This post mainly acts as a response to some of the thoughts bought up in the excellent podcast series Close Playing by Tevis Thompson. In the first episode he is joined by guest Carolyn Petit to discuss The Witness. It is a really great episode and I highly recommend listening, to both it and the whole series as well as the games criticism of both Tevis and Carolyn.

I had some thoughts that I share below, since I think there's slightly more going on in the game than was touched upon in this episode. They will make little to no sense for those who haven't played the game and listened to the podcast.

@tevisthompson @carolynmichelle I thoroughly enjoyed this podcast despite disagreeing with some of the conclusions. Mostly importantly it bought a lot of clarity to my own feelings. I agreed with your approach, observations, and analysis. Further, I respect and learned from both of your experiences and feelings.  However, I think there is a significant difference in our assumptions that cause some of our conclusions about what the game is trying to be about to diverge, even given the same evidence.

The main contention is to do with idea of a conflict between subjectivity and objectivity. In the podcast you point out that in some ways The Witness is about reducing rich complex environment to a simple set of images or paths. Similarly, you argue that the solvabilty of The Witness implies that through analogy the real world is also a solvable system. I strongly agree with both observations about the game, in fact I think these two ideas are at the heart what I think the game is trying to express (well one major aspect of it anyway). I think the designer is trying to show through analogy that the real world is a solvable system in many ways. That observation and experimentation allow us to reduce complex systems to simple snapshots (rules and formula). That these rules allow predictions, that science is a valuable endeavour with many fruits.

But you find this too reductive, you lament the loss of rich complexity that falls away from the formulas and hides just out of view of the snapshots. You criticise the solvability as a fallacy, the world is far too complex, far too contingent to be captured through an objective approach to understanding. And I can understand why. There is so very much to the world, yet the far flung reaches of the universe are grander and yet so much simpler than even the simplest of human interactions. In our sphere contingency reigns so supreme that objectivity stands little chance of gaining traction. And so we rely on our subjective experience, we embrace it, it is our main path towards understanding. 

But science recognises that. Science recognises that observation is by its very nature subjective. The process of science itself is inductive at least as often as deductive. It relies on contingency and analogy to break new ground, to realign existing understandings into new theories. We need subjectivity, but not just of one person but many. Together our joint subjectivity can help us glean what is universal. What is independent of any one person’s experience. And I hope that once we understand what is objective, we can turn the lens back around and discover what is subjective, what is unique, and what is personal. But that may be some ways off.

And so ask you to consider the middle path. Do not reject objectivity, with its cold ignorance of personal experience. And similarly do not reject subjectivity with its attempts to elevate the personal above the real. Let them share the podium as two compatible approaches understanding the world and ourselves. One reaching out into the universe and another reaching back from the universe, each grasping ever closer to the other.

While I think that for the most part The Witness embraces its endorsement of objectivity, I think it recognises the importance of subjectivity similar to what I have tried to express here. And I think if you gave objectivity slightly more of a chance, despite its common miss-attribution, you may find slightly more to The Witness than you otherwise have.

But perhaps I'm off my mark? And surely there is more to discuss.

AuthorTrevor Murray