Larry Hosken: New

I just noticed: if you're in the parking garage for that little shopping center across the street from the San Francisco DMV, the exit door looks out at a fnnch rubber duck mural across the street.

a parking garage. there's a forklift and an exit door. out the exit door, there's a stencilly-looking rubber duck mural a parking garage exit door. out the exit door, there's recycling bins and a stencilly-looking rubber duck mural

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2024-04-11T16:52:04.389376

Book Report: The Puzzler

It's a survey of puzzles: word puzzles, logic puzzles, physical puzzles, jigsaw—you get the idea. I'm not really in the target demographic for a survey; I already knew most of this stuff from, y'know, participating in puzzle events for the past not-quite-twenty years. Sure, the author has a unique set of opinions; but I've encountered most of those opinions piecemeal while talking with other puzzle nerds for the past not-quite-twenty years. So why did I read this targeted-elsewhere book? OK, remember back in 2020 I helped run the MIT Mystery Hunt, including a pancake Pictionary event, and one of the participants had a TV crew with him? That participant was the book's author, A.J. Jacobs. I don't know a ton about him, but apparently he roped some TV outfit into covering some of his more eye-catching book research. It turns out he's kind of a big deal. You remember some years back, some guy spent a year trying to follow all the rules of the bible? Same guy. So: kinda famous.

I'm quite grateful that he attended the 2020 MIT Mystery Hunt. He didn't say a ton about it; that's appropriate, since he was aiming for a survey of the whole world of puzzling and was writing a book carry-able without help from a forklift. Why am I grateful? Because he was willing to work on that puzzle that used surgery videos as puzzle data. A lot of folks couldn't bring themselves to look at that puzzle; I certainly couldn't. I remember making sure that its videos were hooked up correctly by peeking at them between my fingers… hoo boy. Jacobs was willing to work on that puzzle; and when he chose a sample MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle to include in his book, he chose "Bobcat" by the same author (but much less disturbing).

So the author dove in deep to the world of the MIT Mystery Hunt, participating, solving puzzles… and then wrote a little about it for this book. It kinda makes you wonder what ended up "on the cutting room floor." And that sums up what I thought about other sections of the book. He has a chapter about chess puzzles. Wow, he interviewed Garry Frickin' Kasparov for his chapter about chess problems… uhm, but while I bet it was an interesting conversation, not a lot of it made it into the book. (Or maybe most of the interview made it into the book except for the part where hypothetically Kasparov said "I have a bus to catch, I can give you five minutes"?) Uhm, it's cool that someone wants to write a breezy, readable survey of puzzling aimed at the layperson; it's cool that someone writing about chess problems talked to Kasparov; it's just kinda jarring that they're the same book, I guess?

I was mulling this over while talking with someone who recently read The Dawn of Everything, a book which compares how various cultures solved various problems historically. And that book is 700 pages, and it's a lot. And maybe it would have been a kindness to readers to pick one problem that various cultures solved various ways and write one much shorter book about that problem. Or maybe if there had been an editor who was willing to lay down the law and say "This book is all very well, but ⅔ of it has got to go." So, like, I get it that if this guy wants to write a book that appeals to his large existing audience, he's gotta keep it short, keep it breezy.

I guess I'm just so accustomed to mass-audience books being kinda sloppy, it's jarring to see something so rigorous and yet targeted to mass-audience.

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2024-04-03T00:29:11.020839

It is #EnigMarch, and each day the excellent EnigMarch people post a prompt word; then puzzle nerds try to design puzzles around that word. (Today's word is sequel).

So it would be good to know some sequels:

Gremlins 2: The   N e w   Ⓑa t c h

Legally Blonde 2: ◯_ _,   _ _ _ _ _   &   _ _ _ _ _ _  

Miss Congeniality 2: _ _ _◯_   &   _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  

The Princess Diaries 2: _ _ _◯_   _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  

Home Alone 2: _ _ _ _   in   _ _ _   _ _ _◯  

Anchorman 2: The   _ _ _ _ _ _   _ _ _ _◯_ _ _ _  

The Lego Movie 2: The   _ _ _ _◯_   _ _ _ _  

The circled letters spell a seven-letter wor thingy that should suggest a two eight-letter-word answer.


