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Guest Column: A Garden of Bodies

Guest Contributor Bruno Dias explores the long, intertwining history of environmental storytelling and corpses in video games.

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The phrase "environmental storytelling" seems to have entered the games discourse so quietly we were never really given a solid definition of it. It has been treated as a matter of "I know it when I see it;" and we see it scrawled on walls, placed in scattered objects, and designed into the literal “environment” itself. We just “know” when those things are used to convey narrative and define the world. But we could propose a stricter working definition:

Environmental storytelling is corpses posed for effect.

What got me thinking about this was playing The Witness.

Skeletons in the Wilderness

In the last few months, I played two games that involved walking through a 3D environment of managed wilderness, each making heavy use of environmental storytelling. One was The Witness, the other was Firewatch. (Before I continue, I should point out that I’ll be discussing some plot details for Firewatch in this piece, though obliquely.)

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In the end, after playing through The Witness, I found that I really detested that game. Firewatch, meanwhile, is one of my favorite games of the year so far. I loved most of everything about it, including the ways in which it resembles The Witness. One of those features they have in common is environmental storytelling. And I realized that it is possible for one game to crassly misuse a technique that another game is elevating, even if they appear similar on the surface. It got me thinking about the history of dead bodies in video games; how strange and fragile of a narrative conceit they are at times, but also how important and useful they have been in some games. And that history, perhaps, is more interesting than the screed I have in my head about what’s wrong with the Witness.

But, to provide some context: In spite of superficially eschewing conventional plotted narrative, The Witness still feels the need to litter its world with audio logs and storytelling skeletons. The statues scattered across the game’s island are for all intents and purposes the same as the bleached skeletons that you find in any modern Fallout game: Human bodies posed by the environment designer to convey narrative information. While The Witness may not have a story or a plot as such, it definitely has narrative. It has ideas that it's trying to convey with its environment and the ever-present droning of talented voice actors reading snippets from Jonathan Blow's scrapbook of beloved quotations. Those statues that are everywhere, ham-fistedly pointing out some theme or another, are much like the little skeletal tableaux that litter any Fallout wasteland (whether Capital, Mojave, or Commonwealth). There is a longstanding tradition of death as a motif in video game environments, and The Witness fits neatly at the edge of it.

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Modern Fallout is notorious for how central dead bodies are to their set dressing. Fallout is many things: An allegory about the ends of American jingoism; a platform for Chris Avellone’s ideas about storytelling; two skeletons holding hands on a bed. Oblivion and Skyrim share that tendency, littering tombs with dead adventurers and often putting bodies right next to journals explaining their demise.

While neither series is bad for doing this, they both could learn a lot from Dark Souls, which makes more effective use of corpsemanship to subtly impart a sophisticated understanding of the game world to the player. That game uses item placement to both tell stories and guide the player; items are shiny white beacons in a dark world, letting you know that wherever you find them is a place you can go to and loot. The very first item you pick up is delivered into your prison cell in the Undead Asylum along with a dead body, which really just raises more questions than it answers. From there on out, every single item that is just lying there on the floor is found on a dead body. The shape and appearance of the bodies themselves are incidental to the narrative. They are generic, desiccated, genderless grey forms. They are almost a floating signifier, a connection point between the item you find and where you find it. The dead body of a proud knight isn't regal, athletic, clad in mail; it's a grey clay doll of a human shape hunched over in a dark corner. But you find the soul of a proud knight hovering over it.

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The Bones of the Buttresses

When we are not finding the corpses of people, we find the corpses of places. A big part of Gone Home’s novelty is the fact that its environment is exclusively lived-in rather than died-in. Bioshock Infinite, still limited to a protagonist that only interacts with the world through the barrel of a gun, almost seemed like it couldn’t cope with living spaces at all. It’s as if the skybound city of Columbia had to fall apart just so the game could ease into the comfortable mode of walking through hostile ruins. Dishonored, too, put the shadow of death around every corner of even its liveliest spaces; a noblewoman's party has dangerous sewers beneath it, deserted streets around it, silent bedrooms above it.

There is nothing new about this. Video Games have been about space for almost as long as they have been games. Colossal Cave Adventure was about a natural space, a real cave system in Kentucky. Games have been about dead space for almost as long as that: Zork, Adventure's spiritual successor, immediately transposes its cave system onto the Great Underground Empire, a lost civilization that left behind a maze of twisty passages (all alike) for the player to get lost in. Grave robbing and tomb-raiding became a recurring theme in numerous games that cast the player as a combat archaeologist.

