Once a year hundreds of MIT students, alumni, and puzzle enthusiasts converge in Cambridge for a weekend of almost impossible puzzles, tied together under a light narrative theme. In the five years I’ve been participating in the MIT Mystery Hunt, teams have been asked to turn to puzzles to put on a Broadway musical, rob a bank, save Wonderland, and explore the ocean’s depths. Progress at the Mystery Hunt is driven by tackling meta-puzzles: puzzles that leverage solutions from a group of puzzles as elements of a larger puzzle. The 2016 Hunt prominently featured its elegantly crafted meta-puzzles, delivering a master-class in solid puzzle design.
This article will explore some of those puzzle design choices. In order to discuss those choices, it will be necessary to “spoil” the answers to quite a few puzzles in the Hunt, so read at your own risk. If you want to try your hand at the Hunt spoiler-free, stop reading now and explore the 2016 Hunt website, which conveniently features detailed solutions to every puzzle in the hunt alongside the puzzles themselves.
Theming and the Meta-Puzzle: The Red Herring
Every MIT Mystery Hunt starts with a kick-off event that introduces the year’s theme. This year, kickoff attendees were informed that the 64 participating teams were competing for the top spot in a Dog Show. Sure, there were a few glitches during kickoff. Slides showing scores to future football games…PowerPoint slides responding to questions from the presenter…all clearly red herrings. The 2016 Mystery Hunt was going to be all about cute, adorable puppies competing.
Ten years ago, the website for Margaret’s House of Bees started acting strangely. Many of the site’s images were glitched beyond recognition, and nonsensical text covered up articles about the Napa Valley-based apiary.
While many of the people who gathered to troubleshoot a bee enthusiast’s website refer to themselves as “Beekeepers”, a passion for the cultivation of honey wasn’t the only reason over half a million people flocked to ilovebees.com over the next four months. I Love Bees was an alternate reality game that introduced Halo fans to the first-person shooter’s rich backstory through over a five-hour long audio drama released into the world through pay phone calls, blog posts, emails, and websites in bite-sized chunks.
Between Thursday July 31st and Saturday August 2nd, many of I Love Bees‘ creators and some of its most dedicated players will gather together to celebrate the anniversary in Portland for ARGFest, an annual conference, festival, and meetup that brings together the creators and fans of alternate reality games, transmedia storytelling projects, and serious games.
On Thursday July 31st, ARGFest is adding the IDEA Symposium, with a series of speakers focusing on the business of creating interactive entertainment and transmedia. Serial game designer Mike Selinker, whose recent projects include the narrative puzzle book Maze of Games and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game will be headlining the day’s events. Joining him for the IDEA Symposium are indie game developers, platform creators, event producers, and experience designers behind everything from Cards Against Humanity’s game design reality show Tabletop Deathmatch to Disney’s The Optimist, a historical fiction retrospective of Disney Parks’ history.
The I Love Bees Anniversary festivities start on Friday August 1st with an interview between ARGNet founder Steve Peters and Jordan Weisman, the chief creative for the alternate reality game, and more recently creator of Shadowrun Returns and Golem Arcana. Friday’s Speakers will also provide a closer look at the state of transmedia in Europe, the climate change serious game Future Coast, and the transmedia thriller Phrenic, guided by Glitchhikers creator Lucas Johnson as Grand Inquisitor, charged with kicking off the Q&A sessions by asking panelists challenging questions. The evening’s keynote will be followed with a performance by The Doubleclicks, who recently raised over $80,000 on Kickstarter to release an album of songs about dinosaurs, tabletop games, and binge-watching Netflix.
The main Beekeeper reunion will take place on Saturday August 2nd, with panels reflecting on the game from players, as well as I Love Bees creators Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, and Kristen Rutherford. The festivities will conclude with FestQuest, a puzzle hunt designed to show attendees the city of Portland in a different light before leading them to the final mystery location to close out the evening. This year’s hunt was created by Puzzled Pint.
Tickets for the full three days of ARGFest are available for $200 through July 2, although attendees are able to purchase tickets for select events at a discounted rate. Check out the ARGFest 2014 website for the full list of speakers, conference schedule, or to register.
Disclosure: Google paid for my flight and lodging for the Recursion event.
