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Column: Beyond Tetris

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Crosswords

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.]

Your humble essayist, as I appeared on an episode of Merv Griffin's CrosswordsA 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.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The Fool's Errand

October 10, 2007 4:08 PM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a hopefully biweekly column 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 the Mac masterpiece The Fool's Errand.]

A scene from the animated prologue of The Fool's Errand, by Cliff JohnsonWhile writing about The 7th Guest last week, I realized I'd mentioned The Fool's Errand again. I'm not surprised it happened, Cliff Johnson's 1987 game remains one of the greatest puzzle games in personal-computing history, eminently playable even twenty years later. I'd been procrastinating about it (for a reason I'll get to later), since I started (and restarted) this column. But there's only so long I can go on referencing a game that has had such a lasting impact on a whole generation of puzzlers. So, leaping without looking, let's begin.

Cliff Johnson, a monster builder and filmmaker, was first inspired by the elaborate puzzle-mysteries of the movies Sleuth and The Last of Sheila to stage "mystery game" parties where groups of players solve pencil puzzle to unearth clues to a mystery. Kit Williams' illustrated treasure hunt Masquerade was further inspiration for Johnson as he caught the puzzling bug. In 1984, Johnson put together a book similar to Masquerade as a Christmas present for his friends. This was the first incarnation of The Fool's Errand, a set of paper puzzles bound together with a jigsaw puzzle and a story to provide an unifying mystery. But having just purchased his first personal computer, he could already see the possiblities of expanding the puzzle as a computer for his new Macintosh.

Johnson began coding the next year, and The Fool's Errand was released by Miles Publishing in 1987. Though sales started slow, the game gained momentum as rave reviews started to trickle in. MacWorld inducted it into its Hall of Fame, and Games Magazine awarded it "Puzzle Game of the Year" as part of the Games 100. Electronic Arts took over the distribution, and over the next three years, The Fool's Errand would be ported from the Macintosh to DOS, the Amiga, and the Atari ST. And the game would continue circulating, on sites like The Underdogs until the present.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour

September 26, 2007 12:03 AM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a no-longer-dormant column 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 the high-budget puzzle collections The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour.]

It's been a while since I wrote one of these; a lot's happened in the past few months. Most importantly I've moved, with my fiancee, into the heart of Hollywood. (Not for any particular hey-let's-break-into-films reason, just because it's a nice neighborhood.) As I've been settling down to live my everyday life in an area that's idealized and vilified from around the world, I've had a lot of time to think about style and substance, puzzle and presentation. So I think it's appropriate that I restart this column with the blockbuster popcorn movie of computer puzzle games, The 7th Guest.

Guest Hosts

Robert Hirschboeck hams it up as Stauf in The 7th GuestIn 1990, Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros, two employees of Virgin Games, were thinking about Laura Palmer, viz. who killed her. They were also thinking about the board game Clue (the rights to which Virgin had acquired). But most importantly, they were thinking about CD-ROMs. Music CDs had taken over vinyl, and console manufacturers were just starting to release systems like the FM Towns Marty and the TurboGrafx CD that used CD-ROMs to hold game information. But on the PC, the CD-ROM was still mostly used for massive data storage for programs like the Microsoft Bookshelf. Landeros and Devine wanted to get ahead of the PC-gaming curve and use the power of the CD-ROM to give gamers a mystery to equal David Lynch's bizzarro serial.

Though inspired by the promise of multimedia, the pair were also keenly aware of its limitations; they didn't want to promise more than they could deliver. Landeros explained, "People get disappointed when they can't do something. Because it seems that you're saying there are endless possiblities, yet you're so restricted. So we wanted to restrict things—restrict the environment from the start." So instead of offering a wide-open puzzle space, they decided to focus on small discrete puzzles which would serve as the backbone for a mystery shown in video, music and animation. In the design spec for Guest, Devine and Landeros described a game with a structure similar to Cliff Johnson's The Fool's Errand, but with a plot that was "very strong, intricate, and full of dramatic content."

