Unraveling Mason’s Maze: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle


“People in their situation, confronted with a challenge, tend to accept the terms of the challenge as a given, without examining it from all sides. How many sides does a problem have? They don’t know.”



A book cover of a maze

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Christopher Manson’s Maze: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle warns readers in the prologue that it is not a book, but rather “a building in the shape of a book…a maze.” This multisequential picture book prioritizes choice and puzzles over narrative, challenging readers to solve three riddles as they explore the Maze.


Like a typical Choose Your Own Adventure Book, choice is the primary mechanic in this branching story. In the Prologue, readers are given the goal of finding the shortest route to the center of the Maze and back again. Upon entering each “room,” the text on the left page describes the space, shares dialogue between the characters in the book, and reveals the inner monologue of the primary character, the Guide. On the opposite page is a picture of an architectural space, sometimes with mysterious objects and writing, but nearly always a series of numbered doors in the picture. The reader chooses the next room and turns to the page number above the door.


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Much has been written about this book with entire communities discussing the meaning and solutions. Rather than reveal solutions, I will discuss the merits of this book as a game and as a narrative, as well as share the most meaningful experiences that can be found within its pages.


That being said, there are spoilers ahead.




The Structure is the Star


The multisequential structure is the star of this book, utilizing branching storytelling. As such, I mapped out all of the rooms to better understand the connections and sequence of the rooms in hopes of uncovering the author’s methods.


The mapping first revealed the answer to the primary riddle, which is “what is the shortest way in and out of the maze?” The map easily reveals the path and is shown with bold connections. This pathway is not intuitive for readers who are not mapping the book, and will likely take them much trial-and-error as well as tracking choices to find the answer to this riddle.


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Second, the map reveals that there is only one true ending to the Maze – Room 24 - which is when the Visitors are trapped in the room with no doors. Every other room, including the center of the Maze, has choices. In this way, the book rarely ends. The reader must choose when to stop reading. While this creates an unsatisfying “win” if seen as a game, it does make an interesting comment about choice if the reader is in full control of when the book ends.


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As the book highlights choice, there are four rooms where the Guide tries to alter the choices or decisions of current and future visitors. In one room, the Guide intends to return to that room to bury a revealed door. In another, he tries to convince the visitors that they have already come through one door and don’t need to go through it again. So, perhaps the visitors (or the reader) don’t have as much choice as they had thought.


In the map, I also indicated when the visitors heard strange things or saw others in the Maze. I had thought that there might be some connection to hearing things and specific objects or elements appearing in one of the following rooms, but that wasn’t always the case. Within one room, the visitors believed that they heard themselves in another room. This idea of the visitors being in two places at once is never mentioned again regardless of which path is taken. This aspect of mapping was ultimately a bust at revealing interesting connections between rooms.


While it didn’t fully uncover the author’s methodology, it did reveal the plotlines that the author thought was the most important to experience. Some rooms can only be found by entering one other room, such as Room 32, which can only be found as a door option in Room 28. Others were intended to be a part of most readers’ paths, such as Room 11 which has five other rooms leading to it. Of the categorized rooms, the author intended for the rooms where the Guide tries to influence choices to be the most visited.


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Ultimately, this map helped me make sense of the book by taking a broader perspective. By further categorization, I’m sure there is much more to be learned.


The Structure is a Game


The multisequential structure and number of choices in this book make it as much of a game as it is a story. Using Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek’s Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework to analyze this game, challenge and discovery are the most meaningful aesthetics. However, the challenge is not tempered to keep readers in the state of flow the way that most modern games are. Flow state is losing oneself in an experience and is considered a goal for most games. To achieve flow state, the game must modulate the challenge to match player skill. If the challenge is too simple, the player becomes bored; if the challenge is too difficult, the player becomes frustrated. Once the player finds all of the rooms and still feels no closer to solving the puzzle, there is a feeling of frustration.