No hints for this one, sorry. The closest thing I could give to a hint is: know lots of movies.

Solution, rot13'd:

o / Terzyvaf 2: / Gur arj ongpu
e / Yrtnyyl Oybaqr 2: / erq, juvgr & oybaqr
r / Zvff Pbatravnyvgl 2: / nezrq & snohybhf
n / Gur Cevaprff Qvnevrf 2: / eblny ratntrzrag
x / Ubzr Nybar 2: / ybfg va arj lbex
v / Napubezna 2: / Gur yrtraq pbagvahrf
a / Gur Yrtb Zbivr 2: / Gur frpbaq cneg

Gur shyy gvgyr bs Oernxva' 2 vf, bs pbhefr, Oernxva 2: Ryrpgevp Obbtnybb

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2024-03-31T01:00:40.567822

It is #EnigMarch, and each day the excellent EnigMarch people post a prompt word; then puzzle nerds try to design puzzles around that word. Today's word is book.

So I pulled a book off the shelf: Security Engineering by Ross Anderson, R.I.P. I thumbed through it and hit this passage:

picture of a book, zoomed in on a couple of paragraphs. One sentence is highlighted: "Complexity is the real enemy of security"

Anyhow, here's a puzzle about simple things. Fill in the blanks, and the circled letters will remind you of something that Anderson would want us computer nerds not to forget as we shift bits about.

_ _ _ _   it   Simple   _ _ _ _◯_   💋 Principle
Simple   _ _ _ _ _◯_   Lever or pulley, for example
◯_ _ _ _ _ _   the   Simple   King of Lotharangia
Simple   _ _◯_ _ _ _   "Gives" or "displays" for example
Simple   _ _ _ _◯   Pie-desirer thwarted by poverty
Simple   _ _ _ _ _ _◯_   enough to win an election
Simple   _ _ _ _ _ _◯_   _ _ _ _   Benzine, indole, or pyridine, for example
A   Simple   _ _◯_ _   Film with Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively
_   Simple   _ _ _◯_   John Ritter sitcom
Simple   _ _ _ _◯   Sang 1980s hit "Don't You (Forget About Me)"

Hints and solution, rot13'd:

Vg'f n ohapu bs cuenfrf gung vapyhqr gur jbeq "fvzcyr." Vs bar be gjb fghzc lbh, znlor gel gb xrrc tbvat naq ubcr lbh pna Jurry bs Sbeghar sebz gur erfg. Vs n ohapu fghzc lbh, lbh zvtug tbbtyr gur pyhr naq nqq gur jbeq "fvzcyr"

Urer'f nyy gur qngn:

v / xrrc vg Fvzcyr fghcvq / Cevapvcyr

a / Fvzcyr znpuvar / yrire be chyyrl, sbe rknzcyr

p / puneyrf gur Fvzcyr / Xvat bs Ybgunenatvn

r / Fvzcyr cerfrag / "Tvirf" be "qvfcynlf" sbe rknzcyr

a / Fvzcyr fvzba / Cvr-qrfvere gujnegrq ol cbiregl

g / Fvzcyr znwbevgl / rabhtu gb jva na ryrpgvba

v / Fvzcyr nebzngvp evat / Oramvar, vaqbyr, be clevqvar, sbe rknzcyr

i / N Fvzcyr snibe / Svyz jvgu Naan Xraqevpx naq Oynxr Yviryl

r / 8 Fvzcyr ehyrf / Wbua Evggre fvgpbz

f / Fvzcyr zvaqf / Fnat 1980f uvg "Qba'g Lbh (Sbetrg Nobhg Zr)"

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2024-03-30T01:40:40.363325

It is #EnigMarch, and each day the excellent EnigMarch people post a prompt word; then puzzle nerds try to design puzzles around that word. (Today's word is surprise.)

