Puzzles in Pop Culture: Gotham

[Image courtesy of Comic Book Movie.]

Fox’s comic book crime drama Gotham returns from its winter break on Monday, January 16th, kickstarting the second half of its third season. For the uninitiated, Gotham is set before the days of Batman’s adventures; Bruce Wayne is a young man, James Gordon is a detective, the city is rife with corruption, and most of Batman’s rogue’s gallery of enemies have yet to appear in the city.

Given that the show features one of the most infamous puzzly villains in history — The Riddler, aka Edward Nygma — I thought I would look back on the episode where the show’s version of the villain truly took shape.

So, in today’s blog post, we look back on season two’s “Mad Grey Dawn,” the episode that took the character beyond occasional riddles and into true Batman-style puzzly evil. (It’s worth noting that Edward Nygma’s day job is forensic scientist working for the Gotham City Police Department.)

We open in an art gallery, where a sculpture shaped like a bomb — that, curiously enough, is labeled “this is a real bomb” — rests in the center of the room. Nygma lights the fuse, chasing everyone out, then steals a painting, leaving behind a green question mark spray-painted in its place.

Detective Jim Gordon and his partner, detective Harvey Bullock, are assigned to the case. Before they go investigate, Gordon is held back by his captain, Nathaniel Barnes, who tells him an anonymous tip implicates him in a closed murder case, and Internal Affairs will be investigating.

At the art museum, they learn about the stolen painting, Mad Grey Dawn, which details a railway explosion. They discover two other, more valuable paintings were vandalized with spray-painted question marks, one by Gerard Marché and another by Henri Larue. Gordon believes the thief is trying to send a message, not trying to strike it rich.

And we have our first question: what’s the message?

[Image courtesy of EW.]

The viewer isn’t given much time to ponder it before Gordon realizes the artists ARE the clue. Marché is French for “market” and Larue is French for “the road.” They deduce that the thief is targeting the railway station on Market Street.

We then see Nygma removing a bomb in a bag from his car.

At the train station, Nygma is waiting. But Bullock and Gordon arrive as an order goes out to evacuate the building. Gordon spots a question mark spray-painted on a locker, and as soon as he does, Nygma remotely activates the timer on the bomb.

Gordon uses a crowbar to pry open the locker and get ahold of the bomb. Bullock and the other officers clear out the station and Gordon tosses the bomb before it explodes.

[Image courtesy of TV Line.]

As they investigate the bombing, they find no clues or riddles waiting for them. But Nygma is there, and he has an officer named Pinkney sign an evidence form for him. He then talks to Gordon, feeling him out on what Gordon knows about the bomber, and Gordon makes him the lead on forensics for the case.

Gordon is at a loss as to who the thief/bomber is or what he wants. But the viewer is presented with a different puzzle. We know who the bomber is, and we know he wants to destroy Jim Gordon. But how? How do these pieces we’ve seen fit together?

If you’re an attentive viewer, you’ve already spotted two big clues to Nygma’s trap.

Later, Nygma visits Officer Pinkney at home. He then asks him what you call a tavern of blackbirds, before hitting him with a crowbar.

Gordon looks over evidence photos when Bullock calls with info. They find a payphone the bomber used to trigger the bomb. Gordon heads off to check it out, discovering Pinkney’s murdered body in the apartment next door.

As he checks on the fallen officer, Captain Barnes walks in. Barnes reveals that Pinkney sent him a message, wanting to talk about Gordon. Gordon tries to explain that he was following up on a lead in the bomber case and stumbled upon Pinkney’s body, but Barnes takes him into custody.

[Image courtesy of Villains Wiki.]

Down at the station, Gordon talks to Barnes. Barnes reveals a crowbar was found with Gordon’s fingerprints. Gordon realizes it’s the crowbar from the train station. (Clue #1 from earlier.) He mentions the forensics report and Bullock’s call, but Barnes found nothing about that in the report when he checked it.

Barnes then reveals that Pinkney was the anonymous tip that reopened the murder case mentioned earlier, and he has a signed form to prove it. Amidst all these accusations, we see flashbacks of Nygma taking the crowbar, Nygma securing Pinkney’s signature at the bank (Clue #2 from earlier), and Nygma swapping out forensic reports in Bullock’s file.

Gordon has been thoroughly trapped in The Riddler’s web, and Barnes takes him in. Gordon is charged with the murder and sent to prison.

[Image courtesy of Comic Vine.]

Now, there aren’t the usual riddles to solve like you might expect (though there are plenty of riddles in earlier episodes). For puzzle fans, this episode is more about trying to unravel Nygma’s plan to stop Gordon while it unfolds. Did you manage it?

And the clues are all there, with the camera lingering on the crowbar in the bucket at the train station, and the scene of Pinkney signing the form for Nygma. It’s both a well-orchestrated frame-up and a well-constructed how-dun-it for the viewer.

And with an episode looming entitled “How the Riddler Got His Name,” I expect we’ll see more strong moments from this puzzly villain in the future.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Star Wars edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, we’re returning to the subject of Star Wars!

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens hits theaters this week, and I thought I’d offer up a few links and some puzzly fun in the spirit of this much-beloved franchise.

#1: Google

Do yourself a favor and go to Google right now and type “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away” into the search bar. You will not be disappointed.

#2: A Star Wars StearsWords!

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Robin Stears created this great Star Wars-fueled puzzle last year, and it’s a perfect way to celebrate Star Wars in a puzzly way. The loose grid construction allows for a lot more themed fun to be had!

#3: Holiday Special Trivia!

Our friends at Puzzopallo noted that it’s only appropriate for a new Star Wars film to open during the holidays, since Star Wars has something of a tradition with holiday releases.

They’re referring, of course, to the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, which infamously featured a Wookiee holiday called Life Day, some hit ’70s musical acts, and some dubious comedy from Harvey Korman.

And they’ve come up with some Holiday Special trivia for ambitious Star Wars fans!

#4: Star Wars Riddles!

Naturally, I couldn’t resist throwing out some Star Wars-themed brain teasers for you to unravel. Can you puzzle out the answers to the four riddles and poem below?

1. Why do doctors make the best Jedi?

2. What do Gungans put things in?

3. What do you call the website Chewbacca started that gives out Imperial secrets?

4. What side of an Ewok has the most hair?

5. (written in Yoda-speak, it appears)

Atop my head, a crown I bear,
Nearby my crown, two guards uphold,
Life I devour, metals I dissect,
When seen I am, all life trembles,
If opposed I am, a thousand spears rain,
When cornered I am, hornets I unleash,
Yet controlled by thousands I am.
What am I?

Hopefully, you’ll enjoy one or all of these puzzly Star Wars treats! May the Force be with you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!


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Demystifying Role-Playing Games

When you hear the words “role-playing game,” what comes to mind? A bunch of nerds in a basement, hunched around a table debating weird and esoteric rules? Practitioners of the black arts, thumbing their noses at God and all that is natural? Or nothing at all?

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Some TV shows, like Community and Freaks & Geeks, have displayed role-playing games in a positive light, but for the most part, role-playing games in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, have gotten a bad rap over the last few decades, maligned as (at best) a game for lonely friendless types and (at worst) a tool to corrupt children.

(This might sound ridiculous to many of you, but folks like Pat Robertson continue to talk about role-playing games as if they’re synonymous with demon worship.)

But in reality, role-playing games are simply a way for a group to tell one collaborative story.

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There are two major elements to this storytelling. The first is managed by a single person who oversees that particular game or gaming session. In Dungeons & Dragons, this person is called the Dungeon Master, or DM; in other games, this person is the Game Master, the Storyteller, or bears some other title tied to the game or setting. For the sake of simplicity, from this point on, I’ll refer to this person as the DM.

So, the DM manages the setting and sets up the adventure. In this role, the DM will describe what the player characters (or PCs) see and explain the results of their actions. The DM also plays any characters the players interact with. (These are known as NPCs, or non-player characters.) Essentially, the DM creates the sandbox in which the other players play.

