Pictures of Gwen Delivers Aesthetic ARG Dream

Gwenhwyfar Thomas is a second-year university student studying Fine Arts, who landed the offer of a lifetime: a chance to work at Asterith International as a Graphic Designer. All she needs to do? Drop out of university, move to the city of Torstoy, and complete a probationary period over the next few months. Gwen created the Instagram account Pictures of Gwen, to document snapshots of her new life through sketches and watercolor art, celebrating highly aesthetic moments such as befriending a local magpie, exploring the local farmer’s market, and wandering through local parks. She even started working on a zine. In short: if Gwen Thomas didn’t move to a city, she’d probably be living the cottagecore dream.

However, dig a little deeper and something seems slightly off about this particular dream. Why would a major marketing firm reach out to an unproven university student, and ask her to join the company before she even applied to work there? Why is the city littered with tarot-themed graffiti, in what one commenter described as a “Torstow version of Banksy”? And why does the city of Torstow’s tourist website have a secret message hidden in the website, telling visitors to “seek her in the room marked with a spade”?

Learning More About Torstow: Zine Subscriptions Optional
Many mysteries remain unanswered, but one thing is clear: Pictures of Gwen is an alternate reality game, created by the team at Rogue Beacon, best known for their work on Boomtown Fair’s alternate reality game, featured on Night Mind’s channel. According to Pictures of Gwen‘s out-of-game website, while the game has started out as a simple story of a naive art student moving to the city to make a name for herself in the wonderful world of marketing, the story will soon take a turn towards magical realism, as Gwen “travels on the ley lines where mythology, art, and modernity meet…in the not-quite-shadow of a cyclopean tower that can only be seen through the corner of the eye.”

Mechanically, Gwen’s Instagram is the central hub for the story. From that central point, the narrative sprawls across a variety of websites, radio broadcasts, and even physical artifacts that breathe life into Gwen’s adventure and the fictional city of Torstow through monthly episodes. And while the game is free to play, invested players can sign up for monthly mailings that add a tactile element to the experience. The first mailing included everything from the first edition of Gwen’s zine and prints of some of her Instagram watercolor paintings to her welcome letter from Asterith International. And since players are meticulously documenting their packages once they’re delivered, the subscription element of the game remains a purely optional choice for prospective players.

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Mysterious Nashville Hides Cached Content in Tennessee

Mysterious Nashville website image

Last week, a series of flyers started popping up around Nashville, featuring an image of a door, alongside the suitably vague message: “ARE YOU LOOKING FOR SOMETHING? Perhaps it’s this.” The bottom of the flyer was filled with tear-off strips, all bearing the same GPS coordinates. The handful of brave and curious passerby who followed the trail were rewarded with a business card introducing them to the organization behind the experience: Mysterious Nashville.

A Little Less Mysterious: Unearthing the First Cache
On Sunday May 2nd, Eva Snyder discovered one of the flyers in Nashville, and tore off a strip with the coordinates: 36.1815368, -86.7361754. After doing a little online reconnaissance, she made a rainy day excursion to the location along with her fiancé and her extremely cute dog. Upon reaching the location, they found a lockbox near a drainage ditch, with a follow-up message: “Open the box. Take one. Leave the box.” Inside, they found a baggie filled with business cards featuring an iconic black door with an eye on it. The back side of the card had a QR code, along with the text “There are no secrets that time does not reveal”.

Around the same time, Ashley Locke received an Instagram DM from MysteriousNashville, linking her to the same GPS coordinates after opening up the conversation with two wide open eye emojis – “👁️👁️”. She made the trek out with her boyfriend, and claimed another one of the cards before posting a video of the experience. Over the next few days, more people made the trip out to a random drainage ditch in East Nashville to claim their card, and receive an invitation to whatever came next, with many of them posting their adventure to TikTok.

