“The first PT houses had so many senso-cells distributed over them, echoing every shift of mood and position of the occupants, that living in one was like inhabiting someone else’s brain”. (JG Ballard, the Thousand Dreams of Stellavista)
We are all full-time psychonauts, rambling non-stop down the pathways of other people’s brains. We do this when we enter the external projection of these people’s ideas, in an exploration that can be physical (walking inside a building), visual (watching a movie), intellectual (reading a book, parsing an idea) or social (living inside an organisation or polity).
Video games combine many of the senses above in an all-encompassing creative medium. They could provide the ultimate psychonautic tool, but this potential is rarely fulfilled because they are constrained by commercial imperatives, or by a slavish desire to represent consensual realities, instead of subjective ones.
There are of course exceptions which we love, such as Hidetaka Miyazaki’s nightmarish hallucinations, or the game we wanted to briefly tell you about today, Jonathan Blow’s The Witness.
In The Witness, you wander the biomes of an abandoned island, solving abstract puzzles which open up access to new areas. And that’s that, at a purely functional level. Which is a bit like saying that Crash is a book about car accidents.
There is much more.
Emotionally, the Witness feels very intimate. You are inside Jonathan Blow’s brain, exploring his passions, his obsessions and his ambitions. When you complete a set of puzzles, you connect a synaptic network mapped on the geography of the Island, creating an external representation of ideas in his mind, ideas that are becoming embedded in yours as you gain fluency in the game’s geometric language.
You are communicating non-verbally with Blow, and learning through play. This is a beautiful process, like a flower blooming, or a melody revealing its structure.
You eventually leave the island, but the island will not leave you.
The Witness doesn’t have a story or music. This makes sense. These things would get in the way, distract you from its abstract purity and its hidden lessons (for example, sound can help you solve some of the puzzles).
However, if we had to give it a soundtrack, we would use the elysian compositions in H Takahashi’s Where to Be Vol 2. tape. It is not a coincidence that this is ambient music at its purest, or that H Takahashi is a professional architect.
Like all good ambient, the songs in this tape are fractals, particles of sound knit into a delicate pattern that transforms chaotic reality into harmony. They are also spaces full of light and clarity, like the windows of a conservatory opening into a pastoral sight, the placid shapes in the cover for Another Green World, or the zen gardens frozen in space and time through which we wander lost in thought, in The Witness.
The tape is sold out, but you can buy the digital album for Where to Be Vol. 2 from Where To Now’s bandcamp.
Last time we featured Thousand Foot Whale Claw in 20JFG, they provided the musical context for visions of horror during our daily commute.
In the first half of their latest tape for Constellation Tatsu, Cosmic Winds, TCFW’s synthetic explorations remain eerie, but in a way that is colder, more removed, as if they were capturing the gravitational echoes of some distant catastrophe, or summarising the universe’s indifference towards us, the fact that its infinitesimal shift of a single physical constant would make our existences impossible. Less Carpenter, more Lovecraft.
With Cassini, the album starts a transition away from this awesome bleakness. It is a Kosmische filigree wrapped in shrieking waves of synthetic noise, perhaps a metaphor for its namesake probe, a delicate product of human intellect and craftsmanship fired into the cold universe, so that we can learn more about it, start making it our home. In the magnificent sci-fi rhythms and blissful drones that follow, we sense success, expansion, and growth, a flash of intelligence illuminating the universe before it dies and the eternal cycle starts again.