The Search for Hidden Meaning: The Witness and The Northern Caves

Spoiler warning: I didn’t much like either of these things, and a lot of this post is going to be me saying mean things about them. If one or both are near to your heart, it would be sensible to skip past this. On the other hand, you could consider this a cross-recommendation if the things I disliked about one of them were things you liked. More importantly, this post will contain spoilers for both.

The Witness is Jonathon Blow’s second venture into video games, following hot on the heels of the widely-acclaimed Braid, where by “hot on the heels” we mean “after only seven years.” It is an island-exploration-puzzle game in the vein of Myst, but prettier. It has several serious problems as a game, which ultimately limited how much of its “lore” I could choke down. It’s possible that everything I will say about it will be invalidated by something I missed, but I’m willing to pass judgment based on the arc it seemed to be inscribing when I disgustquit.

The Northern Caves is Nostalgebraist’s second venture into online fiction, following hot on the heels of the widely-acclaimed Floornight, where by “hot on the heels” we mean “after a few months.” It is (probably?) a Lovecraftian horror story in the vein of The King in Yellow, but subtler. To break symmetry with Blow’s works, I could finish The Northern Caves but not Floornight. Probably the same caveats apply anyway.

In The Witness, you wake up with no memory on an island inhabited only by statues and maze puzzles. The maze puzzles are the only feature of the environment you can interact with in any way, and seem to have been meant for a mobile game before it became apparent that doing so wouldn’t be Deep enough. Actually, I tell a lie – you can also activate recordings of people reading various philosophical-sounding quotes about Reason, Faith, Space Travel, and so forth. Those, plus a bonus area that plays video clips on the same subject, are the “Lore” of The Witness. That and the Incomprehensible Mysteries – like the statues and ruins.

The great joke here is that the game talks to you about the search for meaning, and gives you puzzles whose solutions require you to find the meanings of the various symbols and hints – did I mention it never tells you how to solve puzzles? You just get increasingly difficult puzzles following different rules, so you can figure out the meanings. Unless you fail to realise that the puzzle you’re looking at is “above your level” in which case you can spend an arbitrary amount of time trying to guess the meaning of some new symbol or environmental symmetry that you’re supposed to learn elsewhere. Anyway, The Witness is a game full of puzzles for which you can find meaning, all arranged in an island to form a puzzle for which you can’t. And the last jest is that this is the meaning. Because it’s just like real life – you can find the rules with science easily enough, but you can’t know you’ve found the meaning even with faith. Ha ha!

And it seems like The Northern Caves has the same – well, it’s not a problem – it ticks me off for the same reasons, I guess. It’s a story about a group of fantasy-fiction nerds who get together to search for meaning in a baffling book; a search that ultimately drives at least the narrator slightly insane. There’s a symmetry between the reader trying to find the meaning in the web fiction and the characters trying to find the meaning in the book, not unlike the symmetry between the puzzles and the island. The player/character distinction is much looser than the reader/character one, though. This is important, however: the player/character in The Witness can solve the sub-puzzles, while the characters in The Northern Caves only think they’ve ‘solved’ the book, when actually sleep-deprivation, adderall and reading nonsense have broken them. Except, is that really so different? If the player were distinct from the character in the game, we could step back and say “no, they haven’t really solved anything – there’s nothing to solve – they’ve just lost it a little more.” But since they’re not distinct, there’s nowhere to step back to.

So I think my problem with the two works discussed here is simple: they mostly seem to be rude gestures at their audience. Like, “ha, the reason you’re so miserable after finishing this is that you wanted to find meaning in a meaningless world. If you hadn’t tried to do something so stupid, you’d be happy.” And for real life, maybe that’s right! But for fiction? No, I’m not okay with that. There’s a place for that, sure, but I don’t expect I’ll ever love it.

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The Search for Hidden Meaning: The Witness and The Northern Caves

3 thoughts on “The Search for Hidden Meaning: The Witness and The Northern Caves

  1. Hello! I found this because I am a navel-gazing self-Googler, but I’m glad I did because it’s an interesting post. (Although I haven’t played The Witness, and probably won’t, because I don’t play many games these days and tend not to like “art games” as that form is currently practiced.)

    Several other people have said (approximately) that they felt like TNC was “a rude gesture at its audience.” This wasn’t at all my intent, although that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid reading (implied author != flesh-and-blood author).

    The lack of resolution or final meaning at the end — both for the reader and the characters — was mostly just a matter of realism, with the added benefit of making the story have more “replay value” for people who liked it enough on the first read. My experience is that when people — on fan forums, say — try to construct grand theories that explain “longstanding mysteries” that no one before has figured out, their explanations don’t tend to feel fully satisfying. This doesn’t mean I think these attempts are pointless; I love reading this stuff and I’m glad that people do it. But TNC was largely just taking this familiar fandom experience and placing it in a context where it had unusually dramatic results, and if I’d had anyone figure out the “actual” grand secret at the end, it wouldn’t feel true-to-life. That doesn’t tend to happen, even when there’s much less at stake.

    (This is also true in more “professional” literary scholarship as well as fandom. One of the things I had in mind while writing TNC was Brian Boyd’s interpretations of Nabokov, which are clever, systematic, and supported with much evidence, but never end up leaving me feeling like I’ve found “the truth” at last. I still love reading him, though.)

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    1. Oh noooooo D:

      I hope this didn’t come across as mean-spirited or anything; I didn’t really expect that you’d read it! Uh, as I’m sure you know, when I say these seem like a rude gesture to the audience, I don’t mean to imply any ill-will on the part of you (orJonathon Blow for that matter). As I understand, we’re both familiar with how well-intentioned fiction can feel like it’s in some way inimical to your- values? identity? something- and that’s most of what I wanted to express I think.

      Perhaps the fundamental difference is the trueness-to-life you mention? Off the top of my head, the other stuff I’ve really disliked despite having a certain “among the best in category” status – A Thousand Splendid Suns, Legend of the Galactic Heroes – seemed to have the same idea. Though, that wasn’t what I disliked at the time?

      Anyway, thank-you for replying! And I hope you keep writing stuff even if I might not want to read it; you are undeniably a very good writer. Much like I can’t say the creator of Braid is a bad game dev, I suppose.

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