[Game: The Witness, Thekla, 2016]

A Deconstructive Reading of Jonathan Blow and Thekla’s The Witness



Game designers who take seriously the idea that they are creating works of potential artistic significance operate at a great risk to their peace of mind. Regardless of the quality of their efforts, if their works are successful, they can expect to be bombarded with accusations that they are over-serious, over-dramatic, pretentious, overly political, egotistical, fatuous, and snooty. While players may be mostly united in the proclamation that games can be art, they often behave as though they are allergic to what it would mean for the world to accept that postulate: the production (and later the analysis) of works that are at least as challenging in subject matter as they are in mechanics.

One frequent target for that manner of criticism is Jonathan Blow, the lead designer and partial programmer of The Witness, which was made with a small team under the developer name ‘Thekla.’ The Witness is a game in which the player wanders an uninhabited, brightly colored island, slowly uncovering its landscape and details by tracing lines on the faces of circuitry panels installed throughout.

On first glance, The Witness is a quasi-conventional title in which the player solves visual logic puzzles in order to ascend and explore a conspicuously placed mountain. Beyond that first impression, however, it slowly becomes clear that The Witness is a work overflowing with visual trickery, peppered with recordings of fiction and philosophy, offering a coherent-yet-concealed story concept, and harboring some of the most astonishing secrets hidden in plain sight in any piece of popular media ever made. These latter elements, much like the narrative details of Blow’s prior game Braid, have garnered a fair amount of the heavy-handed dismissal described in the paragraph above.

The Witness screenshot with entire island - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Presumably, players are so keen to reject this kind of material precisely because it is at present relatively uncommon, unexpected, and thus instinctively unwelcome in games. But this tendency of people to brazenly dismiss ideas which are not straightforward in their delivery does not land only on game designers, and is in fact a longstanding tradition among the public reactions to certain academic fields and artistic styles. A natural case-in-point is the practice of deconstruction, a method of analysis popular in the philosophy of the humanities in the late 20th century as part of the movement of poststructuralism. In a very simplified nutshell, deconstruction as a technique of literary analysis teases out contradictions and ambiguities in the grammatical, linguistic, and thematic content of a work in order to demonstrate a general idea about an inability to access the work’s singular true meaning or to map language irreducibly onto the world’s true qualities

Interestingly, I personally feel that the reactions of most onlookers are not the only things that deconstruction and Thekla’s game have in common. I intend to show here that this analytical application of deconstruction provides a remarkably appropriate path into interpretation of The Witness.

The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling all major plot and gameplay details of The Witness, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already played the game.

What is Deconstruction?

In order to understand this article, it will be necessary for you to have at least a vague understanding of deconstruction. In order to have that, you will need some understanding of poststructuralism, which means needing some understanding of structuralism, which—even if, for our purposes, we can set aside the history of continental philosophy and just focus on the immediate analytical lineage—still means needing at least some understanding of semiotics, the New Criticism, and Russian Formalism . . .

Okay, that’s quite a lot; maybe we can simplify things. To get just enough to proceed, let’s do an absurdly quick crash course in 20th century literary theory.

First of all, let’s go ahead and do what I mentioned above: set aside the philosophical lineage and only present the analytical lineage. Deconstruction has as much (or more) claim to the field of philosophy, especially under the subheadings of metaphysics and philosophy of language, as it does to the fields of literary theory and linguistics. But most of my own training in deconstruction has been through its influence on literary theory. And at any rate, people already familiar with deconstruction will probably be quietly pleased that the chronological story I’m about to tell about its ancestry explicitly has no claim to being ‘the singular and final true story of its development.’

Second of all, what I’ll try to do is cover each of the relevant periods and analytical movements within literary theory (analysis prior to the 20th century, New Criticism and Russian Formalism, Semiotics, Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and finally Deconstruction) in a paragraph of at most 150 words each, to accelerate our path to understanding. Now, with all of these caveats in place, I hope you can go ahead and safely assume that everything I say in the remainder of this section is skipping a huge amount of nuance, background, and accuracy in favor of brevity.

