WARNING: Spoilers for both The Witness and Firewatch below. While The Witness, as a puzzle game, is only spoiled on basic concepts, Firewatch, as a plot-driven game, is heavily spoiled here. I suggest you play both before reading this piece.
Oftentimes when I’m just casually gaming, I’ll put the game on, play some tunes on my Bluetooth speaker, and just have a good time. When I get very serious about playing a game, however, I often place myself into a state of solitude depending on the type of game it is. I’ll turn the lights down, put my big headset on, and immerse myself into the experience. If the game is meant to be played this way, I will try very hard to do so. Two such games came out within the last month, and they have me thinking about how I play my games.
First came The Witness, a 3D open-world puzzler developed by Jonathan Blow as his follow-up to the 2008 indie hit Braid. The game takes place on an island and tasks the player with completing maze puzzles. Start at the big circle, drag a line through the maze, and finish at the half circle. This may sound incredibly boring and unimaginative, but The Witness ends up being the most innovative puzzle game I’ve played since Portal and Antichamber. Areas of the island house a distinct identity, from a desert to a terrarium, and from a series of tree houses to a swamp far below. The island feels realistic and alive thanks to gorgeous lighting and vibrant, rich colors.
Each area is also home to a lesson that adds rules to the mazes (pictures of which are found below). Some mazes may simply contain a certain icon on it, such as Tetris shapes that you must trace into the maze to complete the puzzle, or colored stars that must be grouped together with your line. Others complicate it a bit, such as having your line mirrored on the other side of the maze so that both lines must complete the puzzle correctly to advance. Areas even integrate the environment sometimes, such as having the correct route through the maze only be seen when the light is reflecting off of the screen.
The greatest part about The Witness from a gameplay standpoint is that no matter how convoluted and confusing the rules may seem from the outside, the game always teaches the player these rules. The game is not about finishing the puzzles, but more about understanding them. The player is not taught how to correctly perceive these puzzles and the world around them through a text box or guide. Puzzles and rules are introduced gradually and without explanation, so that the player comes to the conclusion on their own, rather than being shown why the solution comes from the process. The only hindrance a player should have when playing is their own thinking.
The thing about The Witness that makes it relevant to my discussion on solitude is how isolated the game actually makes the player. There is no context to why the player is on the island solving these puzzles, and there is no one around to talk to, human or otherwise. There isn’t even music at any point in the game, only sound effects. While you can find recordings of people reading quotes from famous philosophers, this isn’t related to anything within the game itself, but more about the entire experience that the player is having through learning. You are simply left alone with the vague goal of completing enough areas to open the box on the top of the mountain. You’ll occasionally stumble upon a stone statue of a human, but these are never given a straightforward explanation. You are completely alone on the island.
This solitude, however, was both intentional and productive. It is clear that Blow created this serene, distraction-free environment to place full responsibility on the player. They will have as few distractions as possible while playing, so that all attention is placed on the puzzles. This setting makes for easier understanding of the game’s concepts, as well as faster puzzle solving. Think of it like math class in school. If you’re distracted by a side conversation or something going on in the hallway, you won’t be actually retaining what the teacher is saying, even if you get bits and pieces of it. In the same way, players will have the most rewarding time while playing The Witness in as isolated of a state as they can manage.
Exploring the island is a blast, though it might be seen as a distraction. However, the exploration and puzzles go hand in hand. The player cannot advance without completing puzzles, and a little digging in your surroundings will usually turn up the answer the player is looking for. In a similar sense, players will often reach a puzzle that they are having a hard time on or that they do not yet understand the rules of. No hints will be given and there’s no way around them. In this case, the game fully encourages leaving an area behind to explore another. This gives the player a break from a particularly frustrating puzzle, or guides them on the path to the concept that they haven’t learned yet. Players may often return to a puzzle and complete it within seconds because of this freedom and solitude that allows the mind to flow in and out of each idea.
