Puzzles in Pop Culture: Person of Interest

In 2011, speculative CBS thriller Person of Interest began with the premise that a computer genius named Finch (played by Michael Emerson) had built an AI that could tell when acts of violence were about to occur in New York City. In order to intervene, he hired a former special operative named Reese (Jim Caviezel). The only information that the AI ever provides is a social security number; each episode, this leaves Finch and Reese to solve the central question: does this SSN belong to a victim of an impending crime, or a perpetrator? Do they need to be stopped, or saved?

Solving this question typically involves a veritable cornucopia of guesswork, research, hacking, plot twists, and pieces of paper taped to walls and connected by webs of string (one of my favorite TV tropes, featured in Supernatural and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Chess also features prominently, as do various secretive systems of communication. No episode is quite as likely to appeal to your inner solver, though, as season four, episode two, “Nautilus,” which aired on September 30th, 2014.

In this episode named for its chambered nautilus shell motif, Finch and Reese receive the SSN for chess grand master and college student Claire Mahoney (Quinn Shephard). She’s AWOL from school and chess in pursuit of a mysterious game’s prize. The game began with a post on an obscure message board: an image of a nautilus, captioned, “If you seek enlightenment, be the first to walk through the chambers.” There was data hidden in the image of a nautilus, and it sent Claire off down the rabbit hole.

Following her, Finch watches as she pulls a tab of paper from a lost dog sign, with a nautilus watermarked behind the numbers. After calling the number leads to nothing, Finch realizes: “It’s not a phone number . . . it’s multiplication.” Multiplying produces GPS coordinates, pointing to a location in Harlem.

There, a mural of seemingly random shapes (painted by artist Apache Gonzalez) covers a wall. Once again, there’s the nautilus. Back in his office, Finch studies a photo of the mural, finally recognizing it as a variation on a Bongard Problem. He explains, “This particular type of puzzle presents two sets of diagrams. The diagrams in the first set share a common feature. The blocks never overlap with the curved lines. Conversely, in the second set, the blocks do touch the curves, but there’s another common element.”

Reese interjects, “There’s a different number of blocks in each diagram.”

“Using this pattern,” Finch continues, “I can fill in the blank space with the only number of blocks left out, which is three, thus solving the puzzle, creating a sort of three-pronged arch.” Googling, Reese finds a matching photo of an arch in Central Park.

That night, Claire is near the arch, standing in traffic. When Reese interrogates her about her apparent death wish, they’re interrupted, but later, the answer comes to light. If you stand at the right point in the street, banners for “motorcycle safety month” visually blend together to show the faint image of a nautilus. Beneath the nautilus: pictures of traffic lights that Finch correctly identifies as the equivalent of Braille dots. They spell out, “184th and 3rd.”

Claire’s next found in a biker bar at 184th and 3rd, staring at a bulletin board decorated in gang logos. One features a skull with nautiluses for eyes; letters surround the skull in a seemingly random arrangement. At an otherwise dead end, Reese sits at his desk, rewriting the letters over and over, seeking a scrambled word, until Fusco (Kevin Chapman) determines that the letters refer to musical notes, forming the tune to “New York, New York.” Reese is able to deduce a location: the Empire State Building’s observation deck.

Here on out, the puzzles become simpler, less compelling; from a Doylist standpoint (referring to author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s perspective, as opposed to fictional character John Watson’s), we might assume that the writers have decided that it’s time for the plot to dominate, turning the puzzles into mere perfunctory means to an end. I’m convinced, however, by the Watsonian explanation, that Claire has sufficiently proven herself, and the AI game-master is content now to lead her by the hand.

But why the nautilus shell? In the episode, computer hacker Root (Amy Acker) refers to the nautilus as one of nature’s examples of a logarithmic spiral. It’s commonly also referred to as an example of the golden ratio, but as explained in “Math as Myth: What looks like the golden ratio is sometimes just fool’s gold,” that’s not so true. Is that they key—that the prize Claire seeks is fool’s gold?

The episode’s primary puzzles have been solved, and the series has come to an end (though it can be streamed on HBO Max). Still, this one question of the nautilus’ significance remains. What is the symbolic connection between a nautilus shell’s chambers and the “enlightenment” the game promises? Is enlightenment encoded in the logarithmic spiral, or in something more particular to the mollusk itself? I don’t have the answers, but as the nineteenth-century poem “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. shows, Person of Interest’s screenwriters were not the first to see something spiritual in the nautilus, and I doubt they’ll be the last.

