Category: News (page 1 of 175)

Letters to Margaret Paints a Cruciverbalist Love Story

Maggie A. Cross is a journalism student at Columbia University who runs a crossword blog along with her roommate Amanda, under pseudonyms. And while she doesn’t realize it, her professor pseudonymously runs a rival crossword blog along with his teaching assistant, Derry Down. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, when Maggie submits a crossword to the New York Times for consideration, she hears back…from the Times’ first crossword editor Margaret Farrar, who probably shouldn’t be providing editorial feedback on crosswords considering she’s been dead for almost 40 years.

This story of Maggie Cross and Derry Down’s tempestuous rivalry as well as the mystery of Margaret Farrar’s ghostly correspondence unfolds in Letters to Margaret, a graphic novel with a puzzling twist. As the novel progresses, readers are given the option to solve just shy of a dozen crosswords referenced in the book, including a series of puzzles that show Maggie’s guidance under the somewhat archaic tutelage of Margaret Farrar. Written by illustrated by Hayley Gold (who previously ran the crossword review webcomic Across and Down) and published by Lone Shark Games, Letters to Margaret‘s Kickstarter campaign will be running for the next two weeks (until March 29th). The campaign has already surpassed its funding goal, raising $31K from over 700 backers, at the time of this article. But the puzzling doesn’t end with crosswords.

Crossed Words: A Single Story, Two Perspectives
The book is split between Maggie and Derry’s perspectives. While Derry is frustrated by the racist, sexist, and exclusionary elements that often pop up in crossword puzzles, Maggie believes that calls to restrict the language in crosswords are going too far, stifling the creativity of constructors. This thematic split is echoed in the structure of the graphic novel, as the events unfold from Maggie’s perspective starting on one end of the book, and switch to Derry’s perspective on the other end, eventually meeting in the middle. Readers can choose to read the entire book from a single perspective before flipping over to see the other side, or can alternatively hop between chapters to see the book unfold in a rough approximation of chronological order. Both options are equally valid, although I’d recommend swapping perspectives every chapter, as flipping perspectives feels more powerful when the other half is still fresh in your mind.

At its heart, Letters to Margaret is a graphic novel about the power of words. Every character in the graphic novel shares a love for the English language, even the book’s duo of Statler and Waldorf style sentient arrow commentators. The book is packed to the brim with all the trivia, mixed metaphors, spoonerisms, and puns you could ever hope for, and much of the comedy in this romantic comedy comes from those moments of wordplay.

And while Maggie and Derry approach crosswords from different perspectives, the fact that the choice of words matters (whether they’re strung together into sentences or strategically placed in a 15×15 grid) is not up for debate. Where things get complicated and thorny is the question of where to draw the gridded lines. This is an issue the crossword community has been grappling with, and Letters to Margaret manages to illustrate that complexity with consideration and finesse. And while it may not provide answers to all the questions, it hopefully helps deepen the understanding of the questions themselves.

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Satoshi Found: Perplex City Just Got A Little Less Perplexing

It’s been almost fifteen years since Andy Darley entered Wakerley Great Wood in Northamptonshire with his trusty trowel in hand and dug up the Receda Cube, ending the first season of Mind Candy’s alternate reality game Perplex City and claiming the game’s £100,000 prize. While the game’s main narrative was solved with the discovery of the cube, some of the game’s most ardent fans continued to chip away at the game’s unsolved puzzles, designed to be nigh impossible. And on December 30th, the final puzzle was solved when players got in contact with a man based on nothing more than a single photo, and a first name: Satoshi. After over a decade, the puzzle Billion to One has been solved.

A Brief Perplex City Primer
Perplex City was an alternate reality game that launched in 2005, whose story unfolded through a series of collectible puzzle cards. According to the game’s lore, Violet Kiteway stole an object known as the Receda Cube from the Perplex City Academy Museum. After being teleported to our world, she buried the Cube and posted cryptic messages hinting at its location under the name “Combed Thunderclap”.

Not knowing his own daughter was the thief, Perplex City Academy Master Sente Kiteway partnered with Mind Candy to release a game: Perplex City. The game was designed to let people of Earth learn about their world and the theft, with the hopes that Earth’s puzzle-solvers could figure out what their Perplexian counterparts could not. And so, 256 puzzle cards were released into the world in four separate waves.

