Gender ambiguity and the Asian Other in The Witness.
Warning: this post contains open spoilers for The Witness, up to and including its ending.
The Case of Phong
On the back cover of The Witness, prospective buyers are promised “a sordid family affair that may land everyone from the knockout heiress to the poker-faced Oriental butler in the slammer before it’s over.” It is hard to resist (see? I have already failed) pointing out that “everyone” is, in fact, limited to Monica and Phong, but what are we to make of these descriptors?
As previously discussed, the police bureaucracy is likely to have already collected information about the Linder household, but the player is not privy to it. In Phong’s case, the player’s first introduction will likely be “poker-faced Oriental butler.”
Shouldn’t some allowances, one might reasonably ask, must be made for the period? It is true, The Witness is a period drama. In fact, this is doubly true. It takes place in a fictionalized 1938, and Galley appears to enjoy approximating the idiom of the period. To his credit, this is what I enjoyed most about The Witness. Additionally, this language was constructed in a period that is not our own. So far as I can tell, it was published on May 24, 1983. That was 38 years, 7 months, and 5 days ago as of this writing.
The authoring and publication of The Witness has itself become a period drama in the years since, and it has enjoyed, just as every other Infocom game has, a decent amount of historical interest. There are two critical lenses through which The Witness‘s treatment of Asia must be viewed, then: the time in which they are presented (1938) and the time that presents them (1983).
If a player reads the Santa Ana Register before playing, they will learn of Freeman Linder’s history with Asian countries and cultures, as well as his “life-long love affair with the peoples of the Orient.” His first encounter with citizens of an Asian country would be in the capacity of a soldier. Linder was stationed in China as a United States Marine during the Boxer Rebellion. Afterward, he had occasion to work as a mercenary (location unspecified). By 1912, he was working as an engineer (his qualifications are not clear) in the Japanese Navy. At some point between 1912 and the 1922 founding of his company, he “became a personal friend of Hirohito, who is now Emperor of Japan.”
By the time the events of The Witness come to pass, it seems likely that Linder would choose a side with regard to the Second Sino-Japanese War, but the game resists declaring his business interests Japanese. This is in spite of the fact that his first encounter with east Asia likely involved killing Chinese nationals. In fact, the Santa Ana Register does not readily distinguish between Linder’s business interests in “Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Peking.” The Asia of The Witness is amorphous and apolitical.
It must be asked: who is the mononymic “Phong,” Linder’s apparent butler? We see him standing before a Shinto shrine, but it is not clear whether he feels at home there or not:
>ring bell Someone turns off the radio. You hear footsteps inside the house. Then the door swings open. "Good evening," says a smiling face, "I am Phong. Please come in." He leads you into the house and closes the door behind you. You are now in the entry. Here in the entry is a small Shinto shrine, with a hanging scroll and an arrangement of flowers, as well as a coat closet and a platform for storing shoes. You can see a hallway to the east. The front door, on the west wall, is closed. Phong's straight black hair and folded eyelids make him obviously Asian, but no definite nationality. His open, almost gentle face holds a quick smile and eyes that seem to miss nothing. He carries his stout body lightly, but you can see great strength under his light shirt and dark trousers. You guess his age at about fifty, but who knows how many lifetimes of experience he carries?
We never learn Phong’s full name. He is simply “Phong,” like Madonna or Prince. Presumably, the detective investigating Virginia Linder’s suicide collected this information, but the protagonist must not have been interested.
Phong, it seems, is a physical embodiment of common, bigoted attitudes toward Asian people. The Witness stops just sort of saying that “they all look the same.” In fact, he is a prop accentuating the Linder home’s vaguely Asian ambiance, thereby portraying Linder as a sophisticated man of the world. Phong, too, is indifferent to the political and martial realities of prewar Asia, and apparently sees no difficulty in managing business affairs in two nations at war with one-another:
>ask phong about mr. linder "Frankly, Detective, I can't say I'm sorry he's dead. He always promised me wealth here in America, but I've never seen it. I could have managed the Asian branch of his business if he'd let me. If I had any money, I'd quit on the spot and return home."
