Friday, February 25, 2005


One of the few minuses to this year's Mystery Hunt was a surprising lack of flavortext. A few puzzles here and there offered up some minimalist flavortext, but nothing like in years past. I understand the objections that Setec Astronomy posted in their livejournal blog, but disagree with the overall condemnation.

My own philosophy towards flavortext is that:

A) It should convey part of the story behind the puzzle, whether it's an independent puzzle or part of a larger set. Certainly Ucaoimhu's cryptics (such as Underground Enigma 3 cryptic "F***, It's a Cryptic") could be introduced much more succinctly, but the background provided more of a raison d'etre to the puzzle, a more pronounced sense of involvement with the theme. Well-written flavortext, like any writing, should engross the reader without presenting the reader with tangents and distractions.
B) It should confirm "a-ha"'s or provide additional cluing, but not be the only source of cluing. An otherwise excellent idea for a puzzle involving cliches from the 2004 MITMH was hampered by the reliance of the reference to the Prophet's Birthday as an indicator to take certain words. This is way too indirect, mostly because lengthy flavortext can lead solvers in untold different directions.
C) If it is the only source of cluing, make it short and sweet. An excellent 2003 MITMH involving an Etch-a-Sketch and opposites clearly indicated in the flavortext that opposites were part of the puzzle.

Flavortext doesn't have to clue at all however. It can provide a thematic backdrop for the puzzle, and again drop hints, but it shouldn't distract the solver, or rely on those hints for solving purposes.



A) For those of you finding your way here by way of a search engine:

Setec Astronomy is the name of the 2005 MIT Mystery Hunt team that organized the hunt. (Follow the link in the post for more on the hunt.)

Ucaoimhu is the nom de puzzle of an National Puzzlers' League member who writes excellent cryptic crosswords.

The NPL has a monthly publication called the Enigma; the Underground Enigmas are R-rated unofficial versions of same.

B) I like the use of flavortext both as a solver and as a constructor. Atypically of many constructors, I've even used it with a couple of American-style crosswords with cryptic-crosswordish themes (including one sold to the NY Sun.)

Flavortext is especially useful in a crossword and cryptic context when you need to justify either a theme mechanic or an intuitive post-grid-completion leap to the solver, even if the intent is not to telegraph same.

By Blogger Craig, at 11:46 AM  

I'm in agreement generally regarding the value of flavortext, but I'm torn with regards to the Hunt this year. On the one hand, even if it does no cluing whatsoever, flavortext can provide the adjectives and adverbs to a puzzle that is wholly functional with just nouns and verbs. Ernest Hemingway is undeniably great literature, but I'd rather read Faulkner or Fitzgerald.

On the other hand, in a Hunt of 120-ish puzzles, I found it truly phenomenal that so few of the puzzles required flavortext to be solvable, and more than that, elegantly so. So I'd consider it a tradeoff between the impressiveness of the individual pieces and the coherence of the whole. In the particular case of this past Hunt, I think it was the right decision, but I also think that it's probably not a wise choice in general.

By Blogger Fuldu, at 2:00 PM  

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