It is likely that the level of challenge was done intentionally. Games in the 1980’s and 1990’s often had goals of creating a challenge that only a few could overcome. Sometimes it was luck rather than skill that would induce a win situation for a player. Early graphic adventure games were often so difficult that it was nearly required that players buy hint books. Because of the limitations of technology at that time, designers would make the games more complex and time consuming by making them unrelentingly difficult. The challenge of Maze is likely a sign of the time in which it was published (1985) as its complexity mirrors that of point-and-click adventures of the 1980’s.


The solutions to the riddles of the book are so difficult that the publishers created a contest around it, promising to award the first person to solve the full mystery with $10,000. However, no one was able to claim the prize and so the contest was extended…twice. Eventually, the prize was divided up among several people who came the closest to solving it.


If this book was written today, it would go through rounds of playtesting to ensure that players enjoy themselves and can find even small wins along the way. Having players get lost in the book from a state of flow would be preferred over making the challenge so difficult that only the author himself will know the full answer.


While the “game” of the book is very difficult, I will not reveal the answers here. There are entire sites dedicated to revealing Maze’s secrets. I recommend working through it first knowing that you will likely not have the satisfying ending that you were hoping for and then, like me, search those websites for the answers.


By today’s standards, this book as a game misses the mark. The level of challenge is extreme for those who are looking to “win” and player enjoyment was secondary to player achievement.


Content Reveals More Secrets


While the structure and game elements of this book utilize branching storytelling techniques, the written content also introduces forensic storytelling as the reader uncovers the identity of the Guide through clues. Depending on the paths the reader takes, different aspects of the Guide are revealed. Readers learn that he wears a crown and his father was close to a king in Room 25. In Room 16, the Guide reveals that neighbors told stories - “lies!” - about him and his family. In Room 7, which is filled with portraits, the Guide mentions that his portrait looks nothing like him. If the reader gathers all of the clues, it is discovered that the guide is actually the Minotaur, which makes sense with the maze theme. There are only four rooms that reveal hints to the Guide’s identity, and they are far into the Maze.


The reader will also discover how the guide feels about the visitors, who are children. While the dialogue suggests that the guide is helping the visitors, the inner thoughts betray the actual feelings of disdain. If the reader takes the wrong path, the guide leaves them in a room with no doors and leaves them laughing, revealing the actual goal of the Maze. There are four mentions of the Guide’s feelings towards the visitors. Three are far within the maze, though there is an earlier hint if the correct path is chosen. The ending with no doors is only two choices away from that point, so the author likely added that early indication in to make that ending meaningful.


While the narrative is secondary to the game aspects, the inclusion of forensic storytelling keeps the reader moving forward in their journey.



Most Memorable Moments


While most of the book followed a pattern of each room having a set of obvious doors that enter new rooms or return to old rooms, there were two surprising elements that I found created the most enjoyable moments.


The first was that there is a hidden number, and thus a hidden room, in Room 29. There, the reader sees and reads about a man who is upside down. He is looking in the direction of a large candelabra in the center of the room. If one looks closely at the candelabra, they can see that two of the branches holding candles are actually the number 17. This “aha” moment gave me a small win and a dose of dopamine, making me eagerly turn to the hidden room. This is ultimately the only way to enter the center of the Maze.


A black and white drawing of a person holding a sign

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The other enjoyable moment was one that I missed when reading the book the first time, but found when mapping the book. Rooms 28 and 12 are identical in both images and text except that the door numbers are different. One of the visitors gives readers a hint that this duplicate room might exist by saying, “I have the strangest feeling of deja vu.” Room 28 is only revealed after the center of the Maze is found.


Rating the Experience


I give this book 2 out of 5 stars. While I appreciate the commentary on choice within the narrative, I was looking for a few more wins or even “aha” moments where I didn’t have to go searching the web to find the hidden meanings. While the images were interesting, were too many red herrings. I was anticipating a narrative and game experience like I had when reading another puzzling picture book from the 1980’s, The Eleventh Hour. However, Maze: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle unfortunately brought me more frustration than satisfaction.