48. Consolation games
March 29th, 2021

The Witness
(File under: games, grief family)

Play: iOS / Mac / Steam / Playstation / Xbox

When my maternal grandmother passed away in 1993, my mum (who hadn’t played a video game before, and hasn’t been particularly interested in them since) spent a solid fortnight playing Tetris. The significance of this was lost on me as a 7-year-old; I only remember the novelty of seeing one of my parents staring at a Game Boy with the same unblinking focus that I did. At that age grief was just a language I didn’t know how to speak.

I thought about this when my paternal grandmother passed away recently. (Her name was Rosemarie, she was 87, and she was one of my favourite people.) I took some time off work and mostly spent it padding from room to room looking for a distraction. With all of my family in another country, and the vast majority of my friends out of reach, I was at a loss for how to feel and what to do, until I found myself playing a video game.

The Witness

In The Witness you play an unnamed protagonist who wakes up on an island littered with hundreds of puzzles. There are puzzles in the woods, puzzles in the desert, puzzles in the castle, the laboratory, the quarry, and the mountain. There are no other characters, there is no combat, there isn’t even any music—just footsteps and ambient noise recorded on Angel Island. It’s a quiet, beautiful, deliberate game that in one moment can make you feel powerfully stupid, and in the next like the world’s lone genius.

What I find most interesting about the game is how it teaches you to play it. All the puzzles involve drawing a line through a grid, but as you explore the island the game slowly introduces rules about how those lines can be drawn—rules about colour, or symmetry, or light and shadow. Then it starts combining them. Until you solve these more complex puzzles, some areas of the island remain inaccessible—a precipitous network of tree-top rope bridges, or the ruins of a monastery pierced by a red maple tree. You’re encouraged to keep exploring (and by extension to keep learning) until you realise, perhaps deep inside a mountain, that the game has taught you an entire language without uttering a single word.

I don’t know if video games fit neatly into any of the five stages of grief (though The Witness definitely contains its share of anger and bargaining). Last week I felt as clueless as I did at 7 years old, and just wanted the consolation of something colourful and geometric. Amid the colour and the shapes, however, it was nice to be reminded that often the only thing standing between you and fluency—in grief, in drawing lines on a grid, in most things—is just time and persistence.

Dept. of Enthusiasm is a weekly email from me, Jez Burrows. You can read some past issues, or sign up below.