That Puzzle Guy's Blog "You are a sadistic little twerp" -- some guy on the Internet



Some time ago, on Wired's Decode blog, I wrote about an immersive and, frankly, very weird alternate reality game in San Francisco called Games of Nonchalance. The game drew to a close more than two years ago, but remains etched on the memories of those who experienced it. Adding to the mystique of this unique creation is The Institute, a new film by Spencer McCall. I was lucky enough to take in this documentary recently at a small screening in the city.

The movie weaves interviews with player-shot footage to paint a picture of each phase of the Games of Nonchalance. The places and situations and characters, as depicted, largely retain the mystery that surrounded them when the game was active; thus, the film blurs the line between fact and fiction just as a good ARG does. Particularly intriguing are those interviews, which feature designers, devoted participants, and others. Certainly, we get insightful statements from game masters Jeff Hull, Sara Thacher, and Uriah Findley, as well as from several people who seem genuine in their immersion in the experience. However, reality isn't quite so clear in a few other cases. A man named Kelvin Williams talks about going so far down the rabbit hole that he broke into a house and became stuck in the labyrinthine basement, where he remained until he was found and rescued by other players. Some cursory research indicates that Williams is a character, but his story is presented as matter-of-factly as the others. Even weirder are the interviews with "Organeil," who took the experience extremely seriously, and, he claims, was so betrayed by it that he became a shut-in.

It's moments like that in the film that really poke at the viewer's mind. The Games of Nonchalance may have been rooted in fantasy, but the effects they could have, and did have, on many players are very real. For some it was a mere diversion, but for others it was much more. Knowing about the latter might make the former group wonder: Was it really just a game?

Ultimately, The Institute may be best appreciated by those who played and are looking to revisit that small, strange chapter in their lives. It is, though, a well-crafted and engaging movie, and I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in a good story that spills into the real world. Screenings are very limited right now, but wider distribution, including through Netflix, should be coming soon, so look out for it. If you pay attention, you might even catch a bread crumb hinting at the designers' next project...


Fixing the Mystery Hunt

At long last, my traditionally late MIT Mystery Hunt wrap-up is here. Continue after the jump for triumphs, failures, and frustrations. Sadly, there were far more of the latter this year, and I wasn't alone.


Screen shots

I've played several games on my Android device lately. Let's have a look at them after the jump!


Puzzlers at sea

As promised, here is my recap of the Hunt for Black Bart's Hidden Hoard, a puzzle hunt that is part of the ongoing Come Out and Play festival in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the hunt failed to deliver, and I can't bring you satisfactory recaps of the puzzles. Read on for an explanation of why.


Blob blurbs

Been a while since I've talked about a video game on this here blog. This is partly due to my relatively infrequent gaming (which means I wouldn't be discussing new games) and partly due to the fact that I have many friends in the video gaming industry and thus feel hopelessly unqualified to offer my own pedestrian opinions. But I finished A Boy And His Blob on the Wii last week, so what the hell.

In this game, you're, well, a boy. You navigate four worlds, trying to rid them of a dark force. Joining you is, er, a blob, which can eat a variety of beans you offer it. Each type of bean transforms the blob into a different useful item, such as a trampoline, an anvil, a parachute, and lots more. Your goal is simply to navigate each level, making your way past obstacles and enemies through creative use of whatever capabilities you have at your disposal for that level. (It's never explained how exactly you've been deprived of most of the beans for each level, nor how you're always so fortunate to have the subset you need to clear the level, but I'm overthinking things here.) The optional replay-value feature is each level's three hidden treasure chests, which your blob can swallow if you get it close enough. Collecting all three chests opens up a bonus level; clearing that lets you see art drafts and other behind-the-scenes stuff.

So yes, it's a puzzle game. There are many things that can kill you if you touch them, but, aside from each world's boss, most of the enemies just hang out and do very little that could be construed as an active attack. Plus, death on a regular level will deposit you right back at the start of that puzzle. (Bonus levels require a successful run from beginning to end, but are shorter.) Thus, you can usually try your ideas with relative impunity.

For the most part, I found the puzzles pretty easy. There were too many with signs depicting the ability needed for that puzzle. I could understand one such sign for every new ability as a sort of tutorial, but they appeared more often than that. That said, progressing was still satisfying, and I could at least appreciate the cleverness behind the problem. Plus, the boss fights were very engaging, requiring wits as well as a big additional dose of skill. Strangely, I found the second world's boss the hardest; I felt I got a little lucky when I finally defeated it.

