Running this blog and becoming more active and committed to it over the past few months have fostered this interesting sort of creative cycle. The more I search for things to write about, the more connected I become to the community, the more cool stuff I learn about, the more I actively participate, and the more I have interesting discussions with like-minded people. All of that compounds, leveling me up and giving me more and more to think and write about. It reminds me (and my husband) of the way our Japanese teacher in college described the process learning Japanese, or “Languaging” as she called it. She drew something that looked like a tornado, a spiral shape that started very small and narrow at the bottom, but then grew wider and wider as it went upward and our knowledge increased.
I think the “interesting discussions with like-minded people” part is one of the most exciting benefits of exploring one’s interests. It helps you learn more about yourself and the ideas that matter most to you and gives you insight into a perspective other than your own, which equals fresh, new ideas.
Post-DASH conversation got me thinking and talking about experience, specifically the types of experiences and events I’m most interested in and which most appeal to me. I feel like my blog covers a broad range of interests, but most of the events I’ve learned about are pretty strictly puzzle-centric. Puzzles are great, and I love them, but I think they only make up one part of the overall experience that I’m most interested experiencing and creating and sharing.
I’m sort of figuring things out as I write this post, so I’ll just try to identify the thoughts and feelings that I know are floating around in my brain without worrying too much about structure.
First is the concept of “presence,” let’s call it. I’m very interested in experiences where you have to be present, experiences which affect your reality in a way that many other entertainment experiences don’t.
Take DASH as a first example of an event that does not necessarily require presence. The core of the event is the puzzling, but all of the puzzles can be done independently from the event itself. Each puzzle stands alone (except the meta, which stands on the previous puzzles) and they are all contained within a few sheets of paper. All other aspects of the event, the very fact that it’s an event itself, just act to enhance the core experience. Congregating with other puzzlers, learning the narrative of the game, moving around the city, having a reason to try and solve all of the puzzles in the course of the day, being timed and competing against other teams — these are all extraneous pieces that only enhance the experience, none of them being directly tied to the core gameplay. You really don’t need to be there, and without being there the DASH puzzles don’t seem any different than P&A Magazine, or any other number of puzzle experiences you can find online or in books.
I would have to put Post Hunt pretty far on the opposite end of the spectrum. Although like DASH, the Post Hunt puzzles are revealed online shortly after the event, you cannot have the same core gameplay experience with these puzzles if you try to solve them outside of the event itself. The puzzles rely very heavily on being present. Post Hunt puzzles will require you to observe recurring events, inspect visual displays, conceptualize yourself within the context of a large physical structure as you traverse through it, and sometimes use physical objects given to you at the start of the game. True, someone could describe each puzzle in detail and you might be able to eventually solve it, but the core experience would be very different.
(A thought that doesn’t have a good place: My definitions of “presence” and “real” are not very robust or complete yet. Case in point: phone numbers. I love it when I have to call a phone number for a puzzle. It instantly brings the puzzle into my reality. But how is a phone any different than a computer? If I find online puzzles less than satisfying, why should a phone puzzle element be so exciting? Should phone numbers just be considered a particularly compelling enhancement and not a core “real” element?)
Somewhere in the middle is the Black Letter Game. I was initially drawn to the game for its promise of “artifacts” arriving in the mail each month. The real, the physical, that’s what appeals to me. The BLG has shaped up to be a little different than the image I had in my head, and the physicality of the artifacts is not turning out to be a very vital part of the core gameplay. The creators have found a couple of ways to make having the tangible copies necessary (one very compelling and the other a little forced), but these feel like a form of copy protection more than anything else. In general, it feels like the puzzles could just as well be digital. The physical aspect is just another enhancer, and while enhancements are great (it is satisfying to actually hold the puzzle in your hand, to manipulate and inspect it in the most natural way), they can’t make up for core gameplay I’m seeking.
Why am I so interested in the real and the physical? I think it has to do with having an uncommon experience. We read books, we watch movies, we play video games, we browse the internet and play games on the computer, we do these things every day. Puzzles are everywhere. I have more online puzzles waiting for me than I have time to play (Shinteki Puzzle of the Month, P&A Magazine, the entire Scarecrow’s Field not to mention finishing up the Outside the Immediate, all the Master Theorem puzzles I never did, old DASH puzzles, and probably hundreds of other sites and games I don’t even know about yet). Humans are always looking for new, exciting experiences. I’m learning that puzzles are everywhere, and that makes them somewhat less compelling.
The other topic I want to discuss here is mysteries. The narrative, the aesthetic, the feeling of something obscured and hidden, something greater than yourself waiting to be uncovered. I think originally I couldn’t see much of a difference between mysteries and puzzles, probably because my only puzzling experience was with The Stone, which is extremely enigmatic by nature. Now I’m learning that there are all sorts of puzzles out there, and that narrative is not necessarily something valued within the puzzling community. Even if a mysterious narrative surrounds a puzzle, I have a feeling that as one’s puzzle toolbox grows more robust, one becomes quicker to toss that narrative aside and look straight to solving the puzzle from the most analytical approach, especially with puzzles that are presented in a competitive, time-based event. There’s no time for goosebumps or experience beyond the satisfaction of a clever puzzle and myriad of feelings that come with teamwork and competition.
Maybe this all comes down to a battle between those experiences that cater to the brain and those that cater to the heart. The consumer of a mystery novel or movie may attempt to solve the puzzle, but they certainly aren’t expected to (and the media is usually not designed for the consumer to be able to do so). The primary intended experience is to be affected by the work in some emotional way, to experience the chill and thrill of the chase, of the protagonist uncovering the next clue, tracking down the suspect, or uncovering the conspiracy.
With a mystery, your heart is supposed to beat faster. With a puzzle, your brain is supposed to work harder. Ideally, I would combine those two things into one cohesive experience. You are the protagonist of the mystery novel, and the puzzles you solve actually mean something in a greater context.
There is a lot more on my mind, but I think that’s all I have to say for today. I’d love to hear some thoughts from the members of the puzzling community out there that seem to be reading. Are you interested in mysteries and the touchy-feely part that a puzzle experience might offer, or are you strictly interested in the intellectual brain-workout aspect? For those of you who have played a Game, how big of a role does “presence” play (it seems like a big one!), and does the narrative enhance your experience or get in the way? What is your ideal experience?