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The technology we have for building video games, as it stands now and as it has almost always been, can create a remarkable sense of place while still being remarkably limited when it comes to defining characters. The experience of creating parser-based interactive fiction, along the lines of Zork itself or its numerous modern descendants, bears this out starkly: A single, detailed NPC requires as much care in implementation (and as much volume of content) as an entire palace. Emily Short's Galatea, a game in which you have an extended (by video game terms) conversation with a single NPC, was a remarkable achievement in its time and remains impressive today.

An interactive character is usually a brittle representation, often teetering at the edge of unreality; architecture is much easier than psychology. Games that do make heavy use of interactive NPCs often run into discomfort when those characters are instrumentalized as gameplay tokens. BioWare RPGs since Mass Effect have had this perennial issue where the characters you actually want to have around are not necessarily the ones that you take with you into the game world, for the sake of party balance. Everyone loves Varric, but the game's mechanics often incentivize you to leave him on the bench.

In games, palaces are cheap and kings are expensive. But if you implement the palace, not the king, the resources you save from not implementing the king can be put to work implementing a whole other palace. Environmental storytelling is the trick that lets us have the palace as a narrative proxy for the king. Robert Yang has written about how two levels in Thief express differences in personality between two unseen characters by the differences in the layout of their respective mansions. At its best, architecture substitutes for psychology.

This technical bent which started out in Zork's time has become cultural and self-perpetuating. Look at the Oculus and other VR headsets; a device designed for looking out rather than looking at; a device designed to immerse in an environment rather than focusing on another subject. Place rather than character.

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Death, dying, and their architects

In time, this self-perpetuating skew becomes a fetish, a fascination, a paraphilia. Another thread of video game history: Mario bumping into a flying Koopa once is all it takes to send you back to the start of the level, but the process of getting a little further each time can be intensely satisfying. This cycle, what game designers call the trial-failure-mastery loop, is built into video games from their earliest days. It got a convenient narrative wrapper: the player character “dies” each time, and cat-like, has a limited number of lives. This easy narrative solution, 30 years later, is a fetish: Steam reminds me every time I open it that I have the "Prepare to Die Edition" of Dark Souls installed, and that game is itself all about the weird relationship games have to death.

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Perhaps this is where our morbid fascination with abandoned spaces comes from: The ever-presence of death as a narrative conceit, along with the medium's natural ability at working with place. It’s a combination that has proven both potent and popular. In an industry that has become all about selling agency to us when we’re having a hard time finding it elsewhere, the appeal of broken worlds is clear. Player characters, monsters of agency that we are, take well to damaged, barren worlds where there is no pesky social order to judge you for killing an innocent NPC just for the item he drops. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Yes, the way (say) Call of Duty uses third-world war zones as playgrounds for hypermasculine, fetishistic violence is often tedious and trite. But games like Apocalypse World (a narrative-centric tabletop RPG), or even Dark Souls, explore this idea of the end of the world as an empowering environment in much more nuanced and clever ways.

The strength of this fascination takes me back to Firewatch. Firewatch is a game all about interacting with another character (so it certainly doesn’t dodge the challenges required to implement a complex NPC.) It's set in a national park, a semi-natural place that is still maintained and actively used by humans. Why, then, does it contain multiple spaces that are abandoned, left behind by people? At least in part, Firewatch seems to be about restoring the power of the dead body as a signifier. Yes, there's a dead body in Firewatch. But its use is a total inversion of how dead bodies are normally used in games; in Firewatch, the game leads up to the body, shows you who that person was before you find the corpse. The storytelling skeleton, so long a set-up, finally gets to be a payoff. After three decades of finding, looting, and creating corpses in video games, Firewatch has the player empathizing with one.

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This, perhaps, is why Firewatch’s environmental storytelling worked for me while The Witness' just didn’t. Firewatch seems to understand the tradition it lives in; it participates in an ongoing conversation. The Witness, meanwhile, seems to apply those ideas almost as a reflex; video games have audio logs, so throw some in. It doesn't really have a story to tell so much as a narrative to push, a narrative about the triumph of Jonathan Blow's shallow ideas about Buddhist spirituality blended in with a heavy dose of Silicon Valley techno-utopianism. It pushes that narrative with tools that are well-worn in the games medium; but at the same time, it has no point of view on those tools. Just like its utopian leanings try to escape history, the way it uses the medium is outside the history of it. It "more closely resembles a minigolf course than a real place".

