Time and The Island


So I recently finished the last couple of Jonathan Blow video games, so curious was I about this developer's work given the interest in it by people I respect. As Phil predicted, The Witness was a bit more up my alley than it was his. Phil is often right.

Not that I didn't like Braid. Indeed, the basic mechanic itself in that game is both fascinating and relevant to the game's overall points about regret and nostalgia, which are entwined with the impetus to "save the princess." The actual puzzles I found very entertaining. Indeed, stripped down to just its mechanics, Braid has a wonderful, enchanting structure. Each section is basically an exploration of what happens when the mechanic of going back is contradicted or expanded in some novel way. Even more so, the way the various levels unfold remind me of certain musical compositions.

Take, for example, the rather well-known Canon in D Major, by Johann Pachelbel, or Ravel’s Bolero. Certain passages repeat, over and over, but with different tones and expressions as they are played by different instruments and with slight variations. This is the sense I get of Braid’s structure, from the repetition of The Pit as the first level in a new world (to explore a newly introduced mechanic) to Tim’s constant failure to find the princess at the end of each sequence.

Likewise, I found the art of Braid to be terribly enchanting. The palette of colors, the impressionistic brush strokes, coupled with the background music, it’s a game that’s pleasurable just to get immersed in. There is an element of pleasure for the sake of pleasure that I find very appealing, though obviously that’s not all that’s going on with Braid.

Which brings me to what really didn't work for me, which is the story. Some of this displeasure is undoubtedly rooted in having just played Undertale. In Undertale, the avatar for the player is decidedly ambiguous – a figure who could be any sex, and who could come from all kinds of different cultural backgrounds. Which makes it very easy to project one’s self into the story. But Undertale goes further, in that there’s an element of co-creation to the story, for indeed the point of Undertale is explore what sort of role you want to play in a game in the first place. You don’t have to kill monsters, you can make friends. Or you can be a terribly fearsome fighter. The outcome of the story is a reflection of your choices.

The actual mechanics of Undertale, in the meantime, are relatively trivial. You wander around various environments, solve some puzzles, and occasionally play mini-video games that are mostly about dodging or capturing certain sprites. But, as I said, the point of Undertale isn’t the mechanics, it’s the story, which unfolds through the exploration of the world and interacting with its characters. If anything, then, the central mechanic is choosing what you’re going to say next.

This is not what Braid is like. The role to play is completely determined – you are Tim. And your mission is determined – to rescue the princess. And what that means – you’re actually the bad guy stalking this woman – is completely determined. Now, I can’t complain about the underlying dynamics of how this all plays out, at least from a feminist standpoint, for the whole point of this story to undermine a pernicious sexist trope and implicate the player in the process. Which is fine. It’s good to deconstruct and critique male fantasies. But it is still, in the end, I think, very much a game for men.

The thing is, it's not only men who have savior complexes, or who have to work through the psychological issues of memory. It's something I've certainly struggled with in my own life, especially when it came to my work at a dog rescue. But there's no choice of avatar for Braid, nor indeed of any of the imagery in Braid, so given the very particular gender dynamics of the game, I ended up feeling systematically excluded from some of its more interesting points, all so it could focus on certain gaming tropes. Which made me rather resentful, because I liked the game mechanics. It's not something I really ever expect to return to.

I really wouldn't have a leg to stand on (after all, not everything is made for everyone, though obviously it's a problem that the video game industry continues to cater to only one demographic) except for how Braid ends up undercutting itself through its “secret ending,” which is achieved by collecting eight hidden stars littered throughout the various levels. And getting those stars is incredibly difficult. Hell, I didn’t even know there were stars until doing more research on the game. It turns out that you might have to play the game over again if you’ve advanced too far, just to get one of those stars. Another one requires waiting over an hour, standing on a slowly moving platform, to get where the star is located. In other words, only the most obsessive gamer is going to actually go through all these motions for the sake of completion.

Which makes the final star a real kicker. It requires entering the glass house of the princess herself and jumping on her bed. Now you’re playing an avatar who isn’t just a stalker, but a home invader. And finally, you actually get to touch the princess, which unleashes a mighty explosion. Which suggests, given the game directly quotes a member of the Manhattan Project, not to mention the opening image featuring a city in flames, that the princess is actually symbolic of the atomic bomb, which completely changes the context of all the obsessive pursuit. And I find this kind of disturbing, because it’s largely taking the obsessive gamer off the hook when it comes to the objectification of women. One might argue that it now paints such a gamer in a worse light – a destroyer of worlds rather than a destroyer of women – but I think a lot of them would relish that change of context. I mean, it’s not like any of them are going to be building a real atomic bomb.

