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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A World of Puzzles and Games at Norwescon 42!

Your friendly neighborhood puzzle blogger took a trip across the country to attend Norwescon, the premiere fantasy and science fiction convention in the Pacific Northwest.

This was the 42nd edition of the convention, and if you know your sci-fi novels, then you’re not surprised that there were all sorts of references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (The number 42 is a big part of the first novel.)

The convention’s subtitle was “Don’t Panic” (another HHGTTG reference), and lots of convention attendees were in their bathrobes or carrying towels, representing the two main characters of the series, the bathrobe-wearing Arthur Dent and the towel-toting alien tourist Ford Prefect.

As with any convention, the costuming was amazing. There were fairy godmothers, vikings, mermaids, Daleks, folks in Seahawks-colored finery (it was Seattle, after all), a Predator offering free hugs, an inflatable T-rex costume with those robotic grabber arms, and even photo ops with Krampus and Santa! (And Easter Krampus on Sunday.)

One of the oddest moments for me was seeing a group of people in uniforms I didn’t recognize, and realizing they weren’t con attendees, they were the flight crew for an international airline. (The hotel was across the street from the airport.)

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was loads for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

The dealers room — the main area to shop for costumes, books, fabric, t-shirts, memorabilia, collectibles, and more — had several game shops represented, toting loads of games at good prices. (Several of which we’ve reviewed on the Blog in the past, and some that will be reviewed in the future.)

[All hotel nooks and crannies were stuffed with thematic exhibits, including this delightful leave-a-book, take-a-book mini-library a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.]

Board game demos were available all day, complete with skillful players to introduce newbies to various games, as well as tabletop roleplaying adventures in all sorts of settings and systems, from Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade to Pathfinder and more. In fact, one of the gaming spaces was right down the hall from my hotel room, and it was PACKED morning ’til night with enthusiastic roleplayers telling stories, rolling dice, and battling monsters.

There were open games as well as sign-ups for specific games and adventures, including a multi-table multi-hour battle for gang supremacy in the fictional city of Waterdeep.

One of the most intriguing puzzle/game experiences available to try at the convention was Artemis.

Artemis is a spaceship bridge simulator that allows a group of players to essentially play out a Star Trek-esque adventure. Each player has instructions, controls, and a laptop in front of them, as well as a big screen for everyone to view (much like the main viewer on the bridge of the Enterprise).

Two teams, each piloting their own ship (the Artemis or the Intrepid) must battle foes, trade goods, dock with space stations, and explore the galaxy, all while maintaining their weapons, shields, energy usage in the ship, and piloting control, as well as communicating with their sister ship through headset.

I moved back and forth between the two “ships,” watching as the players navigated different challenges, cooperated (and disagreed) on command decisions, managed their resources, and ventured between the stars, all while some pretty impressive graphics tied the whole play experience together.

What really struck me about the Artemis style of play was how much communication was required for success. It is a co-op game in the same vein as Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, or Spaceteam, but with a lot more personal responsibility. Plus the laptop interfaces for each station were slick and well-designed, bringing that polished Star Trek: The Next Generation feel home.

I was also responsible for some of the puzzliest events at the convention. Although I did participate in some panels on writing, literature, roleplaying games, and movies (both good ones and the worst of b-movies), the two events that were the main focus of my time were a LARP/scavenger hunt based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an escape room based on Star Wars.

The HHGTTG event was built as an in-universe scavenger hunt where players (who were all expected to bring their towels, of course), had to complete five tasks. The completion of each task led to a rune for the players to record on their gamesheet. and earn five runes, then spell them out in a secret location using their towels, in order to ask an important question.

Some of the tasks included:

  • finding HHGTTG character names in a word search grid, then reading the remaining uncircled letters as a secret message
  • singing karaoke to the mermaids at the hotel pool
  • assisting a Vogon poet with her terrible poetry

They had to earn all five runes, then find me in a secret location and spell out the runes with their towels. If they did so correctly, they would bring one of the missing dolphins back to Earth (and received a small stuffed one for their efforts).

[A bag full of dolphins, awaiting a possible return to Earth.]