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Which brings us to the second element in role-playing storytelling: the players. Each player assumes a role, a character, and plays that character for the length of the session, or the game, if there are multiple sessions. (Some games last months or years, so these characters evolve and grow; players often become quite attached to their characters.)

The PCs navigate the world created by the DM, but their actions and decisions shape the narrative. No matter how prepared a DM is or how carefully he or she has plotted out a given scene or adventure, the PCs determine much of what happens. They might follow the breadcrumbs exactly as the DM laid them out, or they might head off in an unexpected direction, forcing the DM to think on the fly in order to continue the adventure.

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That’s what makes role-playing games so amazing: you never quite know what you’re going to get. The PCs usually don’t know what the DM has in store, and no DM can predict with perfect clarity what the PCs will do. You’re all crafting a story together and none of you knows what exactly will happen or how it all ends.

For instance, I run a role-playing game for several friends that is set in the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and my PCs routinely come up with solutions to problems and puzzles that I didn’t expect, but that nonetheless would work. They constantly keep me on my toes as a DM, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the game.

Oftentimes, major events and key moments are determined by dice rolls, adding an element of chance to the story. (In some games, players have replaced dice rolls with a Jenga-style block tower, and they must remove pieces from it to achieve certain goals. That adds a marvelous sense of real-world tension to the narrative tension already present!)

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And while I’ve talked quite a bit about the game aspect, some of you might be wondering where the puzzly aspect comes in.

Some of the best, most satisfying puzzle-solving experiences of my life have come from role-playing games.

These puzzles can be as simple as figuring out how to open a locked door or as complicated as unraveling a villain’s dastardly plot for world domination. It can be a poem to be parsed and understood or a trap to be escaped.

There are riddles of goblins and sphinxes, or the three questions of trolls, or even the brain teasers and logic problems concocted by devious fey hoping to snare me with clever wordplay. I’ve encountered all sorts of puzzles in role-playing games, and some of them were fiendish indeed.

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One time, during a LARP session (Live-Action Role-Playing, meaning you actually act out the adventure and storytelling), I thought I’d unraveled the meaning of a certain bit of scripture (regarding a key that would allow me to escape the room) and acquired a sword as my prize, only to realize much much later that the key I’d spent the entire session searching for was the sword itself, which unlocked the door and released me.

And designing puzzles for my players to unravel is often as much fun as solving the puzzles myself. Especially when they’re tailored to specific storytelling universes or particular player characters.

(Trust me, it doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a Jedi or a paladin; riddles stop pretty much everybody in their tracks.)

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Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, Legend of the Five Rings or Star Wars, GURPS or Ninja Burger, there’s a role-playing game out there for everyone, if you’re just willing to look.


This post was meant as a brief overview of role-playing games as a whole. If you’d like me to get more in depth on the subject, or if you have specific questions about role-playing games, please let me know! I’d be happy to revisit this topic in the future.

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A pickle of a puzzler!

A little touch of absurdity never hurts when it comes to a good logic problem or brain teaser.

There’s the classic river-crossing puzzle (with either a fox, a goose, and a bag of beans and or a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage) that challenges you to get all three across without one eating one of the others, but it never explains why you have a wolf or a fox in the first place!

We never really question why we need to know the weights of castaways or why knowing the color of your hat might save your life; we just accept the parameters and forge onward.

Some brain teasers, curiously enough, seem intentionally nonsensical by design. Many claim that Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland riddle “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” was created without a solution. Of course, that hasn’t stopped many (myself included) from posing solutions to the riddle anyway.

And that brings us to today’s brain teaser — “Pickled Walnuts” by Hubert Phillips — which I discovered on io9.com:

You are given a series of statements which may seem to you more or less absurd. But, on the assumption that these statements are factually correct, what conclusion (if any) can be drawn?

