Puzzles (and Games) in Pop Culture: “Strange Things Happen at the One Two Point”

“Strange things happen at the one-two point,” is a proverb based on the ancient East Asian board game Go. As summarized by cybernetic Cameron (played by Summer Glau) in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,“It means the usual rules don’t always apply.” More specifically, the proverb refers to the strategic idiosyncrasies of certain playing positions on the Go board; “the heuristic principles of fighting along the sides or in the [center] often fail in the corner,” Go wiki Sensei’s Library clarifies. When we fight our way into tight corners, the laws of reality that we previously knew shimmer and warp. The more boxed-in we become, the more we need to expect the unexpected.

This is a fitting sentiment to feature in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the fourth installment in a media property dealing with time travel and its resultant paradoxes and alternate timelines. The show depicts its characters having fought their way deep into tight, reality-bending corners in their attempts to prevent apocalypse. By the second-season episode titled for the Go proverb, the rules established in 1984’s The Terminator—what we can expect from time travel, who’s an ally and who’s an enemy, what to do if you want to live—have been thoroughly warped.

In the episode “Strange Things Happen at the One Two Point,” Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) is deeply fixated on a pattern of three dots. Earlier in the series, another time traveler left her a message in blood on a safe house wall: a list of important names with three dots next to it. Seeing these dots in her dreams, Sarah is convinced that there’s more to them then the smeared fingerprints of a dying comrade; her investigation leads her to Dakara Systems, a tech start-up with a logo of three dots. She and Derek (Brian Austin Green) break in late at night, stealing all of the computers’ hard drives and bringing them back to Sarah’s teenage son, John (Thomas Dekker), an accomplished hacker.

On the hard drives, John discovers designs for an artificial intelligence system, a find that sets off Sarah’s internal alarms, but John explains that the designs are useless in light of Dakara Systems’ lack of processing power. Derek calls it a dead end, accusing Sarah of instigating a wild goose chase, an accusation she rebuts with, “Artificial intelligence, the company logo, the three dots—”

“Are fingerprints,” Derek says. “It’s just blood.”

“Everything on that wall has meant something,” Sarah argues. “It’s all blood.”

Sarah is sure that The Turk, the chess-playing AI that she’s been hunting for since it was stolen from inventor Andy Goode, can be traced to Dakara Systems. Derek has lost faith. While John initially has his doubts too, by the next morning, he’s made Sarah and Cameron an appointment to meet with the heads of Dakara Systems. He explains his change of heart: “Andy Goode was building a chess program . . . It always starts small.”

A 1980s reconstruction of the original chess-playing Mechanical Turk.

Dressed up in their best wealthy-investor chic, Sarah and Cameron meet with father-and-son team Alex (Eric Steinberg) and Xander (Eddie Shin) Akagi of Dakara Systems. Probing for connections to The Turk, Cameron poses a crucial question to Xander while Sarah and Alex grab coffee: “Do you like chess?” Later, when Sarah asks her what all of the evidence is adding up to, Cameron says, “Not The Turk. Xander doesn’t play chess. He prefers Go.” She pulls out a folding wooden board inscribed with a grid. “Xander said it’s been calculated that there are more possible Go games than atoms in the universe,” she continues, laying out black-and-white discs in the board’s center. “He’s offered to teach me how to play.

Sarah counters, “Did he offer to tell you about his AI?” and when Cameron reiterates that Xander’s AI is not The Turk, Sarah says, “But it could be a piece of the puzzle. We’ve seen that before.”

Cameron responds, “Strange things happen at the one-two point.”

I won’t spoil for you which strange things happen here, at this point where Sarah Connor and her allies have boxed themselves in strategically by changing reality countless times in an effort to stave off nuclear apocalypse. Instead, let’s dwell together on the beauty of that phrasing, the “strange things,” as a way of describing action in a game so deceptively simple: black and white stones laid out on a grid. They don’t seem like they should stack up next to the strange things that happen in a work of science fiction—the way the air crackles and sparks with blue light whenever a new time traveler tears a hole through the decades; how a Terminator’s robotic skeleton designs a chemical bath for itself that allows its flesh and skin to regrow; the liquid metal CEO played by Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson, whose arms extend at will into gleaming daggers.

