the witness 2/4

I would never have guessed that a gang of guerilla theologians would successfully infiltrate the game profession, but it seems to have happened. I first encountered their devious insertions in The Talos Principle, with its philosophical debate on good and evil. Now I discover the same has happened to Thekla’s The Witness. The product has a game layer, and, below it, a theological layer. Quotes on the nature of reality and perception from famous figures across time and cultures abound. The guerilla theologians have struck again!

This theological guerilla strike does make sense. They debate reality. This is not some smorgasbord of ideas nailed onto something totally unrelated: rather, the game, like many computer games, is set in a created, artificial world, a fake reality where bizarre events happen, which you experience directly as you face and (hopefully) overcome the designed challenges. A great deal of effort is spent by the designers make this reality real, as it where. So questions on the nature of reality are obvious, once you peek underneath the surface of the challenge. This is the subject underlying The Witness. This explains the game’s name, showing the guerilla theology is integral to its ethos.

There is a bent in their selection of quotes towards quantum physics and Zen Buddhism. Since the nature of the discussion is the nature of reality, the emphasis on these two concepts is perhaps unsurprising. But it’s just a bent: there are a selection of quotes from other sciences and arts, only a few of which come across as placeholders.

The final series of quotes are self–referential, supposédly to show the game makers have human flaws and lack pomposity. I hadn’t even considered the latter until they said the word—to me, pompous is an insult thrown by those afraid of courage—so by even bringing up the fear, the quote achieved the opposite of what it apparently intended. Beyond that, it usefully brought attention to their working process, and the difficulties they claim they had in finding the quotes they needed.

All the quotes are very well read, so it’s obvious that the moments of spontaneous self–reference amongst the developers are acted. Real human conversations among real people are full of ums and ers and unexpected interruptions from monkeys climbing in fifth floor windows demanding to know which fridge contains bananas today. And, anyway, at least one of the significant persons had a posh 1930s British accent, an accent that died out in the 1960s with the empire. Whether this was acted and concocted or acted but originally real, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s meant to be anglo Zen–esque self–deprecation, or perhaps I’m seeing what isn’t there. I’ll pretend it’s real, rather than wasting energy arguing with imaginary monkeys about the ethics of stealing other people’s imaginary bananas.

The final set of quotes cover the game designers failure to find a good spiritually–aware quote on materialism and atheism. They could only find quotes from atheists that were opposing (the pottier aspects of) religion.

(I must point out that some of us atheists are not opposed to religion, indeed see no conflict between religion and atheism. The conflict lies between atheism and magic, between reality and fantasy presented as reality, a problem that admittedly has infected a lot of religion. The supposéd conflict between religion and atheism is really a conflict within religion, between not–obviously–wrong and obviously–wrong interpretations.)

But the thing is they were searching for spiritual quotes from atheists. Now, fair enough, they wanted to include an atheist materialist perspective while exploring a subject with a strong theological context, but I really do feel they were looking in the wrong place.

Underlying science is empiricism, indeed the philosophy of empiricism is the godfather of modern science. I don’t recall an empiricist quote, but since I haven’t found a list of all the text quoted, I could well have missed it or forgotten it. But, as things stand, I believe the designers completely missed empiricism. They missed it! Empiricism is where they could have found the quote they sought. It’s not that the empiricists were necessarily atheist, rather that empiricism would be the place to find a quote on atheist materialism. The point is that, to understand the world, both argue there is no need for God.

That’s why any atheist reference to a God is going to be about that God, not about atheism, not about reality. Atheism is the absence of belief, not alterative belief. It’s no wonder they couldn’t find their quote.

There’s another aspect to this exploration of theology. Throughout the main game, there are rooms containing ‘suitcases’ that show significant solutions to a specific puzzle. This puzzle turns out to be in a cinema, in a mine, the kind of deep and inaccessible place where all cinemas are best located. Each revealed solution plays a clip.

I saw James Burke again, a face I immediately recognised, a brilliant philosophy communicator from the 70s and 80s, who was very popular on the BBC when I was a teenager. He had quite an influence on my youthful thinking. There was a long audio ramble on the history of gaming. There was an uncredited, annoyingly uncredited, brilliant lecture on science, physics, the limits of knowledge, and political corruption, together with a fascinated afterword by someone I took to be the original lecturer’s son, or at least significant student. There was a very powerful clip from a film by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, a man whose work I have told myself to explore many many times, and now I tell myself again.

And there was a clip by a Zen monk.