The Witness screenshot with temple - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Prior to the 20th century, most analyses of literature were historical, aesthetic, or philosophical. There were exceptions, of course, but those three categories encompass the majority of earlier responses to literature. Historical analysis included studies of authors’ biographies, historical circumstances surrounding their writing, and how works became influential. Aesthetic analysis included studies broadly trying to showcase the beauty of great works, and distinguish between beautiful and ugly works, such as contemporary reviews; in rare cases this would have included mechanical studies, such as those composed by Edgar Allan Poe, of how to write beautiful works. And philosophical analysis would have encompassed everything relating to the philosophical merit of a work’s thematic content (in terms of ethics, politics, education, et cetera), such as abstract discussions of poetry by Plato, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Philip Sidney. Some works, like Aristotle’s Poetics, touch on more than one of those categories. [147 words]

In the 1910s to 1940s, however—professors, poets, and novelists (especially in eastern Europe and the southern US) began writing in a different way about literature. Although sometimes inimical to these ways of talking about it, they were essentially approaching literature either in a scientific manner (borrowing the inductive scientific method) or a religious manner (borrowing hermeneutics and exegesis from Biblical interpretation). They would separate texts into the devices, methods, figures of speech, tropes, and literal definitions of which they were made, and then analyze how the presence, absence, and combination of those elements created meanings. The Americans doing work of this nature were the New Critics; the Europeans were the Russian Formalists. Because of the way they focus on the forms or formal attributes of literary writing (and usually exclude all external elements like author biographies and cultural trends), these movements are often collectively known as types of formalism. [150 words]

Meanwhile, in the field of linguistics, ‘structural linguistics’ came into prominence. Structural linguists study language as a system in which words and symbols can be separated into two parts: the representative part or word or symbol (called the signifier), and the represented part or real concept in the world to which the signifier refers (called the signified). The system of a language is arbitrary, because there is no logical connection between the words and their meanings—but rigid, because in theory the same sound-object always refers to the same concept. A more general word for the study of signs (where a sign is a pairing of a signifier and a signified) is semiotics. [113 words]

In the 1950s and 1960s, scholars in other fields within the humanities (especially anthropology and literary theory) began incorporating both the specific insights and general strategies of semiotics and structural linguistics into their work. This led to a brief movement in analytical discourse called ‘structuralism,’ whereby works could be interpreted by trying to precisely map the core sign-like structural relationships within them. Scholars would sometimes go so far as to illustrate charts and diagrams of what they took to be all of the key oppositional concepts in a given object of study. The goal was to get at purported structures underlying all culture, thought, and meaning. [106 words]

The Witness screenshot with subterranean waterway - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Unfortunately, in positing structural studies of cultural objects (novels, myths, poems, and more), people were pushing the basic methodology of formalism farther than it could stretch without breaking. In the late 1960s and especially the 1970s, philosophers and literary theorists started to point out that the conceptual relationships being mapped by structuralists were as arbitrary as the whole system of language in structural linguistics—and even that the supposed real referenced concept of each sign (the signified) is not something that can be infallibly known to exist apart from perception nor tethered immutably to a signifier. Thus poststructural analysis was born, in which people continued to apply formalist close reading strategies, but took on a broader, less tradition-biased, more ironic perspective toward the possibility of finding the exact perfect true meaning at the heart of each object of study. [139 words]

Within this movement of poststructuralism, again especially in philosophy and literary theory, a method of poststructural analysis called ‘deconstruction’ was developed. When someone deconstructs a text, they illustrate how certain aspects of that text provide valid justification for numerous mutually exclusive interpretations. It’s a more grand maneuver than how it may sound, because by doing this, they intend to make it clear that those kinds of contradictions exist in every text, in every speech act, in every language—and thus infect all attempts at speaking truth and accessing reality. Instead of a signifier and a signified, what we really have is a messy sequence of signifiers pointing to other signifiers in an effectively infinite chain. The fields of literary theory and linguistic philosophy do, of course, continue to develop from there (and do so in fascinating and laudable ways), but for the purpose of this article that’s where we’ll stop. [150 words]

Alright, we got all the way to deconstruction, and in record time!

