When I was asked to write a piece about The Witness, I didn’t know whether to focus on the puzzles or the aesthetics. Both are wonderful, in fact the latter is a sumptuous world created with stark contrasting colours that allows the environment to feel ever more surreal. As I was deciding what to focus on, I realised that my external “real life” issues had made up a big part of my experience, so far.
At the time of writing this, I’m struggling with the anniversary of my daughter’s death. She passed away in 2007 after a week of fighting for her life in Great Ormond Street Hospital. It should be obvious that this time causes immense distress for me and my wife – we linger on what could have been and, of course, what occurred. Ever since this tragedy hit our family we’ve both struggled with depression and anxiety, two forms of mental health disorders that can debilitate lives and leave you feeling hopeless and directionless. So, it was expected that we’d spend a lot of time in a melancholy state, supporting each other through this difficult time.
I was working out a puzzle in an early discovered section of The Witness when my wife sat beside me and asked what I had to do. I didn’t know, to be honest. Many of the puzzles in the game open by giving you no clue how to go on and solve them. We sat there staring fixedly at the screen as if a clue would leap out at us. Rather than spend an eternity burning the maze like image into our retinas, I decided to show her how I solved an earlier strand of puzzles.
As I moved, the solution to the current puzzle became blindingly clear. Literally, adjusting our view slightly opened up the clue. We looked at each other, rolled our eyes, laughed, and settled down to an evening of fiendish puzzle solving.
We’ve worked as a team ever since. I haven’t played a minute without her. By sitting together and puzzle solving, we’ve created a new bond through this oddly coloured world that is helping us to set aside our problems. Rather than dwell on certain aspects of the tragedy that befell us, we attempt to work out how to escape this island of mazes. It became a metaphor for what cards life was dealing us. We can’t always solve the problems that have plagued us for years – puzzles that ask us to look inside ourselves to come to terms with life. However, these devilish mazes allowed us to pick apart a literal problem – rather than a philosophical or emotional one – and get an answer.
Each puzzle in The Witness is based on a maze-like grid. You’re given a starting point and you must reach the end point in one single line – it may be straight like a garden path or full of twists and turns as if lost in a crowded wood. The initial puzzles are simple and use a principle usually found in Mario games where a mechanic is introduced, you achieve it, only to find the mechanic alters slightly, forcing you to re-learn.
With each brightly lit panel you must use what you’ve learned and adapt it. Picture it as making a series of jumps in the Nintendo classic. The first gap may be small – you press the ‘A’ button. The next gap will be larger – you press and hold the ‘A’ button. Then a chasm yawns in front of you – Hold ‘B’ to run, then follow with a jump using ‘A’. While there is no jumping – not even a dedicated jump button – the principle still applies.
One puzzle is made from two squares, one has a black square inside, and the other contains a white square. You draw a line to separate the two and with a satisfying clink and flare of light – as well as the next puzzle being lit up – you’ve learned the basic mechanic. The next puzzle will be slightly harder, but you’ll scoff at it. Before long the grids become larger, they contain more black and white squares, and you’ll have to find ever more intricate paths to the exit.
To look again at the metaphor and cast an eye on mental health issues, we can see similarities. The saying “The light at the end of the tunnel” springs to mind. It depicts the arduous journey that lies before us – which isn’t always a straight path. There are often unexpected turns and obstacles that stand in the way. Whether or not the developer Jonathan Blow saw this potential or not, we don’t know, but the game works as a tool for us to look at life.
Sometimes it’s hard, but we need to learn, persevere and continue to move forward. My wife and I were sitting together and learning. We laughed when one of us would repeat a failed attempt again, hoping that this time it might work and open up a new path. We shook our fists at puzzles that introduced Tetrinimo shapes, or sunshine icons which meant learning what we thought we knew all over again – something else we could relate to. It gave us a purpose. It gave us direction.
It helps that these puzzles are surrounded by a vague world. It’s one brimming with colours that burst from the screen. There are no dull browns or greys here. And there is no firm and discernible story either. Yes, there are hints scattered around that allude to a life and a history, but the game hides the reason your avatar is seemingly abandoned on a tropical island littered with puzzles and statues of people posing as if frozen in time. You don’t need a story, this game is about getting from A to B. Some may find this a little pretentious and not without good reason – certain sections had me and my wife looking at each other with exasperation and wonder – “what does it all mean?!”
Truthfully, I can’t answer that as we’re still playing along. We’re still looking at puzzles by tilting our heads, looking at adjacent trees, moving the camera to obtuse angles. When we finally see the answer we are joyous. That’s something I didn’t think I’d feel this week. Yes, the game itself is a challenge, but why should it be easy? I’m genuinely a little scared as to what puzzles will be set for us towards the end of the game, but I know they can be surmounted with logic and what we’ve already learned up to that point.
The Witness isn’t just a good game, it is a necessary one. It isn’t just a puzzle game, it’s something so much bigger than that and I’m increasingly glad I got to experience it.