Similar journeys in very different games

DASH-colossus column illo.pngI have lived in Boston for ten years, but I had never seen the swan boats before Saturday.

The event that got me exploring my own burg was DASH, an annual puzzle competition that takes place simultaneously (time zones be damned) across several American cities. In typical puzzle-hunt fashion, the event's structure comprised several thematically linked printed puzzles whose answers fed into a metapuzzle, and a team completes the event once they can provide the resulting single final answer.

Appropriate to an event meant to be solved in a single afternoon by folks working outdoors and away from their PCs, the hunt focused on "groupsolves" -- lighthearted puzzles that don't require any research or heavy cogitation, instead inviting a small group of friends to bash through as a team via their overlapping areas of common knowledge. This year's DASH chose television as its theme, providing a rich mine of cultural trivia for puzzles to draw their wordplay from. The offhand-knowledge requirement never got more obscure than an early puzzle that involved assembling constellation names from a jumble of phonemes. (As with all good hunt puzzles, as tricky as the wordplay-work was the sussing out what one was meant to do with the starting materials; naturally the clue text for that puzzle involved the show Dancing with the Stars.)

DASH's props included a map of (in our case) Boston's South End and Back Bay neighborhoods, with a couple dozen or so spots marked, and you did have to figure out the correct route for proceeding through them. Once you answered a puzzle, you consulted a lookup table to learn where to head next. There, you'd receive that location's puzzle-materials from a DASH organizer idling nearby (and helpfully demarcated by their wearing a pair of TiVo costume-antennae), and you'd set to work anew. Despite the map, however, the puzzles were not tied to location; that is, none required you to take the third letter off the second word of the nearby statue's plaque, or somesuch. Entirely self-contained, the puzzles could therefore be safely identical in every DASH-participating city.

It would be reasonable to ask why the hunt bothered with the run-around element, then. Why not take the more traditional puzzle-hunt route and have teams stay put throughout the event?

The whole hunt's pace of puzzle challenges separated by short stretches of travel reminded me of another game: Shadow of the Colossus. While most conversation about this videogame concerns itself with the climactic and emotionally fraught battles with the titular titans, a less spectacular but still memorable portion of play involves the player's travel between the fights. Unusually for an adventure game, the "overworld" contains no threats or challenges, beyond the basic necessity of navigation. (And even this is mitigated by an enormous THIS WAY, DUMMY beam of light that the protagonist can summon without penalty.) While it's been years since the single time I played through the game, I clearly remember details of its landscape: the shape of the natural bridge you'd cross when leaving the central temple, the carved details upon the silent ruins you must traverse in the desert.

All this despite the fact that none of these places "did" anything; all of Shadow's game-challenge is contained in the battle that awaits you at the end of each journey. But the two activities -- traveling and fighting -- end up much less separate than they may at first appear. Subtly and inevitably, the knowledge and anticipation of the next colossus encounter flavors the travel the precedes it, inviting the player to savor their journey, taking in and contemplating the scenery while they can, before they willfully enter the next arena. Without this context, the game's world would be a mere Playstation 2 technology demo, a mildly interesting curiosity that would have not invited nearly as much time spent exploring and appreciating as I put into the actual game.

For me, DASH brought the very same effect to the streets of Boston. In a very smart design move, DASH stops a team's time-spent-solving clock when its members find a puzzle's answer, starting it up once more only when they arrive at the next location and receive the new puzzle's materials. This encourages teams to take their time in traveling between the map's puzzle-points. They are free to explore a bit, take in the nearby sights, or pause to enjoy some lunch. At the same time, eagerness to tear into the next challenge goads them into not tarrying excessively. Just as with Shadow of the Colussus players, DASH solvers will soon enough pack their scenery-appreciation away, choosing to trigger the next event.

