The Advancement

It has been a while. I’m in another mood where I feel like I want to start doing more regular updates and writings, but who knows. That may only last for today. Or it may go for weeks and weeks, if I’m lucky. But for now, here’s an update on the last week of my life. It’s long, but I felt like writing. Maybe you’ll feel like reading…

This week began with a “WWL Research Presentation Expo” at our school.  WWL stands for ‘World-Wide Learning,’ and it is the name of a consortium of schools in various countries that our school is also a member of.  Students from my own homeroom showed the research work they have been doing since August on various topics of their own choice.  The group nearest to the front in the photo above conducted some experiments by providing junior high school students with newspapers every day for two weeks and asking them various survey questions before and after to see what effect the exposure to newspapers would have on their awareness of world goings-on as well as their attitudes towards newspapers.  Another group researched ways to improve the school environment by reducing the workload of teachers—a project that predictably became a pet favorite of many faculty members.  These presentations were all done in English and were originally planned to be done in front of guests visiting from around the country and from other nations, as well, but our original event date (in January) had to be suddenly canceled due to a snowstorm, and this was the replacement date for it.  Unfortunately, not many visitors could make it this time.

Tuesday was one of the most stressful days of my adult life, as I was not only struggling to confirm student scores and attendances for school, but also dealing with the sudden decision of a student and her mother to come visit the school to discuss their future plans.  This student, whom I’ll call Susan, has been absent from school for the better part of 2 months, and no one really knows why.  Susan has been refusing to explain herself or to talk with anyone about why she won’t go to school.  It was getting down to the wire about needing to decide if she was going to continue on at our school next year or not, and so her mother finally forced her to come to school to talk.  When she arrived she looked like a totally different person.  A big reason of course is because students are always in uniform at school, and the uniforms are rather conservative—not showing a lot of skin.  So when she showed up on Tuesday in short shorts and an oversize sweater with loose stitching that revealed the tank top she was wearing underneath it threw me for a moment.  Not to mention the glittery makeup and long bejeweled nail extensions she had plastered on—all of which are strictly forbidden at school.  She still didn’t want to explain why she was acting this way, or perhaps she just genuinely doesn’t know, herself.  My guess is that she is, like most teenagers do, having an identity crisis and is not sure who she is or who she wants to be.  The makeup and nails were so over-the-top for a 16-year-old that I suspect she feels lost, and is latching on to something that makes her feel special, and maybe something that has the approval of some friends around her.  Unfortunately for us, though, the timing is very, very bad.  In our school, in the course that she is enrolled in, advancing to the next grade level comes with the added baggage of going to study abroad for 7 months.  We, however, as a school institution cannot afford the risk of sending a student who is being delinquent overseas, which means we needed to ask her to leave our school.  She was an incredibly sweet girl—she gave me a Kirby keychain in the first weeks of school just because I had said offhand that I liked Kirby—so it’s truly sad that it came to this conclusion, but my hope and belief is that, in the end, this is the right move for everyone involved.  I told her that as a member of my very first ever homeroom class, she will always have a place in my heart and if she ever needs my support I will always do what I can for her.  After all was said and done, although dealing with the situation as a whole was extremely stressful amid all the other tasks I had to do, it was quite a relief to have reached a conclusion with Susan and her mother.

