“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.

Galactic Trendsetters planted the code well, on this floor

Exploring this world was ultimately a puzzle in itself, since the virtual world captured and accentuated MIT’s byzantine campus design. Peculiarities of MIT’s campus layout often makes navigating through it feel like exploring architectural House of Leaves fanfiction. Every year I’ve attended the Hunt, I’ve gotten lost wandering through the passages on a runaround at least once…and the same held through with its virtual counterpart, only this time it was intentional.

Within the Green Building, players initially only had access to the first floor, which they accessed by punching in a combination into the keypad. Each subsequent floor provided hints pointing to the next combination in the geography of the room itself – the picture shown above provided a four-digit combination to unlock the fourth floor. The Infinite Corridor got particularly devious, transforming from an extremely long hallway on the MIT campus into an almost literally infinite hallway in ⊥IW that had to be navigated using special portals, containing tens of thousands of technically solvable puzzles.

A virtual campus map to get lost within

Adapting Live Hunt Elements to a Virtual Environment
To unlock puzzles on the Perpendicular Institute website, players needed to physically navigate through the MIT campus’ virtual world and discover NPC characters to give them quests. Sometimes, these quests were individual puzzles that followed traditional Mystery Hunt formats: find a puzzle, solve a puzzle. Puzzles like Love at 150 km/h (a luge-themed dating sim), Successively More Abundant in Verbiage (increasingly verbose retellings of classic literature), Not a Crossword (a gridless crossword where the final grid provides clues for the answer), and Hey, Can You Give Me A Hand With This Puzzle (leveraging advanced Excel formulas to draw some truly stunning pixel art), and the MacGregor House meta (a deceptively easy meta-puzzle) are personal favorites from this year’s “standard” Mystery Hunt set.

Traditionally live components of the Hunt were also deftly adapted for virtual gameplay. Rather than picking up the physical puzzles on-site, teams were given the opportunity to order physical components to be delivered directly to their homes. For Squee Squee, select players received a small ceramic piggy bank in the mail. A series of sub-puzzles had teams to care for their pig, growing more and more attached to it with every step before finally being asked to smash it into pieces. Events like the virtual Fencing crossword tournament allowed players from different teams to gather together and solve puzzles together. All of these elements can be vicariously experienced, in some form or another. But the true magic of the 2021 Mystery Hunt was hidden directly within the Projection Device’s world.

I’m lucky I didn’t come across the “League of Legends characters” ghost checkpoint

The Puzzling MMO That Existed For Less Than a Week
Beneath the MIT campus are a series of subterranean tunnels that connect most of campus that are a frequent destination for Mystery Hunt runarounds. In ⊥IW, those tunnels are haunted by groups of ghosts that will only let players pass if they walk through ghosts that satisfy certain rules. The only way to learn? Trial and error. The ghosts pictured above, for instance, would only allow players to pass when none of the letters in the word are curved. Learning these rules was necessary to navigate the grid, but also became essential for a TikTok-themed puzzle set to the “It’s Tricky” audio trend that applied different ghosts’ rulesets to determine who would turn left or right.

Another puzzle within the tunnels thrust players into a series of pitch black rooms, where their movements triggered different audio-based puzzles. In one room, players had to figure out how to Rickroll themselves, by tracing out the letter “R” with their footsteps to play the opening to Rick Astley’s classic (recently remastered) song. Another room was a audio-based 5×5 crossword. As players walked from top-to-bottom in the room, a low-pitched voice would legibly read out crossword clues, masked by unintelligible sounds in a higher pitch, reading out the “down” clues. Walking from left to right would reverse that pattern, with the high-pitched voice reading out the “across” clues. The Hayden Library held a virtual escape room as a puzzle, while ⊥IW.kilo tasked teams to use shrink and growth rays to collectively navigate a series of corridors until one player reached the Staples “EASY” button.

HONKing the HONK on the HONK was so HONKing fun

A number of “Field Goal” puzzles made map exploration its own challenge. Talking with an NPC in Lobby 10 would gift players with a goose hat and the ability to HONK, unlocking a special Untitled Goose Game-inspired series of challenges that asked players to engage in acts of petty mayhem, while the Pokémon-inspired Catch and Release challenged players to catch a series of fish by manipulating the environment and your avatar to catch a series of fish, which provided additional hints to catch five Legendary fish.

A personal favorite mini-game took place in the Charles River, as the Event round’s meta-puzzle. After players completed enough of the game’s virtual events, The Lobster Network unlocked. Players are charged with deciphering a series of messages intercepted from the lobsters’ “pier to pier network.” Accordingly, a series of diagrams showed how words flowed through a series of eight different circles to transform, with each circle representing a different transformation. For instance, two transformations changed the word “SPAM” into “REMAPS”. Applying these transformations to the prior puzzle solutions spelled out an answer that unlocked the final challenge of the round, Attack of the Lobsters.

The phone-clawed “homophone” lobsters were my favorite

In Attack of the Lobsters, the hilariously disguised Agent L reveals that players need to steer a boat across the Charles River while the boat is under attack by lobsters. This mini-game acts like a multi-player game of Typing of the Dead: successfully typing words steers the boat forward, or shoots rapidly approaching lobsters before they can attack the boat. However, all of the words are jumbled up in different ways. To steer the ship, players sometimes need to unscramble words, while each approaching lobster was transformed by one of the eight rules featured in the prior Lobster Network puzzle, with not-so-subtle clues in the lobsters’ designs indicating which rule applies.

Perpendicular Institute emojis – gotta catch ’em all!

The game even had some highly compelling emote challenges that had no bearing on the Mystery Hunt’s progression, but allowed players to collect custom emotes to show off as they navigated the world. Since the Mystery Hunt is a competition, Galactic Trendsetters didn’t let players directly talk to each other within the platform. However every team selected a custom emoji to represent their allegiance within the MMO, and could discover emotes they could spam as other players passed by, to get their attention or just to amuse themselves. Nine emotes were hidden at various locations across the map, throwing a bit of harmless fun into the mix.

Ordinarily, the MIT Mystery Hunt is meticulously archived, with puzzles and detailed explanations of the corresponding solutions documented for later perusal. And while MYST2021 was no different in that regard, it’s much harder to capture the magic Galactic Trendsetters created within their virtual campus on a flat archive. The hunt’s design created a sense of space and community that I didn’t think I’d have a chance to experience this year, and I received (and sent) more than a few messages with friends excitedly saying “I just saw your avatar walk by”, and even getting lost on the virtual campus of a university I never attended felt nostalgic.

A flock of Team Palindrome members, featuring a particularly fitting emoji choice

What’s Next: Palindrome Wins, and Exploring Archives
This article focused on the unique features of the MIT Mystery Hunt’s foray in MMO design, but if you’re interested in learning more about the Hunt, check out Galactic Trendsetter’s post-Hunt wrapup video, which goes into the surprising story of the game’s development and provides a broader overview of the game’s puzzles and events. The Perpendicular Institute website’s Story So Far section breaks down the narrative beats of the story including video clips of the Zoom calls teams unlocked as they progressed, while the Puzzles page provides a conveniently sorted list of all the game’s puzzles. The Yew Labs and Students rounds of puzzles were designed to be slightly more accessible to newer puzzlers. The Mystery Hunt website has an archive of past Hunts, while the devjoe index categorizes those puzzles by everything from puzzle type and theme to individual puzzle constructor.

Congratulations to Team Palindrome (who chose NOT SO BOSTON as their 2021 team name) for winning this year’s Hunt, and good luck on putting together the challenge for next year.