Now, I’m not so sure the game actually means to let them off the hook. I think it’s actually trying to implicate them further – the princess isn’t a metaphor for the bomb, so much as that the creation of the bomb is a metaphor for the gamer mindset towards women, that this attitude towards women can destroy the world, just through pure obsessiveness and objectification. For when all the stars are collected, the constellation of Andromeda in the sky becomes complete, overlaid with an image of a woman bound in chains. Which rather invokes the myth of Andromeda, a fair maiden bound in chains who basically exists to be rescued by the heroic Perseus. Throughout the Renaissance, the primary interest in this Greek myth was to paint nude women in bondage. Given that some of the more biting commentary on the perspective of the “hero” comes in the game’s regular denouement, commentary which only becomes apparent through solving additional puzzles that aren’t even presented as puzzles, I have to think this really is a critique leveled at the obsessive male gamer. That so many can now easily dodge it – “the game is really about the atomic bomb” – is thus deeply unfortunate. And, again, I myself still feel excluded from the game, for even if I’m generous and charitable towards the underlying intent, I’m still reduced to some man’s talking point to other men.

So I dunno. This is certainly a particularly personal interpretation, obviously, one based on my personal experience with the game and its themes. I’m still very impressed with the actual “gaming” of Braid, just on its own, sans the story and thematic residue. The puzzling is superb. And I can even respect the attempted communication on the nature and problems with some of the sexist tropes in videogame story (a storytelling problem that obviously extends back to ancient mythology). But I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, in the end, because it’s still making (ironically) the same mistakes about its assumed audience (the implied reader, hmmm) as it constructs its perspective.

You might think this kind of problem also exists in The Witness. I certainly did, at first. But my opinions on this have changed as I eventually completed the game. It begins with the central mechanic: The Witness is fundamentally different in that you’re not controlling an avatar on a two-dimensional(ish) playing field, you’re moving a first-person camera through a 3D environment. That camera, however, can cast a shadow as you explore the various environments of The Island. And you can position that shadow in interesting (though obviously predetermined) ways just for the sake of aesthetics. There’s something very appealing about that! It adds to the sense of having a material presence in this world, of being more than a camera – as do the sound effects of walking and running, not to mention the existence of puzzles that are activated by those very “footsteps.”

There’s just one problem for me at this point: The shadow isn’t ambiguous – it’s really not at all feminine.

Anyways, I file my storytelling reservations away as I get into exploring the Island. For it’s a fascinating place. Throughout, there’s an integration of the main line of puzzles and the environment. The main puzzles – square grids through which you trace a particular line, like a labyrinth – have the feel of musically structured repetition through which an abstract principle is explored.  The thing is, the abstract principle is also unified with the environment. The Quarry, for example, is a place where you remove spaces from the world. That principle of “removal” is also the one taught and explored in the main puzzles there, as you have to consider which element of the puzzle needs to be removed, cordoning it off such that the rest of the puzzle can be logically solved. Near the Reflecting Water, early in the game, we find puzzles with twin lines being drawn simultaneously. The Botany Lab, with all its different colored flowers and particular lighting, is where the rules of color puzzles are laid out. The Town, on the other hand, functions as a “hub” where the different elements of the puzzles mingle, complicating each other. Coupled with the environmental puzzles, the entire world becomes laden with meaning, insofar as we derive meaning from solving puzzles.

Now, it’s certainly true that aligning up the camera to get the precise perspective necessary to solve some puzzles takes… precision. But it’s not something I noticed very much – maybe four or five times. However, I play on a PC. I’m using a keyboard and a mouse to navigate the 3D environment, and it’s kind of second nature – maybe my setup has more precision than a gamepad. (I’ve never adapted to the game console controllers, alas.) Regardless, I didn’t find this aspect of the game mechanic to be onerous, though I can certainly imagine. But for me, it wasn’t a big deal. If anything, it added an element that contributes to my overall understanding of the game, which I’ll get to at the end.

