Cinematography and Exploration in The Witness

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Imagine being alone on an island where youʼre left to your own devices. All you have to rely on are your observations based on the subtle clues that little piece of land had to offer. Throughout the journey, the puzzles you solve lead to a meaningful revelation. Each time you completed one set of puzzles, it brought you closer to a sense of purpose for being there.
The classic 1993 adventure game, Myst by Cyan Worlds welcomed its players into such an experience no other medium could invite them into. It was an unexpected success amongst critics, who greatly praised the gameʼs interactive element that allowed its players to explore the world the Miller brothers created as if they were a part of it. After its success, Cyan Worlds went on to continue the Myst story through its sequels and spin-offs throughout the late-1990ʼs and mid-2000ʼs. During the decades that granted the develops their recognition, similar titles such as GTE Entertainmentʼs Timelapse (1996), Knut Mullerʼs RHEM series (2003-present) and the now defunct company, Cyberflixʼs Titanic: Adventure out of Time (1996) have used a similar formula to that of the Myst series with their exploration and puzzles. The problem these games all had in common was that their puzzles required specific exploration in order to solve them. Indie game developer, Jonathan Blow, who is known for his 2009 debut platform game, Braid sought to, as A.V. Club writer Matt Gerardi phrased it, “rethink and modernize classic adventure games”.

So, what does reworking the formula mean to Blow? There are two things that differentiate The Witness from any other type of game. 1. As Blow himself described its

gameplay, “[w]e can do some very interesting things if we put down language as a crutch for communication…Thatʼs the experiment of this game: just donʼt use language at all. I wanted to see what kinds of knowledge and experience we could build up without it”. Rather than have the player read or hear in-game instructions, they are expected to rely on the subtle clues based in the environmental context they are presented in. 2. As pinpointed by writer former Kotaku writer, Tina Amini, unlike other adventure games, where “youʼd have to locate an inventory item—like a key—in order to open a bonus door with hidden secrets, in Blowʼs game the key is everything youʼve learned about his puzzles in your time spent with the game. The key is in your head”, she explains.
That being said, similar to how Braid added new insights to the traditional Super Mario Bros.-esque platformer, The Witness is another step further in the case of Myst influenced titles. There are no other characters to interact with. The only character in this game is the player. As the player explores the multi-layered island and what its inhabitants left behind, they become the witness of both the world Blow had created and their own understanding of nature, technology and their relationship with mankind. The character development builds up from what the player gains from the experience. It is the combination of cinematography and exploration that the meaning of The Witness gradually takes shape. When reevaluating what happens in the first 10-15 minutes of the game, the context clues about the inhabitants, the story behind whatʼs left of the island, and how the player reflects on their journey at the theater when viewing one of the film clips and how it ties into the theme of the game.

Arriving at the Island

Upon starting a new game, you first find yourself facing a glowing panel at the end of a circular hallway. Judging by the layout, it looks very modernized, almost like something out of a science fiction film. Turning around into the darkness leads to nowhere. There is nothing there and nowhere else to go. Your only option is to walk straight into the light and towards that panel. Looking at the panel, you see a horizontal line. You click it and starting from the left, you redraw that same line and then the door opens. However, you are not greeted by another futuristic tunnel. Instead, you find yourself inside a natural cave. The man-made object is another panel with a similar design on it, but a different variation. Clicking it and emulating the pattern opens the door to a flight of stairs carved from the cave, leading to an exit. Walking up those steps leads to a yard surrounded by a stone wall, rose bushes, trees with blossoms, patio and indoor furniture and elaborate versions of the panel patterns.