1. Pickled walnuts are always provided at Professor Piltdown’s parties.
2. No animal that does not prefer Beethoven to Mozart ever takes a taxi in Bond Street
3. All armadillos can speak the Basque dialect.
4. No animal can be registered as a philatelist who does not carry a collapsible umbrella.
5. Any animal that can speak Basque is eligible for the Tintinnabulum Club.
6. Only animals that are registered philatelists are invited to Professor Piltdown’s parties.
7. All animals eligible for the Tintinnabulum Club prefer Mozart to Beethoven.
8. The only animals that enjoy pickled walnuts are those who get them at Professor Piltdown’s.
9. Only animals that take taxis in Bond Street carry collapsible umbrellas.

I will tell you, as a starter, that a conclusion CAN definitively be drawn from these statements. (Honestly, if there wasn’t some solution, I wouldn’t waste your time with it.)

So, what conclusion can be drawn from these statements?

Armadillos do not enjoy pickled walnuts!

How do I know this for sure? Allow me to walk you through my deductive process.

We know that all armadillos speak Basque, according to statement 3. Therefore, according to statement 5, armadillos are eligible for the Tintinnabulum Club.

Now, according to statement 7, armadillos prefer Mozart to Beethoven. But, in statement 2, we’re told that no animal that does not prefer Beethoven to Mozart ever takes a taxi in Bond Street, which means that armadillos do NOT take taxis in Bond Street.

Therefore, according to statement 9, armadillos do not carry collapsible umbrellas, which also disqualifies them from being registered as philatelists, according to statement 4. And since only registered philatelists are invited to Professor Piltdown’s parties (according to statement 6), armadillos are not invited to the Professor’s parties.

Finally, statement 8 tells us that the only animals that enjoy pickled walnuts are those who get them at Professor Piltdown’s, which means armadillos do not enjoy pickled walnuts!

Honestly, I didn’t find this brain teaser particularly difficult because you can find those middle links very quickly, and by linking more and more statements, you eventually find the two ends — armadillos and pickled walnuts — and your conclusion is waiting for you.

This would’ve been a more difficult puzzle if some red-herring statements were thrown in that didn’t connect to the rest, like “All squirrels on Beaumont Avenue have Tuesdays off” or “The birdbaths on Bond Street were designed by a German sculptor who enjoyed hot dogs.”

Nonetheless, this is a terrific exercise in finding order in what at first appears to be chaos. It’s what puzzlers do: we make sense of the universe, one puzzle at a time.


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It takes two to puzzle…

I’m always on the lookout for new and different puzzle styles to discuss here, because there’s a seemingly endless supply of puzzly inventiveness in the world, and I endeavor to share as much of it as possible with my fellow PuzzleNationers.

A few days ago, I was reminded of a brain teaser variation that’s a little different from our usual fare, and I thought I’d put it in the spotlight.

Today, we’re talking about guided lateral thinking puzzles!

Let me start you off with a standard lateral thinking puzzle (which is a fancy way of saying “brain teaser”). This one is an all-time favorite of mine:

A man is found murdered on the floor with 53 bicycles scattered around the room. How did he die?

Now, this may sound like a particularly violent end at a local bike shop, but the lateral thinkers and brain teaser proficient types out there have probably already sussed out the true answer.

The man cheated at cards and was killed for it. Bicycle is a famous brand of playing cards, and with 52 cards in your standard deck, 53 implies cheating.

That’s a pretty simple one.

The difference between regular brain teasers like that one and guided lateral thinking puzzles is that a guided lateral thinking puzzle requires two people: one to ask questions in the hopes of solving it, and the other to know the solution and answer the other player’s questions with only yes or no responses.

The scenarios are often more involved than your usual brain teaser, but you’re only given a brief story to start with. These are not rigid brain teasers like the seesaw one we tackled earlier this year. These puzzles depend on your ability to narrow down the possibilities with strategically worded questions.

Here’s an example of a guided lateral thinking puzzle:

Ann, Ben, and Chris are siblings who were conceived on the same day. This year, Ann will be attending third grade while Ben and Chris attend kindergarten. Why?

While you could try to come up with a solution with just this information, guided lateral thinking puzzles encourage you to talk through your suspicions as you ask questions and uncover the truth.