There is one suprise in each sequence below. I sure hope you can turn each surprise into a letter.

one, one, two, six, twentyfour, one, …

six, twentyeight, three, eightthousonehundredandtwentyeight, …

zero, one, three, six, ten, fifteen, one, …

two, three, five, seven, two, thirteen, seventeen, …

zero, one, four, nine, sixteen, eight, …

three, one, four, one, five, four, two, six, …

one, one, two, three, five, eight, four, …

one, two, four, eight, one, thirtytwo, …

When you found what you're looking for, those surprise-derived letters should spell out what you were looking for.


Hints and solution, rot13'd:

Rnpu bs gurfr vf n zngurzngvpny frdhrapr jvgu bar ahzore jebat.

Gur frdhraprf, abg va beqre ner: qvtvgf bs cv, snpgbevnyf, Svobanppv, cresrpg ahzoref, cbjref bs gjb, cevzrf, fdhnerf, naq gevnathyne ahzoref.

Vs lbh frr n "guerr" jurer lbh rkcrpg "sbheuhaqerqavarglfvk", gung zrnaf gb gnxr gur guveq yrggre bs "sbheuha...", H.

Urer'f gur shyy qngn:
b / bar / snpgbevny / bar, bar, gjb, fvk, gjraglsbhe, *baruhaqerqgjragl
h / guerr / cresrpg / fvk, gjraglrvtug, *sbheuhaqerqavarglfvk, rvtuggubhfbaruhaqerqnaqgjraglrvtug
g / bar / gevnathyne / mreb, bar, guerr, fvk, gra, svsgrra, *gjraglbar
y / gjb / cevzrf / gjb, guerr, svir, frira, *ryrira, guvegrra, friragrra
v / rvtug / fdhnerf / mreb, bar, sbhe, avar, fvkgrra, *gjraglsvir
r / sbhe / cv qvtvgf / guerr, bar, sbhe, bar, svir, *avar, gjb, fvk
e / sbhe / Svobanppv / bar, bar, gjb, guerr, svir, rvtug, *guvegrra
f / bar / cbjref bs gjb / bar, gjb, sbhe, rvtug, *fvkgrra, guveglgjb

Gur fhecevfrf fcryy bhgyvref.

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2024-03-29T01:15:51.871078

Heads or Tails

It is #EnigMarch, and each day the excellent EnigMarch people post a prompt word; then puzzle nerds try to design puzzles around that word. (Today's word is coin.)

Below are some blanks with some letters filled in. There are six sets of blanks, each for some phrase. Below those are six clues. Alas, it's not clear which clues go with which blanks.

_ _ _   H_ _ _E_   _ _ _A_D

_T_ _ _ _ _ _A_I_L_

_H_ _ _E_   A_D   _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_H_   _ _ _   _ _E   _A_ _ _   _ _ _ _D   _ _ _ _ _

T_ _   _A_   _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _   _ _ _ _ _   _ _I_L

_T_A_ _ _ _ _   _I_L_ _

When you're done filling in the blanks, take one letter from each phrase to get a word that feels right for coins: ◯◯◯◯◯◯ (Which letter? Hmmm, I guess you'll have to figure that out.)


Hints and solution, rot13'd:

Gur zbivr jvgu Tbeg gur ebobg vf Gur Qnl Gur Rnegu Fgbbq Fgvyy; vg svgf bar frg bs "urnq" oynaxf naq bar frg bs "gnvy" oynaxf.

Fgercgbonpvyyv pna pnhfr eng-ovgr srire.

Gb xabj juvpu yrggre gb gnxr sebz n cuenfr, pbafvqre jurgure vgf oynaxf unir "urnq" be "gnvy".

Vs "urnq", hfr gur svefg yrggre; vs "gnvy", gur ynfg.

Urer'f gur shyy qngn:
y / urnq / yrr uneirl bfjnyq / Nffnffvangrq Wbua S. Xraarql
v / gnvy / fgercgbonpvyyv / Gurl pnhfr n sbez bs eng-ovgr srire
g / urnq / guhaqre naq yvtugavat / Ryrpgevpny fgbez curabzran
g / urnq / gur qnl gur rnegu fgbbq fgvyy / Zbivr jvgu Tbeg gur ebobg
y / gnvy / gur qnl gur rnegu fgbbq fgvyy / Zbivr jvgu Tbeg gur ebobg
r / gnvy / fgrnzobng jvyyvr / Erpragyl bhg-bs-pbclevtug Zvpxrl Zbhfr fubeg

Gur svefg/ynfg yrggref fcryy yvggyr.

