The Witness and Anxiety
Anxiety is a pretty discordant thing at its core. Aside from the ever-present feeling that something is about to go horribly wrong – which to be fair, most sane people think at least three times a day – it’s like a constant hanging tension that you feel both physically and mentally, and it never resolves. It just never really goes away.
With my anxiety, it manifests mostly physically, extending from my chest and out to the tips of my extremities. When it gets really bad, it spirals into full blown panic attacks. I imagine it’s similar for most people who deal with it on a regular basis. Mine tends to be a thing that comes and goes, more as a reaction to what’s happening around me rather than a lingering fear. It’s not a common thing for me to experience, but when it hits, it hits hard. I’ve had to take the last few weeks away from my day job because I started having random panic attacks. Not the ideal thing to happen in a place of business. It’s something I’ve had to try to learn to manage since I had my first serious bout of it a few years ago, but acute anxiety is not something for which there is a quick fix. It’s a mental slog.
Things reached a tipping point around the same time The Witness came out. I know what some of you must be thinking. Of course The Witness made me anxious; some of those puzzles are mind-bendingly difficult to navigate your head around. But it’s actually quite the opposite. I’ve found that the focus and attention that The Witness demands has been a good release for that penned up tension. I’m obviously not a doctor, but I think there are a few reasons for that.
The Witness succeeds at keeping me more engaged than most games can in a number of ways. On the face of things, the puzzles make me feel smarter when I manage to find that breakthrough moment, and the island where The Witness takes place is a relaxing place to meander about. Aurally, it’s a fairly minimalist setting. There is very little music, so the sounds and natural ambience you do hear are feel more full bodied, and tend to flow in and out of each in a way other in a way that makes you feel like you’re somewhere else. It creates a good sense of being out in the open space. It’s escapism at best, excellent audio design at the very least.
The island itself is a stunning piece of work too. The game’s bright and clean aesthetic lends itself well to the island’s heavily-stylised and deeply coloured surroundings. It’s the kind of place that’s intriguing of its own accord. Even if the puzzles weren’t to exist, exploring the island feels much like a reward in itself to me, part of which is being a pretty relaxing place to wander. The Witness plays a lot with perspective, and although this plays out more overtly in the form of some of the puzzles, it also provides some of more intriguing visuals in the game. Many structures and statues placed throughout are impressive enough on their own, but with the right perspective you’ll see the full picture, often providing a larger and fuller perspective than ever before..
The vast and diverse range of biomes that make up the island are all starkly different. There is the deep orange, yellow and green tones of the woods, the lush blues and purples of the swamp, mixed with the bright and harsh sandy yellows of the desert. Each biome also uses a different rule set for each group of puzzles presented, allowing the player to not only wander at their own pace, but also the in the puzzles in any order they like. Actual choice, and not the illusion of it, does wonders for anxiety.
It’s a good thing that The Witness gives itself some breathing space. It allows me to flip out at an “impossible” puzzle – perhaps shout a few choice sweary words – walk to a different area and try something else. Maybe I’ll learn something new along the way that makes that “impossible” puzzle suddenly seem very possible. This learning cycle feels like it’s at the heart of want The Witness wants. All of its clues are open to the player from the beginning, so it’s up to them what order they figure things out, something that most modern games fear to do. Commonly we’d be walked through each of the games systems one-by-one, and it would be served up in such a way that it makes sense. Bite size tutorials that are easy to chew, but are never quite fully satisfying.
The Witness isn’t interested in holding anyone’s hand, but that’s not to say it’s frustratingly difficult like a ‘Dark Souls’ game or a rogue-like. It’s merely asking you to think a little bit longer and a little bit harder. Maybe take a breather and relax a bit, then come back to it. All you need is an inquisitive mind and you’ll find what you need eventually, be it hidden behind another puzzle, or etched into the earth itself. There is something to see at every corner, and regardless of it’s meaning or intent, and regardless of it’s place in the gameplay arc, I appreciate every single bit of it.
On another level, we have the puzzles themselves; the meat on the bones. They are masterfully designed, as they should be after 7 odd years of tweaking and fine-tuning. The biggest draw for me is how well intertwined they are with the environment. I won’t go into spoiler territory, but there is a lot to be found if you merely look, and to want to look you have to be drawn into what this world has to offer. Every element of The Witness feels purposeful but ornate; like a finely crafted piece of old furniture. Partially recognising that purposefulness in the world design is what helps drive you on through the more head-beating parts of the island, of which there are plenty.
I’ve referenced the frustration of difficult puzzles a few times already, and most would think that this would hinder one’s ability to manage anxiety. It’s totally the opposite – for me at least. All you need to remember is that the answers are right there, if you look hard enough. A few times I’ve had to talk myself through it. I’ve been laid out like a mad man with graph paper and a pencil. My phone is full of nothing but pictures of puzzles and possible solutions. It feels a little bit mad, but it always pays off ten fold. It feels incredible to bust through that proverbial brick wall, however short lived that may be once you see the next puzzle.
The Witness is an uncompromisingly beautiful game – to the point that quite a few people, at least in my circles, palm it off with the sort of irreverence that I would save for most modern first-person shooters, and give the excuse that it’s perhaps a bit too pretentious. I think much of this stems from the inclusion of audio logs which tend to discuss the subjects of philosophy and religion, both of which are largely intertwined when discussing philosophy from a human perspective. Jon Blow himself has said that there is a strong thematic element in The Witness about being a human and what that means. Whilst it’s probably easy for most to miss this completely, in my semi-broken head space I find a great sense of peaceful joy in entertaining these thoughts.
I’m glad The Witness came when it did. It’s been the perfect accompaniment throughout the last few weeks of dealing with what my psychologist calls “anxiety and panic disorder”. I’m still not sure to make of all of it to be honest, but whilst I work through that I’ll always be thankful for the part The Witness has played in helping me through that darker time, and hopefully continues to play as I push on towards the finish.
James Swinbanks is a Games Critic currently writing for GameSpot, although you’ll still occasionally see him popping up on Player 2, because frankly, he loves the smell of the place.