The game, I think, overemphasises Zen. Zen should have been one of many theologies quoted in the game, not the only one. I found its emphasis made this aspect of the game feel too like mysticism, which reduced its impact. It is not Zen that made the game possible, it is empiricism’s bastard love–child, science, or more specifically the scientific method. Yes, Zen can help you understand reality and self, but only as an egotistical understanding of experience. Scientists investigated silicon, made baking it understood, and now we have computers on which to play the games and make the questions possible (this might be a slight oversimplification). That wasn’t Zen that did that, it contributed nothing. As such, Zen is a dead–end—with the possible exception of medical applications, although whether it does play a role there is something that will be decided using empirical techniques.

Perhaps unintentionally, and amusingly, the Zen practitioner was filmed quoted aspects of Zen theology, pointing out that one cannot experience the past or the future, once can only experience now, and remember or speculate about other times. That’s fair enough, although I fear he forgot the detail that the process of the experience of now takes time (I half remember reading that it’s in the order of 200 milliseconds), so ‘now’ is a fuzzy concept that requires a little bit of the past and the future to be; hence the separation of now from past and future is an error. Still, I don’t know Zen, so perhaps I picked up the wrong thing from the monk. Anyway, unfortunately, he used the example of being unable to experience even one second in the future. I know what he was trying to say, but he immediately bought to mind the infamous quote about how we are all time travellers, moving into the future at the rate of one second per second. Thus we all will live one second in the future, in a second’s time, until we don’t.

So, yes, a computer game is not just a game, it is also a reality in which the game is played. Creating a game requires more than just creating the challenge, it requires creating the world in which the challenge occurs. Creatively, a world is a lot more to make than a challenge. It’s right to raise these kind of questions. You can’t really understand games in depth without asking them. The game is to be commended for doing so.

Standing back, what’s new here not the subject, not the discussion. I remember reading up on the Zen attempt to parasite on physics as an undergraduate in the late 70s. The discussion is unchanged, the ideas are stuckist. What’s new is the mechanism of presentation, the embedding of theology in the game, the integration of hard intellectual thought with computer gaming. The Talos Principle integrated theological philosophy into the game as though it and the puzzles were conceptual brothers. In The Witness, the puzzles are the visible iceberg, the theology is the ice underwater. Both shows games can be deadly serious art, both develop theology, both bring these old ideas to new audiences. The Witness is our decade’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That’s a high achievement.

Ok, enough of that. What other things are relevant in this aspect of The Witness?

Quotes were made from music, and music was quoted. Again, I think music belongs better in the infrastructure of the game, but I do accept that this starvation diet does mean that the occasional outing of the art makes the experience of the music more intense. The starvation made it funny, too; what else do you play in an extensive cave system under a mountain but In The Hall of the Mountain King?! Had they played music all the time, then this recording in that place would have been a cliché.

I wish the designers had used more poetry. Yes, some quotes by the original philosophers and theologians are absolutely necessary, but so much of what was said is better said in poetry than prose. Having said that, our culture has forgotten poetry, except for the activities of a few bizarre weirdos, so I shouldn’t be surprised the greatest literature was discarded. Yes, I’m really saying the game was a little too intellectually parochial.

Actually, lets take that a bit further. One school of Zen has developed the koan, a phrase to think about that apparently makes no sense, that is intended to create satori, an epiphany, enlightenment, as a quote in the game points out. Poetry does this so much better, in English at least. Go explore JH Prynne’s oeuvre. His poetry makes no sense on the surface, but it doesn’t just create a wide ride of epiphanies, it does actually make sense, as any music does. It uses a different language of expression. It is a union between reason and satori, a bastard marriage of two parts of the human condition—in English, at least. Well, that’s my experience, anyway. I’m absolutely convinced the game developers don’t know his work at all, indeed only touched upon poetry as a placeholder—there’s no way they would have omitted it if they knew poetry in any depth.

One dramatic improvement in this game over many others is the architecture. The houses, the buildings, feel utterly real, in context. I played some Deus Ex a couple of years ago, and the buildings there made no sense as buildings—they were spaces in which game things happened, they were not buildings. The Talos Principle has a bit of a problem with bits of buildings all occupying the same ‘physical’ space, although its McGuffin dealt with that. Here, the game designers consulted architects, and every building was real, its development and deconstruction was real—except for that used in the game credits brutalism.

In conclusion, the inclusion of philosophy and theology underneath the game itself added a great deal to the experience of The Witness, and I commend it for that. It’s unfortunate that the designers didn’t break out of their own cultural context, whether in philosophy or the arts, but, even so, they really have brought out the significant depth that lies behind game creation. After this game, I am now going to call anyone who says that computer games are for children, a philistine. I’ve had enough of such stuff, and this game gives me a canon—or is it a cannon—to use on any unfortunate who exhibits such presumptive ignorance. (That’s a Bach joke. Bach was quoted.)

I said in my first review of the game that I would not have bought The Witness at full price. Now I’m aware of this content, I reverse my opinion. This game is worth its full price.