In Chasing the Witness I mentioned that Taiji developer Matthew VanDevander had wanted to make a game that reproduced The Witness experience.
Is Taiji a “Witnesslike”?
(No puzzle spoilers below aside from a reference to the “meaning” of The Witness.)
Here’s a screenshot of an unpublished blog post in this published blog post.
This is actually a review of Sensorium (Tad Cordle, 2020) which I found difficult to finish. Not the game. Hell, no. I finished that in five days. It was the review I couldn’t finish, unable to find words that conveyed how deeply Sensorium had engaged me over those five days. I could have just smuggled it into the Puzzleworks series but Sensorium was more important to me than that. And so this Electron Dance review remains unpublished, which continues to trouble me, even though I did stream Sensorium.
Sensorium mimics much of the design of The Witness: different puzzle zones; puzzles embedded in the world; cables that carry power between puzzles; first-person open world; end game involving hybrid puzzles. There are even sound puzzles, good ones, which I enjoyed. It has a warmer personality compared to both Taiji and The Witness and I mourned Sensorium upon completion. I was like a kid who wolfs down a chocolate bar, realizing too late that he shouldn’t have approached a rare delicacy as if it were a speed run for Games Done Quick.
Sensorium was a post-Witness game but it was not The Witness. Is Sensorium a “Witnesslike”?
The Bergen Interpretation
Let’s take another step back and look at first-person puzzlers as a genre. In recent years, many have followed the linear Portal model – games such as Q.U.B.E. (Toxic Games, 2011) or Claire de Lune (Tactic Studios, 2021). The Witness embraced an open world approach as a novel implementation of branching level selection. Here’s a classy example of what this normally looks like, from Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013):
But The Witness did not birth the open-world puzzler. Developers had already been tinkering with the concept; for example, you can feel it in A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build (draknek, 2015) and The Talos Principle (Croteam, 2014). And then there’s the much older Myst (Cyan Worlds, 1993) which offered a world you could inhabit, surrounded by puzzles. Myst is one of the influences for The Witness.
Tracing design genealogy back to 1993 is all well and good, but we can label The Witness in a slightly different way: as a fusion of the “walking sim” and a puzzle game. I find it somewhat ironic that many developers over the years had attempted to make “walking sims” a bit more game-like by including the worst puzzles known to human civilization, like collecting eight pieces of meaningless crap and pressing a switch to open a door. But putting decent puzzles into a walking sim forges something else altogether.
I remember there were those scoffing at the time that, well, the island looks lovely but isn’t it just an ostentatious backdrop for a bunch of “mazes”? I mean, gosh, instead of ostentatious shouldn’t we call it pretenti– Honesty time. This was also at the back of my mind before I played The Witness, but the game proved me wrong. The character of the island permeated every second of my virtual existence there. I was there and I did not want to leave.
Maybe a legal definition of “Witnesslike”, which we’d have to name after a European city – say, the Bergen Interpretation – would demand (a) first-person puzzler and (b) “walking sim” vibes.
Except neither Sensorium nor Taiji have “walking sim” vibes. Taiji isn’t even first-person.
It’s important to note that The Witness’ “walking sim” aesthetic wasn’t just about making it a ‘cool place to explore’ but was a load-bearing pillar. The player is on a beautiful island that’s infested with technology, a place that weaponises the experience of simply existing to make it purposeful. That’s the meaning of The Witness chiselled directly into the environment.
Regardless of VanDevander’s aspirations, Taiji’s compact 2D world feels much more like a clever space crafted to house puzzles and I never felt at home there. This isn’t a bad thing, it is just a fact. Taiji avoids aping the musical score of The Witness and is free to be Taiji. And there were times where I wished Taiji had put even more distance between itself and its inspiration.
What About Puzzles
Last week, developer krackocloud released a puzzle game called Gridspech (krackocloud, 2023) which they called a “witnesslike”. The developer even has an itch collection of Witnesslikes, bearing the description “expect any combination of line drawing puzzles, environmental puzzles, and rule learning mechanics”. It’s all about the puzzles, innit.
Consider the first puzzles that emerged from the primordial soup, players were told the rules and handed puzzles to solve. Just put these goats into sections. Well done, here’s the next level. Now the goats have lasers.
Modern puzzle design has turned ye olde tutorial on its head, spinning it into another puzzle, challenging the player to figure out the rules. The maddening Understand (Artless Games, 2020) expands this into a whole game, as I’ve discussed before.
The Witness went one more mile, allowing players immediate access to puzzles they had no hope of solving and expecting them to recognise that. Nick Suttner coined a horrible portmanteau of a portmanteau for this which is irritatingly accurate – the “Metroidbrainia”. A game where you need knowledge instead of an upgrade to unlock an area. Expect more puzzle games with Metroidbrainia design as the years turn.
The Witness established that you can hand enormous freedom over to puzzle players and let them experience the frustration of trying to solve the unsolvable without them assuming the designer is a spiteful bastard. Well, not for the puzzle design, anyway.
Now this is a design tenet that features in both Sensorium and Taiji and I dare say many more games over the years. I guess they are Witnesslikes after all.
Like Means Anything
When someone says they want a game “like The Witness” they’re probably arguing for something more concrete than Joel’s vibe. Open world? Panel puzzles? Cables? There you go. Fuck it. I guess that’s fine. I’m not bitter. Maybe a bit disappointed this would end up as the Bergen Interpretation of “Witnesslike” and then we’d be arguing about Witnesslites. A naive YouTuber would then call Stephen’s Sausage Roll a Witnesslite because The Witness was the first puzzle game they ever played, there’d be a Twitter flashpoint and somebody would punch Elon Musk in the face because, frankly, someone had to do it. I’d then write an article about how game taxonomies are the enemy–
You know, why even bother trying to define Witnesslike because it’s going to be whatever the gaming republic gravitates to. Game tags are not created by committee but defined socially. So don’t be an asshole, Joel, definition wars are for Reddit. There are so many different key aspects that make The Witness the game it is that anything from line drawing to open world to powered panels to “walking sim” could be a Witnesslike ingredient. The actual ingredient I’m missing is the bigger picture: The Witness as an influence.
Every new game tells us something new about game design, what works and what doesn’t work. We might find ourselves chasing another experience that feels like The Witness but it is now just as important an influence for puzzle games as Portal (Valve, 2007) has been. Developers will absorb the design lessons of The Witness regardless of whether they are trying to make something that “feels like” The Witness or not. Let me remind you that Understand was inspired by The Witness which has jack shit to do with panels, cables, open-world or that slippery vibe.
Post-Witness game design will be informed by The Witness just as any other milestone game informs the design of the future. Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Baba is You. SpaceChem and the “Zachlike”. Myst. Ideas so ingrained in the design materials that you won’t even wonder about the game that pioneered or popularised them.
And along the way we will encounter games which are direct inspirations like Taiji and Sensorium.
There’s nothing not to like.