Devine and Landeros were amicably "fired" from Virgin to form their own company, Trilobyte, which would develop the game for Virgin to publish. It became The 7th Guest—and a major success. It sold more than two million copies and is credited with helping to push sales of CD-ROM drives for PCs. Today, it's hard to watch the videos without cringing at both the acting and the blocky video. But while the acting is probably the same as it ever was, the video and the 3-D pictures and animation were state-of-the-art in the early '90s. And what the game lacked in thespianism, it made up in grotesque imagery. The mansion of the demented toymaker Stauf was a playground of interactive horror. Even jaded techies wanted the game, if only to show off the Super VGA visuals.

But so far I've only talked about the "Hollywood" side of the game—the video, special effects, sales. What about the puzzles?

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - DROD: The City Beneath

April 10, 2007 2:49 PM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment revisits an earlier topic with the release of Deadly Rooms of Death: The City Beneath.]

A cutscene battle between aumtliches and stalwarts, two new puzzle elements in DROD 3.0

I didn't want this to happen. It was only a few months ago that I first wrote about Deadly Rooms of Death, and I didn't think I'd be writing about it again for at least a few months. My plan last weekend was to get The 7th Guest running again, so I could write about that today. But instead, in an oddly phrased announcement, Erik Hermansen and Caravel Games released DROD 3.0, or The City Beneath. And that's when my time disappeared.

The game was released on April 1 (which somewhat accounts for the logic-puzzle phrasing of the announcement), exactly two years after DROD 2.0, Journey to Rooted Hold. The downloadable game can be purchased for $20, with a CD version promised in the future. As with JtRH, there is also a demo which can be used to create and solve level sets (called holds). Caravel Games has not yet set up a page with links to the demo, so we'll link them here: Windows demo, Mac demo, and Linux demo.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Nemesis Factor

March 28, 2007 6:34 PM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. Today's unfortunately delayed installment looks at an overlooked handheld game: Nemesis Factor.]

Hasbro's Nemesis Factor, from its now defunct websiteIt has been a staple of the adventure game since Zork. It burst into the public consciousness in Myst. It has been recreated countless times across the internet in room-escaping Flash games. It has many forms; it has no name; it is The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press.

The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press has opened doors, revealed clues, and even turned on other Machines of Unknown Purposes with Buttons You Can Also Press. Sometimes, it has no purpose other to be solved, for points or bragging rights. But for whatever reason, the buttons must be pressed, in the right order, at the right times, without making a mistake, in order to succeed.

Perhaps you have wondered what you would do if you were confronted by The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press in real life, a physical Machine with Buttons You Can Press using your fingers instead of with a mouse or keyboard.

wonder no more. The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press exists, and its name is Nemesis Factor.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The Tower of Hanoi

March 12, 2007 8:25 PM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at an old and widely reviled videogame cliché: the Tower of Hanoi.]

An animation displaying the solution of three-disk Tower of Hanoi, created by Andre Karwath and distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

I think it's safe to assume that anyone reading this blog has played a fair share of videogames. It is therefore safe to assume that you have seen the Tower of Hanoi at least once. And I'd also wager good money that you're sick of it. Frankly, I'm sick of it. I play too many puzzle and adventure games to have to deal with hoary mechanical exercises like this. But it does have an interesting history, which may give you some perspective on how it came to be such a cliché.

The End of the World as We Know It

In 1882, a mechanical puzzle appeared in Paris called "La Tour D'Hanoï," or "The Tower of Hanoi." It had three pegs, eight disks, and an instruction booklet telling of the game's history in China, Japan and Tonkin (northern Vietnam), where the disks were porcelain instead of wood. (An English translation by Paul K. Stockmeyer is available.) It also included the legend of "Indian Brahmins" who played the game with sixty-four disks of gold, in the belief that when the tower is completely moved, the universe will end.

The cover of the original Tower of Hanoi, scanned by James Dalgety of the Puzzle Museum
All of this was a lie, or at the very leastmisleading advertising. The credited inventor "Professor N. Claus (De Siam)" was merely a pseudonym for "E. Lucas (D'Amiens)," the mathemetician Édouard Lucas. Previously, he had developed a method that could be used to verify if Mersenne numbers were prime, and in 1876, he verified that 2127-1 was prime. (This number would be the largest known prime until 1951 and the age of computers). In 1880, he published the solution to the Baguenaudier or Chinese Rings puzzle. Both of these achievements will be important.