The morning of March 29th, two rival factions gathered at Los Angeles’ Grand Park in anticipation for a pitched battle. As noon approached, it became obvious to any passerby that something was going on. Hundreds of people prominently wearing blue and green streamed in through the park steps, conspicuously segregating themselves into colored clumps: blues to the right, and greens to the left. To any random passerby, it must have looked like the staging area for a flash mob. But look a little closer, and you’d see the telltale signs of the virtual battle about to take place. Headphones tapped into private communications channels to coordinate movement. A row of cyclists primed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Pennants proudly bearing faction insignia. And more smartphone chargers and batteries than people.
This gathering was an Anomaly event, one of the live events organized by Google’s Niantic Labs team for players of their geo-locative mobile game Ingress. Since early February, 25 Anomaly events took place in countries including the United States, Mexico, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, and India for a series of events collectively referred to as the Recursion Anomalies. Los Angeles was the final Anomaly event in the series, and Google invited me out to Los Angeles to experience Google’s approach to designing a live event for a massively multiplayer game. Previously, ARGNet explained how Ingress is played at a more casual level. This article explores how gameplay changes for its most ardent fans.
Last year, William Sawtooth III embarked on a great experiment: he sold off 100 shares in his personhood in exchange for a billion dollars. Being a savvy investor, I managed to secure a 6% interest in Sawtooth prior to his untimely demise at the hands of a masked henchman from the Secret Games Society. Yesterday, I received word from Sawtooth’s legal counsel informing me that Sawtooth’s death was confirmed after a thorough investigation, and my shares were reverting back to the Mega Hard Wood Group Board of Directors. As a courtesy, the Board sent me a framed certificate commemorating my brief status as a Majority Stockholder. They also unknowingly sent out an invitation to this year’s FestQuest, an annual puzzle hunt held during ARGFest.
Sawtooth’s misadventures in personal corporate governance were the focus of the alternate reality game Boom the Moon, an extension of Steve Peters’ crowdsourced alternate reality gaming thought experiment World Without Helium by Synth-Bio Productions. For two weeks, players tricked Sawtooth’s silent investors into handing over their shares to prevent a plan to use Sawtooth’s newfound wealth to solve the impending helium shortage by detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon’s surface. Players secured a majority stake in William Sawtooth III, and staved off plans to blow up the moon. While celebrating the win, Sawtooth was shot and presumed dead. The correspondence from the Mega Hard Wood Group only served to confirm that presumption, pronouncing his death a suicide.
After closer inspection, I discovered an invitation to FestQuest 2013 slipped in between the certificate and the frame’s backing. The secret message cordially invited me to join the Sawtooth Circus in Seattle on July 27th. Sawtooth also offered his handwritten assurance that “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” It also included an introductory puzzle to whet players’ appetites for the main course this weekend. The return of William Sawtooth III should be an exciting one for ARGFest attendees, as Sawtooth is one of the most colorful characters in alternate reality gaming to break the fourth wall I’ve seen.
Synth-Bio Productions is resurrecting Sawtooth through their role as host of this year’s FestQuest. Pre-registration for FestQuest is mandatory this year, with groups of 10 asked to provide their email address along with a “Circus Name”. The experience is only available to ARGFest attendees, and is expected to take approximately 2 hours to complete.
ARGFest-o-Con is a yearly conference that provides the opportunity for fans and creators of alternate reality games and transmedia experiences to gather together and reflect on the genre’s evolution. This year, the roving conference will touch down in Seattle between Thursday July 25th and Saturday July 27th for a long weekend of panels, puzzles, and games.
This year’s list of speakers are a diverse crew. IARPA will be discussing their exploration of whether alternate reality games can be used for behavioral research. At the same conference, Groundspeak co-founder Jeremy Irish will discuss the growth and evolution of the geocaching community, puzzlemaker Mike Selinker will discuss the art of puzzlecraft, Haley Moore will talk about injecting tangible objects into stories, and Ken Morris will introduce attendees to the wonders of glitch art. Past ARGFest Keynote speakers Jordan Weisman and JC Hutchins will be returning, along with the team behind TVTropes.org’s alternate reality game The Wall Will Fall, and indie game developers at Silverstring Media and Lazy 8 Studios. This year’s keynote speaker is ARGNet and No Mimes Media founder Steve Peters, who will be reflecting on the ups and downs of a career that spanned some of the biggest companies in the industry.
