At times, playing The Witness as someone afflicted with colorblindness is like reading a literary masterpiece with random pages partially torn out (and maybe a few torn out completely). It’s not is impossible to reach the end but it’s virtually impossible to complete every puzzle and reach the game’s “true ending.”
The latest from developer Jonathan Blow, The Witness asks players to solve series of line puzzles scattered across a small island. Players draw grids following a set of rules that continually evolves, compounding on previous logic while pulling in environmental cues. Some puzzles are black, white, and shades of gray, which are fine with colorblindness. Then the rest of the color wheel begins to make its way into the grids. The scenery – the sunlight coming down from the sky, the lush green trees, deep blue waters, and the reflections and tints that surround each puzzle grid – makes everything far more difficult. Sometimes the puzzle grids are translucent, and the line drawn changes color throughout the twelve main quest areas. As a result, there were situations in which it wasn’t just the colors within the puzzle that gave me trouble. The backdrop and surroundings – often designed to aide my efforts – baffled me instead.
In a conversation with Kotaku Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Totilo, , “We definitely thought about colorblindness but ultimately there was not much we could do in terms of the individual puzzles.” He goes on to add:
“The approach instead was to ensure the game did not require you to complete any particular area to get to the end. Colorblindness is only an issue with a fraction of the puzzles in the game, and our design focuses these puzzles in a small number of areas, so the workaround is just to skip those areas.”
It’s nice to hear that Jonathan Blow and his team took it upon themselves to consider such an important design aspect. Approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women across the world are colorblind to some degree. Since gaming has become a widespread pastime, there are bound to be colorblind gamers enjoying the epic puzzle game.
With that said, I’d argue that although the mandatory puzzles that need to be solved to reach the credits are possible for the colorblind, there are some, particularly in the latter stages, that are extremely difficult. The Witness is an incredibly challenging game to begin with so any player, including one with perfect color aptitude, is going to struggle. During my playthrough, I kept a pen and paper at hand (as well as scissors to cut shapes), and regularly took phone pictures for reference. The wickedly smart design makes it feel as if it’s a disservice to refer to it merely as a puzzle game. The Witness is the king of puzzle games, standing on a platform alone above Fez, Monument Valley, Portal, and Portal 2 and it’s leagues ahead of Blow’s last indie hit, Braid.
That’s why I was so disappointed that I was incapable of completing the game in its entirety (at least without outside assistance). I’m not a completionist. There are far too many great games out there to fret over every side quest or collectible. The Witness is different in that it has no physical collectibles aside from personal fulfillment and pride. With each complicated puzzle solved, you feel smarter. The side quests, the aforementioned optional tangents, are another piece of a larger puzzle, making it almost impossible to not strive to complete every last one, if only to be a part of something bigger.
That’s precisely why I strived to solve as many as possible despite the visual obstacles. I resorted to adjusting the color, tint, and brightness of my television screen, and with a little tinkering, it actually helped a number of times. However, there were a few occasions when I asked my girlfriend to sort through the mess and identify colors when I just didn’t have the means to do so on my own.
After over thirty hours inside The Witness, I reached the end. When I finish a particularly great game, excitement quickly transitions into despondence, for my time spent with the game is over. In the case of The Witness, I was left feeling a bit empty. No matter how hard I tried to reach the true ending, I knew that I simply did not possess the necessary tools to do so. Even though only a very small percentage of players will finish 100% of the puzzles in the game (or reach the regular ending for that matter), at least those not affected by colorblindness will have the opportunity to try.
In the grand scheme of things, not being able to finish everything in a video game is no big deal. There are blind, deaf, and otherwise disabled people who do not get the opportunity to enjoy many games to their fullest extent, if they get to enjoy them at all. But The Witness, despite its countless virtues, is the first game that really made me aware of my colorblindness for extended lengths, and I sadly wish it hadn’t.