November 9, 2007 4:02 PM |
["Beyond Tetris" is a usually biweekly column (except when it just doesn't show up one biweek) from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment examines an omnipresent paper puzzle, the crossword.]
A few months ago, I got to play one of the biggest videogames I'd ever seen. The main screen was easily over ten feet tall (rear-projection), but there were other screens all over the place. In fact, it was more like I was inside the game, since there was an elaborate set around me.
There was only one button that hooked me directly into the computer, but there was speech recognition, and my location was important as well. There were four other players there with me, and the stakes were high: the winner could grab thousands of dollars, the other players would get a watch.
You might have seen me play a few weeks ago; it was an episode of Merv Griffin's Crosswords.
It was a lot of fun. The local coverage of the Southern California fires meant I didn't get to see my episode on the air, but it did play across the country. The basic rules of the videogame are that the host reads a crossword clue, you try to buzz in first, and if you get a chance, you announce and spell your answer. You can watch a little bit of me joining in the game on YouTube.
What's that? Crosswords is a game show, not a videogame? For you maybe. But for me—actually playing it—it was a very immersive computer-run game with innovative control mechanisms and a large crew of paid cast members and puppet masters to maintain immersion. A cross between a party game, a puzzle game and an ARG. For money.
But while it is a videogame, it's not a puzzle game under the strict definition of this column (the way clues are asked of the contestants, it's more like a trivia or party game), so I won't go into great detail about what it's like to play Merv Griffin's Crosswords. But my appearance on the show was, in many ways, the culmination of many, many years of solving crosswords, on paper and on computer.
Hip to Be Square
I'm not going to go into too much detail about the history of crosswords. Unlike a lot of the puzzles I write about here, crosswords has an immense amount of literature already written about it. But the short version of the early history of crosswords starts with "word squares." A word square is just what it sounds like, a square of letters arranged so that each row and column spells out a word. Usually, the across and down words are the same, which also saves a little bit of work for the constructor. Word squares and other shapes (generally called "forms") were quite a pastime in the 19th century, when formists would try to outdo one another constructing larger and larger shapes out of words.
What we consider to be the first modern crossword was created by Arthur Wynne in 1913 and published in the New York World. Like forms, the "Word-Cross puzzle" had a clear geometric shape (a diamond), and no black squares. However, it did have a number of empty squares (a smaller diamond cut out of the larger) and numbers to correspond definitions to clues. The name was changed to "crossword," and the craze started to spread.
Crosswords appeared in Great Britain (Wynne's native nation) in 1922, which started a line of development wholly different than what would become the norm in America. In fact, over the years, countries everywhere have evolved with subtle differences. America's puzzles are notable for having every letter appear in two words (one across and one down) and often having a theme that links the longest answers. In Great Britain, the grid has many "unchecked" letters, but the clues feature elaborate wordplay. Japanese crosswords differ depending on what writing system is used, and other languages have ways of reflecting (or ignoring) diacritical marks. In Hebrew, vowels are sometimes ignored completely. But, with apologies to international readers, in the rest of this article, I will focus on how computers affected American crosswords exclusively (mostly for my own sanity).
Eric Albert is both a computer programmer and a crossword constructor (he's also an author of erotica, but that doesn't really apply here), and in 1989, he put both skills to work writing a program that would analyze the word list of Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition and look for large word squares (see, there was a reason I mentioned them). He found one, a nine-by-nine word square—the first to be found where all of the words were in the same dictionary. And when he was done with that, he realized he could put the same program to work creating crosswords.
The basic software that could mash a bunch of letters together into a crossword grid already existed. When you put it together with databases of boring stock clues, you had a recipe for the degradation of the puzzle market. But Albert had an insight—he could modify the program so that every word had a value, then have the program take those values into account. Rarer or exciting words were rated highly, obscure words and crosswordese were rated low. The result was a program that could help him design crossword grids of the highest quality, and he could then devise original clues on ihs own. The advance allowed him to switch to crossword construction as a full-time profession.
This is the established model of quality computer construction today. Though some constructors still use paper and pencil (as Merl Reagle very quickly demonstrated in Wordplay), many, like Frank Longo (who holds several construction-related records for the the New York Times puzzle) use carefully valued word lists that they constantly maintain, adding new words, names, and phrases. And though Albert had to code his own software, any decent crossword creation software will let you use set up these lists (I use Crossword Compiler for mine). For most constructors, the process of writing a crossword switches from filling in words by hand and asking the computer to find words that match certain criteria.
Pencil or Pen? Or Keyboard? Or Stylus?
As I've discussed before, paper puzzles—especially very popular ones—have a strong tendency to leap onto the computer screen. Crossword puzzles are all over videogames. Most of the major printed crosswords put their puzzles online. Some, like the New York Times, require a subscription. Others, like the New York Sun can be solved and downloaded for free. Most "casual gaming" portals will offer at least one crossword game in their selection, though they are often of much lower quality.
While web-based Java applets show up often, the standard among cruciverbalists is Literate Software Systems' Across Lite. It's a very bare-bones program, but because it's the downloadable distribution choice of the New York Times and several other major publishers, it's also used by amateur constructors passing crosswords among each other. Still, collections of crosswords show up on almost every platform, whether they're well-suited or not. Of course there are lots of programs for personal computers, but why stop there when you can develop a game for the incredibly intuitive controls of the Playstation 2?
This year, the New York Times crossword made the leap onto a new system, the DS. But while they might be a little bit late in jumping on the DS bandwagon, they still have some serious portable-videogame street cred. Excalibur Electronics has been producing dedicated crossword handhelds for the New York Times, some with touchscreens, and some with small keyboards. They even make them for the TV Guide puzzle.
Me? I use pen when I work on paper, usually with book collections of difficult puzzles. Otherwise, I prefer to solve the daily crosswords in Across Lite, where I use the time to get a rough estimate of how I'm doing (today's New York Times: about six minutes). And how did I do on TV? Just watch for yourself.
[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. One of the reasons this article was delayed is because he took longer than usual to edit The Gamer's Quarter #9.]
Categories: Column: Beyond Tetris