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.
Cards Against Humanity gave their fans nothing for Black Friday this year. More specifically, they sold their fans nothing for $5 a person. It was quite the profitable venture for them, too…they earned $71K with their blow-out sale, giving the company’s non-founding members a well-deserved holiday bonus. And they’ll have earned it, after the logistic nightmare they’ve endured preparing for another year of Cards Against Humanity’s holiday bullshit.
At this point, Cards Against Humanity asking their nearest and dearest fans to give them money in exchange for a series of random gifts (and puzzles) over the holiday season has become a tradition. In 2013, the company embraced their Christmas cheer with 12 Days of Holiday Bullshit, sending 100K fans everything from lumps of coal to personalized Cards Against Humanity Cards. In 2014 the holiday of choice shifted to the Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa, bringing an expanded list of 150K fans good tidings, miracle berries, and rights to a 1×1 square plot on an island in Maine. This year, it’s all about Eight Sensible Gifts, embracing their practicality and Hanukkah cheer.
I have a problem. Years of playing alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling experiences have trained me to love room escape games. Getting locked in a room and relying on a group of friends to figure out what we’re supposed to do to get out? Pretty much my dream come true. But there are a limited number of rooms in Philadelphia, and I’ve done them all. And for the most part, it’s not as fun playing a room escape game for a second time. It’s like going to the same murder mystery dinner party twice. Once you know everyone’s secrets and whodunnit, you’re either stuck watching on the sidelines, or end up spoiling the mystery for everyone else.
Okay, so I’ve done all three rooms currently running in Philadelphia. But there are hundreds of rooms running globally, so I can still scratch my room escape game itch when I’m on vacation…but I have to do it alone, unless the friends I’m visiting haven’t similarly run through all of their local games. Otherwise, I’m stuck waiting for more rooms to open up in my area, or for escape room designers to find a way to make their games more replayable. Luckily, Boda Borg has come up with a solution to both problems.
Boda Borg started in Sweden, and has been running “reality games” since the mid-90s, long before the current wave of room escape games swept their way through Asia and North America. Boda Borg currently has eight locations in Sweden and Ireland, but only recently opened their first North American location in Boston. The core concept is the same: a small team of participants enter the room, and have to figure out how to use the surrounding objects to get out of the room. But because Boda Borg evolved independently from traditional room escape games, the experience is considerably different, in practice. The main difference? The rooms are designed for teams to fail fast, and fail frequently.
Boda Borg’s business model enables this “fail fast” mentality. Rather than reserving a room for a particular time slot, Boda Borg Boston offers a 2-hour pass for $18, or an all-day pass for $28. This buys unlimited access to the building’s 20 “Quests”. Each Quest’s difficulty is rated primarily on the physical demands of the rooms, with “Green” rooms focusing on cognitive challenges, “Red” quests requiring moderate physical activity, and “Black” quests requiring…well, let’s just say “Black” quests lie somewhere between Survivor challenges and American Ninja Warrior, on the difficulty scale. Players who realize a Quest is too cognitively or physically demanding for them can easily move on and try a different room, finding the perfect fit for their personal appetite for challenge.
Four years ago, Jane McGonigal released Reality is Broken to make a case for the positive benefits of games, both as an anti-escapist outlet for personal growth and as a template for tackling serious societal challenges. The focus of Reality is Broken was on dissecting the core principles of game design, providing a series of case studies on how those principles were used to tackle big problems, and creating a community of game developers interested in making “gameful experiences.” Reality is Broken is a book of big solutions for big problems. It’s turning to games to encourage entrepreneurship in Africa, or to reinvent education to be more fun and rewarding for students. The book’s spiritual successor, SuperBetter, tells a much more personal story, of making the world better one person at a time.
Jane McGonigal, Concussion Slayer
Halfway through writing Reality is Broken, McGonigal slammed her head into a cabinet door and suffered a serious concussion that took away many of the things she loved most. To help recover McGonigal assumed a secret identity as Jane the Concussion Slayer. Over the following weeks, she recruited her friends to serve as Buffy the Vampire Slayer-themed allies as she identified the “bad guys” (triggers that made her feel worse) and “power-ups” (concrete actions she could take to feel better) to get better. Longer-term quests helped her along the road to recovery. Jane the Concussion Slayer was a highly personal and transformative experience for McGonigal.
