click to go to Game Set Watch Wednesday, October 10, 2007

COLUMN: ‘Beyond Tetris’ - The Fool’s Errand

‘Beyond Tetris’ is a biweekly column from Tony “Tablesaw” Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment examines the Mac masterpiece The Fool’s Errand.

While writing about The 7th Guest last week, I realized I’d mentioned The Fool’s Errand again. I’m not surprised it happened, Cliff Johnson’s 1987 game remains one of the greatest puzzle games in personal-computing history, eminently playable even twenty years later. I’d been procrastinating about it (for a reason I’ll get to later), since I started (and restarted) this column. But there’s only so long I can go on referencing a game that has had such a lasting impact on a whole generation of puzzlers. So, leaping without looking, let’s begin.

Cliff Johnson, a filmmaker and animator, was first inspired by the elaborate puzzle-mysteries of the movies Sleuth and The Last of Sheila to stage “mystery game” parties where groups of players solve paper-and-pencil puzzles to unearth clues to a mystery. Kit Williams’ illustrated treasure hunt Masquerade was further inspiration for Johnson as he caught the puzzling bug. In 1984, Johnson put together a book similar to Masquerade as a Christmas present for his friends. This was the first incarnation of The Fool’s Errand, a set of paper-and-pencil puzzles bound together with a jigsaw puzzle and a story to provide an unifying mystery. But having just purchased his first personal computer, he could already see the possiblities of expanding the puzzle as a computer for his new Macintosh.

Johnson began coding the next year, and The Fool’s Errand was released by Miles Computing in 1987. Though sales started slow, the game gained momentum as rave reviews started to trickle in. MacWorld inducted it into its “Game Hall of Fame,” and GAMES Magazine awarded it “Puzzle Game of the Year.” Electronic Arts took over the distribution, and over the next three years, The Fool’s Errand would be ported from the Macintosh to DOS, the Amiga, and the Atari ST. And the game would continue circulating until the present.

Foolish Games

The Fool’s Errand begins with the Fool and his quixotic adventure though the land of Tarot. Based on the imagery of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, The Fool meets with the inhabitants of the Kingdoms of Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, as well as the symbolic figures and events of the Major Arcana. The story is peppered with fanciful asides and nonsense words (sometimes related to the answers of various puzzles), but like most videogame plots, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the game.

The bulk of The Fool’s Errand is a set of sixty puzzles. Only a few are available at the start of the game, but solving them opens up progressively more. Most of the puzzles are familiar — even pedestrian — for experienced puzzlers. There are word searches, cryptograms, anagrams, word squares, polygons, and jigsaw puzzles. There are mazes with slight enhancements (wandering through one maze causes secret doors to slide open and closed as you approach them, another has hidden hazards), but throughout most of the game, the pen-and-paper origins of The Fool’s Errand show through. You might even start to wonder why everyone says the game so special.

Well, for one thing, these basic puzzles have a difficulty curve that’s pitch-perfect, starting with gimmes and ramping up quickly to real head-scratchers. Hardcore puzzlers like myself get lulled into a false sense of security, which inspires feverish solving later on when the riddles get tougher. And beginners get to practice on easier puzzles before the hard ones. And peppered throughout the game are puzzles that hadn’t been seen before. There are what Johnson calls “Concatenation” puzzles. You start with a certain string of letters, and a series of buttons that modify the string. Some buttons add letters to the front and back, some reverse the string, some change certain letters into others. You must figure out what order to press the buttons to create a sensible phrase. There are “Inversion” puzzles, which are harder to explain than to solve (and they are incredibly hard to solve). And there are some puzzles where there just don’t seem to be any clues anywhere, but no matter how obscure, there are always clues, even if they’re not where you expect them.


But what truly sets the game apart is what happens next. Defeating the game continues with further puzzles of increasingly Byzantine design. With the story complete, you must reassemble the Sun’s Map, a massive 81-piece jigsaw puzzle with nearly identical pieces. Each tile of the map corresponds to one chapter of the Fool’s story, and the path that winds its way through the jigsaw traces the route of the Fool through the Land of Tarot. The story I mentioned above — the one that seemly had no purpose other adding some overly precious flavor — turns out to be riddled with obvious and subtle clues. You start scouring the scroll for hints on order and relative locations. The flavor starts to seem less affected and more revelatory.

And after you finish painstakingly assembling both the story and the Sun’s Map, you must locate, uncover, and identify the fourteen lost Treasures of the Land. By now, the difficulty curve I mentioned before is almost stratospheric. The puzzles you’re facing have no instructions. In fact, they’re not even in the same places. Solving a “treasure” puzzle means taking a vague clue, using it to seek out other clues scattered all over the game, and then figure out how to put them all together. It sounds unfair, but the clues are always there, and by now, you should have a better sense of where to start looking for them.

This endgame is what Scott Kim described as a meta-puzzle. The word meta-puzzle has become standard terminology among the creators and solvers of puzzle hunts (I mentioned it in my article about the MIT MYstery Hunt). But today, the word typically means that the answers to some puzzles feed into and become the basis of another, higher-order puzzle. For Johnson, the meta-puzzle is “a tale, a set of puzzles, a set of clues revealed by those puzzles, and a mapping device in which to organize the clues, leading to the final ah-ha!.” That’s quite a bit more elaborate than most meta-puzzles.

The entire game is a paragon of what some of my friends call “whole-buffalo” design. Every opportunity to relate one part of the puzzle to another part of the puzzle is taken; no part of the puzzle is wasted. When designed well, this kind of puzzle means endless surprise, solving it means delving deeper and deeper; you become faimilar with every letter, every picture, every clue. It’s not just that it could be important—eventually it will be important. And by the time you’re finished, you know the puzzle better than you thought you ever could, and you rarely forget any part of it.

Uneasily Parting

After The Fool’s Errand, Johnson kept writing puzzle games, but none had the staying power of Errand.

In 1989, there was At the Carnival, which was to be the first of a series of games called The Puzzle Gallery. Carnival featured the same types of puzzles as Errand, but far more of them, 180 in all. Yet Carnival lacked any real story or meta-puzzle, and there were never a follow-up for the Puzzle Gallery series.

In 1991, Johnson released 3 in Three, with an animated story about a lost numeral 3 as it wandered through a crashed Macintosh trying to return home to its spreadsheet. The game added several complex logic puzzles to the wordplay formula of the previous games; and though I personally believe that, on the strength of its base-level puzzles, Three is the better game, its meta-puzzle simply doesn’t have the same holistic flair as Errand’s.

Johnson left the world of Mac programming to do other things. He developed more puzzle games for the Phillips CD-I (which is, sadly, much harder to emulate than the early Macintosh), and he designed the $100,000 Treasure Hunt behind David Blaine’s book Mysterious Stranger.

Most articles about The Fool’s Errand, nowadays, end with two things.

The first is an exhortation to play the game. I echo this recommendation. Johnson has made it easy to play the game (and his other two Mac works) using downloads from his own website.

The second is that Johnson is working on a sequel, The Fool and His Money. He will be self-publishing, and the game will only be available through his website. He promises that everyone who pre-orders the game will have their name enshrined in the “Compendium of True Believers” inside the game. Many of my friends are True Believers and have been for several years now. But I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong; I really, really do truly believe that the game will be released, and that it will be great. But easily parting with money for an unreleased product — isn’t that kind of, well, Fool-ish?

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers’ League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts.]

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