Converging Towards Disneyland December 19th, 2016


Contains (very minor) spoilers for The Witness.

Jonathan Blow's 2016 game The Witness received high praise from most reviewers. Personally, I loved the island and the environmental puzzles, but I hated all the stupid little NP-hard slidey-line puzzles. I'm not here to moan about that today though. Let's talk about layout.

The island itself is an absolute joy to explore. No corner of it is wasted, nothing is filler. Everywhere you look you'll find some new little piece of entertainment. It's designed for you to be able to wander at will and always find new things.

Yet as I uncovered the whole island, something about it struck me as familiar. A feeling I'd seen something like this before. It wasn't until I found the in-game map that I realized what it was.

Imagine you start from the cove at the bottom. You disembark the boat, and venture forth to the buildings you see. The island has a town in the middle which forms the main hub of the island. North from there leads to the castle centerpiece, or you can wander out to any of the puzzle areas that fill up the rest of the island. Surrounding the island is a transport system, the boat, to let you move around quickly. The game culminates within the giant mountain to the south-east.

Now the game itself doesn't actually start you via that route -- instead you start in the bottom-left, where you're encouraged (but not strictly required) to explore some of the puzzle regions there first. This is because it wants to teach you about the game world one step at a time. However, once you advance past a certain point it becomes clear that the town area is the part you'll keep coming back to.

Here's an (official) labeled map of the different areas in the island. Note that the town is labeled as "hub":

Seeing it yet? OK I'll admit perhaps I'm stretching a little here, but... it's Disneyland, right? Not literally of course, but I can't help notice the design similarities. Compare against this historical map of the park:

It's the same design. Disneyland has a monorail around the perimeter; the Witness has a boat. Disneyland has a town hub and castle in the center, so does the Witness. Space Mountain became the mountain, and sits in the same corner of the island as its real-life counterpart. And like the real-life one, it's hollow on the inside. A visitor wanders around the park's attractions, but always keeps coming back to Main Street where the shops are.

In The Witness, if you take the boat all the way around the island, you'll eventually be taken on a little ride through these sunken shipwreck ruins. Now admittedly there's no little people singing "It's A Small World" (thank god), but I definitely got the same vibes of going on a little boat ride through an indoor exhibit. It's even in the same top-right area of the map.

The island of The Witness definitely isn't Disneyland, and only slim elements match up, but in terms of design and layout there's this nagging feeling of subconscious echoes.

Zelda, Phillips CD-i, 1993

OK, maybe it's just my imagination, I dunno. But I'm not the only one to notice common themes between The Witness's island and other designed experiences. @tydaspy pointed out the similarities in style with the world map from the 1993 Zelda game "The Wand Of Gamelon" released on the Phillips CD-i.

I've been trying to put my finger on exactly why we see these similarities. I don't think it's intentional. I'm not suggesting that Jon Blow started from Disneyland as his base to work from. Instead, I believe we are seeing an example of convergent evolution.

These games (and Disneyland) have some of the same design constraints. They want a world with as many different things in as possible. They want the smallest space, sometimes because of limited real-estate or limited construction resources, but also to minimize the amount of walking the guest has to do.

More similarities come up as a result of these constraints. You have a small area, and you need to devote it all to guest entertainment. But you still need places for maintenance and behind-the-scenes work. During the construction of Disney World in Florida, they opted to hide all of their maintenance underneath the park. The entire park is built on top of a subterranean layer of tunnels, secretly accessible at the surface via what's known as "Utilidors". You don't have to play The Witness for very long to find that there's some hidden underground secrets there too; little glimpses through holes in the ground, or down a well, provide a peek into the underground system that sits beneath the puzzles.

This leads me to conclude that there must exist some force that drives some video games towards these same design choices:


Any world that tries to pack the most content into the smallest space will eventually become Disneyland.

It seems like the act of trying to fit as many varied elements into a small space can unconsciously push designs towards this same layout, with an entranceway, hub, dominating features (castle/mountain), and a ring around the edge.

Video games, like Disneyland, aren't built to be real. The castles aren't real castles, the shipwreck isn't a real shipwreck. They're follys; little pieces of architecture to paint a picture without having a particular purpose. This is why we get the same vibes from games like The Witness and experiences like Disneyland. The feeling that the whole thing is designed around us instead of being designed for it's own purposes.

I'll also mention that the Witness also has a hotel for visitors to the island to relax in after their hard day's adventuring. A hotel that, like the real Disneyland, sits outside the park. It's a meta-element, a framing device -- not one that forms part of the main attraction, but one that's necessary for the attraction to function.

Jon Blow has mentioned on several occasions his goal of "no-filler" for his games -- the desire to pack the maximum amount of content into a small package. Does the pursuit of maximizing value in a small area lead to subconscious parallel design decisions for small environments?

I guess I just find it interesting that people tackling similar problems arrive at similar solutions without realizing. Maybe it really is a small world after all.

Written by Richard Mitton,

software engineer and travelling wizard.

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