TL; DR: Would a rational-but-flawed puzzle designer have concocted your bad solution?

The main business of MAZE fandom is not suggesting solutions but arguing about whether suggested solutions are correct. These discussions, regarding the plausibility of certain puzzles and answers, have raised the same issues repeatedly, and often degenerate into (if not originate with) simple assertions about whether a given solution was plausibly intended by the author.

Part of the difficulty in making plausibility judgments is that publicly confirmed solutions of MAZE–the Riddle of the Maze found in Room 45; the clue to the Riddle of the Maze, found along the correct 16-step path, dubbed the “Riddle of the Path” by White Raven; and the answer to the Riddle of the Maze–bear a number of shortcomings that would typically cause a puzzle-solver to reject them, had they not been officially endorsed as correct solutions. In fact, despite announcement of these solutions by the publisher, several elements of them were debated for decades afterward. Thus, when a solution is denounced because it is implausible, the ready response is, “Yes, but we are dealing with a book we know to require implausible solutions.”

What I wish to explain here is that, although the confirmed solutions to MAZE are all flawed, they are mostly flawed in a similar way, a way quite distinct from the preponderance of bad solutions that have been offered. While it will still be appropriate to argue in some circumstances that we ought to consider bad solutions because MAZE is full of bad solutions, this does not mean that any bad solution will do. In fact, bad, confirmed MAZE solutions are problematic in essentially the opposite manner in which bad, unconfirmed MAZE solutions are flawed.

The typical bad, unconfirmed solution notes an apparently meaningful observation about a room and then introduces a novel means of interpretation that allows one to read that observation as indicating the correct door to select in that room. These solutions are bad both because the interpretive principle used to find the correct door is not robust enough to determine that it was deliberately built into MAZE, and/or because similarly reasonable interpretations could be concocted that would point toward incorrect doors. These solutions are easy to generate in retrospect, and take for granted that the author generated puzzles that were strikingly arbitrary or obtuse from the moment of creation.

A diplomatic, non-MAZE example of such a bad solution (I will eventually pick on actual suggested solutions for MAZE, but hopefully we can all agree that the following is bad): There is an old puzzle that asks one to determine the next number in this sequence: 31, 41, 59, 26, 53, –. When I was first given this puzzle, I noticed that the numbers were all two digits, all less than 60, and sometimes increased and sometimes decreased as the sequence progressed. I had the idea that they might involve movements of a minute hand around a clock. So if the hand first progressed 10 minutes, then 18 minutes, then 27 minutes, then 27 minutes again…So then I had a new pattern: 10, 18, 27, 27. What’s the pattern here? Well, let’s examine the changes in these numbers…8, 9, 0. And now what about these changes… I don’t remember exactly how the solution bottomed out, but I ended up figuring that in some way if a minute hand were moving alternately clockwise and counterclockwise in a predictably shifting pattern, it would land on the numbers originally given, and then determined the next number it would hit. Beyond this being an inelegant solution, the problem is that by creating a sufficiently complex pattern, you can create a rationale for literally any sequence of numbers, which means that any integer you wanted to be the solution could be a solution. This is what I mean by saying that these solutions are easy to generate in retrospect, but (when assumed to be correct) imply that the puzzle was arbitrarily or obtusely authored. It is easy to take a string of digits and create an inelegant pattern that explains them; but it is hard to imagine a puzzle-maker taking that particular inelegant pattern and making a puzzle out of it, especially since anyone who did happen to solve it as intended would have done so largely by chance. (The actual solution, by the way, is that the sequence is properly generated by pairing successive digits of pi; the solution is 58.)

The typical bad, confirmed solution, on the other hand, is best understood moving in the opposite direction; instead of beginning with the puzzle as it appears and explaining how one creates the answer, one begins with the answer that the author wished to communicate and explains how the corresponding puzzle was constructed. It begins with a clearly expressed answer, which is then encoded or obfuscated in some way that is easy to perform yet extremely difficult, perhaps virtually impossible, for an unwitting reader to decode. These solutions are bad because they are not fairly solvable. Although the solutions are difficult to find, the puzzles they relate to are relatively simple to construct, because they begin with sensible answers and transform them in the manner of fairly traditional puzzles.

