NOTE: Light spoilers for The Witness are found below.
In attempting to bridge the gap that typically exists between narrative and gameplay, indie developer Jonathan Blow’s latest release, The Witness, may have created an entirely new language for video games.
That is a big claim, I realize. It’s one I don’t make lightly—especially in view of the critical divisiveness The Witness has provoked. Games like Uncharted and The Last of Us may have been praised for their excellent writing, but more often than not, their stories are kept apart from the player, tucked away in cut scenes and audio clips between the player’s actual actions. The idea of weaving exposition into the narrative, and then weaving the narrative into the gameplay itself, is a kind of holy grail for developers—and it’s one I believe The Witness achieves, even as it manages the additional impressive feat of creating a compelling conversation between science and religion.“On my search, […] I found that the game consistently reflected the layered complexity of the Christian tradition.”
The Witness is not an explicitly “Christian” game; it does not present a Gospel message, nor does it have an altar call. It is, however, a very religious game in that it requires the dedicated player to, at the very least, engage with theology, philosophy and scientific thought from such varied sources as the Diamond Sutra, the King James Bible, and Richard Feynman’s lectures on physics.
Before all this, though, The Witness is a game with a very simple premise: You, the player, emerge from a sterile tunnel onto a deserted island populated by over 700 puzzles. The primary way you interact with the game world is by solving these puzzles, most of which are presented as grid-based mazes that you must trace to complete. They begin with a simple left-to-right line. Then, you’re introduced to a 90-degree turn. Within 15 minutes, you are being taught puzzles with highly complex rules. Sometimes, these puzzles are beguiling and enjoyable; at other times, they make you want to throw your peripherals against a wall, scream obscenities at Jonathan Blow, and then sit back down, collect yourself, and continue solving.
What most makes The Witness unique, though, is that its puzzles are not explained with written or audible instructions. Instead, new mechanics are introduced via new sets of puzzles that begin by using the simplest form of the rule. From there, iteration follows iteration until the puzzles become so complex and beautiful that they can instill a feeling of zen-like quietness. As you solve each sequence of puzzles, they provide both the endorphin rush of conquest and the internal sense of “ah-ha!” (That, or you’ll feel like punching a fist through your TV in frustration.)
As I played through the game, I found myself moving from puzzle to puzzle with a hunger to see what the next reward would be. Most times, it would just be another puzzle on another square grid around the corner. Even then, though, I found myself entering a flow state as I got into the groove of solving. The satisfaction of completing more and more complicated problems became the driving force—even if it sometimes drove me to take a screen shot of a puzzle, copy it to graph paper or the “53” app on my iPad, and work the solution out by hand.
What does all this have to do with theology, you ask? Everything.
You see, The Witness’s island is empty—devoid of life apart from statues littered about the landscape and evidence of former habitation. Amid such vacancy, the clues as to what lies behind the puzzles are first found in audio logs strewn across the island. These recordings contain quotes from historical, philosophical and religious sources—including The Diamond Sutra, Augustine of Hippo, 16th century reformer Hans Denck, and others—all of which share a common theme: a search for truth in simplicity. Hans Denck, for instance, declares in one clue, “Oh, my God, how does it happen in this poor old world, that Thou art so great and yet nobody finds Thee…?” A clue from The Dhammapada, meanwhile, states, “Through many births I have wandered on and on, searching for, but never finding the builder of [this] house.”
The Witness itself offers no answers to these graspings—except, perhaps, in its title. Blow is, after all, a mathematician, and the term “witness” refers to a mathematical function used in complex formulas to testify to what is true. An answer may also be found in Rufus M. Jones’s book on spiritual reformers, which says of one of Hans Denck’s poems, “There is, [Denck] says, a witness in every man. He who does not listen to it blinds himself, although God has given him originally a good inward eyesight.”
At the core of the game, though—at the very heart of its mountain of puzzles and clues—is the search for truth itself. Everything in the game is centered around finding truth either mechanically (by finding the truth in a puzzle’s solution) or personally (by exploring the clues’ different schools of thought and coming to your own well-informed conclusions). Nothing in the game points to a specific philosophy being the “correct” one; as in Blow’s previous game Braid, players are left to do the interpretive work for themselves. In this way, it rewards the player who has the patience and ability to push beyond tracing simple lines from A to B.
It would be easy, then, to write off The Witness as yet another product of postmodern relativism, another iteration of the idea that finding the Truth is less important than finding your truth. On my search, however, I found that the game consistently reflected the layered complexity of the Christian tradition. As multifaceted and deep as Christianity can be, it is also, like The Witness‘s puzzles, beautifully simple—so simple, in fact, that children can grasp it, just like drawing a line from left to right. But as we delve deeper into Scripture, into the Greek and Hebrew, and into the teachings of scholars through the ages and the multiplicity of theologies that they’ve given rise to, we soon learn that the Faith can be as complex as the most ornate and intricate labyrinth. And just as one puzzle in The Witness may consume your waking hours, sometimes we can find ourselves spending days, months, or years on one specific question or concept before we arrive at anything resembling The Truth.
Maybe this unapologetic commitment to complication is why The Witness has been called snobbish and pretentious. To some extent, these are fair critiques—some players will not find its beguiling puzzles appealing. For those who do find themselves wandering the island and admiring the view, though, there is truth to be found in The Witness—and, perhaps more importantly, opportunities to share your discoveries with other players who are also searching.