Understanding Art: An Analysis of The Witness

The Witness is a difficult game to parse meaning from. It doesn’t offer any conventional storytelling, nor does it provide direct assistance in figuring out the basic mechanics of the world. On top of that, there is no discernable narrative to follow and a playthrough tends to be driven more by curiosity and determination than engagement with a plot. This isn’t to say that the apparent absence of a storyline doesn’t mean The Witness doesn’t have anything to say. It just means that it’s going to take a bit more speculation and hypothesizing to reach a place of understanding. It may be intentional, then, that this seems to be exactly what the systems in the game encourage.

Welcome to the Island

A brief explanation of The Witness’s gameplay would call it a puzzle game where you draw lines through mazes, completing them to unlock new mazes. These mazes will occasionally have added rules, such as colored dots that must be separated by your line or Tetris blocks that must be formed by your solution. The puzzles begin simply and then ramp up in difficulty, adding new twists, challenges, and even combining mechanics. Gameplay would effectively be the same if it were just a series of screens and menus. That is not the case here as the mazes are instead located on a mysterious island full of stone statues depicting people going about their lives. Accessing the mazes requires navigating the landscape and physically moving from place to place. Putting the puzzles in a physical area also lets the game include environmental elements to the mazes, such as rock formations that must be traced around or actual hedge mazes that contain solutions.

The island also lends itself to some organic storytelling, the sort that doesn’t require voice acting or dialogue to be conveyed. Exploring the space reveals an artists’ haven, full of locations seemingly dedicated to constructing aesthetic works. These range from simple sculpture or paintings to massive projects that span entire regions of the game world. The puzzles don’t specifically engage with the artistic endeavors on display, but progressing through areas and solving the mazes will lead you on a tour of everything the island has to offer.

World of Puzzles

One more feature that The Witness can include with its physical world are puzzles within the environment itself. These landscape mazes exist as features of the world, formed by the sun glinting off of a structure or the shape made by gaps in buildings when viewed at a certain angle. They can be difficult to notice and aren’t necessary to complete the game, but spotting them makes for a terrific moment of revelation and wonder.

To summarize, The Witness is a puzzle game about solving mazes with various rules that takes place on an island built to display art while also concealing secret puzzles in the landscape itself. That about covers the game’s basic experience, though there are secrets and mysteries abound. The game even has a rather strange hidden ending if you unlock all of the environmental mazes. Still, the question of what all of this says about the game’s ultimate meaning remains unanswered.

Witnessing Art

One possible explanation is that the game is about art. The island is full of the stuff, after all, so it’s a logical conclusion to say that The Witness is saying something about how we interact with it. Going a bit deeper, we might even say that The Witness is about understanding art. The puzzles that fill the island all have set rules, none of which are explained to the player in tutorials or popups. Instead, you figure them out through engagement. You’re asked not just to observe the world around you, but to understand it.

A level deeper still takes us to the environmental puzzles, which ask us to look at the world around us in the same way we look at the puzzles that were built for us. We need to understand the world a very specific way to solve these conundrums. One could even say that we need to view the landscape around us the same way that the designer of these mazes might view it. At this point, the game shifts from talking about how we understand art to how an artist understands art. We’re asked to step into the shoes of the one who creates – to not just comprehend their works, but to try and comprehend them and the way they look at their surroundings.

The game is ultimately about redefining what its title means. A witness is one who sees or observes something, but The Witness is more than that. To be a witness in this game is to both see and understand. To witness the art that surrounds you is to comprehend not just that it exists, but how and why it exists as well. These ideas form the basis of artistic analysis and criticism, and the game suggests it’s something that everyone who plays it is capable of.

Further Reading

‘The Witness’ Creator Jonathan Blow on Science, Language and Reality | TIME

The Creators of The Witness on How They Made a 100-Hour Puzzle Game | The Verge

The Witness: How Jonathan Blow Rejected Game Design Rules to Make a Masterpiece | The Guardian

Mechanics as Storytelling: Prey’s Gloo Gun

If anyone expected 2017’s Prey reboot to be a conventional first-person-shooter, that expectation goes out the window in the first few minutes of the game. After a disorienting and disturbing intro, you find yourself trapped on a on the Talos I space station full of terrifying alien monsters. As you tentatively step into the first few chambers, you’ll be forced to deal with limited resources, an oppressive atmosphere, and enemies that can hide in plain sight. To further complicate matters, you won’t find any conventional weaponry until later in the game. What you will find, however, is the Gloo Gun.

