This year has already seen one of the most highly-anticipated puzzle games come out to massive acclaim with The Witness. Jonathan Blow’s isolated island of conundrums is a game that is structured very differently from a lot of puzzle games that come out. Most notably is its implementation of an open-world structure that makes it have to re-think a lot of typical puzzle game standards.
I’ve also been playing a game called Monumental, by a smaller developer, Whipstitch Games. While The Witness sticks with a central mechanic for its puzzles, Monumental isn’t afraid to throw a bunch of different types of puzzles at the player. The design philosophies behind these games are so different yet cross paths on multiple occasions, which makes them worth comparing and analyzing on a deeper level.
Let’s begin with me saying that I have not finished either game; I am pretty far into The Witness, but not particularly far into Monumental. This being said, I feel like I have seen enough in both games to understand what I do and do not like. More importantly, the games are clever enough to set up a lot of the atmosphere and how the game will unfold in their first moments.
Let’s take the more traditional approach, which Monumental is not shy in leaning heavily into. The game opens with you reading a written log welcoming you to a research station on a seemingly deserted planet. There is no one on the station, but they were there at some point. I know this because the game has filled the entire station with diary entries from the main crew members.
These diary entries also serve as a way of solving puzzles. Often clues are within these logs, making both the story and puzzle solutions dependent on you scavenging the entire station. The only things that can really be touched in Monumental are key pads and these written logs. The environment becomes stale and left behind by the game, despite it being something that holds so many solutions.
I found myself feeling like the ship itself was a puzzle in how it was designed because almost nothing in its architecture made sense. In order to unlock the research lab, you have to go to the commons area, then downstairs and input all five crew members’ codes — just to unlock the control room which has a large panel that unlocks the research lab.
Environment matters in an open-world puzzle game; otherwise, why is it open-world? The Witness has the solutions to puzzles embedded in its environments, but in ways that make tons of sense. It even has audio logs, something which Monumental‘s diary entries become comparable to, but those never feel as organic as The Witness‘.
Hidden around the environment in places that are usually inhabited by an anomaly in the world — somewhere that makes you go “Hmmm…I wonder why this is here” — these audio logs flesh out a story in a way that befits the atmosphere of The Witness. I’m not going to spoil either of the games’ stories, but The Witness has reveals in it that make you think about your place in the world and why you might be on an island solving puzzles.
The other thing is that The Witness is truly open-world because it never forces you to go down one path in order to unlock another. Stuck on a puzzle? Just move onto another one and come back to it later. You’re constantly learning from the environment, so it is often better to explore than to keep melting your brain on a single set of puzzles. Often I came back to the game after a little bit of a break and figured out the puzzle like that. There is an idea that the puzzle is not hard, it just requires you to think about it in different ways. And other puzzles can help prepare you to do just that.
In Monumental, it doesn’t matter what puzzle you did before because it doesn’t have any bearing on the next puzzle. They are isolated and when they are trying to be their most clever, they feel more jarring and ridiculous. The first major puzzle I solved was one involving colours and trying to blend some colours with others to match a fixture on the wall that is a set of colours. There are multiple reasons why this is a terrible yet clever puzzle.
First of all, it is the solution to a puzzle which unlocks a crew member’s door. This is an issue because the solution to the puzzle can be found by any crew member, and yet it is specifically relegated to one member’s door. The other reason this is a terrible puzzle is because there isn’t any preparation for it, nor any follow-up to it. Everyone locks their doors with a different code, which can range from a mnemonic code to matching a melody found in a person’s room.
Tools are given to the player like a sound recorder that is used to record the melody, or a camera so players can take pictures of solutions/clues for puzzles, but they ultimately feel like random provisions. Why do I have a sound recorder? Why do I have a camera? No explanation is really given to explain these tools and their purpose, they just exist because the puzzle requires them to exist. But why does the puzzle exist in the way it does? To provide something clever and nothing more.
When I solved the colour puzzle, I felt like a genius. I also felt like I had wasted my time because it didn’t prepare me for anything. Even more basic puzzle games know that things need to amount to others. Picross follows one type of puzzle and just makes it harder. Sudoku is in a similar boat. Braid, as well. The Witness gives you symbols you don’t understand yet, but because it’s an open-world game you know to explore, and maybe you’ll find a solution.
The other factor important to note is that there is no indicator in Monumental about where to go next or what to look for to help solve the puzzle. It is so dependent on written diaries that when it doesn’t tell you what to do next, it’s confusing. The game knows it’s obtuse because it even has a built-in hint system that tells you exactly what you need to do next (for example: there is a melody in a room to record, go do so).
This should have been an indicator that the environment and puzzles are not well-defined because there is still a fail-safe if you can’t figure it out. The language of the puzzles are simply too varied to have a cohesive connection.
I don’t mean to beat Monumental into the ground, especially against something like The Witness, which may very well become a classic puzzle game in the vein of Myst. However, Monumental showcases a lot of the problems in puzzle design philosophies that should be accounted for, especially when trying to make a player want to continue through your world.
Jonathan Blow understood with The Witness that story isn’t important in a puzzle game. In fact, it should probably always be secondary. The point of a puzzle game is to have puzzles, and the reward in The Witness is a story as well as a sense of accomplishment. An overall understanding of The Witness‘ world is more rewarding than figuring out what obtuse puzzle was randomly placed in Monumental.
A copy of Monumental was provided by Whipstich Games and used for the purpose of this article