The Witness fully embraces its isolation in its gameplay. The game is designed specifically to put the player on their own, so that each puzzle completed feels rewarding because it was done without help. The gameplay is completely complimented by its remoteness, and the player feels it in every area of the island.
The second game I’m going to talk about is Firewatch. This is the first game by Campo Santo, a group of developers who worked on Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Bioshock, among other games, beforehand. The player takes control of Henry, a man who takes a job as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989 to try and get away from the world. As Henry spends his summer up in a tower and hiking, he becomes good friends with his supervisor Delilah, only ever experiencing her existence over a radio. However, weird things start to happen as soon as Henry settles in, and it’s a long road of mystery through the summer.
The first ten or so minutes of the game set the stage for Henry’s vacation into the wilderness. The player starts with a bunch of text involving Henry meeting a woman named Julia when they’re in college. From there, you skip forward years at a time as Henry and Julia fall in love, contemplate kids, live together, get a dog, and grow. However, Julia starts developing dementia at a young age, and Henry’s life turns south. The player gets certain choices to make through this segment, akin to games from Telltale, but a lot of who Henry is is already set, and none of this effects the story beyond the player’s own experience. If you choose to make Henry subdue an attacker, he will, but if you choose to have him beat the attacker up, he will end up crying on the sidewalk afterward. After Julia is either in a nursing home and you’ve drifted from her, or she has been taken back to her parents’ home in Australia because you have become a drunk, Henry sees an ad in the newspaper for a fire lookout job, and he takes it.
This introduction is not only very emotional and an effective way to give the player context to the events of the game without bringing up long exposition later on, but it also sets the scene for the exile that Henry and the player have throughout the game. Whereas the isolation in The Witness was to benefit the gameplay, in Firewatch it is used narratively to put Henry on his own to cope with how his life with Julia has ended up. Henry is running from his life by taking this summer alone in the woods, and the player, by being alone, understands Henry’s debacle more easily.
However, both the player and Henry are not fully alone on this adventure. Almost the entire
game is walking from place to place while using your handset radio to talk to Delilah. Delilah is basically Henry’s only human contact throughout the entire summer. Campo Santo does a noticeable job of having five character models besides Henry’s in the entire game, and only 2 are seen up close. You are completely isolated with only Delilah and the wildlife to keep you company, and that is one of the game’s strengths. Henry is out there to try and be alone as he deals with his troubles with Julia, and making the player feel just as alone connects them to the experience. As the player takes in the sound of the wildlife and the trees rustling in the wind, there is a distinct feeling of being alone in the great outdoors that enraptures the viewer. You’re even given a compass and a map to make your way around Shoshone National Park, which you must stop and look at from time to time to effectively navigate the land as if you were there yourself. You’ll truly feel like you are lost in the wilderness, ready for whatever heads Henry’s way.
As the plot thickens and you come closer and closer to figuring out who has been messing with you and stalking you throughout the summer, playing the game in complete isolation also helps you to be pulled into the mystery. Without distractions, you will be devoting all of your mind to thinking up possible theories for the plot ahead. You become invested in these characters and this gorgeous world. Though the final third of the story is probably going to be seen as a let down to most players, as the first two acts are phenomenally executed, it is still amazing how a little alone time can affect your experience. I played through the entirety of the game in one night, and it was completely worth shutting my phone off and plugging in. Firewatch makes use of its solitude in ways that engage the player and compel them to keep playing, as Delilah and Henry are too genuine of characters to put on pause.
Placing myself into my own solitude while playing these games has greatly improved my appreciation for what they bring to the table, and they compliment this style of play very well. Each time I put my headset on and dimmed the lights, the games rewarded me with a much richer experience. Puzzles may have been much more difficult had I been distracted, and keeping me engaged and alone throughout the story by connecting me to the world made all the difference. I don’t always want mindless action and bombastic set pieces. Sometimes I just want to sit back, relax, and play a game when the world gets too loud, and this time, the developers told me that that was okay.