Or ends, as the case may be. They begin at the Mountain. For some reason I had some clipping errors while climbing up the mountain, and as such saw the interior before I figured out the puzzle of getting inside. Nonetheless, it’s got to be one of the stranger and more surprising images I’ve seen in game design – a square glass tube, several stories high, filled with desks, chairs, and monitors. And what’s striking about it is the absurd artificiality of it all, in comparison to the lush “natural” environments of the Island. What this does is to expose the artificiality of the entire world. And, of course, now we get puzzles where you’ve literally got to invent the path you have to walk, which emerges in the middle of space like magical translucent plastic. It was, for me, the most exciting moment in the game.

But it occurs to me that despite all this, the environment isn’t actually very interactive at all. Every puzzle basically consists of tracing out a line on the screen. That’s it. Even when you’re manipulating objects, there’s a control panel interface where drawing a line is still the key to making something happen. Same for the environmental puzzles. It’s not like I can ever pick up a rock and throw it. There’s not even the illusion of pressing a button, or pulling a lever, unlike, say, MYST, where you can open drawers and point and click your way to a variety of surprises. With The Witness, it’s always the same sort of interface: move the camera to gain another perspective, and trace a line on the screen.

I think that’s kind of the point of the Mountain, to peel back the façade of what you’re doing. It’s in the Mountain where we start finding audio tapes that aren’t just recitations, but also include dialogue from the people reading the quotes, suggesting that they themselves are people, too, or at least characters – there’s still an artificiality to the dialogue that suggests “characters” would be more accurate, “characters” in a story about making a video game. (By the way, I love that we get women as well as men reading the pithy quotes.) It’s in the Mountain that we start seeing the sketched designs of the environment itself. The broken monitors in the “axis mundi” showing various perspectives of the Island, as if coming from nearly fixed cameras. It’s in the Mountain where we get a “speed run” challenge, which is very much a tactic of gamer culture.

This is almost alchemical – to get past the surface, you have to enter the Mountain, the axis mundi that connects Above and Below, Past and Future, to the Here and Now.

It’s funny, but a lot of the puzzle progressions involve the understanding of negative space as well as positive space. In the Lumberyard, for example, there are puzzles where the shadow or shape of some tree branches determine the path you should trace on the puzzle board. And then it shifts, and it’s the light shining through the shadows that determines the path. In the place of Trees, another symbol of the axis mundi, there’s a union of opposites.

Which gets taken to an extreme when considering the endings, which as far as I’m concerned number three. The first is the activation of the flying elevator, from the base of the mountain facing out to the sea. The puzzles here are circular, the game boards wrapping around cylinders, so when you finally take the elevator (an ascension motif) you return to where you started, the slate wiped clean. But you don’t have to enter the cycle of Eternal Return, for there’s yet another puzzle that leads into a “secret room,” which is basically a place for the credits. In turn, this leads to a final cinematic cut-scene, where the first-person perspective is retained, and it becomes apparent that this is literally all happening in someone’s head, via some kind of Virtual Reality equipment. We discover the workspace a video-game developer, and then the rest of his home. So when Phil says, “Likewise, the idea that The Witness is a celebration of ‘true searchers’ or whatever is to mistake the structure of Jonathan Blow’s mind for the fundamental truths of the universe,” I do believe he’s absolutely right.

For who else can that shadow really be? It’s not me. You never see the shadow or the “camera” reflected in the water, which is the only Mirror on the Island. Dial the settings up to a 120 degree view, and you can actually see the shadow “float” without being attached to any corporeal being.

The shadow is a dream.

An interesting duality unfolds. I think the shadow is an imaginary Jonathan Blow. And if that’s really the case, then it’s a fun thing to think that we are “directing” him through his paces on the Island. Furthermore, if the Island is his mind, then he’s got a model of us in his head, controlling him. We’re literally in his head, figuratively speaking. In his head!  Except the Island is actually his creation, and all the paths and perspectives in it were carved out by him. So he’s really the one in control. We’re in his head, thinking we’re in control, but we’re not. There’s a nifty bit of circularity here, a dance, a bit of self-reflection.

