You pick up a novel: a story set in 1897, about a 14-year-old bookworm and her older brother. During a visit to the mythology section of the Upper Wolverhampton Library, Colleen and Samuel accidentally awaken an ancient Gatekeeper who traps them in the world of his book, “The Maze of Games,” demanding they solve a gauntlet of puzzles in order to return home.
A strong opening that leaves you wanting more. You turn the page to continue the story, but… this is all wrong. When did they jump from a mine to a king’s chamber? Who’s this “bard,” when did they meet him and why does he keep trying to sing Shakespeare? And why has one character turned into a duck?
“The Maze of Games” — the real book written by Mike Selinker and illustrated by Pete Venters, not the book-within-the-book mentioned above — is an adventure printed out of order, much like the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books that required readers to jump from the beginning, to the end, to the middle and back again to follow the chronological narrative. Unlike that series, progress can only be achieved by solving an increasingly challenging series of puzzles.
“It’s not a passive reading experience,” Selinker said. “It’s not a story you sit back and let wash over you. You have to work your way through it.”
The first printed copies of the book, published by Lone Shark Games, finally shipped to readers in July after being funded on Kickstarter in early 2013. That campaign was wildly successful: Selinker’s $16,000 goal was met in four hours, and the project grossed more than $170,000 by the end of fundraising.
Instead of breaking even on a thousand-copy print run of the novel, as originally expected, Selinker’s game company has spent the past year-and-a-half turning it into a sprawling multimedia project. “The Maze of Games” has come to include a bonus Conundrocopia with contributions from puzzlers like Will Shortz and Ken Jennings, an e-book, a soundtrack, an audiobook voiced by geek icon Wil Wheaton and, of all things, a perfume — a bottled “old library” smell.
“As funding kept coming in, the project went from publishing my old manuscript to ‘Guys, this might be the best puzzle book of all time. How do we live up to that?’” Selinker said. “It showed an extraordinary trust that (Lone Shark) would make something great. With no evidence that we would.”
Selinker is a veteran tabletop game designer and a recognizable character in popular gamer culture, thanks to his extensive credits and friendships with subculture celebrities like Wheaton. His resume includes “Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition” and “Pirates of the Spanish Main.” He designed the D&D spinoff card game “Pathfinder” and a number of other projects for Paizo Publishing while it was a Bellevue company. He is currently the president of Redmond game design collective and consultancy Lone Shark Games, responsible for a number of live interactive games played at conventions.
“The Maze of Games” began as a live puzzlehunt first held at the 1995 Origins gaming convention. Selinker and co-designers Mark Gottlieb and Teeuwynn Woodruff used $2,500 of electrical tape to convert the floor of the Pennsylvania Convention Center into a giant maze populated by outrageous and colorful fantasy characters who tasked players to solve puzzles to proceed. The maze became a popular recurring feature of Origins and, later, Gen Con.
Believing in the appeal of the concept, Selinker drafted a book adaptation of the game — something he dubbed a “solve your own adventure” novel — and shopped it around to publishers to see who might bite.
It did not go well.
“Puzzlebook publishers were completely mystified,” he said. “I was honestly surprised at how condemning they were of the idea, but none of them thought a reader would sit down and solve puzzles to get to the next part of a story.”
Without backing, the manuscript sat in a drawer for two decades. Two important things happened during that time, Selinker said:
First was the rising popularity of participatory Alternate Reality Games, in which users investigated clues in the real world to uncover a fictional story. So-called ARGs have largely been used for viral marketing, such as the I Love Bees campaign for the video game “Halo 2” or the Year Zero campaign for Nine Inch Nails’ album of the same name. But they helped to warm up the gaming public to the concept of interactive fiction.
Second was the emergence of crowdfunding site Kickstarter, which made it possible for anyone with an Internet connection and a credit card to give money to creative projects.
When Lone Shark began looking for a flagship project it could put on Kickstarter, “The Maze of Games” was a natural choice.
As it quickly gained support, Selinker said he was often overwhelmed by how large the project was becoming. But “hundreds” of professional and personal friends have helped him through roadblocks. When he didn’t know how he would process a large number of online orders, Penny Arcade — a company with which Selinker shares office space — placed the book into its online store. When he didn’t know how to proceed with an audiobook, Wheaton connected him to studios, engineers and agreed to voice 29 characters himself.
“What I really hope is that this is the kind of thing people are getting for their 8-year-old daughter,” Selinker said. “And she reads through and solves some puzzles to keep going, and if she reaches one she can’t solve, her parents tell her that’s OK, that she can put it down for a while and come back.
“Eventually, she turns into a bright, inquisitive person because of this book that challenged her when she was younger. I hope, anyway.”