Hi! I’m Lucian Smith, and back in the day (that day being a Tuesday in 1997), I wrote a puzzle that ended up winning that year’s XYZZY Award for Best Individual Puzzle: the language puzzle in The Edifice (which also won Best Puzzles and that year’s IF Comp). Since then, I’ve mostly dabbled or collaborated on the writing games end of things, but I’ve stayed involved in the community mostly through hanging out on ifMUD–my most recent significant contributions are probably hosting the XYZZY award presentations there, and writing the occasional reviews such as this one and the same thing last year.
As before, I’m not going to worry about spoiling the puzzles nominated here, and will be assuming that you’ve played the entirety of all the games, or at least that you’ve played all of the games you want to before reading this review.
All my transcripts of the transcriptable games are available at https://drive.google.com/#folders/0B71r5kLs3FliRkMzVW5JdWtkNTA. As a side note, the lack of transcriptability for the CYOA games continues to be a horrible deficiency in the system, and I’m frankly astonished that any system can have lasted this long without it.
Creating the meat monster in Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)
So, Coloratura was a delightful game with a very unique protagonist with unusual abilities, and those unusual abilities were used in a variety of interesting ways to make up the various puzzles of the game. One can easily see why it was nominated for Best Puzzles, and it follows inevitably that at least one of those puzzles would be nominated for Individual Puzzle. So the question becomes: what was it about this puzzle in particular that made it stand out from the rest of the game?
I have to say that playing through with the expectation that there was a ‘creating the meat monster’ puzzle in the game somewhere diminished the effect of solving the puzzle. Instead of entering the freezer with the goal of ‘maybe there’s something here that can help me get around or disperse the crowd outside’, I instead saw piles of meat and thought, ‘Oh, I bet this is where I create a meat monster.’ I typed ‘enter meat’, which at this point was a fairly standard command to enter, and boom, meat monster created.
My guess is that this puzzle worked for most people on the same principle as a joke works: the best humor tends to contain a moment that is surprising, but which makes sense in a different context. Here, too, the response to ‘enter meat’ is surprising, but makes sense, given the context of this unusual protagonist. It also serves to move the mythology forward, with new insights into how the world works from your shifted perspective.
So it was clearly a good moment, even if (as in my case) the surprise was lessened due to spoilers. Does it work as a puzzle, per se? For me, the best puzzles work when you have a clear intent, you try something that you think might work, and eventually get to the point where your intent matches your actions, and the world responds accordingly. The problem with classifying this moment in the game as ‘a good puzzle’ is that I cannot see how player intent is involved, other than them messing around trying to enter various random things. Which, again, is a perfectly fine thing to happen and to put into a game. It’s just not what I would call a ‘puzzle’.
Here’s an analogy: in DoubleFine’s new game Broken Age, you play through the game as one of two characters, and can switch between them as often as you want. There’s a moment in the game where the connection between the two worlds is revealed, and like a good joke, it is totally surprising but totally makes sense in a different context. It’s one of the best moments in the game. But I would not classify it as the best *puzzle* in the game, because it didn’t involve any player intent and manipulation of the game world. There was slightly more player intent here, but not a ton—I’m glad the moment was in the game, but am somewhat frustrated by it being nominated by players as the ‘best puzzle’.
To contrast that moment with a different moment in the game that’s more what I would call a ‘puzzle’, at one point you’re privy to an argument, and the Captain says she’s going to radio for help. Then the game straight-up tells you, “you have to get to the radio before she does.” So off you go to the radio room, and start messing around with the stuff you find there. Direct sabotage doesn’t work like it did the last time you had to break something, but as you fiddle with things, you eventually work out that the radio has a tape player in it, and that you can pick up magnetism from a nearby compass. In a sudden flash of insight, I realized I might be able to take the magnetism from the compass and use it to re-write the tape in the tape player—I tried this, and it worked! And then, not only did it stop the Captain from radioing for help, but converted one of the crew to my side, advancing the plot and the mythology of the world in one go. It was a great moment as well as a good puzzle, and I kind of wish the nominations had gone with that one instead. I suppose it serves me right for never playing anything before the votes are in, though.
Discovering the type of route that works in Threediopolis (Andrew Schultz)
I really bounced hard off of this game. The introduction text immediately told me, “there’s not going to be any pretense of plot here, just some word puzzles,” in a way that managed to make this sound tremendously unappealing to me. Normaly this would be great, because then I could just quit the game and go on with my life, but in this case I was obligated to write a review, so I pressed on. My disengagement with the game only increased. “Man,” I thought, “this is just like that game last year with the word puzzles and anagrams.” Then I looked up who the author was of that game, and it turned out to be Andrew Schultz, again. So hey, that explains it! I was actually a bit less frustrated with the game at that point, since at that point I knew mine was a fairly idiosyncratic response to Andrew’s writing.
However, I never did make any progress at all towards any of the goals of this game, and in fact never even figured out what those goals might be. None of the instructions and none of the clues in the game made the least amount of sense to me, and I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where to start. Looking up hints similarly didn’t help, and it wasn’t until I finally read ‘starting at your initial location, spell out words going to the listed locations with directions,’ that I understood what was going on. Which was too late, because that realization was the whole puzzle.
This was unfortunate, since in the abstract, ‘discovering the type of route that works’ sounds like a pretty good puzzle! All the pieces were there to make it work; there’s a starting place, an ending place, a limited set of ways to get from one to the other, and the potential for crossword-style clues if you need hints along the way. If I didn’t personally cringe at the setup here for some reason, I think I could have enjoyed making that leap of intuition to the solution. Unfortunately, I never even found the starting blocks.
