This is the thirteeneth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

In the “secret” addendum video to The Unbearable Now, I briefly mentioned I liked how the panel puzzles in The Witness (Thekla Inc, 2016) felt like little laboratories. That is, each puzzle was a self-contained experiment and it was practically encouraged to review them. In fact, most logic puzzles can be framed as laboratories in the same way, but few games embrace this as well as The Witness. Most of The Witness’ panel puzzles are small enough to run through multiple times yet complicated enough to dissuade from brute force solution. There are a few exceptions, of course. I’m sure the following screenshot will fill Witness veterans with dread… although not because it is large!

Here’s an apparent no-brainer of a question: what is the focus of a puzzle game? Well, duh, puzzles. However, this is not true of The Witness as the island itself is the star attraction. The panels often seem to have been hammered on to the island by a DIY amateur. Aside from the panels that gate certain areas, we could happily ignore them as we wander the island. The Witness does not insist we solve its logical conundrums. They exist. That is enough.

The panels’ indifference to the player allows them to become assimilated into the island’s environment – even though they are designed to stand out. Aside from one irreversible exception, you can revisit a completed panel at your leisure. The puzzle will reset and you can attempt to solve it again. Even better, resetting a puzzle does not undo anything – if you’ve unlocked an area, it will stay unlocked.

I found this encouraged me to revisit solved panels when I felt I had not fully understood the mechanics involved. You might argue “walking around an island” is a lot more time-consuming that flicking through a menu and you’d be technically correct in most cases. But that is not how the player of The Witness experiences it. The panels are architecture and it feels more natural to wander over to a panel than rifle through menus looking for the puzzle we wanted.

In this way, each panel acts as a laboratory in which we can do experiments, test theories. For science. This is also true of most puzzle games. Individual puzzles are an enclosed laboratory in which we experiment and perhaps look not just for a solution but also for heuristics that can be employed to solve future puzzles. However, unlike The Witness, most puzzle games do not make this process of review feel so encouraged. At the extreme end, you have titles which brick up the passage behind you because forward momentum is everything. Only your save games will allow you to return to a previous puzzle in Portal (Valve, 2007). And in Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare Games, 2016), a completed puzzle becomes closed to admissions. Let’s hope you learnt those lessons well!

No Great Tower

Not every puzzle game locks the player out in this way. Take a look at Alan Hazelden’s repertoire. Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis, 2017) offers you a galactic map of available puzzles. On the downside, each level is unrecognisable from the map so it can be a bit of trial and error finding a level you’re looking for.

Cosmic Express level map

Earlier title Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013) has a less charming aesthetic but here the puzzles are visible from the map.

Sokobond Level Map

However, it is the beautifully delicate A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build (Hazelden & Davis, 2015) that is closest to The Witness model because the puzzles are embedded in a large, open environment: a park. Our little monster avatar is allowed to wander freely and most areas of the park contain a challenge. The park is not vast and the restful nature of A Good Snowman means wandering the park does not feel a chore. Each puzzle can also be reset if we wish to try again although it is unlikely we would need to revisit an individual puzzle to check our understanding; it just isn’t that kind of game.

Wandering the park

My point here is not about design, but about how The Witness gave me the flash of insight that replaying completed puzzles was important to consolidate understanding. I used to Iron Man my way through puzzles; never look back, always seeking out new puzzle life and new puzzle civilisations. The natural urge of any player is to make progress. Game design normally conforms with player expectations: here’s the next puzzle, now here’s the next puzzle, and the next and the next. But sometimes you need to step back to be able to step forward. This will prove to be important down the line.

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10 thoughts on “The Laboratory of Logic

  1. The level select post! I was going to point you to my comment where I talked about the level selects for Stephen’s Sausage Roll and A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build but then I realized I told you not to read it until you finish Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Anyway you can get back to puzzles in Stephen’s Sausage Roll but it’s hard to do, you have to bring up a game and press “escape” and then “load game” and then you will get a menu from which you can choose save games, identified by the last puzzle you solved, which means you have to pick the one before the one you want to retry. It is very unintuitive! I’m not sure why it’s like this because I certainly did want to replay puzzles.

    In A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build the level select isn’t just that, there were at least some puzzles I glitched through by leaving and reentering from a different angle. Though apparently you get a butterfly for not doing that, which means this is both anticipated and unnecessary. And then, when and if you get to the point where you want to be fiddling with solutions, I wished that you had the SSR option of going back to any previous point, because there were some times that I hit the R key, decided that maybe I should’ve left that puzzle solved, but couldn’t get it back. (But also, that stage of the game was just too agoraphobic or me.)

    Then there’s the Corrypt/Promesst style where you can undo one screen at a time and it left me completely lost as to where I was after undoing, though those are all one interdependent puzzle anyway.

    With Cosmic Express it’s a bit strange because you can revisit puzzles any time but when you do, there’s your solution, right there waiting to be played. Also did you notice what the puzzle map in Sokobond is? (I don’t think I would’ve without reading it in a review.)

