Arguably, America’s most popular game since World War II has been the crossword puzzle. A daily feature in hundreds of newspapers, shipped to millions of reader’s around the country, and played by all types of people, the simple game has become the gold-standard of what we think of as a mentally stimulating game. You can find collections of crosswords in every major transportation hub, on a countless number of websites, and on mobile platforms, such as the Nintendo DS, Android or iOS.
While simple on the surface, consisting only of context clues and (mostly) English words and phrases, the crossword is not without its barriers to successful play. The content of the solved puzzle is usually nothing special, but the act of play and interaction throughout the process of completing a puzzle is the main attraction, so generally speaking, we understand that different people take different approaches to their play. Purists of the game might play alone, with no help. A fun way to play is to play with a partner or friend, solving the puzzle together.
Many online blogs and forums might offer “additional clue” that don’t give the answer away, but greatly increase a player’s ability to deduce the answer. Of course, you could consult an authoritative text on words and their meaning, by using a dictionary, thesaurus, or encyclopedia. These trends of using non-diegetic aids range all the way from asking a neighbor for a clue, to inputting the puzzle into a search engine for the answer. Again, the experience of play is the main attraction, so we generally don’t fault people for customizing their experience or level of difficulty.
The iOS game Blackbar is an interesting take on the word-puzzle genre, because the act of completing the word puzzle is given a narrative meaning. No longer is the act of discovering a single word the main focus of the experience, because the player is fighting the act of redaction or censorship within a narrative. At the same time, the narrative itself is not particularly interesting without the interaction.
In Blackbar, the act of typing in the correct word is an action that moves the story along, making the act of discovery both an act of completion, and an embodiment of the character (Vi’s) actions within the narrative. In other words, the retelling of my experience playing a crossword would involve my actual person, acting in the real world onto a word-puzzle. The retelling of my experience playing Blackbar would have to include the piloting of Vi, her communications with her friends and family, and the unveiling of a narrative hidden away under word-puzzles.
How does this affect our perceptions of what is the correct way to play the game? While we could argue that reading a completed crossword puzzle would not fit the criteria necessary for narrative, we couldn’t really say the same about Blackbar. An already or automatically completed Blackbar would read more like a short-story than a game, and might not be as engaging as if we’d played though the confusion and puzzlement that Vi also went through. At the same time, getting stuck in the middle of the game and not being able complete it could be equally as disengaging. Most people wouldn’t be able to stare at a seemingly impenetrable clue for too long before they abandon the puzzle, whether it’s Blackbar or a crossword, so how can anyone think less of a person who cheats to advance the game?
These questions only become more polarizing when the game in question involves some test of gaming skill to advance the plot. In the video game Papers, Please, the player must advance the narrative by processing people through a border-control checkpoint, ensuring that characters with the correct papers are granted access, but denying those who don’t have their various documents in order. Not performing to the game’s high standard of accuracy within the document-checking action results in fines, going hungry, cold, or possibly even detention or death for your character and your family. Simply put, if you’re not an efficient inspector of documents, your family will die and the narrative ends.
Are these boundaries similar to those in word puzzles, and are we fully capable of customizing the experience of this narrative to such an extent that a player should be able to experience the narrative of their family’s survival, even if they do not demonstrate the tactile skills required of the game character’s role? And if they do use a non-diegetic method of altering the default function of the game, is their experienced cheapened? And is a cheapened narrative experience better than one abruptly ended by a game over screen? Or maybe the experience of premature defeat tells a story in itself, even if one much greater remains locked away in coded language that we can comfortably leave behind, like yesterday’s news.