It’s Quiet… Too Quiet: Isolation in The Witness

The Witness, a highly-rated console and PC game, involves exploring a beautiful open world and solving the puzzles placed throughout the environment.  The Witness is a seemingly peaceful, relaxed game, contrary to typical console experiences.  In my ninety minutes of play time so far, there have been no timed puzzles, no running and jumping, and nothing involving much hand-eye coordination.  The game is simply a series of maze-like puzzles.  Yet The Witness manages to produce an eerie, unsettling feeling despite its beautiful visuals and peaceful atmosphere.

The lack of traditional gaming mechanics, such as shooting or running, is an unusual choice for a video game.  While the landscape is lovely to look at, The Witness lacks the juiciness of traditional console games – nothing explodes, the environment is not hyper-stimulating, and the music is quiet and peaceful.  In my preliminary research, reviewers have given The Witness high praise, suggesting that there is a market for non-combat oriented games.  Puzzles are typically associated with casual games, such as Bejeweled or Tetris.  Yet The Witness proves that consumers are open to the idea of console puzzle games.  Requiring more brain power than reflexes, The Witness’s unique format suggests that gamers are not always looking for a run-and-shoot type of experience.  Rather, many can enjoy puzzle games that involve no combat or similar high-intensity experiences.

A puzzle from The Witness. The player has to properly connect the beginning to the end, often with additional, complicating obstacles.  My screenshot.

The Witness is visually beautiful, an expansive world filled with Japanese-styled architecture, lush grass, cherry blossom trees, and bodies of water.  Yet something about the world is not quite right.  While pretty and peaceful, the world of the game is completely devoid of people.  There are buildings, bridges, and other signs of life, but no inhabitants.  The Witness reminds me of the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?”  The protagonist of the episode finds himself in a town that appears to have once been inhabited, but is now completely empty, and he soon devolves into complete panic.  That episode, and this game, speak to a universal truth – that humans tend to find isolation very unsettling.  The farther the player gets into the game without seeing any people, the more frightening this seemingly beautiful world becomes. The lack of running, jumping, and shooting I previously noted makes the world eerily quiet.  While I’m enjoying the puzzles of The Witness, solving the mystery of this empty world is what really motivates me to keep playing.  The game proves that any landscape, no matter how beautiful and tranquil, can quickly become sinister when the player is isolated.

The beautiful landscape of The Witness. But where are all the people? My screenshot.

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