This is the second part of the Taiji Quartet. The first part was Soar.

One of the most striking features of Taiji, probably the biggest factor for the attention it garnered over the years, was that it looks and feels like The Witness (Thelka Inc., 2016). Watching the trailer, it doesn’t take long to notice the landscape blistering with puzzle panels, bound with cables.

Developer Matthew VanDevander wrote a couple of years ago:

“I guess you could say I’m a big fan of The Witness. I hoped by now that someone would have made a similar game, but nobody did, so I’m doing it. Story is a bit more complicated than that, I actually started this project before The Witness even released!”

But I was surprised to find Taiji has a lot more callbacks to The Witness than just panels and cables. I decided to catalogue every similiarity.

It’s spoilerin’ time for Taiji and The Witness!

The cutest homage to The Witness is near the middle of the Taiji map – the pool at the base of the waterfall. It’s shaped to resemble the key motif of The Witness: the circle and the line.

The Witness Motif

The orchard puzzles use cherry blossom trees at the height of Spring just like The Witness did for its orchard section. There is even overlap in how the orchards’ puzzles work as they are both exercises in reading tree branches – and it becomes clear Taiji’s own interpretation of The Witness does not just reproduce the major brushstrokes.

Orchard

The diamond puzzles work largely the same way as the treehouse puzzles of The Witness – diamonds of the same colour must be partitioned in pairs. However, Taiji’s central mechanic of toggling squares on and off makes these puzzles distinctively different.

Diamond Puzzle

I was even more surprised to see shapes hidden in the reflective glare of the solar panels in the Mill area of Taiji, which is straight out of The Witness’ desert area.

Solar Panels with Hidden Puzzle

Structurally, I previously noted that the Gallery area is similar to The Witness’ village ruins with hybrid puzzles that are only solvable after you’ve got some knowledge under your belt.

Inside the Gallery

And consider also the secret puzzle cavern of The Witness which is full of puzzles which are merely included for the joy of further puzzling (well, all except for one). Taiji also has its own secret treasure trove, full of optional challenges, behind the waterfall.

Secret Cavern with Optional Puzzles

This is probably a stretch, but some of Taiji‘s puzzles involve toggling squares on with your avatar’s feet instead of using a magical cursor. This means you have to solve the puzzle using a continuous line. As with the diamonds, the result is clearly not a Witness puzzle but after seeing all the other parallels with The Witness it was similar enough to grab my attention.

Some Taiji ‘continuous path’ puzzles

Perhaps Taiji’s biggest break with The Witness is that it doesn’t have any so-called environmental puzzles where you draw circle-and-line shapes in the virtual world around you. They are “so-called” puzzles because most of them aren’t really puzzles, right?. Taiji, however, does have a bunch of meta-puzzles, each of which requires the player to seek out a puzzle disguised in the landscape. Only with the right eyes can you see them: the solar panels; the orchard paths; the gravestones.

Hidden gravestones puzzle

These hidden puzzles of Taiji make an interesting departure from The Witness. The primary tenet of The Witness puzzle design, which it seldom broke, was that all puzzles were local. Everything you needed to solve the puzzle was always nearby and you didn’t need to traipse halfway across the map to solve something.

Look, while we’re talking about puzzles hidden in the landscape, this one bugs me. The domino bush insinuates there’s a puzzle to be solved but, well, there isn’t? It’s just… a group of bushes. Was this intended as a puzzle? Is it trolling the player – sometimes a bush is just a bush? Or perhaps it was an extra visual aid to draw your eyes to the path itself as the orchard meta-puzzle?

Mystery red domino bushes

And, lastly, Taiji mimics The Witness’ biggest trick: the “real ending” of the game is right back at the start. There’s a secret cave nestled beneath the starting area which can only be accessed by using a different sigil to solve the first puzzle – just like how the exit lobby of The Witness could only be accessed by entering a particular solution into the courtyard exit. Of course, you have a much bigger fight ahead of you in Taiji than The Witness. The Witness says “oh super love your outfit, proceed to the new fake enlightenment” whereas Taiji rewards you with a set of boss meta-puzzles.