Note also how the respective world-environments of these two games complements the overall tone of their core challenges. The world of Shadow, while geographically varied and beautiful, carries a universal feeling of loneliness and desolation, appropriate for the travels of a protagonist doomed to slay all of the very few living things he meets over the course of the game. It results in a fine backdrop for silent contemplation of your actions as you clippity-clop along the path to ram your sword into the next poor 50-foot-tall sod that had never so much as said boo to you.

In contrast to that grim setting, Saturday's puzzles were mentally stimulating challenges celebrating popular culture, shared among friends working beside you. It took place in the heart of a living city, on one of the year's first warm spring days, the time of year when any New England city is at its happiest and liveliest. The sidewalks and parks were full of people, and our little knots of wandering puzzle-fan geeks fit right in to the day's shifting human landscape, as we let the energetic joy of solving bear us down the street to the next challenge.

And as I wandered with my group, I did in fact stop to admire the swan boats (iconic to my city but less ubiquitous than its familiar skyline) for the first time. I also gawped at the beautiful interior of Boston Public Library, also never seen before, and took note of a large but heretofore unknown monument to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. While the rest of my team scratched their heads over the metapuzzle, I was moved to explore the square we found ourselves in, photographing this jawdropping statue of an admired local preacher-man of yore, forever firebranding in silence to the descendants of his original flock.

By recasting a slice of Boston into the magic circle of a game, DASH lent a sparkling context to it which encouraged me to explore and appreciate the neighborhood. For that brief moment it became a game-world, as full of mystery and character as the lonely plains of Shadow of the Colossus. That it also happened to be based on the real world, rather than a computer-generated construct, only deepens my admiration of what is ultimately another facet of the transformative power of games.

Image credits: Swan boat photograph from David Paul Ohmer / CC BY 2.0. "Shadow of the Colossus" photograph from Richard Lemarchand / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Postscript: My only negative criticism of DASH's structure was its reliance on puzzles whose materials involved small bits of paper or cardboard (which teams usually had to scissor out of printed templates themselves). While manipulating physical pieces in order to find a key pattern makes for an engaging puzzle, Saturday was a moderately blustery day in Boston, and this added the unwelcome distraction of keeping the wind from carrying those same bits away.

I also cheerfully congratulate Team STDP, comprising Gameshelf guests Denis Moskowitz and Matt Sakai, as well as Gameshelf friends Jennie Hango and Lance Nathan, for taking first place among the 18 Boston DASH teams. My own Team OMGs (Jenny Gutbezahl, Doug Orleans, Amy Swartz, and myself) finished in sixth place.

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3 Responses to Similar journeys in very different games

  1. melinda says:

    "Why not take the more traditional puzzle-hunt route and have teams stay put throughout the event?"

    Comment from a San Francisco DASH-er here. This comment struck me as funny because the Bay Area puzzle tradition grew out of "The Game," where you drive around in a van all weekend going from puzzle location to puzzle location. Organizers spend a lot of time choosing appropriate and thematic locations for teams to enjoy. The Bay Area Night Games, which are a direct predecessor to DASH, were originally designed as shorter versions of the Game that featured walking instead of driving. I've found that I tend to enjoy these short mobile games, even when the locations aren't that interesting or relevant, because the exercise is nice and because it's easy to see and interact with other puzzlers.

  2. Jason McIntosh says:

    Whereas, back on the east coast, my own puzzle-hunt background is firmly rooted in the MIT Mystery Hunt. While this event always involves at least a few "runaround" events, as well as a handful of puzzles that require you to explore the city in some way, the majority of solving-time is spent cloistered in a classroom. So, that's what I'm thinking of when I say "traditional"!

  3. melinda says:

    As far as I can tell, the West Coast puzzle tradition originated independently of the Mystery Hunt, and the first games involved travel. Given that the person who started DASH is from the Bay Area too, it's not surprising DASH is a walking game.

    I've flown out for the Mystery Hunt a couple times, and it's also a lot of fun but has a quite different feeling. Of course, if anyone is going to run a puzzle hunt in Boston in January, it had better be a conference-room-type game!

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