In closing, I offer the following excerpt from Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative to mull over in your own pursuit of the nautilus shell’s deeper meaning:

The spiral does not belong to the nautilus shell, unless it also belongs to the whirlpool, the hurricane, the galaxy, the double helix of DNA, the tendrils of a common vine. If there are golden ratios that govern the structures of our bodies and our world, then of course there must be such shapes among the less measurable aspects of existence.


You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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.


For more fun, daily forays into the world of language, there’s Daily POP!

You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search. Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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! 

You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search. Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

Returning to Wordle: The Evolution of a Phenomenon

Suddenly, for Josh Wardle, every square is green.

Each day brings a new five-letter word for Wordle’s devotees to deduce. If I had to pick one five-letter word to describe Wordle’s current moment, it would be SHIFT, as in seismic movement and mutation. This is for a couple of reasons. The first is a piece of news that rippled through the puzzle-loving internet at the end of January: Wordle has been purchased by the New York Times, and will be packaged with games like Spelling Bee and Letter Boxed going forward. Creator Josh Wardle’s Twitter announcement pointed out, “If you’ve followed along with the story of Wordle, you’ll know that NYT games play a big part in its origins and so this step feels very natural to me.” For anyone who hasn’t done a deep dive into Wordle’s genesis: Wardle is referring, here, to the fact that he created the game as a gift for his partner after she got hooked on Spelling Bee and the Times crossword.

Despite how it started, Wordle is no longer just “a love story” (as a January 3rd Times headline said). It’s also a story of hitting the jackpot—reportedly, Wardle sold the game for a number in the low seven figures—and it could become, as well, a story of the internet’s ongoing privatization. Wardle’s tweet stated that the game will be “free to play for everyone” even after its migration to the Times website, but fears to the contrary abound. A Mashable article about the news features the sub-headline, “’Paywall’ has too many letters,” and ends by gloomily describing Wordle as “beautiful while it lasted.” Twitter user @mcmansionhell summed up the ordeal: “the NYT took one nice and simple thing that a lot of people really liked, a dumb bit of fun in our exhaustingly dark times, and implied that they’ll stick it behind a paywall. exhausting.” Overall, ominous social media speculation has little to do with resenting Josh Wardle’s laudable success, and everything to do with anxiety about the once-free commons of the internet becoming less and less free by the day.

In response to this anxiety, solvers are already finding workarounds for the possible future paywall. One solution is downloading the Wordle site to your device, a process with instructions located here. Another alternative is playing on the Wordle Archive, which recycles previous days’ words.

Even if the Times does decide to throw Wordle behind a paywall, its story will remain a love story. I’m not just talking about Wardle’s love for his partner; I’m referring to the public’s intense love for the game. Regardless of who officially owns Wordle, it has taken on a life of its own, and that’s the second reason why SHIFT is the word of the moment. Minimalist though it may appear, Wordle has sparked widespread creativity, inspiring memes and jokes, craft projects, and spin-off puzzles that take the game’s basic premise and alter the specifics just enough to be novel. In a short span of time, Wordle has mutated, in many incarnations, away from where it began in Wardle’s Brooklyn home.

“Not Wordle, just XYZ” memes are everywhere these days, much like Wordle results themselves

Absurdle, for instance, is a version of Wordle that does not start out with one secret word in mind. Instead, behind the scenes, the site responds to the player’s guesses by—as slowly as possible—whittling down a mammoth list of possible words until the player essentially traps the computer into only having one word left. If you identified with my earlier post speculating that Wordle’s appeal lies in its un-bingeable nature and the way it provides all players with a short, sweet shared experience, then maybe the infinitely replayable Absurdle is not for you. On the other hand, if you prefer your puzzles to have concepts that can be difficult to wrap your brain around, then dive on in. You might also love to read a further explanation from the creator of the exact mechanics of the computer’s adversarial actions.

Then there’s Queerdle, a Wordle lookalike in which the word is a different length each day, but all are themed around LGBTQ culture and history. Answers have included COMPTON—in reference to the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riot, a San Francisco-based Stonewall Riot predecessor—and DIVINE, as in the name of the drag queen best known for appearances in Hairspray and other John Waters films. When players guess correctly, a pop-up appears with a GIF or different snappy indicator of the word’s queer significance, and a grid of snake, coconut, and banana emojis meant to emulate Wordle’s shareable squares.

