Jimmy Maher on Best Puzzles

Jimmy Maher writes The Digital Antiquarian, a blog chronicling the history of computer gaming with a special emphasis on text adventures and other narrative-oriented works. His work of interactive fiction The King of Shreds and Patches was co-winner of the 2009 XYZZY for Best Setting and is now available in versions for Kindle and Android as well as desktop. His book on the history of the Commodore Amiga, The Future Was Here, was published by the MIT Press in 2012.

In the beginning there were puzzles. When Adventure paralyzed university and corporate computer departments alike during 1977, its players were not marvelling at its literary wonders. No, they were wrestling with its puzzles: how to kill a dragon with their bare hands, how get across that chasm, how to map that maze. Nor were Will Crowther and Don Woods, Adventure‘s creators, what we might call “literary” sorts of people. Any literary qualities possessed by Adventure – and there are some, particularly in the earlier sections written by Crowther which evoke some of the wonder of caving – were accidental, tangential to the real purpose.

But soon people were starting to talk about interactive fiction as a whole new form of literary expression, and a new, schizophrenic interpretation of the medium with it. By the mid-1990s, Graham Nelson could memorably label interactive fiction “a crossword at war with a narrative.” It’s a description that seems almost to identify a fundamental flaw in the form. Can a medium so divided against itself really stand?

Actually, there need be no “war” between puzzle and narrative at all. Puzzles seem to me an all but intrinsic part of parser-based interactive fiction, with its almost absurdly granular take on decision-making and its obsession with the details of its physical world: i.e., “get lamp” and “go north” rather than “leave my wife” or “conquer a neighboring country.” Interactive fiction is better at the details of problem-solving than it is at sweeping narrative arcs, better at aping genre-bound procedurals than literary fiction. When authors try to apply the parser to the latter, all of the criticisms of the form voiced by Chris Crawford and others suddenly make a lot more sense. Works like Photopia and Rameses have always struck me as more interesting as experiments than as full-fledged artistic creations in their own right. I find myself looking for something to really do, to really engage with, when I play them. The idea that, say, Ramses demonstrates “the fundamental powerlessness of the title character through it very lack of interactivity” may be true enough, but it’s also a bit of a cop-out; any time an alleged message dovetails so neatly with what is easy and hard for a creator to do, be suspicious. As for Photopia, the old objection that it’s just a short story with occasional prompts mucking up the flow is a difficult one to adequately answer.

This might seem to leave us in a bad place, with a form that is fundamentally good only for making puzzle boxes. But it’s really not so bad, because puzzle boxes need not be so meaningless. As Nick Montfort has written in Twisty Little Passages and elsewhere, puzzles have been a part of great literature for eons. With the arrival of the Modernists and Postmodernists in the last century they have only become more prominent. Following the example of Joyce and Pynchon, interactive-fiction authors should embrace the puzzle, using it to feed the narrative and the message. A fine example of how this can work is this year’s winner of the Best Puzzles category, Coloratura by Lynnea Glasser.

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Coloratura is an inversion of science-fiction-horror stories like John W. Campbell’s classic “Who Goes There?” (better known today under its filmed title The Thing). An undersea research team has picked up an apparently extra-dimensional entity they don’t understand, placing themselves at extreme risk. This time, however, we play from the point of view of the entity – sort of a science-fiction version of a postcolonial novel. The most important aspect of the work, more important than the simple escape plot, is that of figuring out just what sort of a being we’re controlling, how we see and relate to the world, and how we can interact with it. Think about that for a moment: what else are we doing when we read a good novel but learning much the same things about the characters in it? Far from warring with the “literary” side of Coloratura, the puzzles of Coloratura are themselves its most important literary component. It’s through exploring them that we create meaning from the work.

As with many puzzle-oriented works of interactive fiction, there are really two layers to the puzzles of Coloratura. The first and arguably most important is what we might call the meta-puzzle: just who am I, what am I trying to do, and what capabilities – i.e., what puzzle-solving “verbs” – do I have to hand to help me do it? Only then, when the rules are understood, can come the more mundane but still satisfying process of applying them to bring the game to a satisfactory ending. It’s important to note here that the meaning-making part of Coloratura, its most literary qualities if you will, are much more bound-up with the former stage than the latter. This is also the point where a puzzle-based work of interactive fiction most notably diverges from a pure puzzle like a crossword or a word search. Those lack the first stage; their rules and verbs are clear to the play going in. They lack the verisimilitude of real life, with their stories, if they exist at all, being grafted-on exercises in, well, not much of anything at all really.

Coloratura passes a test that Photopia largely fails: the question of whether there’s really any reason at all for this work to be interactive. All of the interest, all of the mystery, all of the empathy we eventually come to feel for its trapped protagonist arise from interactions – from puzzle-solving. That’s what turns what could easily have been a too-clever-for-own-good inversion into a moving, even beautiful experience. I’m thrilled that Coloratura won “Best Game” as well as “Best Puzzles.” What better statement could there be on the viability of this medium that works differently than static literature, that can’t do so many things that literature can, but that can move and delight us all the same?

The other two nominations in the “Best Puzzles” category don’t deploy their interactivity to quite such sublime effect. Both are – knowingly, consciously – “just” games. Luckily, both are fine, worthy games in their own right. And neither is quite your typical puzzle box.

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, Ryan Veeder

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, by previous Comp winner Ryan Veeder, rather nonchalantly drops us into a world where humans take orders from rats. You’re one of these humans, a sailor – okay, let’s be honest, a pirate — and your ship is sinking. As the water pours in, filling the ship deck by deck, you have to try to rescue as much plunder as you can before making your escape in a lifeboat. The more you’ve collected at the end, the better your final score.