So, what would you ask? What’s your starting theory? (My first instinct was to go straight to imagining how Leap Day was involved, before quickly realizing that was a ridiculous supposition.)

But maybe you have a better theory. Were they conceived by different people? Was it the same day, but different years?

Posing these questions to your partner in puzzly crime could help you find the answer.

The folks at I09 posted a link to six guided lateral thinking puzzles (including the Ann/Ben/Chris one I mentioned above). Give it a listen and try cracking these puzzles alongside the podcasters!

And let me know how you did! Did you solve any of them right away? Did any of them thoroughly stump you? And would you like to see more puzzles like this on PuzzleNation Blog in the future?

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

A puzzle hunt 100 years in the making!

Riddles, codebreaking, and scavenger hunts are three of my favorite puzzly topics. I’ve covered each extensively in blog posts previously, exploring not only the history and ever-changing nature of puzzles, but how deeply ingrained puzzle-solving is in our culture, past and present.

Tuesday’s post was about a fairly simple encoded puzzle I found lurking inside a short story. That simplicity, that accessibility is part of why I wrote about it.

For you see, fellow puzzlers, today’s post is not about a simple puzzle. Today’s post covers all three of the topics above — riddles, codebreaking, and scavenger hunts — in a sprawling, mindboggling story about a globe-spanning mystery that gamers and puzzlers joined forces to unravel.

It all started in April 2012 with the release of a video game called Trials Evolution, created by the game designers at Redlynx.

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Trials Evolution is a motorcycle racing game that incorporates real-world physics into the gameplay, challenging players to complete obstacle-filled courses as fast as possible.

Now, this might not seem like the type of game to conceal a fiendish riddle, but players were actually expecting a challenging puzzle to be hiding within the game, because Trials HD, a previous installment of the series, featured a riddle to solve that helped build the Trials gaming community.

So expectations were high for whatever riddle was lurking inside Trials Evolution. And it did not disappoint.

First, players had to locate a series of wooden planks throughout the game, planks that featured encrypted writing on them. Once assembled and decrypted, the planks featured instructions for a special maneuver for players to perform in the game while a particular piece of music played.

Successfully completing this task earned the player a bonus song, which included lyrics suggesting players transform the song into a visual form. Cagey players realized this meant running a spectral analysis on the song — a visual graph of sound or energy — which revealed a hidden message in Morse Code.

That message led to a website where the images below started appearing daily, one by one.

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(It’s worth noting that these images started appearing in late 2013, more than a year after the game was released!)

Each image references a particular scientist. Once all twenty-six images were revealed, the indefatigable players had a visual alphabet to work with.

So when a message appeared using the images instead of letters, players cracked that code as well.

Still with me?

That code led to four sets of coordinates. Real world coordinates across the world! This riddle was only getting more complex the deeper players went!

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Something awaited intrepid players in San Francisco, California; Bath, England; Helsinki, Finland; and Sydney, Australia. In each location, players uncovered small chests, each containing a key and a metal plaque with the message “It seemed like forever ago” on it. (The Helsinki location also featured French documents, supposedly from 300 years ago, as well as an antique pocket watch.)

So, what do the keys open? What does it all mean?

Well, there was one last message. On the other side of the metal plaque included in each chest, there was a message:

Midday in Year 2113.
1st Sat in Aug
One of Five keys will open the box
Underneath the Eiffel Tower

That’s right. This riddle can only be unraveled nearly a century from now! This puzzle has gone from a hidden bonus feature in a video game to actual scavenger hunting in the real world, and is now becoming a multigenerational quest.

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Take a moment and ponder that. It blows my mind to think about a puzzle that took dozens of people to conquer and will now become a story told to friends and sons and daughters as golden keys are passed down, all in the hopes of seeing what awaits us underneath the Eiffel Tower on a particular day in August in 2113.

And it all started with a motorcycle racing video game.

[For more details on the Trials Evolution riddle, check out this thorough write-up on Kotaku.]

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