Cross-Examination

Among other things, I have been passing time during my confinement playing The Witness, the only video game I know of to have been partially designed by landscape architects. Based around solving puzzles on an island, where the solutions change and open the landscape around you, the game calls back to the Myst series. Unlike Myst, though, it is made as a seamless whole rather than a series of distinct tableaus. This seems to present a more difficult challenge for the designers; rather than compose in pictures, arranged one after another, they need to make a continuous fabric to work through.

The landscape architects, Fletcher Studio, describe their role in the project as “designing and modeling spaces, structures, geography, geology, environmental puzzles, and biomes.” And where a wide variety of level designers have made unforgettable spaces in video games, as a landscape enthusiast I can (I hope) discern where the added experience of designing IRL landscapes made the landscape experience of the game that much better. Video game landscapes often find their worth in the sum of two almost opposite elements: on one hand, the constraints necessary in the game environment to afford play, and on the other, the free rein given to create scenic assets. Strangely, designing constraints tends to make innovation flower, while designing without constraints tends to just reproduce the familiar. In the usual scenario, this gives you a convoluted maze to pick through in the actual space of the game, with a stock panorama scrolling in parallax off to the back.

Confusing these two elements, with purpose, leads to better results. And The Witness often succeeds when it bringing scenic elements into the play space, or rendering play elements as scenic amenities. Its usual mechanic is a series of logic puzzles displayed on touchscreens throughout the island; solving one leads to another being unlocked. While many of the touchscreens are self-contained, others require reference to the landscape to solve. Seen from the exactly correct perspective, shadows cast from tree branches, or a pattern shown by exposed roots, indicate the correct path to trace on the screen. A secondary set of puzzles invites you to find patterns in the landscape itself – a characteristic dot-and-trail form that appears on building ornament, or the gaps in forest canopy. Playing puts you in a mindset of pareidolia, and visiting the Darby Creek Metro Park the other day, every broken branch or discarded piece of paper on the ground seemed to be suggesting something.

Being an impatient person playing on a cell phone, though, the game’s challenges tend to push me off more than they pull me in. Instead, what I take away from The Witness tends to be the spaces that it creates to occupy. When it leans on sentimental statues or cod-Japanese forms to make meaning, it comes off as portentous in both senses of the word – it is presenting pictures that we are conditioned to see as meaningful. But when it trusts in making sequences of spaces to move through, it makes places that somehow carry a bodily meaning into the digital medium. The casual stepping-up of terraces in the orchard, or the abrupt hump on the top of the island of symmetry; the undercuts on the beach, or the steep path down to the quarry; all of these are meaningful because they speak to questions that can only be answered, or asked, by adventuring your body through them.

This last one, especially, sticks with me, precisely because it is not important, or even necessary. It is a simple side entrance, with a wide view; but the view is less important than the door you need to pass to proceed into it. Its jaunty little angle doesn’t represent anything about a biome, or any characteristic feature of quarries. It just happens to be, which is my favorite thing about landscapes as a form – the pile-up of constraints and accidents that perennially turn them away from the straightforward and the ideal. Without talking to the Fletcher team, I’ll never know if it was the landscape architects who introduced that angle; but it speaks to landscape in a way you rarely find in a video game.

(May 2020)