Cute Mage's Tower

The Art Behind Puzzling

Poetry is words supercharged with meaning.

That’s a quote I learned from an English teacher in school. I don’t remember which one, and I don’t remember the context, but that quote has stuck with me for years. I remembered it because it explained why I was having trouble with writing poetry. I couldn’t quite figure out how to put that extra meaning in - but I also was having trouble expressing my emotions. I could write poetry that was humorous, but that’s about it.

Now that I’m older and I’m looking more into my emotions, I realize that the same is true with puzzles.

Writing Puzzles

We live in a fascinating time for writing puzzles. Thirty years ago if you wanted to be a crossword writer you needed a large vocabulary, lots of resources, a large amount of graph paper and a very good eraser. Nowadays wordlists can help on the vocabulary side, the internet can help on the resource side, and specialized computer programs can help on the paper and eraser side. In fact, there are commercial programs that allow you to create crosswords on the click of a button. Any teacher can find a number of websites that will take a small wordlist and generate a vocabulary style crossword puzzle, but there are programs that you can use to generate full newspaper-style crosswords without any work on the constructor’s part. If all you wanted to do was to solve newspaper-style crosswords all day, you could just spin up a program, hit generate, and solve a new crossword almost instantaneously until you’re dead. Yet newspaper crosswords are still written by actual people who are paid for their work. Why?

It turns out that computer-generated crosswords have no soul.

There’s meaning in the gimmick of the puzzle is (if there is any). There’s meaning in the specific words that are chosen to be in the puzzle. There’s meaning in the way words are clued. These combine to make a New York Times crossword feel very different from an ACVX crossword, and both of those feel very different from an Inkubator crossword. I’m pretty sure that I never would have gotten to clue GROWAPAIR in the New York Times as “For some cis men, itmight be an insult; for some trans women, like this puzzle’s constructor, it might be #goals”.

But even up and above that, individual crosswords can have much more meaning than that. Variety cryptics are the peak of this. Variety cryptics provide space for all sorts of shenanigans in a crossword, allowing for quite different experiences in the same genre. Of course, if I’m going to mention variety cryptics with tons of meaning, I’m going to have to mention Transformations, the variety cryptic I wrote to tell my puzzle hunt team that I was coming out as trans.

Logic puzzles are even more susceptible to this. Enterprising publishers often realize that it is not hard to write computer programs that will generate any number of sudoku or other similar puzzles at any difficulty. However, people who solve logic puzzles can often recognize when the puzzle has been generated by a computer. This has lead to artistic constructors creating wonderful puzzles - including the famous Grandmaster Puzzles.

It’s Not Enough to be Close

Back in my post about ABCDE, I talked about the concept of closeness. Closeness was an abstract measure of how artistic a puzzle was. However, in that post I just talked about how the different pieces of a puzzle tie together and whether you’re telling a story throughout the whole puzzle. Closeness is really important and can help you solve puzzles like Star Wars Cosplay, but it’s not the only artistic part of a puzzle. The whole experience is also a part of the art.

As puzzle writers, we have an advantage over poetry. Our art is interactive. While a powerful poem can cause the reader to feel a range of emotions, a puzzle can cause the solver to do things. You can’t just read and contemplate a puzzle to get its full meaning, you have to actively participate in the solving, and that participation means that we can force the participant to perform certain actions to up the experience. My favorite example of this is the Hall of Innovation from the 2023 MIT Mystery Hunt. This round really makes it feel like you are constructing a set of puzzles and trying to make all of the interconnectedness work. It is still one of my favorite rounds of puzzles ever because of what I was doing to solve it.

Of course, I still have to hype my own stuff because I am a shill, and the biggest example of this is First Day on the Job. The entire puzzle set is designed to feel “wrong” when you’re first solving it. There is extra information that doesn’t need to be there - solving a puzzle for the first time feels like you’re leaving half of the puzzle on the cutting room floor. Of course, as you may have guessed by the phrase “solving a puzzle for the first time”, solvers have to go back into the same puzzle and extract more and more, before combining all of them together in a certain way to investigate what’s happening at Angle Corp. Listening to a couple puzzle solvers attacking this hunt and describing how wrong the puzzles felt after solving a couple, followed by them being relieved by synergy puzzles showed me how well I got across that feeling.

Puzzles From the Heart

Why am I writing this now? Well, in early April I ended up in the hospital. I’m not going too much into the reasons for that now, but I’m doing better now and I’m in recovery. However, it was a weird experience. Work had gotten to be a lot, and I felt like I was just running full sprint with no end in sight. In the hospital, I was forced to stop. No work, no computer, no internet, just a lot of time to think. I got some writing instruments and a journal, and I just started writing puzzles. I wrote puzzles about the emotions I was feeling - which needed to be placed rotated in a grid to represent how much my head was spinning at the moment. When I was lonely and needed to reach out to friends, I wrote a series of ciphers that were unreasonable to expect anyone to break, but you had a bunch of hints from friends that could help you. I wrote a journal entry from five years in the future as both an exercise in manifestation and also an exercise in naturally hiding things in text necessary for puzzles. I wrote emotional puzzles as my escape.

Look, it’s a stereotype that when someone ends up in the hospital that they start writing poetry or prose and get all artistic about it. However, I’ve been putting emotional experiences in my puzzles for a long time. Now that I’m at a reset point in my life, I’m not just writing emotional puzzles, I’m supercharging them with meaning.

– Cute Mage