Besides its mind bending puzzles, most players praise The Witness for its vivid, beautiful open world. With expansive bodies of water, lush greenery, and colorful flowers, the graphics of the game are breathtaking However, I argue that this world does more than simply look pretty; rather, it encourages players to contemplate the beauty, importance, and enormity of the natural world. I read the game as what scholar Alenda Y. Chang calls an “environmental text,” encouraging the player to work with the environment, appreciating its beauty and value without plundering it for resources.
In many video games, such as Minecraft, players are encouraged to treat the game’s environment as an infinite provider of usable resources. The actionable parts of the environment, Chang writes “are most often things a player can use immediately… acquire for later use… or destroy,” such as power-ups or supplies (60). Chang then proposes that “games are opportunities to create entirely new sets of relations outside of those based on dominance or manipulation” (60). This relation to the environment, one of collaboration and respect, is present in The Witness. In my last play session, the solutions to the puzzles were imbedded in the natural environment, the trees in front of the puzzle boxes serving as clues to the puzzles’ answers. Hiding the solution to the puzzle in the environment serves two important functions. First, it requires the player truly to examine and appreciate the natural world. If the player is focused myopically on solving the puzzle without considering her environment, she will undoubtedly be stumped. Paradoxically, to solve the puzzle, the player must look at the world beyond the puzzle. Second, hiding the solution to the puzzle in the game’s environment models a way of working with nature that is not predicated on directly taking or using natural resources. Instead of taking from nature, the game encourages the player to learn from it, which is a pretty significant environmental message.
Additionally, The Witness encourages players to contemplate the vastness, power, and beauty of the natural world. In discussing the parser-based interactive fiction Adventure, Chang writes that the game encourages the player to consider “the sheer scale and complexity of its natural environment” (66). The Witness is much the same. Isolated on the island with no NPCs to distract her, the player’s focus is solely on the world around her. Even while sitting inside and looking at a screen, the enormous, beautiful world of The Witness encourages players to consider the vastness and splendor of nature.
While a video game is no substitute for time spent outside, environmental texts such as The Witness nevertheless instruct players on the value of nature. Interacting with the environment without plundering it and considering the beauty of the open world, players of The Witness are met with timely themes of environmental respect and appreciation.
Alenda Y. Chang. “Games as Environmental Texts.” Qui Parle, vol. 19, no. 2, 2011, pp. 56–84.