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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Six Characters in Search of Free Will

Last week, we traveled back in time, before the dawn of escape rooms, to what was nonetheless a perfect example of escape room horror: the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of An Exit.” Now, let us jump forward, past the present, into the near-future. A clear thematic descendant of “Five Characters in Search of An Exit,” Black Mirror‘s speculative “USS Callister” takes the “everyone is a toy” premise of “Five Characters” further than the Twilight Zone episode carried it (the Black Mirror showrunners have even described the episode as “Adult Toy Story).

In contrast to “Five Characters,” the setup of “USS Callister” is not especially simple. We begin in a clear Star Trek homage as the starship USS Callister‘s crew, helmed by Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), celebrates a victory. Abruptly, the show cuts from this slick, primary-colored setting, to a world much drabber and closer to our own. Daly is revealed to be the unassuming founder of a virtual-gaming company called Callister, and a fan of the retro sci-fi television show Spacefleet. Each of his crew members from the opening scene reappears in the Callister office as a different coworker; all, at best, seem indifferent to Daly’s existence.

Enter newly hired programmer Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), who is as big a fan of Daly’s work as Daly is of Spacefleet. She and Daly awkwardly hit it off, until the company’s co-founder, James Walton (Jimmi Simpson), waltzes in and steals Cole’s attention. Next thing we know, Daly returns home to sign into his VR game and reappear on the USS Callister‘s bridge. There, we see a side of him that was not immediately obvious before: he is power-hungry, violent, reveling in belittling the crew.

The next time Daly is in the office, he steals Cole’s thrown-away coffee cup and takes it home, where he uses her DNA to create a sort of virtual clone of her. This clone, despite Daly’s desire to play god, is not a mere plaything; she is fully sentient, retaining all of the original Cole’s memories, feelings, and personality. When she awakes on the USS Callister, miniskirted and vintagely coiffed, she is terrified. Without Daly present, the other crew members explain the situation, that she is stuck forever in a modded version of the VR game the original Cole programs: Infinity. They are all digital clones, all stuck.

Walton describes the situation as “an eternal waking nightmare from which there is no escape,” but Cole tries to escape regardless, running through the ship’s halls until Daly transports her back onto the bridge. She refuses to play along with the Spacefleet roleplay premise, so he uses his God-like powers to torture her until she agrees to cooperate. Still, that first flight from the bridge is not Cole’s last attempt to wiggle free of Daly’s clutches. Her schemes just get more strategic. Even when she learns that the reason Walton plays along is that Daly has Walton’s son’s DNA on a lollipop in his minifridge, Cole sees this as further motivation to take Daly’s toys away from him.

After another fumbled escape attempt that provokes Daly’s sadistic ire, Cole finally hits upon a winning plan. She spots a wormhole out the ship’s window, representing an incoming update patch to the game. Cole suggests flying straight into the wormhole, thereby deleting all of their code, killing them. Freeing them. First, however, it’s necessary for someone out in the real world to destroy the DNA hoarded in Daly’s minifridge.

The plan is for Cole to go on a mission to a planet’s surface alone with Daly, where she distracts him. Meanwhile, the crew beams up the device that Daly uses to control the game and contact the outside world. The crew is able to contact the real-world Cole, and blackmail her with the cloned Cole’s knowledge. They compel her to order a pizza to Daly’s apartment so that he’s forced to temporarily exit the game, then, while he’s occupied, to: 1. steal all of the DNA in the minifridge, and 2. replace the nodule he uses to connect to the game with a decoy that does nothing.

Cole distracts Daly by luring him into a lake.

The end result is that the crew of the USS Callister is able to successfully fly into the update patch wormhole without Daly’s interference. Contrary to their prediction, this does not erase their code; they are not killed, but they are free. They are transported from Daly’s personal, modded version of Infinity to the greater Infinity, which lives in the Cloud. Meanwhile, Daly, in his attempt to chase after them, has gotten himself stuck in his own game.