I'm not writing this to condemn the tradition of storytelling skeletons, or the history of how environmental storytelling has been used. Games developed their fascination with death through a process that is valid and important; making use of this history is one of the things that gave power to Firewatch, Oxenfree, Gone Home, Dark Souls and others. Firewatch is advancing a conversation that started when Zork took its players to the ruins of the Great Underground Empire. The Witness is listening to this conversation, but not really speaking or understanding.

And in this, it fails its audience; if you don’t participate in the history you’re mining for your storytelling techniques, you’re just reproducing, uncritically, what came before. This is not a problem unique to The Witness; we are constantly presented with games that take those ideas, the product of a decades-long conversation, as immutable received wisdom. But The Witness grates in that, for all its consciousness-expanding zeal, it’s actually inviting its players to not engage with or think about the traditions the game uses. We need games to be autopsies or funerals, examinations and celebrations of what came before. Regurgitation like The Witness is more along the lines of Weekend at Bernie’s, a morbid pantomime of propping up the dead for the entertainment of the living.

Bruno Dias is a game developer and writer based in São Paulo, Brazil. He writes interactive fiction and develops tools for doing so. His work can be found on Sub-Q Magazine and on his blog. He himself can often be found on Twitter. Make sure to listen to Bruno chat with Austin on this episode of Giant Bomb Presents!

67 Comments

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hassun

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hassun • 

Awesome to have someone from outside of the Anglo-Saxon world writing for GB. Especially when it's about one of my favourite subjects.

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Jinoru

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Jinoru • 

I immediately thought of the house on Highway 17 when you said skeletons as story telling. A completely optional area in that game with some revolver ammo and some health kits, but very heavy in showing the Combine oppression in that world.

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fetterdave

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Edited By fetterdave • 

Wow, the Guest Column series continues to impress. Really terrific piece, Bruno.

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Ohnonono

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billyok

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Edited By billyok • 

I feel a little less alone every time I read a critique of The Witness. I know everyone has their games they love and hate and don't get that others love/hate/don't get, but I've never come away from a game feeling so cold while everyone else seemingly gushed over it.

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AlmostSwedish

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BaconAndWaffles

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Edited By BaconAndWaffles • 

Man, a large chunk of this article fell really flat for me. The criticism of The Witness boiled down to "I don't like Johnathan Blow's thoughts". Which is perfectly fine, I didn't care one iota about the philosophy underlying the game either, but that doesn't really speak to environmental storytelling. The audio logs are giant info dumps, but so are the item descriptions in Dark Souls. Your enjoyment depends on quality of that content, not the environment.

All that said, I enjoyed the article and I am glad that GB exposes it's audience to a wide range of voices. Thanks Austin and Bruno!

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JonDo

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Edited By JonDo • 

Kinda came off as a hit piece on The Witness. Haven't played it, hard to say, but people seem to like it a lot.

I did play Firewatch, and found it quite boring and disappointing. Like a "Season 4, Episode 6" amount of actual story, maybe 40 minutes worth, stretched out with a bunch of hiking. Annoying hiking, around a surprisingly linear and forgettable series of areas with invisible walls everywhere.

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Centurypunk

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thatdudeguy

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While I tend to agree with the analysis of The Witness's philosophical ramblings, I quite enjoyed the puzzle-box design of the game world. It's okay for the Paris catacombs and mini-golf courses to coexist, and to appreciate both for the experiences that they offer visitors. Even if the mini-golf course owner occasionally takes you aside and says something uncomfortable. I really enjoyed that mini-golf.

But thinking about that makes me realize that denying that there isn't a necessary narrative in The Witness is really a cop-out, because as the article points out, it clearly has something that it wants to say.

Another great Guest Column. Thanks, Bruno!

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billyok

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billyok • 

@jondo said:

Kinda came off as a hit piece on The Witness. Haven't played it, hard to say, but people seem to like it a lot.

I did play Firewatch, and found it quite boring and disappointing. Like a "Season 4, Episode 6" amount of actual story, maybe 40 minutes worth, stretched out with a bunch of hiking. Annoying hiking, around a surprisingly linear and forgettable series of areas with invisible walls everywhere.

