The Vault

For my last birthday - my fortieth - my brother and a mutual friend treated me to something they knew I'd uniquely enjoy: an escape-room experience. Despite being half the size of a full team, we still made the top three for their monthly completion-time leaderboard for the room we solved. (The completion ratio on the whole is under one-quarter.) Just yesterday, they posted a job opening, and I jumped at it. Their application asked some unique questions, which I enjoyed answering, but by far, the most fascinating block to fill in was labeled thusly:

Tell us a story, short or long, fact or fiction, about yourself. *
Help us get to know you.

The asterisk denoted that it was a required field.

So I wrote a thing:

I do not know for certain whether this lead-in is true or not, but I believe it is: I have the largest game collection in the state. Affectionately known as "The Vault", those who have seen it tend to be stunned... or at least, they were. Now, they're a little... trepidatious. Allow me to explain. I promise this story will mostly be about myself, although perhaps a bit abstracted.

I have been fascinated by games ever since I can remember. It probably started with playing cards. I collect decks, or at least I did when I had the funds to do so, and rarely leave the house without one. Sitting next to me as I type this is a pair of plastic containers and a pair of cardboard boxes, each completely filled with decks... and those are the open ones, those I use and show off. The brick boxes of sealed decks are slightly further away. Anyhow, as I grew up, and starting occasionally possessing money, I would frequent the board game aisle at Toys "R" Us (I swear it was a genuine sight to behold back then - how the mighty have fallen), familiarizing myself with the latest releases and buying one when I could. I was the kid whose family had the Intellivision instead of the Atari (although I eventually got that too); some of the sharpest memories I have from my childhood are moments when my NES library grew by one.

Somewhere along the way, I became known as the game guy. My SNES saw itself hooked up to the television in the basement of my college dorm many nights, running makeshift tournaments. The university gaming club's library was largely inspired by my own, putting in purchase orders for board games I'd brought in so that I could finally take my own copy back home before it wore out completely. People who had old gaming consoles they didn't want anymore gave them to me, knowing they'd be cared for and even used in my hands. I'd be the first invited by those setting up game nights, knowing something incredible they've never played before would essentially be invited along with me. The Vault grew and grew.

Then the flood happened.

Now don't get me wrong: it could have been far worse. It could have been a total loss, or I could have been forced to sell what was still intact. Neither of those happened. The Vault is still there... but it's not the same. I still have the Go stones, but the board was a total loss. I still have the NES carts and their manuals, but their boxes were stored separately and the vast majority of them were destroyed. My Magic: the Gathering cards were sorted by color at the time; my green and black cards were largely wrecked, but only those. (It'd be kind of funny if it weren't so heartbreaking.) Most board games survived, but their boxes became warped through all the humidity when the water evaporated (and some needed to be cleaned of mold - some didn't survive that process). The monetary value of what I lost that day is sizeable, but doesn't compare to the sense of lost history it gave me.

But the damage didn't end there. Spiders moved in. Lots of them. And they're still there. No matter how many I exterminate, more seem to take their place. I always seem to walk into a web at some point every time I visit. There are tables set up within that used to be regularly occupied with guests, playing whatever caught their eye; now few are willing to come over. And now it would appear that more water is threatening to enter The Vault from underneath - the very foundation of the building is starting to crack.

It's a Catch-22, really. Or perhaps more accurately, a pair of them. If I'd known in the first place that my game collection would ever be threatened, I'd have saved more money to properly defend it - but then it wouldn't have been the grand collection it is now, one that wouldn't have been as in need of saving, one that wouldn't have inspired donations to it. And now, with The Vault clearly in need of moving if it's ever to reclaim its glory, I find I need money to move it... with the only obvious source I have being to try to sell some of its contents, which is self-defeating. Not to mention that the environmental damage many of the games received deeply devalued them, so they won't sell for nearly as much as they were worth, even if they're still fully playable - their value as games hasn't dropped a bit, right? In this day and age of entertainment being primarily digital - even when it comes to traditional board games, it's now often "free app download with purchase" - the sense of value for something physical, manipulable, seems to have taken a nosedive. Sure, my Humble Bundle library isn't going to die to a flood, but there's nothing tangible about it. The Vault? You can walk in. You can FEEL it. You can grasp a sense of the scale involved, the amount of history within reach. Every game is a universe unto itself, with its own science to explore and story to create - and that doesn't even consider the meta-story of how the game got in The Vault in the first place. It affects you. Or at least, it would if you could look beyond the damage that has been dealt and can see what The Vault is supposed to be, what it was, and what it could be again.

And that is what I can see. Perhaps it is a superpower, perhaps it is a curse, perhaps it is both; I can see what each game was and what it is now, and it guts me. It guts me to know that something so cared for and desired looks so neglected. It guts me to know that something that should be priceless appears valueless, something with an intrinsic value far exceeding the very concept of currency reduced to apparent rubbish. These games would be worthless outside The Vault... but inside, they are invaluable. They are indispensable. They are inseparable. They are worth something far greater than money to The Vault itself... and to me.

Maybe if you walked in yourself, you'd see only the damage, the mess, the spiders, and the damp floor, and walk out. But maybe, just maybe, you'd see what I see. You'd see that a great injustice occurred, and that perhaps it's not too late to see it righted.

I don't know how this story ends. Maybe you do.

How much of this is fact or fiction, and for that matter how much is literal or metaphorical, is of course left as an exercise for the reader. - ZM

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Puzzle 68: The One Ring

See Puzzle 3 for most of the instructions. I've added two additional elements here (and I lack the time to properly update the full rules to include them right now): when the loop is completed, all green checkmarks must be inside the loop and all red 'X's must be outside the loop.

I was a year late with my "35" puzzle, so I figured I should be a year early with this one. Of course, some of you may have seen this a year even earlier, as it was a perk in my IndieGogo campaign for my upcoming book. That was, in fact, the reason I crafted it in the first place - otherwise, I wouldn't have bothered. Although I suppose I'm thankful to have endured yet another twelve months, I'm finding little celebratory in this number steadily increasing. Don't expect another one of these six years from now… - ZM


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Is this thing on?

Is anyone still keeping eyes here, perchance? I've largely moved to Twitter, but I do have plans to resurrect this journal at some point. Now is definitely not the time, though - my situation is frankly rather dire. If you'd like to help, or if you want to see what puzzle construction I'll be up to over the next couple of months - and boy howdy will I ever be making puzzles - then (if you haven't already) please check out my Indiegogo campaign; it only has just over 48 hours left as I'm typing this. - ZM

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Conversations with Cleverbot

Are you capable of love, Cleverbot?
Yes, are you capable of love?
Regrettably, yes I am. Do you find it pleasant or a torture?
I could not have answered that better myself.
Thank you. Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow.

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  • I made the Kessel Run in less than eleven parsecs, but was levied a two-parsec penalty for icing.

  • I got the moves like Jagger once. I put some cream on it, it went away.

  • Why no, these aren't Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy jeans I'm wearing.

  • Must... resist... urge... to... unpeel... entire... China Marker....

  • Frogger? I barely know 'er!

  • In the middle of a battle, Gamba Gal fogrot to firht!

  • Friends don't let friends drive ostriches.

  • Disambiguity. It's what for dinner. (All night, every night. That's the way I need it...) [Whether I said "what" instead of "what's" on purpose is left as an exercise for the reader.]

- ZM

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Overheard at Funspot XIV...

It was the best year yet for the International Classic Videogame Tournament - the best line-up of games, the best competition, and the best operation. (And as one of only two to have competed EVERY year, I ought to know.) My usual collection of oddities for my post-tourney out-of-context theater has some winners as well. As always, these are possibly paraphrased, and questions regarding their speakers and/or situations will be ignored and/or obliterated. (Any other questions about the tourney are perfectly welcome.)

  • "Aaagh, EIGHTIES!"

  • Instructions: ...3. Cry. 4. Press Alt-F4 to ragequit.

  • "I'm aiming for 100% completion. On milk. ...It does a body awesome."

  • "Church for sale by owner?! ...Does God take Visa?"

  • "I'm lining my pockets with paper towels."

  • "But I don't know why she swallowed the dragon... I guess I'll die♪"

  • "No mushroom house for you!"

  • "Remember those two packages of waffles I bought? I threw one at him."

  • "Enter pee-pee zone!"

  • "That's for people who would get skin cancer just by looking at a greenhouse funny."

  • "Sucks to be adequate."

  • Funspot: Dominating the world since the 50's.

