Game review: ThisIsNotTom.com

I’m trying to figure out the inherent difference between a riddle and a brain-teaser. I think the fine line might be that a brain-teaser requires outside knowledge whereas riddles contain all the information you need. Therefore a brain-teaser is a puzzle that presents you with a situation and then says, “Using the sum of knowledge you’ve accumulated over your life up until now, what is the solution?” whereas a riddle would be more along the lines of “What about this situation is strange or out of place, and how does that point to the solution?”

Somewhere in the middle you have these browser riddles, one of which is ThisIsNotTom.com. Having fought my way through a couple of these types of games before (or, more accurately, attempting to fight through them but giving up at some point out of sheer frustration) I would certainly say that I enjoy them if and only if they are fair and designed well. ThisIsNotTom.com is both fair and designed well, but it walks that line very delicately.

Let’s look at an example of a riddle that is well-designed. For example, you might see an image of a locker and be asked to enter its combination. You know a locker combination is three digits, of course. The first thing you do is scan the page’s source code (Ctrl+U) for the rules. You’ll know to do this either because there are only a couple spots you can hide clues on a mostly-empty webpage. The source code gives up only two three-digit numbers. Your instinct tells you you’re looking for three two-digit numbers, so naturally the first thing you try is to break the six digits up differently. That doesn’t work, but at least you’re on the track to somewhere: how can you get three two-digit numbers out of two three-digit numbers? The clue must be in the image itself. So you open it up in the graphic editing software of your choice (any trial version will do) and treat the numbers as (x,y) coordinates. This gives you a specific pixel in the image. You can then check the color of that pixel, and every color is constructed of RGB components. Bam, three digits! Plugging these into the answer box solves the puzzle.

Now, that isn’t exactly the method of solving a particular puzzle, but I’m sure it accurately depicts the kind of logic that goes into them. It’s a matter of thinking about every possible way of hiding clues in webpages, and then thinking about every reasonable way to apply those clues to get a solution. What does a typical computer user have at his fingertips? What tools are they likely to employ?

The locker combination puzzle is, in my opinion, a good example of a fair, well-designed puzzle. The trap a lot of these puzzles fall into, though, is overestimating the computer user. It’s reasonable, I think, to assume an internet user interested in solving internet puzzles knows a bit about webpages and how they’re constructed. It’s not a stretch to assume they’ll have some way of downloading and analyzing images. It is unreasonable, though, to assume they’ll have access to, say, higher level math. Or knowledge of foreign languages. Or the ability to write or debug computer programs.

Some Google-fu can help with all that stuff, and let you stumble past puzzles you otherwise can’t solve. Problem being, of course, that any webpage that turns up hints or information is liable to turn up the solution to the puzzle, which isn’t a good thing. This happened to me once during my journey through ThisIsNotTom.com, not while searching for hints or pointers, but simply doing some research on what was designed as a scavenger hunt-style puzzle. Of course learning the solution didn’t stop me from backpedaling and solving the rest of the puzzle; I was still interseted in how to get from point A to point B, and I’m relatively certain I would have gotten it on my own without the accidential cheating. But it’s something to beware of.

What ThisIsNotTom.com doesn’t have, though, are blatantly unfair or completely arbitrary puzzles. In one rather (in)famous browser riddle, for example, I quit after hitting a puzzle that displayed, if nothing else, the designer’s utter lack of ideas. The puzzle was simply a blurry, overexposed picture of… something. The puzzle was to identify the something and then type it into the box. No clues to decipher, nothing to download and decode — you either got it or you didn’t. I didn’t get it. I went to the game’s forums to look for hints, but the hints were all pointless. “Look at the image! What are you looking at?” “Did you look at the image? Look really really close.” To the credit of those forumgoers, any useful hint would have made the solution instantly obvious and rendered the puzzle completely solved. My criticism would be: a puzzle designed in such a way that hints are absolutely pointless is a bad puzzle and you probably shouldn’t include it in your game.

I didn’t have that issue with any of the ThisIsNotTom.com puzzles. It’s composed of only five riddles, which gave the designer freedom to stretch the browser puzzle idea in a couple different directions without wearing them thin or resorting to “solve this calculus” or “no seriously look at it really hard“. All five puzzles are pretty much fair. Once you win you are directed to a couple wacky YouTube videos which are presumably puzzles in and of themselves, but I didn’t find them nearly as interesting so I skipped them.

I don’t know who Tom is, or why I was subjected to a bunch of things he isn’t, but I’m glad he tried his hand at constructing some browser riddles for me. Maybe someday he’ll make some more. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get lazy and just post a blurry picture of a screwdriver behind a lit light bulb and call it a day.

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