Some conflicted feelings on INSTRUCTIONS INCLUDED INSIDE, the first of this week’s two Fireballs. You can subscribe here, or just read on for the gory details…
“Instructions Included Inside”
Constructor: Jeff Chen
Size: 16 x 16
Theme: Theme answers come in parallel pairs, and each pair contains contiguous rebus squares with opposing directions in them (e.g. UP/DOWN). When you reach the rebus square, you must follow the direction to jump over to the other rebus square, which also contains a regular letter, and finish entering the answer there. The crossing clues ignore the rebus element completely, and just use the regular letters in those squares.
- 20A: HYBRID OWNERS – Eco-conscious drivers
- 23A: SOCK PUPPETRY – Using a false online identity for self-interested reasons
- 9D: SANK LIKE A STONE – Plummeted
- 10D: WHERE DO WE STAND? – “What’s our status?”
- 31D: BRIGHTNESS LEVEL – Monitor setting
- 32D: CLEFT ON THE ROCK – Hiding place for Moses in Exodus 33:22
- 49A: GROSS OUT HUMOR – Basis of some tasteless jokes
- 55A: CHICKEN OR THE EGG? – End of an age-old question
Ben: Okay, there are several things to like about this puzzle, and also a few reasons why it ultimately didn’t work for me. Let’s start with the positives — this is a tricky take on rebus squares that took me forever to see (CHICKEN OR THE EGG? finally cracked it for me). Also, six of the eight theme answers are fun and sizzly (with the notable exception of the SE, of which more later).
However, this is also really fiddly. I wrote a long theme explanation above, and I still don’t think I communicated it all that clearly. Even once you see what’s happening, it takes a while to wrap your head around it. I’m also not crazy about grids that look like gibberish when you’re done.
I feel like there’s a layer missing that would bring this whole theme together. When there wasn’t a revealer in the grid, I figured the regular letters in the rebus squares would anagram into one when all was said and done — but nope, it’s PEONAOEU, which doesn’t work out to anything. This grid must have been hell to fill as it is (notice that it’s oversized in both directions), but without a revealer or a meta answer it feels a little random to me.
Speaking of the grid — the way it’s constructed basically sections the whole thing off into five mini-puzzles — the centre, and then one corner for each pair of themers. That made it real hard for me to get a handle on this grid. Thanks to ACID (4A: Having a pH of less than 7) and IAGO (43A: Play character who says jealousy is “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on), I filled in the centre quickly and figured the rest would be a snap. Ha ha, nope.
Like Michael was saying last week, the cluing here is hard in places in a way that I don’t care for. 41D: Flavor source for some digestifs is a tough clue for ANISEED, but it’s gettable. 51D: Nontextual text part (EMOJI) and 52D: Theatrical no-show (GODOT) both kicked my ass, but I smiled when I uncovered them.
So I don’t mind hard clues. But there are several here that just feel mean — 65A: Watch a tad (SIT), 5D: Things that get heavy marketing? (CARTS), 62A: Places people go for kicks? (DOJOS) — all of these are clues that just frustrated me. The problem for me is that while I can see how they work in retrospect, I had to get most of the crosses on all of these — they just didn’t feel gettable to me.
Obviously, Fireball is meant to be an outlet for hard puzzles, and maybe I’m just not the intended audience, but I didn’t feel any joy when I finally solved this — more like grim satisfaction. I think part of the reason for that is these clues that are meant to frustrate and obfuscate. There’s a place for clues like that, but between that and the hard theme — it just felt like too much.
And man, that’s not even getting into the SW. The scare quotes in 29A: Pothole “victim” made HUBCAP way harder than it should have been, never heard of RAFE Spall, the first two letters of OH SORRY (45A: Apologetic words) could have been anything, plus crosswordese geography time with OREM and PROVO crossing ORAN… I was ready to snap my tablet in half. Also, Jeff Chen’s NYT grids are usually very clean, so seeing OSMOSE, nam PLA and URANO- was a surprise. It doesn’t help that the theme pair down there is far and away the weakest in the puzzle.
I like hard puzzles and rebuses and I wanted to like this. And like I say, there’s definitely stuff to admire here. But ultimately I was really frustrated by it.