To Solve This Murder Mystery, You Need to Break the Game

[Image courtesy of Game Informer.]

Our readership isn’t a predominantly video game-savvy audience. We have lots of app users and lots of pencil-and-paper solvers in the PuzzleNation membership, but fewer gamers.

So you may wonder why I periodically write about video games when it’s a niche interest for the majority of our readers. That’s an entirely fair question.

As a puzzle enthusiast, I’m constantly seeking out new ways to build puzzles and solve them. Brain teasers, word problems, riddles, and mechanical puzzles all fit under the umbrella of “puzzles,” but they’re all very different solving experiences. Similarly, there’s a huge difference between a pencil-and-paper puzzle and an escape room, a murder mystery and a scavenger hunt, an encrypted message and a puzzle box.

But they’re all puzzles. And that’s what I find so fascinating. There are endless ways to challenge ourselves in puzzly fashion, and video games are constantly innovating when it comes to puzzle-solving.

[Image courtesy of Zelda Dungeons.]

Whether we’re talking about navigating past guards with well-placed arrow shots in the Thief games, navigating the labyrinth of the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or maneuvering around a room in mind-bending ways with your portal gun in Portal, video games can take 2D puzzle ideas and bring them into the third dimension in amazing ways.

A friend recently told me about a game called Iris Fall, where you actually manipulate light and shadows in order to solve puzzles. That’s not just ingenious, it’s beautiful as well.

There are even games that let you change the rules of the puzzle itself in order to solve it.

[Image courtesy of Born Frustrated Studio.]

And another game in that vein recently came to market, a detective game called File://maniac.

In this murder mystery, you’re tasked with tracking down a devious murderer who happily taunts you with messages as you pursue them. But instead of pursuing leads and accomplishing tasks in more traditional detective-game format, you actually have to manipulate the files of the game itself as you play.

Yes, the very coding and organization of the game is the basis of the puzzles and codes for you to unravel.

Heather Alexandra at Kotaku explains more:

Getting rid of a locked door might require placing the door’s files in your recycling bin. Finding the password to a lock means opening up a handful of notebook files and searching until you find the code. It’s a different sort of puzzle solving, one that encourages the player to be aware of the game world’s artificiality… playing around with the actual game files creates a fun mixture of puzzling and “exploration” as you poke around folders and directories.

[Image courtesy of Go Go Free Games.]

It’s a brilliantly meta concept. Whereas many games and puzzle experiences are all about immersion, ensuring you forget you’re playing a game and encouraging you to dive into the narrative and gameplay itself, File://maniac demands that you not only remember you’re playing a game, but forces you to think like the designers of the game to circumvent each challenge.

It’s like being trapped in a maze, then being able to shift your perspective to an overhead view of the maze and navigate yourself out with omniscient ease. It’s a total perspective shift, and the a-ha moment of figuring out how to change the rules to your advantage is an immensely satisfying reward.

Do you know of any games out there that create unique and unexpected puzzly experiences? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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A Puzzle Game That Lets You Change the Rules of Puzzles!

[Image courtesy of Linux Game Consortium.]

Solving puzzles through different mediums can lead to unexpected and challenging solving experiences.

One advantage that video game puzzles have over their pencil-and-paper counterparts is that, while the paper puzzles are a one-stop shop for a puzzle experience, there’s no adaptation, no evolution, no development for the solver or chance to build upon what they’ve learned through multiple solves or repetition.

In video game puzzles, on the other hand, repetition is the name of the game. New skills and techniques are immediately tested by clever twists on established puzzles, so you’re never resting on your puzzly laurels.

For example, while discussing the classic puzzle platforming game Portal, my friend once described it as a game that reprograms your brain with each puzzle you solve, transforming alongside the player. (This is also a hallmark of many of the puzzle games offered by our friends at ThinkFun.)

[Image courtesy of Game Informer.]

That sort of reprogramming is at the heart of the puzzle experience in a new game called Baba Is You.

In Baba Is You, the gameplay consists of objects to move and manipulate, as well as word blocks that form rules for the game itself. You start off by being able to move Baba, a small rabbit-like creature, around obstacles, with the goal of reaching a golden flag. So, the word blocks read “Baba is you” and “flag is win,” which both tell you the starting rules and the goal.

[Image courtesy of Kotaku.]

By changing these word blocks, you change the rules, effectively reprogramming what you can do in each level.

Kotaku explains this concept well:

One clump might say “Baba is you,” which means Baba is the character you control. Another might say “Rock is push,” which means you can push rocks, or “Wall is stop,” which means you can’t walk through walls…

You rearrange individual words to solve the puzzles. There are usually multiple options, depending on where the words are placed. In the above example, you could remove “stop” from “wall” and pass through the barrier. You could attach “wall” to “is push” instead of “is stop” and push it out of the way. You could make yourself the wall by pushing the word “wall” before “is you.” Or you could make the wall the win condition and touch that instead of the flag.