While the MysteriousNashville social accounts previously featured the GPS coordinates from the flyers, they have since been updated to explain “There is nothing left at the coordinates”, so this initial phase has concluded. But while the initial entry point to the experience has been taken away, the Mysterious Nashville adventure continues on…

Three photos of Mysterious Nashville flyers

From Mysterious Nashville to Mysterious Website
While all the flyers sent curious Nashville-area residents to the same drainage ditch, the MysteriousNashville Instagram account featured a handful of creative locations the team hid their flyers, ranging from posting them on trees to hiding one inside a little library. Over the next few days, the MysteriousNashville TikTok account expanded on that theme, hiding flyers at evocative locations like the elevator of a building, near a park bench surrounded by natural stone walls, and even behind a graffiti-covered wall behind an abandoned train car.

At the time, visitors to Mysterious Nashville‘s social accounts had nothing more to go on. But people who visited the physical location and scanned the QR code were sent to MysteriousWebsite.com. The team behind Mysterious Nashville has since expanded access to the site, replacing the GPS coordinates on their social profiles with a link to the site.

The upper left corner of the website features an image of the door from the cards, while the upper right includes a link to the Mysterious Nashville Instagram account. Dominating the screen, an animated image of concentric triangles collapse and expand, growing whiter as they fade into the background. Once the triangles fully expand, the silhouette of a man casually strides across the triangles, before repeating the loop once more. A message in small text next to the Instagram link instructs visitors to “look below the triangle”. Doing so reveals the message “Odd things are happening in Nashville”, along with a signup form for updates on future events.

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The Merchant’s Quest Welcomes Resident Evil Fans to Dimitrescu’s Domain

In late April, the Resident Evil Twitter account shared a cryptic puzzle, leading curious solvers to discovering the Reddit account for Village Connoisseur, a simple merchant whose collection of books have been defaced by an unknown vandal. With the help of the merchant’s assistant, players of this alternate reality game are tasked with helping recover the damaged pages.

Resident Evil Village is coming out on May 7th as the newest installment in the popular horror franchise, making it likely that Capcom launched The Merchant’s Quest alternate reality game as a condensed introduction to the Romanian village at the center of the game’s narrative.

Framing the Narrative: ARG as Collection Side Quest
On Friday April 30th, Village Connoisseur set the stage for the coming days with another post to Reddit, presenting the challenge to prospective players:

Greetings, străini. I am a simple merchant, with limited access to the technology you take for granted. I believe you can help me with a situation I find myself in.

I have books of great value to me, but they have been badly damaged. Some madman has torn out various pages and has written nonsense in the margins. La naiba! What kind of monster would damage a precious book?

I have an assistant, she tells me the vandalism looks deliberate, like it might mean something to someone. I see only rips and scribbles. Perhaps you can see otherwise. I will share the details with you as I take a closer look at all the damage.

This simple introduction provides a clear outline for the days to come: as the merchant goes through the damaged merchandise, they plan on sharing what’s left behind, for players to puzzle over. Solve puzzles, and help recover or reconstruct the missing pages, and perhaps unravel why those particular pages were destroyed in the first place. The structure and function of The Merchant’s Quest is reminiscent of more traditional optional side quests in video games: collect the full set of items, and unlock additional lore. Only instead of waiting until the game’s release, The Merchant’s Quest presents its challenge prior to the game’s release ever occurs.

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Searching For Higher Power with Coldplay’s Alien Radio

In New York City, a digital billboard featuring an alien language popped up over the CVS at the corner of Broadway and 49th Street. Similar advertisements around the world. A subway advertisement at Green Park Station in London. England. Another at Jamsil Station in Seoul, South Korea. And a digital crawl during a football match at the Estadio Monumental in Santiago, Chile. All with the same alien text, and a message to go to AlienRadio.FM to learn more.