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2024-03-28T02:02:01.033825

It is #EnigMarch, and each day the excellent EnigMarch people post a prompt word; then puzzle nerds try to design puzzles around that word. (Today's word is rule.)

Below are five words and five transformation rules. Each word becomes some other word (not listed below) when a transformation rule is applied. Unfortunately, I lost track of which rule goes with which word. I dare you to figure it out:

The words:

taped → _ _ _ _◯
fires → _◯_ _ _
waits → _ _ _◯_
flout → _ _◯_ _
pecan → ◯_ _ _ _

The rules:

When you're done, the circled letters should spell a rule of sorts: ◯◯◯◯◯


Hints and solution, rot13'd:

N pbhcyr bs gurfr ehyrf lbh pna cebonoyl nccyl va lbhe urnq; gur bguref ner zber taneyl. Fgneg jvgu gur fvzcyr ehyrf fb lbh jba'g unir gb gel nccylvat gur taneyl ehyrf gb fb znal jbeqf.

Jnvgf va erirefr-Zbefr vf fgvat

Crpna cyhf sbhe znxrf gvtre

Urer'f nyy gur qngn:

G / gncrq / nqrcg / Erbeqre yrggref nycunorgvpnyyl, r.t., YBLNY orpbzrf NYYBL
R / sverf / frevs / Erirefr gur jbeq, r.t. CNEGF orpbzrf FGENC
A / jnvgf / fgvat / Genafyngr gb Zbefr, erirefr gung, gura genafyngr onpx gb Ratyvfu; r.t. ERRQL orpbzrf DHRRE
R / sybhg / syrrg / Punatr ibjryf gb or gur fnzr, r.t. FBYVQ orpbzrf FNYNQ
G / crpna / gvtre / Fuvsg rnpu yrggre sbhe nurnq va gur nycunorg, r.t., ONAWB orpbzrf SREAF

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2024-03-27T01:39:09.844203

Five Cryptic Clues

It is #EnigMarch, and each day the excellent EnigMarch people post a prompt word; then puzzle nerds try to design puzzles around that word. (Today's word is clue.)

Here are five cryptic crossword-style clues. In case that's not tough enough, there's a word missing from each.

Cue Eric: Will _◯_ take finals?

Indication that ◯_ _ _ swapping Farenheit for Celsius

_ _ _◯_ _ _, oddly, is pointer

_ _◯_ sounds like a telltale

"_ _ _ _ _ _◯'s Log USS Enterprise…" starts evidence

When you're done, the circled letters should tell you when I feel clueless when tackling cryptics: ◯◯◯◯◯


Hints and solution, rot13'd:

Rnpu bs gurfr pelcgvp pebffjbeq-fglyr pyhrf fbyirf gb gur fnzr jbeq.

Rnpu bs gurfr pelcgvp pebffjbeq-fglyr pyhrf fbyirf gb "pyhr".

Gur jbeqcynl cbegvbaf ner:
Revp: Jvyy _◯_ gnxr svanyf
◯_ _ _ fjnccvat Sneraurvg sbe Pryfvhf
_ _ _◯_ _ _, bqqyl
_ _◯_ fbhaqf yvxr
"_ _ _ _ _ _◯'f ybt HFF Ragrecevfr…" fgnegf

"Svanyf" zrnaf gur jbeqf raq jvgu …p …y …h …r
"Fjnccvat" urer zrnaf fhofgvghgvat bar yrggre sbe nabgure; jbeq fubhyq or bar yrggre bss sebz pyhr.
"Bqqyl" zrnaf gnxr rirel bgure yrggre: jbeq fubhyq or p_y_h_r
"Fbhaqf yvxr" zrnaf lbh jnag n ubzbcubar. (Nynf, vg'f na bofpher grez hayrff lbh'er n fnvybe. Vs lbh qba'g xabj vg evtug njnl, creuncf zbir ba.)
"Fgnegf" zrnaf gur jbeqf fgneg jvgu p… y… H… R…