A hypothetical example of such a puzzle and solution: Imagine I took the first ten words of Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long…” Now, imagine that I replace each consonant with a dash, and each vowel with an underscore: –– — ——. —- —– — – —– –– — ––… Finally, imagine being given solely this sequence of dashes and underscores and being expected to discover the original message. It seems virtually impossible. Even if it were a given that dashes indicated consonants and underscores indicated vowels, it would not be reasonably solvable, because of the great many possible decodings we would need to choose from, and the lack of indication of where we ought to look for the original phrase. Yet, though the puzzle is impossibly difficult, you can see how it was constructed from a clear solution transformed by comprehensible methods. It is easy to follow the puzzle’s construction going forward; it is in the decoding, moving backwards from the puzzle to the intended answer, that the process breaks down.

Even with my examples, this is perhaps opaque without particular reference to the book in question. Let’s look at the bad, confirmed solutions of MAZE, so that I can more concretely demonstrate what I’m getting at. Begin with the phrase that Manson wished to encode in Room 45, which is known as the Riddle of the Maze:

“What house will all live in?”

Consider the first word: “what.” Manson takes the letters and divides them into “w” and “hat,” and he puts a W and a hat in the room. Or, rather, a picture of a hat, but you get the idea. It’s not hard to see how this encoding works, and it’s not even difficult to reverse the process and go from a W and a hat to “what,” except for the fact that the room is full of objects and it’s not clear that these two ought to be combined.

“House”: Here, Manson looks to anagram the word, and comes up with “shoe,” but has a letter left over: U. The “shoe” becomes a literal shoe, and the U becomes a U-shaped horseshoe. It is again not difficult to understand this encoding; it’s not terribly different from “W + hat,” after all, to say “U + shoe.” The encoding is slightly more complicated because the letters have to be rearranged, and because the U is turned into a U-shaped object instead of simply being the letter U. Hypothetically, both objects being shoes, and being in close proximity, helps to suggest that they should be combined together. In reality, of course, there’s so little indication of how you’re supposed to make words from the objects in the room that it’s still a stretch, other objects in the room are not paired by proximity, and the fact that the horseshoe is curled around a table leg seems to connect those objects more closely than the two shoes. Nevertheless, while it would be exceedingly difficult to reverse this encoding, it’s easy to see how the encoding went forward. It was as simple as rearranging and representing letters.

[Alex points out, aptly, that this “horseshoe” is in fact just the letter U, having none of the particular details that would distinguish a horseshoe from a U. Manson’s clue regarding the word “house” makes reference to “two shoes,” however, so it at least seems that he intended the U to be read as (or mistaken for) a horseshoe. I won’t attempt to settle the issue here, as I don’t think it affects the analysis.]

“Will” is encoded in a somewhat unusual, though still completely comprehensible, manner. Manson takes two names that include “will” (phonetically, at least), and finds a way to encode those names, minus the “will.” In its simplified sense, Manson is presenting us with “Woodrow —-son//—-iam Shakespeare.” And, indeed, written that plainly, the answer seems fairly evident. Of course, Manson didn’t simply wrote those partial names, but turned them into rebuses: “Woodrow” becomes a row of wood (logs), “son” becomes a sun, “Shakespeare” becomes a hand shaking a spear. “Iam,” on the other hand, is simply written as “IAM.” The encoding, then, has two steps, but each step is a sane conversion of the information to be encoded. The end result may be difficult to reverse, but it actually seems to be the fairest word in the room.

“All” is transformed into a picture of an awl, in what is essentially a one-step homophonic rebus. The difficulties with this word lie entirely with the decoding process, which is confounded by a picture of a nun (“none”) in a position symmetrical to the awl. Only the barest of reasoned principles have been suggested for taking the word “awl” and leaving the word “nun,” and Manson’s clues to the room are not instructive in this regard, except for confirming that “[y]ou must choose between two pictures.” In this case, while it is entirely fair to expect the solver to notice the symmetrical portraits signifying “all” and “none,” there is (without the clues) no known indication that the solver ought to choose between the pictures, and there is no clear reason for choosing “all.” While the coding process seems completely straightforward in this case, it has been obfuscated in such a way that the full puzzle and manner of decoding remain mysterious.

“Live” is similarly simple and facially unfair. The letters are rearranged into “elvi” and written upside-down on a sign. It’s a simple encoding, but the decoding is made problematic by the fact that those same letters can be used to spell “vile,” “evil,” and (less plausibly) “Levi.” The conceivable way to know the sign means to indicate “live” (assuming you can assume the letters are simply an anagram) would be to solve the rest of the riddle and determine that of all possible words only “live” would be syntactically valid. That is, of course, not feasible.

“In” is encoded by turning the I into a picture of an eye, and the N into an elongated, sideways N, more immediately recognizable as a Z. The encoding is easy enough to follow, though it’s hard to understand what prompted Manson to warp the N in this fashion. In any case, the decoding is mainly complicated just by the overarching lack of direction in the room, and only somewhat complicated by making the N look funny.

What we see somewhat consistently across these decodings, and later in the Riddle of the Path, is Manson taking straightforward answers and encoding them through explicable means, but without adequate concern for whether the process could be reversed. Some of these word encodings would be solvable individually, some not, but when the elements are thrown together with no direction as to how they are to be combined (or not combined), there is no realistic means of deciphering the Riddle of the Maze. But note that these solutions began with a clear answer and proceeded through readily explicable steps.

The Riddle of the Path is not everywhere so problematic, though it has problems. Still, you can see a pattern moving from a clear answer to an encoding of that answer. The Riddle of the Path states, “Like Atlas, you bear it upon your shoulders.”

Like (Room 1): Manson took a mirror image of the word and wrote it in a vaguely obfuscating calligraphy. No real puzzle-type alterations were done to the word; it was simply somewhat hidden amidst apparently meaningless writing.

Atlas (Room 26): The letters are reversed and converted to a rebus: salt, and the letter A. Fairly decodable, and further suggested by other elements in the room.

You (Room 30): This word appears in the text as “why ‘O’ and ‘U’,” essentially just a spelling of the word combined with the conversion of Y into a homophone.

Bear (Room 42): There’s a bear in the room. This is as straightforward as encoding can get, but among the most implausible words to pick out, since there are numerous objects in all the rooms, and the bear’s mere presence seems insufficient to suggest it ought to be considered as a part of the Riddle of the Path.

It (Room 4): Well, things were going well. Here, “it” is suggested by objects that suggest verbs ending in “it”: a chair (“sit”), a candle with matches (“lit”), and hammer with nails in a board (“hit”), an ax and some logs (“split”), a couple pegs and holes (“fit”), arguably an image of a maze with an opening on the side (“exit”). It’s a little wacky, and it’s hard to imagine how this idea would actually occur to someone: hide the word you want to convey not in objects contained in the room, but in verbs the reader might associate with some of the objects in the room. Maybe it’s not that big of a stretch, but this drifts the furthest from the encoding pattern I’m describing of any of the words in the Riddle of the Path, just because it’s the first time he Manson isn’t using a well-established puzzle construction method. (It has also been suggested that the candle and the mallet represent an I and a T. This would be a better example of comprehensible encoding–put some objects in there that are shaped like the letters in the word. It might be the intended solution, though it’s not practically solvable, both because words as simple as “it” (made essentially of a straight line next to anything t- or T-shaped) are too easy to find everywhere, and because elements of the candle/candlestick make it not a straight line nor I-shaped at all.)

Upon (Room 29): Written on a sign in the room is “UP and ON.” There’s so little obfuscation going on here that it doesn’t even seem like a puzzle, at least not a self-contained one, which in the end makes it very difficult to solve.

Your (Room 17): Written on a sign on the wall is
Why, Oh —
You are —

This is not too different from the “why ‘O’ and ‘U'” solution in Room 30, and involves simply exchanging names of letters for homophones. The blanks help to obscure what would otherwise be self-evident, by suggesting these are parts of incomplete phrases.

Let’s pause here for a minute before we hit that last word. What we have here is Manson encoding a phrase into the Maze, and doing so by planting bits of it along the 16-step path the Directions tell the reader to find. Each word, or nearly every word, is encoded in a room in a more-or-less comprehensible and straightforward fashion. Nevertheless, without any clue as to what we’re supposed to be doing, no reader would ever discover this message. We don’t know that we’re supposed to be taking a word from each room, don’t know that any word we happen to find should be applied to a puzzle larger than the room itself, and the encodings aren’t everywhere plausibly reversible anyway. But, when handed the intended message, it’s fairly easy to comprehend the process by which Manson created the unsolvable puzzle.

Finally we come to “shoulders.” And things get messy. But it’s important to remember why it is that things get messy with this last word. It’s not because there’s a massive shift in Manson’s process here; it’s still “straight answer–> comprehensible encoding–> unsolvable puzzle.” What makes “shoulders” so much harder to reverse engineer than the other words is that it is broken up into letters clued in eight different rooms, and it is much more difficult to be certain whether something suggesting a single letter is intended than a similar set of clues suggesting an entire word. Indeed, there are places along the 16-step path where a letter is indicated by the illustrations in a manner almost identical to the letters in “shoulders,” and yet is not part of the solution. The letters are also not given to us in order, so even when the answer was widely available there was (and probably still is) great disagreement about which letters are meant to be taken from where. I’m not going to discuss every possible way to spell “shoulders” here, as I think it’s unnecessary to my central point. I will simply discuss what seems to be the most orthodox solution.