The Star Wars event was a traditional escape room with puzzles to solve, boxes to unlock, combinations to find, keys to uncover, and a room to escape under a time limit. Designed for the teenaged attendees, the escape room was set on a bounty hunter’s ship, and all of the players were recently captured by the bounty hunter, awaiting transport to an Imperial prison.

But the bounty hunter has fallen victim to one of his own security protocols, so all of the “prisoners” have a chance to escape, if they disable the (Nerf gun-)armed droid blocking the escape pod, as well as either shut off the radiation leak near the pod OR gather enough bacta to heal themselves from radiation damage in order to actually survive the escape.

[Nerf guns and five shipped boxes. An embryonic escape room.]

[The contents of said shipped boxes. An escape room mid-construction.]

Although some of the boxes were opened out of order (by brute force, rather than proper solving) and one of the puzzles had an unfortunate printing error, the players unraveled the mysteries of the bounty hunter’s ship and escaped with only seconds to spare before the Imperials arrived. SUCCESS!

(Plus friend of the blog Jen Cunningham cooked up some lovely victory certificates for the players, which was a cool bonus. Thank you Jen!)

More importantly, despite the hiccups encountered during both events, everyone had fun while playing (either walking away with a small dolphin or a certificate).

The entire convention was a blast (an exhausting one, but a blast nonetheless), and I highly recommend attending Norwescon next year to any fans of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, writing workshops, games, roleplaying, and of course, puzzles.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: PUZZLES…IN…SPACE 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, I’m posting the results of our #PennyDellPuzzleSciFi hashtag game!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or@midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For over a year now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleSciFi, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles and anything and everything having to do with cartoons, animated film and television shows, characters, catchphrases, famous lines…anything!

Examples include The Day The Earth Stood Syll-acrostic, Captain James T. Kirkuro, Keep ON Asi-moving, or Mystery Person of Interest.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


Star Wars!

Obi Wan & Only KenKen-obi / Obi-Ken Kenobi

Star Words: Attack of the Pine Cones

Star Words: The Empire Strikes Blackout!

X-word fighter

Anagram Skywalker

“These Three aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” / “These aren’t the Drop-Outs you’re looking for”

“Do or do not. There is no Try-Angles.”

”May the Fore ‘n’ Aft be with you”


Star Trek!

“Beam me Ups and Downs, Scotty!”

“The Double Trouble with Tribbles”

Deep Space Nine of Diamonds

Captain Jean-Lucky Star

Captain Kathryn Right of Way

“Make the Connection so.”

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of A Few Choice Words.”

“Live long and progressions”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kenken


Starspellman

Simon Says: In space, no one can hear you scream.

Battleships Galactica

Nineteen Eighty-Foursomes

Slaughterhouse Fancy Fives

A Wrinkle in Rhyme Time

Piggyback to the Future

Triplex Machina

The Frame-inator

“May the Solicross be with you” [Glenn’s note: I know this sounds like Star Wars, but it feels more Spaceballs to me.]

“Now that’s the worst disguise ever. That guy’s gotta be an Analog.”

Double Trouble in Little China

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplaces, Please

Flower Powers for Algernon

WordbEnder’s Game

Penny’s next puzzle…The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (answer on page…42)

So It GOes FISH

Heads & Tails from the Darkside

A Clockworks Orange

Galaxy Word Quest

Face to Face/Off

3rd Rock from the Sunrays

Tales from the Crypt-ograms

Two at a Time Lords

Doctor Who’s Calling

Close Encounters of the Three of a Kind

“Curse your Sudoku but inevitable betrayal!”

“You can’t Give and Take the sky from me.”

Doomsday Bookworms

Spanners

Weird and Wacky Science Words

RoboCombos

When Word Games Collide

The Puppet Mixmasters

Godzilla vs. Guess Who

Ringersworld

E.T. the Exchange Board

“E.T. Phrase Craze”

Flash Grand Tour

War of the Word Quest

Alphanumeric-ageddon


And the PuzzleNation readership got involved as well! @HereLetty delivered the terrific Galaxy Quotefalls and War of the Wizard Words!

Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle SciFi entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!