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Wandering with the Fool

The Fool’s Errand is arguably the greatest puzzle game ever made. It’s an argument I’m making, at least. I count the evenings and weekends spent scratching my head over the mysteries of the sun’s map among the highlights of my childhood.

Released in 1987 by designer Cliff Johnson, the game is a collection of increasingly maddening puzzles wrapped around a disjointed narrative featuring characters from the Tarot deck. The game’s protagonist is the Fool. The story is arranged into five chapters of a dozen or so passages each. As you progress new passages become available, so you get a grander sense of the story going on within the game. But the new passages do not unlock in any semblance of order; in fact, you reach the passage at the end of the last chapter far before the end of the game. The challenge was to go back over the story, again and again, and find the clues that would make the narrative (and the games buried therein) make sense.

Most every passage contains a button that launches a game. These range in difficulty from average to hair-tearingly baffling. Relatively easy word-finds and jigsaw pictures give way to ciphers, dexterity tests, and sequence-breaking puzzles. Each game you complete unlocks one or more new passages in a chapter somewhere, and also gives you a piece of the sun’s map—the big meta-puzzle you get at the beginning of the game, and which you can’t complete until you’ve finished every game accessible from the passages in the chapters.

But when you’ve got all the pieces of the sun’s map, you’re nowhere near done. Oh, no. The map itself must be solved, which unlocks a series of previously hidden puzzles, puzzles that were invisible until the sun’s map is properly arranged (“Oh, that’s what those shapes were! How did I miss that?!”). Clues for those puzzles exist in the text of the now-completed five chapter story, scattered about like so much random gibberish. Which of course it isn’t.

The simple beauty and brilliance of the game is how it slowly makes more and less sense as gameplay evolves. At the start, the text and games are distinctly separate. The goals for the games are easy to understand. But as the Fool continues through his journey, the lines between narrative and gameplay blur to the point where you have to discover the rules for each game on your own. Everything is potentially a clue, potentially a critical piece of a puzzle you don’t even know you’re solving yet. It is the original meta-puzzle, and remains infinitely replayable almost a quarter century after its launch.

Click HERE to read the completed story from The Fool’s Errand.

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