develop what can be a confounding yet subconsciously clear lexicon for understanding the game’s bounty of spatial secrets. But while different panels may have different rule-sets and aesthetic configurations, each is unified by a shared beginning and end point: a puzzle is initiated by lining a cursor up with a circular entry point on the panel, and then finished by tracing a particular path through the two-dimensional tunnels of that panel to an ending nub. These panels also double as external triggers, such as the fast-travel boat with a map where end-point nubs double as docking points (with a side panel for changing the boat’s speed), or in the theater beneath the windmill where a panel functions as a time scrubber for the six videos you can view there.
It’s like noticing the parameters of a fourth dimension had been staring you in the face all this time
Each of the panels, placed innocuously about a topographically-diverse island, range in complexity—from the laughably straightforward to the devilishly elaborate. These panels make up the crux of the game’s mechanical foundation. At the onset of your experience playing The Witness, you’ll often be too busy, head-down, trying to crack a tricky puzzle to marvel at the game’s gorgeous views. The lack of an obvious narrative to emotionally engage the player, combined with the game’s overly verbose readings of ancient and modern religious, philosophical, and scientific texts strewn about its island can, at times, make The Witness feel cynical and empty.
Yet there is a moment endemic to The Witness’ design so significant, yet singular to my experience, that it seemed as if the ground below my feet were shifting. One of the first areas many players will encounter on the island is a pier covered by a metal awning which houses a furnace with a circular entrance. The awning has a black rectangular line which juts out from the edge nearest to where the furnace’s opening faces and crosses through to the other side of the smokestack through the awning. It just so happens that if you were to view this tableaux of imagery from the vantage of an isle further down the island’s coast, they seem to line up together in configuration and color to form a circle-line pattern similar to those which adorn the puzzle panels. An inquisitive player may discover that this is no mere coincidence—line up your cursor with the circle and press a button to engage with it as you would a panel and a flurry of light emanates from it, accompanied by a sound like a rushing waterfall.
Tracing the line is trivial and non-revelatory; it’s that moment of discovery which produces an intense feeling. It’s like noticing the parameters of a fourth dimension had been staring you in the face all this time, if only you could see it earlier. Many will have a different moment like this, as The Witness’ open-ended nature allows you to leave an area and return later if you get stuck. With newfound knowledge of the island’s environmental puzzles in tow, returning to a familiar space can feel like discovering it again for the first time. Walking around this island for exploratory purposes soon becomes an act of investigation and intense scrutiny. Once you know, your eyes become at least temporarily stained by the lust for this circle and line, for it could be everywhere.
Perhaps you’ll notice how a panel—which activates the flow of a waterfall below—placed alongside a mountain’s edge looks suspiciously like the river the water flows into. Maybe you’ll see it in the stones lining a flowerbed, or in the shadows of poles and guardrails that make up steel bridges above a bog, or from high above the hedge mazes in the keep, or in the negative space between the leaves and branches of two trees standing opposite each other. You might observe the circle and line in desert sands, or in the yellow muck emanating from a sewer entryway, or in the way light reflects off emblems engraved in the ground, or hidden right beneath your nose in the cylindrical hallway you find yourself in upon starting the game. The Witness hides its most common visual symbol throughout its architecture and landscapes in plain sight and trusts that you will find it again and again on your own time. This revelation establishes a new foundation dictating how players will engage with the remainder of this lengthy and mentally taxing game.
The Witness also rewards this heightened sense of awareness with clever perspective tricks, each a textbook case of pareidolia. From one angle, a statue of a woman reaches out to the sky, but when looked at from another, it seems as if she’s attempting to grab the hand of another statue perched elsewhere. Depending on how you view a certain tree, you may see faces in the space between its wayward limbs. A bundle of loose kindling may appear as a pair of eyes peering at you when viewed from below. Time and time again, by intentionally scattering these illusions throughout its island, The Witness asks us to stop and reconsider the object for its bounty of potential contexts, reframing physical objects as vessels of perspective and suggestion.
One day I was returning to my car after class via a lengthy university boardwalk in early February 2016. My mind buzzed with yearning to return home and fire up The Witness and uncover more of its secrets. It was then I saw it: the way the sun’s light collided with a particular railing lamp at that time of day imprinted a near perfect circle of a shadow without any blemishes or serrations upon the wooden decking, with the post it was fastened to acting as the line exit point. All this time, it had been right there in that path I’d mindlessly followed countless times before; all I needed was a vector for noticing it. I had to photograph this moment—surely this wouldn’t happen to me again.
