This is the final part of the Taiji Quartet. The other parts were Soar, Chasing the Witness and Wild Geese.

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.)

Sensorium

Here’s a screenshot of an unpublished blog post in this published blog post.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 And so this Electron Dance review remains unpublished, which continues to trouble me, even though I did stream Sensorium.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

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):

Sokobond Level Map

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.

Well, shoot.

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.

Gridspech

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.

Understand

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–

Stephen’s Sausage Roll

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.

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20 thoughts on “Like This Game

  1. Listen, what is that you want. Money? I’ve got money; I’ll give you all the money I have. Just please, I beg you, stop saying Metroidbrainia.

  2. i dont see how The Witness is remotely like a walking sim except, er, that you walk.

    to me it was far more like one of those large format books of puzzles that you would buy at a petrol station to throw at your kids in the back seat to keep them quiet for at least one hour of this twelve hour drive to visit the grandparents.

    except, with the puzzles a little more carefully designed to be some kind of whole. or hole?

    ive lost track of my point. anyway yes. i think ive lost track of your point too.

  3. @vfig If someone doesn’t feel the “walking simness” of The Witness, then there’s probably no point trying to convince that person that they “should have felt it”? It’s like the worst kind of argument. “But, but, you should LOVE DARK SOULS IT FEELS SO GOOD TO BE SHAFTED BY THE BASILISKS!!!!”

    Still, if you want to know how it felt for me…

    I really settled into the island as a place. I know a lot of the slow travel (boat/lifts) was built around puzzling but it had this bonus of making you take in the surroundings and appreciate the character of the island. The distance between different puzzle areas was often long and these “liminal spaces” weren’t always obsessed with puzzle solving. It was a wrench to even uninstall the bloody thing. “I was there and I did not want to leave.”

  4. Honestly, Joel, I’ll take it.

    I guess I would define a Witnesslike as a game I really come to like, despite profound reluctance, even resistance, going in?

    Ok, a more serious attempt. Even though I didn’t penetrate its secret wisdom, I think I did, in an unconscious sort of way, come to appreciate how beyond the exploration, and the obligation to look at things in the environment to solve puzzles, it is a place you inhabit and are present in. I want to say there was something in particular about the sound design that reinforced this. It’s hard to say, I don’t know enough about the craft. But my brain accepted it.

    It joins Deus Ex, Half Life and Ocarina of Time on the short list of game worlds which I found genuinely immersive. Ha! I can say that since I’ve never signed up to the games journalist list of forbidden words.

    Anyway, this (gestures vaguely above) is what I think I agree with and recognise in your piece as a fundamental Witness-like pre-requisite. This, uh, plus puzzles I guess. I have to agree with vfig that it didn’t remind me of a walking sim, in the sense that it doesn’t drag you forward with the promise of finding out what happened to the people who were here*, or to see some set-piece scenery porn around the next corner. But those are probably just my uncharitable impressions of the W.S. M.O.

    * I mean, it kind of does. But the various intimations that this island, otherwise beautiful, is a hangout for the sort of people who would be background characters in a Culture novel, is so grim as to actively repel further curiosity.

  5. Welcome back, CA. Glad you got over the word trauma.

    It is certainly up for discussion what this additional quality to The Witness is – immersion, sense of place, walking sim. I 100% get your meaning. There’s a small part of me always exists in Battery Park and Black Mesa. Even Liberty City (circa 2000) and Vice City. (Not San Andreas, though.)

    Sometimes older 2D games could induce similar feelings – something like Jet Set Willy or Spindizzy – but I suspect this was mainly because of enforced repetition, conditioned familiarity. Typically, these worlds were hostile and threatening.

    “the promise of finding out what happened” – so I would strongly refute this part on behalf of the “walking sim” community. It’s well known most walking sims are about collecting several jibjabs to unlock the exit.

    “background characters in a Culture novel” well done on making this an A* comment

  6. @Joel “I really settled into the island”. okay, yes, the place-as-character is a thing. i guess for me, i dont really see place-as-character as a defining feature of most games that are called walking sims. while obviously its a big part of Dear Esther, and Miasmata, and some others hovering around that genre label, its absent from EGTTRapture, from Edith Finch, from Ethan Carter, from Stanley Parable… i dont have an argument here, this is just a long winded way of me saying “ah i understand your comparison now.”

  7. I now wonder if there’s an unpublished blog post that assumes it’s already published…
    “In recent years, […] Q.U.B.E. (Toxic Games, 2011)”
    I’m not sure that counts as “recent years” anymore, it’s 2023, Joel! 😀

    Categorisation and essence-extraction always stirs something up. I think it’s ok for something to be a category/genre/concept-defining product despite not at all defining the concept. Like you’ve mentioned, it’s usually something that people experienced first _there._ The problem is that different people experience different things but named them the same way. I think the shorthand title to describe such an experience saves more time than it wastes, despite the problems.

  8. Look, there’s a time and a place for cheesy forced portmanteaus, and it’s nowhere and never.

  9. Speaking of genre and coinage, as a tangent, I really wish we hadn’t settled on using the word genre to describe the inputs and mechanics of a game. We only do this with interactive media. Consider:
    -My favourite movie genre is the type where you press play and then watch what happens.
    -What’s your favourite book genre? Ebook? Audiobook?
    I don’t know why exactly, but I’d prefer it if genre lines divided things by styles, themes and content, and we used some other terms to talk about mechanics and interactions.

