The meaning of The Witness (Part 3 of 3)

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Assuming you’re all caught up with Part 1 and Part 2, Part 3 of this analysis talks about games that have a bit of a ‘genius narrative’ surrounding them.

I’m Sean Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan, and am currently developing the adventure platformer game, Even the Ocean, with a friend, Joni Kittaka. We also made the game Anodyne.


Part 3: The drawbacks of ‘singular vision’ games

‘Genius.’ That word is tied to the notion of ‘auteur,’ or the creatively-driven single leader of some given art/game/film project. I quote a fan from reddit, who I believe probably reflects sentiments of other players:

Plus the more I experience, read about and think about this video game, I increasingly think this is just about the most mature piece of art in the video gaming space, in the sense of how much this was a passion project made with mostly singular vision instead of an impersonal entertainment product, how unconstrained that vision was allowed to be, and the degree to which it was informed by other artistic media – and even philosophy.

In my time in games, I’ve noticed the belief that an auteur-like, singular vision is an artistic ideal, and that it leads to ‘unconstrained,’ better ideas. However, the notion of ‘unconstrained’ control can easily be a trap, placed by oneself.

I can use The Witness to argue that trying to be a creative auteur can lead to your ideas not being composed of new truths, but just your previously held, unchallenged beliefs. You think you’re going down a good path, but with no one to watch over you, you can go so far down a hole that it’s almost impossible to back up. In a way, sometimes this operates like the mindset of conspiracy theorists – you convince yourself that everything you need to find the truth is just in your head, in your interests, that you relatively do not open yourself up to others’ thoughts.

Or that you’ve created such a brand for yourself to the public that you’re locked in by it. I suspect some of that happened with The Witness. Not much of its content seems to challenge the world in which its creators live in.

This is one danger of popularity, especially now since the Internet’s social media platforms tie us to performing as caricatures of ourselves. ‘Am I performing on-brand?’ is a question I wish I haven’t had to ask myself, yet these platforms seem to push these kinds of mindsets on users.

As my discussions on The Witness‘s endings have shown, what’s really there, at the end of the game, is perhaps not as profound as the detailed artwork, hills, bunkers, mountains, and trees would initially appear to be. Yes, people maybe have had some nice moments with it, but other media can do this too. Is The Witness worthwhile? To a degree, yes. It’s certainly an above-average game. But a lot has been blown out of proportion because of its framing. Besides the impressive production values, the other aspects of the game feel weak and unaware.

Thus as consumers and creators we should be skeptical of the idea that games created with ‘singular visions’ stand in opposition to large-team, ‘impersonal’ games on a spectrum of creative worth.

On Singular Creators

You may have noticed this: some games really feel like you are exploring the creator’s mind. It’s a weird feeling, and lots of mediums of creative expression can accomplish it, but games have this special something about conveying those ideas. We can learn a lot from games like this, but at the same time – going along with what I said about insularity – it’s possible they can really just talk about a lot of empty fluff. Let’s discuss a few games that have this sort of empty-fluff-creator’s-mind syndrome.

I influenced and created a lot of the design for the game Anodyne. I worked on it with my friend Joni Kittaka. Much of the world design was created by me, but much of the writing and all art was Joni (vs. our current game Even the Ocean which is a much more equal endeavor). The game is nebulous in its story, the post-game, even more so. One idea I had in my head at the time was the view that ‘not staying in your head all day is a good thing.’ I sort of conveyed this through the game and post-game, though not very well. It’s roughly a similar idea to The Witness‘s “wake up from the game and go outside” ending, though with no roots in interpretations of zen or philosophy of science. My ideas from before Joni started to work on the project ended up taking root in the final game, unable to be thrown away. This had both pros and cons.

Because the game was hard to understand, people interpreted it as pretentious – which is fine. I mean, I was 20, and trying to be profound. Some players found more meaning. There are always bound to be people whom resonate with any particular artwork. In either case, there was this sense of mystery to Anodyne. One which could have concrete effect on players, but without many of those concrete ‘handholds’ provided by the game – ways in which people of different backgrounds can make sense and find value in it. In other words, it was a very hit or miss thing, sort of like The Witness seems to be with its themes.

Fez is an extreme example of a game ‘being lost in the creator’s mind.’ It was driven by Phil Fish’s mind – and as far as I can tell, is about going through nice, pleasant, calm spaces, collecting gold cubes, with a faint story that’s maybe about having the right perspective, and maybe about a lost love, or being a tortured creator, or something. The game aims for a sense of the profound, based in only pretty art, nice music, and big, open, detailed spaces. Like The Witness or Anodyne, there’s a feeling of exploring the creator’s mind. But… beyond formal qualities, it feels lacking. Yes, Fez has cool levels, much like The Witness, or Anodyne… but it doesn’t really seem to be about much, past that. It has this veneer of ‘profound,’ but it’s mostly just an interactable ‘cool-3D-space’ gallery. It feels like Fish was caught up in just making more and more detailed spaces to try to cover some anxiety up. Yes, it has something-something about exploring the world’s history. But it is so vague! And that vagueness can be intentional, often it feels like a blanket to hide behind.

My last example is Undertale, which was made by Toby Fox and assistant artists over the course of three years. It really does seem to resemble things he consumes – such as the Homestuck comic, and various popular interpretations of games such as EarthBound.

