Proposal, Collection, and Reflection – The Witness

My Collection

For part of my final project for this object of study, I’m going to be considering the visual language of the 2016 video game, The Witness, by Jonathan Blow.

Pinterest Album (LINK)

A sequence of changes to panel designs for puzzles in The Witness (2016).

For me, The Witness is a natural object of study for the visual rhetoric and visually linguistic forms of composition and communication within it.  A game that exists almost entirely without language or instruction, the game nonetheless encourages players to develop deep knowledge of an arcane ruleset through trial and error, exemplification, and (and here will be the primary focus of my investigation) designed environmental contexts.

This Pinterest collection, composed of screenshots, response videos from players and critics, materials from the game’s development phase, interviews with Blow, and conference presentation videos by Blow about game design, are all part of a larger effort to built a broad understanding of how the game’s forms extend from a design process–and how that design process might have been informed by rhetorical intents or desires.

As the semester moves forward, the content of the game will be largely “spoiled” in my posts.  However, since I’m still going to try to recruit a fellow student to actually play the game for feedback, I’ll avoid saying more than that for now.


In general, the process of building this collection was straightforward and unsurprising – having followed the game from near the beginning of development, many of these resources are ones I’d already consumed or been aware of.  Moving forward, I plan to supplement this collection with additional scholarship from game studies, instructional design theory, linguistics and philosophy (this part will make sense later), etc. in order to expand the scope of this collection and begin to hone in on a final research question.



My thesis will be structured by testing, so it is weak right now. Essentially, I’m guessing that I’ll be discussing the roles that doubt, exposure, and epiphany play in the development of knowledge in visual media – connecting pattern recognition practices and cognitive science to the visual design of play spaces. I’m especially interested in how visual design encourages or inhibits flow experiences in interactive spaces. Beyond that, I am interested in how visual spatial designs can communicate philosophy, both of design and interactive intent, but also humanist practices within technologies.

Theoretical perspective or methodology
I am using think-aloud protocols during live-play sessions with a single subject playing the video game The Witness (2016) with no prior knowledge of the title or its content. This testing is currently underway. I am maintaining separate A/V archives of the playspace and the player in-session, as well as notes and A/V content on inter-session Q&A periods. These testing sessions will progress until a natural stopping point to be determined by the subject. The theoretical foundations of the research structure are based in Mannell et al. (1988), Squire (2008), and Ulrich et al. (2014), especially as these sources pertain to inciting flow within interactive spaces.

Significance of project

This project lies at the nexus of multiple interesting conversations happening in the areas of game studies, digital pedagogy, technical communication, instructional design, visual rhetoric, and UI/UX. I am hoping that a successful approach to synthesizing these various approaches to interactivity can help to illuminate the core learning practices of visuality as separated from traditional literacy foundations used previously to study flow and pattern recognition in skills acquisition and competency.

2-3 sources

I have a lot more than 2-3 at this point, but I’ll be tuning downwards as I move forward. I’m still looking for the “killer” source in VisRhet for addressing epiphany, doubt, learning, and interactivity (though Burbules “Aporias” and “Rethinking the Virtual” combined are very close to what I need).

Burbules, N. C. (2000). Aporias, webs, and passages: Doubt as an opportunity to learn. Curriculum Inquiry30(2), 171-187.

Burbules, N. C. (2006). Rethinking the virtual. In The international handbook of virtual learning environments (pp. 37-58). Springer Netherlands.

Calleja, G. (2010). Digital games and escapism. Games and Culture5(4), 335-353.

Carnegie, T. A. (2009). Interface as exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity. Computers and Composition26(3), 164-173.

Cogburn, J., & Silcox, M. (2009). Philosophy through video games. Routledge.

El-Nasr, M. S., & Yan, S. (2006, June). Visual attention in 3D video games. In Proceedings of the 2006 ACM SIGCHI international conference on Advances in computer entertainment technology (p. 22). ACM.

Jones, P. C. (2014). The Receiver is the Message?. Semiotics and Visual Communication: Concepts and Practices, 269.

Kang, H., Lee, C. W., & Jung, K. (2004). Recognition-based gesture spotting in video games. Pattern Recognition Letters25(15), 1701-1714.

Klimmt, C., & Hartmann, T. (2006). Effectance, self-efficacy, and the motivation to play video games. Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences, 133-145.

Kline, S., Dyer-Witheford, N., & De Peuter, G. (2003). Digital play: The interaction of technology, culture, and marketing. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

Lemay, P. (2007). Developing a pattern language for flow experiences in video games. In Situated Play, Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference (pp. 449-455). University of Tokyo, Tokyo.