The mere act of seeing the arcane leaves one permanently changed and can yield deeper truths
But it did. Over and over, I found this particular pattern of some kind of a circular figure followed by a line jutting out of its body. Scuff marks in the pavement of the parking lot where I work resembled this shape. I saw it in the way light reflected off of an uneven, coarse tiled concrete floor. I saw it in stop signs, street posts, and tableware. I’d see brief glimpses of that shape in my peripheral vision, before looking over to see it’d disappeared. Most of these findings were not a one-to-one analog to the perfect geometric shapes of The Witness’ panels and environmental puzzles. But vague suggestions of this pattern also peaked my intrigue, such as a square or an oval in place of a circle. The game itself encourages this kind of manic peripheral noticing; while playing, I often would spot certain phenomena which resembled the circle-line but weren’t quite to the game’s standard of geometric precision. For a handful of months, my lengthy proximity to The Witness had seeped out of the television and into the realm of reality. I watched closely as the people I followed on social media experienced similar tales of witnessing. Giving myself over to the space of The Witness caused it to embed itself into my own life for a while; how I cherished that moment.
In the game’s true ending, we see a live-action full-motion video sequence wherein a man wakes up from what we now come to realize was all a virtual reality simulation. He notices a number of visual iconography and objects which bear something of a resemblance to the circle and line pattern, just as I did. And just as it did for me, over time the man realizes this realization adds nothing of palpable value to a life. The man doesn’t gain the ability to teach a pencil to write an essay for him. He still has to shop for his own clothes, and he still needs to drive his car to get there. One has an experience, and no matter how profound, it doesn’t last. Life moves on. To tell the truth, I stopped noticing the circle-lines in my day-to-day as The Witness relinquished its hold over me upon finishing it.
In Junji Ito’s seminal horror manga Uzumaki, the small fictional town of Kurouzo-cho becomes cursed by not a demon or some other ghastly apparition, but by the shape of a spiral. This curse manifests itself in the townsfolk as wild obsessions which vary from chapter to chapter. Some love the spiral, such as a potter who becomes obsessed with forging the shape in his masonry work. Others detest it: one woman’s phobia pushes her to attempt to pierce her own cochlea for the sole reason that it resembles a spiral living inside of her. One popular girl becomes consumed by the need for the approval of the one boy who demonstrated no romantic interest in her; a spiral grows on her forehead and consumes her entire body. Eventually, the town shapes itself into a spiral labyrinth of terraced houses, the center of which reveals a staircase hidden at the bottom of the dried-up Dragonfly Lake which leads to a massive underground city of spirals, dooming our protagonists with its discovery. Like the best of Lovecraft-inspired works of horror, and not unlike The Witness’ circle-line, the mere act of seeing the arcane leaves one permanently changed and can yield deeper truths. As well, Ito delineates in each of these cases a unity of interests in a singular phenomenon. He then uses the unique qualities that divide the characters of Kurouzo-cho to craft compelling, bespoke stories of intrinsic compulsion.
Once you know, your eyes become at least temporarily stained by the lust for this circle and line, for it could be everywhere.
Like the villagers of Uzumaki’s Kurouzo-cho, something about The Witness seemingly invites visceral cultural responses to its arcane stimuli. To call The Witness a divisive game would be a gross understatement. Some adored its challenging circle-line puzzles, while others felt sneered at by designer Jonathan Blow when they failed to solve them. Like myself, many were practically guided along their days by the circle-line’s mysterious and tantalizing allure. Others saw the environmental puzzles as a silly gimmick used to disguise the shallowness of the ultimately pointless panels as meaningful depth. Where some saw beauty, others saw a vapid technocracy.
But this is also what makes The Witness so compelling: it demonstrates how following our subjective experiences can forge unique paths for different players in the direction of or away from a destination. Here, the destination is that beguiling circle-line pattern. By proliferating its island with this pattern in obvious and obtuse fashions, The Witness both posits and is utterly fascinated by a phenomenological oneness of our known universe. The circle-line can be seen as a surrogate for the most microscopic of matters—that of the atom. Humans tacitly understand that all is constituently-composed of this unit of matter, that which can be further broken down into subatomic components. Thekla have instilled in The Witness a jumping-off point for realizing the unity between the wonder of the large strata which make up the macroworld and the most basic of building blocks which ultimately make those strata tick. With a new lens crafted by the hands of fake, ephemeral worlds, we can realign our visions of our real one to recognize and appreciate all its beautiful insignificance.
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