This is a much more optimistic ending than that of “Five Characters.” The characters not only are able to transform themselves from playthings to game-players; in doing so, they escape the confines of their limited world—within reason. While they are no longer imprisoned within Daly’s computer, able instead to roam the Cloud-stored game universe, they are still technically bound, forever, to the starship.

If we classify this as escape room horror, with a requirement of the genre being that someone must escape the room alive, then we are working with a more ephemeral, existential understanding of what constitutes a “room.” The characters’ ultimate goal is not to escape their physical surroundings, but to escape the game rules that have been put in front of them. The horror herein is not about literal claustrophobia, but about the gnawing psychological claustrophobia that comes from an absence of free will. They are not escaping from the ship; they are escaping from hierarchy. It is the perfect distillation of escape rooms as a team-building exercise, driving home that there is no “dictator” in “team.”

A review of the episode in The Atlantic pointed out that whereas so much of Black Mirror‘s storytelling is about “the terror of being connected,” “USS Callister” goes in the opposite direction. What begins as a seeming cautionary tale against the horrors of video games becomes, instead, an ode to collaborative approaches to gaming. The fact that the crewmembers still have each other and an infinite universe to explore is presented, unequivocally, as a happy ending. It’s a happy ending that anyone who finds joy in shared game experiences like escape rooms, multiplayer video games, or tabletop role-playing will no doubt find resonant. Hell is not other people; it is other people having undue power, and stripping us of our personhood.


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Escape Rooms and Bottle Episodes: A Condensed, Horrific History

When they appear in sitcoms, escape rooms are played for laughs and sentimentality, true to their common real-life role as a fun diversion and a team-bonding activity. On the other hand, horror media has a lot to say about the sinister side of being trapped in a room and dependent on only your wits to free you; a whole bevy of twenty-first-century films depict escape rooms from Hell. Consider the horrific potential of pairing claustrophobia with psychologically intricate tasks, and it makes sense that the recent rise of escape rooms as a pastime would be accompanied by a rise in twisting that pastime for terrifying purposes.

Escape room horror is not, however, a new concept, despite the modern appellation. Before No Escape Room (2016), Riddle Room (2016), Escape Room (2018), Escape Room (2019), Escape Room 2: Tournament of Champions (2020), and even before Fermat’s Room—which came out in 2007, the same year as the first documented real-life escape room—there was the 1997 movie Cube. In Cube, six strangers are trapped within a harrowingly booby-trapped setup of cubic rooms, and must rely on math and logic to escape death.

“It’s like something out of that twilighty show about that zone,” Homer said before entering his three-dimensional predicament in this Halloween episode of The Simpsons.

I am not here to recommend that you watch Cube, not unless you’re a fan of creative, vivid gore. Still, it is remarkable as a precursor to escape room horror directly inspired by actual escape rooms. Back in 1994 when director and writer Vincenzo Natali first completed the script, the closest relative to Natali’s vision was the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”

“Five Characters” originally aired in December 1961, sandwiched between episodes about time travel and World-War-II-era body-swapping. Compared to those premises, the episode’s set up is simple. Frustratingly so; the lack of bells and whistles is the source of the horror. The characters who wake up trapped together don’t even have names: they are simply, according to narrator Rod Serling, “Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an army major—a collection of question marks.”

These question marks play out the episode in essentially a featureless void. There are no brainteasers or riddles to unravel, no booby traps to dodge or calculations to perform. Rather, the puzzles are both larger and more bare-bones, existential: who are they, where are they, and is it possible to be somewhere else? Is it worth it to be somewhere else?

We might also call this story an example of bottle episode horror. In a 2014 interview, New Girl showrunner Elizabeth Meriweather said about the bottle episode, “Background Check,” “For a bottle episode, the stakes have to be very, very high, or else you’re feeling the claustrophobia of not leaving the loft.” This is a good rule of thumb for a sitcom, but what about a horror show, wherein you want to feel the claustrophobia? I’d argue that high stakes are just as necessary for bringing the claustrophobia home as for obscuring its presence; the line between effective comedy and effective horror, here, is thin.