During her research, McGonigal learned that while traumatic events can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, they can also serve as opportunities for people to reevaluate their priorities and experience post-traumatic growth, coming out of their crisis better than they were before. Further research indicated it’s even possible to voluntarily embrace a difficult challenge to experience similar benefits without the trauma, as post-ecstatic growth. SuperBetter is McGonigal’s attempt to tell their own stories of growth, whether in response to personal trauma or as a voluntary route to betterment.
The release of Jane McGonigal’s newest book SuperBetter is not the game’s global debut. McGonigal released the basic framework for it six years ago on her blog, She went on to recount the story in Reality is Broken, before creating a free online portal to make it easier to guide people through the process. The game has been around for a while. The book provides a rationale for playing, an overview of the studies that influenced its design, and a roadmap to start playing the game.
Three years ago, Google’s Niantic Labs released Ingress. Since the game’s launch, a lot has changed. The Ingress playerbase has swelled from a couple thousand beta testers to more than 12 million players, with over a million players logging in every day. Frequent live events at locations across the globe encourage hundreds of players to converge at key cities to compete for their faction and the opportunity to influence the game’s narrative. The company launched (and concluded) an alternate reality game for the ancient aliens themed Endgame franchise. Last month, Niantic Labs spun off from Google, forming its own company.
Niantic is making a splash with its transition to independent game developer, announcing that their next collaboration would be with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company, to create a free-to-play mobile game for iOS and Android devices that would bring Pokémon into the real world, coming in 2016. Pokémon‘s core game mechanics will be retained for Niantic’s spin on the franchise, providing players with the ability to catch, trade, and battle their virtual companions. The main difference? With Pokémon GO, gameplay would rely on location data, encouraging players to hunt down specific locations to discover new Pokémon.
Even if it doesn’t provide much insight into what the game will look like on a smartphone screen, the game’s teaser trailer does offer hints at the intended gameplay, with wild Pokémon scattering the virtual landscape similar to how Ingress‘ own portals provide a virtual backdrop to the real world. Players would be able to trade Pokémon with people nearby, or challenge them to battles. The game even hints at what Niantic’s most recent spin on live events would be, with hundreds of players gathered at Times Square for a raid to collectively battle Legendary Pokémon like Mewtwo.
Ingress‘ biggest strength is the social ties it helps forge, and in many ways, the Pokémon model is more fitting for the set of tools Niantic built out. By making certain Pokémon harder to find in certain regions and allowing players to battle each other, there’s a lot more to do at the live events and gatherings that have become a cornerstone of both the Ingress and the Pokemon communities. And with Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda contributing to the project with a focus on connecting Pokémon GO with the main series of video games, there might even be a little blend between projects. It wouldn’t be the first time: a series of Pokémon-themed pedometers allowed players to level up their Pokémon by walking.
“All art movements start with a small group of friends…when historians look back on this phase in art, the movement that we will be a part of, what they will marvel at is how interconnected we are.” Brian Clark was fascinated with the formation of movements and creating scenes, and was tireless in his efforts to foster a community of creators looking to find new ways of telling stories in the digital age. Yesterday, Brian passed away after a brief bout with cancer, leaving behind a community and industry he affected deeply.
As president of GMD Studios (originally Global Media Design), Clark helped construct the web realities for Nothing So Strange and Freakylinks, extending the narrative storytelling of film and television onto the internet. He continued exploring different ways of telling stories through his work on beloved alternate reality games like Sega’s Beta-7, Audi’s Art of the Heist, and Eldritch Errors. His projects delighted in stretching the boundaries of fictional worlds outside their comfort zones, asking players to do everything from “stealing” SD cards out of cars on display at events to joining characters at a Lovecraftian cabin in the woods.
Clark worked tirelessly behind the scenes to mentor new creators in the space, offering them help on everything from the craft of subversive storytelling to the realities of running a small business, including knowing what to charge for their work. He delighted in playing with other peoples’ creations and testing their limits, whether that meant donning a Ronald Reagan mask and dancing under his “Jihadi Jazzhands” persona, or creating a well-endowed, chain-smoking sock puppet named “She-Crab” for a game originally intended for children. He was an irrepressible prankster, leading to frequently outlandish conversations punctuated by his staccato laughter.
More than anything, he’s been the dynamo that vociferously argued for the people who knew him to resist complacency, pushing them to make things to see if they’d work, and to figure out what went wrong when they didn’t. People impacted by Clark have turned to Facebook to offer their condolences and share their memories of him by sharing “things I learned from Brian Clark”.
We’re going to miss you, Brian. You took your not-so-small group of friends, and fused them into something bigger through the generosity of your friendship and the sheer force of your personality.