Christopher Huang on Best Individual Puzzle 2012

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

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

To be honest, I think I foresaw the solution to this puzzle well before I even encountered it, when I first found the required object for the solution.  It is a fairly simple solution, and it has been done before; what makes it interesting is the context of the gameplay in which it occurs.

The game (or story) is structured like a CYOA, with the narrator offering options to the player.  Up to the point in which I encountered the puzzle, the general rule seemed to be that when the narrator offered the option to start over, that meant that the thread was done and there was no other option available.  An assumption could be made at that point that it was too late for the solution, and my immediate reaction was that this solution was, in a way, “cheating”.  It wasn’t: the inventory objects, those options displayed on the right side of the status line, are always available at every node, and an examination of the story structure suggests that there is at least one available branch, prior to this puzzle, which calls for a similar choice at the “shall we start over” node.  In fact, as the game progresses, the use of inventory objects at the “start over” node becomes quite commonplace.

In a way, what this puzzle did for me was it made me confront and realise this possibility; it taught me to understand that options still exist when the narrator asks if one would like to start over.  If the solution seemed obvious, it served as a hint for those other situations whose solutions are somewhat less so.

And aesthetically speaking, well, who doesn’t dream of using an umbrella as a parachute?  It doesn’t work in real life, but it’s still an endearing image.

As a snack, I suggest that this is like a grilled cheese sandwich.  Simple and lightweight, but wonderful comfort food.

Making a taco in Shuffling Around, by Andrew Schultz

This is a multi-part puzzle, involving the gathering of ingredients to assemble into a taco.  The central puzzle mechanics of the game means that the ingredients are formed from anagrams of various objects in the game world, happily all in the same location.  If one knew what one were after (a taco) one could easily see one’s way to achieving this; if one didn’t, well, the un-anagrammed ingredients are odd enough that one would transform them anyway just because one could.

The nature of the puzzle in Shuffling Around means that one tends to anagram anything and everything one sees.  The fact that it works is often all one needs.  I did not know why I needed a taco when first I set out to make one, but it was enough that I could.  Besides which, tacos are tasty.

In any case, there is always something satisfying about multi-part puzzles where each part is laid out in parallel to the other parts.  It is that sense of seeing everything come together, and the fact of having more than one thing to work upon.  The fact that the component parts are all single-step solutions brings the overall puzzle down to a much more manageable scale, preventing the ingredient-gathering from completely overshadowing the ingredient-assembly.  Meanwhile, the game mechanics prevent the ingredient-gathering from being merely “find and take”.

As a snack, this would be a taco.  Of course.

The hold-all in A Killer Headache, by Mike Ciul

The hold-all in question here is someone’s severed head, with a hole in the back; and, being still animate, it is “worn” by having it bite into the player’s shoulder.  Rather a grisly image, but then, this is a zombie game.

There are two component elements to this puzzle: first, one must realise that the severed head can be worn; and second, one must realise that the head is a container.  The puzzle lies in identifying these characteristics rather than in manipulating objects.

I solved it without realising it was a puzzle at all.  It occurs early enough that I didn’t realise it was necessary, and … well, I don’t know what exactly drove me to attempt to “wear head”.  Actually, I think what I tried was “put head on shoulder”, and I might have been imagining it riding around on my shoulder like a parrot.  After all, it’s supposed to be all that remains of the protagonist’s friend Jim, and I couldn’t just leave it behind in the fridge.

In other words, the puzzle meshes very well into the narrative, enough that, for this player at least, the actions leading to its resolution came so naturally that they never registered as part of a puzzle solution.  At the same time, the nature of the puzzle is grotesque enough that one can never dismiss it as being mundane: backpacks and the like are common enough, but severed heads are rare enough that one simply does not normally identify them as hold-alls.

As for identifying the severed head as a container, the primary hint is the existance of a hole in the head.  This aspect of the puzzle is a little obscured by the solution to another puzzle — that of collecting bits of brain matter for consumption.  (Remember: zombie game.)  It is easy to dismiss the hole in the head as existing only to dispense that little bit of hypothalamus but it has other uses.  This conservation of objects within the game world adds to the mimesis: things do not exist for one purpose and one purpose only.

As a snack, this is a bowl of mixed nuts.  They’ll be gone before you realise you’ve been munching on them all afternoon.

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