Understanding Art: An Analysis of The Witness

A Video Game Analysis by Daniel Alexander

            The Witness is a difficult game to parse meaning from. It doesn’t offer much in the way of conventional storytelling, nor does it provide much assistance in figuring out the basic mechanics of the world. On top of that, there is no discernable narrative to follow throughout the game and a playthrough tends to be driven more by curiosity and determination than engagement with a plot.

            The apparent absence of a storyline doesn’t mean that The Witness doesn’t have anything to say. It just means that it’s going to take a bit more speculation and hypothesizing to reach a place of understanding. Funnily enough, that seems to be exactly what the systems in the game encourage.

            A brief explanation of The Witness’s gameplay would call it a puzzle game where you draw lines through mazes, completing them to unlock new mazes. These mazes will occasionally have added rules, such as colored dots that must be separated by your line or Tetris blocks that must be formed by your solution. These puzzles begin simply and then ramp up in difficulty, adding new twists, challenges, and even combining mechanics.

            The Witness's gameplay would effectively be the same if it were just a series of screens and menus. That’s not the case, however, as the mazes are instead located on a mysterious island full of stone statues depicting people going about their lives. Accessing them requires navigating the landscape and physically moving from place to place. Putting the puzzles in a physical area also lets the game include environmental elements to the mazes, such as rock formations that must be traced around or actual hedge mazes that contain the solution.

            The island also lends itself to some organic storytelling, the sort that doesn’t require voice acting or dialogue to be conveyed. Exploring the space reveals an artists’ haven, full of locations seemingly dedicated to constructing aesthetic works. These range from simple sculpture or paints to massive projects that span entire zones. The puzzles don’t specifically engage with the artistic endeavors on display, but progressing through areas and solving the mazes will lead you on a tour of everything the island has to offer.

            One more feature that The Witness can include with its physical world are puzzles within the environment itself. These landscape mazes exist as features of the world, formed by the sun glinting off of a structure or the shape made by gaps in buildings when viewed at a certain angle. They can be difficult to notice and aren’t necessary to complete the game, but spotting them makes for a terrific moment of revelation and wonder.

            As a whole, The Witness is a puzzle game about solving mazes with various rules that takes place on an island built to display art, while also concealing secret puzzles in the landscape itself. That about covers the game’s basic experience, though there are secrets and mysteries abound. The game even has a rather strange hidden ending if you unlock all of the environmental mazes. Still, the question of what all of this says about the game’s ultimate meaning remains.

            One possible explanation is that the game is about art. The island is full of the stuff, after all, so it’s a logical conclusion to say that The Witness is saying something about how we interact with it. Going a bit deeper, we might even say that The Witness is about understanding art. The puzzles that fill the island all have set rules, none of which are explained to the player in tutorials or popups. Instead, you figure them out through engagement. You’re asked not just to observe the world around you, but to understand it.

            A level deeper still takes us to the environmental puzzles, which ask us to look at the world around us in the same way we look at art. We need to understand the world a very specific way to solve these conundrums. One could even say that we need to view the landscape around us the same way that the designer of these mazes might view it. At this point, the game shifts from talking about how we understand art to how an artist understands art. We’re asked to step into the shoes of the one who creates – to not just comprehend their works, but to try and comprehend them and the way they look at their surroundings.

            The game is ultimately about redefining what its title means. A witness is one who sees or observes something, but The Witness is more than that. To be a witness in this game is to both see and understand. To witness the art that surrounds you is to comprehend not just that it exists, but how and why it exists as well. These ideas form the basis of artistic analysis and criticism, and the game suggests it’s something that everyone who plays it is capable of.

©2019 by Daniel Alexander