Examining 'The Witness', Part 6: A Monastery of Direct Perception

Today, we’re visiting the monastery, which connects environmental puzzles to the themes of meditative awareness and direct sensory perception. We also analyze the Tarkovsky theater clip! (Expand video description for timestamped highlights.)

00:47 — exploring the rich symbolism of the famous “reaching for the holy grail” statue on the peninsula outside the town.

24:15 — talking about the core theme/purpose of the monastery area: almost like a tutorial, the monastery deliberately creates an environment optimized for noticing the traceable environmental puzzles, even using panel puzzles for the purpose of getting players into the right mood to notice EPs. This is an analogy for actual Buddhist and Zen monasteries, which try to create an optimal environment for noticing directly-accessible truths about the mind and reality. But, in both situations, there is still a fundamental leap of realization that has to be made by the student — the nature of conscious experience can only be be pointed to and hinted at by even the most direct teachers.

29:25 — deciphering the symbols in the monastery’s murals, including the golden sun-grail that represents a transcendent state of unification akin to enlightenment.

40:00 — an audio log reminding us that our experience of life, despite seeming solidity, is actually made from fleeting, impermanent flashes of data from the senses. We often ignore this fact in favor of (useful, necessary) top-down summaries that our brain fits to the sense-data; meditation can bring us closer to the raw experience of unmediated reality.

43:18 — continuing the discussion above in the context of the ambiguous art on the laser-box outside the monastery.

47:15 — the monastery murals portraying a growing tree ALSO maybe portray a human brain and an atomic-bomb mushroom cloud?!

51:35 — talking about the monastery’s relationship to the fortress, an important dialogue / duality that spans the middle of the island and represents the gap between logical, analytical, western thought versus the experiential focus of meditation.

1:02:45 — giving important context for the Tarkovsky video, and considering multiple potential interpretations of what the video means in the context of The Witness

-To unlock the Tarkovsky video in the theater, the puzzle path required to unlock video is longest that can possibly be drawn on that panel. This is both a reference to the famous 9-minute cinematic long take and to the qualities of dedication and perseverance that the video engages with.

-In addition to the fact that the golden-grail, mountain beacon, and sun are all linked together by the Cusa statue inside a lighthouse (itself a distant, guiding light!), there are yet MORE connections here. Venus (the “morning star”) is visible near the horizon through the gap in the lighthouse wall, and all these symbols of distant guiding lights could also connect to the flickering candle carried across the pond during the Tarkovsky video (or to the “flickering lantern” in the poem at the end of the game). Finally, note that the Cusa statue is looking through a pane of glass at this constellation of transcendent beacons — could this be a reference to Braid?? In that game’s epilogue, “Everything [Tim] wanted was on the opposite side of that pane of glass,” including philosophical prizes like “the magnetic monopole, the It-From-Bit and the Ethical Calculus; and so many other things, deeper inside”. For more in this vein, play my free mod, Braid: More Now Than Ever!


4 thoughts on “Examining 'The Witness', Part 6: A Monastery of Direct Perception

  1. 31:35 — "This is like a weird game where you've gotta lower the cover and that allows you to complete this" — that's uncharacteristically dismissive of you! I think that lowering of the shade in order to complete the puzzle — that is, in order to reach the goblet! — represents the unreachability of the goblet itself. By reaching explicitly for that goblet (whatever it represents), you necessarily destroy it, or at least, separate yourself further from it.

  2. Before seeing this video series I was telling friends how dense and generous The Witness is, and you have only expanded my appreciation of that fact with these videos. Thanks! I might have to dive in for a third playthrough.

  3. I actually took the statue on the peninsula to indicate the futility of trying to reach the mountain. As much as it seems like that is the goal you should reach for, in fact the answer is already right in front of you.

    About the monastery I've heard it said that the essence of the place is that the Tree, while being an essential part of the Monastery, is also destroying the monastery at the same time and there's some meaning in that, but I don't know how that would work exactly.

    The broken off branch from the monastery actually fits perfectly in the area. It's all about looking around you for the answers and using an outside perspective to solve mysteries. A branch that is in another place than you would expect fit perfectly in the grander idea of what it's all about.

    I've spent a lot of time thinking about the environmental puzzles at the monastery and I never realized that there's these two figures reaching for the cup. That's so obvious now that you've layed it out to me.

    I think the mural of the woman changing into a harpy is actually part of the story with the four characters. I think the white 'artist' character made this in the red Zen-woman's domain to tell her that she has changed, and not in a good way. We see more traces of their disagreements throughout the island. I think this is all meant to show us that they had a major fight about something.

    One thing about the voice recording in this area is that it's one of seven yellow ones that are in the game (or eight if you count the one in the secret area of the game). I haven't really heard a reasonable explanation for those yet, but it's definitely relevant to something.

    I think you're right that there are probably other things on the marble laser box here. I think I'll go back there and look at it some more. Maybe I'll discover something.

    Interesting point you raise in that this video is the one that actually requires you to do a bit more work to understand what it's actually about. It also fits with the area in the sense that everything in the Monastery requires an outside perspective. This video does the same in a way.

    I could see the interpretation of the candle that it represents the truth (as this game is all about truth-seeking) and this scene could represent that everyone actually carries their own truth and has their own journey to get it to the other side. In that way every truth is subjective of course, since everyone brings their own presuppositions to the table. The scene is also about something that is completely meaningless in the objective sense, but very personally meaningful to the character that is carrying the candle to the other side. This could also tell us that seeking truth is not about finding the one objective truth, but the one that is relevant to us personally.

    One important thing that Jonathan Blow has said about a lot of the things in this game is that it's things that he is still thinking about as well. It wouldn't be in the game if it was something that he had completely figured out. This means that a lot of the stuff in the game is there to be pondered about in exactly this way without having a single overarching point. So I think you're doing the exact thing that Blow wants us all to be doing.

    Again, thank you so much for everything you're doing in this series. It brings so many interesting perspectives to this game and it's really enriching my understanding of this game.

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