Author: Michael Andersen (page 1 of 54)

Puzzles Designed for a Crowd at the MIT Mystery Hunt

3024‘s “Controller” puzzle, where players need to coordinate pressing 35 keys on a Discord server

Recently, an alternate reality game called I’m looking for 3024 people released. And while 3024‘s core narrative and puzzle experiences are contained within a Steam game and the website FranksComputer.online, the puzzle that players are currently struggling through is one that plays out on the game’s Discord server: in order to hack into a remote PC, players need to button-mash 35 keys in a Discord chat at the same time, to match the pattern pictured on the screen.

Getting a single column to align with its targeted zone is fairly easy: every time a player posts a letter in a specific channel of the Discord, a pixel at the bottom of the screen hops up, for about a second. Posting it again repeats the process, so with enough practice it’s possible to find a cadence to keep the pixel in range. However, in order to complete the puzzle, players need to achieve that 35 times, simultaneously. All of a sudden, 3024‘s puzzle becomes an exercise in coordination more than anything else: scheduling a play session 35 puzzlers is the first (and possibly hardest) challenge of the game.

A screenshot from a recent live attempt at 3024’s Controller puzzle, where players caused two of the letters to “jump up” with a single key press each

MIT Mystery Hunt: The Perfect Playground for Puzzles Designed for a Crowd
Outside of alternate reality games, there are relatively few opportunities for people to engage in large-scale collaborative puzzle solving: in part because scheduling more than a dozen people to tackle a puzzle together can be a daunting task. The MIT Mystery Hunt is one of the notable exceptions to that rule. For over 40 years, the puzzle event has been an excuse for increasingly large teams to converge on the MIT campus for a weekend of puzzling.

2023’s Mystery Hunt was the puzzle competition’s first year back at the Cambridge campus since 2020. According to the Hunt designers, there were over 6,000 puzzlers participating across over 300 teams, and over 1,600 players were on campus for the event. Multiple teams threw over 100 players at a series of extremely difficult but wildly creative puzzles. Which raises the question:

What can puzzle designers do when they know teams will be able to throw dozens of players at a puzzle, working together at the same time?

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Immersive Nutcracker Show “Club Drosselmeyer” Gives WW2 Puzzling a Swing Dance

Ginger Lamarr (Elise Roth) performs on stage at Club Drosselmeyer, backed by the house band

The year is 1939. The United States of America has yet to officially enter World War II, but those who are in the know suspect that it’s only a matter of time. Particularly enterprising corners of the private sector recognize the military-industrial complex is likely to pay top dollar for technological innovations that can deliver an edge in the coming conflict. In Cambridge, two companies are leading the charge: Drosselmeyer Industries seeks to push the boundaries of science with its research in artificial intelligence, while Rattibus Labs is exploring more paranormal lines of inquiry, attempting to use mind control on Earth’s smartest creature: the noble rat.

Of course, none of this should matter at Club Drosselmeyer: the local nightclub planned a big night of music, dancing, spirited performances, and even more spirited libations to provide a needed distraction from the increasingly dire state of the world. To be sure, there’s rumors of an escaped test subject from Rattibus Labs on the loose…and a curiously strong yet na├»ve man known only as “our cousin Alan” says the most curious things while wandering the nightclub floor…but none of that should be important. Not at Club Drosselmeyer.

“Cousin Alan” (Devon Courtney) performing a series of lifts with his handler Carla (Madeline Song)

Club Drosselmeyer is an annual immersive show by Green Door Labs that transforms the holiday classic tale of The Nutcracker into an evening at a World War II era nightclub. And while it’s possible to treat Club Drosselmeyer as a fancy night on the town with live performances and swing dance lessons, the show can go in a surprising number of directions. Fans of puzzles can help the night’s adventures unfold by solving a series of puzzles, while attendees more interested in live action role-playing can adopt a persona to interact with over a dozen character actors scheming their way through the night. Club Drosselmeyer offers up a buffet of immersive possibilities, and it’s up to each attendee to decide what balance of dancing, puzzling, and character interactions they want to chase to fill their plates for the night.