The Tower of Hanoi was a relatively popular mathematical curiosity; it was reproduced many times under different names (as can be seen in this collection at James Dalgety's Puzzle Museum). It also appeared outside of a physical form. Sam Loyd discussed the Tower in his Cyclopedia of Puzzles in 1914. It was mentioned in Martin Gardner's Scientific American column in 1957, and in Eric Frank Russell's science-fiction story "Now Inhale" in 1959. But these textual appearances weren't related to actually carrying out the mechanics of the puzzle, instead, they focused on the surprising math behind the device.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Minesweeper

February 26, 2007 7:14 PM |

A screenshot Windows Minesweeper in Windows XP, Intermediate Level["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at one of the most commonly available PC puzzle games: Minesweeper.]

Though Microsoft claims that Vista will usher in a new age of PC gaming, the first thing it will do is usher in the old age of PC gaming. Despite hardcore clamoring for high-end graphics-card-melting titles, the only games that the majority of people care about are the ones they've been playing for years, the ones that are ready with no complications whenever the urge to do something other than work arises, the ones that are packed in with Windows—Hearts, Klondike, Mah Jongg Solitaire, etc. Of the common games that come with Vista, two are true puzzle games; FreeCell will have to wait until another time, because today I'm talking about Minesweeper.

Mining the Past

Minesweeper has its origins in the earliest mainframe games of the '60s and '70s. Wikipedia cites the earliest ancestor of Minesweeper as Jerimac Ratliff's Cube. But although Cube features "landmines," it's hard to consider this a predecessor of Minesweeper. In Cube, the mines are placed randomly and the only way to discover where they ends the game. You walk over a landmine and you die; you can't avoid the landmines or know where they are before you take a chance.

However, there are a number of very early "hide and seek" games about locating hidden spots on a grid. For example, in Bob Albrecht's Hurkle, you have to find a creature hiding on a ten-by-ten grid. After each guess, you're told in what general direction the Hurkle lies. Dana Noftle's Depth Charge is the same, but in three dimensions. Bud Valenti's Mugwump has multiple hidden targets, and after each guess, you get the approximate distance to each of them. Unlike Cube, these games match the general pattern of Minesweeper more closely: make a random guess to start, then start using the information provided by that first guess to uncover the hidden items. Of course, unlike Minesweeper (or Cube), the was no danger of "explosion," the only constraint was finding the secret locations in a limited number of guesses.

A sample transcript, with maps, of Hunt the Wumpus, taken scanned from The Best of Creative Computing Vol. 1 by Atariarchives.orgThe closest ancestor to Minesweeper is probably Gregory Yob's Hunt the Wumpus. Although it used an unorthodox grid (the original game used the vertices of a dodecahedron, and a later version used Möbius strips and other unlikely patterns), the Wumpus evolved from its predecessors in many other ways.

Like the previous hide-and-seek games, the goal was to figure out where randomly placed locations were on the grid. But there was no time limit for exploration. Instead, like in Cube, the locations in Wumpus were hazardous: entering those rooms would put you at risk of losing. And most importantly, the only way to figure out where these hazards were was to be one space away. The key to solving Wumpus was getting as close as possible, backing off, and shooting your "crooked arrow" from a distance after definitively locating your prey.

When games like Quicksilva's Mined Out; Virgin Interactive's Yomp; and Conway, Hong and Smith's Reletless Logic appeared in the '80s, they looked like Cube on the surface: move from one point to another avoiding randomly placed mines. But in terms of solving, the games played more like Wumpus: move along safe areas, then put all the information to use locating the hidden dangers. Tom Anderson's Mines later added a feature that let you mark suspected mines with flags. And the stage was finally set for the Minesweeper to (ahem) explode onto the scene.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Theseus and the Minotaur / Mummy Maze

February 12, 2007 4:40 PM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at the multi-state maze Theseus and the Minotaur.]