This device is the second tool you acquire, after the wrench that serves as a melee weapon. It’s not really a gun in the conventional sense as it deals absolutely no damage and uses foam canisters instead of ammo cartridges. If you’d been hoping for something would let you take out the Typhon aliens from afar, this isn’t it. Instead, the Gloo Gun can be used in a variety of other ways that aren’t directly related to combat.

Multitasking

The most immediately obvious application of the Gloo Cannon is to freeze the Typhon in their tracks. A few seconds of concentrated fire on a mimic or a phantom causes the foam to harden around them, immobilizing the enemy and giving you a few seconds to attack freely. The gun can also be used to create new pathways as blobs of gloo stick to walls, floors, and pretty much any other surface. If you’re having trouble reaching a vantage point or spy a medkit atop a high structure, the Gloo Gun is the way to get there. Finally, the foam can be used to deal with hazards in the environment as it soaks up everything from fire to electricity and can even be used to plug breaches in airtight zones.

What’s also interesting to note about Prey is the sequencing of how players acquire new weapons. You’ll first find the wrench followed shortly by the Gloo Cannon itself, but there’s also a hidden area in the first zone with an electric stun gun – great for dealing with robotic enemies. The next section has you picking up a silenced pistol by following the main story track and a shotgun if you’re daring enough to explore the Talos I lobby. This remains your default loadout for a while until you gain access to Typhon powers which grant you a wide variety of new options. The experimental Q-Beam can also be retrieved later on by completing an optional side quest. There are additionally a series of grenade-like tools that can be used for a variety of purposes such as distracting enemies, recycling materials, and negating psionic powers.

Limited Loadout

The important thing to note here is that for many players, the only real weapons they’ll have for a significant chunk of the game are the wrench, the pistol, and the Gloo Gun. The stun gun and the shotgun are technically available early on, but they’re both tucked away in hard-to-reach areas. The prevalence of mimics alongside an omnipresent sense of danger will discourage any adventurous impulses in favor of sticking to the critical path until players feel more confident in their abilities. This means that the Gloo Gun will become most first time players’ default weapon, and for good reason – it’s highly adaptable and useful in nearly any combat encounter.

Gloo and Yu

This adaptability is mirrored in the protagonist of Prey, Morgan Yu. Throughout the game, you’ll be able to customize your own version of the character as you progress, deciding which abilities to unlock and which weapons to invest in with upgrade kits. There are also choices to make as you encounter secrets from your forgotten past. How you deal with these matters just as much as the abilities you choose. Morgan’s character is malleable and changeable, mirroring the versatility of the Gloo Cannon itself. It’s up to you to define what the gun is used for, just as it’s up to you to define who Morgan is.

On top of that, the Gloo Gun contributes to the game’s override themes of knowledge and understanding since at its core, it’s a tool, not a weapon – much like how Morgan is a scientist, not a soldier. While the right neuromods and upgrades can turn you into a shotgun-toting badass who isn’t afraid of a few mimics and phantoms, things change quickly when the Nightmare Typhon starts hunting you or a situation turns sour. The Gloo Gun is still the best choice for handling these difficult encounters, giving you time to regroup and reload – and then blast away at the monsters, if that’s how you’re playing.

The Gloo Gun’s versatility and adaptable design align closely with Morgan’s nature, both in gameplay and in story. Who you are is a choice you have to make. While you can’t change the past or the Typhon outbreak or even the tools provided to you, how you deal with it all is your decision.

Further Reading

A Calming Journey: The Last Campfire Review

The Last Campfire is the latest title from indie studio Hello Games, and it puts players into the shoes of Ember, a lost little sprite of some kind navigating a strange and mysterious world. They seek the titular Last Campfire, where they will move on to something else – exactly what, it’s not clear. Each area you explore is dotted with the Forlorn – beings like you who turned to stone when they gave up hope. Helping them sends Ember into a miniature landscape where they must solve a short puzzle in order to help the Forlorn come back to themselves.

Gameplay: 3/5

The gameplay of The Last Campfire is largely fine. It deals with small puzzles, none of which are too difficult to figure out and often focus on positioning some object in the space in a specific way. This becomes very apparent once you acquire the lanthorn, an object that allows players to manipulate certain objects in the environment to create new paths or remove obstacles.