Importantly, it’s impossible to gather every single treasure in the time available to you; nor is it possible to know before the end of the game just how much any given piece is worth. So, Plunder is a game that requires repeated restarts to maximize your score. In the end, assuming you keep at it, you’ll have every move plotted out carefully, the goal being perfect efficiency. But that’s an unachievable goal. Veeder himself claims that he doesn’t know what the theoretical maximum possible score is; he maintains a leaderboard on his website, the top entries on which are apparently higher than he himself has ever managed.

Now, there’s much about all this that’s guaranteed to bring out hatred in many players; I’m frankly surprised the game placed as well as it did in last year’s Comp. Plunder thoroughly and comprehensively violates Article 3 of The Player’s Bill of Rights (“To be able to win without experience of past lives”) as well as Article 4 (“To be able to win without knowledge of future events”), and Article 5 (“Not to have the game closed off without warning”). Strong arguments can also be made that it violates Article 6 (“Not to need to do unlikely things”) and Article 14 (“Not to be given too many red herrings”), as well as Article 12 (“Not to depend much on luck”) in the case of one particular puzzle involved an impaled handkerchief.

But you know, in playing and replaying so many old games as I have these past few years I’ve grown more accepting of other modes of play. Certainly the classic Infocom mysteries, which represent some of the most groundbreaking work Infocom ever did, are all about violating Articles 3 through 5. There should still be room for the turn-by-turn path through the game itself to be a single overarching puzzle, to be analyzed and optimized and finally cracked. And as such things go Plunder is quite a forgiving specimen, with much of the modern era’s gentler approach to the play/game relationship also in evidence. Even if you collect no treasure at all, after all, you can still escape with your life. After you figure out how to do that gameplay is all about getting better rather than a pass/fail, live/die zero-sum game. And while you’re about it Plunder is consistently smart and funny and occasionally surprising. I like it a lot.

Threediopolis (Andrew Schultz)

Andrew Schultz’s Threediopolis is an even purer puzzlebox. It’s essentially a single extended word puzzle with some of the properties of an acrostics game rolled up into an IF-style interface. As a literary proposition, Threediopolis is by far the roughest of the three. Much of the text is cursory; the fourth wall gets broken repeatedly, sometimes knowingly and sometimes (I suspect) not so knowingly, the diegetic and non-diegetic all jumbled together into a single uniform stream. The game is – sorry, but I don’t really know how else to put this – aesthetically kind of ugly.

Yet the word puzzle itself is clever and interesting and must have taken a huge amount of time to craft. Some have said that it might have worked better removed the pretense of being a work of interactive fiction entirely, with a different, easier sort of interface. They have a point, but I think it’s also important to note that a slicker, graphical Threediopolis would have been a much more daunting creative proposition. One of the wonderful things about interactive fiction is the fact that one guy like Schultz can realistically make a game with them on his terms, working alone and in a reasonable amount of time. I get oddly excited when I meet some crazy new thingie like Threediopolis that’s superficially a text adventure but not quite a text adventure, and I’m happy to see it recognized by a community that perhaps sometimes takes its literary bona fides just a bit too seriously.

And Threediopolis does gain something important by being implemented as an interactive fiction. As with Coloratura, the meta-puzzle, the figuring out of the rules and the available verbs and what is really going on here, is arguably the most exciting part of the game. It’d be a shame to lose that.

Modern interactive fiction has come encompass a huge range of styles and approaches. Sometimes several elements blend and harmonize to create something kind of extraordinary, as with Coloratura. But sometimes – much more often – we get games like Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder and Threediopolis that do one thing really, really well. And, you know, that’s okay too. If they can remind us not to take ourselves quite so seriously all the time, so much the better. Sometimes a fun game is all you really want or need.

3 thoughts on “Jimmy Maher on Best Puzzles

  1. Andrew Schultz

    Thanks for this essay! Yeah, the tasks paper is ugly. That results in the massive header at the top. For release 3, at least, I’ve made it so you can examine only certain rows, and the default is the first two. That doesn’t clean up everything, but it’s a start. (My current roadblock is putting all this in the header, too, and adjusting it.)

    Probably my biggest disappointment with writing the game is that I didn’t use the headers (from Emily Short’s useful and intuitive Basic Screen Effects) *at all* for the Comp version, and thus I didn’t give my testers a chance to evaluate which looked best or was most useful.

    I’d also be curious to know where the fourth wall was unintentionally broken. I broke it intentionally a few places, for humor and also to, well, hedge against involuntary 4th-wall breaking. If you have the time and inclination to recall the most glaring instances, that’d be awesome. I can have flake-out moments, and I appreciate when they’re pointed out!

    If not, thanks anyway–I’ll look for this during my next test run, and Reading about my game and the others was a nice boost to get back to that header problem.

    1. Jimmy Maher

      An example:

      Being a messenger, you don’t have much more to do than go in the six basic directions (transport tubes make going up and down easy.) Or enter places. Maybe knock. Nothing fancy. Type C to see everything.

      The in-game-world stuff is stuck together with the extra-diegetic “Type C…” Stuff like this happens quite a bit. The customary approach is to separate such messages out with square brackets or the like.

      Not that’s it a dealbreaker. It would bother me a lot more if this was a more “literary” sort of game. As it is, it’s a niggle, but nothing more.

      1. Andrew Schultz

        Thanks! I think I’ve pulled this trick in other games as well, and what you say makes very good sense, so this is helpful.


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