Urer'f nyy gur qngn:
b / lbh / Phr Revp: Jvyy _ gnxr svanyf?
s / syhr / Vaqvpngvba gung _ fjnccvat Sneraurvg sbe Pryfvhf
g / phygher / _, bqqyl, vf cbvagre
r / pyrj / _ fbhaqf yvxr n gryygnyr
a / pncgnva / _'f Ybt HFF Ragrecevfr fgnegf rivqrapr

Gur pvepyrq yrggref fcryy bsgra.

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2024-03-26T01:00:00.622175

res ipsa loquitur

It is #EnigMarch, and each day the excellent EnigMarch people post a prompt word; then puzzle nerds try to design puzzles around that word. (Today's word is raise.)

"Raise" and "raze" are interesting words: they're homophones (sound alike) and antonyms (mean opposite). "Rays" just muddies the waters further: you have three words that sound alike and mean quite different things.

The clues below hint at word-triads: all words in each triad sounds alike. Fill the words into the blanks in alphabetical order.

_ _ _◯_,   _ _ _ _,   _ _ _ _ _   entitlement, ceremony, compose
_ _ _◯,   _ _ _ _,   _ _ _ _ _   product, erode, at which
_ _◯,   _ _ _,   _ _   briny deep, perceive, yes in Yecla
◯_ _ _,   _ _ _ _,   _ _ _ _ _   way, anchor chain, paddled
_ _ _ _,   _ _ _◯_,   _ _ _ _   quote, attraction, place
_◯_ _,   _ _ _ _ _,   _ _ _ _   penny, odor, posted
_ _◯,   _ _,   _ _ _   paddle, (conjunction), Catan good
◯_ _,   _ _ _,   _ _ _   she sheep, tree, second person

When you're done, the circled letters should spell out some good advice for solving this puzzle, albeit too late: ◯◯◯◯   ◯◯◯◯

Hints and solution, rot13'd:

Gur svefg jbeq va gur svefg gevnq vf evtug.

Urer'f gur erfg bs gur qngn:

U / evtug, evgr, jevgr / ragvgyrzrag, prerzbal, pbzcbfr
R / jner, jrne, jurer / cebqhpg, rebqr, ng juvpu
N / frn, frr, fv / oeval qrrc, creprvir, lrf va Lrpyn
E / ebnq, ebqr, ebjrq / jnl, napube punva, cnqqyrq
U / pvgr, fvtug, fvgr / dhbgr, nggenpgvba, cynpr
R / prag, fprag, frag / craal, bqbe, cbfgrq
E / bne, be, ber / cnqqyr, (pbawhapgvba), Pngna tbbq
R / rjr, lrj, lbh / fur furrc, gerr, frpbaq crefba
    

Gur pvepyrq yrggref fcryy urne urer.

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2024-03-25T01:04:28.261060

Book Report: 50 Years of Text Games

It's a history of text-centric computer games structured as 50 essays about 50 games, choosing one game published each year 1971-2020. It's pretty interesting. It took me a long time to get through this book. When I was reading, it went quickly. But I kept wandering off play the games it described.

E.g., the book only mentions the game Ditch Day Drifter in passing, but I figured it might be the closest I could ever get to participating in Caltech's Ditch Day. And maybe the game felt more like something you'd find in Zork's Great Underground Empire than in Pasadena, but it was still pretty good. And there's a few hours gone to play a game that was a few sentences in the book.


In recent years, a lot of text games have been something like computer-enhanced Choose Your Own Adventure books; except they've concentrated on storytelling. The original CYOA books couldn't have much story; each book was kinda short; and whenever the reader made a choice, the book needed a whole set of pages reflecting the outcome of that choice. So maybe each version of the story, you were just reading eight pages. But thanks to computers' nigh-infinite storage, a "book" can hold a lot. And maybe a book doesn't need totally-distinct "pages" to reflect the effects of choices.