The rest of the week was mainly dominated by two things: finishing up study abroad and study visa applications for students that will go to Canada next year, and making sure that my class can move up a grade level by getting all the necessary paperwork done for them.  The grade level advancement in Japan is determined at the end of every school year (in March) by a faculty voting session.  Like so many things in Japan, it is a system seems so old-fashioned and out-of-date; a truly anachronistic method of determining children’s future in a country that was long the frontrunner of technological development.  Japan’s society, however, remains largely stuck in the early days of the Internet, when fax machines were still a useful method of document transmittance and websites were overly splashed with shiny buttons and features.  And grade advancement, it turns out, is determined by having all the faculty sit in a room together and raise their hands to decide if students should be approved to move up a grade level, or be held back for another year.  Everything has to be approved by a majority vote, and the choices are always “for,” “against,” or “abstain,” and voting is conducted by hand-raising.  In 7 years here, I have never seen a single person raise their hand to vote against the crowd, and I’ve only ever seen a person abstain once.  Other than that one instance, though, it has been a hundred percent unanimous decisions every time.  This was the first year that I had to stand up at the front and testify about a student in front of all other teachers.  Normally, no testimony is necessary.  It’s only for the outliers—students who have failed one or more classes, or have gone over the acceptable amount of absences—that teachers who have relevant insight are asked to provide a report on the situation.  There is one student in my class this year who has gone over their allowable absences, so I had to explain.  This student, let’s call them Kiki, has been battling with a physical disability for several years—a condition called orthostatic dysregulation.  In short, being upright can cause this kid any amount of discomfort that ranges from nausea and vertigo to extreme pain.  Kiki worked really hard to come to school as often as possible, but when the weather turned cold in November and December, that became more and more difficult.  The harsh Winter weather only exacerbated the problems, and Kiki went for months without coming to school at all.  They tried all the way to the end of the year to keep up with their school work and come to school whenever possible, but in the last few weeks of school they finally reached the maximum limit of excusable absences, and after some discussion with the family decided that it would be best for them to switch to a correspondence school that would better serve her with her physical condition.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to do any sort of argument in favor of letting her stay at our school and advance in grade level in spite of the amount of absences, so it was simply a matter of explaining the situation to all the teachers.  Still, it made me nervous.  My hands shook as I held the microphone in front of everyone, and my throat constricted as my heart raced, making it difficult to say too many words in one single breath.  I managed to make it through, though, and it was a good learning experience, albeit stressful.  I’ll be more prepared for it in subsequent years now.

I read two books this weekend.  Both were on the shorter side—around 200 pages—but that’s still a pretty impressive accomplishment for me, considering how slow of a reader I am.  I’m discovering, however, that I’m not quite as slow as I once considered myself to be.  I am thorough and careful as a reader, which does keep me from reaching quite the same top speeds as others, but I can go at a decent clip if I’m focused.  What I’ve realized, however, is that it’s difficult for me to continue reading for extended periods of time.  Thus it often takes me a long time to finish a book.  Time just moves excruciatingly slow when I sit down to read, and I used to be bothered by that, but I’m growing to increasingly enjoy that fact more and more.

The first book I read was Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.  It was underwhelming—an odd little overly-sentimental bit of derivative Japanese cheese.  What I mean by that is it was sappy, and extremely conventional as far as Japanese storytelling goes.  Japanese books, tales, dramas, and movies are full of examples of stories like this: two (or more) societal misfits form an unlikely friendship as they struggle with finding their place in the world.  Add onto the fact that the thing these two misfits bonded over was a kind of traditional Japanese confectionary, and you’ve got the kind of navel-gazing self-congratulatory schlock that Japanese people tend to eat up without question and praise it as another example that shows why their culture is so great and how it must be preserved at all costs.  I’m coming off as very critical of this book, but I didn’t hate it.  I just didn’t love it.  It wasn’t very inspiring, or novel, or surprising in any way.  I knew exactly where the story was heading, and it delivered on that premise, which in its own way can provide a sort of pleasantly comforting reading experience.  So, three stars out of five?

The next book, on the other hand, I would give the full five stars.  It was A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney.  This was Rob Delaney’s memoir about going through the loss of his young son to cancer a few years back.  It was devastating to read, as you would expect it to be, but also full of warmth and humor in a way that didn’t make it miserable to read.  In fact, once I started I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.  There are scenes and sentences in that book that will be fodder for my gray matter to chew on for several weeks, I expect.  As I told my family members, it is a magical thing to have a book that can make you laugh and cry all within the span of a single sentence.  I cannot recommend it more highly, as long as you can handle a father digging deep into the topic of grief at the loss of his child.

Gameplay Notes: Seafall (Prologue and Game 1)

Gameplay Notes is a new thing I’m trying in which I record my thoughts and reactions to a game I played. I play a lot of games and I have a lot of thoughts about them. I will most definitely give my opinion about game mechanisms or about each game as a whole, but that does not mean I am trying to review these games or become a reviewer. I haven’t organized my thoughts ahead of time, so this will likely be a bit meandering, but I will try to put things in bold from time to time to indicate what specific topic I’m talking about in that section. Personally, I am interested in game design theory, so my primary goal here is just to analyze and explore my ideas about what works and does not work in games for future reference. If at any point it happens to be useful information for anyone else, then that’s great, too.

A WARNING: Seafall is a legacy-type game, which means it has story elements and mechanics that are meant to be revealed over time. I can’t be bothered to separate my thoughts into spoiler-free and spoiler-filled, so from here on out, my intention is to discuss things that happened in our “Prologue” and “Game 1” sessions without any restriction. Proceed at your own risk.

