Meditation in Games and why The Witness is my Game of the Year

I am a maker of mindfulness apps. And as a maker of mindfulness apps, I find our niche community largely quite conservative and even regressive when it comes to creating new ways of presenting meditation and truly realising the potential of interactive digital channels. Thankfully I am also a gamer.

When it comes to creativity and innovation, the industry and context that I find most inspiring is absolutely that of video games. From The Last Of Us to Pokemon Go via Papers, Please, Journey & This War of Mine, no other area of the digital world is — for me at least — as rich when it comes to testing the limits of what is possible when it comes to technology, narrative, meaning-making and human-to-human connection.

But what has surprised me this year, as both a love of meditation and of games, is how the two so often explicitly cross over. There are many ways in which to talk about meditation and games and indeed, many different games to choose from but here I’m going to talk about five in particular.

So let’s begin. And yes, let’s start by talking about GTA V.

1. Michael does yoga.

(Yoga as a pre-cursor to meditation in Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar North)

Press R2 to breathe through your right nostril. (Image courtesy of gta.wikia.com)

If you’re one of the 70 odd million people who bought GTA V or one of the many millions more who have played or watched the game, you’ll know that within this sprawling epic, there is a mini-game where you (as Michael) do yoga. Yoga forms part of a main-story mission as well as being something you can do at your leisure. It is silly and fun and absolutely part of the game’s satirical look at affluent Californian culture.

Now, yoga isn’t the same as meditation but the reason I’ve included it here at the start of this set is that this is GTA. That a practice such as yoga exists in one of the biggest selling video games in history is important. Add the fact that doing it actually improves the stats of your character and it is even more so.

When viewed from an overall cultural perspective, where yoga goes, meditation follows. Given that you can basically take a yoga class in any regular gym in the Western world shows how far practices that were once considered esoteric, niche and frankly weird can come. And mindfulness meditation is close to being on a similar track, albeit with about a fifteen year lag.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some kind of mindfulness mini-game in GTA VI. And if it happens it would represent a remarkable result for meditation in And if anyone at Rockstar is reading this and would like me to help write it then I would totally answer that email.

2. Geralt has great knees.

(Meditation as healing practice in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CD Prokejt Red)

Look… he’s freaking meditating in the title screen even!
You can almost hear his knees creak as Geralt gets up after a few hours of zazen

This is the first game I ever played where meditation was an explicit part of gameplay and it filled me with joy. Like many people, I only joined The Witcher series once it got to PS4 and as my introduction into large-scale open world RPGs, it’s pretty much as good as it gets.

For those of you who haven’t played The Witcher, you can make the character you play, Geralt of Rivia, basically meditate whenever you want. This serves two principle gameplay mechanics. First it can help you pass the time if for example it is day time and the thing you need to do can only take place at night. And on the lower two levels of difficulty (where I played) meditating restores health and replenishes potions that you might have used up. Or if you’re like me you basically just get Geralt to meditate because it’s a cool thing to do and can be especially so when done in one of The Witcher’s stunning locations.

So in The Witcher, meditation is effectively a healing practice. I like that a lot. It is pretty close to what I consider to be the highest value of meditation, repairing damage, connecting you to a deep sense of wellbeing and stability. Unlike Michael De Santa struggling into Warrior II, it actually makes total narrative sense for Geralt to be a meditator it would have been part of his long training programme just as with a life-long martial-artist.

3. A bit wet

(Meditation as relaxation in ABZÛ, Giant Squid Studios)

I dream of the day every title screen has Meditate as an option
This is what it looks like generally when I meditate
More sitting on rocks

I was really excited for Abzu. Journey was of course a masterpiece and with many of that team moving onto work on this, I was expecting great things. Then my excitement levels went to 11 when I saw that you, the mysterious diver person/thing-y, got to discover a set of spots around the aquatic world where you could explicitly meditate.

But then I actually did it. And it made me sad.

All that happened when you sit in these meditation spots is that you get a view of what is effectively one of those aquarium screen savers from the 1990s. All meditation means in Abzu is sitting in one place, hanging out and somehow letting the pretty fishes and stuff relax you. There is no direction, no real context and ultimately no point. The environment is lovely enough when explored dynamically through the very enjoyable movement systems that it makes the ‘meditation’ feature redundant. It also commits what I consider an all too common misconception of meditation: namely that the point of meditation is relaxation and vacancy.

