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)