The Maze of Games plunges you into a tale of Victorian-era siblings lost in a strange, fantastical maze filled with more than 50 linked puzzles, goaded by the ghastly Gatekeeper. Author and puzzlemaker Mike Selinker gave us a peek into the maze, and shared a clip of Wil Wheaton's audioboook narration.
I can't really "review" The Maze of Games in a traditional sense, if only because it would take months to work my way through the puzzles inside, discovering the various clues and interlocking answers that unlock still more puzzles (and I fully intend to, eventually). I can say that the framework story about the Quaice children, Colleen and Samuel, has an old-fashioned storybook feel, yet they patter and spar with the Gatekeeper, a skeletal malefactor perpetually delighted by his own sadism, in a very modern, witty way. You might expect the characters in such a story to be mere placeholders to drag you from one puzzle to the next, but they have distinct personalities, and the ways they react to their bizarre predicament adds a layer of tension to the proceedings. Everything is set off by pitch-perfect art by Pete Venters.
As for the puzzles themselves, I've not even begun to wrap my head around them. The book is constructed out of a series of four mazes. You're provided a map of each maze, and as you trace a path of your choosing through the maze, you'll come to rooms marked with a playing card. Turn to the page in the book with the corresponding playing card and you'll find a strange encounter wherein you must solve a puzzle to advance further through the maze. It's a weird fantasyland the Quaices are wandering, filled with pirates and mad kings, wizards and monsters. The exit to each maze is a metapuzzle involving the answers to all of that maze's interior puzzles. Thumbing through the pages I've noticed crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, codes to be decrypted, mathematical puzzles, various combinations of puzzle types, and puzzles I don't think have types because I've never seen anything like them before.
The Maze of Games was supported by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, and can currently be ordered via Penny Arcade. There is currently an add-on Kickstarter (already successfully funded) for an audio book version narrated by Wil Wheaton, who does the voices of all the characters himself. Maze of Games author Mike Selinker shared with us this previously unreleased snippet of Wheaton reading the book's prologue, which serves both as a preview of the book and a great example of the brilliant job Wheaton's doing with this audiobook.
Selinker also talked with us about The Maze of Games and why we love puzzles so damn much.
io9: I've always loved puzzles, but I've always been kind of terrible at them. What books would you recommend to someone who wants to get better at solving and designing puzzles?
Mike Selinker: There really wasn't anything like that until Thomas Snyder and I wrote Puzzlecraft: The Ultimate Guide on How to Construct Every Kind of Puzzle. Puzzles had always, not unexpectedly, been shrouded in mystery, and we set out to, um, unshroud them a little. Understanding how all types of puzzles work is helpful in trying to figure out how to solve them, just like how understanding how a car works is helpful to fixing one. But no one had really written a manual before we set out to do so.
What got you interested in puzzles and games?
Selinker: I was born? I don't know, I've always been deconstructing things and trying to put them back into some shape. Sometimes it's the same shape they started in, sometimes not. My brain especially rips apart words and meanings in ways I can't really control. I will stare at signs and realize that there's an underlying meaning the creator never meant to provide, usually with some hilarity involved. If there's a divine force guiding the universe, he or she has left these jokes for us to figure out, and I'm not gonna let a joke go unnoticed if I can't help it.
Could you tell me a little about the logistical process of creating The Maze of Games? With so many linked puzzles, it seems like a nightmare.
Selinker: Oh, it was a nightmare, but the kind of nightmare with evil clowns and flaming couches, like in Pink's "Funhouse" video. You know, the good kind of nightmare. There were so many moving parts that my developer Gaby and I had to construct Excel files with page numbers and art lists in solved and unsolved order, and constantly rejigger everything every time we had a good puzzle idea, or Pete came up with a fantastic new character illustration. Which was a lot of times.
io9: The Maze of Games isn't just a collection of puzzles, there's an underlying story pulling the reader through each new maze and puzzle. What can you tell us about Colleen and Samuel and the Gatekeeper? What led to using the late 19th century for the setting?
Mike Selinker: I needed a time before computers, before the distracting trappings of our complex world. I wanted a time when books were just the best thing, the only thing. That way, when an evil smiling skeletal figure comes issuing out of it, you're paying very close attention, not looking for the holograph projector. The Gatekeeper is certainly perceived by many as a representation of me: the orchestrator of some crazy immersive puzzle solving experience, who doesn't appear to care so much that you survive as that he has a good time. And there's some of that. But I think I'm really more Colleen, the 14-year-old who gets drawn into the world and wants to bend it to her will, despite the naggings of the world around, as represented by her older brother Sam. At least I was like Colleen as a kid, though I never looked as good in a pinafore as she does.
Is there a particular puzzle in the book that you're most proud of?
Selinker: The overall metapuzzle in the book was one of the most complex constructions I've ever been a part of making, and I think Gaby and I knocked it out of the park with that. It would not shock me if that took a very long time for anyone to solve. We shall see. As for the individual puzzles, I have lots of favorites of mine: there's a pirate letter that's a particularly fun construction, and an abstract logic puzzle superimposed onto the back of a hydra that I like a lot. And I can't even tell you what type of puzzle the Five of Hearts is, but it sure bent my brain coming up with it.
The Maze of Games is already expanding beyond the page with the soundtrack and audiobook. Any thoughts on an alternate reality game, or any other ambitions?
Selinker: Oh, I have many ambitions. I think the audiobook is a particularly ambitious thing that I'm kind of obsessed with now. Wil Wheaton's narration is fantastic and immersive, and the music by Austin Wintory, Marian Call, Kirby Krackle, and Paul & Storm is exactly what I hear when I think of this book in my head. But eventually, I'd love to see this become an entire multimedia experience, satisfying all senses. For example, if Guillermo del Toro is reading this, and wants to make a movie out of it, he is encouraged to call my house immediately.
Puzzles seem to have an almost universal appeal. What do you think draws us to them, even when solving them offers no tangible reward?
Selinker: Oh, I think it's the lack of tangible reward that's the point. We all want to give ourselves permission to be exceptional. So often in life, there are reasons to go along and just be average. But puzzles say, "You there, the one with the pencil. Show me how clever you can be." There's no pressure, just a sense of meaning. I like being a part of bringing that to people's lives.
This is quite unrelated to Maze of Games, but I know you worked on the old SAGA RPG system, one of my all-time favorite game systems. It's always bothered me that licensing issues prevent those from being reprinted so new gamers can experience them. Is there a chance that system could be resurrected without the Dragonlance or Marvel licenses, perhaps in a new edition?
Selinker: Well, that's not my thing to give away, because it's property of my friends at Wizards of the Coast. I will say that working on that Marvel game was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life, and has led me to work on a half-dozen other Marvel games since (the most recent: I wrote Deadpool and a lot of other characters for the Marvel Heroes online game). It also taught me a lot about storytelling, especially the superhero motif: that, absent a great villain and his villainy, the characters will sit around doing nothing. That's probably what made the Gatekeeper into what he is. He's a primal force in the universe, just like you'd find in Marvel. And he wears a very nice hat.