Let's talk about puzzles. There's an article or book I read many years ago that compared good stories to puzzles, claiming that the best stories lay out all the elements necessary at the beginning of the tale, then spend the rest of the plot leading the reader through to the conclusion. This removes the possibility for deus ex machina, one of my favorite tropes both to use and make fun of, but I there's a point here. Really good stories, the best stories, the stories that stick with us and get retold, give us all the elements we need in the first third, then invite us along for the ride to see how it all fits together. Heist stories, which are a partiuclar favorite genre of story, and are memorable because of the reveal, the notion that the audience. had everything they needed if only they could see it from a different perspective.
Most of the time when we talk about puzzles, we're not thinking about stories. We're thinking of logic games, tests of mental prowess and planning and observation, that may or may not have a story attached. Its been a little while since I've written about games that I've played, so I thought I would take this opportunity that has the community Allison and I are part of almost totally enraptured: 2048. Although it can seem like magic sometimes, engineering is really just a series of puzzles, often puzzles within puzzles, and its hard to imagine a puzzle better designed for the engineering mind than 2048. The play is simple: A four-by-four board starts with two numbered tiles on it. You can move all the pieces on the board in any of the four cardinal directions, and every time you move another numbered tile appears. All the tiles are powers of two (2, 4, 8, 16, etc) and every time a tile of the same amount moves into another tile of the same amount, the two tiles add. Your goal is to add tiles together until you reach the number 2048. So utterly, deceptively simple. Easier to explain and play (I think) than sudoku, more complex in strategy than most puzzle games I can think of. The tiles appear randomly as you move, and it is possible to end up with a non-winning board. There are some boards even an AI cannot beat. And 2048 has spawned numerous copies and derivatives because (here is the other trap for engineering minds) the code is open source, hosted on GitHub, for anyone to extend and enjoy.
In the time since 2048 has come out, we've seen 3d versions, 4d versions, doge versions, and AIs designed to play 2048 optimally. And you will drive yourself mad trying to solve them all, as many of my friends have done. If stories can be puzzles than puzzles can be stories, and the story of 2048 is the story of the internet: simple systems, distributed to the world, can yield amazing works and achievements. If 2048 had been released as an iPhone app, or put in any of the walled gardens that are currently being built around us, would it be as popular? I think not.