Now, to drive this general idea of deconstruction home, here is a simple analysis (of a ‘rhetorical question’ drawn from the television program All in the Family), written by one of the preeminent first-wave poststructural literary theorists, Paul de Man:

[A]sked by his wife whether he wants to have his bowling shoes laced over or laced under, Archie Bunker answers with a question: “What’s the difference?” Being a reader of sublime simplicity, his wife replies by patiently explaining the difference between lacing over and lacing under, whatever this may be, but provokes only ire. “What’s the difference” did not ask for difference but means instead “I don’t give a damn what the difference is.” The same grammatical pattern engenders two meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal meaning asks for the concept (difference) whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning. As long as we are talking about bowling shoes, the consequences are relatively trivial; [. . .] But suppose that it is a de-bunker rather than a “Bunker,” and a de-bunker of the arche (or origin), an archie De-bunker such as Nietzsche or Jacques Derrida for instance, who asks the question “What is the Difference”—and we cannot even tell from his grammar whether he “really” wants to know “what” difference is or is just telling us that we shouldn’t even try to find out. Confronted with the question of the difference between grammar and rhetoric, grammar allows us to ask the question, but the sentence by means of which we ask it may deny the very possibility of asking. For what is the use of asking, I ask, when we cannot even authoritatively decide whether a question asks or doesn’t ask? (de Man 9-10)

Is it enough, for the purpose of deconstruction, to showcase contradictions that are present in a work? No, it isn’t. For a successful deconstruction, it is necessary to demonstrate how singular details within a work can be read in multiple viable, contradicting ways. These contradictions may arise between grammar and rhetoric, between syntax and substance, between text and subtext, between metaphor and metonymy—they may even simply arise among different literal translations possible according to the denotations of particular words.

The Witness screenshot with coastal completion pillar - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Okay, so what does any of this have to do with The Witness? Am I saying that The Witness is some kind of obviously self-contradicting work that self-destructs at the slightest critical touch? No, I’m not. Remember: one of the key insights of deconstruction is that every work is vulnerable to its frightful jaws.

As it happens, there is a prevailing narrative about the meaning of The Witness in secondary commentary about it, which is that the work is primarily about ego death, meditation, and awareness. But that interpretation, however convincing, differs considerably from my own intuited interpretation of the work, in which it is principally about meaning, science, and philosophy. What I intend to show hereafter is not merely a contradiction. There is both important overlap and important contradiction between these readings. After much consideration, I have come to feel that both of these analyses together sum into a deconstructive reading that is at least as compelling as either of them.

A Summary of The Witness:

Before any specific analysis can be done, it will be prudent to outline what exactly happens in the game, which may not be straightforward even to some individuals who have previously played it. The Witness is remarkably neutral and complacent toward the prospect of players missing large chunks of its content, so a summary of this nature is more important than it may be for a more conventional title.

The Witness operates across three levels of cognitive awareness about the gameworld, which are each uncovered as one delves deeper into playing it. The first level is the straightforward solving of the panel-based line puzzles to explore the island and advance toward entering the mountain; for many first-time players and probably even some second-time players, this seems to be the entire game.

If one continues along that trajectory and makes it all the way through the mountain, they are shunted back to the start of the journey with only the smallest fanfare of an aerial view of the island, as all of the puzzles unsolve themselves. At some point along the journey, however, in the game’s most potentially mind-blowing twist, the player is likely to uncover the second level of possible awareness: the landscape and architecture of the island themselves contain numerous puzzles, both general visual tricks and specific line-based puzzles like those on the panels.

By exploring the island thoroughly while remaining cognizant of both the panel-based and world-based puzzles, one can find a panel map in a cave below the mountain that re-closes the door to the garden at the start of the game, allowing the player to notice the only world-based puzzle which bars content: a line puzzle between earth and sky that opens a door off the island.

The Witness screenshot with final environmental puzzle - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Through the door, one briefly explores a seemingly-fourth-wall-breaking resort area containing credits for the game’s development staff, before wandering through a dark hallway and discovering a definitive presentation of the third and final layer of gameworld awareness available: that the experiences on the island were a VR-like mental journey for a human being lying on a couch in Thekla’s own development studio.

On closer inspection, it can be noticed that other elements hint at the situation of the game within a real-world setting exterior to the island—including a subterranean projector room containing unlockable clips of live-action video footage, and certain audio logs which include meta-level discussions which ostensibly occurred in the studio.

Needless to say, this sequence of revelations has prompted various interpretations, but many such interpretations have coalesced around a singular notion: that The Witness both is and represents an attempt by Thekla to develop and utilize a virtual world to provide its users with a deep awareness of their own consciousness.