Without question, the most annoying part of A Boy And His Blob is when the boy has to wait for the blob. After using the blob to move on, you'll need to call it back to your side for the next puzzle. Sometimes, calling for it once is sufficient, but very often, you'll need to beckon it three times in succession to make it transform into a landscape-ignoring balloon so it can float back to you... slowly. (For some reason, the balloon bean is always in your inventory, even though there's only one occasion when you actually have to throw it.) The wait is maddening when you have to do it so often. Also, there are some places where you'll throw a bean somewhere you can't reach, but your blob can due to its superior jumping ability. It isn't always so simple, though. Sometimes your blob will stubbornly attempt to reach the bean in the same way, from the same position, and it's quite fiddly to get it to start from the right spot. (I gave up on the last bonus level I unlocked for this very reason; it was no fun to mess with that, die on the next part, and have to do it all over again.) My last nit concerns the post-demise restarting points for the last two bosses. One requires you to run down a long hallway every time you attempt the battle, and the other has a short scene that always plays out before you regain control of your character. Since these baddies will likely best you at least a few times before you figure it all out, this is frustrating.

Overall, though, I'd recommend A Boy And His Blob. It may disappoint you if you're looking for a real brain-breaker, but I thought it was good fun all the same. Pleasing art complements the gameplay nicely as well. So, if you're still interested in games from a few years ago, check it out!


Regent developments

For a while now, I've been thinking that I'd do a guest post on a crossword-reviewing blog someday. Well, that day has finally come, as I take over the duties on Rex Parker's blog. What did I like? What did I not like? What strained attempts at humor do I make? Read and find out!

I also wanted to point out a fun month-long challenge over at The Griddle. David Millar has created a sudoku advent calendar. Check back every day before Christmas for new clues!


Divide and conquer

With my long-windedness out of the way, at least for now, I'd like to point out a new game from ThinkFun that the good people there were kind enough to send me. PathWords is a game that "combines the best of Tetris and Word Search." Presented with a grid of letters, you have to fill the grid completely with polyominoes so that each covers a word spelled from one end to the other. As with many ThinkFun games, the provided puzzles range from Easy to Expert.

As you might guess, I jumped right in with the Expert puzzles. I got through the ten challenges on that level in one sitting. While none of them took a particularly long time, there were points where I had difficulty and had to try various placements before succeeding. I was pleased that harder puzzles made use of decoy words instead of resorting to more obscure vocabulary.

The set of shapes chosen for the polyominoes is interesting; there's one triomino and one tetromino, both L-shaped, and the rest are pentominoes. The S-shaped pentomino with 180-degree symmetry is noticeably absent. Each puzzle specifies which tiles to use for it; I wonder if the difficulty could be ramped up in some cases by withholding this information, although this might open the door to multiple solutions. This, actually, is a general concern for designing harder puzzles by any means. Too many decoy words, for instance, might open up a possibility the designer missed.

I found myself wishing for more puzzles, which made me wonder if this game would someday be a phone app with lots more challenges. This might be a lot to ask, however, again because of the need to have uniquely solvable puzzles. With the ocean of possible words to use, computer assistance would be considerably more complex than it was for, say, the Rush Hour app.

For now, if you like playing around with shapes and/or words, I think you'll enjoy the hybrid that PathWords brings!


On criticism

I don't know about my fellow solvers and constructors, but I consider crossword puzzles to be a balance of art and science. I find a well-filled grid or an elegantly executed theme to be aesthetically pleasing, and on the other side of the coin, there are rules and principles that should be observed in making a good puzzle. The interpretation of those guidelines, though, can vary, and personal tastes vary even more. A puzzle's quality is often questioned, sometimes leading to agreement and other times to hot debate.

I've certainly jumped into the fray, as my #badpuzzles tweets will attest. Most of the time, these posts target mediocrities and flaws in the USA Today and Universal crosswords. I don't talk about everything I dislike about them because many of my objections are tedious and/or repetitive to bring up, such as cluing a transitive verb intransitively. (That's another topic, but ever since my eyes were opened to this mistake, I can't stop noticing it.) Other times, though, something will be worthy of a mini-rant. For example, a recent USA Today puzzle clued BANGUPJOB as "Good, as a job by a demolitionist?" Not only does this clue break the cardinal rule of echoing part of its answer, but it suggests an adjective while the solution is a noun. These mistakes simply wouldn't appear in crosswords I hold in higher esteem, and I can't resist calling them out.

By the way, if you haven't read my solving Q&A and are wondering why I waste my time on poor puzzles: It's because I can; I'm a pathological completist/weirdo. The subtitle of this blog ain't hay. Plus, there are at least a few seasoned puzzlemakers who would be excellent editors and don't have the opportunity. I'd like to be on record in wishing that a mediocre crossword with high exposure would be replaced by the acclaimed work of one of these people.