The systems of The Last Campfire are interesting, but they never really combine in any interesting ways. The first puzzle where you need to protect a flame from getting blown out is not that much more complex than the last puzzle where you do that again. Working out the solutions is still a satisfying task, but the game’s systems largely stand on their own.

Originality: 2/5

An indie game about dealing with difficult emotions through puzzles! Now where have I seen that before? All jokes aside, The Last Campfire is distinct from other similar games such as Gris, Rime, and Journey. Its gameplay and story are different from those titles, and it has its own art style that sets it apart.

However, there isn’t really anything new in this game. Spatial reasoning puzzles make up the bulk of its gameplay, which is nothing that hasn’t been done before, and the various other systems like fire and wind management aren’t very remarkable either. It’s not derivative by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t bring any fresh ideas to the table, either.

Accessibility: 3/5

The Last Campfire is a mechanically simple game – and that works very well for it when it comes to accessibility. Players are limited to three total actions – move, interact, and play the lanthorn. This dramatically reduces the learning curve compared to other games which have a number of complicated systems using a myriad of buttons to control things. The Last Campfire is an exercise in control-minimalism, which makes it very easy to understand how to play without any real tutorials.

The absence of certain other accessibility features is notable, though. There is no colorblind mode and no option to remap the controls (at least on the Switch, where I played the game). There is no way to increase the text size of the narrative popups, either. The Last Campfire still winds up being pretty accessible due to its simple controls, but could improve in some areas.

Look: 4/5

One of The Last Campfire’s best selling points is its artistic style – the game is just nice to look at, from the gloomy caverns to the swampy marshes. The characters’ designs all really stand out as unique and memorable, ensuring that you won’t soon forget the massive pig that demanded treats, or the lonely fisherman waiting for a bite.

It’s not the most graphically demanding game, to be sure, but it still looks beautiful. Everything about the world, no matter how strange and disparate it may seem, works together to achieve a cohesive visual philosophy. Its takes some talent to make a boat building robot, a massive bird creature, and a tortoise chef all fit into one aesthetic, but this game succeeds.

Story: 4/5

The story of The Last Campfire is its other major draw. It’s a solid tale about the challenges of moving past difficulties in life. The nature of these difficulties are left vague for most characters, with only brief hints given to the struggles they face, letting the story feel relevant to any number of personal challenges. The message seems to be about helping people, and how that can help you on your own journey as well given that Ember must bring back a certain number of Forlorn in each area to progress.

One element that I personally didn’t care for was the narrator. The actual narration was fine, and the voice was never obtrusive or unpleasant, but it felt largely unnecessary to have someone speaking the dialogue and descriptions that appeared onscreen. This game felt like it could easily have followed in the footsteps of those I mentioned earlier (Gris, Rime, Journey) and done away with narration – and indeed, much of the dialogue. This may be my own preferences, but the narrator just made the voices of all the characters feel too similar and didn’t seem to contribute to the story enough to warrant their inclusion.

In Conclusion

The Last Campfire is a pleasant and relaxing game, albeit not a very challenging one. It’s a nice few hours and can be very cathartic if you’re taking a break from more intense games. While it’s not the best game ever made (really, what game is?), it’s certainly worth the cost and makes for an enjoyable experience.

Final Tally: 16/25

Knowledge and Understanding: An Analysis of Prey (2017)

**SPOILER WARNING**

Prey (the 2017 reboot) begins with the player character, Morgan Yu, waking up in your apartment, receiving a message from your brother, and proceeding to the TranStar building where you undergo some tests. At the end of the examination, an alien disguised as a coffee mug kills the examiner and you black out – only to wake up back in your apartment, at the start of the day once more. It soon becomes clear that you’ve been stuck in a simulation and are actually on Talos I, a space station where the terrifying Typhon aliens have broken containment and are killing everyone in sight.

Neuromods, Typhon, and Yu

As you progress through the station, the most valuable items you’ll find are neuromods, which function as the game’s skill points. These are physical objects that take up space in your inventory and can even be fabricated if you know the recipe. In the story, neuromods are items derived from Typhon that imbue one with knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise possess. They can confer anything from combat instinct to musical talent. Learning more about the Typhon even lets you use them to gain supernatural abilities like telekinesis and shapeshifting.