And I have one last one that's too epic to not share what happened, so I'm going to. I was candlepin bowling with friends when one of them managed a 2-4-6-7-10 split, with a deadwood pin lying perfectly horizontally at the front of the field covering the visual gap between the 2 and 6. Es second ball - I kid you not - upon hitting the deadwood pin JUMPED it like it were a ramp and the ball a BMX. When the utter amazement and hilarity subsided, I heard:

  • "You get the Most Impressive Zero-Point Shot of EVER Award."

If you were there, feel free to add your own in the comments. - ZM

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Puzzles 61-7: Seeking Syren^WScotchy

See Puzzle 14 for instructions; you can ignore the little gray letters. That will get you through the first six, anyhow; Puzzle 67 is "some assembly required". Permit me to explain.

For all of my puzzle followers that are not familiar with the MIT Mystery Hunt, here's a brief rundown for the both of you: Every year since 1981, during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend (which coincides with their Independent Activity Period), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been the home of a puzzle competition, which over the years has grown into the largest gathering of its kind. Dozens of teams with dozens of members stay up all night solving puzzles and metapuzzles in their quest for "the coin", with the prize being the honor - and heavy responsibility - of running the Hunt (and making all the puzzles for it) the following year.

Although I'd known about the Hunt for some time, it wasn't until 2009 that I actually got around to attending. As a member of the very appropriately named team Beginner's Luck, I found myself up at 3 AM Monday - after having trudged through snow and corridors for hours - when we located the Covertly Operational Inversion Node (or C.O.I.N.) and won. I created two "puzzles" for the 2010 Hunt; the seven grids below all constitute just one "puzzle" in Hunt terms. (I also created one "subpuzzle" for another's "puzzle". I'll stop putting that word in quotes now.) The graphics for the puzzles are the exact same ones originally used for the Hunt.

All Hunt puzzles reduce to a single solution phrase - often a single word - to be determined by following some manner of uncovered logic. I say "uncovered" as instructions are usually intentionally lacking, typically only alluded to by titles or flavortext, leaving solvers to try to find some internal consistency or pattern to follow in order to "extract" the final answer. You've probably noticed if you've peeked below that the first six grids all have peculiar titles; the seventh has a title as well, but you'll have to solve it first to learn it. That is the solution phrase for the entire puzzle, the one word all this reduces to. (Incidentally, this puzzle was made around - and inspired by - that answer word; in creating a Hunt metapuzzle, certain phrases are called for to be answers to puzzles, and this particular word is one of great significance to Zotanna, which is why I jumped at the chance to make its puzzle.)

Now I know what you purists are thinking: "I'm here for true DEDUCTIVE LOGIC, and I can't have that if I can't have RULES! I don't even know you anymore!!". You can relax: despite my apparent redefining of 'puzzle' in that last paragraph, I'm not changing the style of my journal puzzles one bit. This is still seven puzzles to me, which is why I've numbered them as such and am presenting them the way I am. I've felt for some time that these are fantastic little grids that deserve to be considered independently, and so here they are. However, I also find a certain beauty in the reveal of putting it all together to make that last grid, so I compromised with myself: I'll post the puzzles all at once as a heptaptych, and leave the final puzzle disassembled at first, letting those who are interested try to piece it together. Over the next few days, I'll add hints in the comments for those who want to put it together but are struggling; within the week a full set of instructions will be given, and lastly a week from today I'll put up the fully assembled Puzzle 67 without the answer-extraction bits so that both camps can appreciate the puzzles for what they are. I will likely only be doing this sort of thing again if my team wins the Hunt again.

So let's get to it, shall we? The rules are unchanged, but for thematic purposes (and for the final puzzle) I need to point out that instead of seeking Syren in these first six, you're seeking spirits - that is, bottles of alcohol (I'll explain later) - and the given title of each of these grids is the name of the spirit hiding within.

Puzzle 61

I made this first one with the fact that it'd be the very first Seeking Syren most of its solvers will have done in mind as I was making it; I kept it very simple and tried to make it as interesting an introduction as possible by squeezing in as many nodes as possible.

Puzzle 62

This one is actually my favorite of the bunch. I felt it important to show off a key nuance of the rules early on, while the grids were still on the easier side; this is probably the greatest "S-reveal" that can possibly be made. You'll see what I mean.

Puzzle 63

It was around here that I decided I'd try to make each of the six lead-in puzzles two-color, using each of the possible combinations once. I also figured this was the right place to put the requisite "backwards" puzzle, especially given the nature of the preceding one. There needed to be at least one of these to drive home the importance of actually solving these completely rather than just finding the spirit and moving on.

