The first puzzle type you encounter in Taiji (Matthew VanDevander, 2022), those zebra block sculptures, are easy.
They’re so easy they could conceivably turn up in a first-person shooter as the mid-game “puzzley bit”. But, later, something seems to go horribly wrong sending many players to their nearest walkthrough merchant.
So let’s talk about that. Spoilers for the sculptures and some secrets are contained in the words below! You have been warned.
First, it’s like, okay! Just copy the sculpture’s pattern into the panel!
Then it’s like, let’s step things up, babe. Have some negative space. But we got this! Thanks for the easy ride, Taiji.
And then – wait, hang on. These sculptures have white blocks, black blocks and voids? What’s that about? Aha! Okay, I see the solution in the environment!
After two sculptures with environment-based solutions, there are four sculptures which solve panel puzzles through a process of elimination.
Then, we’re finally out of the tutorial funnel. The player may not see another sculpture for a while but the first one they’re likely to encounter is this one outside the gallery building.
Instinct leads players to seek an “environmental clue” that will solve the sculpture puzzle. They search and search… but, gee, there’s nothing obvious lying around. The smart player will realise that they’re obviously missing some key information, so they go off and solve other puzzles and expect-hope that will magic up the information they need.
But that magic never manifests. Some players brute force the puzzles – and those solutions provide no insight.
What’s going on?
So, what I didn’t know when dealing with these sculptures is that they actually conform to a rule. After learning this surprising tidbit, I was able to reverse-engineer this rule from the early sculpture puzzles. Empty spaces will take the non-dominant colour of their neighbours; so if an empty space is surrounded by three or four white blocks, the empty space will be black. You start with spaces that can be determined and then keep filling in the empty spaces using the results.
Let me ask you this question: why would you think there’s a rule? The tutorial ushers you towards a natural deduction that missing information in the sculptures are filled in via environmental clues. If Taiji wanted you to appreciate the rule, then perhaps the tutorial should have ended with sculptures focused on that rule. But I think the damage would have been done already and many players would still have been unable to continue without help.
Plus the sculpture “rule” is more of an algorithm, a process of solving: fill in the solvable empty spaces and repeat until the entire panel has been filled. Worse still, there are non-solvable cells – for example, the centre of the gallery sculpture. Here, either white or black will work. This has always seemed to me like a really awkward rule due to the possibility it can fail to resolve.
Alright, so this now suggests a different question. Why are the environmental clues there at all? Is it because the sculpture puzzles are too difficult? No. The clues are there because Taiji is telling another story at the same time.
Almost every sculpture puzzle in the tutorial funnel is associated with an environmental clue, even the simple ones. But for one of the sculptures, the associated clue does not match and provides an alternate solution for the puzzle. This is, of course, the very first sculpture. By using the alternate solution, you can access the cave underneath the starting point.
From the very beginning, I knew there must be some way of making this descent, but the wild goose sculpture chase completely distracted me from the environmental clues at the bottom of the map.
This is one of the few parts of Taiji that feels like a mess. There’s a secret rule you have to figure out which is obscured by a very obvious rule which also hides a secret that you have to figure out. I believe this is done to mask the “obvious secret solution” by distracting the player from the real purpose of the environmental clues, but it’s a bit too successful.
It is not impossible to load up a puzzle with multiple rules or meanings – we’ve seen this elsewhere, like platforms that are controlled through multiple puzzle solutions.
It’s almost like you’re meant to read the tutorial funnel in two different directions. Travel upwards and learn the void-filling rule which you apply out there in the real world. If the player travels downwards, however, they can track the environmental clues and spot the one puzzle that doesn’t fit the pattern – leading to a brilliant revelation!
It’s a shame this doesn’t quite come together but, hey, not even The Witness was perfect.
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