Consider these shots of the shadow juxtaposed with other shadows. In one, the shadow has wings, like an angel, an ethereal being that doesn’t actual have a corporeal existence, just like the shadow. In the space right next to it, the shadow gains a crown, like a king. And the game developer is certainly the king of this castle. Self-reflection. And, perhaps, self-aggrandizement. Or the bit where you can step into the shadow of the Juggler statue in the town, and end up with an “arch” over your head, not unlike the arch that arcs over the Mountain, which reflects the “interiority” of the game as well as its creator.

So The Witness is not a game about universal truths. It’s about one man’s perspective of the world, and his attempt to communicate that perspective in a way that’s more honest or true to the experience than if it were attempted through verbalization, which is so linear, just a straight line carved out – no, traced – through the conscious mind. Which is why we have other forms of art. To communicate, to express, what we can’t just speak.

Which leads me to the third ending of The Witness. See, there are these statues all around the Island. As if they were people frozen in time. Well, there’s actually an instance of something becoming like a statue that wasn’t a statue before – the black columns. When you find all the environmental puzzles on a black column, it turns to stone. And eventually, all the black columns can be turned to stone. And that’s it. There’s no grand epiphany. There’s just… finality. Everything has been completed. All there’s left do is wander around the place and admire your handiwork, and the handiwork of the Island’s creators. The Island in this ending is simply a work of art. Like a painting, really. Like all art, it expresses a perspective. And, as it turns out, to really understand this perspective, you’ve got to exercise a certain amount of precision to grok it. Which is true, I guess, of others’ perspectives. Sometimes you’ve got to position yourself just so in order to demonstrate that you really get it. And if The Witness is really just about exploring Jonathan Blow’s head, well, at least at the meta-level it’s completely honest about that, though with the choice of quotes it's also certainly not lacking in pretentiousness. (But most of the quotes are interesting, so there's that.) 

As you might expect, I had a much more favorable response to The Witness. Actually, for a couple weeks, I got really obsessed with it. Such that I started seeing that circle-line pattern out in the “real world,” usually while walking my dogs. Seeing it, because I was still searching for it. Robert Anton Wilson once pointed out that if you start looking for quarters, you’ll find them. On the sidewalk, under a store counter, in the corner of the grocery store, just keep looking for quarters and you’ll find them. We find what we look for.  But why in the world would you spend your life looking for quarters?

I can’t help but think of the first and last videos in the Windmill’s amphitheater. They are practically the antithesis of each other. And yet, they are somehow unified in rejecting the Island. James Burke goes on about the glory of science, how it shows “only what is demonstrably true about the world” while art will “tell you more about the guy who’s talking than about the world he’s talking about.” Which rather undercuts the idea of making a video game Island as a work of art. On the other end, we have Gangaji, the blonde American woman who’s now a spiritual teacher, who suggests you “stop looking for what you want,” find a “directionless direction,” and investigate what happens when you “stop trying to get anything,” which is just another way of saying “let go.” Naturally, this precludes actually exploring this damn Island to find out what it’s all about. All I can do is laugh.

So I find myself having mixed feelings about both these games. The actual underlying mechanics of Braid are supremely satisfying, but I don’t like the context of it. Whereas I really like the context of The Witness, even though it goes on too long, with its anal-retentive precision and really far too many variations on the same theme when it comes to some of its puzzling – it really does get quite tedious at times. In the end, I much prefer reflecting on The Witness than I do Braid.

So that's my experience of these games. It’s not the first nor last word on them. But I hope, at least (for I am not giving up hope, nor intention, whatever the damn guru woman says), this will at least be food for thought. And if there’s a larger truth to be found here, I think it’s this: if player and creator are juxtaposed, as being two sides of the same coin, then perhaps that’s a metaphor for another, more sublime truth. Who is the master who makes the grass green?


MattM 11 months, 2 weeks ago

I couldn't get on with Braid, I found the puzzles annoying and stressful rather than fun. Loved Undertale though.

Not quite sure I buy your point about there being a dissonance between being a female player and the male character in Braid. As gender ambiguous as the character in Undertale is, I just assumed she was female and had no problem with the immersion there (unless I've misunderstood your point!) But I only got halfway through Braid before giving up, so take that opinion for what it's worth! :)

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CJ Duck 11 months, 2 weeks ago

This is a fantastic analysis of The Witness, one of the best I've read. I never noticed the things you can do with the shadow, but now I want to go back and see what I can find!

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