 

Cinematography Techniques

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Throughout those first few minutes of gameplay, the only type of sounds that can be heard are ambient noises. Throughout the entire game, those ambient noises remain consistent. Whatever setting you are in, be it inside the modern looking tunnel, the natural cave or stepping out into the outdoors for the first time, the diegetic sound is what it would sound like if you could visit that place in real life. It is about being present in the moment. From a cinematic standpoint, this technique shares some similarities to the 1982 experimental film, Koyaanisqatsi (also known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance). It should also be noted that camera movement and cinematography of Koyaanisqatsi was a major influence for the long screenshots, which was an idea of one of the gameʼs art team members, Luis Antonio. Although in contrast, the filmʼs soundtrack is non-diegetic, like how the gameplay of The Witness is structured in a way that the player is in the moment they are exploring, Koyaanisqatsi draws its viewers into each segment in a way they are deeply invested in that scene. In addition to any other similarities both forms of media have in common, itʼs the theme of man, nature and technology. In The Witness, the player sees a juxtaposition of the manmade slowly being overrun and reclaimed by nature. The first 10-15 minutes of gameplay subtly reveal this through the bits and pieces of items and structures remaining on the island. In Koyaanisqatsi, there are pieces of footage depicting nature being overtaken by manmade structures and modern technology. The viewer watches these changes shift from the gentle sunrise and clouds moving over the canyons to the rush in the modern world and back to the tranquility of the natural world. The film moves at a pace in which the viewer becomes self-aware.

 

The Witness has its moments where the player will be in a place where they will see the technological ambitions of mankind. Then discover or rediscover how nature is trying to reclaim its place and will always be connected to humanity. Neither form of media relies on text or dialogue. Itʼs the spectatorʼs observation and exploration that draws to those conclusions and understandings.

Mise en Scène

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Moving beyond the patio area at the start of The Witness, the player will continue to discover more about the island, who the inhabitants might have been and what they left behind. The cinematic term, mise en scène or placing on stage describes the layout design of a setting of a film or stage performance. Prominent scenes from the production are the first thing spectators recall when the film/play come to mind. Specific aspects such as props and setting arrangements define the film or theater performance. When applying mise en scène to video games much in the same way, specific scenes will cross the playerʼs mind. The Windows 95 influenced computer setting in Sam Barlowʼs Her Story and the 1930ʼs film noir and silhouetted animations of Loveshackʼs Framed are examples of mise en scène in gaming.

In The Witness, the setting of the island, the puzzles and artifacts make up the gameʼs mise en scène. Once the player solves the puzzle that unlocks the force field guarded gate, they walk towards the lake at the center of the island to see a glimpse of its assorted areas. The more the player explores, the more they encounter diverse aspects of island that bare no resemblance to the previous area they visited, yet they intertwine without ever seeming out of place. One moment youʼd find yourself in a village. The next moment youʼd be venturing into a desert-like location. In addition to such diversity in location, you will also come across statues of people who appear frozen in time. There is a statue of a man nursing a bird. Another statue next to a church depicts a man praying while crying with his face turned to the sky. Hidden behind a frame of rocks by the beach, there is a statue of a man kneeling down in front of an empty glass case with a goblet sitting at top. Another statue is sculpted in the likeness of a musician and his guitar plugged into an amplifier. There is even a statue of a woman sitting at her chair and admiring a diamond ring most likely given to her as a present by a significant other. Each statue appears to represent everyday people and how they related with the world around them.

 

Who were they and how were they witnesses?

Going back to the life box package, that concept can be applied to the statues. Based on what it appears they are doing, they player can garner a basic sense of what kind of life these people may have lead and/or what they had to contribute to being the witnesses to nature, technology and themselves. The man by the church witnessed the world through spirituality. The man with the guitar devoted his life to music and witnessed through such form of self expression. Perhaps the man arranging the glass shelves was a curator of some kind and was a witness by pursuing his contributions. In any case, whatever the people immortalized in stone are seen doing, the life they lead prior to that moment shaped their relationship with nature and how they are remembered. One specific image can tell the player who and how somebody lived without a written description.

