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.


Adventure Games · choice design · Puzzles · Thoughts

Choice vs. Puzzles in Adventure Game Design

It is the season of writing game of the past year lists and hyping the games of the new one. I’m delighted to see how Telltale’s The Walking Dead haunts most of these “best of 2012” lists. Its success proves that adventure games still have a lot to say about game design and game narrative, and that there can be a wide audience for them. It also proves how choice design changes how we play and design adventure games.

The Walking Dead confirCaptura de pantalla 2013-01-09 a las 6.11.29 p.m.ms the potential of choice design in adventure games, something that my friends at Choice of Games had already been doing for a while. The core gameplay is making decisions, usually quickly, and living with the consequences (or dying horribly). Although many scenes change depending on your previous actions, because otherwise the choice would be superfluous, the game does not degenerate into out-of-control branching. Instead, it changes specific aspects and scenes of the story. Designing this game must have still been rather complex, which is what happens whenever we have to set up a choice and a clear narrative consequence, but it is done in such a way that choices create a hyper-tangled rhizome.

What I have not seen mentioned often enough in reviews how different The Walking Dead is from other Telltale games, as well as from many other point-and-click adventure games. This may come from the misconception that adventure games are the electronic version of Choose Your Own Adventure books, so it may seem that this is more of the same.It’s not.

Adventure games are simulations. This is obvious to anyone who’s written IF with Inform, or created games with Adventure Game Studio, for example, but it’s a concept that finds resistance from people who only play them, and usually without much enthusiasm. Zork, Maniac Mansion, Machinarium are all based on creating a world, a space, populated by characters and objects, which have different relationships between them. The simulation creates challenges usually in the form of puzzles, and the player has to solve it by understanding how the simulation works. The story unfolds as the player interacts with the world and solves the puzzles.

The Choice of Games series, as well as The Walking Dead, shift the attention to choice and consequence. This is obvious in the Choice Of… games, where the world of the game is described, and our only interaction is selecting items from a menu. We don’t interact with a simulated world, but with a world represented through text. The Walking Dead is a nice hybrid between traditional point-and-click and choose your own adventure, where some scenes allow us to walk around and explore the world at our leisure, to learn about the place and gather information, which will inform our decisions later. There’s less puzzle-solving, the core of the game is choosing the right thing in the moments of crisis. Best thing of all, what the “right” thing to do is never clear, and often makes you feel like you’re trapped in an awful situation.

As someone who designs adventure games focused on simulation and puzzle solving, I really welcome games like Choice of Zombies or The Walking Dead. It’s refreshing, it proves that there is still so much to do in adventure games beyond paying constant homages to our favourite games from Lucasarts or Sierra (I’m guilty of that too). There is a wide design palette at our disposal, we just have to use it.


The Walking Dead and Choice of Zombies also fit choice design with their topic very well. It makes sense that we cannot go many places, that there is not a lot to explore: it’s the zombie apocalypse! Plus you’d better be careful with what you do, because any choice could be your last. The limitations in the environment bridge very well the world of the game and the game design.

Choice design is not new, RPGs have explored this for a long time, with varying success. Think of all these games series: Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, Dragon Age… Often choices in RPGs are limited to “save the baby or kill it” pseudomorality, where the consequences are relatively predictable. Some of the examples just listed demonstrate how much more interesting choices become when your expectations are thwarted, or, better enough, where there is no easy choice, which is what probably is impressive about The Walking Dead.

Choice is not alien to adventure games either–Infocom’s Suspended depends on your strategies to try to save the world before you are disconnected, for example. Point-and-click adventure games included important choices, usually at the end, because it’s easier to generate three different endings than start working on different outcomes all throughout the game (see The Dig, or Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, for example). More recently, Resonance did a wonderful job of incorporating choices. (It’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, but I’ll try.) Resonance also has multiple endings, but does have choice points throughout the game that feel really important, and even if the consequences of the choice are not so different (or inevitable, when it comes to the twist of the game), the game makes you stop and think about what you’re doing. This is mostly achieved by getting you to know the characters and empathise with them, you spend time with them, and when the crisis comes about, you feel for the characters, you feel the pain and the betrayal. The consequences are emotional rather than changing the events. Resonance does in practice what the publicity of Heavy Rain kept announcing, and the game eventually failed to deliver.


The Walking Dead combines plot consequences with emotional consequences very cleverly: early on, you see how your decisions can have awful consequences, people die if you don’t act fast enough or do not make the right choice. Later on, the consequences become more emotional than changing the events. Unlike the adventure games listed in the paragraph above, where it’s a final choice that changes the ending, The Walking Dead takes you to an inevitable ending with slight variations, which may feel different depending on how you have chosen to play your character. That’s eventually the triumph of the game: choice design is about the psychology of the player, not about showing off a complex system.

The possibilites of new adventure games are wide open, it’s our choice. Those who said that adventure games were dead didn’t expect them to come back shuffling their feet and try to rip their gut open.