I don't think a personal critique of something qualifies as a hit piece just because others generally like it.

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zorak

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zorak • 

Great article. Also, "corpsemanship"? Brilliant turn of phrase.

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Kebrel

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Kebrel • 

Your enjoyment depends on quality of that content, not the environment.

I find that isnt true for everyone which is probably why this falls flat for you. I meanwhile feel like he is speaking straight to me. Worldbuiding, environments and using them as tools for your game not as mere requirements are always markers of a great experience.

For me.

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AMyggen

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AMyggen • 

This was a really great article.

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Maluvin

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Maluvin • 

The guest writer series continues to be really thought-provoking. Love it and I look forward to new pieces every week.

I should really finish The Witness sometime. I love the puzzles and their logic but have some questions about the narrative and thematic path it was going down. For people who finished the Witness it seems to elicit some huge feelings.

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Ford_Dent

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Ford_Dent • 

I was thinking about this very topic because I've been playing Hyper Light Drifter and that does some real good environmental storytelling (at least in my opinion). Good article (and yeah the narrative parts of The Witness are not great).

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BaconAndWaffles

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@kebrel: I was only referencing the specific comparison of The Witness vs. Dark Souls. I don't think Bruno made his case for why The Witness failed him and Dark Souls did not (excpect for the message/philosophy that was being espoused).

I very much find world building/environment can go a long way to alleviating the need for excessive exposition (via text or audio commentary). To me, both Dark Souls and The Witness still work if you ignore the text or audio because they are both very atmospheric and you can essentially create your own story based on the worlds themselves.

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eduardo

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eduardo • 

Excelente!! Parabéns, Bruno!

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Quicklyer

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Quicklyer • 

Wow, insightful. Passionately worded too. Covers a lot of different areas of this theme and maybe helps me understand a little better why I was so cold towards The Witness and so red hot for Firewatch (and the others).

And I have to agree Dark Souls' take on lore through item descriptions is made more impactful through the trial-failure-mastery loop in a very direct way: unlike souls/humanity etc., those shining beacon item pickups stay in your inventory even if you immediately get ambushed and die, making their allure stronger and the unwrapping, checking stats/effects, and reading the 2-3 sentences about the world lore that much more exciting.

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MonkeyKing1969

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An interesting point of view about 'found bodies' in games and their use as story telling devices both inventive and boring.

I think the best part of Fire Watch is that Brian is just as important to his own story as he is to Delilah's. And, because Delilah's story gains more importance to Henry, the body's story becomes the penultimate revelation to the whole story for him. In a way the story of Brian in Firewatch is very layered since it organically becomes important to the player (or the developer hopes it will) because that one character links all the major characters is the game.

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CharoftheFlame

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Edited By CharoftheFlame • 

I would really appreciate it if someone could actually spell out "the triumph of Jonathan Blow's shallow ideas about Buddhist spirituality blended in with a heavy dose of Silicon Valley techno-utopianism" they found in The Witnesses audio logs.

To me the core message of the game is just perspective and each audio log is just showing a different perspective. They range from religious teachings to "objective" scientific views. To me, The Witness doesn't try to actually say one is better than another, just that each person brings their own unique perspective to everything they do.

I'd love to gain some insight into what message people are taking away from the game that drives such harsh criticism.

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vodsel

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vodsel • 

@baconandwaffles: From my understanding as I haven't played much of it, The Witness offers info dumps without much cohesion between the dumps. They talk but they don't say much. Dark Souls sort of dump info on you, but there are pieces to weave together a visible sense of cohesion in the visible surroundings as well as in deeper suggestions within just what is said in other dumps. There's plenty out there on suggestive Souls lore so I'm not gonna get into it, but I think you're wrong about this.

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Lextalionis

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Excellent piece. The bit about VR stands out to me, though.

Look at the Oculus and other VR headsets; a device designed for looking out rather than looking at; a device designed to immerse in an environment rather than focusing on another subject

VR is modeled physically and conceptually around human binocular vision. What would a different system based around looking "at" something even be? A neural hookup feeding into the structures in our brains that govern object permanence and spatial awareness? VR already thins the membrane between reality and game enough that people get panic attacks...

As an aside, I'm glad to see somebody else sees The Witness as a pastiche of base game tropes masquerading as high art.

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Toberl

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Toberl • 

Corpsemanship just sounds funny as hell.