Maybe in one scene, the reader's presented with a choice:

Adopt Chunko the Wonder-dog?
  • [ Yes, give Chunko a home ]
  • [ No, I have enough problems ]

Depending on which button the reader chooses to tap, different things might happen. But maybe the author doesn't need to write totally-different stuff. In a dramatic confrontation with the sinister Master of Horridness, the author might write a little paragraph:

Chunko the Wonder-dog barks at the sinister Master of Horridness. "Bark! Bark, bark!" The Master of Horridness hisses and clutches his cape closer.

The author can specify that if the reader adopted Chunko, that paragraph should appear; but not otherwise. It's a little flourish that might give the reader warm fuzzies, but doesn't require writing two versions of the whole narrative.

These games have caught the eyes of writers who want to use them for actual storytelling. And so they write these games: you, the reader can make choices about how the story will go, guiding the protagonist. And so you're trying to "win" by working towards a compelling story, navigating the path of narrative. To jump nimbly as Mario, you must master timing; to choose wisely in a 16-chapter genre mystery story, understand that your prime suspect in chapter three is a red herring, with maybe a 50-50 chance of surviving the next four chapters.


Anyhow, I've been reading/playing a lot of these games. When I slowed down, I'd go back to reading 50 Years of Text Games, make it about three pages further—and them, bam, I read something that made me return to the games.

For example, after I played a few too many romance games with a billionaire/prince love interest, I got pretty sick of them. The billionaire would whisk my character off on a private jet flight to Rome for a plate of penne; and I, the reader, was supposed to ignore the whole climate-change implications of private jet flights and think This character has earned a life of luxury by dint of their sweetness, and if the glaciers must melt to drive this point home, so be it.. It made me want to re-word the classic @dril tweet

Food: 200 CO2 lbs.
Data: 150
Housing: 800
Monthly pasta jaunts: 3600 CO2 lbs.
Utility: 150
someone who is good at the ecology please help me, my planet is burning

After I played one two many games with that plotline, I avoided anything else with "billionaire" in the title or blurb.

When I saw the blurb for the game Elite Status: Platinum Concierge "How far would you go to make a billionaire's dreams come true?" I noped out of there in a hurry.

But then I was reading 50 Years of Text Games again, and Emily Short came up again, and I decided to seek out some works. And it turns out she co-wrote that Elite Status: Platinum Concierge game. So I played that game after all. And it was good; she didn't treat billionaires as over-the-top wish-fulfillment machines. That story had some gnarly choices.


Writers want to exercise writerly techniques. Some literary devices don't mesh well with games. In a plain ol' book, an author might build suspense by revealing information to the reader unknown to the protagonist. Perhaps a chapter shows the sinister Master of Horridness making evil plans with his minions, the Horrid Horde. Oh no, the protagonist is unaware of this looming menace! In a game, this feels weird. The reader gets this "inside info," and then makes choices on behalf of the protagonist, who's unaware.

You're heading out for a walk. Want to wear your motorcycle helmet?
  • [ Yes, oddly. I would. ]
  • [ No, don't be ridiculous. ]

You, the reader, might choose differently if you watched the Master of Horridness planning to drop a piano from some rooftop: oddly, a helmet seems like a good idea, hmmm. But how to explain why the protagonist donned the helmet? Unconscious psychic powers? Monumental good luck? Aliens?

Things get weirder when you combine story, game, and capitalism. The book 50 Years of Text Games covers both art-for-art's-sake highfalutin' works and commercial games. These days, a lot of the commercial text-y choose-y games are free-to-play, but make money by charging the reader for extras.

So after you read that scene in which the protagonist has a tense conversation (replete with fleeting glances and significant pauses) with Cragfield the brooding, good-looking local landholder, you might see the choice:

See that same conversation again, but from Cragfield's point of view, including exclusive interior monologue and innermost thoughts?
  • [ Yes (10💎) ]
  • [ No ]

If you choose Yes, you'll spend 10 gems, available at your device's app store for perhaps a dollar. And thus you'll get to find out that Cragfield is secretly obsessed with you and also with memories of some mysterious figure in his tragic backstory. (Well, you probably already guessed that if you've ever read a genre romance story. Presumably, spending 10 gems on the scene also yields some more-specific insight.)

