A friend is visiting your place.
"Oh, would you do me a favor?" you ask. You bring out a small box the size of a bible, wrapped in brown paper. "Would you hold onto this for me until Sunday?"
She agrees and asks what it is.
"Uhh... this is going to sound lame," you say. "So I joined this secret game and puzzle club. Yeah... I know. There's this guy called The Puzzlemaster and no one knows who he is, but apparently he's this crazy genius. And if you know the right people you can get on his mailing list and sign up for this interactive challenge he has where every few weeks you get a puzzle of some sort in the mail and if you solve it correctly you get to keep on in the challenge. It's kind of weird. You never get to meet The Puzzlemaster but he holds meet-ups for the members a couple times a year. I mean, ultimately, it's just like this somewhat exclusive secret society and the puzzle thing is the gimmick that keeps it interesting."
"When you finish one of the puzzles you take a picture of it and text it to The Puzzlemaster. If you're the slowest person to complete a puzzle twice in a row you're eliminated from the club or something. They don't talk about what happens if you get booted out. It's some big secret."
"You're into some real weird shit," she says.
"Anyway," you continue, "we're not allowed to start on this one until Sunday and I'm so tempted to open it and work on it that I don't trust myself. He says if we open it early, he'll know. Will you hold onto it for me until then? I thought I could come over on Sunday and we could work on it together."
You shake the box near your ear and tumbling pieces are heard.
"This one sounds like an actual jigsaw puzzle. Usually it's something more cerebral than that, like complex logic puzzles. At any rate I thought maybe we could get together Sunday and put it together and then see a movie or something."
She agrees and takes the box home with her.
Five days later you show up at her place with some doughnuts. She grabs the box from where she's kept it and brings it over to the coffee table. You ask her to open it (as you finish up your doughnut) and dump out what's inside. Out falls a few hundred puzzle pieces and an envelope with the words "Your Next Puzzle" written on it.
You open up the envelope and pull out two folded pieces of paper. The first is a short note that says, "I hope you find this to be a really interesting puzzle!" You unfold the other paper and it's a grid of little images.
You notice that all the puzzle pieces are identical in shape, but each has a colored side and a brown side, and on both sides is a little icon that matches one of the images in the grid.
"I guess we just follow this grid," you say. "That seems pretty straightforward. Should we do it colored-side or brown-side up?"
You eventually decide you'll do it brown-side up because the colored side would obviously just look like the image on the instructions.
So you go through, square-by-square on the grid, placing each individually marked puzzle piece in the location and orientation indicated by the directions.
"This is fun but it's way too easy," you say. "This might just be the first step in a bigger puzzle or something. Who knows."
You continue to put the puzzle together as you watch tv. After an hour or so, you're finished.
You step back from the puzzle and see that it's an image of a woman's face. It's pixelated, but the further you step back, the more the face emerges. What looked like a jumbled mass of nothing up close becomes very clear from across the room. This itself is already kind of magical.
"Huh... " you say. "Wait... I think I know her. I think she's part of the puzzle group. I met her last spring. Her name is...Margaret...I think. She's an older woman now, but I believe she used to be a semi-famous singer or something in the 70s. Maybe that's part of the challenge. To figure out who it is. Hmm...."
You look again at the instructions and the envelope they came in and check out the box to make sure nothing is missing.
"I guess that's it," you say. "That's all there was to it." You shrug. She shrugs.
You take a photo of the completed puzzle and text it to The Puzzlemaster.
A couple of minutes later you get a return text. It's a URL. You click it.
"Holy shit," you say. "She just died yesterday. That's awful."
You let it sit a moment.
You pick up the letter that came with the puzzle and read it again. As you go to fold it back up you stop. "What the fuck..." you say. "This might not be a coincidence."
Your friend looks at you. You show her the letter then fold it part way up.
"That obituary is 16 hours old. He couldn't have had that puzzle made in such a short period of time, right?"
"Andy," she says [or whatever your name is], "I've had that box in my house for five days."
You both stare at each other.
Your phone buzzes.
It's two more texts from The Puzzlemaster. The first is a cropped and modified version of the picture you just sent. The second is just two letters repeated that send chills down your spine.
First, I want to thank Leo Reed for sending along the idea that formed the basis for this trick.
Leo informed me about a puzzle called Jigazo. I'd never heard of this thing. Maybe it was the most popular thing outside of the US, but as far as I know, it wasn't here. Or maybe it was a big deal in the US. If you're like me and you have a DVR and you never watch a single commercial, you'll often miss out on things entirely. "The McRib is back? How did I miss that?"
Anyway, Jigazo is a puzzle you put together that can be put together to be anything you want. It's a pixelated image, but it's definitely the thing you intend it to be. How this works, I have no idea. I mean, I guess I understand how it works (you put a picture into the software that comes with the puzzle and it spits out the instructions on how to assemble it to make that picture). But the fact that it works at all is amazing to me. And you can find it on Amazon for, like, $6. It was created, at least in part, by magician Mark Setteducati—a name I had heard but not someone whose work I was familiar with.
So Leo wrote and clued me in about the existence of this puzzle and included a really nice "Jerx inspired idea," as he put it, for a presentation.
His idea was to invite someone over, have them write down any friend or relative of theirs and you would attempt to read their mind. You get the information via a center tear, but then act like you've failed to figure it out. "Don't tell me who it is. Maybe it will come to me later," you say.
Instead you suggest working on this weird puzzle you got at the thrift store and you dump out the pieces on the table out of a plain brown box. Noticing the instructions are missing you run upstairs to get them. While you're upstairs you find a picture via facebook of that person's friend or relative and print out the instructions to make that person's face. Then you go downstairs and construct the puzzle and they find it's their aunt or whomever they had thought of.
