Thoughts on Taiji

Posted: gamedev

As a big fan of The Witness I'm always on the lookout for games that scratch a similar itch. Unfortunately that list is fairly short; common recommendations include games of direct inspiration (Cyan's Myst), games with puzzle design expertise (Stephen's Sausage Roll), games with meta-philosophical commentary (The Talos Principle), among others. Although these games are great in their own way (and often equally abstract or mysterious) they ultimately don't play much at all like The Witness.

The element that's lacking in these other games is the special sauce that makes the puzzles in The Witness so satisfying: the gradual reveal of a complex puzzle language that's explained only by the player's own tinkering and theory crafting. There's no direct tutorialization in The Witness, at least not in the form of expository text. The tutorial is the game itself, every puzzle a Rosetta Stone for some mechanic or interaction that is remixed, combined, or built upon in future puzzles.

While this quality is present in the games I mentioned previously (as it's a necessary quality for a great puzzle game), it differs in The Witness because the entire game is built around it. The Witness understands its method of teaching and weaponizes it in its puzzle design, leading to puzzles layered in mechanics that understand their history. It's a language filled with idioms and slang whose purpose is to bring epiphany.

Taiji is about as close to The Witness as a game can get without actually being The Witness. This similarity is both good and bad. On one hand, Taiji evokes the same sense of wonderful epiphany that comes from discovering its secrets. On the other, it is impossible to discuss without comparing it to a game that is broader both in scope and team size.

This leads me to mixed feelings about Taiji. Although it clearly understands what makes The Witness great and manages to evoke a similar experience while establishing its own language, I found many of its puzzles messy and obscured by its presentation.

This problem is mostly apparent in areas with environmental queues, like The Ruins or The Graveyard. Many times I solved a puzzle thinking I understood the designer's intent, feeling good about my progress. Then I'd hit a wall on a later puzzle where some concept I had missed re-emerges. Finding the solution seems so far outside my assumptions that I lack a language for experimentation. Instead, I frustrate myself by floundering around with oddball ideas. It's only after replaying earlier puzzles in the sequence that I recognize I had wrongly interpreted some environmental cue or missed a subtle detail that drastically changes the intended progression. I'm deprived of an "Aha!" moment, feeling more like I was blinded by extraneous details than properly working through a difficult problem.

That's not to say all of the puzzles in the game have this issue, it just happened to be most present in some of the first areas I ventured into. I found the game at its best when the puzzles were constrained to the interactive grid, no environmental details needed. I most enjoyed solving The Mine, The Shrine, and The Mill for this reason. The areas of The Ruins, The Graveyard, and The Gallery (easily my least favorite area) feel weaker due to the game's perspective and composition of environmental details. My issues with instruction are less apparent when all of the details are constrained to a well-purposed grid.

In a similar vein, my favorite puzzles were the ones in the canonical bad ending of the game, The Black. Without spoiling too much, these puzzles flip the interactive elements of the grid and completely change the way in which the player approaches a solution. The language is the same but the tools are inverted, the way you solve it re-applies everything you've learned in an unforeseen way. It's great!

Contrast this with The White, a series of environmental puzzles that I skipped in favor of looking up the solutions on the internet. Perhaps this last section would have had a greater impact if I hadn't already played through The Witness.

That said, Taiji is a worthy game in its own right, even if it doesn't live up to the quality of puzzle design in its inspiration, The Witness. Its scope and price-point are perfection for those looking for a solid puzzle game.

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