[Image courtesy of Kotaku.]

So, essentially, you solve each puzzle by obeying the rules, changing the rules, and then obeying the new rules. And since puzzles are all about figuring out how to accomplish tasks by adhering to certain rules, this creates a fascinating new style of puzzle. It’s almost like improvisational comedy or Calvinball, except it’s not played for humor.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a puzzle game that lets you alter HOW you play as drastically and as simply as this. You literally make and break the rules here, depending on how clever you are.

Baba Is You is available for PC and Switch, and I look forward to seeing more diabolical puzzling like this in the future.


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100 Games to Know!

PAX East is one of several conventions under the PAX brand, all of which are dedicated to gaming. Created by the folks behind the popular webcomic Penny Arcade, PAX East has become a premier destination for video games, board game creators, and gaming enthusiasts from all walks of life.

One of the panels this year featured prolific puzzler and game creator Mike Selinker, author of The Maze of Games and creator of numerous popular board games and card games, including Unspeakable Words, Pathfinder, and many others.

He hosted a panel entitled 100 Games You Absolutely, Positively Must Know How to Play, and over the course of the hour-long event he ran down 100 board games, card games, and video games that he considers to be essential knowledge for every game fan and game designer.

He stressed that this was not a list of the 100 best, the 100 most important, or the 100 most fun games, and that virtually every person’s opinion would vary.

And then he laid out a fantastic list of games in many styles and formats:

  • Tabletop RPGs (Dungeons & Dragons, Fiasco)
  • Electronic RPGs (The Legend of Zelda, The Secret of Monkey Island)
  • Deduction Games (Clue, Mafia)
  • Tile Games (Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Settlers of Catan)
  • Tabletop puzzle games (Scrabble, Boggle)
  • Electronic puzzle games (Myst, Bejeweled, Portal, You Don’t Know Jack)
  • Platformers (Super Mario Bros. 3, Katamari Damacy, Limbo, Braid)
  • Simulators (Madden NFL, Starcraft, FarmVille, Minecraft)
  • Traditional card games (Fluxx, Gloom, Uno)
  • Deck-construction games (Magic: The Gathering)
  • Electronic action games (Mario Kart 64, Halo, Plants vs. Zombies)
  • Rhythm games (Dance Dance Revolution, Rock Band)
  • Strategy board games (Ticket to Ride, Pandemic)
  • Tabletop war games (Stratego, Axis & Allies)
  • Open world video games (Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft)
  • Creative tabletop games (Cards Against Humanity)

Several favorites of mine made the cut — like Mafia, a brilliantly simple murder mystery card game requiring nothing more than a deck of cards — and he had excellent reasons for including every game and excluding others.

Although plenty of worthy games didn’t get mentioned, I can’t come up with any game styles that Selinker missed, nor can I come up with any particular games that were egregiously excluded. I love Qwirkle, Timeline, and Castellan, for instance, but I feel like each of those gaming styles were well represented.

[He was careful to cover his bases.]

Can you think of any that the keen eye of Selinker missed, my fellow puzzlers? Let me know!

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A puzzle mystery three years running…

It’s January, and for some cryptography enthusiasts and high-level puzzle solvers, their Christmas gift has finally arrived in the form of another Cicada 3301 mystery.

Two years ago, a curious message appeared on the message board 4chan:

“Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test.

There is a message hidden in this image.

Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through.

Good luck.

3301″

Intrigued Internet users quickly discovered that this message concealed numerous other images, clues, and puzzles. It was the start of an elaborate chain that led to hidden websites, as well as GPS coordinates across the globe. (Many of these puzzles and clues were accompanied by an image of a cicada, giving the mystery both a name and a symbol.)

Obscure knowledge (poetry, mathematics, literature, and history have all contributed to various clues), advanced cryptography skills, and some serious tenacity were required to navigate the labyrinthine maze laid out by whoever masterminded Cicada 3301.

Eventually, the savviest and sharpest code-breakers found their way to a secret website, one that vanished after a certain number of crafty solvers discovered it. It then shut down, never revealing to the outside world who was behind the puzzles or why they’d created them.

A year later, on January 5, 2013, another series of puzzles appeared, utilizing different solving techniques, different GPS coordinates, and admitting another select group of puzzle solvers to a secret website before it too shut down.

As of this posting, new puzzles have appeared all over the Internet, though Cicada 3301 enthusiasts believe the vast majority of them to be the work of hoaxers and admirers. (Only one clue so far, a message on Twitter from an account previously used by Cicada 3301, is considered legitimate.)

