Different Perspectives: On Autism & The Witness

February 22, 2016 by Jackson Tyler

The Witness is an escapist fantasy, in the same way that a Bayonetta is.

Long before my autism was diagnosed, I refused to sit still – much to the annoyance of my parents. It was too loud, too bright, too crowded, there was always something about the world that didn’t agree with me. When we drove, the road never made sense, full of painted symbols passing out of my sight in a rhythmic fashion, teasing me with their incompleteness. So I kept squirming in my chair, changing my perspective constantly, sliding the windscreen wiper into the gaps to, in some small way, solve the world around me.

The Witness turns that familiar childhood memory into an 80 hour puzzle game. It has ambitions of being a lot more, espousing the virtues of epiphany, science and how we could save the world if only we just took the time to look at it differently. The game failed to stir any such thematic resonance within me, yet I couldn’t help but find something worthwhile from my time on the Island beyond mostly enjoyable puzzles. Rather than an enriching intellectual experience, The Witness is an escapist fantasy, in the same way that a Bayonetta is. The fantasy it offers me as someone struggling with sensory over-stimulation and environmental processing scratches a similar itch that Bayonetta does for someone struggling with not being Bayonetta.

The game takes a while to get to this point. It begins with mazes on screens standing in the environment, the puzzles introducing a set of abstract spatial rules. Slowly, I start to internalise the language. I grow comfortable with the movement of drawing my line, and understand the logic of the mazes in front of me. Until I reach one that I can’t solve, a diagram with no clues upon it, and after a second it dawns on me that the solution is not in the maze, but in the environment around me.

These moments of epiphany are seemingly the core of The Witness, a game built around the times when the impossible becomes possible when perspective is changed. Although, ironically, that is only true when looking at the game a certain way. Whilst these moments are spread throughout, some are powerful and some are completely inert; I feel thrilled when I realise how to solve the hexagon panels in the desert, but exhausted when I work out the fourth property of the Tetris Blocks. The puzzles that fail just add numbing complexity within the mazes, while the puzzles that connect all make use of a tangible link between the abstract form of the mazes and the environment around me.

Which is where the fantasy of The Witness becomes clear for someone like me. As the game progresses, the line between “puzzle” and “world” erodes further, and I start seeing the environment as a series of clues. Strange glares, the sound of birds, even the clouds in the sky, all cease to be distractions to my brain and start to become solutions. I struggle with new spaces in real life, often unable to acclimate as the conversations of passers-by enter and exit earshot, as the signs blink all around, as the music speeds up and slows down. But in The Witness, I get to explore with the confidence that all information will be relevant. This means that the Island is clinical, lifeless even, but when the real world is so loud and exhausting, a brief escape is sometimes just what I need.

Eventually, The Witness seeps into me to the point that I keep seeing puzzles everywhere. The shadow of a railing seems to form the circle entrance of a maze, the edge of a mountain seems to form an exit. When the sun hits a doorway at the right angle, the metal glows white and I bring up the cursor and solve this piece of the world as if it were a maze. I have solved my first Meta Puzzle, and in so doing reached the endpoint of The Witness’ gradual process of changing its ruleset from something abstract to something tangible. The world itself undergoes this shift in reverse, beginning as a beautiful, natural environment until it is revealed fully as artifice, as something designed and – most importantly – solvable. The medieval castle, the autumnal forest, the metallic marshland facility, all different examples of aesthetics and architecture become hiding places for familiar iconography as they are reduced to pieces of larger puzzles.

This was when I knew that The Witness was – or at least contained – something special for me. I’m back in the car, lining up the road with the windscreen and making everything fit together. But I’m not just doing it as part of a calming process – the game is actually celebrating this as the ideal way to play. The Witness, unlike Firewatch, Yakuza or even Burnout Paradise, doesn’t leave me with any lessons I can take from it in terms of processing my environment in real life. But it is this insularity, which keeps it from reaching any of its more lofty thematic ambitions, that allows it to be another world I can visit for a little while, safe in the knowledge that all those little distractions out of the corner of my eye can be one day understood and eventually conquered.

Long before my autism was diagnosed, I refused to sit still – much to the annoyance of my parents. It was too loud, too bright, too crowded, there was always something about the world that didn’t agree with me. When we drove, the road never made sense, full of painted symbols passing out of my sight in a rhythmic fashion, teasing me with their incompleteness. So I kept squirming in my chair, changing my perspective constantly, sliding the windscreen wiper into the gaps to, in some small way, solve the world around me.

The Witness turns that familiar childhood memory into an 80 hour puzzle game. It has ambitions of being a lot more, espousing the virtues of epiphany, science and how we could save the world if only we just took the time to look at it differently. The game failed to stir any such thematic resonance within me, yet I couldn’t help but find something worthwhile from my time on the Island beyond mostly enjoyable puzzles. Rather than an enriching intellectual experience, The Witness is an escapist fantasy, in the same way that a Bayonetta is. The fantasy it offers me as someone struggling with sensory over-stimulation and environmental processing scratches a similar itch that Bayonetta does for someone struggling with not being Bayonetta.

None of this is to say that The Witness is a game about Autism, because for one thing Autism is such a broad concept that my experience with the game could have nothing in common with someone else on the spectrum. Instead, I want to draw attention to the concept of fantasy within games, and the incredibly broad spectrum of individual experiences encompassed within. It’s easy to grasp the fantasy of Far Cry or Grand Theft Auto, but harder in The Witness, a game promoted as this purer experience which will challenge and enrich the player. Fantasy isn’t something to be shunned as beneath true intellectual art, but a possible part of any game’s connection with its player. Proteus gives me a world of calming beauty, DOOM a dangerous one which I can glide through with speed and grace, and both tap into different desires within me that aren’t fulfilled in my day to day. Games present us with so many worlds to inhabit, so why do we each choose the ones that we do?

All I learned from my time with The Witness was how to better play The Witness. So much of its design – the audio logs, the statues, the secrets hidden further in – tries desperately to convince me that everything happening is important. It wants to impart something, leave me wiser and truer, as if terrified that I may find my own meaning outside of the worldview it attempts to prescribe. Which is such a shame, because fantasy and escapism are not immature things that games must graduate away from in order to become truly meaningful. Despite itself, The Witness is insular and left me with nothing but a language I will never speak again. On its own terms, that makes it a failure, but that doesn’t mean those terms have to be mine.

After all, I still can’t sit still.

Jackson Tyler is a podcaster and writer who spends most of their time moping on buses to avoid the London rain. Their quality work can be found on Abnormal Mapping, and their unquality tweets can be found @headsfalloff.