Yet More Messing with Corn, Plus Rambling

I don't think I need to write super-detailed maze reviews any more. They look a lot like they did last year. And the year before. Etc.

So I'll ramble arbitrarily instead.

Orion Farm -- Silver Creek, NY
(between Erie and Buffalo)
visited August 17, 2003

An Adrian Fisher production. I liked the layout -- quite large, and it surprised me by not having an easy circumferential loop. I tried to go around the border, which is how I usually start mazes... and I ran into a dead-end area. Had to backtrack to the beginning and try the opposite direction.

Unfortunately, the corn was short, and the paths were narrow and poorly maintained. I frequently had trouble telling what was a path and what was a low spot in the foliage. This was frustrating.

Or was it?

Well, yes it was. But it was also... unexpectedly interesting.

I have written about my definition of interactive fiction -- computer adventure games. A maze is not an adventure game, but the two art forms are so tightly woven together that I can't even define the relationship. You can't talk about adventure games without talking about mazes, that's for sure.

In the middle of that definition, I say: ...the range of action available to the player is only partially known... In other words, the question "What sorts of things can I do?" is an interesting question. It's blurry. You have to think about it.

Now, in a classical maze, the range of action is completely known. You can go forward; you can turn around; if you're at an intersection, you can decide which way to go. There's no blurriness there.

But mazes are still interesting, because -- in a good maze -- you begin thinking in higher-level actions. Is this section a loop? Does it have an exit to another section? Does this group of paths run up against the outside edge of the maze, or does a path sneak around it to a different area? These sorts of actions are blurry; the model in your head is incomplete, shifting, constantly reconsidered.

Logic mazes are mazes with travel rules, like "no left turns" or "alternate colors" or "follow the arrows". These, again, are very clear about what actions are available; but, again, they produce interesting higher-level features. The emergent ranges of actions are not obvious, and must be explored. (If you've ever solved a no-left-turn maze, you know what it means to think in spirals. If not, go look at one.)

So is there virtue in having fuzzy, explorable rule-sets? Or does the virtue lie in having an explorable range of action emerge from low-level, precise rules?

This must be an aesthetic choice. I would imagine that maze designers like the latter approach -- that's why they're maze designers. Adventure game designers, in contrast, love to break rules at every level. (Consider Cliff Johnson's works -- or the subtle and necessary door to room 17 in Kit Manson's Maze book. Or the hedge-maze in the movie Sleuth, with its hidden rotating hedge. Another movie: Labyrinth, despite its mazey title, captures the true adventure spirit. "It's not fair!" "I wonder what your standard of comparison is?")

Where do I fit in? I love the idea of mazes, but I want to create adventures. I want you to drag the rules kicking and screaming from my grasp; and then I want you to dig out the loopholes. In the Praser Maze -- the maze in my head, the maze in my dreams, the unbounded maze that will never be built -- there are changing gates, hidden doors, and keys under bushes. There are colored lines that only have meaning after you've tried everything else. There are tunnels that look like service-ducts accidentally left open. There are stepping stones submerged a quarter-inch in a reflecting pool. And then, when you drain the pool, you find stairs leading down.

And then there are higher-level structures emerging from that.

(Well, I can dream, can't I?)

So anyhow. I'm not saying that it's good to have a low spot in the cornfield maze, where you can't tell if there's a path. That's a flaw; it's a blur in the rules, but a bad one. If I misinterpret a low spot, I'm likely to cheat accidentally -- jumping the paths -- which makes the maze much less fun.

(A well-designed adventure-game puzzle is one where, if you misinterpret it, you don't accidentally win. You just slide past, thinking "Huh, that must not be important." Later, you realize it is important, and then the glory dawns.)

But... paradoxically, these maze flaws did add some interest to the experience. I had to think about whether it made sense for there to be a path there. Would it shortcut an area? (In my fuzzy, high-level model!) In a sense I was working with the maze designer, against the physical, imperfect corn. (This sense -- trying to understand the intent of a puzzle, the creator's logic -- is a very adventure-game idea. In a pure maze, there is no intent, only structure -- the situation as it exists.)

...Surely this power can be used for good. Perhaps not in a real-world cornfield maze. But ignore, for a moment, the commercial nothing-can-be-stealable must-be-fun-for-kids-and-grannies limitations, and imagine:

I'm just tossing out random ideas here. Possibly this all sounds like maze-blasphemy to you. That's okay. I'm just here to ramble.

And now, a badly-composited picture of the exit bridge at the Orion Farms maze. Because I feel like it, that's why.

Bridge (Click for larger view)

Corn! (Click for larger view)


Updated August 19, 2003.

Essay on Corn Mazes - Maze thoughts 2000 2001 2002 2003

Zarfhome (map)