Examining 'The Witness'


The Island.

The Witness is certainly my favorite videogame, perhaps my all-time favorite piece of media. It’s a 3D, first-person exploration game set on a beautiful island full of fascinating, delightful puzzles about geometry, perception, color, and symmetry. The game is widely acclaimed for those qualities, but the most unique and entrancing thing about The Witness is the way it communicates complex philosophical themes. This is a game composed of thousands of interconnected ideas – it’s a game about sensory perception, game design, free will, meditation, the project of civilization, the art of rationality, and more. (If you’ve read Godel, Escher, Bach, it’s a bit like that, except as an immersive explorable museum.) But it might be fair to say that at its core, The Witness is about how humans obtain/assemble knowledge about the world, and about the relationship between first-person conscious experience and the objective physical world described by scientific law.

While The Witness is highly critically acclaimed, it seems to me that the game is often quite poorly understood. I’m an avid collector of fan theories, essays, videos, etc, but a lot of other analysis stays at a fairly shallow level. Journalist’s articles briefly gesture towards a simple, sweeping thesis for what the entire game “means”, while most fan content has focused primarily on esoteric late-game secrets and easter eggs.

With my longplay video series, “Examining The Witness”, I aim to dig deep into the interplay of ideas that weaves through each area’s puzzle design, audio logs, art, etc, examining all the ways that The Witness communicates and reinforces its complex heirarchy of related ideas. Since the resulting videos are long and only semi-structured, I’ve included “highlights” in each video description, which take you right to the most interesting stuff I have to say. Bolded highlights are my best moments.

Spoiler warning! The Witness famously has a huge, very unique suprise that is easy to spoil. If you haven’t played the game but someday intend to, stick to just my first, spoiler-free episode. Even if you normally don’t mind plot spoilers, The Witness is quite different – this is something that you really want to experience firsthand.

The Castle Garden

For this first episode only, I’m taking a no-spoilers approach, examining how The Witness guides the experience of a new player during the introductory part of the game, starting in the castle garden and then into the tutorial puzzle-sequences in the agricultural area.

  • 6:35 – Talking about the Garden-of-Eden symbolism of the castle garden.

  • 10:00 – Positing a connection between the castle garden and the story of Braid.

  • 27:50Comments on the important Heisenberg/Pauli “maintaining the tension” audio log.

  • 55:30 – Brief remarks on the distinction between logic/syntax panels versus clue-hidden-in-the-environment panels.


(From this episode onwards, the series is going full-spoilers. Watch out!) In this second episode, we’re strolling through the beautiful Symmetry area, encountering our first “environmental puzzle”, and talking about how the obvious reflections and duplications of the symmetry puzzles have things to say about the subtler themes of categorization, division, and dualism vs monism that frequently crop up other parts of The Witness.

  • 33:30Analyzing one of my favorite audio logs in the game, the visible/invisible Nicolas of Cusa quote, and how it reinforces and comments on one of the biggest moments of realization in the game.
  • 59:45 – Talking about the long sequence of optional rock-reflection puzzles in the Symmetry zone, and what The Witness is saying to us here about the duality of logic-syntax puzzles versus clue-hidden-in-the-environment puzzles.

Castle Secrets

(An especially spoilery episode about end-game secrets, but also a really good episode IMO.) In this third episode, we’re talking about spoilers, secrets, and special details hidden in the introductory area of the castle, including the symbolism behind some of the game’s most powerful environmental puzzles.

  • 10:00In-depth commentary on the James Burke theater video, where The Witness reveals a key part of the motivation behind the creation of the game.

  • 30:15 – Returning to the underground tunnel to discuss one of the game’s most beautiful and profound puzzles, which symbolizes the core theme of first-person-conscious-awareness versus third-person-scientific-knowledge. See here for an image of the Ernst Mach self-portrait and more info about Douglass Harding’s sense of “headlessness”.

  • 42:20 – Extra-spoilery discussion of the castle’s laser-gate, including a relevant audio log.

  • 50:15 – An environmental puzzle is a joke about looking top-down into the castle!! And an audio log referencing Buddhist mythology.