The Witness as a Meditative Act:

While it differs widely from the conception of the game that I formed upon playing it, the reading of The Witness as ‘a meditation on meditation’ is a compelling, consistent, and thorough one. It spares almost no game details, and it has by now been eloquently expressed by myriad individuals. I will now cover that perspective in brief, as I understand it.

Especially through its far-flung audio logs and projector room film clips, The Witness contains a broad array of viewpoints on the seeking of truth and meaning. While many of these are in quibbling contradiction with each other, coming at the topic from scientific, philosophical, religious, and more perspectives—a substantial proportion of them comment on the act of seeking truth and meaning at a meta level. This latter notable grouping of perspectives deals especially with concepts in Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, meditation, and mindfulness.

This perspective on the game was most eloquently and artfully expressed in a video created by Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance, who says,

The Witness is a meditation on truthseeking, thus has no answers. It is deliberately paradoxical, in keeping with Zen tradition. If The Witness were a verse in the Diamond Sutra, it would probably go something like this:


In service of this emphasis on becoming aware of awareness and conscious of consciousness at the highest, most neutral, most meta echelon (a state which Goodwin has notably pointed out to be called ‘witness consciousness’ in certain intellectual traditions), The Witness consistently enforces a slow and considered way of playing:

Except for the [timed] challenge, The Witness celebrates pause and reflection. Every machine on the island moves slowly. The shutters. The lasers. The lifts. As a game, a commitment to contemplation has been chiseled deep into its design. (Goodwin)

The quiet overworld vistas of the island are traversed without any background music whatsoever; the audio logs are spaced out widely and can be considered individually, in isolation from each other; the physical machinery on the island operates at a noticeably slower pace than would be needed for simple traversal; many of the island’s visual and environmental puzzles can be solved simply through careful observation of the surroundings rather than logical problem-solving; and none of the panels lock you into solving them, such that one can wander freely and contemplate all available paths of progress.

The Witness screenshot with branches forming eyes - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Such elements provide both enough time for and numerous rewards for careful contemplation—as if to foreground contemplation as the most fundamental element of The Witness, above and beyond any specific kernel of meaning available in any specific audio log, puzzle solution, or film clip.

And in the game’s most devious apparent bait-and-switch, the most difficult challenge of the game—in which the player must solve a sequence of randomized panels against the game’s only time constraint in order to access a conspicuously placed film clip reward—grants access to an hour-long lecture by game designer Brian Moriarty about how great works of art do not hide things away but rather overflow with generous value, and about how seeking answers and patterns too fervently can lead to insanity.

The reading of the game’s final ending cutscene, then, becomes one that reveals the purpose of the island retroactively: as a virtual world created for the express purpose of allowing its users to access ‘witness consciousness.’ Thus, the island is an object not unlike a Zen kōan, created with the express purpose of abstracting a person away from specific logical consideration of the world and toward non-rational, direct experience.

The Witness as an Analytical Act:

Now, if the conception of The Witness as a meditative act is cohesive and thorough, then in theory we can all just pack up and go home now. It’s solved! Except, obviously, as much as I am impressed by the excellence and depth of the readings that result in that conclusion, I don’t think that captures everything that The Witness has to say. In order to express why I hold that opinion, I will now present a competing analysis of The Witness, not as an act of meditation, but as an act of analysis.

The most fundamental unit of gameplay in The Witness is solving an individual line puzzle. The vast majority of one’s time with the game—indeed, nearly all of one’s time with the game—will be spent in active effort to find workable solutions to singular puzzles, each involving the tracing of a line from a circle to an end cap. Tracing from a circle to an end cap is the most fundamental rule that must be learned and practiced in order to access the content on the island, and additional rules are added from there to groups of line puzzles in specific sections of the gameworld. If the game is about stepping back from logic and denying the individual truthseeking ego, then it is very curious that such an overwhelming quantity of one’s time with it will be spent in the minutiae of solving logic puzzles.

The Witness screenshot with coastal view of mountain - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Rather, The Witness may be read not as a game about ironic detachment from specific paths toward meaning and truth, but instead as a game about the act of uncovering meaningful truths, as one does when practicing science or philosophy.

Consider the experience of any given section of the island. One approaches a region covered in unpowered panels, and eventually manages to solve a simple puzzle which supplies power to at least one additional puzzle. By building a more thorough understanding of the rules governing puzzle solutions in that region, one can navigate from panel to panel and eventually power on all (or nearly all) of the panels in that region, as marked by the presentation of a laser pointing to the summit of the island’s mountain.

