Detectives · Reviews · Thoughts

Mysteries Stuck in a Loop

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is the latest example of how time-loops and detective stories are a compelling combination–I hope it becomes one of those “must read” novels for game designers and interactive storytellers soon. Evelyn Hardcastle brings together Agatha Christie and Groundhog Day drizzled with a bit of David Lynch. The protagonist of the novel relives the day a murder takes place in an English manor. He controls one person at a time, and the only way to break the loop is to solve the mystery; to do that, he has 8 days / lives to find the solution. If it sounds like a game, it’s because it is a wickedly complicated story puzzle, delightfully put together.

Coming from narrative games, I particularly enjoyed how the protagonist notices the friction with his hosts–what he wants to do may be at odds with their impulses, while the intelligence or insight of the person he’s controlling allows him to notice certain details or have specific realizations. This is not dissimilar to how the stats of a character in a role-playing game can determine what we can do and what we cannot. Although the author does not list videogames as one of the inspirations for the game (he mentions the TV show Quantum Leap in the Q&A at the end of the book), the storytelling takes advantage literacies that games and complex TV shows foster these days. Audiences can follow stories with multiple points of view, gaps that are steadily filled out (or not), so that as they read / watch / play they’re assembling the story puzzle.

A protagonist stuck in the same sequence of events until they get something right is a story structure recreates how we navigate digital storytelling, where the interactor explores the possibilities of a story until we get the “right” version, as Janet Murray breaks down in her analyses of Groundhog Day or Run Lola Run. The pervasiveness of videogames, which often involve trial and error, has turned this structure into a commonplace in other media. The manga All You Need is Kill, adapted to film as Edge of Tomorrow, both thrive on the tropes of combat videogames, so the journey of the main character depends on him remembering his mistakes and learning from them for the next loop, just like a videogame player would. The structure of the time loop has also been long embraced by videogames, starting with The Last Express (1997) and The Legend of Zelda: Marjora’s Mask (2000), neither of which have got the attention and recognition they deserve. Now there’s a whole slew of games recently released or coming up in the next few months: The Sexy Brutale (2017), Elsinore (2019), Outer Wilds (forthcoming), 12 Minutes (forthcoming). The metalevel of the knowledge of the player now becomes part of the game mechanics. And let’s not forget interactive fiction, where there’s already a sizable collection of examples in the last 20 years.

What interests me of the time loop as a narrative / game structure is how combines with mystery, which is what initially drove me to read Evelyn Hardcastle. In a mystery narrative, the initial goal of the detective is to reconstruct the story of the crime. One of the challenges to design a mystery videogame is figuring out how to let the computer evaluates whether the player got the solution right or not–something that is easier to do in non-digital games. Questionnaires are a common device, while letting the player fail can also be a productive approach–maybe players want to replay the game until they get it right, making the loop something that takes place at a meta-level, in the time and space of the player.

Time loop mysteries make the trial-and-error part and parcel of the world of the story / game. Thanks to Groundhog Day, many storytellers and game designers do not see the need to explain why that loop is happening–Evelyn Hardcastle does, in what seems to be a seed to tell further stories with a similar structure (I hope!). The time loop mystery structure is alluring because each loop allows the player / audience to get more information about what happened, and then use that information to solve the mystery or change the events. Some events take place simultaneously, so they require making choices and revisiting the story over and over in order to reveal each piece of the puzzle–where and when people are at each moment. While traditional media have used the loop as a way to structure the story and keep the audience intrigued until the end, the game player needs to actually solve the puzzle and use as many time loops as necessary to get to the end.

Bonus: If you’re into time loop mysteries and science fiction, you may want to listen to the Doctor Who audio story The Chimes of Midnight.

Puzzles · Thoughts

Crosswords and Culture

Apart from being one of the most brilliant music composers and lyricists of the 20th century, Stephen Sondheim is also a game geek and a puzzle lover. Makes sense that someone who marries music and lyrics for a living would also have a penchant for fitting words into grids. Back in the day, he also wrote an article outlining the difference between crosswords in the US and the UK–while American crosswords appeal to an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia, what he calls “British-style” crosswords thrive in being cryptic and challenge the puzzle-solver to understand what the clue is pointing to. He expresses a preference for the British type which should not be a surprise either–cryptic crosswords are more poetic, since they are basically posing riddles for each entry.

Sondheim’s article is a beautiful example of how game design and culture go hand in hand; it also becomes richer the moment that we start looking at crosswords in other languages. Although I can  play words games both in English and Spanish, I prefer crosswords in Spanish to the famous series of The New York Times. First, because the kind of encyclopedic knowledge needed to solve the NYT crossword requires being steeped in American culture and history in a way that is not accessible to a foreigner. Second, the phonotactics of Spanish allow many ways to make words cross in interesting ways. Opening some of the crossword magazines in Spain is a joy – some crosswords don’t tell you how many letters each word has (crucigrama blanco), some puzzles use words broken down in their syllables (crucigrama silábico), some have themes that many of the clues refer to.

My favorite type of crossword is the autodefinido (arroword in English) where the clues of each entry are written in the cell that separates each word. Some cells need to display two clues (one for a horizontal word, one for a vertical), so they need to be extremely brief, two or three words maximum. The clues in this type of crossword usually thrive on vocabulary knowledge, since most of them are synonyms, as well as cultural knowledge, most often geography, with toponyms and demonyms being some of the most common.

Autodefinidos are fast and easy – after all, crosswords were casual games before we invented such term. Although autodefinidos are based on linguistic and cultural knowledge, they become accessible relatively fast. Each crossword book publisher has a certain preference for specific knowledge domains and vocabulary – the first time a puzzle asks you for three-letter words in Spanish that mean “Turkish officer” or “River of Switzerland”, the reference seems ridiculously obscure. But as you continue solving puzzles, you keep coming across these riddles, and you learn that the answers are “AGA” and “AAR” respectively.  For the designers, these words become little stitches to hold the crossword together, and the puzzle solver learns to identify them over time. Each magazine publisher has a set of esoteric words that characterize them.

Autodefinidos also have a surprising variety – apart from having the same typology as regular crosswords (figure out where the blank cells are, divide the words in syllables, thematic riddles), they also do wonders with their layout – some of them have honeycomb layouts where words can be spelled in lines or around a cell. Others combine the crossword with the cryptogram, so the cells for each word in the crossword follow serpentine patterns, and when you find all the definitions, the square displays a literary quote. Everything falls into place and it’s beautiful.

Designing crosswords requires a level of craft computers can facilitate; in the end, it is up to the ingenuity of the designers, who often go uncredited, to create a challenge to one’s knowledge and wits. Some designers like challenging players with hair-pulling riddles, while others provide enough scaffolding so they can complete the puzzle. The NYT crosswords are all about proving the solver is “smart”, and has access to a certain knowledge and education that is highly situated in American culture – and, more often than not, New York City culture. If the puzzle-solver is stuck, they had to buy the newspaper of the following day to find the answer, though these days it’s a matter of having a subscription to the crosswords themselves. In contrast, collections of autodefinidos help the solver expand their vocabulary and trivia knowledge by repeating definitions from puzzle to puzzle, and magazine to magazine; the answers are in the same issue, so that knowledge is accessible immediately. Thus crosswords and their design also partake of different social conventions and levels of privilege.