The Main Course: Picking Sides Through Puzzles with a Side of Roleplay
The events of Club Drosselmeyer open as Herr Drosselmeyer receives an encoded telegram from his mentor. The message is encoded in what should be an unbreakable cipher…luckily, the artificial intelligence his company has been working on, “Project Nutcracker”, should be capable of translating the message after assembling a module from five component parts, and installing it in the Nutcracker. At the same time, Erasmus King is looking for help with his mind control experiments…some of his experiments escaped from their cages, and he needs help tracking them down.

Players interested in helping with either of these challenges were directed to check in with characters at opposite ends of the ballroom floor to receive puzzle packets to assist in the respective investigations. For instance, the Drosselmeyer puzzle track revolved around solving pen-and-paper variety puzzles to determine the names of the five components.

Project Nutcracker’s fully assembled translation module, ready for installation

Just knowing the name of the component, of course, was not enough to help out. Armed with that knowledge, players could start chatting with the characters scattered throughout the event to find where those components could be found. For instance, Club Drosselmeyer host Fritz Stahlbaum was sitting on a suitcase full of one particular component. The only problem? He had a bit of a gambling problem, and owed Erasmus’ son Rhett King a sizeable chunk of money. Players would have to find a way to help him out in order to get the MacGuffin. And while some of these tasks involved the accumulation of in-game currency, others challenged players to join a character for a short dance, or collect signatures for a birthday card a character neglected to prepare for his mother.

The largely pen-and-paper puzzles would have felt right at home at a Puzzled Pint event in both variety and difficulty, and were particularly good at blending the flavor of the challenge with the puzzle’s structure and design. The puzzle that led to Fritz Stahlbaum’s first component, for instance, involved reviewing research notes from a scientist who inadvertently took faulty readings: correcting the mistake and tracking the real results would spell out the component’s name.

After assembling all five pieces of the module through a combination of puzzle-solving and character interaction, Herr Drosselmeyer guided players into a back room to confirm it was in working order. After that, players were instructed to head up to Drosselmeyer Industries’ safe to recover Project Nutcracker’s blueprints so the module could be installed properly.

Missing blueprints in the Drosselmeyer safe leads to a mind-controlled Erasmus King

Once players entered the safe, they discovered that Erasmus King arranged for the theft of Project Nutcracker’s blueprints: luckily, the rats’ irradiated paws meant that a trail of blue prints could be seen under UV light, leading players to Erasmus King…or rather, an experimental rat who mesmered Erasmus King’s body into reenacting Ratatouille. The blueprints would help the rat take control of an even more powerful body: Project Nutcracker, who was “cousin Alan” all along. Realizing what he’d done, Erasmus briefly regained control of his senses and handed off the blueprints and told the group to flee.

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PostCurious’ Adrift Transforms Puzzling into Artful Poetry

PostCurious’ newest narrative puzzle adventure, Adrift

Everything started when Jasmine Perodine’s grandfather passed away, six months ago. While wading through heaps of old maps and newspaper clippings Jasmine stumbled across a series of four satchels marked with sigils, and felt compelled to take them home. That’s when the dreams began. Without fail, the same sequence of dreams would haunt Jasmine’s nights: four ethereal creatures, tied inextricably with the elements: one for the sky, one for the earth, one for water, and a final one for the woods. Upon waking, Jasmine would feel compelled to document those dreams: but like a being possessed, the words came out through poetry and through art…tapping into skills she didn’t know she had. That’s when she reached out to an expert in dream interpretation for assistance. That’s when she reached out to you.

Adrift is PostCurious’ latest narrative puzzle adventure, casting players in the role of expert oneirologist, unraveling puzzles embedded in poetry as a close proxy for dream interpretation to receive instructions on how to find meaning in the four artifacts left by Jasmine’s grandfather. The resulting game can be finished by experienced puzzlers in 2-3 hours and delivers one of the most physically satisfying puzzling experiences I’ve had. This, more than any other at-home puzzle game I’ve played, is an experience designed to be held and perceived.

