I've collected some of my thought on the design of The Witness and what I think it is trying to convey through that design. This post contains spoilers for the game and its intentions, at least in my estimation. This post was inspired by both the game itself and the close playing podcast
Games are designed, yet not all games feel designed. Generally games endeavour to create another world, another life for a player to inhabit. And while at first it may feel like that's what The Witness is trying to do, with its vibrant and painterly scenery, and calm contemplative feel, it doesn't take long before the designer first shows their hand. And by the end of the game you may feel all but pummelled with just how designed every aspect of the entire island actually is. Intentionality shines through almost every facet of the game, from the placement of panels, to the cracks in stones, from the flow of water, to the path of boats. It shines to such an extent that it can be disconcerting to some. What first felt like an escape can quickly become a lesson.
But the design is so overt that I can't help but feel that its overtness is itself a part of the message of the game. The Witness could easily have been more subtle, had a lighter touch, but I think it didn't, at least in part, because The Witness has something to say about the nature of escape and designed fantasies.
I think The Witness is meta commentary about not just the process, but the purpose of game design. If you accept that one aspect of this game's message is that observation, contemplation, and experimentation are valuable as tools to understand systems, then another aspect of its message must be explore, why we seek out caricatures of such experiences that are otherwise available in the real world, and why do we create them?
Why do we play?
Besides the overtly designed nature of the island itself I think the first ending goes some way to addressing this idea. Every impact of the player on the island is slowly visited and then undone, as if to reset the island. But why reset everything, but to make way for the next player? But once the last puzzle has been reset and the last door closed, we see that we are the next player. We are ready to play through the game once more. To solve again the many puzzles and learn again (or to at least remember) the ways the many pieces fit together.
But why? Why would we do again what we have already done? Why did we do it in the first place? Blow's attempt to craft ah ha moments, moments of discovery and realisation, seem noble. But what is the value of fictional discovery, what is the point of fake realisation?
I think it is obvious that we play games to learn. In fact I think most of the media we consume we do so to learn. If not about ourselves, then about others, or even the world around us. It seems clear to me that The Witness mostly focuses on the last category of learning, learning about the world. But, the nature of fiction is that we do not learn about things directly, but through analogy or metaphor. This kind of learning is valuable in at least two ways. It can lead to realisations about reality that are laid bare by the way the fiction presents them. Or it can be practice.
Use leads to improvement, whether we are talking about exercise, about writing or about learning. And so a game that gets us to practice learning, practice observation, contemplation, and experimentation, makes us better at those things. Hopefully it also makes us realise, through analogy, that we can use those same tools to explore the world around us. Since many problems we face are amenable to such inquiry.
But the real world is not a safe space. And practice and the failure it entails are often not tolerated. So this island resort serves a second purpose: It not only provides a place for learning, it makes that space safe, and hopefully comforting, rather than judgemental.
Fiction as a mirror
In most games there is a fiction to explain the backdrop for the player’s discovery, perhaps a long dead culture's architecture. But in The Witness the world wasn't created for some historical culture to inhabit, it was explicitly created for you to explore. The fiction here is paper thin, just as Blow and his team crafted this experience for you so did the people referenced in the audio journals and statues which decorate the island. The island was made for you.
So to understand why this island was created we must ask why people create games in real life, what are the motivations behind their development? And I think that was Blow's intent here. That this game act as a mirror for the process and intent of game development itself. The overtness of the design and the paper thin fictionalisation of its justification invite questions that point back from the fiction into our reality.
Blow wants games to strive to be more, and by asking us why we play and why we create while simultaneously providing us with something he finds worthy on both counts he hopes to move the medium along the path he envisions.
That this game acts as a mirror for reality, shines through so much of its design. From puzzles that act as lessons about physics of light and sound, to the use of real life architects who designed the island’s buildings. That this mirror also shines back at the process of game development itself should be as unsurprising as it is revelatory.