The Librarian’s Almanaq Contrasted to Journal 29

I recently solved my way through a couple of unrelated puzzle books, Journal 29 and The Librarian’s Almanaq — although perhaps they’re better described as metapuzzle books. These are not merely books that contain puzzles, but books that are puzzles: multi-stage puzzles that take advantage of the physical properties of books. And yet they approach this in such different ways! To put it briefly, Almanaq aims at being a puzzlehunt1I’d never seen “puzzle hunt” contracted into one word before this book, but I embrace it. in book form, while Journal is modeled on web-based riddle games like notpron, where the solution to each puzzle yields the URL of the next.

Structurally, this means that while Almanaq is kind of freeform and unpredictable, with lots of paging around through the book to look for things, Journal 29 is designed as a sequence of discrete puzzles, each two-page spread acting like a single web page. Journal isn’t quite as linear as its inspirations, though. Since you can’t actually lock access to pages of a book, it settles for solution dependencies: solving each puzzle yields a “key”, a word or other short text, which later puzzles can reference by number. A puzzle might reference multiple keys, and finding them all is generally necessary — often the keys are the only indication of a puzzle’s goal.

One weird point about this: The puzzles don’t yield the keys directly. Instead, there’s an online component. When you solve a puzzle, you go to the website and type in the solution, and that gives you the key. A couple of the puzzles rely on other resources from the website, too, combining keys into URLs for you to visit. I really don’t care for this. I’ve complained about such things in the IF Comp before, but it’s a bigger concern there, where archival is half the point, than here, where the pages are designed to be marked up with pencil over the course of solving puzzles, making the whole thing ephemeral and unreplayable. Still, I find the reliance unaesthetic. I suppose it has one virtue, that it makes it impossible to work backwards, solving puzzles from the keys they produce. But I suspect the main motivation is metrics. The online component makes it possible for the author to track which puzzles go unsolved. I hope they’re at least finding this instructive.

Once you have a mandatory online component, you have to ask: Why the book? Is this in fact just an online riddle-game that puts its graphics in the form of print instead of some digital formats? But no, some of the puzzles use the medium of print in clever ways. One puzzle requires you to fold over some pages to complete a picture, another uses the uninked parts of a page as a grille for obtaining letters from the next page, and so forth. It’s a small fraction of the puzzles that pull such tricks — by my count, just eight of the 63 puzzles really need the book, although sometimes this is a judgment call. But that ratio means it can off as a surprise every time it happens.

The reason it can come as a surprise is that the puzzles here are scant on instruction. The basics of how to look up keys on the website are covered in the book’s introduction, but other than that, you’re generally just given some pictures and have to figure out what to do on your own, just like in those web-based riddle games. There’s a fictional premise that the book was recovered from a lost archeological expedition, and some of the graphics lean into this with pictures of ruins or rubbings or sketches of alien skulls or whatever. The puzzles aren’t really designed to make sense with this fiction, but they use it as mood-setting, as a way to invest the act of poring over a mysterious book with a little meaning, however tangentially. It reminds me a little of how hidden-object games tend to adopt mystery and detection themes as a reason for why you’re scouring scenes for random objects, however little sense that makes.

Almanaq, by contrast, has lots of instructions. The premise here is that if you follow the book’s instructions precisely, you will attain enlightenment — and that’s all the premise you get. Indeed, there’s one sub-puzzle that consists entirely of instructions, but instructions that are complicated enough, with enough conditional exceptions, that they’re difficult to follow correctly. (It took me three tries.) But the presence of instructions means that the average page can be far less informative and more enigmatic than the average page in Journal. Flipping though the book, you’ll see a pattern of hexagons containing letters here, a crossword grid without clues there, and then a page with just some thick lines running through it, or a page full of Shakespearean dialogue in iambic pentameter. Some of these things will be used in puzzles. Others are decoys. There are entire types of puzzle, entire genres, that are only seen as decoys. Only by faithfully following the instructions will you know which is which.

The very first thing that the initial instructions tell you to do is to rip the initial instructions out of the book. Ironic, for a book with “Librarian’s” in its name! This goes against everything I had learned about how to treat books so much that I was hesitant to do it at first, but I convinced myself that the pursuit of enlightenment would necessarily involve overcoming my ingrained habits. This is, I think, important. To tear out that page is to commit yourself, to declare that you trust the instructions and will follow them wherever they lead.

The second thing the instructions tell you to do is find certain other pages and rip them out as well, for use as tiles in an assembly puzzle. The instructions give advice on how to rip neatly, but ripping is never neat, and I think that’s part of the point. It’s still humbling you, to make you receptive to enlightenment, or at least to ensure your obedience. There’s some verbiage about how you “don’t need” to use a knife or scissors, which is phrased as encouragement or kindness but acts more like a taunt or criticism. I got better at the ripping with practice, but the more neatly-ripped pages still shared the puzzle with my earlier, rougher efforts.

That initial puzzle gives you the key to finding the pages for the midgame, consisting of several parallel puzzles of different sorts, all of which are ripped out, and in some cases manipulated further. (This time, scissors are sometimes necessary.) In keeping with its puzzehunt ambitions, the book suggests playing with a team, in which case each midgame puzzle can be physically handed to a different team member. This all funnels into a final metapuzzle, and the final step of that final puzzle wowed me. I won’t say why here, in part because I don’t think the impact could be adequately communicated by a mere description. Viewed dispassionately, without being primed by the rest of the game, it may be barely better than the “Aha!” moments from Journal. But at the time, it felt like the book was making good on its promise of enlightenment. It wasn’t, of course, but it did a good job of making me feel like it was.

Now, I enjoyed both of these books. But I enjoyed Almanaq a great deal more. It was purer in its bookness, and took advantage of it more thoroughly, turning the entire book into an arts-and-crafts project. Its less-linear structure made it less stuckable. And of course there’s that ending. Journal, like certain other riddle-games, uses familiar ancient-astronaut imagery to suggest earth-shattering revelations without actually delivering anything other than vagueness. Somehow, Almanaq‘s approach of not even having anything to be vague about works better for me. Aliens just make me more aware that you’re pretending.

And then… I’m fairly sure that I’ve exhausted Journal, but Almanaq leaves some possibility that there’s more to be discovered. I’ve looked at the unused pages a bit, and found one page with a fairly obvious hidden message on it. Is there more like that? Are any of the mysterious decoy puzzles actually things that can be solved? A particularly devious designer could exploit ambiguity in the introductory puzzle to create multiple paths through the rest of the book. I really don’t think anything like that is going on here, but just imagining the possibility is a little exciting.

Apparently the author of The Librarian’s Almanaq is currently preparing a sort-of-sequel called The Conjuror’s Almanaq, this time modeling it after escape rooms. I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be interesting to see how it differs.

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1. I’d never seen “puzzle hunt” contracted into one word before this book, but I embrace it.

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