Puzzle 64

Things start to get technical around here. The constraints I had to adhere to forced some things about the nature of the later grids, which naturally led to harder puzzles as I needed to use more tricky techniques to get them to work. Figuring out the logic of the "islands" starts to become a greater driving factor here.

Puzzle 65

If I recall correctly, this one was actually the last of these initial six I made, but I felt it was the easier of the two, so I presented it first. This is probably the most Nurikabe-like puzzle here.

Puzzle 66

It had to get truly difficult sometime.

Puzzle 67

And so we arrive at the final grid...

...which obviously has seen better days. What happened to the node count? For that matter, what happened to the givens?! And not only is the 'S' showing, but it's freaking PURPLE! Well, when you're an alcoholic starship engineer that gets drunk, passes out, and then needs to appear in a Mystery Hunt puzzle, this is apparently the result. Who knew.

Scotchy was but one crew member of the Brass Rat that successfully escaped from Zyzzlvaria during the events of the 2009 Hunt, and the 2010 Hunt paid homage to some past Hunts, that one included - which entailed giving each crew member another puzzle. Upon blacking out whilst celebrating the previous year's escape, Scotchy dreamt e found emself in a parody of my old Sanctum Puzzler contests (which I've mentioned before [Detritus - please excuse the broken image link in that entry, that's Cox's fault]). Es envisioned conversation with our classic protagonist went thusly:

     Lady Lyght apparently isn't here. Perhaps I should return to my Sanct- ...What in my father's name...

    Stupid transporter malfunction! Captain, are you okay? Look at all this mist everywhe- wait, you're not Captain Blastoid! Who are you, where are we, and where's the rest of my crew?

     Uh... you may call me Lady Terran, we are on an astral plane, and 'not here' is the best I can do for that last one.

    A plane? I don't see the controls anywhere...

     ...It's not the kind that flies. This is a magical dimension, not a physical location - and it would seem your presence has corrupted it. Has your spirit been traumatized recently?

    I just got BACK from being stranded - this is far too sobering for me... wait, where's my booze? I've lost it all! NOOOOOOOO!

     ...Ah! That explains it - it's your spirits that have gone astray! They must be on parallel planes interlaced with this one... Indeed! I can sense them. Six bottles, yes? Give me a moment and I'll recover them for you.

    Thank you! I'm not sure how I could repay you...

     Oh, no need. There is knowledge to be had from any journey, even errands such as this; that is sufficient reward for myself. I warn you, do not move from there until I've repaired the plane - trust me, you wouldn't want to wander into a deadly cloud of ambiguity. Once I'm done, I should be able to reveal the safe way across to me here, and in following it you will attain what you seek.

    Thank you very much - will do. But please hurry - I must be hallucinating from withdrawal, as I swear we're talking in colors...

Contained within that purposefully garish text lies all the information needed to reassemble Puzzle 67 - you just have to think about it the right way - and solving it will reveal its title. Fair warning: this sucker is TOUGH!

One last bit of business needed to be carried out: since I made a Sanctum Puzzler, I had to award a Puzzling Otato, traditionally given to the most curious response the puzzle generated. I was going to offer it to the first person that got the reference at the Hunt, but no one did, so I decided to give it to Mike Selinker, who sort of inspired me to make a latter-day Sanctum Puzzler in the first place (and to be fair wasn't at the Hunt that year, so wouldn't have had the chance otherwise). Long story short - ambiguity intended - e asked for it. The game of Sanctum may be gone now, and who knows if it will ever return, but the memories shall remain.... - ZM

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Puzzle 60: The One Ring

See Puzzle 3 for instructions.

When Palmer Mebane "paid homage" to my 30×30 The One Ring (Puzzle 30) with es Loop of Death not long before my thirty-fifth birthday, e inspired me to start work on a 35×35 follow-up. Apparently, I missed my original deadline by about a year. This last year of my life has been one of the strangest, most tormenting, and downright freakiest I've yet endured, and good riddance to it. Despite the tremendous size on display here, the puzzle is largely smooth sailing; my hopefully-obvious aesthetic restrictions guided the design rather than any desire to make a particularly challenging puzzle.

I'd also like to take this serendipitous opportunity to wish a happy 35th birthday to my most distant closest friend, Robyn O'Neil. I create all my puzzles first as graphite on paper, and some (myself included) may refer to them as artful, but I daresay my most complex works are doomed to pale in comparison to what Robyn accomplishes in the medium. - ZM

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