Hey, good lookin’.
Note: this post contains gameplay and story spoilers for The Witness, up to and including the ending. Turn back if you want to experience these things for yourself.
The Memorable Cover Design of The Witness
The Witness was Infocom’s follow up to their first mystery Deadline, which enjoyed substantial critical and financial success. It had a lot going for it on paper (both literally and figuratively). The Witness‘s noir setting and atmosphere were presumably appealing to mystery fans, and the prospect of another Deadline-style dossier of investigative documents must have tantalized.
The cumulative result is a matter of taste, but I think the packaging and documentation that accompany The Witness invite a (gentle) debate over the narrative and or mechanical (gameplay) function of such materials across the Infocom canon. I don’t want to water down the conversation with too many possibilities, so please consider these examples rather than an exhaustive list.
- Worldbuilding: a feelie or browsie that helps create a richer sense of the game’s world. The letter included with Suspended is one example.
- Narrative extensibility: using different media (paper, etc.,) and rhetorical conventions to extend the narrative beyond the limits of its medium/form. Beyond their worldbuilding utility, the official reports included with Deadline function in this way.
- Atmosphere: while there is some overlap with worldbuilding here, it is customary to treat setting and mood separately. The bundled “Microscopic Space Fleet” accompanying The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a strong example of a feelie that reinforces mood.
- Mechanical (rote): A device or text that serves no narrative purpose beyond copy protection. The code wheel packaged with A Mind Forever Voyaging seems a good candidate.
- Mechanical (adds value): A device or text that may serve a copy protection purpose but additionally enhances the experience of the text. I would point to the Sorcerer Infotater as an example.
If we’re really serious about interpreting the entire package of an Infocom game as a single text (and I am), then it’s probably time to start thinking about feelies and documentation in terms of the ways in which they meaningfully add to (or subtract from) a reader’s experience of that text. By those standards, The Witness is a strange case.
In terms of its shape, the package is identical to that of Deadline: a brown folder with a closing flap covered by a printed sleeve made of glossy stock. The sleeve features stylized art and lettering typical of the Art Deco period. This cover scene is rendered exclusively in sillouhette. Purple-black window blinds partially block the yellow light of a window. The outline of these blinds is, in turn, blocked by the outline of a human torso emerging from off-screen left. It holds a large revolver in a hand raised as if in readiness. While the torso’s head is not pictured, one may imagine it wearing a fedora or other hat of the period. It just looks like that sort of torso.
Just below the presumed site of the windowsill, white block letters proclaim: “The WITNESS.” Beneath, in smaller, pale-yellow letters, the box reads, “SOMEBODY’S GOING TO TAKE THE DEEP SIX! You’ve got a bird’s-eye lowdown on the caper… and 12 hours to crack the case.” Near the top-right corner of the cover is a rectangle with two rough edges, as if someone had torn away a small strip away from the upper-left corner of a sheet of red paper. “Free INDSIDE!” it promises, “An actual POLICE FILE packed to the gills with revealing evidence you’ll need to unravel the crime.”
For many fans of classic, hardboiled detective fiction, this cover may as well be a sign posted at heaven’s gate. The limited, high-contrast palette combined with stylized block letters immediately reminds one of prewar detective fiction and the seedy elegance of those years. While I have argued that the folio release of Suspended features Infocom’s best box design, The Witness doesn’t trail far behind. It is a stunner that does more than sell a game. It sells a mood. Whether the package keeps all of its promises is another matter.
Manual and Pack-Ins
Inside the dossier, the following items are included:
- Game disk
- Reference card: system-specific instructions for starting, saving, and restoring a play session
- Warranty and registration card
- Invisiclues order form
- Product catalog and/or order form
- Virginia Linder’s suicide note: a handwritten note on personal stationary.
- Issue of National Detective Gazette: like other early Infocom manuals, the Gazette has a diegetic quality. The “articles” contain gameplay instructions.
- An issue of The Santa Ana Register: a very credible “newspaper” on yellowed newsprint two articles about characters in the game world.
- A period replica of telegram addressed to the protagonist “Chief of Detectives.”
- An imitation “matchbook” for the Brass Lantern restaurant.