By placing Go on the same playing field as these miraculous, speculative sights, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles reminds us that games needn’t be elaborate to be magical, needn’t be novel to be surprising. As long as each player is an elaborate, novel human being, an ancient game like Go can continue to startle and move, to belong meaningfully alongside us in the twenty-first century—and further onward still.

have thought to look for otherwise.


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Six Characters in Search of Free Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cole distracts Daly by luring him into a lake.

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

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

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

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


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Escape Rooms and Bottle Episodes: A Condensed, Horrific History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.


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Go Go Letter Power Rangers: A Puzzly Theme Song Contest!

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Every month, we play some sort of game with not only our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, but with our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles as well.

Often, this takes the form of a hashtag game, mashing up the topic of the month with entries to Penny Press and Dell Magazines puzzles, titles, and so on.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, they’re punny costume ideas, or puzzly opening lines for novels, or attractions for a puzzle-fueled zoo!

This time around, we had a different challenge in mind: coming up with a puzzle-infused theme song for Penny Dell Puzzles!

And friends, they certainly did not disappoint.

So, without further ado, check out what these puzzlers came up with!


We start off today’s collection with some punny takes on classic TV theme songs!

I’ll Be Here & There For You

Love Is All Around the Block

Welcome Back, Kakuro

Where Everybody Knows Your Crypto-Names

Keep It Movin’ On Up / Movin’ On Ups and Downs

There’s No Places, Please Like Home

Split & Splice is Painless

Tossing & Turning and Scrambled Up

Three from Nine to Five

We’re the Chipsmunks

Nothing’s Gonna Stoplines Me Now


From this point forward, it’s not just titles, it’s puzzly lyrics as well!

Check out this brief yet delightful entry, to the tune of Britney Spears:

Oops I did it again
I wrote with a pen, got lost in the grid
Oh Penny, Penny
Oops you think I’m so lost
Switched Down with Across
I need a-nother hint


One intrepid puzzler pitched a nostalgic look at the puzzly past. This one is to the tune of “Those Were The Days” from “All In The Family.”

Boy, the way Word Seeks are made
The clever way that Tiles are laid
Solvers like us, we got it made
These are Word Games
And you know Say That Again
Even do ’em with a pen
Cryptograms can be done, even a page of KenKen
You don’t need no calculator
When you solve your Sudoku later
Gee, all our Fill-Ins look greater
These are Word Games!


I’ll let our next contributor handle their own introduction. Take it away, fellow puzzler!

You want a theme song?
Hold onto your wimple, Maria!
I’ve got your theme song right here:

♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪
How do you solve a puzzle like a crossword?
How do you fill a grid, across and down?
What’s a five-letter word that means “an earth tone”?
An ochre? An umber? A camel? A beige? A brown?

Many a thing you know you’d like to write there,
Many a clue you ought to understand.
A book that can make you think:
Use pencil or pen and ink!
How do you choose the best from your newsstand?

Oh, how do know you’ve got the tops in puzzles?
Penny Press made the book that’s in your hand!
♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪


Another marvelous entry was set to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and is known simply as… the Solver’s Theme:

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final clue
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll take my prize, of which I’m due
I’ve solved the puzzles full
Fraught with joy and dismay
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I penned each solve complete
Each careful letter along the way
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Yes, there were times, that Crypto-Zoo
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and finished Turnabout
I faced it all, and I stood tall
And did it my way

I’ve circled, I’ve erased and cried
I’ve had my Fill-Ins, Tossing and Turning
And now, as tears subside
I find that I am always learning
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way
Oh, no, oh, no, not me
I did it my way

For what is a solver, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say he finished Spinwheel
But sought help for Square Deal
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way

Yes, it was my way


Here’s a toe-tapping puzzly entry submitted to the tune of “867-5309”:

Penny, Penny has puzzles for you
Our magazines have a ton of fun clues
Sudoku, Word Seeks, and Crosswords galore
Your favorite puzzles, oh we’ve got them all!

Penny, you’ve got our number
When you need Three from Nine
Penny, just call our number

Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight

Penny, Penny has Puzzle Derby
Fill-Ins and Places, Please will make you so happy
Try out Double Trouble or Blockbuilders
Challenge your imagination with Exploraword

Penny, you’ve got our number
When you need Diamond Mine
Penny, just call our number

Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight

We’ve got it (We’ve got it) We’ve got it
Tiles, Place Your Number, and Quotefalls
We’ve got it (We’ve got it) We’ve got it
For a Good Time, for a Good Time call!


