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 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.
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 teases out contradictory content 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 “true” meaning and 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 the method of deconstruction provides a remarkably appropriate path into analysis of The Witness.