On The Witness

by Darius Kazemi, Jan 29, 2016

I remember visiting some cathedral when I was a little kid and hearing that there was a labyrinth somewhere on the grounds. I was excited: I loved maze puzzles so this was sure to be a load of fun! I could hardly wait, anticipating the moment when the maze would break up the monotony of the sacred space. Finally, the moment came, and I was faced with something like this:

I was furious. What was the point, if you couldn't win or lose? Mazes are supposed to be fun, damn it.

Of course, a labyrinth is not a maze. For thousands of years the labyrinth has been used by humans as a tool to assist in spiritual journeys. People unable to make a religious pilgrimage will walk the path of the labyrinth as a stand-in for the literal journey. Some use it as an aid to prayer: the walk to the center is when you shed your worldly thoughts, the center is where you are one with the universe, and the walk to the exit is where you bring what you can from that center experience back into the mundane world.

There are other ways to use a labyrinth but they all boil down to a short physical journey that acts as a metaphor for some other in journey.

The labyrinth is a metaphor machine.

I like to build metaphor machines, so I've created a few for you to experience in this essay. Don't worry, they're not hard. They're labyrinths. Use your mouse or a finger to tap and drag the token from the upper left of the labyrinth to the goal, indicated by the X.

The Witness is a series of mazes, but playing the
game reveals that it is full of labyrinths as well,
paths hidden cleverly or out in the open. Transported
through its island, we find a mystery world steeped in
ritual practice. There's more to the mazes than meets
the eye.

Of course, games and ritual are inextricably tied up with one another. We often talk about games of skill or chance, but in 2011 Naomi Clark and Eric Zimmerman proposed a third category: labor. A game of labor is one where hard work inevitably pays off (full video of their talk here). Imagine Farmville: it's a game where you succeed by showing up and doing the simple tasks that are asked of you. There's some skill element (knowing what to plant where and when) but for the most part, success comes through sheer dilligence.

Labor isn't relegated to the casual realm either. Your traditional RPG grind is essentially a game of labor. Yes, if you master the battle system you don't have to grind so much, but you only succeed in winning faster than other players. A player without mastery can overcome any challenge if they spend long enough fighting easy monsters for XP.

Because they are games of labor, grindy RPGs and appointment-based social games both have a strong ritual element to them. The player repeats the same actions, often experiencing something like a state of reverie as they lose themselves in the game. Time loses meaning and dreams start to take on aspects of the game itself.

Now that we're talking about RPGs and ritual, it's time to bring up the critically aclaimed, divisive game that I was thinking about the whole time I played The Witness. I am, of course, talking about...

NDERTALE ...wait, really???

On the surface, Undertale and The Witness couldn't be more different. One is an RPG, the other is a puzzle game. Undertale is about story and feelings and silly jokes and bad puns and going on dates with skeletons. The Witness is stoic and sterile and mostly silent, what Albert Lai called "Distant Dad Simulator 2016". And Undertale has SNES-level graphics while The Witness is a powerhouse featuring fancy things like irradiance caching and shadow mapping and who knows what else.

But Undertale and The Witness have a lot in common, too. Both heavily reference a mid-90s game (Earthbound and Myst, respectively) but avoid cloying reverence, instead managing to say something new. Both games are extremely avant-garde, constantly requiring the player to think about genre convention and challenge it head-on.

And like The Witness, Undertale is essentially one long ritual labyrinth. At the outset of the game, an assortment of characters and posted signs walk you through a series of trials where you're meant to tread a path that has already been clearly marked for you.

These trials are labyrinthine rather than maze-like. Their conclusion is foregone and they pose no challenge: the point is walking through these rituals that important characters have set up for you.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that for any piece of art or media, there are the things we like about it and then the things that make it great. And while I like completely different things about The Witness and Undertale, the thing that makes them great is, well, pretty much the same.

(the end)