The Impeccable Period Details of The Witness and Its Feelies
It would be hard to overstate the temporal verisimilitude of these pack-ins. The manual (National Detective Gazette) is littered with period language and slang. The illustrations seem entirely appropriate. Perhaps best of all, it features real magazine advertisements from the late 1930s:
The Register, with the exception of two articles, is filled with real articles from a newspaper of the period. The paper upon which it is printed was deliberately yellowed to convey a sense of age.
The telegram, so far as I can tell, is a period replica, and old movie buffs have all seen someone write a phone number on a matchbook. So far as credibly adhering to a visual and verbal idiom goes, it may be that no other Infocom game would go so far with its feelies than did The Witness.
But–and I’m afraid there is a “but”–these convincing details fail to create any sort of narrative propulsion. In fact, they reinforce the only elements of The Witness that need no further reinforcement: atmosphere and period detail.
The Story of The Witness
If the player begins The Witness as I did–after reading the entire contents of the game package–they will realize that they have not been prepared in the way that Deadline prepared its players. There are no reports or transcripts. There is simply no telling, for instance, who Linder’s daughter “Monica” is, beyond her employment as a “mechanical engineer” at “North American Aviation.” Phong, the victim’s indeterminately “Asian” servant, apparently needs no introduction at all.
However much pleasure one takes in the feelies and documentation, it must be admitted that they don’t have a lot to do with the story. They serve to develop atmosphere and setting but do nothing to inform player action. The protagonist–a “Chief of Detectives”–has received a telegram that “Stiles” may be a “threat to my [Linder’s] life.” Stiles, like the similarly mononymous Phong, receives scant treatment either on- or off-diskette. While both would have been interviewed regarding Virginia Linder’s suicide, those interviews have somehow escaped the attention of the Chief of Detectives.
The Chief of Detectives arrives cold, then. While he (I am not going to conflate ambiguity with inclusiveness) is not forearmed with the sort of knowledge that Deadline’s Supervisor possessed, they both emerge from behind their desks at the behest of wealthy and powerful members of the community. This chief has presumably read Virginia Linder’s suicide note, which was addressed to Monica.
It seems clear that some other detective–not the protagonist, not you–has a pretty developed idea of how the game’s various characters feel about one-another. It is also clear that you, as the Chief of Detectives, could have spoken with that person or read their notes. Rather bizarrely, the protagonist does not retrieve the file about Virginia Linder’s suicide, instead choosing to bring along a newspaper, of all things.
It may not be surprising that, despite some truly incredible atmosphere, the game doesn’t know how to push itself down the road:
Phong says, "I believe the Linders are in the living room. Please follow me." He leads you into a hallway and turns left. This hallway seems to run the length of the house, from the garage at the south end to the living room at the north. There is enough warm yellow light flooding from the living room for you to see a few doors on each side of the hall. As you get near the living room, you hear voices talking, half-loud and fast. You are now in the living room. A huge fieldstone fireplace on the south wall holds a blazing fire, filling the living room with warmth and light. Grouped in front of the fire are a glass-topped coffee table and a rattan davenport and club chair, with cushions covered in a print showing bamboo plants in the style of Japanese brush-painting. A lamp with a printed shade and a telephone sit on the table. On the north wall are a liquor cabinet and a console radio made of light-colored wood. A single door in the east wall is closed, and at the west end of the room is a double door. "Excuse me, sir," says Phong, "but the detective has arrived." Monica stops talking and looks at you sharply. She is a woman in her mid-twenties. Her grey eyes flash, emphasizing her dark waved hair and light but effective make-up. She wears a navy Rayon blouse, tan slacks, and tan pumps with Cuban heels. She acts as though you were a masher who just gave her a whistle. Linder stands at least six foot, with a powerful frame but quick actions, like a cat. His eyeglasses sit on top of his head, where thin strands of long black hair go here and there, mostly combed backward. His wide-set hazel eyes size you up quickly from within their pouches in his ruddy face. He wears a silk peach-colored Mandarin shirt and chocolate trousers, impeccably tailored and laundered, but sweat gleams on his high forehead, and he looks as though he hasn't slept much lately. Linder turns to you and says, "Detective, am I glad to see you! This is my daughter, Monica, and of course you've met Phong already." He looks at a wrist watch with a gleaming silver bracelet. "I see you're right on time. I'll be with you as soon as I finish my drink." Mr. Phong heads off to the south.