One can master each of 11 such regions, and thereby learn rules of puzzlesolving which, in combination with each other, will allow a player to solve all such puzzles across and beneath the island. Learning the underlying logic of a panel in one such region is something akin to approaching a new concept in the world from a scientific or philosophical point-of-view. One can turn a basic understanding of the concept into a complex understanding through further effort and attention, and success at doing so grants access to more difficult and nuanced variations on the concept. In reality, this is a metaphorical access; but in The Witness, it is a literal access.

Apart from this embodiment of meaning and analysis in the basic gameplay loop, the game seems consciously built around the epiphany of realizing that the world includes environmental line puzzles. The best evidence for this is that the summit toward which each of those laser boxes point contains the most conspicuous hint toward that aspect of the world, an otherwise useless panel which mirrors the shape of the river below.

While this epiphany could be read as an analogy for enlightenment, a realization that the world is somehow different than it had initially seemed—this epiphany can also be read as an enmeshing of the technical (or one could even say ‘academic’) puzzlesolving on the panels with the operation of the world at large. The practice of specific scientific, mathematical, philosophical, and logical analysis always seems to the superficial observer to be a fatuous exercise in navel-gazing, an overly specific approach to topics that are abstruse, impractical, and outside the realm of everyday lived experience.

The Witness screenshot with clip of Richard Feynman in projector room - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

But in actuality, every such investigation by every such scientist and philosopher has always been, as Richard Feynman says in one of his video clips in the game, a straightforward and unpretentious effort to understand the world. And much in the way that the environmental line puzzles suddenly seem to be everywhere on the island once initially noticed, so a deep understanding of physics or epistemology or ontology will increasingly seem to be relevant to every part of reality once obtained.

Brian Moriarty, after all, is not arguing in “The Secret of Psalm 46” that there are no hidden meanings in reality or in works or art—merely that one not sufficiently considering opposing viewpoints may chase apparent patterns into madness. Thus, the contradictory material in the game’s audio and video logs would come across not as a general communication of the futility of truthseeking enterprises, but rather as an indictment of any approach to truthseeking which lacks humility and breadth.

The meditative reading of The Witness prizes the slow pace of movement and mechanical functioning in the game, yet all analyses of the game as meditative which I have seen largely ignore the many forms of expediency granted to the player: the ability to run, the instant access to each subsequently unlocked puzzle within an area, the boat for fast transportation that features four available speeds, the ability to skip a few entire sections of the island and still access the mountain, the lake and obelisks pointing out where a player has unsolved or unfound content on the island, the ability to fast-forward and rewind the videos in the projection room, and (of course) the fact that the game’s most revealing ending is reachable in a matter of minutes after starting a new game once it has been found. Even the only element that does stand out to me as excessively slow—which is the set of moving walkways in the swamp—serves a purpose, as the sluggish operation there aids in the discovery and completion of several subtle environmental puzzles.

The game is not some kind of sadistic exercise in purposefully wasting the time of its players; while it may operate in some small ways at a slower and more considered pace than is typical of the medium, it also keeps the player actively engaged in gameplay to a rare degree throughout the dozens of hours of experiencing it. Few are the games—including notables like Myst and Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—which largely set their players free into nearly cutsceneless expanses of pure interactivity.

Moreover, the meditative reading tends to privilege the audio logs and videos pertaining to meditation and awareness, while discarding (or painting only as dissenting opinions) the audio logs and videos pertaining to philosophy and science. The cacophony of voices is united, however, in their efforts to access truth; they have merely reached differing conclusions.

The Witness screenshot with touching circles in ending cutscene - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Finally, one can read in the ending cutscene not the worthlessness of the knowledge gained in the gameworld—but rather the insufficiency of reality to feature the specific, simple embodied meaning of the gameworld. The island in The Witness is a microcosm of an explorable reality, but its simplicity and straightforwardness are artificial, paling in comparison to the true manifold complexity of reality, where concepts do not inhere in consciously designed line puzzles. In order to incorporate the knowledge gleaned in the gameworld into reality, one will have to apply the strategies one has used to navigate the island in a more nuanced manner—by mapping the metaphor onto mental practices, and not simply by tapping on circles. The player is still the titular witness in this reading, but it is another connotation of the word ‘witness’ which is invoked: one who has seen (and can report) the truth of a matter.

