A brief synopsis: Corn grows taller than your head. See the possibilities? There are now several places around the world that are into this. The one we visited was something like three linear miles of pathway... in a cornfield.
This is not a theoretical sort of maze. You get lost. There are ten-foot green walls on either side of you, and sky above you, and a dirt pathway. That's it. You can try to peer between the stalks, but since the other side of the wall is generally another pathway full of lost people, it does you very little good. (Sometimes you can see the outside, or the goal, or a significant maze point -- but you probably can't get there from here.) For two and a half hours, I was immersed in a real, live (!) interactive puzzle.
Let me spend some time describing details. I promise not to spoil any secrets, but I do want to talk about the maze from a game designer's point of view.
The theme for the maze was Noah's Ark. The general outline of the paths forms a boat, with waves below, styled animals on desk, and a dove above. (There are aerial photographs of the maze; take a look. Memorizing such a thing is quite impossible, so don't worry about that.) (Footnote: Besides, I just noticed, all the aerial photographs and souvenir t-shirts are lies. They left several connections undug until the last minute, and you can't tell from the photographs where they'll go.)
Upon entry, you may take a flag on a ten-foot pole, and a blank map divided into fifteen squares. They give you a quick lecture (no crashing walls, no running, don't eat the corn, etc.) Then they time-stamp your ticket and kick you through a passage. That's the east edge of the maze. You can go north or south. Now what?
The maze is divided into sectors, marked by colored ribbon strung along the corn walls. Blue, green, orange, red, pink, black, white -- they correspond to sections of the theme image (sky, sea, boat-hull, etc.) This gives you a rough idea how you're doing. Orange on the left! Progress! (Getting into the orange sector, so that there are orange ribbons on both sides, is much harder.)
You can fill in the map as you go. There are fifteen stations scattered around the maze, each with a supply of map squares (and sticky tape). If you find them all, you can make a complete map. Without a map, can you find them all? Well, that's your problem.
The left-hand and right-hand rules don't work. The goal is inside, and there's a bridge from there to the exit. So if you follow one wall from the beginning, you return to the beginning, not the goal. A second bridge confuses matters further, over on the west side. Of course paths go under the bridges too. The bridges are significant landmarks; other landmarks are a view of a thousand-foot flower rainbow (planted across a hillside above the maze), several water coolers, and a single portapotty. ("Hope you find it in time," say the rules.)
The flag? Hint system. "Noah", the maze supervisor, sits at the top of a tower with a PA microphone. Wave your flag, and he'll be able to see it (although nobody else at ground level can.) Emergency help can be dispatched. There are also a couple of speaking tubes at different spots; you can pray for hints or a miracle. ("Want out? Tired of seeing nothing but corn? Pray to Noah. Noah understands, believe me.")
Well. We collected map pieces, and used the map, and reached the exit in exactly 59 minutes. Then we doubled back to find the seven or so pieces we'd missed. That took another 90 minutes. By that time, we'd walked just about every pathway in the field.
(One of our friends did it solo, without the map pieces, in about 90 minutes total. He claims it was too easy. We claim he got lucky.)
The design impressed me greatly. It was not designed for maximum confusion; that would have been deadly. On paper, a path can wrap three times around the maze and then dead-end; but if you dug that into a cornfield, people would riot. In this maze, dead-end paths are short. There are dead-end sections, but these loop back on themselves, so that you feel you've explored somewhere interesting, not just wasted time.
The landmarks are properly elusive. You can see the flower rainbow if you're crossing a bridge, and from one garden spot on the north edge of the maze, and sometimes from within the maze (if there's a long pathway aligned with the hill.) But you only see it for a moment. In one spot there's a pile of rocks; who knows what it's for? (We joked about the ejection seat.) But if you pass it twice, you say "Hey, I know that pile of rocks!" Other paths are entirely featureless.
To win, you don't have to see every section of the maze. The highest-level description would be a pair-of-eyeglasses shape. You start, there's a major branch point, the branches come back together, there's another branch point, the branches come back together, and then the goal. I can say this without spoilers, because you'll only recognize the branch points in retrospect. But it means that if you solve the maze quickly, you've walked about half of it. If you want to explore the rest, you can do the other half. I like that layout. (For us, it turned out we'd explored one of those four major branch-sections, missed the path that led onwards, and backtracked to do the other alternative. Oops. But we didn't realize this until we got the whole map.)
Oh yes, there's a slide. Sadly, you can't put a real one-way valve slide in a corn maze. There have to be signs pointing out the ground-level pathway from bottom to top, because Mom and Dad may want to send the kids down and then walk around to meet them. (We went down the slide, of course.)
And there was just something generally right about the maze. Some sections were twisty and knotted; others had long rectilinear paths; others were Grand Curves around the boat hull. The outside zones felt distant and unfriendly; the inside zones felt full of energy. I'm not sure what it was. A combination of the colored ribbons (we knew blue and green were the outside), and the distribution of people (people generally knew when they were getting close, and the vibes went around.) Very pleasing.
So what are the lessons for game designers?
Pacing: Interface details are critical in determining whether a maze works or not. How long does it take to go from one intersection to the next? Are long paths slower, or more boring, than long ones? Is backtracking slow or immediate? Do you see neat things along the way? These factors affect what you can do without honking off your players. Frustration is not challenge.
The Zen View: Let players get glimpses of something interesting. Don't let them see it often, or for long stretches. (This is a design pattern from A Pattern Language, in fact.)
Small Victories: In the corn-maze, seeing a new sector color is exciting; getting into a new sector is even more so. Even if it turns out not to go anywhere. Don't make a maze which is a homogenous, undifferentiated experience of lostness.
Rules are Nifty: Outside the main corn-maze, there are several small ones -- not corn mazes; they're made of hay bales and ribbons and such. These use some wackier ideas, to make up for being able to see over the walls. One has colored paths, and you have to follow paths in the order yellow, red, blue. Another -- surprisingly difficult -- allows only right turns, never left. (Sound like a simple rule? The consequences take some time to work out, and then there's a new shape in your head. That's what puzzles are for.)
Go Find Out: "Write what you know," they say. When you do something, you know it from the inside. Now I know what it's like to be in a maze. (From the inside -- ahem.) I really can't recommend it highly enough. Ok, it's not the all-time enlightenment experience of my life, but a game designer should try it.
Dehydration: Simulated heatstroke in a computer game? Well, maybe not. In real life, I sucked down a liter of water over two hours, and later ate a packet of salt from the concession stand. Really. It tasted okay, which proved it was a good idea.
Yes, I'm rambling now.
Next year, I'm not using the map pieces at all.
The maze was designed by Adrian Fisher, http://www.mazemaker.com/. (Not to be confused with David Russo at http://www.mazemaster.com/.) Fisher has designed several corn mazes this year; his web site has a list. Go looking.
The smaller rule-mazes were designed by Robert Abbott, http://www.logicmazes.com/. He's written two maze books -- and designed the inference game Eleusis, if you've ever heard of that. His site has a couple of fascinating essays on maze design.
Maize Quest is another group that does these things.
Game Rambles (and others)