Puzzles in Pop Culture: Ten-Letter Word for “Fundamental”

Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes have myriad adaptations, some with a cast of mice, some medical dramas, some featuring aliens and government conspiracies. Still others hew closer to the original nineteenth-century stories, whether in the form of a period piece, like the films starring Robert Downey Jr., or a modernization, like BBC’s Sherlock. My favorite of this genre is the undersung CBS police procedural/drama Elementary, which ran from 2012 to 2019. Starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, Elementary is set in modern-day New York, with Sherlock acting as a pro-bono consultant to the NYPD (he describes himself as a specialist in “deductive reasoning”). While former surgeon Joan Watson eventually becomes Sherlock’s partner in crime-solving, initially, her role is to be his sober companion.

Elementary stays faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s depiction of his protagonist as a drug user, opening with Sherlock escaping early from rehab, only to find Joan waiting for him, as she was hired by his father to help him stay sober. His struggles with addiction, time in 12-step meetings, and relationships with other addicts remain mainstays of the series throughout all seven seasons. The work that Sherlock performs, using his deductive reasoning skills for the police, is considered by both him and Joan to be an integral part of his recovery process. Crime-solving keeps his mind busy, giving him constant puzzles to solve.

At its heart, this is a show about solving puzzles. Sherlock’s job is putting together murder motives and methods; his hobbies are picking locks and stockpiling trivia. He gazes at the world as though it is one big jigsaw puzzle and everything needs to be placed just so to make sense. All the pieces are there; you just need to know how to look at them correctly. One episode even hinges on a love of crosswords.

Season one, episode eight, “The Long Fuse,” depicts a bomb going off in the vent of a web design firm’s office. When Sherlock and Joan are called to consult, they discover that the bomb was built four years prior to detonation. The episode is set in 2012, but the logo on the bomb’s battery is from October 2008, as are the newspaper pieces that were stuffed inside. Pieced together, the newspaper shows a Barack Obama who was still only a senator. The man who detonated the bomb did so by mistake: intending to order a sandwich, he called the detonating pager instead of the deli.

Meanwhile, the specter of Sherlock’s addiction reappears. He goes to investigate the company that rented the bombed office four years prior, rifling through the threatening letters they’ve received from ecoterrorists. The company’s head, Heather Vanowen—played by House’s Lisa Edelstein—walks in on Sherlock’s research and says that she recognizes him as a fellow addict. The moment is tense, until she clarifies, “Crosswords.” She used to have her habit under control, but ever since The New York Times put their archives online, she can’t get enough.

This confession is her undoing. Sherlock didn’t just discover the October 2008 date on the newspaper; he also found the imprints of someone writing on a page above—the word NOVOCAINE, which happened to be the answer to the clue “Pain’s enemy” in that day’s crossword. NOVOCAINE serves as a sufficient sample of the perpetrator’s handwriting; all it takes is asking Heather to fill out a few forms, and presto! Her handwriting can be matched to the crossword, clearly identifying her as the bomb’s builder.

The episode comes to an end with Sherlock’s new 12-step sponsor, Alfredo (Ato Essandoh) pulling up to Sherlock and Joan’s brownstone with a shiny new car. A former carjacker and current security consultant, he’s been tasked with trying to break into the car’s security system. Knowing Sherlock’s love of puzzles, he figured he would first let Sherlock take a crack at it.

Earlier in the episode, Alfredo explained the key to being Sherlock’s sponsor: patience. He needs someone to be patient and methodical, the way anyone solving a puzzle must be. As I said, puzzles are the heart of the show, not just in the sense that they’re at its core, but that they permeate the emotional aspects as well. In the world of Elementary, one must be patient and methodical to solve a murder, to solve a crossword, to break into a car’s security system, and to grow and heal.


To think, a prison sentence could have been avoided had Heather simply stuck to solving digital crosswords like Daily POP’s. No ink-stained muss, no legal fuss, no trace of handwriting or physical evidence left lying around in an office vent, waiting to explode.

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Queer Games Bundle: Undoing the Curse

For the second year in a row, queer indie game developers and gamers alike are celebrating Pride Month with the Queer Games Bundle. Until the end of June, interested parties can download almost 600 games and game-adjacent zines for $60, with a cheaper option available to those for whom that cost is prohibitive. Described as “an initiative to collaboratively support as many queer indie/micro/art devs and makers as possible,” the bundle is a project of swampbabes, a small New York organization of game artists. Swampbabes, as a collective, is “interested in sharing experimental, non-commercial, renegade games-related art and projects and providing a platform for diverse voices and bodies outside the structures of already established hierarchies.” 

