Greg Hunter

BOXGAME: Induced Epiphanies

In Games on August 27, 2009 at 9:06 PM

BOXGAMEI have maintained for a while that a good puzzle is one in which the maker notices something interesting, then tricks the player into noticing it as well. In some sense this is what cryptic crosswords are all about: each clue comes from a linguistic pun, and by decoding it the solver rediscovers the pun for himself.

There’s a scene in the crossword documentary Wordplay which only makes sense when you look at puzzles this way. Cruciverbalist Merl Reagle is shown driving around and commenting on interesting features of the words he sees: DUNKIN DONUTS, when you move the first D to the end of its word, becomes UNKIND DONUTS. NOAH’S ARK, with two letters transposed, becomes NO! A SHARK! When I watched this with some less puzzle-inclined friends, they chuckled at how insane the guy sounds. And this is true, until you realize that each of these bizarre facts is simply a puzzle that hasn’t been written yet.

So far, I’d only really thought of this model in terms of word puzzles, because that’s where it makes the most sense. It’s true that the maxim could also apply to most logic puzzles, because by solving these one discovers the sorts of lemmas I talked about earlier. But this sort of misses the point, because those lemmas aren’t usually observed by the creator beforehand. What I’m more interested is how puzzles can be used as a subtle communication of facts, and that communication is less exciting when the message is an inadvertent one.

That’s why I was delighted to discovered BOXGAME by indie developer Sophie Houlden. (You’ll have to install Unity to play, but don’t let that stop you.) While it plays like your average puzzle-platformer, you’ll need to make an interesting geometric observation if you want to be good enough to finish the game. This might be a good point for you to go play it for yourself, and see if you can figure out what I’m referring to.

Okay, you back? The observation in question is related to what we in the math biz call parallel transport. Here’s an experiment: face forward and walk a quarter of the way around Earth, about 6,225 miles. Now, facing the same direction, crab-walk sideways to your left for another 6,225 miles. Finally, back up another 6,225 miles. If you do this and manage not to drown, you’ll notice that you’re right back where you started, but though you never rotated, you’re somehow turned 90° clockwise from your original orientation. (This is not possible in the N64 classic Tetrisphere, you may recall. For this reason, the “sphere” in question is not a sphere at all, but rather a torus. Hope I didn’t just ruin your childhood.)

This is really the central trick to BOXGAME. Your character stays flush against the transparent cubes in the level, so if you jump up above a face, he (or she; as faceless protagonists go, this one’s gender is refreshingly ambiguous) will wrap around to the top face. Likewise, if you walk off the left side, you’ll wrap to the left. Try jumping above a face and going over a left edge before you land, and the entire maze will seem to rotate as I described above. This feels funny at first, but eventually it becomes instinctual. Give it a shot.

(And if you’ve just beaten all fifteen levels, you should know that you’ve only completed half the game. Look harder.)


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