One note though. I believe that the corpses you find items on in Dark Souls all have genders, signified by female corpses wearing bras. Hopefully someone will correct me if I'm wrong here, but I think that all of the Fire Keeper's Soul's you find are found on female corpses which ties into the lore of fire keepers.

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NotBrunoAgain

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@lextalionis: I talk a bit about this in the podcast with Austin, but AR (like Hololens) is a technology for looking at: it places an object in your space rather than placing the player's point of view in a virtual space. And the relative level of attention and investment between those two approaches is, I think, telling of what we value in games as a medium.

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Lextalionis

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@notbrunoagain: I headed back to edit my post upon listening to the podcast, and to my shame I was too late!

I'd never considered AR/VR to be a dichotomy like that before.

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Cav829

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Cav829 • 

This was a great read. It reminds me that I really need to play The Witness. I just finished Talos Principle, which I adored. One of the reasons I really enjoyed that game was because of how good its narrative was and how much effort went into the ways it is conveyed to the player. While it relies on dreaded emails/text files/blogs, there was a reason it worked in that case that didn't in most games. I also really enjoyed Firewatch and Oxenfree, so hearing people like Austin, Bruno, and some of my friends talk about Witness's story and not liking it because of issues I often tend to agree with makes me want to experience it myself while I still have an opportunity to form an unbiased personal opinion on it.

I'll definitely have to re-read this a bit closer after I finish it.

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Slag

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Slag • 

Corpsemanship is one hell of an awesome word. Heck of an article man

I always kinda figured games leaned towards the dead body, empty/broken world tropes for a couple reasons

Like the author said it removes any moral qualms of going around and slaughtering 1000's of NPCs and I also figure it's quicker/easier to program a deadbody than have to create dialogue, movements etc for living characters. So basically story telling skeletons are cost effective.

That was my assumption anyway, I really liked this more thoughtful thorough breakdown of its used! Gave me a lot to think about.

Regardless of why I am personally almost as tired of it as I am of the young boy Hero's Journey trope in JRPGs...

Supergiant games (bastion/Transistor) seems to have this device as core to their games and is the first I think of when thinking of this sort of thing. Kinda hoping they don't do that in their next game, I'd like to see them try something different.

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buzz_clik

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Edited By buzz_clik  Moderator • 
@charoftheflame said:

To me the core message of [The Witness] is just perspective and each audio log is just showing a different perspective. They range from religious teachings to "objective" scientific views. To me, The Witness doesn't try to actually say one is better than another, just that each person brings their own unique perspective to everything they do.

Yup, this. And it's an idea reinforced by the fact you have to stand in just the right position to see a certain shape.

While I loved the puzzles and world in The Witness, I agree with Bruno that the audio logs (which are more quotes, and not really direct story "info dumps" per se) are kinda ham-fisted and ponderous. But by the time I got to the end I was left with the same overall feeling you were: Blow seemed to be calling for some sort of peace between opposing ideas by outlining the humanity of the people behind them. The deliberate eschewing of any side being overtly chosen seemed to suggest all may be worthy angles of life to at least be considered and heard, even if they don't align with your own beliefs. It's asking to maybe try seeing something from a perspective you'd never considered before.

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DFL017

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DFL017 • 

Wow, that link to the blog on The Witness is such a hateful rant.

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NotBrunoAgain

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@buzz_clik: I don't really want to get into my issues with the Witness' narrative content specifically - that would take a whole other column to unpack; I don't begrudge anyone having a different reading or taking something else away from that; and the blog post I linked pretty much goes over my major areas of displeasure at it (please don't take this as a statement-by-statement endorsement of every last word in that article).

I mostly use it as an example to point to an use of storytelling techniques that I thought wasn't very adept and (very importantly) didn't seem very conscious of what it was doing. The audiologs and statues felt very perfunctory, like they're there because the Witness is a video game and not so much because the world it's presenting necessitates them. I'm not sure it would be a loss to that game is they were cut completely. But, sure: the reason the storytelling in the Witness made me actively unhappy about it was also that the actual narrative it was pushing is one I personally find disagreeable (and of course, you and I may disagree about what that narrative is, especially in a work as ambiguous as The Witness). I make no claims to a privileged level of objectivity where I can totally separate what the thing is saying from how it's saying it.

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TheMainTank

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Some pretty personal anger towards Johnathan Blow in this piece, making it a little difficult to read despite some good insight. You call his philosophy trite and his game a regurgitation. I love a good burn, but that seems a bit excessive!