Earning One Million Dollars in ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (Porpentine)
Really, XYZZY nominators? Really? There are indeed puzzles in ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III, but ‘earning one million dollars’ is not actually one of them. Dollars are the *score* by which your progress is marked in this game. Saying that earning a million bucks is your favorite puzzle in this game is like claiming that scoring 350 points is your favorite puzzle in Zork.
“Aha,” claims the alert and long-time reader, “in 2011, you wrote favorably of ‘escaping the tower’ in ‘Indigo’, which is the exact same thing! It’s the final puzzle that’s a stand-in for all the puzzles of the game!” “Not so,” I reply, “But I’m going to stop using quotation marks for my response.” You see, Indigo had a single mechanic in it, which you first had to discover and then had to execute: when you were done executing the mechanic, you had accomplished the final goal (‘escaping the tower’), and were done with the game. Here, gaining money is not a mechanic, it is a reward. There’s no one thing that you do throughout the game (other than ‘click links’, I suppose) that could possibly count, for me at least, as anything coherent enough to count as ‘a puzzle’.
I should probably emphasize at this point that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the game itself that warrants the annoyance I’ve expressed so far. Keeping score by way of money earned is perfectly valid, and thematically appropriate for the game Porpentine was writing here. I’m just annoyed that anyone would think to nominate a scoring system as a puzzle.
To contrast, then, let’s discuss an actual puzzle from the game: getting past the bees. Since this is a story-heavy CYOA, the vast majority of the game consists merely of clicking on things, and enjoying the prose that results. Getting past the bees, however, requires some actual thinking: you have to guess that there’s a way to get past the bee gate; you have to read the text of the ‘difficulty levels’ carefully, make the intuitive leap that the two are connected, and then implement your plan. Sure, it’s still CYOA, but it’s still a satisfying puzzle-solving moment.
Getting out of the lab in Chemistry and Physics (Colin Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine)
There’s not particularly a lot to this puzzle—if you go everywhere and click on everything, you end up with all of three items, two of which are obviously combinable (the alcohol and the explosives), and one of which has an explicit use (the glassware). This leaves one item whose use is potentially unknown (the explosives), and the only question becomes ‘where do I put this’? After some experimentation, I worked out where it probably went, and was rewarded by a blank screen—somehow, I ran into a bug. I asked a friend about it, who then ran into the exact same bug, despite having played and beaten the game before. Chalk one up to Twine instability, I guess? I can work out the basics of what happens after that, at least—you somehow get it lit, then break the glass to draw the villain there, skedaddle, and then the explosion takes out the door and the bad guy. A relatively complex puzzle for a hypertext game, and reasonable for a short game like this.
Maximizing your profit in Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder (Ryan Veeder)
I must admit that this game was not compelling enough to me personally to actually try to solve it. I got to the end of the game, couldn’t figure out how to swim, and then promptly gave up. However, it seemed to me that the nominated puzzle would be a pretty good puzzle.
The basic idea here is that you are on a sinking ship filled with treasure, trying to snag as much of it as you can before it sinks. As you go, you also have to figure out how to get the materials you need to swim away at the end (or at least, I presume that’s what you have to do.) So there’s several points to the puzzle: you have to figure out how many moves it takes to get each treasure, whether those moves can be optimized, whether you can combine moves in getting one treasure with getting a different treasure, and finally whether all that effort is worth it, or if you should instead spend your moves grabbing something else. Combine this with the sequential nature of the rising water (first it covers the things on the floor, then it covers low things in the room, then it covers everything in the room, then it moves on to the next upper deck), and you have the makings of a quite complicated yet still feasibly-solvable optimization puzzle. If the game had been more personally compelling, or even if I had been able to figure out how to swim away at the end, I might have been willing to tackle it. And indeed, I watched a conversation on ifMUD where the participants were collectively and individually solving this puzzle and sharing their progress, and it sounded like they were having fun.
It’s probably worth pointing out that while on the surface, ‘maximizing your score’ and ‘getting a million dollars’ may seem like the same sort of thing (I complained about dollars being your score, after all), but they really are not. The million dollars was just ‘playing the game’, while ‘maximizing your score’ is indeed a separate puzzle in its own right.
Three-latch door in Faithful Companion (Matt Weiner)
This was a reasonable puzzle, but perhaps slightly unfair. The basic idea is that a ghost is following you, repeating everything you do two moves after you do it. There’s a door with three latches on it, each activated and inactivated by pushing on the latch—therefore, every time you open two of the latches, by the time you’re on the third one, the ghost is pushing the first one (as you did two turns ago), locking it again.
I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to work this out within the confines of the above description, thinking that if I pushed one button twice, then moved on to the others, the ghost would then be pushing the latch at just the right time… but no. The trick turns out to be that you have to lock the ghost out of the room so you can open the door in peace. I had actually had that idea at one point, but whatever I had tried hadn’t worked, and then I forgot about it, so when I finally asked for a hint, I was all, ‘I thought I tried that!’ Of course, I hadn’t; I had just dismissed the idea too quickly. Once on the right track, I was still a bit behind, because I apparently had not read the descriptions carefully enough the first time to realize that the ghost had the key to the door, and I assumed that I had simply lost it. After working out what had happened (and restarting the game, which was short), I was finally able to retrieve the key from the ghost by typing ‘drop key’ when I didn’t actually have the key, which was kind of cool (the ghost dropped it itself, three turns later), and then was able to lock it out and open the door. In my defense, a ghost being blocked by a door is not something one typically imagines would be true of ghosts, when they have the whole ‘incorporeal’ thing going for them. But I suppose if you’re substantial enough to pick up a key, you’re substantial enough to get blocked by a door.
Overall, I would rate this puzzle as ‘satisfying’, which for a game of this size is basically perfect.