Seafall is a legacy game from The Godfather of legacy games, Rob Daviau, published in 2016. I’m new to this whole “writing about games” thing, so I’m not sure how much background one normally gives, but I’ll assume that if you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in games enough that I don’t really need to explain what a legacy game is or even that this is the first all-original legacy game—meaning that it is not a legacy game built onto a previously existing game IP. I say I don’t need to explain that, but it may be relevant to the discussion later, so I will at least mention it (lol).

Ruminations on puzzles and interaction

In my last post, I wrote about crossword puzzles and how they can be, to me undeniably, an art form. (Crosswords, by the way, are certainly not the only form of puzzle that could be considered an art form, but they are one of the most widely-known medium, so they are a useful shorthand here)

I mentioned that one of the things that makes them a form of art is the “vision” that can go into them–the vision of an artist who has the intention to convey a message or experience to the audience. There is an easy comparison to make there to something like a painting or a poem. The artist carefully constructs their piece according to their vision, and that gets delivered to the audience as the artist intends. And then, how the audience experiences and engages with the artwork is then left to each individual.

That last part is the part I want to examine next. With most genres of art, the audience engagement and experience is a passive one. You watch a film, observe a photograph, read a novel, etc. Of course, your brain is working to process what is being input, but you are not a participant in the artwork beyond the way you interpret that input. This is what makes puzzles a very interesting medium for art: the creator (artist) works to craft an experience that you are specifically meant to be an active participant in. In fact, you could even say that crafting the act of participation itself is the actual work of a ‘puzzle artist.’

When my students laughed uncontrollably with joy and delight from experiencing the puzzles I made at summer camp, that was from an experience that I had crafted (of course, I could have never expected that strong a response, but still, my goal was to create an enjoyable experience).

I didn’t realize this until just now, but puzzles are actually a 4-dimensional art medium. If the art is the experience of solving the puzzle, it is a process. Once the puzzle is complete, the artwork has lost its purpose. Of course, you could still sit back and appreciate the vision and complexity of a puzzle after it is completed, but a crossword puzzle-maker (also known as a cruciverbalist) doesn’t make puzzles thinking about how great it’s going to be for people to sit back and look at the completed grid. A cruciverbalist thinks of the delight people experience when they think “aha!” and fill in the answer for 3 across or 42 down. If a solver remembers a puzzle afterwards, it should be because the experience of filling in that grid was memorable–not because it was beautiful to look at afterwards.

Again, that’s not to say you can’t appreciate a puzzle for its artistry after it’s complete, but that’s not its purpose, and therefore once a puzzle is solved, its meaning is… lost? Lost isn’t quite the right word. Diminished? Not even diminished, really, but changed, for sure. Thus, 4-dimensional art.

I’ve also been thinking about another aspect of the relationship between puzzle artist and audience. By their nature, puzzles have a solution; they have an end-goal. And generally that end-goal is singular, meaning that there is one and only one correct answer. The path to that correct answer may sometimes vary from patron to patron, but with a single possible solution, then there is only so much the experience can deviate from its intended path. In the same vein, there is only so much influence the participant can exert upon the puzzle. But what if that could be changed?

What if you had a puzzle with two possible answers? Of course, that is certainly within the realm of imagination. I’ve never seen a crossword with two possible solutions before, but I would think it is a feasible–albeit extremely difficult–task.

Consider the following puzzle that I put together below. The numbered clues are for the words going across. The un-numbered clues are for the two 4-letter vertical words (in order from left to right).

My apologies for the handwriting…

Could you solve it? It’s okay if you couldn’t, it’s not the greatest puzzle, but if you did, take a look again, there are actually two possible solutions. The two solutions are below.

So with two solutions I have now crafted a wholly different kind of puzzle–one where the final result can be entirely different based on the choices of the solver.

I wonder, though, does that change the nature of the puzzle as art? If the participant now has agency to direct the path of the experience to one solution or another, is it still a puzzle? Probably, yes, if there are only two possible solutions, as that was still part of my intended vision, but what if we continue to add possible answers? What if there are 3, or 10, or 100? At what point do we lose the vision of the artist in the crafting of an experience, if the audience has more and more control (even unconsciously) over how that experience unfolds?