  • 57:40 – Talking about the game’s attitude towards completionist players, and Einstein’s “society of true searchers”. (note: I mention “Children of Men” while talking about the Island – what I really meant was Arthur C. Clark’s “Childhood’s End”!)

  • 1:03:40 – is the ending of the Witness also a Braid reference??? probably not, but maybe kinda.

Reflection, Representation, Richard Feynman

(About the optics puzzles of the desert sun temple, and the ancient civilization that first lived on the Island. Plus, a detailed discussion of the fascinating Feynman video.)

The desert ruins, fortress keep, and zen monastery were all built by pre-modern civilizations living on the island. Each structure embodies the philosophy of the people who built it, and contains unique gameplay mechanics that comment on the themes of that particular area. In this and the next two episodes of ‘Examining The Witness’, we’ll analyze the distinct perspectives of these relatively self-contained mid-game locations, seeing how they add complexity and depth to the game’s core overarching message.

The “reflection” theme of this area is in some ways an elaboration of and 3-dimensional sequel to the “symmetry” puzzles encountered earlier. (For instance, it continues the yellow/cyan color theming of the symmetry area, but with darker shades of orange/blue.) It also represents an interesting cross-over point between the logic-symbol-on-the-panel puzzles and the clue-hidden-in-the-environment puzzles. The reflection “clues” exist in the environment outside the panel, but these reflections are based on rigid laws of geometry – in some ways more similar to the logic-symbol puzzles than to the contrived, careful placement of physical objects in the apple orchard, monastery, etc.

Thematically, the Sun Temple represents the philosophy of ancient peoples who lived during the birth of civilization. These people were the first to harness scientific knowledge, like astronomy and optics, to answer questions about our place in the universe. They were also entranced by an understanding of metaphor, representation, and abstraction, hence their obsession with reflections of the sun and some very “meta” reflective carvings depicting reflective carvings.

Located on a distant, lonely, barren corner of the Island (as far as possible from the Mountain which represents the culmination of the Island’s advanced technological civilization), surrounded by raw stone that looks like it either has just emerged from the primordial ocean or (more plausibly) is about to erode back into the sea, a desert Vault contains a video with two clips from the famous quantum physicist Richard Feynman. These clips are essential for understanding The Witness – they establish both the mindset of wide-eyed curiosity that The Witness considers an essential starting point for exploration, and the idea of connections between heirarchies of knowledge that provides a framework for the basic game design of The Witness.

  • 9:10 – What can the sun temple (and a nearby audio log) tell us about the philosophy of the Island’s earliest civilization? For images of the Indian naked-eye observatories I mentioned, see here.

  • 19:10 – Discussing how the reflection mechanic acts as a blend or a bridge between the syntax/logic panels vs environment-clue panels found elsewhere on the island. Also, clues on an ancient mural show us that the first civilization was interested in themes of abstraction, representation, and metaphor.

  • 27:00 – A fun sequence of reflection puzzles.

  • 59:40 – Arguing that the theater space was originally constructed by the same people who built the sun temple, and noticing that the misaligned laser is a callback to and inversion of a favorite moment from the symmetry area.

  • 1:18:05Watching and then discussing the multiple fascinating, overlapping messages that The Witness is communicating with the Feynman theater video. There is a lot going on here!!

A Fortress of Dualities

(How “The Keep” uses game design to express the tension between two equally-true but seemingly-irreconcilable ways of viewing human society.)

With more statues than almost anywhere else on the Island, the Fortress has a lot to say about dramatic social and political themes that are almost entirely absent from the rest of the island. But in addition to critiquing the class structure of our society (and considering his own role as an artist / producer of entertainment products), Jonathan Blow is also using The Fortress to present a paradoxical duality. From the first-person perspective of the actual humans living in it, society seems composed of independent individuals who make free choices based on the use of reason and the pursuit of their personal ideas of value and meaning. But from a top-down view of civilization in aggregate, history seems determined by unthinking trends like demographic changes and economic cycles, and people’s beliefs are so heavily influenced by the circumstances of their surrounding environment/culture that genuine independence and meaningful choice seem impossible. These ideas are expressed with clarity and detail through the combination of audio logs, environmental art, and the game design of the puzzles themselves.