The game, like the ones I’ve mentioned, has this sort of worldview that seems to believe in a kind of pacifism-will-save-us idea. One that feels nice, but doesn’t really engage with the social realities of that idea, and just throws a lot of interesting stuff together and tries to pass it off as a meaningful statement as conveyed through the game’s choice system and its characters moralities. Yes, it’s a very meticulously constructed game with detail and nice music, clever humor, and has resonated with many, many people. But it felt insular, unwilling to try to be challenged by other ideas, wanting to hide away in its shell, sort of. It presents itself as this sort of truth about our world, without thinking about some of that world’s realities.

This may seem harsh, but I’m just trying to get at the drawbacks of singular-vision games. Keep in mind I don’t hate any of these games, but I feel very ‘mixed’ on them.

One last example. Antichamber. It felt a lot like The Witness, from press response, to how I felt during and after playing. You feel like you’re going to have some epiphany, some profound thing. Little intellectual-seeming quotes fill the game’s detailed and strange spaces and puzzle mechanics. And then the game just ends, and that’s flat-out it. It feels empty. Perhaps there wasn’t much there at all. And the game took a very long time to make. It feels sad, almost.

Are we using pretty art, quotes, and moral ‘decisions’ as a way of hiding some lack of engagement with the world?

Because of the great detail and scale of these games, and the personalities behind them, the discussion by the press frames the creators as geniuses (except Anodyne).

Not that this removes peoples’ experiences with the games. I’ve enjoyed all of them to various extents. But from observing peoples’ reactions that these games are such ‘genius-driven’ creations… to me, they feel short-sighted, in different ways. Sometimes as just mirrors for the player, sometimes as empty shells. You can dig in, find interesting tidbits. But often it just feels like the game is a muddy mirror.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to dismiss games made by one person: certainly, with enough awareness, these games can be very good. Instead of trying to play itself up as profound, the game Beeswing, made by one person, Jack King-Spooner, (whose new game Dujanah is on Kickstarter), stands around in the everyday portrayal of people living in the small town of Beeswing. In doing so, a lot of the little conversations you have with people more easily resonate with players, and show us glimpses into our world.

The game Cibele, by Starmaid Games, but mostly the vision of Nina Freeman, tells a very personal story about a teenage girl dating a boy through an online RPG. In it, it talks about themes of sexuality and youth, social interaction on the Internet, and the strange alternate reality that is online spaces. In giving a retelling of her own story, Nina manages to create a vessel in which we can reflect on the experiences we may have had as youth in MMORPGs (Maple Story strongly comes to mind for me).

Games like Beeswing and Cibele are still prone to being misrepresented by the media based on how they talk up the creator (there is a strange tendency for people to want to place people on pedestals or treat their games as universal), but by grounding themselves in awareness of the sociopolitical realities of our world, they are much more likely to be viewed in a way that doesn’t overly inflate their intentions, and yet, still have that strong, creative vision. These games focus in, instead of broadening and trying to come off as universal. 

I don’t want to conclude much from what I’m about to say, but it might be worth thinking about how the sales of Cibele and Beeswing have been far lower than The Witness, Antichamber, Fez, and Undertale – how some sorts of games lead to the creation of a millionaire class of game developers, and how fans and the media contribute to that.

Are we living in a healthy ecosystem of consumption? For those on the Internet, we all likely spend time in echo chambers, in a way that social networks form in real life, except this time aided by algorithms wanting to sell us stuff based on our interests. And then we might unknowingly seek out games that are echo chambers for our existing thoughts. But our world is oppressive, depressing, violent, and it’s fine – it’s fine to escape, temporarily, or all of the time. It is far too much to ask for everyone to ‘face reality’?

But I am criticizing the creators. Because we need to recognize when we have cultural reach, and treat that as a responsibility – a responsibility to not play into these genius narratives, to not oversimplify our world in a shallow and profound manner, or to overstep our bounds on what we know without care for the new territory we are treading into.

Conclusion

As a creator – is there a notion of ‘responsible creation’? When is letting yourself sort of drive the game with this overly-singular vision too much? When people engage with our work, there are real effects. They may miss our intentions, but each person incorporates a work of art in their own way. We need to be more aware of how our work might interact with the world outside of the game.

Moreover, if we are powerful, our work will create new standards. They will create myths around our personas and creations. They will shift what people think about or see as good. That is power. We may be acting as single humans, but can have effects that seem, collectively, more than human. And we might not even know it. We must be more socially aware.

As a consumer – am I just seeking experiences that validate my pre-existing views, create a sense of comfort? How much should I be challenging myself, really? Is there a danger in building my identities too much around things I consume? How much comfort do I really need? How do I talk about and recommend games? I know everyone’s backgrounds can vary wildly, and escapism is necessary for some. But we need to think about the extent to which escapism is necessary for ourselves.

I had an enjoyable time with The Witness – its world is a gold mine for formal qualities of visual art and architected space. Its puzzle design and pacing are well thought-out.

I’m merely trying to point out its issues in a wider context than just the game, hoping that game critics, consumers, and creators alike can try to think about repercussions of when particular sorts of games are put into positions where they have very high cultural reach, and when they are discussed and consumed in particular ways.


Thanks for reading!

If you like my writing, you can find more over at Medium. If you’re interested in my games, check out my current one, Even the Ocean, a longform, narrative-driven adventure platformer coming out summer 2016.

seanHTCH