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“Before we try to uncover more information about the untimely death of Harry Lemaster, let’s see what else we can ‘dig up’ about him.”

Setec Astronomy

I’ve played Connections like four times now, which of course you can understand means that I am ready to issue a wise verdict from the top of Game Design Mountain. The verdict is: this game’s interface and its incentives are at odds, which irritates me, but there are simple changes that could make it more fun and less frustrating without changing its difficulty.

I became aware of the game to begin with because part of the NYT Games team’s marketing strategy is working. Finishing a given day’s puzzle yields one of those little block patterns of color-square emoji, the ones that look like 🟩🟨🟦🟪 instead of 🟩🟨⬜️⬜️⬜️. It’s enough like Wordle to make one curious, but different enough to be distinguishable even if you have reduced color vision, and it takes good advantage of their ownership of Wordle’s IP and its most potent promotional idea. It’s also a big bet on the long-term appeal and viability of the game, because you only get so many uses of the shareable grid before it loses its brand value. But actually playing Connections has given me a new appreciation for the elegance of Wordle’s quality-of-life support, because Connections does not support life.

In one abstract rendering, both games could be reduced to “solve a puzzle in X educated guesses from a fixed domain of discourse.” Per Wyna Liu, the game’s editor and credited creator, the placement of the initial squares in its grid is deliberate, a choice designed to lead you down false paths before you sort out the right ones. The editors clearly enjoy coming up with grid items that fit more than one potential answer, and in my experience it’s easy to come up with multiple groups that are conceptually closer than the ones they chose (DOG and HEEL belong with JERK and SNAKE instead of FETCH and SIT? Really?).

That means that the actual game pitch is “solve for all four answers at once, and don’t get greedy by jumping to conclusions!” Which, fine, whatever, there’s nothing wrong with that in isolation. Liu herself, in the brief interview above, expresses support for the “pen and paper method” of working on solutions. Which is again fine, if we were talking about a game that the NYT printed on paper. But it’s not! It’s a web app! If the editor believes that the right approach is to sort out all four groups and check them through before submitting your answer, why doesn’t the user interface allow you to do so?

I’m not an interaction designer, but even I can come up with a simple solution here: make the tiles draggable, and allow the player to move them all into a solution grid before hitting submit. Instead, the only ways to move the tiles the developers have offered are a random shuffle button or a jump to a conclusion. The tiles shift themselves to the top available row when you make a successful guess, which is telling the player “go ahead and take your shot, I’ll reward you by reducing the complexity of the board if you do.” But that’s a contradiction of the editorial strategy laid out above. If you do fall for the temptation of the UI, your wrong guess might yield a cue like “one away!” that is of very limited utility, and that then vanishes, leaving only a record of your punishment. The effect is more like a taunt of “skill issue lol” than an encouragement. That’s reinforced by sharing-based marketing gimmick and the way many players use the pen-and-paper attack to solve the puzzle with no record of wrong guesses, so any mistakes at all come across as failure rather than tactical work.

This is what I mean about Wordle’s comparative elegance. Wordle gives you more guesses, more information per guess, and a persistent record of those guesses in both the solution rows and its keyboard. That means you can walk away from the game and retain your context when you come back to it later. Perfect solutions are possible only through a rare stroke of luck (or cheating), so if you’re competing against your in-laws on a group chat, it’s easy to evoke a sense of mingled competition and camaraderie. Even if sometimes everyone gets grumpy about HOMER or __GHT, there’s a real difference in the play experience between “ah, that was my fault” and “oh fuck off, you smug jerk/dog/heel/snake.”

“[My preschool teacher] asserted that ‘game show contestant’ was not a career, and I suppose it isn’t, but by age nine I was making my own income as a regular video panelist on a game show called Child’s Play, alongside fellow kids such as Breckin Meyer and Tara Reid.”

Two Books

I became a fan of actor and writer Jo Firestone because of her role on someone else’s perfect television show, and when Kat made me watch her documentary Good Timing I became… uh, even more of a fan! Also, last month Kat and I went to the Grand Canyon. We saw this bird.

A bird perched on top of a tree in front of a vista.

We also got up early to see the sunrise and looked sleepy, which was accurate.

Brendan on the left, Kat in the middle, Grand Canyon sunrise on the right.

But to the point of this entry, on the drive to and from the canyon, we listened to almost all of an audiobook, and specifically an audiobook written and read by Jo Firestone. It’s called Murder on Sex Island and it lives up to its title. Also, it’s free to listen to! You can just put it in your podcast app and get the whole thing right now! And then you should pay for a copy also, because it is very good.

In news about books I have not read, but have purchased nonetheless, my longtime and dear friend Holly has her debut novel coming out next spring! It is called The Husbands and I am really excited to obtain and review it. It will be a positive review, so don’t expect me to be objective or anything, but it will be an accurate review too. Accuracy is the surprise emergent theme of this blog post.

“Non-fiction CD-ROMs are an easy butt of jokes about quaint outdated technology; talking about CD-ROM brings up visions of Encarta 95, Microsoft Dogs, and ancient versions of Grolier. What makes Journey to the Source interesting by contrast is that it’s not an easily obsoletable work. Already, in 1985, there were talks of building the massive Three Gorges Dam; when it was finally completed, between 2006 and 2012, many of the places Wong had visited were now underwater, the villages flooded and their inhabitants relocated. This narrative, its photos and its videos are valuable records of a time that’s now passed.”

“Singapore is the only country in the world where it’s legal to sell ‘cultivated’ (lab-grown) meat for human consumption, and Huber’s Bistro in Singapore is the only restaurant in the world that actually sells the stuff. But you can’t just waltz in and try it. I was back in Singapore this week for a conference, so I tried my luck and, much to my amazement… Here’s how it went.

“But That’s The Point”

Among my growing collection of Australian-hosted cultural review podcasts, about which more anon, is actor Angourie Rice’s venture The Community Library. Rice is quite young to have been producing a solo podcast for four years, and is also quite busily famous, so the continued sincerity and thoughtfulness of her self-driven work is something I find an interesting rarity. I was moved to link to it in particular by an archival episode from the depths of 2021, dissecting a poor-faith argument tactic that has long irritated me for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. But Rice articulates them well, and now I have an easy reference for when I want to counter that kind of circular justification myself.

“The stars that night were glinting, and the bonfire on the shore waited like a beacon, but the brightest shimmer was running down my forearms, spiraling behind my palms.”