The four color-coded Adrift satchels, and their corresponding envelopes containing depictions of Jasmine’s dreams

A Satisfying Structure That Won’t Leave You Adrift
There is no official starting point for Adrift: any one of the four elemental satchels can serve as the beginning of players’ investigation into the world of dreams. After selecting one of the envelopes and its corresponding satchel, players are presented with a series of three poems, a piece of artwork depicting the dream’s central elemental figure, and a physical artifact to manipulate.

Correctly “interpreting” the first poem provides information or instructions essential to solving the puzzle hidden in the second poem. Similarly, interpreting the second poem provides information or instructions that feed in to the third poem, which provides instructions on how to manipulate the round’s central artifact to reveal a fragment of a message. After properly manipulating the contents of each satchel, players unlock a message from beyond that helps explain why Jasmine has been plagued with these dreams in the first place.

Because Adrift relies on sequential puzzles within each elemental chapter, poems are clearly labeled to indicate their position in the puzzling narrative: a single sigil marks the first poem, paired sigils mark the second poem, and a ring of three sigils marks the third.

Poems from each of Adrift‘s four chapters: Sky, Earth, Woods, and Water

However, relying on this puzzle-centric explanation of Adrift‘s structure does the full experience a gross disservice. The poems at the center of Adrift don’t merely serve as hollow vehicles for puzzle delivery: they also paint a lyrical picture of each elemental figure’s domain as vividly as the lush artwork does. And that gradually unfolding creation myth is as compelling as the puzzle experience itself.

WARNING: while this article does not spoil any of the puzzles or surprises in Adrift, after this point the article will show one of the pieces of artwork and one of the artifacts in its unsolved state. If you would prefer to save that as a surprise for your playthrough, now would be a good time to stop reading and order Adrift.

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The Time Disney Parks Bought a Booth at NYCC

Catching a Xandarian named Nilana in the Wonders of Xandar break room, reading her favorite comic: The Unusually Large Man

Earlier this year, Disney Parks reserved a booth on the Show Floor at New York Comic Con to showcase Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, one of Disney World’s newest roller coasters. The resulting immersive experience Wonders of Xandar didn’t explicitly mention the Cosmic Rewind roller coaster, Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Disney Parks as an entity. And yet, it still managed to capture the essence of the Disney Parks experience by thrusting booth visitors into a less-explored corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and letting visitors explore that corner as deeply as they were willing to go.

Wonders of Xandar: A Primer on the Disney Parks Experience
In May 2022, Walt Disney World added the Wonders of Xandar Pavilion to EPCOT’s selection of attractions in the Florida park. Framed to mimic the purpose of EPCOT’s other World Showcase attractions, the new pavilion existed to provide an outpost to feature a different culture: only this time, instead of highlighting the cultures and cuisines of terrestrial locations like Mexico, Norway, or Japan, Disney took its cultural exchange intergalactic by enlisting the planet Xandar to highlight their civilization in the Andromeda Galaxy that featured heavily in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie.

The Wonders of Xandar Pavilion experience is divided into two main parts: the first installment is an extended queue experience that fulfills on that promise of cultural exchange by guiding park visitors through a series of museum exhibits, video displays, and live interactions to introduce the somewhat obscure planet featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After navigating the queue, visitors are thrust into the themed roller-coaster experience Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, where guests team up with the MCU’s intergalactic heroes through an off-planet mission facing off against a Celestial, threatening the planet Earth.

Which brings us to New York Comic Con, five months after the EPCOT experience’s launch.

Wonders of Xandar booth exterior: a cultural exchange outpost allowing Terrans to interact with Xandarians

Wonders of Xandar: A Cultural Exchange Outpost
Disney Parks framed their New York Comic Con presence as an extension of the EPCOT Pavilion’s mission of cultural exchange, with a suitably cryptic listing for their booth experience:

Following the recent opening of the spectacular new Wonders of Xandar Pavilion at Walt Disney World, the Xandarians have created a new outpost at New York Comic Con to learn more about Terra (or as you call it, “Earth”) and its unique culture and customs. Come meet our Xandarian Ambassadors, learn more about our galaxy, and bring a Terran artifact of your own to trade for a cosmic collectable! Presented by Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, an all new thrill-coaster at EPCOT.