Clues on the cards might lead players to websites, blogs, emails, and telephone numbers, and a San Francisco live event even had one character escape the scene in a black helicopter…but for many, the heart of the game were puzzle cards themselves: every card had a silver scratch panel hiding a unique code that players could use to track their solves, powering a live leaderboard. Three puzzles were particularly notorious for being unsolved.

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Diving Into Thickett to Re-Right Grimm Tales

Long ago, in a world very different than ours, a princess convinced God and Death to write a book with the answers of how to live a perfect life. In response, the pair gave her The Book of Turns, a collection of stories providing guidance on how to live well. But after the princess spread pages of the story through the land, the stories changed, stripping away the moral lessons that gave them their power. To fix matters, the princess founded THICKETT: an organization dedicated to dive into the tales, and rewrite the wrongs.

In Cirque du Nuit‘s serial immersive production Thickett, players join one of three departments tasked with re-assembling The Book of Turns through a combination of immersive theater, puzzle-solving, and exploration. Each installment of the game’s six chapter run is intended to function as a stand-alone “Quest” exploring a different theme, with a new 90-minute episode coming out on Fridays and Saturdays every two weeks. The second installment goes live later this week, on November 27th and 28th.

A Glance Beyond the Thickett Fence: Anatomy of a Quest
When prospective players sign up to participate in a Thickett Quest, they are asked to fill out an intake form to get sorted into the appropriate department as a “Seeker”. Once accepted, they are provided with their department, an employee identification number, and login credentials to a departmental-specific resource page with an “Employee Handbook”, providing the in-game and out-of-game rules for the experience, as well as a link to the game’s optional Discord server.

Players started out on a Zoom call with Thickett corporate, before splitting out into departmental breakout rooms to be briefed on the department’s objectives for the mission. The Department of Foxes encourages the use of cunning to advance their personal agendas, the Department of Rabbits are focused on helping others and cultivating friendships, and the Department of Ravens is dedicated to the dogged pursuit of truth. After undergoing a brief onboarding and initiation process, players are thrust into the game world to immerse themselves in the Quest’s theme, before returning to Departmental breakout rooms to compete for the best re-write of the underlying folktale.

Episode 1 thrust players into the story of Godfather Death, although the corrupted tale players were presented with omitted a key element of the tale that stripped it of its morality. However, scattered throughout the world were hints of other Grimm tales, ranging from modern classics like Cinderella to lesser-known tales like The Brave Little Tailor. Each faction had separate objectives to achieve in the world, although the mechanisms were the same: find ways to assist the various non-player characters inhabiting the world, and unlock more chances to alter sections of Godfather Death. As THICKETT CEO, the Princess would go on to select one version of the story to re-write (and hopefully, re-right) the narrative.

Topia: The Heart of Thickett’s Multi-Player Point and Click Adventure
The bulk of Thickett takes place on Topia, a video chat platform layered on top of a point-and-click virtual world: audiovisual feeds from other players and NPCs only come into view when your digital avatar is nearby, and gradually fade away as your avatar walks away.

Thickett‘s world is littered with a handful of clickable items: some items expand to display images or videos, while others are portals that transport players to other sections of the realm. In the first episode, there was even a portal with restricted access: directly entering the location could only be accomplished by talking to the right NPC and getting express permission to enter.

And while players didn’t assume the roles of characters when entering Thickett for the most part: functionally, gameplay resembled other NPC-forward Larp-adjacent experiences like Evermore Park and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. While characters were happy to respond to more active roleplaying when players sought it out, their primary role was sending players out on quests, challenging them to games and diversions, and providing helpful information to arm players for their upcoming revisions.

This spatially-aware system for interacting with the world was incredibly effective at creating a sense of presence in the world, in part due to the resonance of the visuals. Topia’s minimalistic art style plays particularly well with Thickett‘s fairy tale theming, evoking nostalgic memories of EH Shepard’s illustrations of Winnie the Pooh‘s Hundred Acre Wood.

Topia (and Gather, its 16-bit competitor in the spatially aware video chat space) are a powerful tool for creators looking to simulate the joy of exploration and serendipity that lies at the heart of many location-specific immersive theater and Larp productions. While platforms like VRChat, Minecraft, and even Second Life have delivered more sophisticated avatar-mediated virtual spaces, there’s something viscerally satisfying about turning a corner and gradually seeing a human face coming into view.