“kate sees your future,” by game creator Bagenzo

The bundle certainly provides a platform for diverse voices. There is a massive amount of content in the bundle, so much so that the selection might be intimidating. Let me provide some starting points. For those intrigued by last week’s blog post, there are two volumes of a zine chockablock with Twine tips and tricks, called “The Twine Grimoire.” Wordle fanatics might be entertained by Herdle,” which casts Wordle’s distinct collections of squares as farm animals in need of herding. Did my post about stealing back your time via poetry resonate with you? You might find joy in “Time Bandit,” a game for Windows and MacOS that forces the player to slow down.

If tabletop roleplaying is your preferred gaming mode, never fear—included TTRPG guides range from the adorable and arguably self-explanatory “Rodents With Guitars” to the cyberpunk “Escape from Neo-Millenia.”  I was pleasantly surprised by the number of bundle entries incorporating tarot, like the solo journaling game “My One True Wish,” the browser-based “kate sees your future,” digital tarot deck, “Slimegirl Tarot,” and “A Note in Time,” a TTRPG about writing a letter to your younger self.

“people are labyrinths” by game creator Vian Nguyen

The puzzle-minded among you are likely to enjoy the game RESYNC, available for Windows, MacOS, and Linux (the bundle can be filtered according to the operating systems compatible with each game). RESYNC challenges you to work with robots as allies, solving puzzles to “uncover the true purpose of the mysterious outpost” on which your character has crash-landed. Then there’s the browser-based “people are labyrinths,” a collection of mazes studded with wistful dialogue boxes meditating on topics such as loss, the complex inner workings of other people, and an unwanted job.

Swampbabes states on their website that they hope the community their work fosters “begins to undo the curse inherited from mainstream video game culture.” They leave up to the imagination what exactly that curse is, but if you too feel that mainstream video game culture is cursed, and want to do something about it, purchasing the Queer Games Bundle is a win-win situation: hours of fun for you, and financial support for queer game developers. As of this writing, over a thousand gamers have purchased the bundle, raising almost $66,000 that will be split among the creators at Pride Month’s end.  


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Love Poems and Games: Twined Together

For most gamers, Zork is the classic example of a choose-your-own-adventure, text-based gaming experience. Although Oregon Trail is relatively adorned in images, italso fits the bill. When I think of this genre of game, my mind goes down a slightly different path. Instead, I first think of the Zork parody Thy Dungeonman, hosted on Flash cartoon site Homestar Runner. Then, I think of the queer indie games made in the early 2010s on Twine.

Open-source, hypertext-based storytelling tool Twine was invented by web developer Chris Klimas thirteen years ago. At the time, Klimas had no way of knowing what a hit the program would be in the indie gaming community, but was inspired by the creativity of its users to keep improving its functionality. On November 3, 2009, he wrote about finding a love poem that Dan Waber was scripting in Twine, and said, as a way of explaining “Why I’m Doing This,” “what I’m doing helps people do real things, to make poetry even. There aren’t that many developers out there making things that people make poetry with. I feel lucky.”

Black Mirror imports the choose-your-own-adventure format to viewers’ TV screens

Perhaps Twine’s greatest brush with mainstream fame occurred when the creative team behind Black Mirror used it to storyboard the interactive episode “Bandersnatch.” Mostly, however, Twine has occupied a countercultural space in the world of storytelling. As Adi Robertson wrote in last year’s “Text Adventures: How Twine Remade Gaming,” “Twine’s simplicity felt liberating. It imbued games with the DIY spirit of homemade zines, many of them weirder, sharper, and queerer than their mainstream counterparts.”

In 2013, The Guardian‘s gaming blog shared a post entitled, “Anna Anthropy and the Twine Revolution.” Anna Anthropy isn’t the only game designer highlighted in the article as a revolutionary in the world of gaming; merritt k and Porpentine Charity Heartscape are also mentioned as crucial figures who made the most of Twine’s capacities. Heartscape’s Twine works include Howling Dogs, an award-winning claustrophobic simulation of a prison cell, and k’s include (ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You, which is exactly what it sounds like. As we ring in LGBTQ pride month, the Anna Anthropy Twine game that I’d like to look at closer is called Queers in Love at the End of the World.