Though I believe that there are objective qualities that a good crossword should have, I also recognize that there is a gray area, that puzzle enjoyment is a subjective matter to a large extent. Work that is lauded by some might well be loathed by others; check out the comment thread on just about any Rex Parker blog post if you don't believe me. While I'm confident that most USA Today solvers would prefer the New York Times or Los Angeles Times puzzle given the opportunity to do it regularly, that doesn't change the fact that my viewpoint of these puzzles is a mere opinion.

It also should be noted that, taking into account the spectrum of crossword quality, the puzzles I criticize are much closer to the positive end than you might suspect. With rare exceptions (which, assuredly, are always met with #badpuzzles tweets), the USA Today and Universal puzzles obey the standard rules of crossword construction. They are symmetrical, every letter is part of two answers, there is a reasonable number of black squares, the word count is sufficiently low, and every entry has at least three letters. The clues are frequently flawed, but usually passable. The themes are similarly erratic, but do exist. Most, though certainly not all, of the answers are familiar. In other words, these puzzles are at least recognizable as examples of the conventional American crossword.

Sadly, that's more than I can say for the stuff out there that's laughably horrible, jaw-dropping hackery that I don't think even I could bring myself to tackle on a regular basis. Take this example of The Press Crossword, which my friend Alex Boisvert has been rightly savaging on his Twitter feed lately. In case the ridiculous black-square count and two-letter answers aren't enough to put you off, here's a taste of the awfulness Alex points out in this puzzle:

  • Clues include "Alicante's 7th largest city", "Squash bug genus", and "Longest river in Ayrshire". I'm all for learning new things from puzzles, but they should be at least slightly interesting.
  • Abbreviations are clued simply by their meanings, such as "Kilometers per hour" for KPH. And apparently SLD is a short form for "Sealed". When's the last time you saw that? That's what I thought.
  • I've saved the worst for last: "Given with gold & muhr" = FRANKENCENSE. I don't even know where to start.

Again, disliking puzzles is a matter of taste, but I think we can agree that misspelling both an answer and its clue is pretty terrible. I find myself wondering about the motive of the puzzlemakers who turn out this dreck. My suspicion and my hope is that they don't care about the quality; they're just trying to fill space. The lack of a byline on that puzzle seems to corroborate this idea. However, the other mediocre puzzles I've mentioned do have bylines, and I think those constructors do take pride in their work. Unfortunately, this has no bearing on my opinion of that work.

Nonetheless, this is an important point to keep in mind, as it's easy to go overboard with one's criticism, a lesson I've learned the hard way over the years. On the old incarnation of my blog, on at least one occasion I savaged a constructor's work as well as the constructor herself. My opinions about the puzzles were valid, I feel, but I regret how I treated the latter. If one doesn't like a puzzle and has reason to believe that the compiler tried to make a good one, there's simply no place for attacking that person's motives or work ethic. You'll notice that neither this entry nor my #badpuzzles tweets mention the names of the constructors or editors; this is intentional. However sarcastic or irritated my points sound, I want them to be about the puzzles and not their creators. Certainly, there are those whom I consistently dislike, and I make no apologies for that, but no good comes of pillorying them routinely. When I advocate installing a new crossword editor somewhere, it's because I believe they'd put out better puzzles than the current ones, and I want to see better puzzles. That's all.

As crossword solvers, we're spoiled for choice; there are a lot of puzzles out there vying for our solving hours. We can poke fun at the ones we don't like, fawn over the ones we love, and debate the quality of the rest, but in the end, the most important thing to remember is that this is a diversion. Enjoy the solving!


Digital delights

While I'm waiting for the second run of Shinteki Aquarius so I can post my recap, let's take a look at some computer and Android puzzle games I've enjoyed lately. Jump!


The results are in!

You may remember The Nation's contest to find their next cryptic crossword constructor following the passing of Frank W. Lewis. Well, the votes have been tallied, and the magazine's new puzzlemaker has been elected. Congratulations to the Bay Area's own Cosima K. Coinpott!

Wait, who the hell is Cosima K. Coinpott? Well, it's an anagram of (Joshua) Kosman + (Henri) Picciotto, whom National Puzzlers' League members know well as the cryptic editors for our monthly publication, The Enigma. My own ballot gave a slight edge to a different team, but as I said, I thought three of the puzzles were very good and I'm thrilled one of them won. Looking forward to seeing what these guys cook up for us in the coming months!

In other news, you may recall my mention of the Octo puzzle. Since then, some other puzzlers have caught wind of the puzzle, and their reviews are not exactly favorable. That post to which I linked is interesting; some fair points are raised. Quite simply, you're going to have to decide for yourself! And look at that; Logic Masters India is giving you the chance this weekend with an Octo contest. See what you think.

Tonight is my flight to Los Angeles for a good solid puzzlin' weekend. See you in SoCal!