In terms of atmosphere, this is all incredible. What early Infocom game could hope to compete? Only Zork III, I would think. In fact, at a surface level, I’m not sure any other Infocom text (a combined experience of game and packaging) achieves this level of ambiance.
The problem is that it is unsustainable. Within moments, the protagonist sits with Linder in an office, completely unable to have a conversation about… well, anything.
>examine note The note is written in a spidery hand on fine rag paper. It says: "Linder -- Since Virginia died, I've lost too much sleep because of you and your harrassments. The time has come to put this matter to rest once and for all. I'll be seeing you sooner than you imagine. -- Stiles" >ask linder about stiles "All I know about Stiles is that he's a writer of some kind, and sometimes he plays bit parts in films. I've never really met the man." >ask linder about note "Yes, that's the note that Stiles sent to me." >ask linder about wife "It's still too painful for me to talk about, I'm afraid." >ask linder about phong "He and I go back a long time. Met in Asia, you know. And since I spend as much time there as here, he takes care of the house for me. A fine fellow, and I trust him implicitly." >show match book to linder "I think Phong goes there sometimes. I've never been there myself." He almost flinched before answering, but now he's as smooth as ever. >ask linder about affair "It's still too painful for me to talk about, I'm afraid." The rain storm outside has passed now. >ask linder about picture "I can't help you there." The clock chimes once to mark the half hour. >look at picture You'd do a much better job if you stood up, but let's see... There's nothing special about the picture. >ask linder about pacific trade associates "That has nothing to do with why I asked you here." >ask linder about murder "I can't help you there." >ask linder about monica "She's a loyal and intelligent girl. I'm very proud of her." >ask linder about linder "You've probably read about me in the papers. In fact they just published something about me when I won that award. And I've heard lots about you. That's why I asked you here." >ask linder about house "I can't help you there." >ask linder about souvenirs "I can't help you there." >ask linder about business "That has nothing to do with why I asked you here."
Even though Linder has “invited” you–it does not seem that you can refuse–to discuss a threat on his life, he has little to say about that. Or about anything else, for that matter. In fact, I am not sure that it is possible to get through this conversation without the WAIT command. Like Linder himself, the carefully constructed ambiance of The Witness cannot survive this fateful encounter.
There is little to do once Linder has packed it in. There are only three suspects, and the “obvious” one, we know, is never guilty. That leaves two suspects, and a decent chance at randomly guessing who the culprit is. In fact, because the murder requires specific knowledge, only one person could have committed it. People who enjoyed Deadline‘s conversation system will be disappointed to learn that nothing anyone says seems to matter.
I have seen posts claiming that the entire mystery can be solved by remaining in one room. I have not tested this theory myself, but I would not be surprised if this were true. The solution involves catching the killer red-handed with the weapon and means, which trivializes other evidence.
In any case, some further notes on the promises made by the game’s cover:
- The package contains evidence needed to solve the case. So far as I can tell, the information provided doesn’t relate directly to the game’s solution. Nor does it indirectly relate, as the Deadline dossier does.
- Your investigation is dangerous, and if you’re not careful you might wind up dead. The only way to die is via accident. Nobody is out to get the protagonist and the murder investigation is not dangerous in any way.
There is a lot of low-hanging fruit to pull down regarding the specific method used to kill Freeman Linder (a button on Linder’s desk blows up his window while simultaneously firing a pistol hidden in a grandfather clock through a keyhole aimed perfectly at his heart), but honestly, that’s not what bothers me about The Witness.
Trying to meet The Witness on its own terms, I’m most disappointed that the murder itself doesn’t feel the least bit hard boiled, let alone noir. To me, this genre is about corruptibility and the ways in which certain types of beauty, wealth, and status can disguise moral rot. For all of its first-rate atmosphere, The Witness doesn’t engage with its sources in a serious way. We have stumbled across The Witness on its way to a costume party, and, to its credit, the outfit is very convincing.
Women in pants and the indeterminately “Asian” interests of Freeman Linder. Don’t miss out!