Should we label Taiji a “Witnesslike”? I don’t want to get into the nomenclature wars, because– oh screw it, let’s discuss that in a later article.

That’s everything I noticed but feel free to drop me a comment if you’ve spotted any other similarities with The Witness.

Next: Wild Geese

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14 thoughts on “Chasing the Witness

  1. What I especially appreciated about how the waterfall pool paid homage to the Witness’s motif was that it was actually conceptual. That is, it didn’t create a proper circle-line-roundcap sequence to the player, but you could see that it would if it were possible to view it from the proper vantage point, within the landscape.

  2. As I was adding the images to this article I noticed the roundcap wasn’t quite right and I had a brief moment of WAIT IT’S NOT PERFECT MAYBE I’M WRONG

    Of course I’m not wrong. I just wasn’t looking at it right.

  3. The question which suggested itself to me from this article – although I apologise if it’s an unanswerable one that doesn’t really lead anywhere – is over how much the Witness actually wanted to be chased. Jonathan Blow has certainly built a reputation for making games (, blog posts, programming languages, …) which do things differently. But does or did he want to set new standards which are then taken up and woven into the fabric of the medium? Or was he striving for work that would be remembered as singular, unsurpassed, inimitable?

    In case it looks like I’m grinding an axe against any one developer, we could extend this question to the whole puzzle genre. It seems that – perhaps uniquely in games? – it’s one where innovation and reinvention are most prized, if not demanded. It’s true you see certain styles (Sokoban, mirrors ‘n’ lasers, sudoku, picross) become accepted parts of the canon, and therefore fair game for future iterations, but even then it’s expected that a new example put an original twist on the formula to justify itself.

  4. Feel free to ask unanswerable questions. In fact, I’m doing a great job recently of not answering anyone’s questions so technically all of the questions are unanswerable.

    On one hand, I think it is true that “we” expect new puzzle games have something that sets them apart from its fellow games. But I do pause a little because that’s not quite an absolute. While puzzle designers and hardcore fans look for fresh new twists and zest, 2048 cloning Threes and making it worse but going free stole all the attention. And g4merZ would argue they’re seeking innovation when, in fact, AAA mechanics iterate very slowly due to the severe financial risks involved in getting something wrong.

    But saying that: did Blow want The Witness to be chased? In fear of putting words into someone else’s mouth, especially a high-profile someone who can be an opinionated asshole from time to time, I think (a) he’s like the Borg, he doesn’t really care if someone copies the model, it is of no consequence – YOU’RE LOOKING AT THE FINGER NOT THE GLORY, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW (b) he probably would have been happy for games to mimic The Witness’ attempt to reach for deep meaning and purpose, to be more than just a collection of puzzles.

    Please note that’s my guess of how Blow would see things.

    Thank you for the unanswerable question for which I have provided an answer :O)

  5. “Feel free to ask unanswerable questions.”

    So what is a game, really, when you get right down to it?

  6. I mean …

    I’m willing to believe that MV added that to his map in all innocence, with no _intention_ of making reference to The Witness’s environmental puzzles.

    I’m not sure I can believe that he finished and released the game without once _noticing_ that he had done so.

  7. I’ve seen a post about this on the Taiji Discord. Apparently the pool was supposed to hold a water wheel but it was cut towards the end of development, thus the story seems to hold, uhhhh, water?

  8. If I may interrupt this punning for a brief tangent back to the original subject matter — I would say that another of Taiji’s parallel with The Witness would also be the setup of the two endings. Specifically, how the less satisfying ending is set up early on as the game’s final goal, marked out with an attention-grabbing endpoint built into the landscape, and while indeed functioning as a end to the game, nonetheless leaves the player feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Meanwhile, the “good” ending is, as you noted, carefully hidden back near the starting point.

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