Thursday, April 28, 2011

Confessions of an Intellectual Drug Dealer

Hi, I'm Will. And I'm a puzzle addict.

I've always liked puzzles, for a simple reason: I'm EXTREMELY arrogant about my intellect, and I have a talent for abstract thought. I may not be the fastest kid in the class on a math problem, or the first to diagram a sentence, but when the teacher asked how to get the chicken, the fox, and the bag of feed across the river, I was the first man on the scene.

(In the last few years the phenomenon of the ARG - Alternate Reality Game - has both fascinated and repelled me. ARGs are giant puzzles that enterprising people -often but not always working to market a product in an innovative way - hide on the Internet and in the real world. ARGs create an amazing sense of the world as a place full of hidden secrets, but they're also frustrating. I was the smartest kid in Mrs. Dason's third grade class, but when the puzzle is available to the entirety of the population of the Internet, I almost always end up just watching the crazy mental gymnastics of the players at the genius end of the Bell curve with a mixture of awe and deep, deep envy.)

When I played my first adventure game 15 or so years ago (Space Quest 5, if you're curious), I was instantly hooked. Abstract thought mixed with funny writing and weird, interesting worlds? It was a perfect fit (barring the times I got stuck and had to beg my Mom to let me call the Sierra Hint Line in the sad days before I had Internet access). Over the next few years I devoured Sierra and LucasArts' back catalog, in search of new characters, cool plots, but most especially... The Rush.

You've felt it. The moment of epiphany, when your brain locks in and you and the game's designer experience a kind of time-delayed telepathy. 5 or 6 different elements come together in a new configuration, and your brain makes the logical leap. The feeling of dawning understanding. Endorphins for the mind. The Rush.

An easy puzzle won't evoke it. If the solution is obvious from the second you see it, there's no thrill, no challenge. Nonsensical difficulty won't, either, when you're just bashing away with trial and error until something finally works. The Rush only happens when your perspective suddenly shifts. The meaning of the impenetrable code becomes crystal clear, the Sphinx's riddle becomes suddenly obvious.

The single best evocation of The Rush I've ever found isn't from a video game at all. It's from the incredibly kinked mind of a guy named Jeff Webster. A few years ago, Webster started a site called Weffriddles. The premise is very simple: Weffriddles is a series of pages, each of which contains some sort of hint or hidden information. The player uses these hints to find the url of the next page. The puzzles start out extremely simply, but become beautifully, wonderfully, terribly complex.

My friend Kevin and I used to do weffriddles when we were bored at our lab jobs. This would inevitably turn into a competition, as each of us fought to be the first to get The Rush on the next puzzle, like two drug addicts fighting over their fix. The beauty of the riddles is that they are almost all quite simple - in hindsight. It is only once you have made the logical leap, felt The Rush, that things fall into place. Before that, you can spend days staring at them in incomprehension.

I have since tried to take up the Weff role myself. My Minecraft server is littered with mazes and obscure puzzles. I get a visceral thrill out of watching people navigating a teleporter maze I constructed over the course of a week. I find myself badgering people into playing through this stuff, because it gratifies the time I spent constructing it; because, as an asshole, I get off on watching them struggle with something I understand completely; and most of all, because I want them to experience The Rush.

Because that telepathy works both ways, and when someone solves a puzzle I've laid out, just for a second, there's someone else in the world who's thinking like me.

(Weffriddles can be found at, and if you are of a certain temperament, will come to dominate your mind for weeks at a time)


  1. I still need to play your teleport maze! Have you heard of MIT Mystery Hunt, or any of the derivations across the country? Seems like something you would enjoy. That Aha moment is a great feeling, and can be quite addictive! xkcd pointed me towards a while ago, a site that gives you a bit of a mathy The Rush.

    I agree about ARG. They sound cool, but they aren't for me. As you say, a combination of me not really caring about the AR combined with the force of the internet that will always beat me to the punch. Of course, ARGs are examples of puzzles you usually have to work on in a community somewhere.

    I look forward to playing with weffridles!


  2. The Mystery Hunt is another one of those things that intimidates the hell out of me. For all my love of puzzle solving, my tolerance for frustration is pretty low.

    I'll check out projecteuler, thanks for the tip!

  3. Your teleporter maze was really fun-strating. Also, the Space Quest games were really fun. I think my favorite part was the arcade mini-game in a space restaurant where you got to kill chickens. I forget which Space Quest that was, though.