The Witness, Let’s Plays, And Continuity of Perception




Lately I’ve been reading up on the Jonathan Blow game The Witness, and also looking up Let’s Play on it. I admit this is cheap, since the epistemological shift that the game creates requires you to actually go through it blind – but I justify it by saying that I already had that kind of epistemological shift with something else.


If you think about, Let’s Plays are really one of the newest & strangest ‘genres’ out there. It may even be a bit unprecedented because Commentary itself has been a genre since the earliest days of history (Commentary on Sun Tzu, or the Analects etc…) – but it’s only lately that we’ve had this ability to make step-by-step ‘blind commentaries’ Surely MS3TK is one of its precedents, but I don’t exactly know whether that can be considered ‘blind’ or not. I think they use scripts for their comedy after all.

What a Lets Play allows is that it allows an unvarnished first-hand experience of another person going through the experience of Art itself. In other realms, this would be called a ‘usability test’. I would argue that a blind playthrough is also different from getting a focus group to experience a work of art & getting them to comment on it in the aftermath – because there is still a veil of memory within that.

I was able to enjoy Re:Zero partially because I was also watching the Youtube reactions on it, and it both helps to ground the experience in a larger social base, as well as outline the types of pitfalls that certain viewers will fall into. Of course, all of the viewers in the reaction videos I watched were completely shocked by the ‘exploitation’ scenes – and deeply moved by the famous Episode 18. Some actually found Subaru cool & empathetic – which was what I didn’t expect considering that I thought a majority of the watchers out there viewed him as irritating. In fact, they did not like how he was shut out again and again by the other Queen candidates during the stretch after episode 13.

I will admit that I cannot deny anyone their emotion (and, anyway, with the social proof I was able to muster up a lot more emotion that I would have expected from a show like Re:Zero), but I can merely use what I observed to talk about some interesting things about how certain people would experience a work.

To talk about a shutting-out scene for example (Subaru being shut out by Crusch when he asked her for help) – that scene is one which will engender an emotional reaction within the reader should he have certain views of the story. He must buy the exploitative & brutal moments beforehand as not overbearing & gratuitous – and then he must believe that Crusch was a better character than she actually is (probably inspired through her talk with him while drinking alcohol, and the fact that she helps heal him in the first place etc…). After the watcher fulfills these two pre-requisites – he will feel as though the denial was like a bullet in the gut.

From watching the Blind Watch – that was exactly what happened. The people watching the work felt indignant due to those points. Thus they were revealed to a world of the ‘cruel pragmatism’ of politics. Now, this fall was the foundation specifically to set up a later shift in the perspective of Crusch when she helps out Subaru in the Battle of the White Whale. This was also what happened. The ‘political pragmatist’ was transformed into a ‘hard-hearted but brave warrior’ – and the resulting admiration by viewers was the consequence.

This is, surely, not the ‘wrong way’ to view the work – in fact, it is the exact framework that you need to hold within yourself to feel anything significant. I will merely say that a person who accepts that kind of denouement to Crusch’s character arc – the political pragmatist with a heart for noble values – will be quite surprised if they were to read up on certain things about the world. Like the fact that many conflicts in Africa will have the incumbent working together with the rebel front in order to prolong the conflict so that the elite & rebel leaders can profit off it while, on the surface, it looks like a battle between a nasty authoritarian incumbent & a fierce hearted rebel group. Furthermore, sometimes they will prolong the conflict purposely so that they can siphon all those beautiful charity monies from foreign countries & charity groups. I wonder what such a person will feel when they come across a work like Concrete Revolutio?

But I will say that a simplicity in aesthetic values with regards to media does not necessitate a simplicity in worldview. It could be merely segmentation. I have an acquaintance, after all, who enjoys watching only idol shows as relaxation & doesn’t care much about anything else out there media-wise – but he has been a wealth of psychological insight because of how much he intuitively dissects other people’s personalities in his head.

I’m getting a bit sidetracked here, but I feel as though certain other works of Art need to have these kinds of ‘blindwatch’ experiences recorded – because they contain a great amount of information as to how people parse the narratives & structures of certain works. A bit hard, of course, in that you must find a person who is willing to commentate as truthfully & frankly as possible about his watching of – let’s say – Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.


This is related to The Witness, because a game like that is actually something that is very interesting to watch, in terms of how other people play it. It requires them to undergo a slow shifting of knowledge and realize certain things about the world – that puzzles & the environment can interact, or that the environment itself contains a wealth of secrets & can be interacted with. Combined with the audio-logs – it becomes one of those games where the thematic content is so deeply intertwined with the gameplay – it does something that only games can do.

So a person who knows what secrets The Witness has – finds it a great joy to see that moment when a person playing blind ‘gets it’ – and what happens next. From the LPs I’ve seen, a person who finds an environmental puzzle will fall into a flurry of overanalyzing & looking at everything around them, and start to put together pieces of things that they’ve previously seen which looked sort of like environmental puzzles.

