Archive for August, 2021

Tachyon

While we’re on the subject of puzzle books, there’s one other I’d like to describe. Tachyon, by Stephen Boughton and Daniel Sage, is very much in the vein of Journal 29: each two-page spread presents a single puzzle (which, in most cases, doesn’t really need that much space), and solving it gives you a word that feeds into a later puzzle. It’s essentially the same format as Codex Enigmatum and its sequel, Codex Mysterium, except that in those, solving a puzzle gives you the key directly, and in Tachyon, as in Journal 29, it’s indirect: solving a puzzle gives you a password to enter into a web site to get the actual key. Still, all four books are similar enough in format to clearly belong to a distinct mini-genre, and I find myself wondering about its origins. Journal 29 is the oldest of these books that Amazon recommends when I look at any of them — is it in fact the thing that the others are all imitating, or does it go back further in time?

Of all these books, Tachyon is the one with the closest thing to an actual story. It’s still mostly suggestive theming rather than narration, but there is some narrative, at least, spread out over both the pages of the book and, occasionally, the web site that provides the keys. Basically, it’s about the narrator’s attempts to decipher the notes left by his missing father, a physicist. Find the codes to activate his machines and possibly you can turn back time and stop his disappearance. Not that the puzzles that occupy most of your attention are particularly related to this story.

The puzzles, as in all these books, are short, and consist mostly pictures and diagrams presented without explanation, or with instructions consisting of a couple of key words from previous puzzles. The whole challenge in each is figuring out what the author wants from you. In that respect, it more resembles an adventure game than a puzzle hunt. There’s some reliance on technological knowledge: one page expects you to know how to send text messages with a numeric keypad, which was a stage of phone technology that I personally skipped over. And honestly, I found some of the puzzles unsatisfying, either because they were too facile or made what I felt to be unreasonable assumptions, causing me to seek hints even though I had got the central insight right.

But I have to give it kudos for its ending. This book plays with form in a way that none of the other books I’ve mentioned have attempted. Spoilers ahoy.

The web site that provides the keys prompts you for a solution to the final puzzle just like all the others, even though there’s no possible use for a key from there. When you do, it gives you the story’s climax: the narrator’s discovery that he made a mistake in interpreting the key word from the very first puzzle. This produces an entire chain of revisions: change a key word, and you have to redo the puzzle that uses it, yielding another altered key word, until you reach the final puzzle. As in the story’s premise about going back in time, you get a chance to do things over and make them right.

Now, this means less than it probably sounds like. The nature of these puzzles is that there isn’t much to solving them a second time: you’ve already had the crucial insight into interpreting them. Also, the indirectness of the keys means that the puzzles aren’t really related to each other in a way that would be complicated by the altered chain. Still, it’s kind of impressive to realize that each puzzle involved had to be designed around two different solutions, with just a word making the difference. Moreover, I find it encouraging to see this kind of playfulness in what was otherwise seeming like a very rigid format. Maybe there’s some real potential in this mini-genre.

Daedalian Depths: The Final Answer?

In my last post, I hadn’t yet solved the final riddle of Daedalian Depths. I think I have, now. I’ve definitely solved most of it. There’s an overall pattern to the shortest path through the maze, and there are enough hints about that pattern that once you know what you’re looking for, you can find enough minor details confirming the pattern for it to become a certainty. (I took perhaps longer that I should have to discover this pattern: there’s a pretty blatant hint that went over my head until after I figured it out by other means.)

But it really feels like there should be just one more step. The final riddle asks you to find a set of five legendary artifacts “hidden in plain sight” along the shortest path. The picture of the last room has five pillars set up to receive them. This really feels like it’s a setup for a final metapuzzle, building a five-letter word, or perhaps a five-word phrase. That’s how it would work in a puzzle hunt, where answering the last riddle in text is how you confirm that you’ve won. There’s even a really tempting way to extract a word from the treasures: the shortest path is exactly 25 rooms long — 26, if you include the numberless initial illustration. So if you map each room’s position on that path to a letter in the obvious way, and take the letters of the five rooms containing the artifacts, what do you get? Unpronounceable gibberish. Same for a couple of other mappings I’ve tried. I’m starting to really think that I’m carrying things too far, looking for more hidden meanings when I’ve already wrung the thing dry.

This is especially disappointing because it would have been so easy for the author to place the artifacts in rooms where they do decode to something meaningful! With one exception, they’re not particularly bound to the contents of the rooms where they’re found. If I were in the maze for real, I’d totally move them to rooms where they spell something out, so the next guy could have the satisfaction I was denied, if I could find a way to keep the exit gate open while I did so.

Daedalian Depths

Daedalian Depths is a gamebook in the tradition of Chris Manson’s Maze, where “in the tradition of” is a politer way of saying “that blatantly imitates”. Andrew Plotkin has a review of it here; like him, I got a copy when it was released, but I’m in such a puzzle glut that I didn’t get around to going through it until now. It’s by Rami Hansenne, who also created Codex Enigmatum, which is a lot like Journal 29, which is based on web-based riddle chains like notpron. These are all puzzle-hunt-like things where the solutions of puzzles feed into other puzzles. Journal 29 used a web site as an intermediary between its interlinked puzzles; Codex Enigmatum has an online solution checker, but doesn’t absolutely require it; Daedelian Depths doesn’t have an online component at all. It’s meant to be self-confirming, like a cryptic crossword.

But more importantly, it differs from Codex Enigmatum by the Maze format. Everything is placed in illustrations of rooms, with a page of facing text; clues in each room let you know which exit to take, which is to say, which page to turn to next. CE didn’t have any overarching context other than itself as a book. This makes a tremendous difference to the feel of the thing, making it come off as more of a cohesive whole rather than a mishmash of disparate puzzles, even though that’s really what it is. But it still carries a lot of the CE/J29 feel as well, simply due to the cheap paper and fuzzy, indistinct art style. It’s better than Maze in a lot of ways, but production values are not one of them. (CE and J29 at least had the excuse that you were expected to write on them with pencil.)

I’ll reiterate what Zarf said: The most important innovation this book has over Maze is simply that its riddles are reasonably solvable. Maze had a contest associated with it, so it was expected that most people wouldn’t solve it. DD wants you to win, however much it pretends otherwise. Its second most important innovation is redundancy. Every page has multiple clues indicating which door to take. Sometimes I can’t figure them all out — sometimes I don’t even notice them all. But having multiple clues means I don’t need to. Not only that, multiple clues means that individual clues can afford to be sketchy. This is where the self-confirmation factor gets in: multiple sketchy clues that all point at the same thing add up to good certainty. It’s like science that way.

Let me give a concrete example of what I’m talking about. In one room, there’s a portrait of Beethoven on the wall, showing him standing in front of a large full moon. It’s not the focus of the room or anything, it’s just a detail in the background. But it’s rendered in enough detail to seem important. The juxtaposition of Beethoven and moon suggests the Moonlight Sonata, aka Piano Sonata #14. And indeed the room contains a door labeled “14”. This connection is tenuous enough that it might not convince you on its own that door 14 is the right one, but it’s a strong confirmation.

At any rate, I’m mainly posting about it here as a way to get eyes on my notes. Here they are! If you have the book, you can use this as a source of hints, but what I really want you to do is comment and add to it. Even though I’ve found the correct path through the maze, there are redundant clues that I do not understand, and I want to understand them. To that end, I tried to find an existing forum or wiki, but the results were disappointing, particularly for rooms off the main path; even the author’s own message board had very few comments. So I’m trying to fill that gap.