As you might expect, theorizing abounds regarding the reasons behind the Cicada 3301 puzzles. With the advent of viral marketing and ever-savvier customers, there’s always the possibility that this is an incredibly elaborate video game tie-in or corporate advertising project. (It definitely reminds me of the down-the-rabbit-hole ARG style of that puzzle hidden within the game Portal I wrote about last year.)

But the sheer complexity — and the intrinsic level of secrecy regarding how the puzzles and websites have been managed — has led conspiracy theorists to suspect the CIA, the NSA, or some other government entity. Another leading theory is that a bank or private security company is behind Cicada 3301, recruiting topnotch cryptographers to improve security features and thwart cybercrimes.

It may sound silly or a bit too Last Starfighter-ish, but recruitment-through-puzzle-solving is nothing new to the intelligence community. Crossword puzzles were used to identify potential recruits for Britain’s Bletchley Park, one of the key cryptography centers during World War II.

Whatever the purpose of Cicada 3301’s puzzles, there’s no doubt that puzzle solvers and codebreakers the world over can’t wait for another shot at a challenge like this.

[For further information, check out this NPR story, sent to me by friend of the blog Cathy Quinn!]

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A hallmark of puzzles to come…

Cleverness abounds in the puzzle community, both in those who create puzzles and those who solve them. But the advent of the Internet has truly raised the bar in what you can accomplish with a puzzly mindset and some serious ingenuity.

From Easter Eggs concealed in DVD menus (like the blooper reel hidden in the silver box DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy) to viral marketing campaigns that conceal plot details and exclusive scenes for industrious fans (as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films frequently employed), there are delightful little entertainment nuggets secreted away in all sorts of media these days.

But only a select few of these hidden puzzles reach the level of complexity and elegance embodied by a series of puzzles lurking within the game Portal (which eventually unlocked details regarding the upcoming sequel).

Portal, itself widely regarded as a masterpiece of outside-the-box puzzle-solving wizardry and gameplay, demands a great deal from its players, so any hidden game designed for these players would have to be something special.

Adam Foster did a thorough and fascinating write-up on both the hidden puzzle game itself (known as the Portal ARG) and the process behind creating this dastardly electronic scavenger hunt, and you can read the full details here.

What’s particularly brilliant about this particular multitiered puzzle is that it incorporated rewards for both mid-level gamers — collecting all the radios in the game and locating where they received broadcasts — as well as the stunningly devoted fans who were willing to chase the puzzle farther down the rabbit hole, delving into top-tier decryption and deduction puzzle-solving.

This sort of chain-reaction puzzle-solving is becoming more and more commonplace. For a simpler example, you need go no further than PuzzleNation’s own Guessworks game. You start with a Hangman-style guessing and deduction game, which leads to clues to be solved, which then lead to a quotation to be unraveled.

As you build upon these earlier steps, you not only challenge yourself in new ways, but you develop multiple puzzle-conquering skills at once. Tackling a puzzle as wily as the Portal ARG is some serious mental exercise.

By pushing the boundaries of what form puzzles and games can take, people like Adam Foster are redefining and rejuvenating the puzzle-solving experience for a new generation of savvier solvers.

Where brilliance meets joyous frivolity…

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the 29th birthday of Tetris in a blog post, and I referenced the famous MIT prank where a giant game of Tetris was played on the side of a building.

This prank is one of the most recent in a long line of “hacks”, and MIT students have performed some impressive feats of creative whimsy along the way.

From a fire hose drinking fountain in 1991 to the installation of a shower stall in a common area in 1996, from turning the dome into R2-D2 (as pictured in our opening picture) to the “discovery” of an elevator in the remains of the demolished Building 20 (purportedly leading to a secret subbasement), these are top-tier pranks executed by some of the cleverest students in the world.

The Great Dome is often the palette of choice for MIT hacks, having featured a Triforce from the Legend of Zelda video games, the TARDIS from Doctor Who (which appeared all around campus), a fire truck, the Batman symbol, and numerous other Hack endeavors.

Here, the Apollo lunar lander looks down on a statue of Athena also added by industrious students. (Apollo watching over Athena, how apropos.)

One year, board games invaded campus. Giant versions of Cranium, Mousetrap, and Settlers of Catan appeared around campus, and all of the helpful maps around campus were altered to feature Risk gameplay.

Another time, an enormous game of Scrabble appeared on the wall, complete with MIT-inspired words fluttering in the breeze.

To honor the posting of XKCD’s 1000th comic — a comic that has also made appearances on this blog — XKCD comics appeared all over campus, often spelling out “1000”.

A Newton’s Cradle with imagery inspired by the Portal video game series appeared in 2012

But the best part of MIT hacks? Wondering just how the heck they managed to pull it off without anyone seeing. Like the urban legends behind stories of cars disassembled and reassembled in a professor’s office, the technological wizardry and sneaky cunning required for these marvelous pranks makes MIT Hack enthusiasts fellow puzzlers in spirit AND practice.