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Kvel2D

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Edited By Kvel2D • 

@dfl017: The linked blog also references another hateful rant. Seems like a bit of a broken telephone going on here.

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holyxion

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holyxion • 

Really enjoyed this article, possibly my favorite guest article so far, in fact! But I would like to offer criticism of the Witness/Firewatch compare/contrast element, both for its structure and content.

It seems somewhat like the author wants that comparison and the associated condemnation of The Witness to be the central point of this article, when it's honestly the most questionable and half-formed of the points raised here. The amount of credit offered to Firewatch for simply providing a basic environmental context to an extremely rudimentary single-character conversation system, as though the monotonous and simplistic environments were anything other than a crystal-clear response to Campo Santo's dwindling budget as they tried to establish themselves as a studio even seems to undermine the earlier point that environmental storytelling is primarily used as a way to save resources by developing the environment, in that it presents the lack of NPCs in Firewatch purely as a creative choice.

The overall blandness of its unsubtle narrative tableaus can only be hindered by the heavy emphasis placed on them by all other elements of the game's design. "The kid is dead. Was that not obvious? Can we move on?" seems to be the only natural response when such a degree of emphasis is placed on his superficial character traits before the reveal.

It's a minor point, but really, comparing a single predetermined set piece used for cheap shock value (which players aren't really given a reason to care about), to The Witness's admittedly rather corny attempts to provide deeper meaning to an otherwise quite straightforward puzzle collection seems like one of the most self-defeating and apples-to-oranges environmental storytelling comparisons I've ever seen.

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YummyTreeSap

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buzz_clik

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Edited By buzz_clik  Moderator • 

@notbrunoagain: Yeah, the ambiguity can cut both ways. On the one hand, it lets you draw your own conclusions from the experience, and it can open up a dialogue about what the meaning might be; on the other, the author risks having that meaning totally misunderstood (not that I'm saying that's what either of us is doing here).

But again, I agree with you that the ways Blow chose to present the ideas he wants to get across are dry, clunky and kind of out of place with the rest of the environment (and sometimes hard to spot, no less). I thought they were probably the weakest aspect of the game, and my initial gut reaction to them wasn't great...

But by the end, after I'd had all these opposing ideas washing over me, it all just kinda coalesced and appeared to me that Blow was saying all were valid viewpoints. And then when it was paired with the amazing perspective puzzles (which were far and away my favourite part) it all seemed to dovetail nicely. I guess what I'm saying is that, while the actual content of the audio stuff was a bit hard to swallow, the overall tone and idea they imbued conveyed the message almost without me being aware of it.

All said, though, I definitely appreciate The Witness a lot more as a puzzle game than as an essay on thought/humanity/perspective/whatever Blow was really saying that everyone missed. You're right when you say the audio logs and statues are perfunctory, but boy howdy did that game deliver on the head scratchers.

Oh, and great read, btw! :)

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Unsupervised

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Edited By Unsupervised • 

I really enjoyed the article! I have one issue that I've noticed elsewhere (even here from our very own Austin) and that's "drive-by Witness hating". It usually takes this form: "I really hated The Witness and I could produce a massive article/podcast about everything wrong with it if I just had the time." Bruno even uses this lack of specificity as a jumping off point: he could talk about all the many ways The Witness fails, indeed an entire screed exists in his head, but instead he'll contrast its use of Environmental Storytelling with others while taking some potshots at the game along the way without having to fully explain them.

I truly loved The Witness and would really enjoy reading a thorough critique from someone who didn't but am constantly frustrated by these instances where people hint at their well thought out critiques but instead only throw out witty one-liner dismissals that give you the satisfaction of a conclusion without the pesky argument. From the article: "narrative about the triumph of Jonathan Blow's shallow ideas about Buddhist spirituality blended in with a heavy dose of Silicon Valley techno-utopianism" is only a nice takedown if you already agree that Blow has been laid out.

I truly loved The Witness for the way it was able to teach me the rules of the puzzles, combining and recontextualizing those rules all wordlessly using the puzzles themselves, minimal feedback, and the environment surrounding them. It takes it a step further and hides puzzles in the environment, puzzles that had been there all along but could only be discovered when you started looking at the world in the way the game had been teaching you to, so that now the branch of a tree or a cloud in the sky could be another piece of the puzzle. For some players, myself included, The Witness escapes into the real world and you begin finding Witness puzzles in windowpanes and manhole covers. Taken by itself, I think it's a powerful, beautiful statement about ways of seeing and how art can unlock the world by viewing it through new eyes born of shared experience.