It may seem odd that a man capable of managing a complex, international business concern would wind up working as a butler, but such circumstances are unremarkable in the world of The Witness. A charitable reading would assert that Phong’s position is a consequence of racism against Asian people, but it’s hard to make the argument work. Why would Linder trick a man living on the other side of the globe into working as a butler in his house? While this is open to debate, I venture that the only reasonable answer is a metagame one: like the Shinto shrine, Phong’s identity is merely a contributor to an atmosphere of exoticized otherness that accentuates Linder’s wealth and status.
Monica Linder, Femme Fatale
While the feelies included with The Witness do not have much to say about Monica Linder, they do at least mention her name. If the reader plays Infocom games as I do (reading the manual and feelies first), they will first find a brief passage in the Santa Ana Register‘s death notice for Virginia Linder: “She leaves… a daughter, Monica, a mechanical engineer employed by North American Aviation.” They will additionally learn that Virginia Linder’s suicide note is addressed to her.
While the letter does present a valid line of inquiry (a possible motive for Monica), it is likely that the interviews collected after Virginia Linder’s suicide would be as or more instructive. For that matter, the scant details offered in the newspaper say more about who Monica is (or, barring that, what kind of woman The Witness thinks that she is).
What would it have meant for Monica to be a “mechanical engineer” in 1938? While there were women in engineering outside of labor-constrained wartimes, historical documents treat them as singular and heroic figures. In those bad old days, such employment would have set her apart in a negative sense.
In fact, Monica’s engineering knowhow makes her the only reasonable murderer to the 1983 audiences of The Witness. It’s hard to miss the trouble that the game has reconciling her profession with her femininity. In fact, it seems that The Witness feels compelled to sacrifice one for the other. Let’s review her first in-game appearance, and work from there:
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.
It may hard for contemporary audiences to believe, but in many situations a woman wearing slacks would be committing a provocative and unwomanly act. In 1938 Los Angeles (the time and setting of this game), a woman was jailed for wearing slacks in a courthouse. Vogue first featured slacks on its cover in 1939. It really seems that there is some underlying point to be made with this female, pants-wearing engineer.
“Now, now, Mr. Cook,” you might say, “this is yet another case of you reading too much into things.” Perhaps, but consider the following. Monica’s (easily debunked) alibi involves going to the movies with “Terry.” One may notice that the name Terry is not gender-specific. Not only does Monica defy gender norms, she may be dating a woman (gasp!). In fact, there is an ill-advised running gag in the Invisiclues booklet for The Witness. Each of the four times that Terry is mentioned, the booklet asks: “By the way, what gender have you assumed for Terry?”
Both Phong and Monica are, in their own ways, indeterminately other, and both seem to be unfortunate attempts to exoticize the world of the game. I think it is only fair to try and distinguish what parts are reflections of a less just age (1938) and which emerge from the cultural epoch of The Witness‘s creation (1983). As I have repeatedly said, I tend to assume that texts are products of their culture as opposed to the result of authorial ill will (EDIT: am I going too easy on Galley here? Let me know your thoughts). It is hard–if it is even possible–to completely escape one’s own context, then or now.
Final Thoughts on The Witness
When I was young, a cable channel played reruns of Perry Mason (1957-1966) daily around lunchtime, and I enjoyed watching it during summer vacation. I would usually sit at the counter, eat a turkey sandwich, and try to guess who was guilty.
The 30’s and 50’s were far apart, but in my young eyes they were closely related–it was all in black and white. Having enjoyed Deadline quite a bit, I was excited for a new Infocom mystery that I could imagine in black and white. By that time, Infocom had entered the grey box period, so that is the version that I received for my birthday.
I especially loved the newspaper. The stories were quite strange, and I was surprised to learn, years later, that they were real newspaper stories from the time. I considered it a strong package and was very happy to own a physical copy. I believed, at the time, that it was the easiest Infocom game that I had ever played and the social/cultural issues that I discuss now were far beyond my boyhood reach. My memories of it are fond, even if I felt that Deadline was a much stronger game. I suppose that is evidence of a simple truth: the games never change, but players often do.
Expect two posts in the near future. The next game to be explored by Gold Machine is a beloved fan-favorite, Planetfall. I hope we can get some conversation out of this one because I am very curious about reader impressions of Floyd.
Additionally, there will be a formal announcement for the Gold Microphone podcast. The first episode (Wishbringer) is recorded. There have been some glitches adding it to Apple’s podcast listings, but they are working on the issue. As soon as it is up, I will post here (and also link to our Wishbringer unboxing video!)