The Community episode “Cooperative Calligraphy” makes no effort to obscure the claustrophobia of the situation; rules were made to be broken.

Does “Five Characters” offer the emotional depth and palpable claustrophobia necessary to bring out the horror of the situation? A review posted on The Twilight Zone Project seems divided on the issue, speaking to the episode’s building suspense but also calling the characters “cartoonish” and the twist “cheap.” “Five Characters,” you see, concludes with the reveal that the clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper and army major aren’t just playing a game of escape; they themselves are playthings, dolls in a charity toy drive bucket.

I have seen this episode several times, and still don’t know what exactly to make of this twist. What meaning can be gleaned from it, what metaphor? Uncertain what exactly the cast’s toy status tells us about humanity or anything else that lofty, I’d rather think of the episode as an historical artifact, and situate the concept of the players as the playthings in the context of the escape room and/or bottle episode horror television that has followed in its wake. Stay tuned for next week, when I examine a clear, modern descendant of “Five Characters in Search of An Exit.” (No, it’s not Cube.) Let the suspense build . . .


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An Immersion Course in the Language of Images

A lot can happen inside a series of squares. An Oscar-winning actor might meet a basketball star, or your favorite song might intersect with the punny punchline of a joke. Gimmicky grid construction might reveal hidden gems! Gotham might be saved from the Riddler’s clutches! Calvin and Hobbes might sculpt an army of gruesome snowmen! Krazy Kat might introduce newspaper readers to gender fluidity! You might discover new facets of your own artistic voice!

There’s a good chance you already fill in creative arrangements of squares on a regular basis, enriching your brain’s language centers by solving crosswords. Why not take this ritual a step further? Lynda Barry’s Making Comics begins with the reminder, “There was a time when drawing and writing were not separated for you,” and she shows us that it is possible to return to such a time. By partaking in the book’s exercises, you can learn to reunite images and language in your mind, to “practice the language of the image world.”

If you feel like your language centers need a good jolt, comic-making might be a perfect new hobby, and Making Comics is the perfect introductory text for puzzle fans. As Barry explains, the book’s exercises “take advantage of a basic human inclination to find patterns and meaning in random information,” and who loves patterns more than puzzlers? For instance, one simple exercise she says that anyone can do is drawing a scribble and then figuring out how to turn it into a monster. It’s that simple.

Your blogger with the book in question.

Many of the pattern-finding exercises in Making Comics’ treasure trove are collaborative, depending on a classroom setting or simply a creative partnership among friends. Others, however, can be done in solitude, including the exercises I’m going to take you through below. To prepare: Barry recommends, when just starting out, working with black Flair pens, a composition notebook (preferably not made from recycled materials), index cards (blank on one side), and basic 8.5×11 printer paper. She describes the composition notebook as “a place rather than a thing,” and says that you should try to keep it by your side like a faithful dog. “Making comics involves the same daily practice that learning any language does,” so keeping your materials handy is crucial.

Do you have your materials? Great! Let’s dive into the Animal Diary and consequent Animal Ad Lib, instructions pictured below!

More of Barry’s comics wisdom can be found on her Tumblr and Instagram, or of course, if you’re hooked, you can always pick up a copy of the book. It’s a full immersion course in a new language, in a new way of seeing.


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The Monster at the End of This Blog

This past Sunday, Instagram user @muppethistory posted that PBS had newly released a Grover-centric game called “The Monster at the End of This Game.” Based on the classic children’s book of a similar name, the game joins assorted other Sesame Street fare such as “Show Me the Cookies,” “Ernie’s Dinosaur Daycare,” and “Oscar’s Rotten Ride” on the PBS Kids website and in the PBS Kids Game app.

Gameplay is unsurprisingly straightforward, designed as it is for small children. On most screens, challenges are as simple as clicking a glowing item; the imperative to draw a triangle notches the difficulty up barely a smidge. The most complex obstacle to reaching the game’s end (and the monster therein) is a shattered arrow that must, like a tangram, be restored to wholeness. As the player rebuilds the arrow, Grover despairs, “I did not know you were such a skilled puzzler!”