4. A perfect game

(Meditative but not meditation, INSIDE, Playdead Studios)

Atmospheric, moving, terrifying, exhilarating. INSIDE is everything.

Inside is just the most brilliant game. Unlike The Witcher and Abzu, it doesn’t explicitly have meditation as part of its gameplay it is certainly at times meditative. Given that this is a word often used to describe games I wanted to talk about what that means.

A game is most often described as meditative when it has one or more of the following qualities:

  • it is relatively slow-paced
  • it evokes a stable sense of flow without needing a violent gameplay mechanic
  • it explores big questions and themes such as meaning, life and death and what it is to be a human
  • it makes you deeply feel certain emotions such as gratitude, connection with others, love, calm, joy

Some examples of games which are considered meditative are all the That Game Company games, Hohokum, Osmos and The Unfinished Swan. And absolutely Inside. Having a quality of meditative is very different to meditation but I absolutely welcome more companies making games which are both or either. More likely it will be meditative games rather than games with meditation that are the more common and if you are looking for an example of a meditative game at the absolutely pinnacle both creatively, narratively, artistically, sonically, narratively and pretty much everythingelsely, then that game is Inside. It is hands-down the best three hours you can spend with any screen this calendar year.

Playdead, I bow to your skill. Inside is an absolute masterpiece. But it is, still, only my second favourite game of the year.

5. Who witnesses The Witness?

(The heartwood of meditation, The Witness, Thekla )

Seeing the wood, seeing trees
Windmill & lasers
A game all about wisdom

The Witness is my game of the year. It may be the best game I ever play in my life. And while I don’t think I’ve ever seen it mentioned anywhere, I also think that it is all about meditation.

When you are a meditator, there are broadly two styles or approaches or toolsets you have available — meditation for relaxation and meditation for wisdom. However in pop culture, meditation is primarily only understood through its relaxation aspect, not its wisdom one. What is why The Witness is so special. Here are the four reasons I think so

#1. The basic mechanic of The Witness is the basic mechanic of meditation.

In the Witness, all you are doing is solving line puzzles. There are a number of different logical styles of puzzle and as you progress through each respective zone they become more difficult and in places some puzzles require you to understand multiple different logic styles. Then come the end, if you make it to the end, you have internalised the various styles of puzzle logic so deeply that they become second nature and solving puzzles require little cognitive function at all, solutions are simply seen.

That is also how meditation works. You learn a number of different core techniques. You develop those techniques so they become more and more sophisticated and then you start to mix those techniques up to suit the situation. Then when your practice is really strong, it becomes effortless, and wisdom and compassion is the spontaneous result of you moving through the world.

I haven’t quite got the platinum trophy for The Witness on PS4 but it is a pretty good metaphor for what it is like for someone with a decent level of enlightenment to deal with challenges.

#2. Spiritual lessons.

Without giving spoilers, there are aspects of the game which are full on, explicit spiritual teaching, largely from the non-dual tradition. When I saw that for the first time I literally dropped my controller in amazement. I’d never seen anything like the balls Thekla had to include it and fear I may never again.

#3. Ways of seeing.

A few hours into playing The Witness, I thought that it was all about the relationship between man and nature. Then I thought it was all about the tension between the artist and their audience. But now I’ve put into over 40 hours into my first play-through I realise that it is mostly about how the way you see the world changes the world you see. This is wisdom

#4. The Title.

The Witness is a term used in certain spiritual/meditation traditions to denote the aspect of consciousness that is aware of experience. And my own practice has shown me that developing ‘witness consciousness’ is a key stage in wisdom training. I doubt that this is a coincidence.

Thank you Jonathan Blow and team. You made a special thing. The strange thing is that perhaps no-one other than you and your team will ever truly know how special it is.


Coda

My top three games of 2016 (published in 2016)

  1. The Witness
  2. Inside
  3. Rise of the Tomb Raider (PS4 edition)

Other games played in 2016 (published in 2016)

  • Firewatch
  • Uncharted 4
  • Abzu
  • No Man’s Sky

My top three games of 2017 (prediction)

  1. Horizon Zero Dawn
  2. That Next Game
  3. Detroit: Become Human