Lucian P. Smith on Best Individual Puzzle 2012

Lucian P. Smith writes on the hold-all in A Killer Headache, making a taco in Shuffling Around, and surviving the fall in Bigger Than You Think.

The Best Individual Puzzle category is sort of an odd duck in the XYZZY Awards—the really good puzzle games tend to have so many good puzzles it’s hard to single out just one to bequeath with a ‘best puzzle’ nomination, so the votes get spread out a lot, and this year there apparently weren’t many short games where the entire game was a single sort of puzzle and you could just nominate the last one as a stand-in for the whole game (cf Emily’s Indigo last year), so I happen to know that the three nominated puzzles this year were the three that happened to get two votes each—all the rest of the nominations only had one vote.  Which means that next year, if you and a friend both nominate the same puzzle, it’s in like Flynn.  A little bit of XYZZY insider information for you.

(Actually, the current plan is to have a running poll on ifdb for ‘puzzles that strike your fancy’, so that might work out much better to gain consensus about which particular puzzles from big puzzle games should be nominated as ‘best puzzle’.  We’ll see if it works!)

In case you might not have predicted it, I am going to explicitly spoil all the puzzles here as much as I can, so if you want to play them yourself first (and you do indeed want to solve ‘Bigger Than You Think’ by yourself), you should go do that before coming back.

Full transcripts of my playthroughs of the game are available at

So, the first puzzle on the list is:

The Hold-All from A Killer Headache, by Mike Ciul

So, I started this game knowing that there was probably a ‘hold-all’ in it, which is Inform-ese for ‘an object that can contain an arbitrary number of items for you to carry around’.  So when I was messing around in the first room, and doing something automatically had me put something inside a hollow skull, I thought, “Ah, OK, there’s the hold-all.”  I couldn’t actually get it out of the room, though, so I went on without it, figuring I’d get it later.

And then I finished the game without it.

As it turns out, I played version 3 of the game, which happens to be significantly easier than version 1 of the game, which, presumably, had caught the imagination of two impressionable nominators out there, who had worked hard to get the skull out of that opening room, and were satisfied when they finally managed it.  “OK,” I thought, “I’ll try it again.”  So I went back to that opening room.  The trick here is that there’s a few things in the room that might be useful (but weren’t, in my playthrough, since there were alternatives out in the wide-open world) but in order to open the awkward door, you have to use both your hands, so you can’t carry anything.  A reasonable enough setup for a puzzle!  So I thought a moment, said to myself, “Well, I dunno, maybe I can wear it or something.”  I typed >WEAR SKULL, it bit me in the back, and off I went.  Puzzle solved!

As it turns out, the somewhat odd phrasing I could have used was to tell the skull, “BITE ME”, which requires that you think of it biting you in the back before it actually does so, which actually is a nice bit of lateral thinking, if perhaps a bit unlikely to occur to most people.  But if you do think of it yourself, I bet you feel pretty proud of the fact that you did so, and that might be enough to get you to nominate the game.  And apparently it happened at least twice, so kudos to A Killer Headache for that.

The next puzzle was:

Making a taco in Shuffling Around, by Andrew Schulz

I guess I’m not going to get very far in this review without admitting up front that I didn’t actually manage to make a taco in Shuffling Around by Andrew Schulz.  I didn’t even get to a point where it seemed like a taco might be necessary, because I got partway in and was defeated by the sheer number of Word Puzzles With No Plot that piled up and overwhelmed me.  And actually, by the sheer number of Anagram References in what started to seem like every. single. description.  This is the sort of game where calling someone ‘Old Man Almond’ and saying ‘He’d make a poignant nag point’ is seen as sufficiently clever in and of itself, and the fact that nobody is actually named ‘Almond’* or that nags are not actually known for pointing, nor has one ever in the history of the English language until now been called ‘poignant’ is apparently irrelevant.  It was mentally both taxing and infuriating for me to just read the descriptions, and I started to feel hostile towards the game, especially when I managed to solve a puzzle.  The point at which solving the puzzles is more frustrating to you than being stuck was is the point at which one must exit gracefully stage left, so that is what I did.

Interestingly, I have also been playing Counterfeit Monkey since it won so many XYZZY awards, and despite also being deeply steeped in word puzzlery, I am enjoying it greatly.  What’s the difference, you might ask?  I think it goes back to song parodies.  Bear with me a moment.

I performed for many years in the improve troupe, “ComedySportz”, and we would often do song games, where you had to improvise lyrics on the spot.  One thing I learned from that experience was that the rhyming words at the end of the phrases are key to the comedy of the song.  Furthermore, the order and relevance of the rhyming words was also critical.  If you had one word that related to the thing you were singing about, and another word whose only connection to the first was that it rhymed, you had two options: you could use the relevant word first, or you could use the irrelevant word first.  The first was the least funny.  If you are singing a song, and the audience suggestion is ‘bats’, and your first line is “I once owned a bat” and your second line is, “I probably should have got a cat”, it’s obvious to everyone in the room that the only reason you’re talking about cats is to make the line rhyme, and it’s not very funny.  Slightly better is to reverse the order:  make your *first* line, “When I was young, I wanted a cat”, and then follow that up with “Instead, my father got me a bat”, the second-line reveal of the audience suggestion as a rhyme to ‘cat’ makes the audience suddenly recognize why you were singing about a cat, and that’s funny.  It’s even funnier if you can take it a step away from such an on-the-nose rhyme:  “I’m singing this song in my best soprano / that’s all I can sing, since that explosion of bat guano” may not be the height of comedy, but at least people don’t instantly know why you said ‘soprano’, so there’s a better payoff by the end of the next line.  The best, though, is if you can manage to make both rhymes relevant to the suggestion.  “A vampire bat will make you a blood donor / It flies straight to your neck with the aid of its sonar” might again not be terribly witty (I don’t know why I picked ‘bats’ as my suggestion here), and it’s kind of a slant rhyme, but the story as a whole and its relevance to the rhymes is the most coherent in this version.