Queers in Love at the End of the World lasts exactly ten seconds, time kept by a countdown in the corner of the screen. The game begins with the white text on a black screen, “In the end, like you always said, it’s just the two of you together. You have ten seconds, but there’s so much you want to do: kiss her, hold her, take her hand, tell her.” Each of the bolded words is clickable, leading to more options for how exactly you might want to spend these last moments. No matter what, when the countdown reaches zero, the game ends the same way: “Everything is wiped away” (more lyrical than The Oregon Trail’s “You have died of dysentery”). Clicking through to the afterword provides one last piece of context, the scrawled words, “WHEN WE HAVE EACH OTHER WE HAVE EVERYTHING.”

A year after dubbing Anna Anthropy a leader of the Twine Revolution, The Guardian published games critic Cara Ellison’s “A Verse About Queers in the Love at the End of the World. The subheading, “Twine developer Anna Anthropy turns game mechanics into poetry,” calls back to Klimas’ early inspiration: love poetry. Ellison’s verse refers to the ten-second timer as “tyrannical,” in agreement with Adi Robertson’s claim that Twine games “can compromise [the] sense of control” that a reader would normally have over the pacing of a choose-your-own-adventure-story. Ellison writes: “I want to treat those Twine rooms like Carrie’s prom night and gut them / I want to call that timer’s parents and say DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT HAS DONE TO ME,” pouring frustration onto the page. This is a desperate, angry love poem to a simultaneously brief and expansive interactive love poem.

My earlier post about translating poetry encouraged you to approach poems as games, with a willingness to engage in creative, productive failures. The queer Twine revolution of the last decade shows that it is also possible to treat games as poems. Any game built from language has the capacity to be movingly lyrical and verbally innovative (even a game of Dungeons & Dragons DMed by Vin Diesel). The first Twine Revolution may have passed, but Twine is still an available tool. Why not take it for a spin and map out a poem-game of your own? The second Twine Revolution might begin right on your laptop.


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PN Product Review: GeoLogic

[Note: I received a free copy of this puzzle in exchange for a fair, unbiased review.]

Imagine embodying the forces behind the Big Bang. Science fiction writers do this all the time, bringing into being entire new planets, studding them with swathes of land and bodies of water, devising chemically unfamiliar atmospheres. While I am a writer, fiction is not my forte, meaning that the wonders of world-building are typically out of my wheelhouse—at least, they were. Enter Thinkfun’s GeoLogic: World-Changing Logic Puzzle. This puzzle sells itself as an opportunity to “create your own world,” and “become a planetary architect,” promises that appeal to me as a science fiction fan. The puzzle is recommended for ages eight and up, and requires only one player, though planet-building can be a team activity too.

GeoLogic offers a route to science-fictional world-building other than the written word, bringing the invention of alien landscapes into the hands-on, three-dimensional realm. Born from a conversation between inventors Ken and Jeremy about the concept of a thirty-sided game die, the puzzle consists of a thirty-sided planetary core, fourteen snap-in-place pieces representing five biomes, and sixty challenge cards. Cards range from easy to expert, each indicating where certain biome pieces should go on the planetary core to start. The solver is then left to figure out where to insert a list of remaining biome pieces in order to completely cover the globe’s surface.

The challenge cards are optional; they are intended for players who would prefer to test spatial-logical skills rather than engage in more free-form, creative play. This mode of engaging with GeoLogic still has a science-fictional appeal; it just happens to fall more into the category of consuming science fiction than acting as its mastermind. If you dream of discovering new planets through a process of trial-and-error, then you’ll likely find using the challenge cards a perfect way to spend an afternoon, working your way up the ladder of difficulty levels.

If you’d rather ignore the challenge cards instead, you can take the game up on its suggestion that you “get creative and design your own planets.” As the box asks, “Want to create the largest landmass known to humans? Or oceans that span half the globe?” Now’s your chance! This approach to GeoLogic does require a certain amount of spatial-logical skill, as the goal remains the same: cover all thirty sides of the planetary core in some combination of awkwardly-shaped desert, forest, mountains, tundra, and ocean. If you are looking for a purely creative exercise, you might find the limitations of where the different biome pieces fit to be a frustrating hindrance to your imagination running wild.

