The Methodology Behind The Witness

Much has been said about The Witness’s ability to teach the player how to solve its puzzles. In designing the puzzles, Jonathan Blow worked from simple to complex, and while the game is arguably genius in how it teaches the player, the methodological ideas behind it were defined 70 years ago.

In school, most of us probably “learned” by memorizing things. Facts, people, dates, rules, formulas – these were all presented to us as “important” and we had to remember them for some type of test or exam. How many of those things do you still remember? Chances are, you forgot them once you finished the test. Not only did we not see the relevance or the skills being taught, they were mainly being taught by reading and lecturing. These are hardly effect learning methods for most people but we knew we needed to know this stuff for a test so we studied. By studied, it means we memorized and then, after the test, we didn’t need this information before. We got the grades, but did it really reflect what we learned?

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Someone tried to change that. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy to promote different styles of learning besides rote memorization. It has been through some slight variations over time but still provides an effective guide for teachers in effectively presenting material to their students.

By using the principles of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom, teachers try to add dimension and guidance in new subject matter. Rather than providing the information and hoping that the students will remember it, teachers can use the different verb groups to develop activities which should help enforce the subject matter in multiple ways. This should encourage a multi-faceted approach to teaching, where material is presented in many different ways to connect with as many different students as possible.

For teachers, Bloom’s Taxonomy is usually presented as a wheel. To use the wheel, you start at knowledge, pick a verb or two (this is what students will do) and a product (this is what the students will produce) and then design the lessons around that.

In teaching, we do not have to “hit” all six parts of the taxonomy, but we need to get around the wheel in chunks that build upon the foundation built in the previous chunk.

(For a more in-depth example, please see this table, taken from UNC Charlotte’s Center for Teaching and Learning)


So how does this apply to The Witness? The tutorial puzzles are all simple enough that, with some experimentation, we are able to solve them. In doing so, we remember the rules in solving them until we get to another puzzle that seems to go against what we have learned. But we use what we learn to solve the next one and then proceed.

From left to right, we see gradual increase in puzzle complexity, each variation building on the one that came before.

  • First, we are presented with a simple puzzle type with one rule that we can solve easily. From this point, we can recognize the puzzle panels and remember how to solve them (drawing a line)  – Knowledge
  • Second, we are presented with variations of the puzzle. We can explain how to solve them, even if we haven’t figured out the specifics for the puzzle. – Comprehension
  • Third, we can use what we have learned to solve other puzzles of the same or similar type. – Application
  • Fourth, we can analyze new puzzles and using the knowledge we have gained from previous ones (because they build on each other) we can learn the new rules. – Analysis
  • Fifth, we can use what we have learned to solve puzzles that combine different elements on the same panel. – Synthesis
  • Sixth, we learn to recognize the pattern to the world outside of the panels. – Evaluation

When the solutions are presented, we see same patterns require different solutions. In the final puzzle panel, we need to isolate the black squares instead of the the white ones.

The Witness cycles through these stages for each new type of puzzle we come across, building upon the foundation of puzzles that came before. In introducing new puzzle elements, The Witness will often end the tutorial sections with a puzzle that are designed to ensure that the player has understood the concept. In the example pictured above, the last panel’s endpoint is placed to make the puzzle seem much harder despite the dots having the same pattern. Instead of thinking of the puzzle as “contain the white dots”, it is solved by “containing” the black ones. It might not make much sense when I describe it, but the act of doing will hopefully make it clearer.

These types of quick review are known as CCQs, or Concept Checking Questions, in teaching. The purpose is to get the student to demonstrate that they have been learned what they were supposed to before going on to the next lesson. A good CCQ will push the student to provide an answer that enables the teacher to interpret whether the concepts taught in the lesson were grasped or not. Therefore, a teacher should not ask a student “Did you understand this?” because the student can just say “yes” and we can’t check that they actually do. The Witness accomplishes this by giving us a puzzle panel that is just a little bit off – as an example, the exit could be placed in a different spot in an otherwise identical puzzle – that can only be solved if the player actually learned what they were supposed to.

As a whole, they attempt to lead the player through understanding until they acquire enough knowledge to properly synthesize everything they have learned and apply them to the final puzzles deep within the mountain.

The infamous final puzzle is the culmination of all this knowledge and practice that came before. Under timed pressure, the player has to quickly complete 5 rudimentary puzzles, one of which they will have to memorize. Then, they will need to quickly deduce which of three sets of three puzzles have solutions  (the other 2 most likely aren’t). After that, they will need do complete the task again but also recall the layout of the puzzle they did at the beginning, lest they lose time. Finally, they will have to complete the hardest puzzles of all, where the grid has been wrapped around a column.

Just about everything you have done puzzle wise is necessary to either reach or solve that one final puzzle. The final stage, synthesis, I loosely prescribe to recognizing the panel puzzles in the natural world, with the ever so gentle push of the simple puzzle at the top of the mountain. We take what we have been taught and step outside the box so to speak and apply it to the rest of the game world.

Am I Dumb if I Didn’t Learn The Witness?

If you thought that The Witness’s puzzles were too hard and that the game did not teach you anything, you might this that this whole piece is trash. Maybe it is, but let’s consider Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Gardner proposed that people have seven distinct intelligences which dictate learning, memory, remembering, and understanding. These are visual-spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.

In a classroom, material and media are broadly categorized as visual, text, sound, motion, and realia. It may seem hard to cater to all different intelligences when teaching a subject, but through the different media, the hope is that teachers are able to convey information and foster thinking through all of them.

The Witness is a little hard to classify since it is a videogame. It is both visual but at the same time the panels and the world construct a certain faux-realia. Additionally, the panel puzzles appear to be all catering to a mathematical-logical intelligence, even the sound ones. The shadow panels and others which are dependent on viewing angles suggest a more kineasthetic learning intelligence, albeit virtual. The puzzles in The Witness then really only fit into two types – mathematical-logical(the panel puzzles) and visual-spatial (the black obelisk puzzles and shadow puzzles). This does not open the game up to many different intelligences.

Remember the wheel? There is one important variable that is missing from game – product. If the product of the teaching is the solution to the puzzles, then The Witness does not do enough to challenge us in creating a range of different products with our new-found knowledge.

Does it Matter How The Witness Teaches If It Isn’t Good at Teaching?

The teaching that happens here is almost overwhelmingly directed at specific learner intelligences, for better or worse, with a single abstract product. In short, the game teaches players one thing very well within a narrow scope. (This mostly applies to the mechanics and actual playing of the game. Taken from a broader perspective as a whole, the game is really a great lesson in meditation and perspective, but perhaps that is for another post.)

The problem with educational games, in my experience, is that they do not use the medium to the fullest – they barely even get a quarter of the way. In games, we have an opportunity to present material in diverse and interesting ways. Yet, educational games tend to be just normal videogames with an “educational” layer on top of them. Oregon Trail doesn’t teach players about Manifest Destiny or the push for the West. Instead, we learn that fording rivers is hard.

In the end, The Witness does follow a well-developed pedagogical methodology for teaching and challenging the player without any form of instruction. Hopefully, this can serve as an inspiration for some truly educational games which actually try to teach.


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