Later on, perhaps you can choose to have the protagonist flirt outrageously with Cragfield, despite the offputting demeanor. Why would the protagonist think flirting would work? Extreme good luck? It might feel as though the protagonist somehow deserves good luck, since you, the reader, spent a dollar. But within the context of the story, it still feels strange.


Another literary trope: If the protagonist makes a bad decision early on, that's strong character motivation: They feel responsible; they want to fix the problem they created. If I'm reading a plain ol' novel and the main character makes a stupid decision, maybe I notice at the time, but probably I don't. I probably just ride along, enjoying the book. Later, when consequences emerge, I might think Aw, too bad that happened. Welp, better get to work fixing that.

In these games, on the other hand, I'm paying pretty close attention to the main character's choices. Often, I'm doing the choosing. If asked to choose between three bad ideas, I don't just nod my head and ride along. I notice I'm being set up. My eyes narrow; my hackles rise.

As motivation, it works in novels; but it backfires in these novel-adjacent games.

It can work. In stories or in games, maybe that character's bad decision doesn't just steer the plot. Maybe it shines a light on some aspect of their personality. I've seen this work well in comedies and a tragedy. A character in a tragedy or comedy might have some exaggerated trait: a tragic flaw or funny quirk. In the Episode app game Competitive Edge, the main character is hilariously hyper-competitive and arrogant. The reader often faces choices that might be summarized:

How do you reply to your rival's question?
  • [ Over-the-top confident answer ]
  • [ Over-the-top competitive answer ]
  • [ Over-the-top narcissistic answer ]

The consequences of these choices are bad for the character, but darned funny for the reader. Later in the story, a meanie character manipulates the main character into an obvious trap; the reader sees it happening, but grins and goes along with it, well-trained by previous rewards. (OK, I grinned and went along with it. Your mileage may vary.)

When nudging the player to grin along with bad choices, consistency matters. In the Choices App game The Cursed Heart, at the story's start, we establish that the main character is overly trusting. Midway through the game, the main character misplaces their trust and falls for an obvious trick. It feels stupid: before this, the reader has been presented with choices, and can steer the main character away from traps. When I played I thought, Thanks to my paranoi expert guidance, the main character has overcome their naiveté. I'd only induced some momentary aberrations, but the game didn't make that clear until that jarring forced misstep.

The Choice of Games game "Tally Ho!" makes it safe to make bad choices, even if the main character isn't absurdly flawed. This game is a comedy in the style of P.G. Wodehouse; as such, it's about the upper classes in England. It's possible for the main character to face consequences for bad decisions, but quite unlikely. Meanwhile, the effects of failure can be pretty funny, sometimes funnier than success.

I mentioned the Choice of Games game "Elite Status: Platinum Concierge," in which you're something like a personal assistant to a few billionaires. In this game, you face situations with no good choices, only choosing who to harm. In this game, it works; it's a tragedy, and you expect a character in a tragedy to face terrible choices.


When one of these book-ish games works well, it feels like the player and the author[s] are telling a story together. When it doesn't work well, it gets clunky. When a heist game rewards you for making good choices with a bigger heist take, that's all very well. But then you have to second-guess your choices: do they make sense? Do they make sense in the context of a cinematic heist story? Should you knock out that palace guard by clonking him on the head? In real life, no; you shouldn't concuss someone. In a heist story… maybe? How realistic is this heist story? Maybe the story is light and glib, knocking guards out is totally cool, everybody guaranteed to be all recovered in the next scene. Maybe the story's more realistic and you should be worried about concussions. If you choose to handcuff the guard instead of knocking him out, will the game penalize you, lower your score for making a choice that doesn't fit the mood, taking things too seriously?

How well do you understand the story that the game's author wants to tell? Are you sure you want to be part of it?

Oh… the book? Right, that's what I'm supposed to be writing about. Yeah, I recommend it. It talks about the games; talks about changes in what each, uhm, artistic movement? Sure, let's say artistic movement. The book talks about what each successive artistic movement has tried to accomplish. It's interesting.

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2024-03-25T12:04:23.342756

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