This post is adapted from something I wrote in the Taiji Discord, but I thought it might be interesting to share it here. By the way, you should totally join our Discord if you haven’t already.
Discord user GingerBread asked: “is there a specific reason why you chose tile shading as a basis for your puzzles instead of line drawing for instance? Was it mainly not to be too close mechanically with the Witness, or did you have other motivations?”
The puzzle mechanic came about a bit differently, in that the game didn’t start as a Witness-like game.
Initially Taiji started out in April or May of 2015 as a sort of reimagining of a what a Zelda game could be. I was working with a very talented artist and musician named Martin Cohen and we were just calling the game ZG (for Zelda Game) back then. This was before Breath of the Wild was ever revealed in detail and I was sort of thinking about what a more modern Zelda game might be like: open world, non-linear, hard combat, and one of the things I thought would be good was to have some sort of core puzzle gameplay. (This obviously all ended up being done by Nintendo in their forthcoming game but anyway it was the headspace I was in at the time)
I had initially started work on combat design and some world design ideas, but I realized that I didn’t have any experience with combat design and was having a hard time making progress there at something interesting in a prototype form. So, I decided that I would switch focus and try to come up with something for the puzzles. I had many years of puzzle game design experience already so I thought it would be easier to make headway there.
I was not setting out to do something explicitly similar to the Witness, although I was inspired somewhat by Jonathan Blow talking The Witness having “core puzzle gameplay.” For example, a first person shooter has the core gameplay that you shoot enemies and dodge their attacks. This core gameplay gets repeated over and over across the game, but because of the depth and variation within that core gameplay the game doesn’t get boring just because you’re “doing the same thing over and over”.
Most Zelda games do not have core puzzle gameplay. Although they are not as bad about this as point and click adventure games, they do tend to have disconnected puzzle designs that at best maintain a theme across a single dungeon, and at worst are complete one-offs.
So I knew that I wanted to have some sort of core puzzle mechanic that the player would engage in across the whole game, but that would still have enough depth to stay interesting. The concept for the puzzles being about toggling things into some sort of pattern really just came to me, so unfortunately there’s not a cool story for why I thought of that. But the initial idea was a little different than what it eventually became and was more like the Mattel game Lights Out (a game which I had never heard of at the time). So you would toggle a tile and it would also toggle its neighbors.
So I made a little prototype of that and it seemed interesting. However because I imagined that the goal would always be to just light up the whole grid of tiles, I didn’t think there was tons of depth in that mechanic alone. Instead I imagined that the game would have variety through different input methods. So I also implemented some “snake” type puzzles where you would be forced to fill the grid by drawing out a path (this type of mechanic is still in the game in a few spots).
This still wasn’t that interesting, so I instead started thinking about how I might clue the player into different things to put on the grids. I came up with a couple puzzle sets that I thought were itneresting (both of which are in the game still in a somewhat evolved form), and I felt like I was really getting somewhere.
Unfortunately, I still had not figured out anything about the combat, and I also felt like the puzzle design would really take some time to flesh out (I didn’t imagine it would take 5 years). But because I knew I was onto something really interesting, I wanted to spend as much time as possible prototyping the gameplay before really committing to anything. So I suggested that Martin take a break from doing art and music concepts at least until I had developed this part of the gameplay further. (Ultimately I decided that I would pursue the project solo, though this in no way discounts Martin as an artist and musician, and I enjoyed working with him immensely. It had much more to do with my fear of relying on anyone else, but that’s a story for another time perhaps)
So I shelved the combat and focused on puzzle design for a while. I designed a set of puzzles that let the player just toggle things in a free form way with no particular constraints (this was just going to be another one of the interaction methods at this point). Suddenly it was nearing the end of 2015, I had a growing document full of puzzle ideas, and soon a game that I had been anticipating for nearly 7 years would be released.
That game was The Witness, and my hype level for the game was somewhere above what was reasonable for a jaded 26 year old man. I thought that the game might (just maybe) turn out better than Braid.
I just happened to be laid off of work when The Witness released and I played it all day every day for a week until I had seen everything it had to offer me. I was blown away. Not only did I find it better than Braid. Not only was it the best game I had ever played. I thought perhaps it was the best puzzle game possible.
I was elated, but I was also devastated. Much to my surprise, almost all of those exciting gameplay ideas in that document I mentioned earlier were also in The Witness in stunning fully developed forms that were much better than anything I could have done.
…what was I going to do now…?
I felt for a time like there might be no point in what I was making. It felt both too similar and and also lesser. I recall an email chat I had with Brian Moriarty around this time where he commiserated with my feelings of burgeoning irrelevance, and opined that Jon had “made Salieris of us all”. (Don’t know who Salieri is? Feel free to google it, but honestly that’s kind of the point)
However, I picked myself up off the ground and resolved to continue forward. Although The Witness had well mapped the territory ahead, I felt I could use it as a guidebook on what types of things would work in this kind of game and when there was overlap between the ideas, look for different forms of those ideas to the form they took in The Witness. I set out to make Taiji into a game that was both similar to, and different from, The Witness.
If The Witness was a telescope with which one could peer out at the universe and see certain ideas, I began to see Taiji as a different telescope with a different vantage point with which to look at some similar ideas. There was value in the different perspective even if sometimes the subjects were similar
With that said, one of the big things I chose to copy from The Witness was the symbols on the puzzles that you slowly discover the meaning of through experimentation. This ended up forming the bulk of the gameplay depth of the game, and I have been relatively happy with the degree of overlap and separation between the two games puzzle ideas.
Eventually as the game developed further, I felt like the alternate puzzle interaction methods were the least interesting things in the game. Also because those puzzles were just about space filling with no symbols or environmental cues it was casting this doubt on all the other puzzles that “oh maybe I just fill it all in?”
So the “lights out” type puzzles and the space filling stuff in general was cut from the game. And I also gave up on combat. (The Witness + Combat could still be interesting, but Taiji is not it) So the final game now focuses on puzzles where you can freely toggle tiles, and there are a few snake type puzzles that use a different interaction method where you’re walking on the puzzle in order to toggle the tiles.
I don’t know if that answers the question about how I chose tile shading, but hopefully it was a fun story!
P.S. The Mill area is done now, I did a video devlog about this, and here’s a screenshot: