The Odyssey and The Puzzles

Aggiornato il giorno 9 Febbraio 2021


“But secret I revolved the deep design:
‘Twas for our lives my labouring bosom wrought;
Each scheme I turn’d, and sharpen’d every thought;
This way and that I cast to save my friends,
Till one resolve my varying counsel ends.”

Homer, The Odissey, book IX
(From Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odissey, published by Viking Penguin.)

Puzzles. This is maybe the discussed argument by Interactive fiction authors and players. The If Theory book, which will be published in the course of a year (Emily Short is the chief editor), will deal a lot with puzzle theory in text adventure games. Some time ago there had been a forum regarding puzzles: it was set up by and it offered the points of view of great authors like Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin. On there are hundreds of messages about puzzles and the debate about puzzleless adventures is always very lively.
In his nice essay, Roger-Giner Sorolla dwells upon “lock and key” puzzles: to find an item that makes you find another one, which lets you open a door and so on…

I think creating puzzles is a really difficult task. And at the same time I think an interactive fiction work, by definition, cannot be a work without puzzles: Photopia is a short novel, not really a text adventure game. The happy medium must be pursued: Mike Gentry has found it with Anchorhead, Dave Lebling with his wonderful Deadline. The author of Interactive fiction feels the need of creating puzzles, even if the storyline does not require it. Interactivity is given with exploration itself, with taking and dropping items, with opening and closing a door: nevertheless, who writes Interactive fiction feels bound to devise a puzzle or a series of puzzles, with the risk of singing out of tune while writing the game. In this case it would be better to give up and let the story continue on its own.
I am speaking while thinking about my little experience, so I mention Flamel (and Inform game in Italian). For some players it is a far too simple game: they say there should have been some more puzzles. But according to me there are even too many! While writing it I thought: well, now it’s time to put in some puzzles more, just to increase longevity a bit. I don’t know, for example just a locked door and the necessary key hidden somewhere. But where is the point?
In my opinion, when we think whether a puzzle should be added or not, we have to ask two questions:

1) Is it an original puzzle?
2) Is it a storyline-related-puzzle?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then it’s ok. Otherwise, it would be better to go on with the narrative. This is obviously correct if the adventure we’re writing is a game based on story, on narrative. Whereas if it’s based on puzzles, it’s obvious that the more puzzles are present the better, so let’s go with keys hidden under the sand and ropes-to-be-tied-to-get-to-that-unreachable-location-down-there.
Suppose that an adventure game is based on a story (Interactive fiction) and let’s make an experiment: here are three great stories, so let’s see how many puzzles can be drawn.


Excerpts from the Book Nine (the Cyclops adventure). The text comes from Robert Fagles’s translation of the Odissey, published by Viking Penguin.

The adventure begins:

“My dear associates, here indulge your rest;
While, with my single ship, adventurous, I
Go forth, the manners of you men to try;
Whether a race unjust, of barbarous might,
Rude and unconscious of a stranger’s right;
Or such who harbour pity in their breast,
Revere the gods, and succour the distress’d”

Let’s see when Ulysses enters the Cyclops’ cave:

“But round the grot we gaze; and all we view,
In order ranged our admiration drew:
The bending shelves with loads of cheeses press’d,
The folded flocks each separate from the rest
(The larger here, and there the lesser lambs,
The new-fallen young here bleating for their dams:
The kid distinguish’d from the lambkin lies);
The cavern echoes with responsive cries.
Capacious chargers all around were laid.
Full pails, and vessels of the milking trade.”

It’s a perfect description (I know, no adjective is required if talking about Homer) of a room for a text adventure game. A little later the Cyclops enters (it’s our most important NPC, non player character):

“And cast the ponderous burden at the door.
It thunder’d as it fell. We trembled then,
And sought the deep recesses of the den.
New driven before him through the arching rock,
Came tumbling, heaps on heaps, the unnumber’d flock.”

Here, Ulysses and his companions found themselves imprisoned in the cave: the big rock moved by the Cyclops blocks the entrance. This could be the first puzzle. The Cyclops is not disposed to let them out: they’re all a happy meal to him:

“He answer’d with his deed: his bloody hand
Snatch’d two, unhappy! of my martial band;
And dash’d like dogs against the stony floor:
The pavement swims with brains and mingled gore.
Torn limb from limb, he spreads his horrid feast,
And fierce devours it like a mountain beast:
He sucks the marrow, and the blood he drains,
Nor entrails, flesh, nor solid bone remains”

Well, the situation complicates; and quite a lot indeed! Now it’s up to astute Ulysses to unravel it, so here it is his first thought:

“My soul impels me! and in act I stand
To draw the sword; but wisdom held my hand.
A deed so rash had finished all our fate,
No mortal forces from the lofty gate
Could roll the rock. In hopeless grief we lay,
And sigh, expecting the return of day.”

Wonderful example of a puzzle being related to another puzzle. The goal is to get rid of the Cyclops and to go out of the cave.
But killing the Cyclops would be useless: if he dies, nobody else could be able to move the rock that obstructs the cave entrance (this could be a possible negative ending, a possible death in the adventure).
We have to think about a plan, but let’s give an additional element:

“The monster’s club within the cave I spied,
A tree of stateliest growth, and yet undried,
Green from the wood: of height and bulk so vast,
The largest ship might claim it for a mast.
This shorten’d of its top, I gave my train
A fathom’s length, to shape it and to plane;”

Now we have all the elements, more or less, it’s time for the fatal prompt:

What do you want to do? >

Here it is what Ulysses does (in the meanwhile the Cyclops has gone out, but he will be back soon):

“This shorten’d of its top, I gave my train
A fathom’s length, to shape it and to plane;
The narrower end I sharpen’d to a spire,
Whose point we harden’d with the force of fire,
And hid it in the dust that strew’d the cave,”

Well, in just a few verses there is a great amount of things to do for an adventurer, including the involvement of the companions (other NPCs). Many words have been spent about this too: puzzles related to NPCs. Homer gives us a good example.

But we are just at the beginning: the Cyclops returns and Ulysses goes to “Phase Two” of his plan:

“He comes with evening: all his fleecy flock
Before him march, and pour into the rock:
Not one, or male or female, stayed behind
(So fortune chanced, or so some god designed);
Then heaving high the stone’s unwieldy weight,
He roll’d it on the cave and closed the gate.
First down he sits, to milk the woolly dams,
And then permits their udder to the lambs.
Next seized two wretches more, and headlong cast,
Brain’d on the rock; his second dire repast.
I then approach’d him reeking with their gore,
And held the brimming goblet foaming o’er;
‘Cyclop! since human flesh has been thy feast,
Now drain this goblet, potent to digest;”

This is a classic puzzle: GIVE ITEM TO… But doing this once is not enough:

“[…]and greedy grasped the heady bowl,
Thrice drained, and poured the deluge on his soul.
His sense lay covered with the dozy fume;”

It must be offered four times: then the Cyclops will be completely drunk and more inclined to help Ulysses, who offered him the wine. He will be ready to fall into his trap.

“Thy promised boon, O Cyclop! now I claim,
And plead my title; Noman is my name.
By that distinguish’d from my tender years,
‘Tis what my parents call me, and my peers.
“The giant then: ‘Our promis’d grace receive,
The hospitable boon we mean to give:
When all thy wretched crew have felt my power,
Noman shall be the last I will devour.”

All has been rather simple till now, the text has suggested which puzzles we could put (even without modifying them!) into an hypothetical adventure.
This last case, however, is more difficult: Ulysses, in fact, deceives the Cyclops with his words and, today, no adventure can implement such an interaction degree. So we have to go round the puzzle. The idea could be: after having drunk the wine, the Cyclops asks: “What is the name of the one who offers me such a good beverage?”. And here the prompt. At this time the player, he who sits in front of the monitor, will have to think and conceive the very Ulysses’ stratagem by answering “Noman”. If he will fail, he could enter a “cul de sac”, maybe he could continue the adventure but not being able to leave the cave. Extremely fascinating puzzle, extremely beautiful idea, also with a “cul-de-sac” absolutely legitimate.

Let’s go on.

“He said: then nodding with the fumes of wine
Droop’d his huge head, and snoring lay supine.
His neck obliquely o’er his shoulders hung,
Press’d with the weight of sleep that tames the strong:
There belch’d the mingled streams of wine and blood,
And human flesh, his indigested food.”

Now it’s time to use the stake we have hid before:

“The stake now glow’d beneath the burning bed
(Green as it was) and sparkled fiery red,
Then forth the vengeful instrument I bring;”

What plan is Ulysses hatching in his mind?
Another prompt.
Here it is what Ulysses does: he decides to blind the Cyclops, but he alone cannot do it because the stake is too heavy, so he calls for his companions’ help (NPCs) and:

“With beating hearts my fellows form a ring.
Urged my some present god, they swift let fall
The pointed torment on his visual ball.
Myself above them from a rising ground
Guide the sharp stake, and twirl it round and round.”

Then the Cyclops:

“He sends a dreadful groan, the rocks around
Through all their inmost winding caves resound.
Scared we recoiled. Forth with frantic hand,
He tore and dash’d on earth and gory brand;
Then calls the Cyclops, all that round him dwell,
With voice like thunder, and a direful yell.
From all their dens the one-eyed race repair,
From rifted rocks, and mountains bleak in air.”

And the other Cyclopss ask him:

“‘What hurts thee, Polypheme? what strange affright
Thus breaks our slumbers, and disturbs the night?
Does any mortal, in the unguarded hour
Of sleep, oppress thee, or by fraud or power?
Or thieves insidious thy fair flock surprise?'”

And now Ulysses’ trap goes off, because the Cyclops (as everyone knows) answers saying:

“‘Friends, Noman kills me; Noman in the hour
Of sleep, oppresses me with fraudful power.’
‘If no man hurt thee, but the hand divine
Inflict disease, it fits thee to resign:
To Jove or to thy father Neptune pray.'”

If we had previously answered with a different name, we would have entered a “cul-de-sac”: the friends of the Cyclops would have come into the cave and this would have meant “The end”. But having avoided the problem of the possible reinforcements we can now think about going out of the cave. And this won’t be easy because

“Meantime the Cyclop, raging with his wound,
Spreads his wide arms, and searches round and round:
At last, the stone removing from the gate,
With hands extended in the midst he sate;
And search’d each passing sheep, and fell it o’er,
Secure to seize us ere we reach’d the door
(Such as his shallow wit he deem’d was mine);”

So the “rock puzzle” is automatically solved. It’s wisdom after the event, but the rock puzzle could be a formidable “red herring” that maybe could have made the player lose very much time while trying to find a way to move that rock. But it’s the Cyclops that has moved it for us, though now he has blocked the entrance with its body: a new puzzle!

Now another element will help us:

“Strong were the rams, with native purple fair,
Well fed, and largest of the fleecy care,”

(but in a hypothetical adventure this element could be obviously given much time before, for example in the description of the cave.)
Now another prompt.
And another move by the wise Ulysses:

“These, three and three, with osier bands we tied
(The twining bands the Cyclop’s bed supplied);
The midmost bore a man, the outward two
Secured each side: so bound we all the crew,”

Not bad, huh? It’s a wonderful puzzle for our game. But again:

“One ram remain’d, the leader of the flock:
In his deep fleece my grasping hands I lock,
And fast beneath, in wooly curls inwove,
There cling implicit, and confide in Jove.”

And so they can go out:

“When rosy morning glimmer’d o’er the dales,
He drove to pasture all the lusty males:
The ewes still folded, with distended thighs
Unmilk’d lay bleating in distressful cries.
But heedless of those cares, with anguish stung,
He felt their fleeces as they pass’d along
(Fool that he was.) and let them safely go,
All unsuspecting of their freight below.”

Sure, it has been easy to find a good amount of puzzles with the Cyclops’s episode. But many passages, chapters and events in the Odyssey could give us hints and starting points for adventures. The next analysis, however, will be about Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
(to be continued)

Francesco Cordella (translation by Simone “Sauron” Di Conza.