That said, if you asked me what The Witness as a whole was about, I’d truly be guessing and it’s The Witness’ fault. I think the game’s “narrative” presentation is flawed at best and merits further discussion. The scraps of "narrative" along the way in the form of theater clips and hidden audio logs are so intentionally obtuse and obfuscatory that pinning Blow's intentions down is an invitation to being accused of "not getting it". The information presented is free of context for much of the game and what little information is given later on is often vague or contradictory. For example, the "first" of the movie theater clips is James Burke's contentious statement that science is the only true way to understand the universe, that art at best is life reflected through a fractured mirror. If I had to guess the moment that most people turned against the game, it was supposing this Burke clip to be central to its thesis. But contrast Burke's clip with the inclusion of the clip from Tarkovsky's "Nostalghia" which explores an aspect of the human condition through art in a way no microscope ever satisfactorily could. Did he include one to negate the other and if so, which? Is he instead struggling with the cognitive dissonance of accepting both? Am I instead projecting my own feelings on him since he only presents me with the clips? Is the act of showing the player the clips a way of sharing things that profoundly affected him like a visual mixtape or is it the video game equivalent of the belief of your obnoxious teen years that if you turn your music loud enough the world will hear what you hear?

My frustration is that the last paragraph is probably the lengthiest negative criticism of The Witness than I’ve read to date and I’m neither a professional nor particularly good at it.

Am I just unaware of the great critiques of The Witness out there?

EDIT: A few people made the same points I did while I was writing this and @notbrunoagain responded pointing out the review he linked in the article. It seems to have some outside knowledge about the character of Jonathan Blow that they know and I don’t that is the key to understanding why this game is a cynical, pretentious, racist waste of time? It’s so thoroughly infused with hatred for the man himself that the criticism of the game reads more like a negative Yelp review of Jonathan Blow. It's super hard to get through and, while I understand that you're not endorsing all of the views espoused therein, it's kind of insane that this is the best piece out there to link to. It feels like the intellectual equivalent of Gamergate-style hatred.

Has the ambiguity critic-proofed it? If no one but that one dude is willing to say what they think the game is trying to say because the game won't explicitly say it (and even that one dude doesn't present an argument, only a foregone conclusion), isn't the guy espousing views you find objectionable going unchallenged in the area you're best equipped to challenge him in?

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NewHuman

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Edited By NewHuman • 

I agree with others that the compare/contrast criticism element of this article was a detriment (for context I haven't played the Witness, Fallout, or Firewatch).

The central concept is really interesting and I would have gotten a lot out of a more research / first-party account type piece on the corpse phenomenon across games, if you do write more on the topic.

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audioBusting

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I love this article! Great stuff.

I don't agree regarding the use of VR headsets to look out rather than look at something. It is generally marketed and talked about in that way, but that is just consistent with the status quo of what games are like these days (as discussed). We've all heard the stories from Dan Ryckert and Brad Shoemaker where the best moments of using those things is when they feel like they are interacting with a real person in VR. It doesn't look like it's quite there yet, but I think it has potential.

Even in the real world, we seem to have a strange obsession with actual corpses. A lot of religious practices involve preserving dead people in various ways. I've always found it unnerving to have to do funerals around the preserved lifeless body of the person. Us Catholics even need to investigate one's corpse before canonizing them into sainthood. I think it is just easier to presume who a person was and use the body as a symbol of their past life than it is to get to know a living person, real or otherwise.

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TheMainTank

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@unsupervised: There was a lot of the same personal anger toward Blow after the release of Braid, too. It made me wonder then if there was some secret dark side to him that the general public never sees, or if it was just internet people being internet people. It seems especially out of place on giantbomb, where the writers and contributors generally avoid slinging shit at people.

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Chillicothe

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Edited By Chillicothe • 

The blunt cudgel of poignant vignettes has shook me off a number of games from sheer overuse and clumsy implementation. You can't get away with "look at the sad thing!" anymore, not in a post-Witcher 3 world (well, alot of earlier games too, but only alot of zeroes seems to shake this kind of momentum).