Mannell, R. C., Zuzanek, J., & Larson, R. (1988). Leisure states and” flow” experiences: Testing perceived freedom and intrinsic motivation hypotheses. Journal of Leisure Research20(4), 289.

Myers, D. (2006). Signs, symbols, games, and play. Games and Culture1(1), 47-51.

Squire, K. (2008). Educating the fighter: buttonmashing, seeing, being. Beyond Fun, 27-42.

Squire, K. (2008). Video-game literacy: A literacy of expertise. Handbook of research on new literacies, 635-670.

Ulrich, M., Keller, J., Hoenig, K., Waller, C., & Grön, G. (2014). Neural correlates of experimentally induced flow experiences. Neuroimage86, 194-202.

Wolf, M. J. (2003). Abstraction in the video game. The video game theory reader1, 47-65.

Visual Media Included:

The final project will include copies of sample play session footage, as well as illustrative content from the game space, documentation of the design process from the developers of The Witness, and other A/V content as appropriate to illustrate concepts of cognitive science and so on (E.G. Lemay’s (2007) illustrations of pattern language.

Testing Protocols

Today we will be recording an extended testing session for a visual rhetoric analysis of The Witness, a 2016 puzzle-centric video game produced by Thekla, Inc. and game designer Jonathan Blow.  The session will take the form of five consecutive 30 minute play sessions, each followed by a brief break during which there will be resets for the testing hardware and questions about the play experience for the previous session.  These sessions will be played consecutively, with no restart of game progress or changing of play situations.  All sessions will resume where the previous session ended.  The participant is free to request a break from play and/or questioning at any point, and may choose to end the testing session for any reason and at any time.

Testing will follow a think aloud protocol, during which the participant will be asked to vocalize thoughts on the game, game space, mechanics, inputs, design, and themes as well as actively comment on their decision-making and learning processes as they play.  In order to assure accurate coding and successful recording, the participant is asked to project loudly, clearly, and with strong enunciation whenever speaking aloud.  During active play, the tester will not interrupt, provide guidance, or otherwise interfere with play.  However, the participant is welcome to ask non-directive questions for troubleshooting or other purposes.

This testing will address components of input and user interface experiences; however, this is not a usability test.  The participant is asked to focus primarily on the thematic, experiential, mechanical, and intellectual engagement they have with the game, with special focus on what the puzzles in the game communicate to them, how they understand the puzzles, and why they make specific decisions in solving the puzzles.

The subject’s participation will be recorded in three ways during the process.  All recordings will be available for the participant upon request.

  1. Gameplay will be recorded directly from the play device (Sony Playstation 4) to a secure cloud storage (hosted on, from which gameplay videos will be downloaded to the tester’s personal computer.  These files will not be available for public consumption after recording, and will contain only on-screen play recordings.  No in-room audio, video, or other data will be stored in this form.  All play footage will be anonymized, and will not include any identifying information about the participant.  All play footage will be removed from the cloud immediately after downloading.
  2. The participant’s play session will be recorded in the room via video camera for each session, including both audio and visual recordings.  These recordings will also be stored on the tester’s personal computer, and will be deleted after the research period is complete.  This content will be held in the strictest confidence, and any coding resulting from this recording will be anonymized prior to release.
  3. The tester will take notes on participant behaviors and actions throughout the play process, as well as notes on the participant’s responses during the pre-, inter-, and post-play segments.  These notes will serve as a supplement to the previous two recordings, which will be synchronized for coding.

Before we begin, please let me know if you have any questions about this testing protocol, or any concerns or proposed amendments.


3 thoughts on “Proposal, Collection, and Reflection – The Witness

  1. Does the game have any verbal text? Is it a global phenomenon? How does an individual’s cultural capital impact game outcome, or does it? Very interesting.

    Please tell me the music is not as mind-numbingly repetitive as in Minecraft…


    1. There are completely optional (hidden) audio-logs in the game, which mostly are actors reading famous quotes from various philosophical and scientific texts, quotes from great thinkers, etc.

      The game has localized this with subtitles for 16 languages, but it’s largely inconsequential. After opening the game from the main menu, you can see the entire game’s content, start to finish, without seeing or hearing a single word.

      There is (again, mild spoilers here) ALMOST no music in the game. There is one optional, secret section that plays classical music for a couple minutes. Other than that, all sound in the game is purely ambient.


  2. Alex – I very much like how you are planning on tracing the rhetorical trajectory of the game’s design. While it isn’t necessarily part of the visual rhetoric class, there certainly are number of works in the film on rhetoric and audio, and you might want to bring them in as the audio/visual component in game are often highly complimentary. I think a 2016 issue of CCC was focused on this.


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