In Room 23, we get the letter O. This comes from a scroll that reads:

The three phrases on the scroll are meant to implicate three conspicuous usages of the letter O. “Everything right” is a reference to the facetiously-invented-yet-widely-reported etymology of the word “OK,” namely that it originated from the misspelling of “all correct” (“oll korrect”). “All correct” becomes “everything right.” “Nothing” suggests O in its role as the symbol for zero. And “the time is” is meant to be a stand-in for the phrase “o’clock.” The common element between the three phrases being O, that’s what we are to take away. This is an unusually convoluted way of cluing one of the “shoulders” letters, as we’ll see in the other seven rooms, but this is not unfairly difficult to decode–or rather, it wouldn’t be, if you had any way of knowing that you were supposed to be doing anything of the sort.

In Room 8, the letter S is written on a piece of paper hanging on the wall. That is all. In terms of obfuscation, however, it’s worth noting a six-legged table is turned on its side in this room, and creates the impression of the letter E. But we do not take E from here.

In Room 12, the letters U and D are stacked in the room. That is all.

In Room 39, the letter R sits on a shelf. That is all. There’s a tire nearby that some have wanted to use as an O; it is shaped like a circle, after all. But the O does not come from here. Also worth noting is that this room contains a number of objects that begin with T: a tree, a tire, tubes, a toy, a tag, a “THIS WAY” sign, a times table. But we do not take T from here either.

In Room 4, we find the letter L, because “E L L” can be found in the walls of a maze drawn on a piece of paper nailed to the doorway to Room 43, giving us a phonetic spelling of the letter’s name.

In Room 15, the letter H is suggested by a large number of objects in the room that begin with H: a hare, a heart, two hats, a helmet, a list of heroes, and a house. It seems a fair way to suggest a letter; what becomes bizarrely unfair is that a similar quantity of same-letter objects in Room 39 need to be ignored. As we’ll see, we’ll also be ignoring some objects in Room 20.

In Room 37, maybe the oddest of the bunch, we get E, from a host of objects that end with the letter E: a cone, a die, a bottle, a vase, a table, a sphere, several eyes, and potentially (though probably not) the rope used to make a ladder that hangs in the doorway to Room 20. This encoding mechanism only seems sensible as a follow-up to the “lots of objects start with the same letter” encoding from the room before. E is the worst possible letter to use in this case (assuming we’re trying to construct any kind of fair puzzle), because so many words in the English language end with a silent E that it’s hardly noteworthy when lots of them are grouped together; in fact, according to some source that I’m not even going to bother citing because it’s just the first thing Google gave me, E is the most common last letter for words in the English language (even ahead of S, which presumably gets a large percentage of its hits from plural nouns and conjugated verbs), so E seems to be a pretty stand-out frontrunner here for “letter most likely to be at the end of the names of a bunch of objects in a drawing by pure accident.” And, as all these ending Es are silent, they’re just not likely to be noticed. Because the majority of letters in the Riddle of the Path are presented without any obfuscation whatsoever, this sudden escalation in obscurity is all the harder to take seriously without authorial confirmation. Moreover, the solution to the main puzzle in this room (that is, the question of which door one ought to take) seems to involve a great number of objects in the room being shaped like zeroes when viewed from above–and the fact that O is a stand-in for zero was a deduction the reader was already required to make in Room 23 to get O there. Here, however, we must ignore the Os. So, no, you’re not going to get E from this room fairly. Still, you can see how Manson tried to put it here.

In Room 20, the letter S is written on a piece of paper on the ground. It’s also written on another piece of paper on the ground. One of the papers has “extra” written on it, and maybe we are meant to ignore one of the Ss for that reason, or maybe for no reason at all. In any case, we take one S from this room, and that’s it. This room is also full of things that start with T: a tortoise, a telephone, a table, a tower, a picture of The Tower from the tarot, a tartan-pattern on an armchair, and a Turk in a turban. But we do not take a T from here.

Ignore how absolutely impossible it would be for anyone to independently get the word “shoulders” from all that, and focus only on the process by which the word “shoulders” was transformed here. It was divided into constituent letters, separated into separate rooms, and, for the most part, just handed to us to unscramble. When the letters are encoded it is reasonably done, and we can both understand the process by which Manson hid them and the manner in which we can find them–again, if we are given any idea that that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. The chief problem here is one of noise. Manson either gave little care to other letters that could be just as easily pulled from the rooms, or deliberately put in fake letter clues to trick the reader. Either way, you’re not solving this puzzle without cheating.