The Witness Deconstructed:

The puzzles are an expression of discoverable reality; the puzzles are a context for understanding reality as being beyond discovery. The island is a virtual place where one can add to what they have learned about the world; the island is a virtual place where one can unlearn what they have learned about the world. The patterns one can discern in the gameworld are intentionally meaningful; the patterns one can discern in the gameworld are intentionally meaningless. What’s going on here, exactly?

As demonstrated in this article thus far, The Witness is a work that is ripe for deconstruction. Not only does it advance multiple viable contradictory thematic trajectories—it advances them by way of clips from multiple viable contradictory intellectual traditions. That is, part of its basic means of communication, regardless of whether one reads the game as self-actualizing meditation or as worldly hermeneutics, is contradiction itself. It speaks the language of contradiction, of paradox, and, yes, of Zen kōan.

So what does this deconstruction of The Witness say then? It says that The Witness can not tell you the truth about reality. Hell, The Witness can not really tell you the truth about The Witness. Is The Witness about the impossibility of knowledge, or is it about the possibility of knowledge? Yes, it is. The Witness is about the world itself as ambiguously truth-apt—a place that seems intricately constructed and knowable, yet full of dead ends, contradictions, ambiguities, and clues that point nowhere.

The many voices present in The Witness are voices present in the real world too, many of them expressed as part of a culmination of someone’s life’s work, whose words express propositions they deem to be true and important. Some say to seek truth in science; some say to seek truth in religion; some say not to seek truth at all. They step on each other’s toes, fly in the face of conventional wisdom, bolster each other, fling mud at each other, and just generally fill out a babbling crowd scene wherein specific meanings can only be found by excluding some of the available evidence.

The Witness screenshot with environmental puzzle in flowerbed - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

The island itself operates likewise, presenting numerous paths toward straightforward logical knowledge, the acquisition of which rewards the player (if in no other way, at least) with access to additional paths. Yet solving the most straightforward sequence of progression merely unsolves itself; nearly all of the environmental puzzles (both line-based and non-line-based) affect nothing or only affect their own completion markers; and the arbitrary nature of the included panel puzzles is brought into sharp focus by the section of the timed challenge preceding the maze, which presents a set of six randomly generated puzzles with four of them always being generated unsolvable.

Consider the following characteristically obtuse remarks by Jonathan Blow:

In a sense the puzzles are—like Braid, they’re not trying to make you be smart. Some of them are harder; some of them are easier; but they’re about communicating. They’re about exploring, again, some process of form, going through iterations, and you as a player seeing the interesting things that can happen there. So, that’s one of the many levels at which [. . .] the game sort of has a mode of encouraging a witnessing presence. To the extent that a game can do that kind of thing. It’s a game about looking at things, and seeing them, and knowing that you’re looking at things and seeing them. So it tries to add a level of self-referentiality to that process of seeing things—and of asking the question, ‘What is it like to be in a world and walk around and be seeing things, and be hearing things?’ (Blow)

The Witness may be able to get you to think about perception, or about reason or communication; it is not necessarily about the impossibility of finding truth. But it is necessarily incapable of speaking unambiguous truth itself. Contained within the act of communication is ambiguity, and in ambiguity lives the speech act’s deconstruction. So where is truth? If it is anywhere, it is not on the island. One of the fourth-wall-breaking bits of dialogue in the game basically says this outright: “These recordings are part of an endeavor built by human beings. And they aspire to Truth with a capital ‘T,’ but we also have to remember that they can not actually get there.”

One can abstract truths from The Witness, and there are at least two such attempts presented in this article. But if truth is anywhere, it would have to be out in the world where all of The Witness’ concepts and attempts at finding truth smash into perceived reality; where one can share their abstractions and critical analyses of art for others to consider in their own existential positions; and where one may actually be able to witness something, whatever it may be. After all, upon reaching the end of the game—regardless of which ending one gets—the game abruptly shuts itself down, autonomously quitting to desktop.