The Typhon from which the neuromods are created are equally as central to the game, as they make up most of the enemies you’ll face. As you progress, you’ll learn more about these tentacle-y monsters – in particular, you’ll discover that they lack mirror neurons, which are responsible for developing empathy (the real world science behind this is dubious, but it’s central to Prey’s story). This means that they are literally incapable of seeing other beings as worthy of consideration, which makes it that much easier for them to kill any humans they come across.

The final key element in the story is the player character themselves, Morgan Yu. Morgan is an executive in TranStar Industries, but more importantly, they volunteered as a test subject before the game’s start. This sees them repeatedly having their memories wiped by removing neuromods (which resets your mind to when the mods were installed) and going through a basic testing process to examine the effects of the new Typhon abilities. This repeated memory reset leads to the existence of several different versions of Morgan Yu who can be encountered throughout Talos I. There’s January, an operator robot with Morgan’s personality who guides you through the station; December, another operator with Morgan’s personality who encourages you to simply abandon everything; and the various recordings and notes throughout the world that paint different pictures of Morgan Yu. Ultimately, your true identity is in flux and poses an open question for most of the game.

The Price of Knowledge

These three elements – the neuromods, the Typhon, and Morgan’s memory – contribute to the game’s main themes of knowledge and understanding. It is through them that the game examines the effect that knowledge has on the human mind, especially when pair with empathy or a lack thereof. The way the story unfolds and the choices players make each contribute to this greater dynamic.

The neuromods are quite literally pure knowledge. They allow Morgan to download new information and abilities directly into their brain and most playthroughs will see dozens of mods being spent. This poses a difficult ethical dilemma, however, as you eventually learn that neuromods are made from Typhon, which can only reproduce by killing humans. Morgan Yu is complicit in this crime from their executive role and their use of neuromods, especially if the player continues to use them after discovering this truth. This one piece of information re-contextualizes the whole story and makes you question your engagement with the game’s mechanics – are you still the hero when using a technology built on corpses?

Knowledge Without Empathy

If the neuromods embody the price of knowledge, then the Typhon are the consequences of knowledge without understanding. They are the origin of the neuromods and are also completely without empathy as they attack and kill with ease. We later learn that they feed on consciousness, which is perhaps the best example of intelligence without understanding in the game. They consume other minds to grow, something that they’re capable of because they don’t see these minds as minds. They don’t understand that human consciousness is anything other than knowledge for them to absorb as they can’t see personality or emotion – just the parts that are of use to them.

Morgan Yu’s backstory also explores the effects of knowledge without empathy. It is gradually revealed that your character used to be a cold-hearted executive with little regard for the human cost of their experiments prior to the start of the game. This is seen most clearly in the side quest where you seek out information about Mikayla Ilyushin’s father, who was executed on Talos I by a past version of Morgan Yu. Given that you’re supposed to be the protagonist of this story, it’s difficult to learn that in truth, you’re something of a villain. How you react to this knowledge – as well as other knowledge gained throughout the game – will define your character.

Forbidden Knowledge

All of this taken together – the bitter truth about neuromods, the psychopathy of the Typhon, and the challenges of Morgan’s past – tell us that some knowledge is not meant to be known. The human drive to innovate and discover led the residents of Talos I to the Typhon; the Typhon drive to consume and absorb knowledge led them to break containment. The pursuit of knowledge in this game leads only to ruin. In fact, the presence of the Apex Typhon at the end of the story raises the question of if some knowledge can ever truly be understood as this final monster is basically a Lovecraftian horror.

What’s very interesting is the way that the game’s true ending handles these themes of knowledge and understanding. The final scene reveals that everything you experienced was a simulation being given to a human-Typhon hybrid to test your empathy. It turns out that the Typhon have invaded Earth and Alex Yu – Morgan’s brother from the game – is banking on combining human empathy with Typhon powers to save the world. While this might seem to contradict the entire theme of the game as Alex is pursuing some dangerous knowledge in his hybrid experiments, it actually fits rather well. At this point, it’s clear Alex has learned from his mistakes on Talis I. He’s tempering his quest for knowledge with empathy and understanding. His questions for the hybrid aren’t centered on learning more about it from a scientific standpoint, but whether or not it shares the compassion and empathy that he possesses. Knowledge is still a risk, of course, but Alex has put in the work to understand it. It isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of time and work, but in the end, it is worth the effort.

Further Reading

Prey interview: Arkane talks about its ‘open space station game’ | Fenix Bazaar

Have You Played… Prey (2017)? | Rock Paper Shotgun