The following post will be an incredibly tedious and nuanced comparison between the puzzle game Filament and a previous puzzle game that obviously influenced it…The Witness.
I am so sorry. If you have not played The Witness, you can exit out entirely, as many of the discussions require not just an understanding of the basic requirements to play, but also the concepts of the different puzzles that may spoil the joy of discovery the game provides.
So Filament is a three-dimensional answer to line puzzles that The Witness was for two-dimensions. In the game you make an electrical line from the starting point to an exit door, but along the way you have to wrap your wire around pylons scattered in the space. As you progress through the game, there are multiple new twists to this formula. In one, you must touch the white pylons but avoid the dark ones, as it can short-circuit the avatar’s wire. In another, you must wrap the wire around colored pylons in pairs, and you must do so before moving on to another color. In yet another, there are pylons that charge gates, and you must go through the gates while also avoiding the pylons powering them.
Like I said, this conversation will be tedious.
Long story short, the game has a basic task: go from start to finish. The puzzle game simply roughens the passage by introducing rules and hoping you will cognitively circumvent those in order to progress.
The Witness was much the same way, just replace rooms with panels. The wires with lines.
At first glance, the time spent here laboring dimensions may seem trivial, but I assure you that the difference in dimensions is everything.
In The Witness, one of the key problems in having two-dimensions is, like the snake games on original Nokia cell phones, you run the risk in any puzzle of cutting yourself off from the exit. The same sort of holds true for Filament, but in the latter, the three-dimensional space allows you to soften this experience by what my wife and I have coined “doubling back.”
Above is a good example. There are puzzles where the rule is you must take your wire and wrap around a pylon a certain number of times before it lights up. And each pylon indicates how many times with itemized sections the number of wraps you need. The top middle pillar in this image has been wrapped around twice, because the player was able to “double back” by wrapping around the top left pillar.
This sort of tactic was unheard of in The Witness and this is all because of a change in dimensions.
This one difference really fucks with your head.
The reason Filament fucks with your head more than The Witness is because the added dimension adds to the available amount of choices with any given initial choice.
Above is a line puzzle from The Witness. The larger circle on the left is where the player starts. At the beginning, he or she can either go up or they can go down. Once they have made that choice, they cannot return with their line in quite the same way. Granted, once they have made that first choice, there are a series of more choices in the future, but it is nowhere near the amount of choices in a Filament puzzle. Because now that puzzle has been cubed rather than squared.
Similar in math, raising two to the third power (giving us eight) is much larger of a number than simply squaring two (giving us four).
This basic insight actually helps us to understand Filament‘s successes and flaws.
In The Witness, I can think of a handful of occasions where my wife and I were stumped on certain puzzles. They were intense, stimulating, frustrating, and tested the limits of our partnership.
In Filament, we have found that the majority of puzzles are similar to those handful of choices.
This is because the choices proliferate in such a huge number that the game might be less cognitive and more intuitive. This puzzle above has several starts. Do you want to wrap the pillar at the top? Or maybe you want to go straight and hug the L shaped wall in the middle? Or you want to do what this person did and grab the dead pillar at the bottom? Maybe you do not want to grab the dead pillar and instead you want to just beeline it to the first pylon on the right?
That’s just the start of the puzzle.
From there, what’s next? Maybe you wrap the dead pillar and “double back” to the top pylon? Can you do that without blocking your exit? If you wrap from the right…no, because you curl in rather than out, and you cannot approach the rest of the puzzle.
But, if you were to wrap the top pillar from the left, well the rest of the puzzle remains open, and you can wrap around the L shaped wall like we’re starting the puzzle from the beginning again.
Even the way in which you wrap is an itemized choice in this game.
The Witness has over 500 puzzles, while Filament only has something like 300. To understand why means coming to terms with the density of puzzles in Filament rather than The Witness. In Filament, gaining understanding of the concepts is easy, much easier than The Witness. But performing those concepts is maddening.
I am curious to see how older people play this game compared to younger ones. The game relies on a more fluid intelligence, a more episodic learning curve. There are simply too many choices to account for to really “brute force” a puzzle, meaning that you take each and every choice and go step by step until you get the one you want. And even if you understand the concept, that is no indication that you can solve a puzzle in front of you, unlike The Witness where your experience with the new knowledge allows you to accurately predict outcomes in a way that lets you solve puzzles while fully articulating it into language.
There are puzzles in Filament that I have solved and I have absolutely no idea what I was supposed to learn from it. I simply guessed and guessed until a solution arrived.
For this reason, I will conclude that The Witness is more fun playing with a partner, while Filament is better played alone.
The reason is this: The Witness relies more on your crystallized intelligence, where you discuss the concepts with your partner as you play. Filament, with its huge array of choices, is much more interested in intuition, muscle memory, fluid intelligence, and guess and check. And that can be maddening for a partner who has to watch for hours on end someone else playing and not checking what you would check.
This has nothing to do with the intelligence scale of you and your partner. This is not a critique of brains. This is a component of Filament’s design. In fact, compared to The Witness which requires mind exploding concentration, Filament is more like Go with its approach to the millions of choices, and this permutation means its great to simply sit back, play an audiobook or podcast, and feel your way through the game.
The purpose of this series from the outset was to talk about high quality cooperative experiences. Whether that came from explicitly tailored games like Deep Rock Galactic, or discretely enjoyable puzzles like The Witness, the key factor is in the way multiple people approach an interactive experience, and their joy in the outcome.
Because of that, I would say that The Witness is a better cooperative experience. The multiple puzzle tutorials for each concept, the limiting of choices, the simplicity of the puzzles, combined with more detective work discovering the concepts, makes it a far more rewarding experience for understanding a friend or partner’s brain more.
I don’t want to confuse anybody here: Filament is one of the best puzzle games I have ever experienced. It takes concepts that seem simple, and layers them so acutely as to make me feel stupid in the greatest way possible. Many of the puzzles actually seem giving, in the sense that I think several had multiple ways to complete them.
But I also think that the game is a testament to the self. We all make choices in life, and these choices are in a sea of other ones, and because we cannot see time in its totality, we have no idea whether these choices turn out to be “good” ones or what even the concept of “good” means in a world where honorable people and malicious people both die at some point. Where many of the benefits successful people have been given is just as much good luck as the suffering of poor people is bad luck. And sometimes we make choices because our biology makes them for us. Sometimes we make choices because an advertisement knows our personality better than we do, because of what we click on.
The concept of decisions has been relegated to artistic works, particularly literature, where we see it as a space where truth can take place. But Filament addresses the concept of choice in a philosophical bent, where we can hit the fast forward button on guess and check and realize that decision making, and learning, are actually quite messy. Discussing Filament seems beside the point, but feeling Filament is on par. “Stop talking about the choices,” it wants to say, “and just make them.”
If you do decide to play Filament, bravo. First of all I commend you for torturing yourself.
But if you decide to play cooperatively, I would encourage you to create a vocabulary alongside the game. You must have names for concepts and strategies that can keep up with the guess and check structure of the game’s design. “Doubling back” is one, “wrap left” and “wrap right” are others. If you cannot communicate, there is little hope.
And in that way, maybe I was wrong. Because isn’t that the truth of all endeavors taken in a society? If you cannot communicate, there is little hope.