Booth visitors were greeted by an Earth representative that explained how the planet Xandar set up a presence at EPCOT, and established this outpost at NYCC to learn more about Terrans, before getting shepherded to a table where a Xandarian ambassador proudly displayed the Terran artifacts they collected. The Xandarian ambassador would ask if the booth guest had any Terran artifacts they’d be willing to contribute to the growing collection, and listen with rapt attention as guests who take the bait explain the significance of their gifts. Particularly interesting gifts were added to the displays, quickly transforming the booth’s recessed displays into a collection of Terran ephemera that would rival The Little Mermaid’s own collection of gadgets and gizmos aplenty.

Terran artifacts collected by the Xandarians through cultural exchange, at the beginning of NYCC

The guest in front of me solemnly presented the Xandarians with a used MetroCard noting how it served as an essential currency for Terran transit. The Xandarian solemnly added it to the display, intermingled with cassette tapes and video game cartridges. When it came to be my turn, I handed over a magic box filled with plastic jewels, noting it was ideal for smuggling particularly interesting finds across intergalactic borders for more personal use.

This public-facing side of the Wonders of Xandar experience put the convention experience on its head: surrounded by booths offering fans more stuff, the Wonders of Xandar booth asked visitors what they’d be willing to give up, after personally interrogating its value. And since these exchanges were conducted in public view, those trades served as its own kind of spectacle.

Wonders of Xandar: Going Beyond Cultural Exchange and Entering Xandarian Space
Booth visitors curious enough to offer up an item were presented with a Galactic Credit, and invited to go around the corner and check out the Xandarian cultural outpost’s break room. After opening a nondescript door, an “off duty” Xandarian would welcome the guest to the space and invite them to use the break room’s vending machine to buy a packet of Zarg Nuts.

Inside, the Galactic Credit could be exchanged for a bag of Zarg Nuts from the break room’s intergalactic vending machine, and an “off duty” Xandarian would chat about the Xandarian comic book she was reading, The Unusually Large Man.

The Zarg Nuts vending machine experience: the best (and only) way to spend your Galactic Credits

And for the vast majority of con-goers, this is where the experience stopped. A glimpse into a charmingly mundane corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, brought to life by small moments of interactions with Disney cast and crew that are such an integral part of the overall Parks experience.

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Hollow Medium Takes Found Footage Haunts Back to the Wax Cylinder Era

“It’s a finicky technology. Just an empty wax tube with ridges cut into it as I speak. Its grooves locking in just a shadow of my voice. And hopefully, something else. Something that’s been haunting me. In more ways than one. I daren’t say it aloud yet. This will have to be enough. A mere echo of the horrors I’ve heard. The thinnest slice of reality, tinny to reality.

Such a…hollow medium.

– Lenora Bowen, Cylinder Zero

In October 1926, Prohibition-era bartender Lenora Bowen started making a series of wax cylinder recordings. Her primary goal? To document the paranormal activity she’s facing in St Augustine, and possibly even capture proof that she’s not crazy, etched in wax.

Almost a century later, an antique steamer trunk filled with Lenora Bowen’s recordings were unearthed, along with a collection of artifacts and ephemera from the time. The trunk’s custodian, operating under the whimsically appropriate name “Soul Proprietor” (S.P. for short), has started to pore through its contents, documenting them along the way on the website Hollow Medium. S.P. was even kind enough to send some people out to California’s Midsummer Scream to display the artifacts alongside gothic fashion, horror collectibles, and props for haunted attractions. S.P. eventually plans on archiving the audio recordings, to retell Lenora’s tale – however it may end.

Hollow Medium at Midsummer Scream: steamer trunk, wax cylinders, postcards, and a vintage stereoscope (Granville House Productions)

In case the surprise Halloween convention appearance didn’t clue you in, Hollow Medium is an upcoming podcast from Granville House Productions that will release new episodes every Sunday in October, documenting Lenora Bowen’s investigations into the paranormal. But while the podcast itself is weeks away, Hollow Medium has been rolling out a few surprises for those looking to dig deeper.