Byrdle is a version of Wordle where all answers are related to choral music. Gordle is Wordle for hockey fanatics. Squirdle invites players to guess names of Pokemon, Weredle howls words at the full moon, and you can probably guess the theme organizing Lordle of the Rings. Call them knock-offs, parodies, or homages, these variations most importantly are multiplying explosively. The New York Times may own the original game, but they cannot commandeer the inventive passion that Wordle has stoked in puzzlers everywhere.

____

Not Wordle, just a different exciting opportunity to solve new word puzzles each day:

You can find delightful deals on puzzles on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

The Fool, The Magician, The High Priestess, and The Gamer

Jane Seymour reading tarot as the James Bond character Solitaire in Live and Let Die

What do you think of when you think of tarot cards? Puzzles, games, logic, and creative problem-solving? Or crystal balls, tea leaves, palmistry, and vibes?

Popular imagination seems to be split on this. Googling “tarot” brings me recommendations for psychics I might want to visit; a significant chunk of the other search results occupy astrology and “lifestyle” websites. A Teen Vogue introduction to tarot states, “To those who think the practice of reading tarot is an occult art reserved for spook sessions, let me say: You’re wrong,” but goes on to explain that a tarot reading is an intimate conversation.

However, according to A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack, Volume 1,tarot cards were invented for gaming, not for fortune-telling, when they originated in 15th century Italy. And while their modern role in the world of games and puzzles is fairly divorced from their roots, many still see them as having puzzly potential.

The final puzzle in horror video game Silent Hill 3, for example,requires players to arrange tarot cards in a specific order. New tabletop narrative puzzle game The Light in the Mist involves unraveling a mystery with a deck of tarot cards as your greatest resource. A 2018 Nerdist article gives advice on how to incorporate tarot into tabletop role-playing regardless of the original game’s design. There are also many jigsaw puzzles drawing on the designs of various tarot decks, including the classic 1909 Rider-Waite deck, and the “Life is Like a Board Game Tarot” is a fully functional deck modeling itself after Monopoly.

A couple of Rider-Waite major arcana cards. The Fool is commonly the trump card in tarot games. The Wheel of Fortune is unfortunately unrelated to the game show.

The Nerdist article does suggest that using tarot for role-playing is “poor form and bad luck,” and that it would be safest to use a special, dedicated deck for any gameplay rather than mixing and matching your fictional fortunes with your more “factual” future. But just as it’s a personal choice whether to treat a Ouija board as a spiritual artifact and potential gateway to demonic possession or to take it very literally as a toy by Hasbro, only you can decide how much weight to give this word of caution.  

Yes, some people fear that they are tempting fate by using a tarot deck for both serious and recreational purposes—but maybe you’re perfectly comfortable tempting fate! Or maybe you’ll choose to acquire a deck that will only ever be used recreationally. Either way, you can have a lot of fun with tarot, even beyond the possibilities of incorporating it into your usual tabletop role-playing hijinks.

The original Italian trick-taking tarot card games introduced the concept of cards trumping other cards to the realm of gameplay, a concept we can trace all the way to modern fantastical, battle-style competitive card games like Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh. After occupying Milan, the French adopted the idea of playing with the tarot deck, and the game of French tarot quickly became favored more highly than chess. The full rules to playing French tarot can be found here, though you might decide that you’re more interested in playing Grosstarock, which Stewart Dunlop describes as “really cool, if you want to play for real stakes, but are tired of poker.” Or perhaps your fancy will be struck by Hungarian Tarokk or Königrufen, the latter of which is wildly popular in Austria. These games differ in exact rules, number of players, and even number of cards used from the tarot deck, but are united by gameplay featuring bidding and the assignment of point values to the cards.

Your blogger’s preferred tarot decks

Between trick-taking, tabletop gaming, and forecasting the future, tarot is replete with many marvelous uses. While its forecasting function appears to tie into the mystical side of the cards more than the puzzly side, I’d argue that it sits comfortably in both realms. Michelle Tea, who wrote The Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards (my personal go-to volume for discerning meaning in my own readings), describes her early experience with tarot thusly:

I was in a growing state of awe at their intuitive accuracy, the way the small stories encapsulated in each illustration knit together into a wider narrative that made sense, sometimes poetic, sometimes chillingly pointed.