What if there are infinite solutions? What if I present a sudoku grid with the same instructions as all sudoku grids–fill in the squares with the numbers 1 to 9 so that all rows, columns and 3×3 squares each contain the numbers 1 through 9 once and only once–only with absolutely zero numbers pre-filled?! A totally empty canvas!

Could you solve this? Would you even want to?

Is it even a puzzle anymore? Well, there are still instructions with a clear distinction between a correct and incorrect solution. There is still a process for the participant to go through to achieve one of the solutions. I’m not sure you could say that it’s not a puzzle. On top of that, the creator has presented this puzzle with a very deliberate vision and purpose, and wants the participant to have a certain experience when engaging with this puzzle, so this may even be more “art-ful” than a typical sudoku!

What if it’s impossible, though? What if I present a puzzle with no solution? Then, I suppose, it’s no longer a puzzle. I think we can include “having at least one possible solution” as part of the definition of a puzzle, so we could say that is no longer a puzzle–but it could still be art! If I want you to experience the frustration of attempting to solve an unsolvable puzzle, then that could be my (very cruel) artwork.

I’ll have to explore these ideas further another day. For now, I’m going to enjoy a puzzle!

Ruminations on puzzles and art

Preamble: I have been spending a lot of time with puzzles recently: solving them, watching others solve them, creating them, reading about them, as well as just sitting around and thinking about them. I’ve also been reading about game design and the nature of art and it’s gotten my mind to wander in directions that it has not before ventured. This is an attempt to further that venture and to put it into words. I have no ultimate goal or message intended from the outset in writing this. It will very likely lead to nothing of consequence at all, but if you’re interested in puzzles or in what goes on in my brain when I’m lying awake at night, read on.

I just finished reading Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design, which as I understand it has become one of the fundamental readings for budding designers or for university courses in the field of game design. The book is not quite what I expected it to be based on the title; Koster spends nearly half the book discussing and defending games as an art form. To be honest, I was much more interested in the first half, in which he actually delivers on the promise of the title: what is fun, what makes a game fun, why do people play games, etc. Once he started to talk about different forms of art and the philosophical nature and purpose of the arts I became largely disinterested. Not necessarily because I don’t find it an interesting topic of discussion, but probably mainly just because that’s not what I picked up this particular book for.

I don’t really want to hear the discussion of games as an art form from someone who makes games for a living. Their opinion on the matter is likely to be more than a little biased. I would be much more interested to hear the opinion of a skeptic. Or even someone who is not a skeptic at all, but is largely indifferent to the matter.

Maybe I didn’t find it interesting, also, because I am already sold on the idea. Koster’s arguments are more or less preaching to the choir with me, so when I read them it largely is to the effect of “why am I reading an argument for something I already have a very strong agreement with?”

All of that is besides the point of what I really want to talk about, though, because regardless of what I thought about Koster’s manifesto on art and games, it did get me thinking more deeply about art and puzzles. So as a catalyst for my own reflections, I am satisfied and pleased at having read the book.

So, puzzles and art. Puzzles as art. I am, of course, quite biased myself on that topic, but of course I fully believe that puzzles are often an art form. However, unlike Koster, I don’t really want to sit here and debate that issue and defend the classification of puzzles as art. I’d rather just accept that premise as fact and move on to further explorations. Like, for example, assuming that puzzles can be art, where is that line? Where is the distinction? I’m thinking primarily about pencil and paper puzzles, some of the most popular of which are crosswords and sudoku.

The number of crossword puzzles I have done in my life so far is almost certainly in the quadruple digits. I have seen an incredible variety of them. And I have solved a great many puzzles that stand out as unmistakably works of art. There are puzzles that I did years and years ago that had such a profound impact that I still remember them today. And not only do I remember the puzzle, I remember the experience of solving it.

Patrick Blindauer created a puzzle entitled “Bi-Curious” in for the American Values Crossword Club in September of 2014 that was a revelation. All the answers in the entire grid contained only the vowels of “o” and “i” and were meant to be filled in without any consonants. Upon completion (if you could even make it that far) you had a grid full of nothing but “o”s and “i”s, which, if you then went and converted everything into binary zeroes and ones, could be translated using ASCII into a final phrase. I don’t remember the final answer, and I don’t remember any of the clues, but I vividly remember the emotions I felt as I struggled through that puzzle for an entire week, with constant awe and delight at the extraordinary feat of creation it was.

Art, undeniably. A singular creator’s vision, brought to fruition to elicit a mental and emotional response from the people that interact and engage with it.