  • 6:00 – Examining the many statues in the Fortress and introducing the area’s unusual emphasis on social organization, human conflict, and practical concerns.

  • 13:42Important Douglas Hofstadter audio log introduces the Fortress’s main theme: the relationship between two seemingly irreconcilable ways of viewing the self, free will, and an individual’s place in society.

  • 25:11 – A quick note on how (as always!) the gameplay of the Fortress’s panels is linked to the specific philosophical themes of the area.

  • 38:22 – The second of two important William K Clifford audio logs where The Witness sets a high bar for what it considers honest, worthy attempts to pursue truth.

  • 51:29 – An unusually intense critique of society from a game which usually doesn’t engage directly with political ideas.

  • 59:30 – A very important B. F. Skinner quote that lays out the deterministic, environment-centered perspective of the Fortress’s front yard, which contrasts with the individual-centered view of society presented in the back yard.

  • 1:18:09Standing high up in the castle keep, we can see the ideas of the Fortress area expressed with beautiful clarity, and understand how they connect to the core themes of the entire game.

A Monastery of Direct Perception

The monastery connects environmental puzzles to the themes of meditative awareness and direct sensory perception. We also analyze the Tarkovsky theater clip!

Just like a real Zen meditation hall, the Monastery in the Witness is all about getting to the truth directly, through immediate sensory perception. To that end, the Monastery’s puzzles are designed (even moreso than the rest of the game!) to constantly remind you of your embodied first-person visual perspective. It is also the place where the puzzle panels and hidden environmental puzzles become the most similar, a reference to the practice of trying to teach and learn the seemingly unteachable skills of meditation. Meanwhile, the area’s ambiguous murals, which can be interpreted in several overlapping ways, remind us of all the top-down sensory processing that our minds impose on raw incoming sense-data, filtering and processing our perception.

Yes, everyone knows that the statue on the peninsula outside the town is reaching for a holy grail while his shadow has paradoxically already grasped the grail. But did you realize that the statue probably represents Nicolas of Cusa, or that it ties together the symbol of the goblet with the Sun, the mountain, and the 8-pointed panel symbols from the mangrove treehouse area? We talk about all this and much more – together, the peninsula and monastery are a Rosetta stone for some common symbols in The Witness.

Why did Jonathan Blow decide that The Witness needed a nine-minute video of a guy walking back and forth holding a candle? He’s not just trolling people with an attention-span endurance test (although that’s probably part of it). The context of the movie “Nostalghia” sheds some light on the multilayered messages that this clip, like the Feynman and Burke videos, is contributing to the game.

Sadly, I’m a bit less articulate when discussing the first-person-awareness side of the game versus the more scientific side. It’s hard to talk precisely about consciousness, so you’ll have to bear with me as I occasionally repeat myself in an effort to find the right words.

  • 00:47 – Exploring the rich symbolism of the famous “reaching for the holy grail” statue on the peninsula outside the town.
  • 24:15 – Talking about the core theme/purpose of the monastery area: almost like a tutorial, the monastery deliberately creates an environment optimized for noticing the traceable environmental puzzles, even using panel puzzles for the purpose of getting players into the right mood to notice EPs. This is an analogy for actual Buddhist and Zen monasteries, which try to create an optimal environment for noticing directly-accessible truths about the mind and reality. But, in both situations, there is still a fundamental leap of realization that has to be made by the student – the nature of conscious experience can only be be pointed to and hinted at by even the most direct teachers.

  • 29:25 – Deciphering the symbols in the monastery’s murals, including the golden sun-grail that represents a transcendent state of unification akin to enlightenment.

  • 40:00 – An audio log reminding us that our experience of life, despite seeming solidity, is actually made from fleeting, impermanent flashes of data from the senses. We often ignore this fact in favor of (useful, necessary) top-down summaries that our brain fits to the sense-data; meditation can bring us closer to the raw experience of unmediated reality.