What I see in this take, above all, is the word narrative, drawing me back to the allure of tying tarot and tabletop gaming together. There may be no dice or character stats involved, but tarot still enables us to tell compelling stories. Considering that we are living in a world in which forces such as Lifehacker urge us to gamify our lives via apps, I think now is tarot’s time to shine. Maybe pointedly using the same deck for both role-playing games and connecting with your inner truth is actually the perfect way to go, a strategy for injecting your day-to-day life with the magic of games.

Move over habit trackers and apps that turn jogging into an escape from zombies! Here comes something more poetic and more pointed: in Michelle Tea’s words, “an ancient story system” that will fill your life with wonder.


I see in your future . . . a tall, dark stranger, a voyage across the sea, and some delightful deals on puzzles. You can find those deals on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

The PuzzleNationer’s Guide to The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible

“Cleopatra is dead,” begins the voiceover narration of the trailer for The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible. “Distant empires struggle for world domination, while the people in the middle kingdoms wait for the coming of a so-called Messiah.” So go the events of the first century A.D. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century A.D., and Cleopatra is still dead, but we also have the internet, and with it, Kickstarter crowdfunding.

As of this writing, the Kickstarter for The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible has raised over $47,000 from more than 880 backers, massively exceeding its original $5,500 goal. And that’s with a February 5th deadline—there’s plenty of time left for that pot of gold to overflow even more. An ambitious project of Red Panda Publishing, the Guide sets the events of the Bible alongside non-biblically documented events, and in the midst of all of this, invites players to create their own characters and stories as they would in any other Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The project creators note that this sort of collaborative, choose-your-own adventure storytelling is itself biblical, explaining:

“Each time Jesus tells his gathered listeners about the prodigal son or the good Samaritan, he is creating a scenario that challenges the listener not only to reflect, but to respond. Just look at how many of these parables end with a question like ‘what would you do next?’”

You might have a question of your own: What exactly is all that money for? The funds are intended to go toward the production and publication of a hardcover, vividly illustrated campaign guide compatible with “5E,” shorthand for the 5th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. The differences between the various editions of the game might seem opaque if you’re not well-versed in tabletop gaming, but as one blog post puts it, “5E is not just the most approachable edition of D&D ever, it’s also one of the most approachable RPGs ever made,” meaning that it’s simple for new players to grasp the game’s mechanics and dive right in.

While others have imagined biblical D&D, the Guide goes far far beyond imagination.

The same post argues, however, that 5E is not so appealing for GMs, or Game Masters—typically known as Dungeon Masters in the context of Dungeons & Dragons. This is because rather than being granted a ton of artistic license as they run the show, “The GMs are just there to execute the game. Particularly, to execute published, prewritten games. And to allow the players to show off their creative visions during those published, prewritten games.” The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible is one such game. At 350 pages, the Guide will be replete with relevant maps, NPCs, monsters, and all other information necessary to produce a fully fleshed-out story, as long as your character doesn’t exceed level 10. For the uninitiated: characters level up as they go on adventures, eventually maxing out at level 20; a thorough explanation of character levels can be found here.

The Kickstarter FAQ page promises simultaneous fealty to the Bible’s text and incorporation of the game aspects players love—“dungeon crawls, mysteries, romance, monsters, etc.” High-level supporters of the book have also been promised a related Spell Cards deck and world map poster.

Now here’s the part that makes this truly a new source of adventure rather than a rehash of a narrative with which many are intimately familiar: the majority of the campaign takes place in 26 A.D., a period in Jesus’ life that the Bible does not cover. The Guide’s creators explain that this choice is meant to give players freedom and flexibility to build their own narratives within the campaign without conflicting with the Bible’s own narrative arc.

The Simpsons and Flanders children sit down to a game of Good Samaritan.

According to a Reddit comment by the creators, the Guide was first born out of a personal desire to play in a biblical setting, with no plans for a wider release. However, the Christian response, particularly from youth groups and Bible study groups that play 5E, pushed Red Panda Publishing to expand their vision. This is the publishing group’s first major project, though the game designers have independently published a few board games.

The year is 2022. We have the internet, we have Kickstarter, we have Dungeons & Dragons, Cleopatra is dead, and The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible is scheduled to ship out to Kickstarter supporters this coming August.


In the meantime, treat yourself to some delightful deals on puzzles. You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!