This is the third part of the Taiji Quartet. The first two parts were Soar and Chasing the Witness.

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.

Both solutions are valid

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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8 thoughts on “Wild Geese

  1. ‘They’re so easy they could conceivably turn up in a first-person shooter as the mid-game “puzzley bit”.’

    Ah, bro, even FPS players don’t deserve this kind of violence!

    ‘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.’

    Hmm. A lot of logic puzzles resolve into this state, right? Your sudokus, picrosses, slitherlinks and what have you. First you have to appreciate the hard rules and their interactions. Then you have to deduce some more subtle but essential implications of the ruleset that allow progress towards a more obscured solution. Once you’ve filled out your toolkit, it’s mostly about algorithmically tackling every future puzzle in a nice predictable flow (although with the occasional snaggle to keep things interesting/frustrating).

    This maps to a wider pattern of playing games, with learning/mastery and exploitation/relaxation phases. Even less celebratedly cerebral genres like action games. And the exploration/exploitation dynamic goes even further into worldly interaction. Sorry, you’ve probably realised by now, but this line of thought isn’t going anywhere.

    ‘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.’

    I guess this is one of the higher-order pitfalls the game designer has to be wary of – when parts of the design come into conflict with one another, even if they’re working on their own individual terms. Gestures lazily at the covert action rule

  2. CA

    I was umming and ahhring about this bit – about the rule being an algorithm and implying that’s bad somehow. I was worried about going down a rabbit hole of “well, what I mean is” and decided to leave it at “it’s more of an algorithm”. But everytime I think I’m out–

    There’s nothing wrong with an algorithm puzzle in principle because we’ve all played Minesweeper, amirite? But this feels very anti-Taiji. A standard Taiji logic puzzle is finding a solution that meets logical constraints and that’s not typically algorithmic (we have *some* leeway here but it’s of the level of “what is algorithm?”). The other type of Taiji puzzle is solving based on the environment. The sculptures are neither: they are Minesweeper with a potential for multiple/indeterminate solutions. They just feel really off.

    On that small aside about the FPS midgame. I originally said “easy enough for a newborn kitten to solve” but it was just too lethargic a description. Then I came up with the alternative which threw shade on the “smart bits” of FPS games and OMFG I cackled. Maybe I should write an article on what passes for puzzles in FPS games.

    Covert action: I think it is easy to get into trouble making too many assumptions about what VanDevander intended. IIRC he acknowledged to me directly that the sculpture stuff was added late but didn’t really come together. And then I said “look they obviously put a Witness symbol here” and apparently that’s bullshit 🙂

  3. I think we generally assume that if a puzzle is rule-based, the solution is flexible, as long as it fits the rules. But if a puzzle is clue-based, there’s a single solution to it.

    So this feels like an awkward hybrid. Why is the middle square even selectable if either solution is fine?

  4. For me, the sculpture puzzles gave no real trouble. I think the first dark-square negative-space sculpture primed me to understand that absent blocks in the sculpture had to be set to constrast with their neighbors. So, when the first three-state sculpture arrived, I solved it without even noticing the clue in the environment. (When I did notice it later, I just chalked it up to being a “fallback” clue, a hint to avoid having people get stuck in the tutorial. This fact may have contributed to the fact that I failed to find the clue to enter the final cave at the beginning, and had to look up a hint.)

  5. @Zara That rule vs clue thing maybe a better explanation for why it feels so awkward than anything I’ve written above. Hmm. Awkward.

    @Brian It’s interesting that even though you figured out the sculpture rule, the puzzle design still caught you out! I admit I also had to walkthrough it. I knew there was something “down there” but just couldn’t figure out what I was missing.

  6. The block-sculptures between the mansion and the diamond zone felt like they were set up to teach me the rule/algorithm. “Aha, I found the tutorial finally,” I thought, and messed with them for a while, until I thought I found a consistent rule to explain their behavior, which turned out to be correct. It’s possible I was just lucky, that my brain naturally slipped into the same pathways as the developer’s?

  7. @Joel It might be worth noting that when playing The Witness, I also failed to find the key to entering the underground area. I was determined to finish the game without help, but after days of tracing cables and staring at unopenable doors with nothing to show for it, I swallowed my pride and got external assistance. I feel like there’s a pattern here, but I don’t quite know of what.

  8. @Stephen M I’m pretty sure that the whole sequence worked for some players. I only wrote about this as I discovered that quite a few players had contracted a nasty case of sculpture-confusion – I wasn’t the only one! This Steam thread for example.

    @Brian I just mistyped your name as Brain but don’t worry, I corrected it quickly. I can’t remember the incident clearly but I’m sure I ended up with an accidental walkthrough at the end of The Witness for that. Note to self, don’t go looking in comments and videos until you’ve finished everything you set out to achieve 🙁

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