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A Spoiler-Free Unpacking of Neil Patrick Harris’ BoxONE


There’s an often-repeated contemporary folktale: if you try and place a frog in a boiling pot of water, it will immediately jump out. But if you place the frog into cool water and slowly turn up the temperature, it won’t notice the gradual change until the water is boiling hot. This apocryphal tale may not apply to actual frogs, but it makes for one heck of a compelling metaphor. With Neil Patrick Harris’ single-player puzzling experience BoxONE, the heat is turned up so deftly, you’ll barely notice the game’s evolution from trivia game into…well, that would be telling.

ARGs and the Slow Burn Narrative
Since alternate reality games play out in real time across platforms, ARGs will frequently throw their players into a ludo-narrative pot: start by introducing players to something that’s relatively normal and familiar, and then gradually introduce fantastic elements as the story progresses. This has the side effect of making players sound mildly unhinged when describing their experiences, since what they experienced as a slowly unfolding narrative is an abrupt shock to the system for the listener.

Lonelygirl15 started out as a teenage girl’s vlog, before evolving into a story about a death cult harvesting human blood in the quest for immortality. I Love Bees started with a beleaguered beekeeper struggling with a glitching website before turning into a story about a time-travelling artificial intelligence struggling to piece itself back together. I Am Sophie started with an out-of-touch influencer’s YouTube debut before teasing players with potentially fatal plane crashes, brainwashing video games, and murderous entities.

The indie game scene has produced projects with similar trajectories, albeit at a quicker pace: James Lantz’ Discord-powered game SmileBot may start out as a simple chatbot that measures a server’s emoji usage, into a multi-phased text adventure that’s a single player game, except for when it isn’t. Frog Fractions may start out as a childish edutainment game of arithmetic, but it hops rapidly through increasingly ridiculous genres and scenarios until the game’s sequel is launched as a secret easter egg in the game Glittermitten Grove.

Which brings us back to BoxONE: a game coyly described on its website as “an ever-evolving game of trivia, codes, puzzles, and discovery only from the mind of Neil Patrick Harris.”

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BEN Drowned, Again…and Again…and Again

Ten years ago, a college student purchased a used copy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask from an old man at a garage sale. The blank cartridge had no label: just the word MAJORA written on it with a black permanent marker. Over the next few days, under the username Jadusable, the fate of this nameless college student unfolded through a series of posts to 4chan’s /x/ board, the anonymous message board’s home for all things paranormal.

The story of Jadusable’s haunted Majora’s Mask cartridge remains one of the most iconic examples of internet creepypasta stories, under the name BEN Drowned. One of the things that set BEN Drowned apart from its peers was its use of video game footage as evidence to support the first-person narrative of Jadusable’s explorations of an increasingly cursed cartridge, culminating in a dramatic twist when followers opened the arc’s conclusion contained within the downloadable file, TheTruth.rtf.

The Haunted Cartridge arc that concluded the initial creepypasta story was followed by The Moon Children arc, an alternate reality game that gave players direct control over the fates of a forum of cult members tangled up with the malevolent force behind the first arc. But that wasn’t the end of BEN’s story. For that, fans would have to wait almost a decade for series creator Alex Hall to bring the project back from the dead.

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Satisfying Your Wanderlust at Mesmer and Braid

On September 30th, Aconite is launching the story-driven puzzle game HoloVista, where players assume the role of a young artist documenting “an opulent building on orders from a mysterious architecture firm…[where] the house is getting to know you too, better than you know yourself.” The game’s trailer depicts a game of almost meditative exploration in the spirit of Myst. Given that context, it’s more than a little fitting that the past few weeks have introduced players to the world of HoloVista through an alternate reality game centered around Mesmer and Braid, the architecture firm at the center of the mystery.

During the trailer for HoloVista, a Mesmer & Braid offer letter addressed to Carmen flashes on screen, inviting her to join the company as a Junior Architect at the firm. Mesmer & Braid’s phone number is listed, instructing her to call to receive her first field assignment. Calling that number leads to a voicemail from the company directing players to the MesmerandBraid website to take a mandatory Collaborator Assessment that sorts anyone who interacts with the company into fancifully named personalities: Nookfinder, Arkadeer, Glowright, Egressquire, and Chronoservator. An artfully framed QR code later in the trailer leads players to the same assessment. Weeks prior, Steve Peters provided yet another route to the Assessment by hiding the phone number as a puzzle on his bookcase during a live interview with Constructed Adventures. Many routes, for many personalities.

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