The last of the confirmed solutions is simply the answer to the Riddle of the Maze. What house will all live in? The world, Earth, or globe. Any of those three is correct.

“Where will everybody live?” we are asked. “On Earth,” we respond.This solution doesn’t exactly fit the pattern I’ve been establishing, maybe because it doesn’t even treat the Riddle of the Maze like a puzzle. The solution amounts to essentially a literal answer to the question, with the small caveat that “house” is interpreted as a metaphor broad enough to encompass the planet we live on. Since everyone who reads the solutions to MAZE always reads them all at once, I’m not aware of anyone reading the Riddle of the Maze and the clue provided by the Riddle of the Path and then trying to guess the last bit, so I don’t really know how that would go. Ultimately, we can either say that this is just a layer on top of the other puzzles we’ve examined, so it necessarily reduces to the same process that created those puzzles; or, we can look at the solution as another straightforward answer suggested by comprehensible means.

Before I move on to discuss how other bad solutions tend to differ from these confirmed solutions, let me acknowledge and address the shortcomings of generalizing from these solutions.

Q: These are a particular set of related puzzles. Why assume that all the puzzles in the book work the same way?

A: Fair question. I’m only discussing bad solutions at this point. Good solutions to puzzles in MAZE are such a rarity that they play a very small role in Maze fandom. But if we take into account good solutions to fair puzzles, we see the same pattern of sane answers moved through comprehensible encodings; we just don’t wind up with something unsolvable. This applies to the poster in Room 38, where Manson moves from the message “no escape” to “c ape nose” through anagramming, and then to the word “SEE!” next to an arrow pointing to an ape’s nose. It applies to the banner in Room 32, where Manson moves from “go back” to “c bag ok” to “sea bag o.k.” It even applies in Room 40, where the letters in the word “trap” are simply mixed up among other nonsense symbols.

Q: But you’re still discussing a particular type of puzzle. Have you noticed that you haven’t mentioned any solutions about which door to take in individual rooms? The reason this “clear message–> sane encoding–> puzzle” pattern works is that you’re talking about the few places in the book where Manson is giving non-directional messages to the reader.

A: Maybe! Though I would note that other good room solutions seem to follow the same pattern as well. In Room 1, we have a puzzle whereby words for different sorts of narratives are associated with each of the four doors, and one of those words is implicated in the text by virtue of being the only word not mentioned. That seems to be the same thing: We have a clear answer that we are supposed to get, that unambiguously communicates the correct route to take, and we have a sane encoding process (making a word conspicuously absent where all the other words in a group are repeated). The big difference here is that that puzzle remains fairly solvable.

Q: Ok, but that’s still a word puzzle. The rest of these rooms don’t have words over all the doors. You’re still describing a process that involves communicating words or phrases.

A: Well, the same process can be used to communicate numbers, directions, objects associated with doorways, kinds of doorways…. There really isn’t any limitation on the kinds of solutions you can communicate in this way. The problem with trying to be exhaustive about listing solutions that seem to follow this method is that you quickly reach a point where there is substantial disagreement about the strength of particular solutions. For instance, I think Room 7 is a clear case of a good solution and a clear case of this method: The answer intended is 33, and among the many portraits in the room there are three eyes obscured on the left, three eyes obscured on the right, three of those eyes are left eyes, and three of them are right eyes. The regularity with which the obscuring occurs, the way in which the lamp is carefully placed to cover a left eye, and the fact that it all comes out to the correct answer, seems plainly intentional. More importantly here, it’s a comprehensible encoding of a clear answer.

Q: But even if you take as many liberties as you want with declaring solutions to be good or bad–how many rooms can you really say have clear solutions of this sort? Aren’t you still dealing with a very small subset of puzzles?

A: I’m dealing with a small set of puzzles. What you have to remember, though, is that I’m identifying two different aspects of puzzles in Maze: not just a certain manner of construction, but a persistently resulting unfairness. We know that the Riddle of the Maze and the Riddle of the Path and the answer to the Riddle of the Maze would never have been solved without clues and/or explicit answers from the publisher; we know, in other words, that MAZE contains puzzles that are not fairly solvable. We know, from the solutions we were given, that certain unsolvable puzzles in MAZE follow a certain pattern of construction. We know that other solutions in the book follow the same pattern of construction. The fact that the majority of MAZE remains unsolved or unsolvable doesn’t really undermine the hypothesis that it was constructed with puzzles following a certain method of construction that is capable of producing both solvable and unsolvable puzzles. It’s just that the only solutions we can know anything about are the ones that have been confirmed and ones that have been solved, and those are relatively small in number

Q: But if anyone suggested a solution that didn’t fit this pattern, wouldn’t you just ignore it as being neither a clearly intended solution nor a confirmed one? Isn’t the deck kind of stacked here in terms of what solutions you’re willing to consider as established answers?