Alien Radio: Tuning into Frequencies
The Alien Radio website is relatively sparse: after advancing through a screen where the outdoor advertisements flash by in rapid progression, the website shifts into a static-filled night’s sky with a minimalistic, rotating globe in the center of the screen. Visitors’ cursors are turned into a four-pointed star, and moving it across the page “tunes in” the frequency along both X- and Y-axes to reveal multi-lingual messages, with subjects ranging from the anatomy of baseballs and advertisements for the Scottish highlands for satellite launches to excerpts from Sherlock Holmes’ Adventure of the Dancing Men and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The only area that stands out amidst the multilingual chatter: an area in the upper right corner of the screen near 95 MHz x 55 MHz, which triggers a series of tones and scrolling text at the bottom of the screen in what appears to be Baudot (International Teleprinter) code. This message, which the players have taken to calling “signal.svg”, is currently unsolved.

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Letters to Margaret Paints a Cruciverbalist Love Story

Maggie A. Cross is a journalism student at Columbia University who runs a crossword blog along with her roommate Amanda, under pseudonyms. And while she doesn’t realize it, her professor pseudonymously runs a rival crossword blog along with his teaching assistant, Derry Down. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, when Maggie submits a crossword to the New York Times for consideration, she hears back…from the Times’ first crossword editor Margaret Farrar, who probably shouldn’t be providing editorial feedback on crosswords considering she’s been dead for almost 40 years.

This story of Maggie Cross and Derry Down’s tempestuous rivalry as well as the mystery of Margaret Farrar’s ghostly correspondence unfolds in Letters to Margaret, a graphic novel with a puzzling twist. As the novel progresses, readers are given the option to solve just shy of a dozen crosswords referenced in the book, including a series of puzzles that show Maggie’s guidance under the somewhat archaic tutelage of Margaret Farrar. Written by illustrated by Hayley Gold (who previously ran the crossword review webcomic Across and Down) and published by Lone Shark Games, Letters to Margaret‘s Kickstarter campaign will be running for the next two weeks (until March 29th). The campaign has already surpassed its funding goal, raising $31K from over 700 backers, at the time of this article. But the puzzling doesn’t end with crosswords.

Crossed Words: A Single Story, Two Perspectives
The book is split between Maggie and Derry’s perspectives. While Derry is frustrated by the racist, sexist, and exclusionary elements that often pop up in crossword puzzles, Maggie believes that calls to restrict the language in crosswords are going too far, stifling the creativity of constructors. This thematic split is echoed in the structure of the graphic novel, as the events unfold from Maggie’s perspective starting on one end of the book, and switch to Derry’s perspective on the other end, eventually meeting in the middle. Readers can choose to read the entire book from a single perspective before flipping over to see the other side, or can alternatively hop between chapters to see the book unfold in a rough approximation of chronological order. Both options are equally valid, although I’d recommend swapping perspectives every chapter, as flipping perspectives feels more powerful when the other half is still fresh in your mind.

At its heart, Letters to Margaret is a graphic novel about the power of words. Every character in the graphic novel shares a love for the English language, even the book’s duo of Statler and Waldorf style sentient arrow commentators. The book is packed to the brim with all the trivia, mixed metaphors, spoonerisms, and puns you could ever hope for, and much of the comedy in this romantic comedy comes from those moments of wordplay.

And while Maggie and Derry approach crosswords from different perspectives, the fact that the choice of words matters (whether they’re strung together into sentences or strategically placed in a 15×15 grid) is not up for debate. Where things get complicated and thorny is the question of where to draw the gridded lines. This is an issue the crossword community has been grappling with, and Letters to Margaret manages to illustrate that complexity with consideration and finesse. And while it may not provide answers to all the questions, it hopefully helps deepen the understanding of the questions themselves.

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First Virtual Mystery Hunt Serves Up Puzzling MMO

“Easy” button notwithstanding, nothing about this was easy

The date: January 16th, 2021. A small group of crossword fans assembled for an online “fencing” tournament, a newly-minted format for PVP crossword showdowns. While traditional crossword tournaments involve players racing to complete crossword grids the fastest, “fencing” added a strategic twist to the format: both players competed on the same grid. One player starts in the bottom left of the crossword while their competitor starts in the top right, and additional clues are unlocked by filling in adjacent squares. Particularly speedy cruciverbalists can block off their opponent’s access to entire sections of the board by enclosing spaces in their color, making fencing an odd mix of crossword-solving and Go.