An example of a built world that does not meet the goals of the game.

The solver most likely to be enchanted by GeoLogic, by my estimate, is the Tetris fan who longs for a more tactile experience—snapping the pieces into place on the core is very satisfying—and who can appreciate a sprinkling of science-fictional creativity. Those driven to the product by the idea of creating new worlds are less likely to feel fulfilled, but the core and biomes could certainly be used as a jumping-off point for contemplating what different worlds are possible. Dreaming big and freely when it comes to alternate worlds is important, yes. Possibly more important, for those interested in changing the world we’ve been handed, is knowing how to still dream big when complex limitations are imposed upon us from outside.


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Puzzly Podcasts: 99% Invisible and Revisiting the “Average Solver”

A geodesic dome.

Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and the World Game, once said, “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” This quotation inspired the title of 99% Invisible, a podcast about aspects of the designed and built world that typically go overlooked. Hosted by journalist Roman Mars, 99% Invisible began in 2010 as a joint effort between the San Francisco-based American Institute of Architects and SF public radio station KALW. Since April 2021, the podcast has been owned by broadcasting giant Sirius XM, but has remained essentially the same. On a weekly basis, Mars continues to provide listeners with calmly narrated explorations of topics like efforts to track the pandemic, the history of grocery store “ethnic food” aisles, and the skull logo representing Marvel’s Punisher character, including its memetic use among reactionaries.

It might sound counterintuitive, or in Mars’ words, like a “perversity,” to break down elements of design in a purely sound-based format. Without accompanying visuals, how are we meant to truly appreciate a discussion of graphic design in film and television, or the history of Hawaiian shirts? Mars considers the absence of images a boon, saying, “I thought the concept of doing a design radio show where you strip away the visual aesthetics actually made sense, it got to the parts of design I really loved, which was the problem solving.”

This element of problem solving at the core of every episode will likely appeal to any die-hard puzzler. If you’re interested in episodes more explicitly aligned with your love of puzzles and games, I would recommend starting with episode 189, “The Landlord’s Game,” about Monopoly, or episode 335, “Gathering the Magic,” about—you may have guessed—Magic the Gathering, or even episode 349, “Froebel’s Gifts,” which more broadly considers the history of play as a tool of intellectual development.

In Community, the attempt to represent an average human being led to this terrifying mascot.

Then there’s episode 226, “On Average.” My predecessor on the blog previously discussed the issues with the concept of the “average” crossword solver, questioning popular ideas that the average solver might not be familiar with spoon theory or arepas, and what these assumptions imply about the average solver’s identity. “On Average” takes Glenn’s questioning a step further, walking listeners through a nineteenth-century astronomer’s innovation of reducing human populations to statistical averages. The episode focuses most closely on the practice of flattening people out to bodily averages, but also discusses average calculation for social phenomena like marriages and murders, and the rise of the idea that the “average” is “morally the way to think about people.”

99% Invisible‘s host and guests take the stance of critiquing the average as ideal. One example the episode traces is the WWII design of Air Force planes for the average pilot. Most WWII pilots were not anywhere near average; in fact, zero of the 4,063 pilots measured in one study came anywhere close to perfectly fitting the average, and even when standards were relaxed, only a meager handful had average measurements. Todd Rose, author of The End of Average, sums the issue up thusly: “If you are designing something for an average pilot, it’s literally designed to fit nobody.”

The same might be said of puzzles. If we construct a puzzle for the average solver, are we really constructing a puzzle for anyone at all? Or has all the life been sucked out of the puzzle, all the potential for anyone to connect with its quirks? To settle into the cockpit and soar? If ninety-nine percent of who we are is invisible and untouchable, then ninety-nine percent of who we are cannot be reduced to statistics, cannot be turned into averages. Whether physically or mentally, people are more than patterns, more than perfectly proportioned crash test dummies, and every aspect of the world should be designed with this in mind, from planes to puzzles.