One thing about Counterfeit Monkey that is lacking in Shuffling Around is coherence.  You find objects that were placed there by the author as solutions to puzzles in places where you would actually find those objects.  More obviously, the entire world is set up around the façade of a real place where manipulating objects through wordplay is a known and accepted fact of life, and not in a surreal dreamland where these things happen ‘just because’.

Also, and this has nothing to do with comedy, the solution space is much cleaner with a letter-remover than it is with anagrams:  A word n letters long has at most n alternative letter-removed versions, while it has up to n-factorial  possible anagrams.  It’s much less taxing.

So, I apologize for not making you a taco, Andrew Schulz, but this game was not for me.

*I am told that there was a ‘Marc Almond’ who was in the band, ‘Soft Cell’, so it appears this statement was incorrect.  Again, though:  coherence.  If ‘Old man Almond’ was preceded by an actual ‘Soft Cell’ reference, fine.  Dropped in the middle of nowhere, it’s the rhyme thrown in just because it rhymes, or, in this case, the anagram thrown in just because it’s an anagram.

Finally, we get to:

Surviving the fall in Bigger Than You Think, by Andrew Plotkin

This game is actually the closest we have to Indigo from last year, namely, a game wherein the point is to figure out how to do one thing, and then do that a few times to solve the game.  ‘Surviving the fall’ is one of those things that you do after you’ve figured out the One Thing, but it actually is a pretty good candidate as the Puzzle That Stands For The Game Itself, since… but, OK, let me describe what the One Thing is.

The conceit of this game is that on any given playthrough but the last, you are going to get stuck, but hopefully at that point you will have gained an item or some knowledge, which you then retain for your next playthrough.  In that subsequent playthrough, you will then be able to get past some barrier because you now have the item or knowledge you picked up previously.  Also, the game is basically CYOA, but you also have the option of ‘choosing’ the thing-you-picked-up-the-last-time.  An example:  you fall down a gravel slide, at the bottom of which is a rope, which you pick up.  You can’t get out of the pit, even with the rope, so you restart.  But this time, you have a rope with you.  During this playthrough, you come to an eye-bolt over a pit, and even though the highlighted choices are ‘side’ and ‘ahead’ you can type >ROPE instead, and suddenly you can descend into the pit.  It’s a clever conceit, and made for an enjoyable, short game.

The reason ‘surviving the fall’ is probably the best iteration of the puzzle is that it’s not at all obvious that you haven’t actually already died at the point where you can save yourself.  Here’s the text:


Another stretched-step downward, groping for ledges with your toes. Then another, then another — until slick stone shrugs your foot away.

Now you are plunging through the darkness, which roars at you and blurs past your flailing hands.

Somewhere below is the end of your journey. Such a thing should not be spoken of, lest one decide that life has yielded up its last marvel. Shall we instead start the story from the beginning?

It’s perfectly reasonable to think that >START (highlighted) is the only thing you can/should do here, and that if there’s any other way to get down, you probably should have set that up before typing ‘>DOWN’ in the first place.  And in fact, thinking that you could survive the fall at all is probably something that might not have occurred to me, had I not been playing this game for the express purpose of trying out the ‘Surviving the fall’ puzzle, which sort of gave things away.

But if you get the idea ‘maybe I can survive this’ and then during one playthrough you acquire a sturdy umbrella, you might suddenly think to try:

Somewhere below is the end of your journey. Such a thing should not be spoken of, lest one decide that life has yielded up its last marvel. Shall we instead start the story from the beginning?


The notion is absurd, but do you have a better idea while plummeting to your death? You yank out your umbrella and pop it open.

Whump! The handle yanks you around hard. You crack your knee and shoulder against the rushing stone… but you hang on to the bumbershoot, and somehow the roaring in your ears is decreasing. You cannot tell, in the dimness, how much the umbrella slows you — but when the bottom of the pit reaches up and smacks you, the impact is bruising, not fatal.

One thing that makes this puzzle solution even more satisfying is that it feels like a direct confrontation between you and the game—one in which you end up victorious.  The game was going to send you to your death, but no!  You had a brilliant idea and thwarted the very fundamentals of your situation, and the game had no choice but to let you survive!  This is, of course, absurd—Andrew coded in the response explicitly, and even set things up exactly that way so that you would succeed, but that doesn’t change the momentary feeling I had at my moment of triumph: I was better than the game; I managed to beat it at its own rules, forcing it to capitulate.

This same feeling is absent from the majority of the other puzzles in the game, though many are indeed satisfying.  But when the game shows you an eye-bolt, and then gives you a rope, you know you’re playing by its rules when you tie the rope to the eye-bolt.  When you are shown a surface you cannot climb, and then are given climbing shoes, you know you’re playing by its rules when you don the shoes to climb the surface.  Whether you see the square peg first or the square hole first, by the time you have both, you know what to do.  But here, you’re given an umbrella and a ‘game over: you are falling to your death’ message,  and though they were, of course, designed to go together just as much as the eye-bolt and the rope, putting the two together feels more like an act of control, perhaps, than it does an act of discovery.

At any rate, it was a pleasing moment, and I’m satisfied that this puzzle was the one nominated from the game, and that it won ‘Best Individual Puzzle’ overall.

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