Games that do make heavy use of interactive NPCs often run into discomfort when those characters are instrumentalized as gameplay tokens. BioWare RPGs since Mass Effect have had this perennial issue where the characters you actually want to have around are not necessarily the ones that you take with you into the game world, for the sake of party balance. Everyone loves Varric, but the game's mechanics often incentivize you to leave him on the bench.

I've found this an acid test of personality: does one really like something cuz it's the best or does one want it to be the best cuz one likes it? I remember a tooooooooooooooooon of people circa 2008/9 in MMOs who did not make good decisions reguarding this.

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pekoe212

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pekoe212 • 

@zorak said:

Great article. Also, "corpsemanship"? Brilliant turn of phrase.

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Edited By NotBrunoAgain • 

@unsupervised:I mean, I can only speak for myself, but the reality of it is that I had a really, really unpleasant experience playing the Witness. And that means I don't particularly think it's productive to knock out 1500 to 2000 words addressing each thing that I disliked about it. Delving into a specific pointed issue (like environmental storytelling, and here I'm only using the Witness as a jumping off point as you can tell) is more interesting. But writing a piece of criticism dedicated entirely to slamming something is not necessarily very productive for the conversation. I might think all my arguments about how bad the Witness is are sound and valid, but someone who played the game and had a good experience with it will never agree with me because what I'm saying is outright denying their lived experience. I have to think readers who really loved the Witness but would enjoy reading a detailed takedown of it are the exception, not the rule (I mean, if I'm wrong and you really want to see that takedown even though you enjoyed the witness, say so I guess). And the people who also had a bad experience aren't really going to learn much from having someone like me spell out an elevated explanation of why the game is bad.

There's also the fact that, if you're someone like me who thinks the Witness fails on multiple counts, it's kind of odd to try and spell all of that out because it feels more like reading a list of charges in court than writing a coherent essay about something. The arguments involved come from different places that can't necessarily be squared together; if I wanted to say "the Witness has a narrative that I disagree with on ideological grounds", that's not the same kind of argument as "the Witness makes poor use of storytelling techniques [which is what I touch on in this article]".

Drastically negative reviews can be entertaining and even illuminating, but I don't think I have something so special or important to say with regards to the Witness that it merits a full article. Maybe someone else does, though, and I do want to read that article too.

EDIT: And I should point out, I don't know Jonathan Blow or have anything against him personally (and I rather enjoyed Braid - I bought the Witness on release day with moderately high hopes for it). But I think the self-portrayal of Blow that comes across from the Witness isn't a person I would want to grab a beer with, if that makes sense.

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@notbrunoagain: as a privileged white dude, it's useful to have that criticism out there, at least for me, to make me aware of my many blind spots. That blog post you linked to might as well have been written about a game I haven't played for how little I could understand what it was referencing. I know that's on me but it's weird that so many have such strong feelings about the game and so few have articulated it. I feel like Bioshock Infinite, a game whose extremely poor handling of the issues it chose to tackle seemed so obvious that you could easily get away with the kind of shorthand dismissals being lobbed at The Witness, had 10,000 think pieces written about it.

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NotBrunoAgain

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Edited By NotBrunoAgain • 

@unsupervised: I can understand feeling the lack of a more clearly-articulated critique of the Witness, but then again I also just remembered Liz Ryerson also wrote a much more coherent criticism of it on the New Inquiry that might interest folks.

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muchobeans

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muchobeans • 

@notbrunoagain I was actually going to link that Liz Ryerson article but you beat me to the punch! It's a really good article that brings together a clear argument that I think a number of commenters here are trying to understand for how or why The Witness falters.

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I still think people give the idiots who design games too much credit, but thumbs up for not making me cringe, anyway. I like that

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nickhead • 

Cool read. I came prepared to talk about how Hyper Light Drifter does this really well, especially in the eastern area, and then I saw the screenshot. That game really creates a world wracked with death. Bodies flayed, sacrificial alters, failed experiments, skeletons literally everywhere. I feel like I know so much about that world without it telling me anything.

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Edited By Decaped • 

@notbrunoagain: The problem with using The Witness as a jumping off point is that calling the "corpses" in it bad environmental storytelling is not a grounded opinion for the audience. Your word choice (superficial, scrapbook, droning) illustrates your opinion and tone well enough, but doesn't provide the basis of the opinion. The stuff you write about The Witness is SO negative, it barely fits into the article.

And focusing on the corpses in The Witness left out the strongest element of environmental storytelling it uses.