Each Puzzle has a purpose

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This leads to where the puzzles play a role in the player being the witness. Aside from observing the actions on each statue, in order to solve the puzzles, the player has to observe their surroundings and look for similar patterns. True to their respective

environments and locations on the islands, (i.e. the Desert, Treehouse, Monastery, etc.), the solutions to each one are based around where the player is at the moment. While it might not seem obvious at a first glance, the area the puzzles are placed in require careful inspection. For example, a set of them, ranking from basic to advanced, each placed in front of a tree with an apple on one of the branches. Again, with no written instructions, the player probes their surroundings and the pattern depicted on the panel. The puzzles resembles the tree branches and by locating where the apple is, the player emulates that pattern. If the apple is missing, the player has to rely on what they already know about the puzzle and how it advances panel per panel.

Roots: Manʼs ties to nature

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Upon solving that particular set, a gate opens, leading to a diagram, depicting the human body and parts of it, such as the heart, the lungs, the veins and the muscles. There are tree roots growing around the bulletin board they are posted on. They lock the board in its place as if they are merging with the depicted images on the parchments. It appears that this is a symbolic representation of the seemingly simplistic representation of the statues, to the basic rules of the puzzles, yet the amount of thought it takes to solve each one. On the surface, human beings and their relationship to nature and their understanding of the world starts off simple. The further we reflect on why we believe what we believe and relate to nature and our contributions to society the way we do, the more our thought process and belief system starts to take shape. Itʼs the life box package filling up. Drawings of the inner workings of the human body and natureʼs roots blending in function as a rendition of such complexity within the simplistic similar the depicted actions the statues are emulating and what the player has to look out for in order to solve the puzzle. Our early and endlessly growing perception of the world build up as well as our knowledge as the life box package takes shape.

 

Understanding exploration and the player journey as a whole

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This leads to the theater below the windmill and that the player reflects on. Although, The Witness is non-linear and therefore this can be accessed at anytime if the hidden solutions are found fairly early on, it seems most fitting if encountered towards the final stages of the game. Throughout the gameplay, audio recorders can be found, tucked away in some of subtle recesses. Each of which contain a narrator reciting quotes from well-known scientists, philosophers and writers. The purpose of their placement is to offer diverse perspectives of each individual and their own personal experiences. As the player visits each location on the island and accumulates further knowledge of it, they encounter more of these hidden tracks. The increasing knowledge of both the island and the playerʼs self awareness as a whole can be best reflected in one of the films hidden in the underground theater. The clip is from the 1983 Soviet/Italian film, Nostalghia, which was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The selected clip used in The Witness is taken from the part where the character, Andrei Gorchakov, (played by Soviet/Russian actor Oleg Yankovsky) is seen taking a small lit candle across an empty mineral pool. The goal is to carry the candle to the other side without the flame going out. If the flame goes out, he has to start over. Although tempted, he resists the urge to take the easy way out by relighting the candle while he is half way through. Instead, he restarts and tries again until he succeeds. The reason Andrei is doing this is because of a promise he made to a peculiar man, named Domenico, (played by Swedish actor Erland Josephson). Domenico tells Andrei that by completing this seemingly fruitless task, heʼd save the world. The eccentric man attempted to pursue this goal, but was kept from doing so upon the villagersʼ intervention. Hence why he turns to Andrei to fulfill this task.

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Extra Credits host, Daniel Floyd offers an analysis on this clip and how it equates with The Witness in the Season 12 episode, Understanding The Witness – Mechanical Transference and You. In the video, he describes series co-creator, James Portnowʼs experience playing the game and coming across the hidden clip. Upon seeing the clip, Portnow garnered “a whole new perspective on the game”. Similar to that drive that keeps Yankovskyʼs character going until he is successful, the player playing The Witness share a similar motive to keep playing until their attempts to solve each puzzle is deemed affective. Throughout exploration, the island is a beautiful sight, but why are you exploring it and more so, whatʼs the purpose behind all these puzzles youʼre solving? The game has no specific narrative and the player is not rewarded upon completing any set. The end result of finishing each set per area is a laser emerging out of a yellow box and shining towards the mountain top. In addition, the puzzles are often stress inducing. So, what is it in the player that pushes them to keep going? The reason: similar to the scene from Nostalghia where the “promise …gain[s] a new sort of importance for [the main character]”, it serves as a parallel for those playing The Witness. As Floyd pinpoints, “[s]olving these puzzles is, to any outside observer, a completely meaningless task” and that this pursuit is “totally arbitrary with no reason behind it beyond simply doing the task itself”. Yet, for the player, “it takes on an immense personal importance. It becomes an obsession. A need”. For those deeply immersed in this interactive experience, the journey throughout is a pure necessity to complete. The seemingly frivolous pursuit is given a meaning to continue. Floyd adds:

