Near the small town of Point Arena, about three hours north of San Francisco, there's a new kind of memorial ground being built. It's not for the 450 folks who call the town home today; it will allow people to spread their loved ones' ashes in the roots of a tree that will stand among the towering redwood forests. The goal of these new "spreading forests," as they are called by Sandy Gibson, founder of Better Place Forests, the company that is building them, is to replace the bleak environment associated with death with the peaceful experience of a hike in the woods.

In 2015, Gibson's company Better Place Forests hired Fletcher Studio to design their first spreading forest in Mendocino County. Tasked with designing something without precedent, principal landscape architect David Fletcher, 50, approached the design like he does most projects now: by using video-game development software.

Fletcher's preference for designing in a game engine, as the software is called, was cultivated two years ago when he worked on "The Witness," an "open world" role-playing video game. Created by critically acclaimed independent developer Jonathan Blow and his company Thekla, players in "The Witness" wake up alone on a deserted island, then have to solve a series of puzzles using clues coming from patterns in the terrain, plants, and abandoned buildings. Finishing the game can take up to about 80 hours.

Landscape architect David Fletcher | (David Fletcher/Courtesy Narratively)

The opportunity to design the landscape for "The Witness" was a dream come true for Fletcher, who's played video games since childhood. He recalls his first time seeing the island "in the matrix," the 3-D modeling software Thekla used to build the island and test their puzzles over the course of seven years. It was a "green blob" with a few puzzle prototypes. It was an unusual starting point for a video game, he thought, because designers are typically given a premise for a game, which inherently has clues and references from which they can begin their design. The starting point could be as vague as, "You're in post-apocalyptic New York and there are zombies," Fletcher offers as an example. "You can imagine exactly what that's going to look like." But with "The Witness," there was no starting point.

Instead, Fletcher had to reverse-engineer the past to create an island where its present-day environment would give players enough clues to piece together what happened. It was an infinitely harder task and the reason its developer, Blow, decided to hire architects like Fletcher.

"A non-architect can look at a photo reference and do something like that, but they're not going to know how it's constructed or how it might erode over time," Blow says.

Fletcher and the team researched hundreds of smaller islands and finally found a possible reference in the volcanic Azores off the coast of Portugal. With long histories of human culture on the Azores, Fletcher and his team could make informed decisions about which sides of the island would get the most wind and sunlight, which determined what plants would grow or not.

The video game "The Witness" takes place on this island, which was designed over the course of several years by a team of architects, including David Fletcher. This graphic shows how the island was altered after Fletcher and his team began working with developers. | (Courtesy Narratively)

Making a digital collage of images using Google Earth, the team pasted together some basic materials: granite, limestone, and sandstone. As soon as their concept got approval, they began digitally building 3-D models. From that point on, all designing happened in the 3-D environment of the matrix.

After the architects modeled the landscapes and buildings, they would "park" them in the matrix's ocean. Thekla's team would then integrate the architect's virtual structures onto the island. If you were to log into the game engine, you could see it happening in real time.

For Fletcher, the ability to walk through a 3-D model at any point changed his approach to designing. Hearing the sound effects of waves crashing or tree branches rustling in a gentle wind, Fletcher could roam through the 18 distinct zones of the island and experience them as a player would. Walking through the orchard with trees so green it might have just rained or over the rolling dunes of the desert, he could see what details they missed and fill them in.

The result is accurate sightlines from a high rock or a low valley; the sounds of birds chirping or running water timed to begin as a player gets close to a new set of puzzles; and the captivating glow of forests with vibrant auburn, magenta and scarlet leaves drawing an awestruck player towards them. Every turn reveals something new. "We wanted somebody to get pleasure and be blown away by the island just by visiting it," Fletcher says.

While still working on "The Witness," Fletcher began renovating of San Francisco's dilapidated South Park — the oldest park in the city. While doing the project, he reached out to an architect designing structural elements for "The Witness," Digo Lima and his firm studioANOMALOUS, to help him transfer the South Park project into a game engine. It was a test run to see if designing landscape in the matrix could work beyond video game projects. It did.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

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