  2. Hello Matt! This actually isn’t supposed to be a level select post – I’ve had it my on radar since Ouroboros was conceived – but inevitably retrying puzzles means talking about level selects! And when I was writing I could hear you getting excited already.

    I didn’t realise it was actually possible to go back to an earlier level on SSR. Holy moly. I think my article still feels accurate even after hearing that 🙂

    A Good Snowman: I didn’t want to get too bogged down with the necessity of the challenge game – and I had carefully rewritten a line about how you’d never need to go back to a puzzle anyway because, heh, you do. But I think it’s a still a lovely design choice even though it has a particular purpose.

    Plus Cosmic Express is the king of “you need to replay the level” and so there is an ulterior motive to the galactic map there too. I guess if I had been more savvy while writing the piece I would’ve made clear these designs have an ulterior motive but there’s a net benefit.

    I’m afraid I never finished Sokobond so I have no idea what the map is meant to be…!

  3. matt w:

    The save system in SSR is not an ideal way to play a level again. And it has other issues: Creating multiple saves if you undo a winning move and redo it several times in a row, and not saving when you unlock a new area unless you solve a puzzle.

    >there were some times that I hit the R key, decided that maybe I should’ve left that puzzle solved, but couldn’t get it back.
    You can undo a restart, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

  4. Ori – I love that you can undo a restart. Recognises that restarting can be a devastating mistake.

    Alan – Ahhhhh I see it! I’m not sure I would have noticed had I not been told “something is there” but the shape is unmistakable. Nice.

  5. Ori: Yes, the save system in SSR is really clunky for replaying levels. This is part of why I think Joel’s article is still accurate. Also there are some ulterior motives for at least part of the scheme. (For instance, you need the pink blocks to disappear so you can roll the interworld sausage into place, and there’s at least one place where the only entrance to a level involves walking through the trigger for a different level, so you have to do them in sequence; though I’m not sure there was a huge thematic importance to that.) And of course it’s pretty satisfying to wipe the Great Tower off the map completely.

    About the R, though, I was talking about Good Snowman… I don’t think you can undo restarts in Good Snowman but maybe I’m wrong? No wait, I am. I must have been thinking of something else, probably that there were places where I restarted two different puzzles, solved the second, and wished I had the solution to the first back. Maybe I’m also just thinking of there only being one save slot.

    Seems like there must be some other explore-with-puzzles games…. Knytt Underground (I know, I know) is a bit like that with a fair number of self-contained challenges joined by exploratory areas. Isn’t Boss Hogg (er, Full Bore I think) kind of like that as well? Though maybe there the overworld isn’t as atmospheric as in The Witness and Snowman.

  6. Wow, this is such a great point. The fact that all of the puzzles have a location makes such a huge difference in being able to remember them individually and find a specific puzzle again. The island is literally a memory palace.

    And I think it also contributes to thinking about the puzzles in groups and sequences that is key to the feeling that some of the puzzle sequences are like a conversation with Blow where he is even able to tell jokes (more than one puzzle in the Witness made me laugh out loud).

    And of course it all contributes to backtracking and revisiting places on the island that is crucial for the secret real game mechanic that is the actual point of The Witness. Ah, it’s so good. Easily my favorite video game ever.

  7. As you already know Urthman, I posted part of your comment on Twitter, because it was amazing. I was so jealous of you using the phrase “memory palace” to describe The Witness in this way!

    I completely agree in the sense that the arrangement and space of the island is absolutely crucial to your understanding of it – the idea of it replacing a level select is merely the thin end of the wedge. I think I found the challenge the most comedic element of The Witness (which is why that section is very playful in the film – that’s how it feels to me), but then I usually enjoy it when puzzle designers dick around with you a little – that’s part of the designer/player banter.

    Oh boy, I still love The Witness. I hope to revisit it when I persuade my wife to play through it. She started, but it’s difficult for her to maintain gaming momentum in these busy parenting days. She can’t watch The Unbearable Now until she’s done so…

  8. Thanks for this. It’s encouraged me to go back and play through The Witness. I started, then didn’t see “the point” of it. I’d downloaded a demo of The Talos Project at the time, too, and the narrative there was a lot tighter and introduced earlier, so I thought The Witness was just a low-rent competitor (in spite of knowing how much effort Blow put into Braid).

  9. Hi Nathianel! I love both The Witness and The Talos Principle and I think I’d find it difficult to compare them. If someone asked me to decide which is better, I’m not sure I could answer. Talos is much more muscular around narrative (and Gehenna is even better) but The Witness invests depth outside of the puzzles. Neither really truly clicks in terms of narratively justifying the puzzles but nothing is perfect.

    I hope you have some good times with The Witness. If you don’t, that’s fine too. There are problems which definitely catch out some players, as this year’s playthrough with my family highlighted.

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