Three ARGFest traditions will also be returning for 2013. Synth-Bio Productions will be producing the first of those traditions, FestQuest. Every year, ARGFest attendees team up to explore ARGFest’s host city in a real-world puzzle trail. The puzzle trail gives attendees a fun and lighthearted way of putting some practical experience behind the conference’s often theoretical talks. For the second ARGFest tradition, ARGNet’s previous owner and senior editor Jonathan Waite will be stepping into the role of Grand Inquisitor, responsible for facilitating conference discussions with a twist. Finally, ARGFest Seattle will see a return of the ARG Museum, a collection of artifacts from past games.
Regular registration rates for ARGFest are available through July 19th, priced at $90 for a conference pass and $150 for an all-access pass that also includes the kick-off party and keynote address. Head over to the ARGFest-o-Con 2013 website for more information.
Image courtesy thatdragoncancer.com
Over the years, a number of alternate reality games and transmedia experiences have used their storytelling platform as a medium for serious gaming. In Conspiracy for Good, many of the game’s live events were used as a lure to get players actively volunteering for non-profit organizations. In games like Indiana University’s Skeleton Chase and the American Heart Association’s Cryptozoo, the underlying purpose of the game was to get players more physically active.
To get a better sense of the evolving serious gaming industry, I attended the 9th annual Games for Health conference in Boston. Zombies, Run creators Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman were there to share some insight into the success of their story-driven exercise app and announce their company Six to Start’s partnership with the UK government on a new project, coming next year. A host of game developers, medical professionals, and technologists added their own perspectives to the topic over the three-day conference. While the conference’s multiple tracks made a full picture of events impossible, I’ve attempted to share a few highlights in the world of serious gaming.
Zombies, Run: Escaping from the Zombie Horde
Since its release, Six to Start’s Zombies, Run has sold over half a million copies of its episodic audio adventures placing fans directly into the shoes of Abel Township’s Runner 5. To date, runners have traversed over 12 million miles in the real world, foraging for supplies through a virtual British countryside during the zombie apocalypse. A vibrant fan community has contributed fan fiction and videos to the universe: one of the members of the Zombies, Run writing team got her start writing fanfic for the game.
It all started when Zombies, Run co-creator Naomi Alderman joined a beginner’s running class. The instructor asked everyone taking the course to explain why they wanted to get better at running, and one woman blithely responded, “I want to be able to escape from the zombie horde.” This motivation resonated with Alderman, as it captured the heart of her situation. As a professional novelist, running isn’t something that helps her reach daily word counts or edit manuscripts. Alderman explains that for most people, running is more about being prepared for when things go bad. At its core, the impetus to run is the wish, “I want to be a healthy animal to escape from predators.” For Adrian Hon, an avid runner, that primal motivation was what was missing from existing apps, pedometers, and sensors on the market. No amount of metrics about heart rate, steps taken, or calories burned provides as much motivation during a run as the shuffling groan of zombies approaching you from behind.
Many design choices for Zombies, Run were made based on what felt right to the development team. For instance, the decision to make runners speed up their pace by 20% was based on Adrian’s decision that it “felt right.” However, one priority for the team was ensuring players could step seamlessly into the role of Runner 5. That meant making Runner 5’s decisions always feel reasonable to the player, especially since those decisions almost always involved running during zombie encounters. It also meant that Runner 5 would always be discussed in gender neutral terms: while it would have been possible to record separate audio streams that customized the experience for the player-protagonist, the team opted to strike out gendered language. Alderman noted that the gender neutrality allowed her to reinforce a feminist subtext into the narrative, as Runner 5’s gender has no bearing on how the story’s protagonist is treated, and is treated as largely irrelevant.
During their keynote address, Hon and Alderman announced that Zombies, Run was undergoing randomized trials to test its efficacy. Additionally, the Six to Start team announced their partnership with London’s National Health Services and the Department of Health in the UK to create a new narrative health app to tackle the obesity epidemic, set for release in 2014. Alderman describes this new app, tentatively titled The Walk, as a spy thriller that mixes elements of North by Northwest with The 39 Steps. You play the role of someone who needs to get a package from Inverness to Edinburgh while evading both terrorists and the police. The goal is to encourage users to go on to add just a bit more walking into their daily lives.