While I have no doubt that many of our readers’ puzzle skills outstrip my own, I do, at twenty-seven, have a significant edge on the game’s intended audience of preschool puzzlers. Why, then, did I find “The Monster at the End of the Game” so captivating? It wasn’t nostalgia for the fuzzy blue Grover’s picture-book antics fueling my determined clicking and dragging—I did not read “The Monster at the End of the Book” as a child. I had only the dimmest suspicion, via cultural osmosis, that a mirror would feature prominently in the conclusion, and could not say for certain if Grover would be the monster in the mirror, or if I would be.

From Lynda Barry’s Making Comics

Without this particular childhood memory on my side, Grover’s pleading that I not finish the game, his insistence that only woe and horror waited for me as I progressed past the stumbling blocks he placed in my path, reminded me of nothing so much as Lemony Snicket’s narration in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Maybe the driving factor in convincing me to keep playing wasmy uncertainty as to how exactly it would end. But maybe it was a different branch of childhood nostalgia, fondness for the perilous problems plaguing the Baudelaire children in Snicket’s series.

In 2004, HarperCollins released a collection of puzzles called The Puzzling Puzzles: Bothersome Games Which Will Bother Some People, based on the Baudelaires’ trials and tribulations and framed as a training manual for a secret organization from the series. According to the Snicket Fandom wiki, many of the puzzles are designed to be unsolvable, and the letter to the reader from Snicket himself describes the book as “distressing,” and “frustrating,” the polar opposite of “The Monster at the End of This Game” (at least, if you’re outside Sesame Street’s target demographic).

Before signing off, Snicket writes, “I have dedicated my life to unraveling the puzzles that surround the doomed Baudelaire orphans. Why should you?”

Violet and Klaus Baudelaire in the Netflix adaptation of ASoUE

Why indeed? Why try to solve the unsolvable? Why try to solve the extremely easily solvable? When the story is so good, why not try? Who can resist a compelling narrative, especially one brimming with pathos and puzzles, mystery and monsters? Whether the primary focus is on Muppets or murders, whether the monster is Grover, Count Olaf, or myself, I always want to reach the end. I’ll untie any rope, click any brick, trace any triangle—if it means gazing into the mirror at any good story’s conclusion.


If you also love the intersection of stories and puzzles, our Book Smarts, Movie Madness, and TV Time Daily POP puzzles are probably right up your alley! 

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Counting Down the Hours With Some Holiday Trivia!

As you well know, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, we usually post a puzzle to celebrate a given holiday.

But last year we started a new holiday tradition and offered you some trivia to help count down the hours until Christmas Day!

So this year, we’re doing it again. That’s right, twelve questions on holiday pop culture from around the world. How does that sound?

Feel free to cherry-pick from these questions for your own Yuletide trivia. We’ve tried to keep it relatively easy and accessible, though a few tougher historical questions might’ve snuck in alongside the song trivia and the food trivia.

Enjoy!


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1. What holiday song was the first song played in space?

2. How old was Brenda Lee when she recorded Christmas classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”?

3. Saint Nicholas, whom Santa Claus is based on, is from what country?

4. Which well-known Christmas song was originally a Thanksgiving song?

5. How many days of Kwanzaa are there?

6. When are gingerbread houses believed to have been invented? 

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7. Which founding father had a famously boozy eggnog recipe that forgot to note the number of eggs needed but included the instruction “Taste frequently”?

8. Who was the first U.S. president to recognize Hanukkah in the White House?

9. You can stay at the original “Home Alone” house through Airbnb. Where is the home – and film – located?

10. In Oaxaca City, Mexico, Noche de rábanos is celebrated every 23rd December. Which food gives this festival its name?

11. Which Christmas song’s second verse begins with “The cattle are lowing”?

12. After leaving Bethlehem, to which country did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus travel?


Do you have any favorite nuggets of holiday trivia? Please share it with us in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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