Pete Venters

The Maze of Games: the puzzle novel I wrote eighteen years too early

The Maze of Games: the puzzle novel I wrote eighteen years too early

Note from Ben: Hey everyone! Mike Selinker contacted me about his Kickstarter, and many of us around the office have been very interested in what he’s putting together. It became very clear that he could tell us story much better than I could after we chatted for a bit, so enjoy!

As a writer, sometimes you just know you’ve done something right. You know you’ve captured a moment, the stars aligning so that your unique vision cannot be ignored. Sometimes you just know.

This is not one of those times. This is the story of the story that was not right for the times in which I wrote it. It’s the story of The Maze of Games, and Ben has kindly let me tell it to you.

The Maze of Games is a puzzle novel, which is a thing that doesn’t exist. I’ve read novels with puzzles in them, such as Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. I’ve solved puzzle books with fictional bits, such as Michael Stadther’s Secrets of the Alchemist Dar. But I’ve never seen a novel in which the whole book is a puzzle. That’s what The Maze of Games is.

Ahead of its time

My friends and I are running a Kickstarter campaign for it right now. But the thing is, I didn’t come up with this idea last month. I came up with it eighteen years ago. I tried to get publishers to look at it. They didn’t want to. They didn’t think it would sell any copies then. Over and over, they rejected me.

I’m so happy they did. Because The Maze of Games wasn’t meant for its time. It was meant for right now.

At its heart, The Maze of Games is just a novel. It has a story that starts at the start and ends at the end. You know how novels are.

This novel concerns two British schoolchildren from 1897, Colleen and Samuel Quaice. Colleen is a headstrong girl who finds a musty book called The Maze of Games. Her brother’s intrusion summons a skeletal guardian called the Gatekeeper, who plunges them into a series of increasingly dangerous mazes. Therein the Quaices meet monsters and villains, and allies who give them the tools they need to survive, often for a price. And they encounter puzzles at every turn.

These are the Gatekeeper’s sternest tests. He wants Colleen and Sam to solve their way out, for their own betterment – and if they don’t survive the experience, he can live with that. He’s like an undead version of Jigsaw from the Saw films, except he’s not going to break his victims’ bodies if they don’t measure up. He’s just going to break their brains.

The book doesn’t give you the answers to his puzzles. This isn’t some Dan Brown novel, where you have a Robert Langdon to conveniently unscramble every tortuously long anagram for you. If Colleen and Sam are going to get out of the Maze, they’ll need your help.

And you might need theirs too, because I haven’t told you one thing about the book: The pages are in the wrong order.

You remember Bantam’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? I do. I devoured those as a kid. They had cool titles like The Cave of Time and The Mystery of Chimney Rock. They had a simple conceit. You read a chapter, and then you made a choice. If you ate the enchanted apple, you went to page 27. If you didn’t, page 59. Maybe one of those choices killed you. If you meandered through the book the right way, you found the end. The Maze of Games is like that on steroids.

“Solve Your Own Adventure”

The book is a series of mazes. As you solve those, you’re led to puzzle sections. The novel text is on one side of a two-page spread, and the puzzle is on the other. Solve that, and you gain a word that will help you on your path. String enough words together, and you’ll put the story in the right order. Then, with luck, it’ll make sense.

I call this a Solve Your Own Adventure. Sure, you can read the story from the front cover all the way to the back cover. I hear there’s a DVD where you can watch Memento in chronological order too. Somehow that doesn’t sound as fun.

When I put together the first draft of The Maze of Games back in 1995, Choose Your Own Adventures had lost their way. Those last editions from Bantam had lame titles like CyberHacker and Your Very Own Robot. Nobody wanted those any more. We had found a much more bewildering thing to lose ourselves in: the Internet.

So I locked The Maze of Games in my hard drive, and threw away the key.

I knew it was there, of course, but there were always other projects. I helped creative-direct an edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I worked on a half-dozen Marvel games, and one for Harry Potter, and even one for Walt Disney World. I designed some games with the celebrated James Ernest of Cheapass Games. I wrote a couple books about poker, and one about making puzzles called Puzzlecraft (hey, I had the name first!). I founded Lone Shark Games, a company that created alternate reality games and big puzzle events at conventions like Origins, Gen Con, and PAX.

Unlocking the puzzle

That last bit turns out to be relevant to this story. When my team started running these puzzle events and online scavenger hunts, I figured it out. There’s a community of puzzle-gamers that don’t play by the same rules as puzzle solvers of old. Sure, they solve the crossword in the newspaper—when they actually find a newspaper. But that’s down time. Their up time is when they’re with their friends. They solve in groups, sometimes in very large groups. The alternate reality gamers solve as one group, often thousands of people strong.

They didn’t necessary solve the puzzles in the right order. They poked at the edges. They looked over, under, sideways, down. They bent Google backwards till it taught them what they needed to know. They never looked at the answers, as the answers were in their friends’ heads.

This was the Choose Your Own Brain generation. They wanted to think in ways that linear storytelling couldn’t give them.

And maybe, just maybe, I had something they might like.

Something else changed too. Books became expensive to make, costing too much for me to fund on my own. But there was a new way to pay for creative projects, called crowdfunding. So I put The Maze of Games up on Kickstarter. I asked for $16,000 to print the book, and stuff it with mind-blowing art from legendary Magic artist Pete Venters. I was hoping to hit that $16K and maybe go a little beyond it.

In addition to making a beautiful hardback, I asked the company Puzzazz. to make a version of The Maze of Games that solves on an iPad. You can write answers in it with your hand, sort of like finger-painting. We’re making bookmarks that guide you through the maze, and laser-cut pencils that impart to you codes and sequences you might need. We’re crafting cryptexes with passwords that only their owners know. We’re making a book into a lifestyle.

It turns out I made the right call to lock The Maze of Games away. After we launched, that $16K funded in 4½ hours. With a little over two weeks to go, we’re now over $100,000. Who knows where we’ll end up?

We’re going to be able to make my little Solve Your Own Adventure real. I’ve never been so happy for rejection in all my life.