This act of realization is what exists at the bottom of those very great works out there – what I described before as ‘hypermnemonics’. The Witness is able to showcase this in terms of the puzzle – to the environment. The puzzle and the environment are continuous. But if you look at a larger scope of things, a great work enforces the work itself – and the Life you have lived – to be continuous. During moments of great unease – I find myself being drawn back to the line from Rilke’s First Elegy:

And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world. Perhaps there remains
some tree on a slope, that we can see
again each day: there remains to us yesterday’s street,
and the thinned-out loyalty of a habit
that liked us, and so stayed, and never departed.

To me – the term Rilke’s Tree is like what the puzzle is to the environment. After I read that line – I began to see Rilke’s Tree everywhere. Similarly – I began to associate certain other aspects with lines from the Tao Te Ching. Sometimes I look at the sky and it looks like a Magritte. After looking at Van Gogh & Cezanne – I cannot help but see a bush or a tree as a fire. I will see great characters reflected in the actions of certain people – rather than have characters remind me of people. It feels as though those people were emanated from the character, rather than the other way round. Henry Miller wrote about how he read books, but he also read book-people. There are some people that I have ‘read’ so deeply that they become the equivalent of the great characters – and they emanate themselves in everyone around me that I have not known as well. But at that stage, causality becomes a blurry line.

Viewing these continuities is at the core of stuff like Non-dual Eastern philosophies or Mysticism. The cleansing of the doors to perception. I find it amazing that a puzzle game is able to encapsulate that very experience within its own mechanics, and force unaware players into slowly realizing this continuity. The problem is that, usually, a player in a Lets Play will denote this as a ‘mindfuck’ or something along those lines – and will not really get the true essence of what ‘continuity’ means. There are people who have images of seeing the Witness puzzles in real life. Yet there is still a long way to go before you really get to that center where everything becomes fluid. Where verses of poetry can bleed into reality, art can bleed into environment, people can bleed into other people, which in turn can bleed into books. Sylvia Plath was able to make The Holocaust, something she hadn’t personally witnessed, bleed into her own personal experience (or rather, make it seem that way through her poem). Wallace Stevens can make certain strange and hermetic images (“hives of hell”) become full of a wealth of meaning simply through how he configures the images with the words around it. These are all akin to what is done in the Witness – but the Witness seems to be to be an unprecedented work that brings this very aspect up to the forefront (well, maybe something like Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum will also do so – and supposedly this is what Sakura no Uta will teach later – but I’m guessing that since both lack the interacitivity element – it will not be so visceral). The Witness, thus, feels like the pinnacle of a work that talks about how we experience other works.

I said, at the start, that I had an epistemological realization along these lines with regards to something else. Actually that would be with the I Ching. I thank the Japanese site Iwa Ni Hana for once commenting about how there was a mystic who talked about how the I Ching could be casted from the nature around you. All you had to do was to find the combinations of 6,7,8,9 to make your casting. For example, you can look at the branches of trees and try to find combinations of these numbers to do your casting. You can also make use of the other denotation (old/new yin/yang) to cast the I Ching from people sitting on the seats in a train. A young man denotes New Yang. An old woman denotes Old Yin. You can literally do this with anything. Probably even the spines of books.

After I tried doing that a few times, I immediately went on a casting spree. I felt as though the entire environment around me contained an ebb & flow of hermetic answers to my own personal questions. The I Ching, at that moment, became the entire world. I felt like those players in The Witness trying to look for circles and lines in the environment around them. Then, when I realized what I myself was doing – that my mind & my questions were being continuous with the environment, thanks to the I Ching as mediator – my brain just blew apart. This is why – to me – The Witness feels like a lesser shade of that. It merely shows you that the environment is continuous to the puzzle – which is the first step – but the next step is to realize that the environment is continuous to yourself.

Realizing that fact intellectually is, of course, different from realizing it intuitively – which is what Taoism is all about. Their primary vehicle would be meditation, probably, intermixed with ruminations on Zen Koans. But vehicles can probably be found anywhere, and anything can be used to create that continuity. Creating art & poetry, solving perfectly beautiful maths problems, listening to certain types of music, being in a Japanese motorbike gang and experiencing that kind of flow that was characterized in the book Optimal Experience. Some would say that you still have one more step to reach after that – which is acceptance or tranquility towards that continuity. A person will get excited once they realize such a thing is possible, and they will seek for those experiences – but the problem is that the experience is dependent on you not seeking for it, but letting yourself go. Such is the paradox. You have to temper yourself to view all things as practically different but substantially similar – even the experience within it is equal to the experience outside it.


Thus, what I deeply hope is that Johnathan Blow’s next game will be an I Ching simulator – where it’s like the Witness but you’re supposed to find secret combinations of I Ching numbers in the environment. I predict that such a game will be played by no one, and yet it will be the most necessary game for everyone.