But I do see puzzles on the far other end of the spectrum. Sudokus, I feel, are a good example. I do engage with them and they provoke a mental response in me, but they generally lack the “vision”–that human design element that transforms it into a work of art. Sudokus, in fact, lack “vision” so much that they can be generated by machine. I have an app on my phone that can instantaneously generate an endless number of sudoku puzzles for me to entertain myself with. Does it make them any less entertaining to me that they were made by an AI? Not really. Does it discount them from being works of art? Almost certainly. One could, I suppose, make the argument that the coding that went into creating that AI that can generate those puzzles is a work of art, but now we’re going down a whole rabbit hole and getting back to what Koster was arguing in his book, which, again, is not a discussion that I’m interested in.

I’m interested in that “vision” element. Just how much of it is needed to transform an ordinary puzzle into a work of art? It’s a question that I’m pretty sure there is no answer to, but I love to think about it.

As a very inexperienced dabbler in the creation of puzzles, I recently got to experience, for the very first time, the joy of watching people solve puzzles that I had made. I created a suite of puzzles for my students to solve as an activity during our summer camp this past month. There was nothing really revelatory or boundary-pushing in the puzzles that I made, but I was quite proud of the work I put into creating them, and how I was able to tie several of the puzzles together so that you had to solve individual puzzles separately and then use them together to solve another layer of puzzles, and so on. All in all, the puzzles were meant to take about an hour or so to solve everything (with students working together in groups).

I expected it to be quite a challenge for some of the students, as puzzles are not a very large part of Japanese culture, and so I was operating under the assumption that almost all of the students had never even seen anything like the puzzles I was presenting to them, but I was hoping that they were still enjoyable enough that the kids could have a good time even if they didn’t get very far. I think, for the most part, I was successful in that aim. Most kids seemed quite lost for most of the time, but they managed to get through at least a few of the puzzles within the time limit.

There were a few kids, however, who reacted to the puzzles in ways that I absolutely did not see coming: with pure, unbridled delight to an exceptional degree. The smiles and laughter coming from some of those kids when they had their “aha!” moments was an immensely satisfying thing for me to witness. One student in particular had such a strong visceral reaction when she saw how the puzzles came together that she began convulsing with uncontrollable laughter to the point that she had to stumble away from her group’s table and writhe on the floor for a few moments while tears streamed from her eyes. It was absolutely incredible. When I asked her about it later–after she calmed down–she said that she didn’t understand what happened, but she just so excited that she lost control of her body.

Now, I’m an amateur puzzle-maker at best, and I do not really consider the puzzles that I made that day to be artwork. As I said, they were nothing new or revelatory; I was simply remixing existing puzzle frameworks that I had seen before and applying some simpler vocabulary to them that I knew my ESL students could handle. So I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an artist of puzzles or anything like that. BUT, I would say for sure that what I experienced that day–watching some of our students having these real visceral and emotional reactions to something I created–was just the same as what any artist in any medium would hope for when people engage and interact with their work. To see that something I made (and something that I was excited about making, too) could create such a response in even one person, was nothing short of magical, and it absolutely made me want to make more.

The Muller Monthly Music Meta (July, 2019)

The Muller Monthly Music Meta (MMMM, for short) is a crossword ‘contest’ (of sorts) that I have partaken in for the last… I don’t know, actually. Maybe 3 or 4 years? Now, there are points given out, a scoreboard, and there is a winner at the end, but I have never really thought of it as a contest. It’s much more a celebration. It’s an excuse for me to sit down once a month and really appreciate one man’s passion for music and crosswords.

To give some context, cruciverbalist (and musician) Pete Muller has for the last several years been making a music-themed crossword every month and making them available for free at his website: Where the ‘contest’ element comes in, is that each puzzle also has a meta-answer (I described meta-answers in my previous blog post, but I’ll also give some examples in a moment here). Members of the general public can access the crossword when he publishes it (he also does a mailing list to notify people of its availability) on his website, and everyone has about 5 days to solve the puzzle and then submit the answer (again, at the website).

What makes the MMMM truly special, however, is that every year there is also a “Mega-Meta” answer–a puzzle that spans across all 12 monthly puzzles from that year, with hints and red herrings spread throughout all the crosswords he made that year that will eventually point you to a single final answer. It’s awe-inspiring, it’s fantastic, and I have never once gotten anywhere even close to solving it. Lol. I don’t want to take the time to give more detail about the mega-meta here, but if you are curious, you can find Pete Muller’s very own explanation (with examples from previous years) here.

Anyways, all of that was just to give you some context to explain that a few days ago the MMMM crossword newsletter appeared in my inbox to inform me that July’s puzzle was here! This being exam week, I have been a bit busy (to put it lightly) so I could not attempt it right away, but I did find a little break time between grading essays to sit down and attempt this month’s MMMM, so without further ado…

This month’s puzzle was entitled “Follow the Directions!” and contained the instructions that “The meta answer is a famous rock-and-roll song.” No further instructions.

First step: solve the grid. Took about 30 minutes, but I got that done.

Not many special entries to note, but I did like the inclusion of NAES for 51-down’s “Majority of votes in the Scottish independence referendum” and BAILS for 31-down’s “Dehydrates?”

37-across’s “Goldeneye relative” threw me for a loop because I kept trying to think of Spanish words for various family members (madre, padre, tio, etc.), but it turned out there is a kind of duck called a goldeneye! I had no idea. And the answer, SMEW, is quite a striking relative (google it if you are not familiar).

Anyhow, time to get to the meta! So, what was immediately obvious was the several clues which contained the word “direction.” Generally, crossword-makers avoid the repetition of a word in a puzzle, so the fact that one of the words from the title of the puzzle itself was repeated so many times had to be significant. Next step: highlight the clues that contained “direction” and their corresponding answers in the grid.

The first idea that struck me was that the location of each of these entries is rotationally symmetrical (meaning you could rotate the puzzle 180 degrees and see the same pattern). In other words, 1-across’s ARROW is symmetrical with 66-across’s SCALD in the opposite corner. Likewise, 15-across’s VANE matches to 62-across’s TURN, and so on. The placement of these “direction”-themed entries and their symmetric nature couldn’t just be a coincidence, right? It had to be intentional. So what’s the correspondence between ARROW and SCALD? How about VANE and TURN? Or any of the others?

Well, this is where I got stuck for quite a while. I could not, for the life of me, come up with a connection between any of these words. I thought back to the title, “Follow the Directions!” and tried to think of words, letters, suffixes, phrases that might ‘follow’ these words (e.g. “ARROWhead” or something like that) to see if there could possibly be anything to it. Nothing. Nada. And after about 45 minutes of getting absolutely nowhere with it, I had to put it down and take a break (ironically, doing this was my break from working!)

Came back later with a clear head and wanted to try a different angle: directions. The first thing that comes into my head when I think of directions? North, East, South, West. So after a few more minutes of staring, I can see that each of those themed entries actually contains a direction! Take a look…

Pretty neat, right? OK, it feels like we’re getting somewhere now. So I’m meant to “Follow” those directions? What could that mean…

My first instinct was that each direction indicates one of the squares around it, to give me a sequence of letters. So, say, in ARROW, the W is there to lead me West to the O. Then, in VANE, the N leads me North to the K above, and the E leads me East to–fuck. The T in TARA? Or maybe it’s a space? Well, let’s keep going and we can come back to that. Next, there’s the N in DYLAN which leads me North to the I. Then there’s DOLCE‘s E which takes me East to… Off the grid…


So, maybe that’s not it after all. Back to square one? Sigh…

About 10 more minutes of blank staring…

And then, finally, a break-through, and (spoiler alert) my final “a-ha!” moment of this particular puzzle…

On a whim, I thought, “What if I think of the whole grid as a directional grid and the directions are referring to the corresponding spaces around the outer edge of the grid?” So, N would be referring to the center square of the top row of the whole grid (namely, the E of EARP in square 7). NE would mean the H in the upper-right corner. And so on. Let’s see what that looks like…

OK, so let’s go through the directions from each themed entry in order, and the letter that each one is pointing me towards on the outside edge and see what we get? (Direction from the themed entries on the left, corresponding letter on the right)

W => T

NE => H

N => E

E => W

NW => A

SW => N

SE => D

N => E

S => R

N => E

S => R

OMG!!!!! I did it!!!! THE WANDERER!!

What a great feeling to have solved it. This is why I love puzzles. The arc of emotions as you struggle with something, going between having no clue and then having an idea and that idea leading you to nothing which brings you back to having no clue again, until the triumphant finish (if you can make it there) when it all pieces together.

Anyways, thanks for that one, Pete! I’m looking forward to next month! As for the Mega-Meta, I’m keeping a notebook of ideas and notes, but I don’t want to give anything away…