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