  10. @vfig The great thing is there is no definition of a in-quotes-walking-sim other than you must have collectibles of some kind. Wait, maybe you’re right about The Witness—

    @That Scar Ha ha, I’ve got so much writing here that assumes it has been published. You should check out the fifth part of my INFRA series. It’s super-confident that it’s been published.

    I refuse to engage on your 2011 not being recent point. ‘i’m not old! im not old!!’, i continue to insist as i slowly shrink and transform into a corn cob
    (Although I did actually notice this on a quick pass on the article yesterday: huh is 2011 recent? I’m sure no one will notice—)

    Yeah, they are great shorthands – except if you’re trying to write about stuff and then you get skewered with “The Witness isn’t a walking sim” and you have to be careful about how terms can be interpreted. But I think this article is my attempt to finally make peace with the urge to pursue definition for any new category. Let it go, bro. Let. It. Go.

    @Mr B Don’t set me a challenge to come up with a portmanteau horror to describe Temple of Snek.

    This is definitely something that bothers you more than me, although my parents have always hated the word “genre” and I always hear them, every single fucking time I write the word. MY GENRE IS HAUNTED

    If you want some sort of other word instead of genre to describe the “mechanics” and “interactions” then we should probably introduce the “mechaction” of a game. Well, it’s either that or “type”.

  11. Just piling on the disgust for “Metroidbrania,” here. What kills me about it is that a Metroidvania is already just an action platformer plus the classic adventure game lock-and-key fully-explore-the-map structure… so if you get rid of the platforming and replace it with puzzles, well, surely you’re just structurally back around to the normal adventure game again and we don’t need to kludge together an ugly portmanteau!

    But that in turn just folds back to the trouble with genre the post already outlines and this comment section expands on. After all, even the adventure game is just named after Colossal Cave Adventure; effectively, “Adventurelike.” And I think the first thing to come to mind for most people as defining the typical “adventure game” is nothing so abstract and structural but rather the surface features of the 90s point-and-click, a proscenium that you pilot around your third-person protagonist around so they can commentate on everything you click on. Well, okay, I say “most people”, but one look at any user-tagged games database (Steam, IGDB, etc) for “Adventure” games and it quickly becomes apparent that the word is now completely meaningless to most normal modern people… probably why someone thought the “Metroidbrania” was a new paradigm or at least needed a new label to champion.

  12. @Art Maybury: the Adventure tag is meaningless? it sounds to me like maybe it has kept to its original, obvious meaning, rather than a formal label describing various structural or mechanical features!

    an adventure game: its not a game like chess, or spacewar, or pong—its a game that lets you go on an *adventure*.

    but that suggests a different framing with a deeper truth: i suppose if we adapt mr, baggins’s definition, then adventure games are those “nasty, uncomfortable things”—certainly seems to apply to text parser interfaces—that “make you late for dinner!”

    the latter aspect is clearly recognisable, whether decades ago having parents calling me to the table many times before it registers, or nowadays when i suddenly look up from the game to realise i am cold and starving and its hours past when i should have eaten’

  13. Oh, that’s interesting. What is an adventure game?

    There are elements that spring to mind as fundamental, but we can find examples to the contrary:

    – puzzles (subverted by various short Twine and interactive fiction games)
    – third person (subverted by second person IF, pseudo-first person games like Ace Attorney and Hotel Dusk)
    – point and click interface (preceded by text adventures, proceeded by various approaches in The Great Transition To 3D)
    – “choice and consequence” (popularised by quantic dream and telltale, but a relatively recent l̶i̶e innovation)
    – jokes (horror adventures are very much a thing, as are feels-em-ups)
    – combat/no combat/deaths/no deaths/moon logic/quick time events (yeah you get the idea)

    I’m afraid I can’t subscribe to the ‘game where you go on an adventure’ definition for the same reason I can’t accept ‘any game where you play a role’ as an RPG. (But on the other hand, the strictly mechanical ‘RPG elements’ have bled so profoundly into the mainstream that trying to hold out by those criteria also increasingly casts the net to wide!)

    It seems to me that the only thing that’s really a constant is Art’s suggestion that in (almost) all games we are happy to describe as adventures, you have some mechanism by which the game will “commentate on everything you click on”.

    In which case, who here is going to be the one to suggest the genre be re-designated as the “looking simulator?”

    😉

  14. I’ve had the “adventure” genre origin discussion way too many times. It now means adventure, the English word, with no reference to any game or game concept. The word is changing, change with the word… unless you actually care about it (then do not change) but I seriously don’t see the use in preserving a word.
    Right now the word for “lock-and-key fully-explore-the-map structure” is metroidvania (I haven’t heard of many alternatives and the full description is unwieldy for most things). I don’t think it matters that much how we ended up here, as long as most people are on the same page.

  15. I am a big fan of Night in the Woods. Actually that’s an understatement – in my opinion NitW is the best written video game ever, period. In terms of straight writing, not creating a deeply layered, self-referential narrative like MGS2 did. But no other game felt this realistic to me, not even close.

    Recently I played Beacon Pines and… Well, I wouldn’t call it a NitW-like game, but you could most certainly say “this is a game that was created after NitW was released”. A post-NitW game.

    I think post-Witness game is a better moniker than Witness-like, because the latter suggest similar mechanics while the former is a—

    Okay, this is the point where I started reading the rest of the article after the first paragraph or two. You yourself say post-Witness. I have, once again, failed to invent something new. I quit.

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