A: I suppose that’s true, though not a completely unfair stance for me to take. This process I’m describing, of moving from a clear answer through some kind of obfuscation, isn’t some invented process peculiar to Manson–it’s actually about the bare minimum you’d expect from any puzzle, even a bad one. A puzzle that doesn’t give a clear answer or in which the answer isn’t encoded in a sensible way is very close to something I would describe as “not really a puzzle.” Maybe it’s a Zen koan or a deconstruction of puzzles or something, but it seems to lack in significant degree the aspects one would ordinarily associate with a puzzle. To be clear, then, I don’t expect Manson to follow this pattern just because he has repeatedly been shown to follow this pattern–I expect him to use this pattern because I would expect anyone making a puzzle book to follow this pattern until I have reason to think otherwise. The reason I’m making the argument the way I currently am is because Manson is known to have put unfair puzzles in MAZE, and despite decades of effort people haven’t been able to make sense of much of the book, and for that reason readers have largely abandoned any attempt to understand the book in terms of conventionally designed puzzles, and just started to perform free-form interpretations of the book as a way to “solve” it. My point is that even the unfair puzzles that have been revealed to us follow this same pattern of construction, so there is no basis for assuming that the rest of MAZE is completely differently constructed, as opposed to simply unsolvable.

Q: Let’s say that I accept all of that. Does it really change much? Don’t the people who are offering “bad” solutions (by your judgment) simply have a different assessment of what’s a reasonable encoding and what isn’t?

A: It is certainly possible that some people would stick to their guns even when it seems that they’re being absolutely insane; in fact, we know for certain that it will happen. But not everyone offering bad solutions is in that camp. And I acknowledge there is not an objective way to determine what is a sensible/comprehensible answer/encoding. But I still think it would change the way people look for, think about, and judge solutions, for them to consider them this way:

  1. What is the answer Manson wished to communicate with this puzzle? (This isn’t always a door number. In Room 1, for example, the answer Manson means to communicate with the word puzzles is FABLE; FABLE just happens to be clearly associated with the door to 26.)
  2. How did Manson decide to encode/communicate this answer?

This sounds simple enough, but I don’t think it is something that many people regularly think about. The more usual questions that seem to accompany proposed solutions are:

  1. Does wikipedia help me find any links between an observation I’ve made about the room and a room number I know is the correct answer?
  2. Was this information available before 1985?
  3. Is there any way in the world of interpreting this information as telling me to go that way?

Here is perhaps an appropriate time to segue into discussing particular solutions. My purpose here is only to examine what I think are a few clear examples of bad, unconfirmed solutions, so that we can see how they differ from the bad, confirmed ones. I’m going to try to avoid completely crackpot solutions in favor of what seem to be fairly typical suggestions.

#1: Bushels in Room 31

From “The two baskets are bushel baskets. A bushel is 4 pecks. 4 & 4 = 44.”

Given that we know the correct answer in Room 31 is to go to Room 44, we know that if we can find some 4s we’re going to be in good shape. We have two rakes, two holes in the tree, two baskets partially full of leaves…

Ok, so perhaps those are not just baskets, but bushels; that’s certainly plausible. Is there any way to read a bushel as being a four? Googling, googling…well, there are four pecks in a bushel. So we have two bushels, which are two fours, which makes 44. Voila!

That seems to be the thought process behind this solution. And in a book of bad solutions, does it seem all that bad? It’s unfair, certainly, but is it more unfair than “What house will all live in?”

I don’t know, maybe not, but it is bad in a different way. We have a process here that only seems to make sense in retrospect, looking backwards, trying to find a connection between things in the room and 44. Look at the proposed solution instead from the author’s side:

What is the answer that Manson wished to communicate with this puzzle?


How did Manson decide to encode/communicate this answer?

By including in the room two containers that might correspond to units of measure that can be divided into four other units.

Does that seem plausible to anybody?