Theseus and the Minotaur is a puzzle that has been trememndously popular across the internet. Like other popular puzzles, many people are unaware of its origins. But unlike many of the puzzles I've been writing about, the history of this particular maze is pretty well documented, from its creation by Robert Abbott as a pencil-and-paper maze, through its first appearance on the web, all the way up to its current incarnations as PopCap's Mummy Maze.

Logical Mazes

A set of possible moves in Robert Abbott's Theseus and the Minotaur, taken from the 1994 Games and PuzzlesRobert Abbott is the inventor of a particular type of maze called, variably, "mazes with rules," "logic mazes," and "multi-state mazes." The first one appeared in Martin Gardner's Scientific American column in 1962. What makes the mazes different from what you would generally find in a children's activity book is that there are any number of rules that apply to the puzzle. In a common maze, you have to simply move spatially from one point to another. In a logic maze, there are rules that restrict or modify how you move. For example, in The Farmer Goes to Market, the maze published in Scientific American forty-five years ago, there are arrows that limit which way you can move, and you are not allowed to make a U-turn. As a result, the location isn't the only thing that matters in the maze, you also have to keep track of a particular state of the game: which direction you just came from.

Over the years, Abbott refined the idea of these mazes. For example, in the Alice Mazes, (taken from his 1990 book Mad Mazes), you can see the state quite clearly. As you move through the maze, the definition "d=1" will change, indicating how many spaces each move is permitted to be. In the Sliding Door Maze (from the later SuperMazes), the state of the maze is incorporated into the maze; the doors that open and close define how you can move. What's most important about these puzzles from a puzzling perspective is that when a maze has multiple states, a relatively simple layout can be incredibly complex. If you don't believe me, you should take a look at Ed Pegg, Jr.'s "Multi-State Mazes" article at MAA Online. It shows a state diagram for a simplified version of The Farmer Goes to Market, and you can see how quickly a simple maze becomes a difficult one. (The article also has a fantastic list of interactive and static multi-state mazes that I adivse you to try.)

One day, while playing the 1980 arcade game Berzerk, Abbott imagined a maze where the solver would have to avoid a robotic opponent. To make the maze a puzzle, rather than an action game, Abbott made the process turn based. The player would move, then the robot would move. "It's like I took a frenzied video game and slowed it down to one thousandth of its normal speed," said Abbott in his notes. Combining the as-the-crow-flies pathfinding of Berzerk's robots with the speed and invincibility of robot gang leader Evil Otto, Abbot had what would become "Theseus and the Minotaur" in Mad Mazes. For every step you (Theseus) took, the Minotaur would move two spaces toward you (preferring to move horizontally before veritcally). With a framing story about a robotically programmed monster, a paper grid, and movable markers for Theseus and the Minotaur, the puzzle took six weeks to design.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Lights Out

January 29, 2007 9:14 PM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at the classic handheld puzzle game Lights Out.]

The most recent edition of Lights Out, published by Hasbro The best puzzles hide great complexity in simple packages, but Lights Out turned out to have more surprises than I bargained for. I thought I'd write a bit about the handhelds, write a bit about the puzzle appearing in videogames, and be done with it. When I sat down to do the research, though, I discovered that the small game was tied up in some big things like linear algebra, patent law, and the collectors of rare mechanical games.

Lights Up

Lights Out was first produced by Tiger Electronics in 1995 (Tiger was bought by Hasbro in 1998). It was a very simple device with a simple puzzle. You were given a 5x5 grid of buttons, each of which concealed an LED. Some buttons were lit, and others were not. The goal, as one might expect, was to turn all the lights out. But every time you pressed a button, you wouldn't just toggle on or off that one button, you would toggle the buttons above it, below it, and to its sides. If you pressed a button that wasn't on an edge, it would create a pattern like a cross or plus sign. Every button had undesired consequences, and going from a given pattern to lights out became difficult. The game contained a set of fifty patterns of increasing difficulty, and another set of one thousand solvable patterns.