 

“It becomes personal and meaningful, and yet it is still as arbitrary as trying to cross an empty pool with a lit candle before the candle goes out. But then, and hereʼs the genius of the design, then comes the last scene of that clip. Because, as the clip plays, and as the camera pans back, and back, you canʼt help but notice that the back wall of the cathedral is designed like one of Jonathan Blowʼs puzzles. And, you canʼt help but solve it. Even after heʼs just pointed out the futility and the meaninglessness of these puzzles. Even after heʼs shown you how arbitrary what youʼre doing is, he presents you with another puzzle and says to you, ʻI know you canʼt resist the obsessionʼ”.

He then goes on to describing his comprehension of the gameʼs “narrative”, if one could call it as such, which involves heavy spoilers:

“[I]n the final film clip, after the game is all done, you see through the eyes of what we can only presume is Jonathan Blow as he gets up and wanders around his studio, seeing puzzles in all things, from the signs on the restrooms, to the spoons. When he at last stumbles out of his studio and out into his garden, you canʼt help but see parts of The Witness in everything there…More than the lasers, or the people encased in stone, or even the island itself, this is a game about obsession and the obsession of development. Itʼs about trying to convey a mental state and getting you to understand the feeling that comes when something that may seem meaningless becomes a compulsion. But itʼs also about the genuine satisfaction this arbitrary compulsion may bring”.

 

With all thatʼs being said, the snippet from Nostalghia and the last clip shown upon completion serve as moments where the player reflects on their own reasoning for why they decide to continue playing no matter how many mistakes will be made per puzzle or how long it will take until the correct solution is stumbled upon. At first, it feels odd to latch onto this cycle of venturing from one set of puzzles to the next with no other character to converse with and thus itʼs up to the player to use environmental clues as context clues. Even though there is no reward for exploring hour after hour, the journey and the personal benefit that came from the experience is the reward. The philosophers, writers and scientists each had their own way of trying to make sense and find meaning in life, nature and human achievement, thus being the witnesses of their own understandings, the player is doing just that through solving the puzzles by using whatʼs place in front of them.

It starts off easy. The further in, the challenges increase. The temptation to consult an online strategy guide in order to find the solution crosses the playersʼ mind. Several failures are made before a success can be attained. In the end, the true reward for being able to fulfill such tasks is the knowledge and newfound insight the player assembles. At the very end of the game, itʼs hinted that the island itself might have been a dream, in which collectively blended the many ideas and philosophies encountered throughout the game.

 

Becoming the witness: What the player takes away from the experience

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The experience The Witness offers lends a new voice to the adventure game genre by relying on imagery as a language and the playerʼs observation and analytical skills for puzzle solving. With as much variety in its explorable places and basic gameplay, it leaves room for the player to rely on their own critical thinking based on where they are at the moment. Although there are no other characters other than the player, itʼs the observations and knowledge that are the character development. From the first few minutes of gameplay, to the context clues of what made this island, to the theater below the windmill, it is by examining the use of cinematography and how that creates the ideal atmosphere for the player to reflect, not only on what this island stood for, by all or nature, technology and their own belief system as an individual. The main and most important goal of The Witness isnʼt its ending, but rather what the player takes away from the experience.

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