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Puzzles (and Games) in Pop Culture: “Strange Things Happen at the One Two Point”

“Strange things happen at the one-two point,” is a proverb based on the ancient East Asian board game Go. As summarized by cybernetic Cameron (played by Summer Glau) in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,“It means the usual rules don’t always apply.” More specifically, the proverb refers to the strategic idiosyncrasies of certain playing positions on the Go board; “the heuristic principles of fighting along the sides or in the [center] often fail in the corner,” Go wiki Sensei’s Library clarifies. When we fight our way into tight corners, the laws of reality that we previously knew shimmer and warp. The more boxed-in we become, the more we need to expect the unexpected.

This is a fitting sentiment to feature in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the fourth installment in a media property dealing with time travel and its resultant paradoxes and alternate timelines. The show depicts its characters having fought their way deep into tight, reality-bending corners in their attempts to prevent apocalypse. By the second-season episode titled for the Go proverb, the rules established in 1984’s The Terminator—what we can expect from time travel, who’s an ally and who’s an enemy, what to do if you want to live—have been thoroughly warped.

In the episode “Strange Things Happen at the One Two Point,” Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) is deeply fixated on a pattern of three dots. Earlier in the series, another time traveler left her a message in blood on a safe house wall: a list of important names with three dots next to it. Seeing these dots in her dreams, Sarah is convinced that there’s more to them then the smeared fingerprints of a dying comrade; her investigation leads her to Dakara Systems, a tech start-up with a logo of three dots. She and Derek (Brian Austin Green) break in late at night, stealing all of the computers’ hard drives and bringing them back to Sarah’s teenage son, John (Thomas Dekker), an accomplished hacker.

On the hard drives, John discovers designs for an artificial intelligence system, a find that sets off Sarah’s internal alarms, but John explains that the designs are useless in light of Dakara Systems’ lack of processing power. Derek calls it a dead end, accusing Sarah of instigating a wild goose chase, an accusation she rebuts with, “Artificial intelligence, the company logo, the three dots—”

“Are fingerprints,” Derek says. “It’s just blood.”

“Everything on that wall has meant something,” Sarah argues. “It’s all blood.”

Sarah is sure that The Turk, the chess-playing AI that she’s been hunting for since it was stolen from inventor Andy Goode, can be traced to Dakara Systems. Derek has lost faith. While John initially has his doubts too, by the next morning, he’s made Sarah and Cameron an appointment to meet with the heads of Dakara Systems. He explains his change of heart: “Andy Goode was building a chess program . . . It always starts small.”

A 1980s reconstruction of the original chess-playing Mechanical Turk.

Dressed up in their best wealthy-investor chic, Sarah and Cameron meet with father-and-son team Alex (Eric Steinberg) and Xander (Eddie Shin) Akagi of Dakara Systems. Probing for connections to The Turk, Cameron poses a crucial question to Xander while Sarah and Alex grab coffee: “Do you like chess?” Later, when Sarah asks her what all of the evidence is adding up to, Cameron says, “Not The Turk. Xander doesn’t play chess. He prefers Go.” She pulls out a folding wooden board inscribed with a grid. “Xander said it’s been calculated that there are more possible Go games than atoms in the universe,” she continues, laying out black-and-white discs in the board’s center. “He’s offered to teach me how to play.

Sarah counters, “Did he offer to tell you about his AI?” and when Cameron reiterates that Xander’s AI is not The Turk, Sarah says, “But it could be a piece of the puzzle. We’ve seen that before.”

Cameron responds, “Strange things happen at the one-two point.”

I won’t spoil for you which strange things happen here, at this point where Sarah Connor and her allies have boxed themselves in strategically by changing reality countless times in an effort to stave off nuclear apocalypse. Instead, let’s dwell together on the beauty of that phrasing, the “strange things,” as a way of describing action in a game so deceptively simple: black and white stones laid out on a grid. They don’t seem like they should stack up next to the strange things that happen in a work of science fiction—the way the air crackles and sparks with blue light whenever a new time traveler tears a hole through the decades; how a Terminator’s robotic skeleton designs a chemical bath for itself that allows its flesh and skin to regrow; the liquid metal CEO played by Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson, whose arms extend at will into gleaming daggers.

By placing Go on the same playing field as these miraculous, speculative sights, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles reminds us that games needn’t be elaborate to be magical, needn’t be novel to be surprising. As long as each player is an elaborate, novel human being, an ancient game like Go can continue to startle and move, to belong meaningfully alongside us in the twenty-first century—and further onward still.

have thought to look for otherwise.


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