Occidence Will Happen: The Witness

A small mystery.

The Witness (1983)
Implemented by Stu Galley

Packaging, DOcumentation, and Extras

The Witness: folio packaging (retrieved from MoCAGH)
The Witness: grey box packaging (retrieved from MoCAGH)
(For best results, open MoCAGH images in new tab)
The Witness: Invisiclues map (retrieved from IDP)
The Witness: Invisiclues (retrieved from IDP, read with a Z-code interpreter)
The Witness: The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog
The Witness: Nathan Simpson’s list of Infocom bugs


(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 30 (110)
Vocabulary: 715 (697)
Takeable Objects: 22 (60)
Size: 104.7KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 17,293 (14,214)

Opening Crawl

Somewhere near Los Angeles. A cold Friday evening in February 1938. In this climate, cold is anywhere below about fifty degrees. Storm clouds are swimming across the sky, their bottoms glowing faintly from the city lights in the distance. A search light pans slowly under the clouds, heralding another film premiere. The air seems expectant, waiting for the rain to begin, like a cat waiting for the ineffable moment to ambush.

The taxi has just dropped you off at the entrance to the Linders' driveway. The driver didn't seem to like venturing into this maze of twisty streets any more than you did. But the house windows are full of light, and radio music drifts toward you. Your favorite pistol, a snub-nosed Colt .32, is snug in its holster. You just picked up a match book off the curb. It might come in handy. Good thing you looked up the police file on Mrs. Linder's death. Her suicide note and the newspaper story told you all you know about the family. The long week is finished, except for this appointment. But why does an ominous feeling grip you?

Copyright (c) 1983 Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
WITNESS and INTERLOGIC are trademarks of Infocom, Inc.
Revision number 22 / Serial number 840924

You are now in the driveway entrance.
You are standing at the foot of the driveway, the entrance to the Linder property. The entire lot is screened from the street and the neighbors by a wooden fence, except on the east side, which fronts on dense bamboo woods. The house looks like a mixture of a California bungalow and East Asian influences. From here you can see the driveway leading north and, beyond that, the front door.

What should you, the detective, do now?

A Note on Stu Galley

As a matter of policy (please see my previous post), I avoid discussing authors and authorial intent in my assessments of these games. I do not believe that all meaning in art is intentional, nor do I believe that anyone knows themselves so perfectly that intent and outcome are in all cases the same. If this were so, authors could save themselves (and us) a lot of trouble by publishing autobiographies instead of fussing about with all of these silly games.

However, I think many readers might conclude–quite reasonably–that I do not *like* The Witness, and I would like to make my thoughts on its author, Stu Galley, perfectly clear.

To the casual observer of Infocom games, I think there is a sort of elevation of the place of the author that–inadvertently, of course–overlooks the team dynamic that made these classics what they were. Infocom’s famed polish was, of course, the product of its talented and insightful QA and testing personnel. Dan Horn’s Micro Group guaranteed that the famously portable z-machine was, in fact, ported to so many systems. Mike Dornbrook was a shrewd businessman and promoter who both shaped Infocom’s image and influenced product direction. It is hard to imagine Infocom without G/R Copy, who designed their timeless packaging, documentation, and feelies. Jon Palace should be awarded a sort of “fifth Beatle” status for not only helping the entire team as a sort of proto-producer, but for advocating for the promise of interactive fiction.

Like Jon Palace, Stu Galley was a believer in the power of agentic reading to deliver new and important experiences. He authored the “Implementer’s Creed,” touching in its earnestness, that asserted–perhaps for the first time–the ethical implications of game design. Galley, rather audaciously, implied that games were art, and not in the product-centered manner of an Electronic Arts advertisement. Galley was not telling customers that they were buying art. He was exhorting his fellow implementors to approach their craft with artistic seriousness. To say that Galley was an essential part of Infocom’s culture of quality and aspiration would be an understatement.

I am not sure what Infocom would have been without Stu Galley, but I very much doubt that I would love it as much as I do.

A Critical Introduction to the Witness

The Witness, Infocom’s seventh game and second mystery, is a short game with a luxuriantly noir atmosphere. If The Witness were an inflated balloon, its skin would be the 30’s sleaze of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler story. The game’s setting, the vaguely “Asian”-themed home of rehabilitated (?) war profiteer Freeman Linder, is evocatively described, as are its residents.

The protagonist is the titular witness; a murder takes place before their eyes (my use of neutral pronouns may be optimistic given the time and setting). There are three persons present at the time of the murder, so there are three suspects to question and consider. While the game, like Deadline, occurs in linear time, there is rarely a feeling that one may be missing something happening in another room. One of the three characters is handcuffed to a piece of furniture. Another, should one follow them all night, does nothing of note.

In fact, should a person attempt to play The Witness with the same rigor that Deadline requires, they will likely be disappointed. There are only two important events in the course of The Witness‘s twelve hours that a detective ought to see, and only one is necessary.

From a critical perspective, this lack of depth leaves little to explore. The game’s orientalism (most of the house’s decor has no nationality, it is merely “east Asian”) will likely interest thoughtful readers. The packaging and feelies, among Infocom’s very best, are certainly worth investigating. There is a curious joke about gender and sexuality in the Invisiclues that may affect one’s reading of the game.

Have I mentioned that, upon finishing an Infocom game, I read its corresponding Invisiclues booklet? As text accompanying the work, these hints may affect our understanding of the overall game.

Coming Soon

As for what comes next, regular readers will not be surprised to learn that an essay about packaging and story will follow this post. The series will be concluded with a critical piece on both orientalism and gender.

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