As a closer, here’s one the kids can enjoy, as one creative puzzler submitted a piece to the tune of “Old McDonald Had a Farm”:

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a COLORING BOOK here
and a COLORING BOOK there,
here a COLORING BOOK
there a COLORING BOOK
everywhere you see a COLORING BOOK

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a CROSSWORD here
and a CROSSWORD there,
here a CROSSWORD
there a CROSSWORD
everywhere you see a CROSSWORD

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a FILL-IN here
and a FILL-IN there,
here a FILL-IN
there a FILL-IN
everywhere you see a FILL-IN,

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a LOGIC here
and a LOGIC there,
here a LOGIC
there a LOGIC
everywhere you see a LOGIC,

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a VARIETY here
and a VARIETY there,
here a VARIETY
there a VARIETY
everywhere you see a VARIETY,

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a WORD SEEK here
and a WORD SEEK there,
here a WORD SEEK
there a WORD SEEK
everywhere you see a WORD SEEK,

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a WORD SEEK here
and a WORD SEEK there,
here a WORD SEEK
there a WORD SEEK
everywhere you see a WORD SEEK,

a VARIETY here
and a VARIETY there,
here a VARIETY
there a VARIETY
everywhere you see a VARIETY,

a LOGIC here
and a LOGIC there,
here a LOGIC
there a LOGIC
everywhere you see a LOGIC,

a FILL-IN here
and a FILL-IN there,
here a FILL-IN,
there a FILL-IN
everywhere you see a FILL-IN,

a CROSSWORD here
and a CROSSWORD there,
here a CROSSWORD,
there a CROSSWORD
everywhere you see a CROSSWORD,

a COLORING BOOK here
and a COLORING BOOK there,
here a COLORING BOOK
there a COLORING BOOK
everywhere you see a COLORING BOOK …

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one


Did you have a favorite Penny Dell Puzzly Theme Song, fellow puzzlers? Or an idea of your own? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: TV Escape Rooms!

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[Image courtesy of Yelp.]

It’s always interesting when TV shows incorporate puzzles into their stories. Not only do we get to see what Hollywood (and by extrapolation, the general public) thinks about a given puzzly experience, but we learn more about the characters when they face a particular puzzle or challenge.

This is especially true for sitcoms and comedies, since they usually have less time to focus on the puzzling and therefore put the spotlight on character relationships.

And it occurred to me that there are a number of different shows over the last few years that have featured the characters in escape room-style puzzle settings.

Why don’t we take a look at how accurately these puzzly experiences were portrayed, how difficult the room appeared to be, and what the characters’ solving skills were like?

Please enjoy as we explore fictional escape rooms from TV in our latest edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture!

big bang theory pic

[Image courtesy of IMDb.]

For our first offering, we turn to the CBS juggernaut The Big Bang Theory. Over the years, TBBT has featured puzzly activities like giant Jenga, a holiday-fueled session of Dungeons & Dragons, and a scavenger hunt with puzzly clues.

So I wasn’t surprised that their take on escape rooms was the same: fairly accurate, but simplified and streamlined for a mainstream audience.

The room in TBBT is pretty spacious, moreso than pretty much any escape room I’ve seen. But the level of detail is easily something achievable for high-end rooms. Also, I’ve heard about escape rooms with actors playing zombies before, so this is legit.

(In fact, one I heard about in Washington D.C. had a zombie on a chain; the chain got longer the more time solvers took to crack puzzles, cutting the room in half at one point!)

We don’t get to see much of their solving, as they allude to puzzles conquered instead of showing us, so it’s hard to gauge difficulty. But given that most of the characters featured in the scene hold doctorates, we can safely assume the puzzles were middle-of-the-road or slightly harder.

However, the episode ignores the fact that you’re trying to escape the room in a certain amount of time. The characters seemed disappointed by their impressive performance, but they probably posted one of the top times in that room’s history. Nothing to sneeze at.

  • Accuracy rating: 4/5
  • Room difficulty: 3/5
  • Character solving skills: 5/5

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

Another show that hasn’t shied away from puzzly content is the former FOX and current NBC hit Brooklyn Nine-Nine. This comedy/drama set at a New York City police precinct has featured a seesaw brain teaser, a crossword-fueled arson mystery, and several multilayered heist storylines set around Halloween.