If there is one really important criticism of deconstructive interpretations of works, it is not any of the conventional ones: that it is unintuitive, that it is pretentious, that it is political. Deconstruction is all of those things, mind you, but I don’t personally class any of them as flaws which undermine the movement. Even its purported incoherence is in actuality a detail that its proponents accept and constantly discuss. Rather, if there is one really damning criticism of deconstructive interpretations, it is that they are all very similar. They all intend to showcase the same thing: namely, that works operate through and as a language which is not reducible to truth. Paul de Man, for instance, argued that point through passages from dozens of literary works across several of his own books, in (at least) a feat of impressive rephrasing. As Rick Roderick puts it (speaking, I should point out, in favor of deconstruction):

The history of philosophy has not yet presented us with final wisdom, total coverage, and ultimate truth. [. . .] Deconstructive readings try to work this out in detail case-by-case—you know, different attempts to answer it, and how they fail to answer it. [. . .] See, philosophy is not like building a house, where you start with a firm foundation and build it up and you’re finished and you walk off and that’s philosophy. Philosophy under the heading of deconstruction is housework, which means every day the floor has to be swept again, the dishes have to be done again, and—I’ll be damned—the next day, it’s just like that again. And it’s just like that again. And it’s just like that again. (Roderick)

Now, if you want to know why I still think deconstruction is a great movement despite this repetition, that’s because I disagree more with its application than with its philosophy. The deconstructive teardown of the confident structuralism it followed was and is appropriate and required. Anyone who says with absolute certainty that works of art are immutable communications of specific meanings that can be found, mapped, and demonstrated—is setting themselves up for a rude awakening when they stumble across an equally valid analysis of one of their target texts with an entirely conflicting point-of-view. To paraphrase J. Hillis Miller, artistic works dismantle themselves on close inspection. But to carry on analyzing works in deconstruction by reenacting that same teardown is to trap oneself in a tedious and infinite critical repetition.

The Witness screenshot with rocks forming kneeling figure - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

The only way to proceed in a poststructural analytical landscape without falling into the trap of making more-or-less the same analysis of every work—is to proceed much the same way that one proceeded in a structural and even pre-structural formalist analytical landscape, but with an abiding sense of humility and irony. While their meanings are ambiguous and arbitrary, and their truths are all arguably false, works of art can nevertheless be shown to be spinning like elliptical galaxies composed of material from specific concepts and topics. Thus, the interpretive work that can still be done in poststructuralism is not to seek for the definite center (where nothing can be found but a black hole), but to forge interpretations by cataloguing the materials of the galaxy into useful collections (or abstractions, as I called them in the previous section). These collections can foster thought and creativity, advance or challenge philosophies, further the subjectification of divergent groups, and so on. It is irrelevant that the collections themselves are arbitrary and deconstructible, as—in what I would deem a proper poststructural analysis—the impossibility of interfacing with reality (i.e. things-in-themselves, transcendental signifieds, etc) is subsumed within a phenomenological position whereby what matters is what is perceived. In that context, arbitrariness is a feature, not a bug.

But that leaves one unanswered question. The reading of The Witness in this article is a fairly standard deconstructive interpretation. It showcases how any specific meaning the work might impart is opposed by other meanings that can be drawn out of the same details. This analysis does not seem to divert from conventional deconstruction in the way described in the previous paragraph. So, the question is: why not? Well, you may have noticed a curious fact about this analysis, which was the actual original inspiration for its writing: the implication of the full deconstructive reading overlaps with each of the two specific formalist readings of the work.

This is not an occasion in which one is deconstructing a novel about romance or a work of philosophy about ethics—in service of showing that the search for truth and meaning is convoluted, enduring, and ambiguously possible. Rather, this is an occasion in which I am deconstructing a work about the convolution, persistence, and possibility of seeking truth and meaning—in service of showing that the search for truth and meaning is convoluted, enduring, and ambiguously possible.

Works Cited:

Blow, Jonathan. “Episode 273: The Witness.” Buddhist Geeks. Art19, 2015. Web.

de Man, Paul. “Semiology and Rhetoric.” Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. Yale University Press, 1979, pg. 3-19. Print.

Goodwin, Joel. “The Unbearable Now: An Interpretation of The Witness.” Electron Dance. YouTube, 2016. Web.

Roderick, Rick. “The Ends of Man.” The Self Under Siege. The Teaching Company, 1993. Web.

[Game: The Witness, Thekla, 2016]

A Deconstructive Reading of Jonathan Blow and Thekla’s The Witness

was last modified: August 31st, 2022 by Daniel Podgorski
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