Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Indie puzzle highlights

May 28: A-to-Gen Z Crosswords (Ada Nicolle)

June 20: Untitled (Kaitlin Hsu, The New York War Crimes)

June 23: Themeless 77 (Ryan McCarty, The Modern Crossword)

June 23: Going a Little Overboard (Adam Wagner, Westwords)









A-to-Gen Z Crosswords (Ada Nicolle)

The marketing copy on the back of Ada's book advertises that "it's giving 'big brain'" and that it's perfect for people you agree "most mainstream crosswords are in need of a glow-up," which presents a very particular idea of what it means for a crossword to be "Gen Z": almost a caricature of the mainstream media's conception of "Gen Z slang," which I put in scare quotes because it's really appropriated AAVE. And that's a pity, because I think Ada's conception of Gen Z crosswords is quite different.

I've featured plenty of Ada's puzzles in these highlights before, and if you solve her Patreon puzzles, you've already know her style. Solving 72 of them in quick succession really threw one aspect of that style into sharp relief for me, though. After I finished the book, I went through and added phrases I liked to my wordlist, as I do whenever I solve something. But there was a conspicuous number of phrases that I liked in the context of the puzzles that I nonetheless didn't add to my own wordlist, phrases like FOR THE WII and ATE A WHOLE THING OF. These are prototypical examples of "green paint" phrases, which are definitely things that people say but don't have distinct meanings or connotations that aren't figureoutable a priori from the literal meanings of the words.

I tend to avoid green paint when I construct, but as a solver, I actually kind of like it in Ada's puzzles because I know it's used deliberately and thoughtfully. My read on Ada's style is that it's an attempt to stay attuned to the landscape of language as it's actually used. So entries that speak to Gen Z solvers aren't just things like YEET or whatever, but also particular turns of phrase that ring true to the ears of someone who's been around young people for the last couple of decades. So FOR THE WII and ATE A WHOLE THING OF may be green paint, but they also gives the solver a pang of recognition that yeah, that's exactly how you phrase that.

The antepenultimate puzzle from the book has a stack that includes GOOD LISTENER, which is apt because that's exactly what you have to be to be able to produce puzzles like these. That includes paying attention to phraseologies like the ones mentioned above, but also keeping an ear out for particular cultural phenomena like (all from the same puzzle) MLG MONTAGES, AFFILIATE LINKS, and COFFEE SHOP AU. I don't know of any constructor whose ear is as finely and specifically tuned as Ada's.

Untitled (Kaitlin Hsu)

(Full disclosure: I've been working with both Kaitlin and some of the people involved with the New York War Crimes on organizing this letter.) I'm a huge fan of the New York War Crimes as a publication; the work they're doing to provide a leftist, anti-colonialist alternative to papers like the New York Times is vital. So I'm delighted that they now have a weekly crossword, particularly because the crossword is such a central part of the identity of the New York Times itself. They've published a number of puzzles with very impressive themes, but this puzzle, despite its relative simplicity, is the best illustration so far of their ethos.

The revealer is THE RADICAL LEFT, clued as [Rightwing pejorative for anybody who simply... cares about other people, or a hint to the theme clues in this puzzle]. The theme entries all start with words meaning "radical," and are all clued with a leftist bent: (LIT)TLE PAKISTAN is [Neighborhood where you can hear Urdu, pick up mithai, and if you're in Brooklyn, participate in an independence mela every August], (HOT)EL WORKERS is [Housekeepers, clerks, and the 300,000 members of labor union UNITE HERE], and (FAB)RIC SCRAPS is [Materials used by the group Hope In The Art World for their "From Occupation to Liberation" quilt, displayed outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 24, 2024]. It's a perfect example of how a theme that theoretically has a ton of possible options can be elevated by choosing very thoughtfully from those options.

But it's in the choice of entries and clues for the fill that Kaitlin's puzzle really shines. There's particular attention paid to Palestinians and other Arabs, with OLIVE TREE clued as [Plant that symbolizes Palestinian rootedness to the land], plus ARAB clued as [Radius of ___ American Writers (literary community that promotes the work of Etel Adnan and Fady Joudah, among others)]. But equally, the puzzle recognizes that it's crucial to draw connections between decolonial and antiracist struggles around the world. Kaitlin chooses to use the OAHU clue to highlight Haunani-Kay Trask's From a Native Daughter, a text which explicitly links Hawaiian resistance to U.S. colonialism and Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonialism (which itself, of course, is actively supported by the U.S.). Similarly, YELLOW is clued with reference to "Yellow Peril supports Black Power," a slogan that has been used by Asian Americans to express support for radical Black movements. This kind of cluing is not uncommon in the crossword blogosphere, but it's hard to overstate how thrilling it is to see it in an outlet that explicitly mimics the format of the New York Times, whose ideological function is utterly at odds with this approach. It's a way to imagine the way that things in the crossworld, and the world of media writ large, could be.