Puzzle enthusiast Captain Holt invites his fellow officers out to an escape room, and is dismayed when the disinterested Gina and the bumbling Hitchcock and Scully end up being his only fellow players. The group is immediately hampered by Hitchcock wasting two of their three hints, and Holt accidentally wasting the third.

The hint system is usually not as rigid in escape rooms. Three hints is common, though many places allow you to ask for more; sometimes there’s a time penalty, sometimes not. Also, the room in B99 is a three-hour challenge, which was a surprise. The standard time is an hour, though I’ve seen rooms push it to ninety minutes.

The group has also clearly not tried the classic escape room method of “touch everything,” because an hour and a half into the game, having found only one of the four keys needed to escape the room, Holt has not yet investigated the bright red phone sitting out in the open.

This is another escape room where difficulty is tough to judge. Unfortunately, we’re not given enough details on the first key (which involves some sort of chess puzzle) and the fourth key to really gauge the room. But despite the rocky start, the lovable team of misfits manages to escape.

  • Accuracy rating: 3/5
  • Room difficulty: 2/5
  • Character solving skills: Holt gets a 3.5/5, everyone else gets a 2/5.

always-sunny

[Image courtesy of Variety.]

Next, let’s turn our eyes to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The characters in this darkly comedic show all consider themselves devious masterminds, but for the most part, they tend to get in each others’ way and foil their own schemes through silly self-sabotage. Although a few impressive schemes do come to fruition over the years, it’s hard to consider this group a crackerjack team of puzzle solvers.

This escape room breaks the mold quite a bit, since the company brings the escape room trappings to the apartment of two of the characters. This is much more elaborate than any escape room set you can buy for the home, and I don’t know of any companies that deliver an escape room to the house.

You might think this home field advantage would be a boon, but instead, all chance of cooperation immediately goes out the window. One pair takes the key to a lock, the other pair takes the lock, and they spend the entire time negotiating instead of solving.

iasip

[Image courtesy of IMDb. Because of the language involved, I couldn’t
use an actual video clip and keep the blog post family friendly.]

Once they actually agree to collaborate and open the lock, they discover a list of tasks for them to complete, and they have virtually no time left to do so. (Our only hint to the room’s difficulty comes from the fact that Dee has completed the room beforehand, so it can’t have been too difficult.)

They claim victory when Sweet Dee falls out a window after getting trapped in her brother Dennis’s bedroom. In order to check on Dee’s status, the game runner opens the door and the remaining players consider it a win.

  • Accuracy rating: 1/5
  • Room difficulty: 2/5
  • Character solving skills: 0/5

crazyex_s01a-1170x658

[Image courtesy of Frame Rated.]

The final entry in our comedic quartet of escape room episodes comes from the musical CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This romantic drama, comedy, and coming-of-age story often features characters breaking out into elaborate song and dance routines, and many of the songs have become modern classics.

The show didn’t tackle puzzly content often, and indeed, the escape room in question is a b-plot in this particular episode, as main character Rebecca offers her escape room experience to friend Paula and her two disinterested sons.

The escape room is medieval-themed and huge, with lots of great set pieces and detail. The mix of exploring, touching things, solving puzzles, cooperating, and placing objects in particular places are all very traditional escape room moments.

ceg escape

[Image courtesy of Laura E. Hall.]

Though I was a little disappointed that the elements of the final puzzle are sitting out in plain sight the whole time. You could easily ACCIDENTALLY solve the last puzzle first and be out in minutes.

But Paula’s sons prove to be able puzzlers, attentive and clever, revealing things about themselves that Paula didn’t know. (In fact, the entire escape room subplot is all about Paula learning about who her sons have become, which is Puzzly Storytelling in Sitcoms 101.)

They all escape, having found new common ground, and it’s easily the most delightful ending of the four escape room scenarios we’ve looked at today.

  • Accuracy rating: 4/5
  • Room difficulty: 3/5 (the final puzzle is a long anagram, which is pretty tough, but the rest of the room is easy)
  • Character solving skills: 4/5

What did you think of this look at escape rooms from TV, fellow puzzlers? Should we look at more fictional escape rooms and see how they hold up?

I’ve heard Bob’s Burgers has one, as well as Schitt’s Creek. Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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