Of course, a bushel is not only four pecks. It is also two kennings, eight gallons, thirty-two quarts, etc. The bushel is now more commonly used as a measure of weight than volume, though the amount of weight equal to a bushel varies according to location and even the thing being measured. My source? WIKIPEDIA, THE SAME AS YOURS. (Look at this, for Pete’s sake:

And that essentially gets at the problem: A bushel is not so intimately associated with the number 4 that one would sensibly go from “bushel” to “four” or from “four” to “bushel” unless you were looking for an excuse to do so. A bushel is a unit of measure that, like essentially all units of measure, can be divided by or into other units of measure of varying sizes to varying results. It is probably true that none of these divisions will result in 19 or 21 (the other room choices here) since weights and measures just don’t operate on those bases; but you’re only going to be investigating that if you’re already assuming that the answer will be found that way. It is not reasonable to think that Manson went about constructing this puzzle by thinking, “What is a unit of measure that can be divided by four into other standard, though archaic, units; but not in ways that yield 21, 19, 2 and 1, or 1 and 9?” (However, you could in fact divide a bushel in two different ways that yield 2 and 1.)

The fact is, because 4 is so much more common a number, with so many more associations than 19 and 21, that once you decide to look for a relationship between an object and 4 you are going to find one, whether because a bushel can be divided into four or because “rake” has four letters or because the holes are in the “fore”ground. But in no way is “four–> bushel” a sensible transformation from the author’s standpoint. It only seems plausible in retrospect, in trying to find some relationship between a bushel and 4, and that is the opposite of the other bad solutions we have seen confirmed.

Q: Isn’t the process more properly described as “four–> four pecks–> bushel”?

A: Maybe, but what we’re describing then is a multi-step process in which the intermediate steps essentially vanish, and I don’t think that makes any difference. If Manson encoded a solution like this: “no escape–> c ape nose–> see ape nose –>sea ape knows–> poe snake saw–> [picture of Edgar Allan Poe, a snake, and a saw],” he may have technically followed the method I’m describing, but in a perverse way that erased the information that made the puzzle work. In my hypothetical, he left no trace of the original letters, which are necessary to solving the puzzle. In the case of “four–> four pecks–> bushel,” we’re left with no indication of pecks anywhere in this puzzle, so we’re given no reason to think about pecks, and that is essentially the same situation as going “four–> bushel.”

Q: Oh, it would be a terrible puzzle, agreed, and this solution is certainly not correct, but couldn’t it have been made the same way as the Riddle of the Maze, through a series of transformations that resulted in a solution incapable of reverse engineering? You say that going through transformations in this way creates a situation no different than if the intermediate transformations didn’t exist, because information is lost in the middle, but isn’t your entire point about the process and not the result?

A: Let me be a little clearer. First of all, does it even make any sense that Manson would think “four–> four pecks?” I’m not asking whether it’s a something you could reverse-engineer; you could, you could count four of something and think “four.” But there’s no reason for Manson to do that transformation, independent of the bushel solution, so I still think this is essentially a one-step transformation. Whatever other steps you want to put in there, it’s the “four–> unit of measure capable of being divided by four into other named units of measure” step that is implausible, that assumes a level of arbitrariness in encoding that Manson has not been demonstrated to employ.

#2 Eleven layers of bricks in Room 39

From “In [“The Cask of Amontillado”], the number of tiers of bricks (eleven) used to brick up (trap) Fortunato is emphasized for dramatic effect. This suggests we avoid door 11 which leads to the trap.”

The door to Room 11 is indeed a bad door to take, and Room 39 is obviously inspired by “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the number 11 is in the story, in a way associated with something bad happening to somebody. So what’s the problem here? Let’s ask our questions.

What is the answer Manson wished to communicate with this puzzle?

11 is bad.

How did Manson decide to encode/communicate this answer?

By basing the room on a story in which the number 11 is mentioned in connection with a bad thing.

That actually puts a much stronger face on that solution than it appears in context, however. I should note a few additional things.

“The Cask of Amontillado” is a story concerned solely with the commission of a revenge killing through horrible means. Everything mentioned in the story is mentioned in connection with bad things. Also, every door in Room 39 is pointed to by objects from “The Cask of Amontillado,” which we have just established to be connected to bad things. And, the 11-tier wall described in the story is depicted in Room 39, but with a different number of tiers, suggesting that was not an important detail to Manson. (Indeed, the room does not well match the details of the room described in the story at all.)

So let’s revisit that second question. How did Manson decide to encode/communicate the answer, “11 is wrong?”

And I don’t even know what to say to that. In a room where every door is associated with “The Cask of Amontillado,” this door is associated with “The Cask of Amontillado” with regard to a detail that Manson didn’t seem to regard as important enough to reflect accurately in the room. Even if we accept that 11 being mentioned in the story is meaningful, it’s not clear that we’re being told that 11 is wrong; divining that message requires figuring out why the eleven tiers of brick that caged in Fortunato are different from the trowel that caged in Fortunato (and points to Room 4) or the wine the misled Fortunato (and points to Room 12). And while we assuredly could come up an explanation for that, or for the contrary, or for any other door, all based on the same facts, what we have here is not a sensible encoding of a clear answer. What we have instead is an observation (the number 11 appears in the story), the knowledge that 11 is the wrong door, and an attempt to interpret the former as indicating the latter.