Themeless 77 (Ryan McCarty)

Ryan is the master of themelesses with wide-open centers, which are his trademark (so much so that he's coined his own term for them, "chasms"). So he knows better than anybody that chasms, while they're obviously very hard to fill in and of themselves, also put a lot of pressure on the corners of the grid. Once you've got a chasm that you like, you generally have very little freedom to change the ends of any of the long entries in the chasm, because they intersect so intricately and because they take up so much real estate that there's not much freedom to add black squares to the corners (aside from helper squares in the very corners). So a themeless with a beautiful chasm will often feel noticeably weaker in the corners, as if the corners are there merely to support the center. You can see the effects of this in my most recent themeless on this here blog - I wanted to keep the word count extra low, and that meant using some entries that simply wouldn't be interesting enough to support a stack in any other type of themeless.

So I was frankly stunned when I solved this puzzle and the corners could easily pass muster in a chasmless themeless. A stack of HEMP FARMS/ONCE A WEEK/SAND WEDGE crossing RED SAUCE/MEGASTAR/SKECHERS is something I'd expect to see as the anchor of a 15x15 themeless. Here, it's merely part of Ryan's 19x19 canvas. Elsewhere in the corners, we've got NOODLE TAG, MICRONAP, AYO EDEBIRI, IOWA NICE, AI-POWERED appropriately near FINANCE BRO, and more. To include all that in a grid whose center stacks are WIZARD BEARD/COMEDY TEAMS/DOUBLE BONDS and DARK ACADEMIA/COUNTRY BALLAD/GOOD TO SEE YOU feels like, well, wizardry.

Going a Little Overboard (Adam Wagner)

Sometimes, all you need to create a unique solving experience is to make a slight tweak to something that's been done many times before. Adam's Westwords puzzle does just that. Most constructors using HANG TEN as a revealer would put Across entries in the grid that have the string TEN, and then have that string head vertically through an intersecting Down entry - the type of theme that's done all the time, particularly in the Wall Street Journal. Instead, Adam made a tiny adjustment to the idea: he hung the string TEN vertically in the clues instead.

I say a tiny adjustment, but I definitely don't want to imply that it was obvious or easy. If it had been either of those things, surely someone would have thought to do it before. But there's a very good reason people don't do it: crossword clues aren't normally laid out in perfectly regimented grid patterns, so you can't just make a string of letters go vertically through a series of clues. Adam's masterstroke is to use a monospaced font for the clues, so he could finesse the character counts of the clues to make the TENs go in perfect vertical lines. For example: 4-Across is UNTIE, clued as [Opposite of fast]. It should really be [Opposite of fasten], but the E has dropped down to the 6-Across clue, [Staunchly averse], which should really be [Staunchly avers] (ASSERTS), and the N has dropped down to the 8-Across clue, [Unappealing goon], which should really be [Unappealing goo] (SNOT). Not only do the clues have to line up perfectly, the corresponding grid entries are stacked, so it's simultaneously constrained on both fronts.

This would be incredible in any context, but it's especially apt for Puzzle 5. Like many tournaments, Westwords has one brutally hard, outside-the-box puzzle designed to really weed people out; for Westwords, just as for the ACPT, this is Puzzle 5. An ideal Puzzle 5, for me, is an original gimmick that resists standard puzzle-solving techniques, but that isn't so unusual that a top solver can't be expected to figure it out within the time limit. This gimmick ticks both the boxes, since it's highly original, but is still only one step removed from something very familiar.

I also like the attention to the solving flow. Moreso than most grids, the design of this puzzle really predisposes solvers to travel in a particular path, from the top to the bottom. It's shaped like a surfboard, only 9 squares wide but 27 squares tall, so there's not much horizontal leeway. Adam thus had a lot of control over what order the vast majority of solvers would encounter the theme entries in, and the sequencing of the theme entries here is very canny. The UNTIE/ASSERTS/SNOT stack that I mentioned above is easily the sneakiest of the four thematic stacks, since all three clues are extremely plausible clues that I wouldn't blink an eye at in a themeless puzzle. The next stack is pretty close, but there's a hint that something might be off - [It may be on tape] and [Sticker in a barn] are both perfectly normal-looking clues (the latter in particular suggests PITCHFORK, which happens to be the same length as the intended answer, BEER LABEL, which is a sticker in a bar). [Was happy to list] is a bit suspicious, though - it has a plausible meaning, but I can't think of a plausible crossword answer for it. The clues in the third stack are [Whit], [Cane], and [Chin] - all single words, so all plausible clues, but the fact that they're all short is a potential tipoff, as is the fact that "chin" doesn't really have a lot of synonyms. Finally, the fourth stack starts with [Gluts of glut] (really [Gluts of gluten], for BAKE SALES), which is a clue you'd never expect to see in a regular crossword. So for solvers who don't figure out the gimmick in the nth stack, the n+1th stack gives them a bit more to go on.

One of the devilish things about a typical Puzzle 5 is that, even if you figure out the gimmick early, the regular clues are no picnic either, so the solve is still extra challenging. Adam really brought his A game to the wordplay clues outside of the theme here: the best ones include [Book seller?] for BLURB, [Making room?] for SHOP, [It might have you cutting and tearing simultaneously] for ONION, and especially [Linguini topper from Pixar] for REMY. All in all, an absolutely ideal Puzzle 5.

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