  • 43:18 – Continuing the discussion above in the context of the ambiguous art on the laser-box outside the monastery.

  • 47:15 – The monastery murals portraying a growing tree ALSO maybe portray a human brain and an atomic-bomb mushroom cloud?!

  • 51:35 – Talking about the monastery’s relationship to the fortress, an important dialogue / duality that spans the middle of the island and represents the gap between logical, analytical, western thought versus the experiential focus of meditation.

  • 1:02:45 – Giving important context for the Tarkovsky video, and considering multiple potential interpretations of what the video means in the context of The Witness. (I’ll have you people know that I watched an entire very slow-paced Soviet movie, and fought off a youtube copyright strike, just to bring you proper analysis of this clip!)

  • To unlock the Tarkovsky video in the theater, the puzzle path required to unlock video is the longest that can possibly be drawn on that panel. This is both a reference to the famous 9-minute cinematic long take and to the qualities of dedication and perseverance that the video engages with.

  • In addition to the fact that the golden-grail, mountain beacon, and sun are all linked together by the Cusa statue inside a lighthouse (itself a distant, guiding light!), there are yet MORE connections here. Venus (the “morning star”) is visible near the horizon through the gap in the lighthouse wall, and all these symbols of distant guiding lights could also connect to the flickering candle carried across the pond during the Tarkovsky video (or to the “flickering lantern” in the poem at the end of the game). Finally, note that the Cusa statue is looking through a pane of glass at this constellation of transcendent beacons – could this be a reference to Braid?? In that game’s epilogue, “Everything [Tim] wanted was on the opposite side of that pane of glass,” including philosophical prizes like “the magnetic monopole, the It-From-Bit and the Ethical Calculus; and so many other things, deeper inside”. For more in this vein, play my free mod, Braid: More Now Than Ever!

Aural Jungle, and the purpose of Environmental Puzzles

I’m terrible at The Witness’s sound puzzles, but we’re doing them anyways! More importantly, I also use this episode to lay out my interpretation of what the “environmental puzzles” represent, and why they are in the game.

The hidden-in-plain-sight environmental puzzles are the most unique element of The Witness, around which the entire game concept was built. In two new episodes of Examining ‘The Witness’, we talk about how the environmental-puzzle mechanic is a game-design metaphor for the specific philosophical idea of non-dual awareness.

  • 4:50 – In-depth discussion of one of the most beautiful environmental puzzles on the island, plus the two nearby audio logs that comment on it, at 7:50 and 26:27.

  • 14:48 – Describing the sense of meditative self-awareness that I claim the environmental puzzles are meant to symbolize, using a metaphor from Rupert Spira himself.

  • 18:16 – Describing the specific details of the environmental-puzzle mechanic and how they support the connection to mindful first-person experience. I mention a short, free, absolutlely joyful and suprising puzzle game called Perspective, which shares The Witness’s “freeze-frame” mechanic.

  • 38:10 – Why would sound-based puzzles be particularly aligned with the idea of mindful self-awareness? Sound as a sense has unique qualities that set it apart from vision and make it uniquely suited for open, wide-field awareness.

  • 50:49 – A great sequence of three very clever panels at the end of the sound area, which I appreciate even despite my general frustration at the sound puzzles.

  • 59:38 A second environmental puzzle constrains the 3D shape of the gigantic jungle tree like the wooden blocks on the cover of ‘Godel, Escher, Bach’.

  • 1:04:48 – Analyzing the meaning of the bamboo labyrinth and the creepy braided-bamboo statue. The presence of an auditory illusion works as both a classic last-minute puzzle curveball, and as a reminder that we never directly experience the external world, only sense-perceptions mediated by the brain. NOTE: I also jokingly claim this is a Braid reference (it is a literal braid after all), but fail to explain why a braid is connected to the Shepard tones. It’s because the illusion relies on three different sounds playing at once, each cleverly fading into the next! For a demonstration, watch this short video.

  • 1:13:00 – Why is a Feynman quote we already heard in the Theater video showing up again at the conclusion of the sound area? The Witness is telling us that Feynman’s philosophy of doubt applies to spirituality and our own direct experience of reality, just as much as it applies to scientific inquiry.