Even apart from the ambiguities presented by this particular room, the use of a number in a story referenced by the room is simply not enough to tell you anything. Let’s imagine there were a room in the Maze with posters of Big Brother all over the place, and signs for the Ministry of Plenty and the Ministry of Information, telescreens, that sort of thing. And one of the doors says “1984” on it. Could you assume that you’re not supposed to take that door, because 1984 was the year when lots of bad stuff happened in the book? Wouldn’t you be much more likely to assume the opposite, that the room is cluing 1984 as the answer? Or, if you don’t like that, what if there were a room based on “The Lottery,” and one of the doors were to Room 27–the lottery taking place in that story on June 27th. Does that reference clearly mean you don’t go to Room 27, because that’s the day something bad happened? Or does it mean that you do use that door, because that’s the number the story is meant to refer you to? It doesn’t provide a solution at all; a message that can mean anything means nothing.

Q: But couldn’t he? Couldn’t he? Couldn’t he have meant it? You can’t say he couldn’t have meant it.

A: I’m not going to debate the metaphysical possibilities of what Manson could have intended. I’m only saying it’s a bad solution that doesn’t fit his pattern.

#3 Perfect game in Room 8

From “A bowling theme points to the correct door, 12. The bowling pin, the word ‘bowl,’ the ‘crash,’ and the knocked over room recall the act of bowling, while the ‘corridors’ recall the lanes and the single bulb the bowling ball. A perfect game in bowling requires twelve strikes. The last two strikes are tacked on after the 10th frame – this is illustrated by the two ‘bowl’ crashes in the text.”

What is the answer Manson wished to communicate with this puzzle?


How did Manson decide to encode/communicate this answer?

12–> number of strikes in a perfect game of bowling–> some references to bowling

To make things clearer, forget the bowling pin, the bowl, the crash–let’s just imagine this room has a big sign in it that says, “THE GAME OF BOWLING IS HEREBY REFERRED TO.”

It is easy, given the subject of bowling, to find a reference to 12, because that is indeed the number of strikes in a perfect game. But to encode the number 12 simply by making reference to bowling is not sensible at all. Without reference to the number of strikes in a perfect game, there’s nothing there to justify making that leap. “Bowling” is not an encoding of 12. Here is an example of a case where a great deal of work is put into interpretation, commandeering any available information into fitting the proposed solution, buttressing the validity of a vital observation, but the yawning gulf between that observation and the desired answer is all but ignored.

I won’t go any further in evaluating solutions, because I’m either picking on ideas you already think are stupid, or I’m weakening my case by attempting to discredit ideas that you find compelling. But keep this in mind, please–I am not claiming that the observations on which these solutions are based are incorrect; a bushel contains four pecks, the number 11 is mentioned in “The Cask of Amontillado,” and Room 8 has a damn bowling pin right in it; of course it has some connection to bowling. And I’m not claiming that these observations aren’t part of the correct solutions; it is easy to imagine, for instance, that there might be something in the text or numerous images in Room 8 that suggests something about strikes and a perfect game. And I’m also not claiming that MAZE can’t have ridiculous and terrible puzzles in it. It does! But I’m suggesting that those ridiculous and terrible puzzles made sense to Manson as he was creating them, because he proceeded through a series of sensible steps and didn’t realize when he had crossed the line into impossibility; not because he made a bunch of arbitrary garbage and expected readers to read his mind to find out his feelings about numbers mentioned in short stories or what his favorite unit of measure to divide into a bushel is.

And I know somebody is saying, “But, but, I really like that solution, it really makes sense to me.” And if that’s true, I don’t know what to tell you. You like shitty puzzles. But what I think is most likely is that we really like MAZE, and we really like trying to figure out its puzzles, and have become so accustomed to accepting anything with the barest hint of sense about it that we evaluate solutions aesthetically instead of critically examining how likely it is that Manson went down the line of thought necessary to to envision and create that puzzle and solution. We like finding the number 11 in “The Cask of Amontillado”; it’s like striking gold. We like finding that key piece of information that takes some seemingly arbitrary object and grants it numerological significance; it’s like you’re one of those people from The Da Vinci Code, whose names I refuse to look up even to complete this analogy. But that has nothing to do with the whether we are actually solving anything, and I’m humbly suggesting that, for the most part, we are not.