Puzzles are ubiquitous in the world around us, and one recurring place that artists love to display their work is through pop culture! Mechanical puzzles, brain teasers, and all sorts of strategy games show up in movies, books and television, whether it’s a new hit blockbuster or your friend’s independent film. We hope everyone has been having a great summer, and wanted to take the chance this week to talk about some familiar places you might have seen a puzzle pop up. And, in case you were wondering, no, we won’t just talk about all the many many times they show a Rubik’s Cube on screen! Those moments could fill up an entire library, so we’re looking for more specific examples that you might have missed if you were not yet entranced by the wonderful world that is Mechanical Puzzles. So, here goes, and let us know if we missed anything cool!
TOWER OF HANOI – Planet of the Apes
This next puzzle is fairly recent and a fun, seemingly anachronistic part of a Sci-Fi movie. The age-old, classic puzzle “Tower of Hanoi” features somewhat notably in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes - the infamously tricky puzzle is used to test Bright Eyes, the mother of the main character. In terms of finding a solution, the puzzle has two basic rules. The first is that only one disc can be moved at a time, and the second is that at no time can a larger disc be placed on a smaller one. But, you can place a smaller disc anywhere as long as the disc beneath is larger. For Kubiya’s version, the simplest solution with 9 rings takes about 196 moves (easy, right!?). More complicated versions of the puzzle require moves closer to 1000! In the movie, they are tested using a 4-disc version of the tower which she starts to complete at a feverish rate. They refer to it as “Lucas’ Tower” – after the puzzle’s inventor Edouard Lucas. This rings true to the history of the actual puzzle; they’re correct about the name of the inventor and the fact that the Tower of Hanoi is frequently used as a test of logic and reasoning. It makes sense to see the Towers pop up in movies and television when they are also common in everyday life. Other places in modern culture where you might spot the towers are an appearance in the1966 Doctor Who story, The Celestial Toymaker, and the computer game Mass Effect.
THE LAMENT CONFIGURATION – HELLRAISER
Next up - puzzle boxes! In this case, a very eerie reference that you may or may not have heard about unless you’re a big fan of the Hellraiser series. The LeMarchand Box is a fictional (important to note) lock puzzle or puzzle box created by the antagonist Philip LeMarchand, an 18th Century French architect, artisan and designer of some infamy. As an enthusiast of the occult, he becomes obsessed with the supernatural creation of his first puzzle box, known as the 'Lament Configuration' or ‘The Box of Sorrows’. When solved, a creepy bell can be heard tolling in the movie, as if from a distance, announcing the arrival of the Cenobites, extra dimensional beings that serve the lord and master of Hell. Spooky? Absolutely. This puzzle box is a two-for-one reference because it was referenced in Clive Barker’s critically acclaimed novella The Hellbound Heartas well as the cult classic horror movie Hellraiser that was based off of said novella. Here at Kubiya, we promise that our puzzle boxes won’t release any demons or extra-dimensional beings! Only in your hearts and imagination. I love this reference in particular, because it gives a dark and mysterious air to mechanical puzzles and the secrets that lay inside. If you’re feeling inspired and want a puzzle box of your own with a “No Demon” guarantee, check out Kubiya’s 14-Step Japanese Puzzle Box. These types of mechanical puzzles are a great way to give a gift to somebody, but add a fun twist where they have to solve the puzzle before they can see what it is!
GO – Knives Out/A Beautiful Mind
There are plenty of references to chess that we could have included, but I thought it would be more interesting to see if anybody caught these references to a slightly less well-known strategy game called Go. The game involves placing a series of black and white tiles on a board and trying to “capture” the opponent’s pieces by surrounding them in your color. The first reference to the game is a more recent nod from the comedic, star-studded murder mystery called Knives Out, and the second is a reference to the older, more serious classic, A Beautiful Mind. The Knives Out movie, about the death of an elderly, wealthy gentleman and crime author, actually has in its official trailer close ups of two Go stones being placed on a board and the stones and board then clattering to the floor. The game of Go, it turns out, is central to the plot and the first mention is when the elderly gentleman blames a suspiciously loud bump on an instance where the board was tipped over. Without any spoilers, the tipping over of the board maaay or may not have something to do with his mysterious death. A more serious example of Go in pop culture comes from A Beautiful Mind - the story of Prof. John Forbes Nash, Jr., who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his theories on the mathematical structures of games. He also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Nash was a long-time member of the American Go Association, and the movie makes use of that. The first scene starts with two schoolmates of Nash finishing a game and one of them declaring that he has had enough Go. The game is just one of several games being played on the benches outside of Princeton. Nash is challenged to a game by his friend, with the words "Are you scared?" Nash replies "Terrified, mortified, petrified, stupefied, by you." Very dramatic, and a great example of the thrill and tensions of playing strategy games against people with beautiful minds. Strategy games are a workout for the brain, and they keep your thought process open to possibilities and different patterns of thinking that could lead to huge breakthroughs in your personal and professional life! That being said, they are also boatloads of fun! That’s the most important part, whether you’re playing Go at home for fun or trying to impress your friends with high stakes games at university. Don’t overthink it, just GO!
The mentions above are 3 quite random examples, but so, so many of our beloved mechanical puzzles date back decades, centuries, or further, and it’s a testament to their enduring fun and the curiosity that they still inspire filmmakers and authors to slide them into their works of art. We love those moments where you can point and shout at the TV, “Hey! I know that! I’ve played that puzzle!” Who knows, if you look hard enough, you might start to see even more familiar puzzles popping up, the more you explore. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the mechanical puzzle isn’t going away any time soon. We may be a little biased … but you know in your heart that it’s the truth!
Stay safe, stay cool, and keep puzzling – cheers to the Summer!