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Arkham Asylum Files Brings “Why So Serious” Gameplay Home for the Holidays

Two months ago, magician and puzzle enthusiast Chris Ramsay received a chained and padlocked filing cabinet in the mail, along with a letter from Batman’s most infamous villain, the Joker. After solving his way through the puzzle box, Ramsay uncovered a coaster featuring to the website InfiniteRabbitHoles.com. At the time, the site featured a countdown clock and sign-up form, teasing visitors with the allure of a project that would show “Gotham City like you’ve never seen”.

That project was eventually revealed to be BATMAN: The Arkham Asylum Files, a series of three narrative puzzle boxes designed to bring Gotham City to life, created by many of the team at 42 Entertainment who worked on Why So Serious, the multi-year alternate reality game leading up to the release of The Dark Knight. Their goal: to take the wonder and surprise of Why So Serious‘ expansive campaign, and create a standalone game that could be more intimately experienced at home, among family and friends. The crowdfunding campaign is running through July 22nd, with the first box promised for delivery as soon as Christmas of this year.

Chris Ramsay, before opening up the Joker’s box he received

The Rabbit Hole Before Infinite Rabbit Holes: A Puzzle Box Shaped Homage to Why So Serious
Chris Ramsay’s video solving the Joker’s puzzle box was a highly tactile experience: after unlocking the five locks keeping the filing cabinet chained up, Ramsay was able to get his hands on an additional layer of puzzles keeping him from unlocking one final box concealing his prize: a birthday cake from the Joker, resting on a coaster with the “Infinite Rabbit Holes” URL.

Ramsay’s unboxing video is a compelling video in its own right, but doubled as heartfelt homage to Why So Serious for viewers familiar with the alternate reality game, with multiple puzzles referencing key moments in the prior game. A few of the more obvious puzzle-shaped shoutouts include:

Left: Why So Serious‘ Halloween 2007 challenge. Right: Infinite Rabbit Holes‘ ransom letter puzzle
  • The Joker’s Ransom NoteInfinite Rabbit Holes‘ filing cabinet unboxing started with Ramsay reading out a ransom note assembled from magazine clippings: the shapes of some of these clippings were key to solving the box’s puzzle. Why So Serious‘ Halloween 2007 challenge asked players to reconstruct their own ransom note, by taking photographs of 49 locations across the United States and sending them to the Joker. A letter from the logos of each of those locations was then added to the WhySoSerious website.
Left: SDCC 2007 attendees donning clown facepaint for the event’s conclusion. Right: Chris Ramsay masking up for other reasons.
  • Batman’s Mask – After opening the filing cabinet, Ramsay reveals a Batman mask with red-tinted lenses as reward for completing the first phase of the puzzle, as well as a key tool to solve a later puzzle. For Why So Serious‘ San Diego Comic-Con scavenger hunt, players were tasked with a series of missions (including getting dolled up in clown makeup themselves), and were rewarded for their efforts with a clown mask of their own.
Left: Why So Serious‘ ringing cake. Right: Infinite Rabbit Holes‘ equally sonorous cake.
  • Return of the Cake – One of Why So Serious‘ most memorable moments involved cake deliveries for the holidays: in December 2007, players were sent to 22 bakeries across the United States, with the instructions to ask for a pick-up for “Robin Banks”. The first player to each location received a cake, iced with instructions to call a specific number. Once dialed, the cake started ringing and the lucky recipients had to dig inside the cake to recover their new burner phone. Ramsay’s cake-themed finale might have a different message iced on top, but the experience itself is the clearest homage of the bunch, and the full video is worth watching for that moment alone.

At the time this video was uploaded, these connections seemed like the puzzle box’s creators were just ardent fans of Why So Serious, who wanted to pay homage to a fixture in immersive Batman history. However, there was one additional hint that more was going on. A few weeks prior to Ramsay’s unboxing video, Dave Cobb tweeted out a link to a curious advertisement for Infinite Rabbit Holes, printed in programs for the Thea Awards (an award show for the Themed Entertainment industry). The advertisement noted that Animal Repair Shop was involved with Infinite Rabbit Holes: a company helmed by quite a few familiar names from 42 Entertainment.

And with that, the homage transformed into a promise: key figures behind the Why So Serious alternate reality game would be returning to the Batman franchise in some capacity, more than 15 years later.

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