The allure of a cryptic toolchain

Brian Olson
3 min readMay 1

Disclaimer: All opinions are my own

Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels

The appeal of cryptic puzzles

I’m playing through Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the second time. I first played it when it came out before I had children and it took me a year to get through. Now I have children and less time to play video games and I expect it will take me something like the rest of my life to defeat Ganon a second time (as a side note, a great way to save money on video games is to play them slowly!).

If you haven’t played the game, a major component of it is the concept of “shrines” which are little puzzles that reward you with a way to get extra health or stamina. Two of them are absolutely silly.

There are two shrines on top of two mountains, which are hard to reach. On the wall of each shrine is a pattern, which tells you how you have to arrange some objects in the shrine on the other peak. So to solve the puzzle you have to find the shrine, see the pattern, realize it’s not for the current shrine, find the other shrine, notice that it has a similar (but also wrong) pattern, realize it’s from the other shrine, and then arrange the objects in the pattern from the other shrine.

I’ll openly admit, when I got stuck I searched online for the solution (I need my games to be fun, rather than arduous). But can you imagine the elation of the first person to figure that out and then post about it? And the credit he got from other people who had been stuck?

There’s something strangely appealing about a cryptic sequence that gives you an oddly small reward.

And I think we do this in our software engineering too.

The appeal of a cryptic toolchain

I think we translate this appreciation for the cryptic into our programming toolchains. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else and I’ve written posts about things you can do in PowerShell that you shouldn’t.

There are many similarities between those annoyingly cryptic shrines that you just can’t give up on and an overly complex toolchain.

  1. They both give you a flash of color when you get it (nice green for most of my CLIs)
  2. They both have problems that you cannot…
Brian Olson

Engineer, formerly at Amazon, currently at Google. All opinions are my own. Consider supporting here: