While I haven’t been playing the latest video games lately (especially on the busiest days!), I keep coming back to The Witness every once in a while. Ever since I started writing the MakeSandcastlesNotWar blog, I couldn’t get enough of Jonathan Blow’s latest puzzle adventure game. I don’t know where to start with what drew me into the game – the breathtaking world you wonder around, loads of puzzles that grow challenging each way, or the philosophical discussions from the various audio logs.
This was truly a game where I stepped back and really took in the gaming atmosphere for a while. There are no enemies or ‘game over’ features when failing a puzzle because it’s not really what the game is all about. The Witness challenges you to comprehend its lessons not on the game itself, but rather about life itself that you discover within the game.
Wandering around the island, you’ll notice some rectangular shaped audio logs. Each audio log plays a different quote read by a voice actor/actress. Some discussions revolve around religion while other nitpick on things like color or sound. I loved discovering these audio logs so much that I created a series titled ‘Favorite Audio Logs From The Witness’, which you can start reading here.
Now it’s time I get even DEEPER into these audio logs. There was one log that really stood out to me for a while. When you rowing through the ocean on the boat, you pass by a shipwrecked boat across from the mountain area. Playing the audio logs will give you this:
Suppose a boat is crossing a river, and another empty boat is about to collide with it. Even an irritable man would not lose his temper. But supposing there was someone in the second boat. Then the occupant of the first would shout to him to keep clear. And if the other did not hear the first time, nor even when called three times, bad language would inevitably follow. In the first case there was no anger, in the second there was; because in the first case the boat was empty, and in the second it was occupied. And so it is with man. If he could only roam empty through life, who would be able to injure him?
~ Zhuangzi, 4th century B.C.
Wow…just…it seems like NO words can describe this beautifully philosophical lesson here. What does this hidden log mean? Man losing temper over the occupant? And could this so-called ‘man’ actually roam empty through life?
There’s a LOT of pieces that should be discussed within the story. In order to dig deep into Zhuangzi’s lesson about the irritable man, let’s break this story up a bit. We’ll start with the boat crossing through the river.
Suppose a boat is crossing a river, and another empty boat is about to collide with it. Even an irritable man would not lose his temper.
So the boat is crossing through the river and there was another empty boat nearby. The two boats were about to collide, yet the man won’t become irritable. Man doesn’t have as much noise distracting him from his simple dilemma (which was prevent his boat from colliding with the empty boat).
But supposing there was someone in the second boat. Then the occupant of the first would shout to him to keep clear.
Our symbolic tale introduces a new twist – another man was in that second boat. That calm man has now become irritable because something else was added to his personal conundrum. He must now shout to the occupant to keep him clear of his path.
And if the other did not hear the first time, nor even when called three times, bad language would inevitably follow.
Here’s the ‘cause-and-effect’ part that is introduced to our scenario. Since the other occupant did not hear the first time (nor even after three times), the bad language would follow. Not so much bad in the language, but rather the communication happening between the men. Bad language, or bad communication for that matter, would follow since the dilemma became more challenging.
In the first case there was no anger, in the second there was; because in the first case the boat was empty, and in the second it was occupied.
We’re near the end where the story starts wrapping up as an abridged version of our tale. There was NO anger in the first case, yet in the second there WAS. Where does the anger stem from? The boat being occupied. The man was calm when the boat was empty, yet he started getting irritated when his problem got worse.
And so it is with man. If he could only roam empty through life, who would be able to injure him?
Right up to the end of the story and BAM! We’re left with an open-ended question that leaves the story hanging. Rather than figure out if the man avoided the other occupant, we’re left digging deeper down the rabbit hole. There is no simple ending because now there’s the idea of man roaming empty through life.
Man roaming empty through life – think about this line for a second. The boat dilemma casts as a metaphor for man’s two biggest battles in life: Man vs. Nature & Man vs. Man. Man faced an obstacle hidden within nature, yet the obstacle got complicated when there was another man to deal with. It’s not so much about the battle being VIOLENT, but rather battling for SURVIVAL.
Just like the first man dealing with the occupant in the second boat, we deal with complex problems every day. What makes things crazier (yet disturbingly exciting!) is that these problems get piled on with MORE added problems. It’s problems adding onto MORE problems that were there before.
Let’s face it – these problems are never going to just eradicate into thin air. Think about this for a minute: if you WERE to roam empty through life, who would be able to injure you? Who? If no one were to injure you, would your chances of survival increase?
Notice that I’m asking WHO would injure you in life rather than the WHAT. If no one were to injure you, then man’s only true battle would be with just Nature. Yet there’s another dilemma getting in the way, which is – get ready for it – MAN’S BATTLE WITH MAN. Oh wait, there’s ANOTHER element added to the life: battle among SELF. Three ongoing battles (Man, Self, Nature), one complicated and twisted life – it’s enough condensed philosophy to make your head spin.
I hope you’ve been paying attention because I’ve dug so deep into this hole that there’s nowhere else to go down. One game featuring an audio log showcasing a simple story drawing from three philosophical battles. That right there is The Witness going deeper than just being a video game.
Alas, an inspirational passage has been successfully discussed. That was just one of many enlightening audio logs from The Witness. Who knows what other inspiring passages will be discussed next.
Until then, just know that they’ll always be an occupant within that second boat!