Shipwreck Paths, Non-Duality, and the Hardest Puzzle

Surrounded by some of the game’s most unique Environmental Puzzles, in a vault unlocked by the hardest single puzzle panel anywhere on the island, the Shipwreck contains a fascinating video by spiritual teacher Rupert Spira. In Part 8, we analyze those puzzles, plus reflect on Spira’s inquiry into the fundamental mystery of conscious experience, which he describes in a clear and empirical way that The Witness considers essential.

  • 1:54 – The Shipwreck is devoted to creative, surprising environmental puzzles that push the boundaries of what’s possible with the mechanic. Moving perspectives, interlocking and overlapping paths, foreground and background – we examine them all!

  • 18:07 – Discussing the masterful design of the Rupert Spira vault-door puzzle panel (often considered the hardest panel on the island), which brings together advanced mechanics from the sound, symmetry, and color areas. NOTE: In the video, I don’t talk about why this puzzle is appropriate to the Spira video in particular. For starters, the panel difficulty indicates the value of the knowledge it guards. The mechanics of symmetry, color, and especially sound involve sensory perception, which Rupert Spira tells us to pay close attention to. Finally, most panels on the island can be solved almost instantly after you understand them. But the vault puzzle is unique in that it forces you to wait a very long time in order to master the slower of its overlapping melodies. By requiring you to concentrate on listening to a few sounds for several minutes, the puzzle references the activity of meditation.

  • 39:45 – The Rupert Spira video starts. (Incidentally, to me the theater code looks like a zen ink drawing of a meditating monk.)

  • 1:15:15 – My commentary on Spira’s video; trying to rephrase and explain some of his ideas in a more familiar speaking style. I describe the state of non-dual awareness as both a shift in attention (self-awareness of sensations as existing in consciousness, rather than paying attention only to ordinary goals and desires) and also a shift in identity (identifying as awareness itself, rather than your body / mind / memories / thoughts / etc).

  • 1:25:05 – Why is Spira’s video so important to The Witness, and how does it relate to the other themes of the island? My apologies for being somewhat ineloquent and repetitive while talking about this stuff – I’m not used to trying to talk in-depth about consciousness!

Many religious traditions have somewhat-intelligent things to say about the core mystery of awareness (Christianity and Buddhism feature prominently in the game, with cameo appearances by Taoism, Islam, and more), but it’s the Advaita Vedanta tradition within Hinduism that gives The Witness its name.

Rupert Spira has many free, worthwhile talks available on youtube and in other places, which I highly recommend. If you are trying to get into meditation, I also recommend the Sam Harris “Waking Up” app. Here too, you get a clear and direct description of what experience is like and how to relate to it, presented in more familiar, ordinary language (rather than Spira’s slightly odd speaking style). But still with much of the engaging philosophical depth, unlike its shallower app-based peers.

Alternatively, get your non-dual-awareness pro tips right from Jonathan Blow himself! In this talk, he describes how to apply some mindfulness-inspired mental techniques to better deal with negative emotions. Here is a very good talk that demonstrates the strong practical benefits of Spira’s philosophy.

More Episodes to come?

There’s nothing like thinking about The Witness, so I’d love to return to this series someday – probably with a series of more casual, even-less-structured videos about various midgame areas, ideally followed by some kind of maestro-level, secret-of-psalm-46-esque sequence of lectures about the end of the game and some of its deepest messages. Beyond The Witness, it would be sweet to make other videos about similarly complex and beautiful games – Outer Wilds, Edith Finch, Braid, and several others come to mind. Who knows, maybe I could set up a patreon or accept bitcoin donations? Until that distant day, deciphering the secrets of The Witness’s other areas will remain as an exercise for the reader!

In the meantime, you might enjoy my commentary on Jonathan Blow’s other game, Braid, such as my four-part essay or my fan-sequel mod that brings new writing, art, and puzzles to the game. You might also appreciate my “Grounding Philosophy” sequence, where I try to lay out my relationship to various underappreciated aspects of the human condition.

The Witness is about real life.