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Cliff Johnson and the computer “meta-puzzle”

Macintosh Adventures feature by Troy Hoshor

Posted on August 30, 2004

Cliff Johnson is a huge name in the puzzle business, having recently gained notoriety for designing the $100,000 treasure hunt for David Blaine’s book, Mysterious Stranger. Before going on to consult for Disney and Interplay, Johnson created several brilliant standalone adventures for the Macintosh, designed around the concept known as the “meta-puzzle.”

In an interview in 2003, Johnson explains this term: “It’s a collection of puzzles that, when solved, each give a piece of a master puzzle.” This was not a new concept at the time, but its application to computers and adventure games was incredibly progressive in 1987.

The philosophy contributed to Cliff Johnson’s first game, The Fool’s Errand, which is arguably the first known computer game based upon a meta-puzzle. The game was a massive success. Johnson refers to college students and other adults coming up to him at conventions and telling him “I hate you,” because his game devoured so much of their time. Although The Fool’s Errand was more of a puzzle game than a traditional adventure title, it did have a plot, one of an ancient Sun Map that would restore peace to four medieval kingdoms.

The Fools Errand’s success would lead Johnson into publishing 3 in Three, an entirely new game with an improved storyline. The protagonist is “3,” a number that busts out of a computer spreadsheet and into the wilderness of the computer mainframe. 3’s attempts to return to his rightful place in the spreadsheet characterize the majority of the plot, which is divided by a wide variety of word and number puzzles.

Both 3 in Three and The Fool’s Errand are excruciatingly linear games, but calling them strictly puzzle games because of this would be an oversimplification. The games are filled with communicative interludes (what we would probably refer to today as cut scenes) where characters interact or plot elements are provided. In my personal opinion, these scenes more resemble a traditional adventure than a puzzle game. You don’t play through a Cliff Johnson game for a temporary distraction during your coffee break. The puzzles are the focus, not the dressing, and your reward for solving them is usually an entertaining bit of narrative that fills out the game’s story.

If you appreciate quality puzzle design and a quirky narrative, give The Fool’s Errand or 3 in Three a try. You won’t regret it. And Johnson offers the game downloads, free of charge.