Ultimately, five-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament winner (and Wired DECODE collaborator) Tyler Hinman emerged victorious, wrapping up just one of hundreds of puzzles for the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt. While off-campus puzzle solving has been fairly standard practice among larger teams at the Mystery Hunt, this was the first time in over 40 years of Hunt history that the competition was held exclusively online.

Competitive online crossword Fencing is so engrossing, I need more

The MIT Mystery Hunt: Where Physical Presence (Usually) Matters
In 1981, Brad Schaefer ran the first MIT Mystery Hunt in Cambridge, with clues leading to an Indian Head penny hidden on the MIT campus. After Schaefer graduated, the winners of each year’s hunt assumed responsibility for creating the experience for the following year’s competition. Over the next forty years the MIT Mystery Hunt gained official school support through the MIT Puzzle Club, and expanded into a massive undertaking that attracts over 2,000 students, staff, alumni, and puzzle fans every year.

Traditionally, teams running the MIT Mystery Hunt could take advantage of the Hunt’s live presence by constructing elaborate physical puzzles, events, and puzzle-driven “runarounds” to surprise and delight attendees. A laser-cut deck of cards might reveal a three-dimensional image when the cards are sorted in a particular order. A children’s book might hide puzzles in its font selection choices, while a choose your own adventure book encoded messages in its decision trees. Events might range from watching big-headed mascot facsimiles of MIT alumni race around a gym to holding a costumed robot parade down the campus’ hyperbolically named Infinite Corridor. Most commonly, though, puzzles are used as a chance to write a puzzle-laden love letter to the competition’s host institution.

As thanks for serving as host for the massive puzzle competition and to take advantage of the game’s live setting, Mystery Hunts have incorporated the MIT campus and history as an integral part of the live puzzle hunt experience. Some puzzles focused on building challenges around that history, like a puzzle that highlighted famous fictional MIT alums, or another that turned descriptions of some of the campus’ more whimsical clubs into limericks. One particularly beloved Hunt puzzle enlisted MIT alum Oliver Smoot to narrate a puzzle dedicated to obscure units of measurement, since a fraternity prank led to his height’s adoption as a unit of measurement on campus.

But Mystery Hunts typically use the campus itself as a canvas for puzzle creation with “runaround” style puzzles that require solvers to explore the hidden nooks and crannies of campus that often go unnoticed and unremarked. Some involve following instructions to reveal previously redacted words in a series of photographs, while some involved playing a knock-off game of Pokémon Go to find locations around campus with Poke-posters hiding secret messages when “caught” in the right light.

…and yes, that X marked the spot for the start of another puzzle

Creating a Virtual Hunt That Felt Like You Were at MIT
When ✈️✈️✈️Galactic Trendsetters ✈️✈️✈️ won the 2020 Mystery Hunt, they inherited responsibility for running the 2021 Mystery Hunt – or as they took to calling it, MYST2021. For the past three years, Galactic Trendsetters ran the online Galactic Puzzle Hunt, but this was their opportunity to take advantage of having hundreds of puzzle solvers assembled in the same place. Unfortunately, the team soon realized that the coronavirus would make it unlikely to safely gather on campus the next year. Their solution? Spend the next few months coding out a virtual campus to mirror the real one: the Perpendicular Institute of the World, or ⊥IW for short.

According to the puzzle hunt’s narrative, experimental cosmology group researcher Dr. Barbara Yew discovered the existence of an alternate universe, and opened up a portal to that world. But once she entered that other world, strange anomalies started occurring. By using a “Projection Device” to virtually enter the alternate universe, and assist Yew and her ⊥IW counterpart Nick Hemlock to save both universes by closing the portal…by solving puzzles. The bulk of the puzzle hunt took place in that virtual world: massively multi-player online puzzle game that teams inhabited together over the course of the long weekend.

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