Tiger developed several version over the years. There was Mini Lights Out, which used a 4x4 grid. Lights Out Deluxe had a 6x6 grid, and had puzzles where the buttons you were allowed to press were limited. On the Lights Out Cube, the edges weren't boundaries, so the cross pattern applied everywhere (sometimes wrapping to an adjacent face). Lights Out 2000 added a third state to each button (that is, instead of going from off to on to off, you cycled through off to red to green to off). Lights Out even appeared as an actual, honest-to-goodness, console-based videogame. In 1997, Tiger released the Game.Com to compete with the Gameboy, Lights Out was available as a pack-in for the system.

A screenshot of Sigil of Binding, by John Paul Walton, a reskinning of Mini Lights OutUnsurprisingly, Lights Out became a quick hit among puzzle fans. And since puzzle fans make puzzle games, it didn't take long before imitations appeared in videogames. Clones and solvers hit the web quickly, and they continue to be popular. Sigil of Binding, a popular entrant into the first Jay Is Games Game Design Competition, is simply Mini Lights Out with a new skin. Lights Out was also incorporated as a puzzle in puzzle-oriented adventure games; one of its most recent appearances was as the green wall in Mystery of Time and Space. By 1998, the interactive fiction Usenet groups considered it a cliché and encouraged authors to avoid it. In fact, it became a puzzle standard so quickly, I stopped noticing it years and years ago. And when doing the research, I was surprised that such an old chestnut had only surfaced twelve years ago. I should have expected that the truth would lay much farther back.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The MIT Mystery Hunt (Part II)

January 23, 2007 12:14 AM |

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. Today is the conclusion of a two-part article on one of the most grueling puzzle marathons available, the MIT Mystery Hunt.]

(In Part I, I gave a brief overview of the MIT Mystery Hunt, written while I was still in the middle of helping to run it. Since then, Dr. Awkward won at 2:14 a.m. Sunday morning, and the puzzles were made available. And now, the rest of the article, about the 2007 Mystery Hunt itself.)

Welcome to Other-People.com

To open this year's Hunt, teams gathered in Lobby 7 to watch a badly planned introduction. But before teams could be roped into tedious groupwork, Michael Fauntleroy, a dashing man with infomercial panache, told them there was an easier way. By signing a simple contract, all teams would be able to find the location of the hidden coin after solving only five puzzles. And sure enough, the teams were given access to a set of five relatively easy puzzles that led to a location on campus.

But when they arrived, Fauntleroy was there to tell them the truth. The contract that they'd signed only told them to the location of the coin (safe inside his own pocket); it didn't give them the right to take it. And in return, each team had bargained its collective soul, which now belonged to Mr. Michael Fauntleroy (M.F.) Stopheles. They were working for Hell now, and so they had to complete M.F. Stopheles's infernal instructional videos to become "really, really evil," find their way into Hell proper, and maybe have a slight chance of becoming as evil as the Devil himself.

They were then given their first video course, and a link to the Hunt's real puzzles on the website of Hell: http://www.other-people.com.

By watching the instructional videos and solving the puzzles, teams would learn what really, really evil actions they would have to perform to prove their worthiness to the minions of Hell. For example, after the course that taught teams "How to Succeed at the Performing Arts by Being Really Really Evil," they were given the instruction to "Create a bad sequel to Wordplay." (Wordplay, of course, is last year's documentary about another yearly puzzle event, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Several of the major and minor characters in the film also attend the Mystery Hunt every year.) The "Writing" round told teams to "Almost plagiarize Dan Brown work," and the "Mass Manipulation" round asked teams to create an Illuminati card for the current president of MIT.

Adding to the theme was a schedule of special "sin events," each thematically tied to one of the seven deadly sins, where team members would take part in a real-time puzzle event. At Lust, "dominants" given cheesy pick-up lines had to find "submissives" who'd been given irreverent responses. ("Baby, you take my breath away." "Finally, somebody else into erotic asphyxiation!") At Sloth, solvers had to lie down in a dark room at 4 a.m. and listen to someone spell "somnambulist" very, very slowly in between a bad MIDI version of "Rock a Bye Baby."