What Are We Witnessing Here?

Some write friends of mine recently had a conversation about the importance of titles as parts of creative works.  We were joking in context of the list that Neil Clarke published last year of the ten most common short story titles he’s received in his slush pile at Clarkesworld, and that turned into a general lamentation that many amateur writers don’t take particular care in giving their works distinctive titles that contribute to the story in some way.

Of course, I’m a terrible amateur writer myself, and I confess to putting some pretty lousy titles on stories I’ve written in the past too, so this complaint is directed at myself as much as anyone.

Anyway, as I am wont to do, I began thinking about this trend in relation to other creative projects, particularly video games (there’s probably some interesting thoughts to be had regarding movies and novels, but I think the general simplicity of titles in those media exercise more influence on short stories than the other way around).  In the world of AAA games, most games belong to long-running franchises that maintain a core title that evokes a specific brand.  A Final Fantasy game will be pretty, feature a story and characters built from Western narrative tropes but with a distinctly Japanese perspective, and have chocobos and someone named Cid; Street Fighter is a one-on-one tournament fighter featuring broadly painted nationalist stereotypes and a lot of fireballs; Fallout games are post-apocalyptic, satirize post-World War II American culture, feature a bunch of giant radioactive monster bugs, and have a dog; Tomb Raider will be an adventure story about a woman named Lara Croft who will be pleasant to look at as she does lots of action-y things in exotic locales.  Short, simple titles that are highly memorable are the norm, partly because they reinforce brand recognition.


What the heck does this title mean, anyway? (Image credit: Wikipedia)

In the world of indie gaming (or indie anything, really; I see a pretty uniform trend among independent creators in any given field towards quirk and counterculture aesthetics) titles tend to be less generic and more descriptive because franchise branding isn’t as majorly ingrained.  Developers in this branch of the industry don’t have the luxury of massive resources that AAA games get allotted, and there’s (usually) more need to rely on creativity to draw an audience.

All this brings me to the most recent game that I played (besides Fallout 4, which, well, you’ve seen my thoughts on that game), Jonathan Blow’s recent release The Witness.  Many years ago, I played his first major breakthrough Braid (that game was excellent, and I regret that I no long own a copy of it, since I originally bought it on our Xbox 360), and it stayed with me as a high water mark for games that thematically incorporate their mechanics with their stories.  When I heard that Blow’s next game was releasing, I was pretty excited, because I was hoping for a similar experience.  I told Rachael about the game, and after she also received a recommendation for it from a friend of ours, we decided to buy and play it together to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Before I go any further, I’ll say upfront that we played through the game and enjoyed it immensely.  We didn’t find all the secrets that are apparently hidden in the environment, but between the two of us we completed the majority of the puzzles and reached the basic ending where the island resets itself.  Most of my thoughts are based on what I experienced, though I’m aware there are some other things built into the game.

Firstly, since it’s the thing I’ve been pondering since beginning this blog post, what’s up with the game’s title?  To whom is The Witness referring?  Are we supposed to take it as descriptive of the nameless, faceless player character (whose only defining trait is a shaggy haircut that can be inferred from the character’s shadow), and if so, what precisely are they witnessing?  While initial exploration of the island suggests that the various statues of people found standing around might be indicative of actual people who were caught up in some kind of catastrophe, the final area inside the mountain at the island’s center suggests the entire locale, including its stony citizens, is an artificial construct that’s meant to suggest some kind of event without actually being caught up in any such affair.  If this is the case, then there’s not much for the character to truly witness on the island other than its remarkably intricate and artificial complexity.  Alternatively, is The Witness supposed to be the player themselves, with the event being something on a more meta level as we observe the piece of entertainment that Jonathan Blow and his studio have devised?  If that’s the case, then doesn’t it seem to smack a little bit of hubris that a game, which by its nature is supposed to draw the player into contributing to the experience, is reducing the player’s role to that of observer?  Either interpretation strikes me as plausible (and given Blow’s penchant for seeking out greater thematic complexity in his game designs, both could be simultaneously valid), though they still feel to me like tricks played at the player’s expense, if for no other reason than because the title’s opacity is contributing to Blow’s overall goal of getting people caught up in the near endless conversations about what his game means whether they want to or not.

So I guess despite my complaint that The Witness is a terrible title, it succeeds in contributing to the overall effect of the work that it names.


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