I thought it was a great idea, but there were a few issues I had with it.
1. If the person is familiar with this puzzle (it was at least publicized enough to have a commercial for it) or they google around about a pixelated puzzle or they tell someone the story and that person is familiar with the puzzle, then it all falls apart. They would say, "Oh, he must have went upstairs, found a picture of my aunt via facebook and printed out the instructions." I don't necessarily mind when things fall apart later, but if I can prevent it, that's great.
2. The other problem was that it might become clear to the person what the puzzle is going to be halfway through. And then it becomes a mildly awkward situation where it's like... are we going to complete the puzzle or stop now because we already see where this is going? I wanted more control over when the climax of the experience is.
3. While I love the personal nature of having one of their friends/relatives be the subject of the puzzle, as a narrative, it doesn't really make sense. It too quickly suggest that the whole thing was a trick that I'm behind. (As there's no rational reason a thrift store would have a puzzle of her aunt.) Doing it with a celebrity (an idea Leo mentioned as well) might make it a little more possible that it was a magical coincidence, rather than a "trick." But you'd still have the other issues.
The way I addressed the first issue is that I decided the instructions couldn't be something I went and got. They needed to be in with the puzzle pieces from the start. But how do we do that? Well, the instructions are going to be in an envelope, and then you are just going to use any headline prediction technique to load the instructions or switch the instructions. There are undoubtedly techniques you can use that would let the spectator open up a sealed envelope and remove the instructions herself. There are a lot of ways to go with this. I'll be honest and say the time I performed this (like 4 hours ago). I simply had the instructions folded and palmed and just "dumped" them out of the envelope with the other piece of paper (the note) that was pre-loaded in there. This is not a technique that's strong enough for a headline prediction, of course, but in this type of situation, where they don't even know a trick has started, it flew by.
And now it doesn't matter if she knows about this puzzle or learns about it later. The question becomes, "Yeah, that's a puzzle that can make any person's face... but how could he have known to have the instructions for that particular person in there?" Either way, they're fooled.
Well, then you can't use a freely selected person for the puzzle. Yes, that's true, for the most part. So that's when I had the idea that I would leave the puzzle with the person for some time and let nature "freely select" the subject. I would give a sealed box of puzzle pieces to someone and say, "Hey, next time a celebrity dies, give me a call." Two weeks later, Queen Latifah dies, I go over to my friend's house and we assemble the puzzle and it's Latifah.
While I liked that idea a lot, it didn't solve issue 2. After half the puzzle, they'd know who it was. I really wanted the mystery of putting together a puzzle that, supposedly, neither of you knows who it is, or what it will be.
And that version wouldn't really make sense. If I'm saying I can predict who will die, then I'd just write that information down and seal it in an envelope. I wouldn't do the whole puzzle thing.
So that's when I came up with the presentation above. It simply involves looking in that morning's obituaries on the day you plan to perform it and picking out someone who died. Then you use the software that comes with the Jizago puzzle to create the instructions to build their face from the puzzle pieces.
If you have a friend to help you out, you can do the texting business like I did.
If not you just say, "This person looks so familiar." It dawns on you that the person is one of your puzzle group members and you google their name to show your friend a picture. It's at that point you learn they died just the past day. And yet your spectator was holding on to this puzzle and the instructions for days.
Is it morbid or profane to "use" someone who just died for such a thing? You know, that's a question you have to answer for yourself. Not in my world, it's not. If I was dead I would have no problem with someone I didn't know using my likeness to entertain another person I didn't know. Nor would I have an issue as a living person if someone used a recently deceased relative for such a thing. But maybe I'm weird.
All in all, I really enjoyed working on this and performing it. Putting together a mystery puzzle is a very compelling lazy Sunday activity. And the idea of The Puzzlemaster, and some secret club, and the notion that maybe he comes and kills you if you suck at the puzzles too much—that all has a freaky, Outer Limits style weirdness that I appreciate.
If you haven't tried something in this style you might wonder what happens next. "What.. do they call the police or something? Tell them a mad Puzzlemaster has killed someone."
No. I mean, maybe if I had performed this for someone I just met who knew nothing about my interests they'd think something truly sinister had happened. But I'm performing for people who know me and know I enjoy sharing unusual experiences with them. The woman I performed this for today hadn't witnessed any similar long-form effects from me, but I had shown her other things in the past and she knew I dabbled in magic. For her, the whole thing was believable. She believed I was part of some puzzle and games club, she believed there was someone who curated all these games for people, she believed I wanted her to hold onto the puzzle so I didn't succumb to my curiosity. All of that was unusual, but not out of line with my personality, and not inconceivable.
At the end she realized this was a trick of some sort and something done for her enjoyment. Like a spooky story told around a fire, but in real time and involving her. She didn't quite know what, if anything, was real. She knows no one was killed, of course, but there is still a pretty deep mystery there and a fascinating story to tell.
In Jamy Ian Swiss' review of The Jerx, Volume One, he wondered if these sorts of immersive effects could come off as a practical joke. Like maybe the person would feel manipulated or "duped" at the end. They don't. And I'll explain why in my Friday post.
Once again, thanks to Leo Reed for suggesting the idea to me in the first place. And Leo would like to thank his friends Tomas B. and Justin W.
Thanks to Mark Setteducati for creating this dope puzzle.
In researching Mark, I found this brief thread at the Genii forum where friend of the site, Jonathan Townsend suggested using the puzzle as a prediction. As with most of Jonathan's posts, this was completely ignored. Due to the time it takes to put together the puzzle, it couldn't be used in a professional show, most likely, but Jonathan certainly gets credit for having essentially the same idea.
And finally, rest in peace Maggie Roche.