Love, Actually the classic Christmas movie was released almost 20 years ago, so the cinematic statute of limitations on spoilers has expired long ago. Hugh Grants’ iconic dance through No. 10 Downing Street has already been enshrined as one of the greatest dances in movie history (a sentiment shared by everyone except Hugh Grant himself), and Andrew Lincoln’s equally memorable cue card fueled love confession is practically a holiday staple for Saturday Night Live, with both Pete Davidson and Kate McKinnon stepping into the role. But that’s not the Love, Actually this article plans on spoiling. That honor goes to the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle named Love, Actually, which provides a perfect illustration of how puzzle hunts construct their challenges to serve as a love letter to their source material.

And the craziest part? The source material Love, Actually the puzzle is celebrating isn’t even Love, Actually the movie – instead, it’s a puzzle-filled homage to Dropout’s trivia game show Um, Actually.

Pen Station: the central hub for a puzzling tour of genre-cities ranging from The Quest Coast and Noirleans to Recipeoria

Introduction to the Mystery Hunt: On Meta-Puzzles and Reading Into Things
Since the 1980s, passionate puzzlers have made the trek to Cambridge, Massachusetts to compete in the annual MIT Mystery Hunt – a weekend long puzzling competition where teams of aspiring solvers tackle hundreds of extremely difficult puzzles in an attempt to win a special coin, and the privilege of designing the next year’s hunt. The puzzles are tied together with a loose narrative justification, and solving special puzzles known as “meta-puzzles” unlocks more of the story.

Meta-puzzles are one of the defining features of puzzle hunt events like the MIT Mystery Hunt, and provide narrative structure for the events. ARGNet’s coverage of the 2016 Mystery Hunt focused on that element of puzzle design. For that year’s Hunt, players realized they were participants in an Inception-inspired coin heist who got lost in the dream and forgot about their involvement. Meta-puzzles were designed to help identify the right way to wake up from the dream, and finish the score of a lifetime. Other years were inspired by everything from Inside Out to musical theater.

This year’s Mystery Hunt was created by Palindrome, and themed around books: at the start of the hunt, players learn that MIT’s Hayden Library disappeared, only to be replaced by a literal tornado of book-themed puzzles. The first round of puzzles acts as an initial round of investigation, revealing the source of the anomaly through the first meta-puzzle: IT’S A PLOT HOLE. Upon entering the plot hole, teams enter Bookspace, and need to figure out what caused the plot hole A VORACIOUS BOOKWYRM RUN AMOK, how to stop it FEED IT A NEW BERRY, and then navigate through a series of genre-inspired lands to construct a Plot Device capable of sending them back home, by BOOK(ING) PASSAGE HOME WITH LITCOIN. Each of these answers and more were found by completing meta-puzzles that drew upon the solutions from a host of individual puzzles.

Mystery Hunt Puzzles: The First Step is Finding the Puzzle
While meta-puzzles are at the core of the Mystery Hunt experience from a narrative perspective, individual puzzle design also tends to be somewhat unique for puzzle hunts like the Mystery Hunt. Traditional puzzles will typically present a familiar ruleset, and ask solvers to puzzle out a solution given limited information. Sudoku puzzles give aspiring solvers a 9×9 grid, and ask players to follow a series of familiar rules to fill in the blanks with numbers. Crosswords give players a larger grid of black and white squares, and ask solvers to do the same with letters. For the most part, the challenge for Sudoku and crossword puzzles isn’t figuring out how to learn the rules of the format: instead, the challenge comes in creatively applying those rules to each new grid.

For puzzle hunt style puzzles, solvers go in knowing they’re looking for a single word, phrase, or even emoji as the solution to the puzzle…but they won’t necessarily know what type of puzzle they’re being asked to solve until investigating further. For instance, Please Prove You Are Human was a puzzle from the 2022 Hunt disguised as a series of CAPTCHA tests. Where the Wild Things Are, another puzzle from this year’s hunt, mailed players a coloring book to complete. Meanwhile, The Salt-N-Pepa Diner presented solvers with a virtual jukebox that almost exclusively played Tom Jones’ What’s New Pussycat, no matter what the song listing said it should play.

Solving Mystery Hunt Puzzles: Breaking Down Puzzles with ISIS
Puzzle hunt puzzles can take almost any form, but one of the most common puzzle types involves asking solvers to immerse themselves in a niche community or subject matter, and apply the ISIS process to use what they learn to find the puzzle and extract an answer from it. Those steps include:

  • (I)DENTIFICATION – When puzzles present solvers with a wealth of information, identify everything contained within it. If there’s a series of crossword clues, solve them. If there’s a series of pictures, write down what they are. If the puzzle is referencing an online trivia show, learn everything you can about it;
  • (S)ORTING – Once everything has been identified, try and figure out if there’s a specific order for that information that makes sense.
  • (I)NDEXING – Once you’ve found the appropriate order for the information, try and find the right way to extract information from it. Does the first letter of every word spell something out?
  • (S)OLVING – Put together the information you got from indexing, and use it to solve the puzzle!

Because ISIS puzzles are so focused on immersing solvers in often unfamiliar subjects, the format often serves as an homage to the subject matter at the center of the puzzle, giving team members already obsessed with the subject matter a chance to deeply engage with the source material on another level, while introducing the rest of the team to what makes the work so special. A Blaseball puzzle might explore the chaotic plotlines of a fantasy baseball league that regularly sends its players to astral planes, while a puzzle themed around Harold and the Purple Crayon might revel in bringing color into fantastical settings.

ISIS puzzles are an arena where knowledge is power, and a passion for everything from the McElroys’ My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast to the Order of the Stick webcomic can make you the hero of the hour. And this is where Love, Actually (and the corresponding puzzle spoilers) comes into the picture: because fittingly enough, Love, Actually was written by Foggy Brume, the puzzle constructor credited with originating the “ISIS puzzle” term.

The Heartford Masquerade Ball:

Pre-Identification Breadcrumbs: Flavor Text as Context Clues
Before even getting to Love, Actually as a puzzle, it’s important to know the context of where it sits within the hunt. By this point in the hunt, teams have figured out they need to assemble a Plot Device, and one of their destinations to complete that task is the romance-themed city of Heartford, which is holding a Masquerade Ball. Each puzzle is structured as a different attendee at the ball, and every puzzle in the round resolves to the name of an actor or actress behind the mask. The goal of the round: unmask the attendees, and find the piece of the Plot Device.

Upon opening the puzzle page for Love, Actually, solvers aren’t shown something that looks like a traditional puzzle: instead, the puzzle page creates a mirror version of Mark’s cue card confessional in the film, but replaces all the cue cards with random trivia questions. However, a few things have changed with Love, Actually‘s puzzle incarnation. Instead of starting off by asking “Say it’s Carol Singers”, the puzzle begins with “Say it’s Mike Trapp.” And rather than repeating the puzzle’s title of Love, Actually on the first card, it reads Um, Actually.

Because puzzle hunt style puzzles can be so open-ended, these puzzles typically rely heavily on a puzzle’s title as well as its flavor text to nudge players in the right direction. In this case, the combination of Mike Trapp, the phrase Um, Actually, and a series of trivia questions unambiguously points solvers to think about how the game show Um, Actually might be used for a puzzle.

Identification: The Um, Actually Puzzle That Makes You Play a Game of Um, Actually
Once teams noticed that Love, Actually the puzzle was referencing Um, Actually the show, it became obvious that under the guise of a Love, Actually confessional, teams are actually playing a game of Um, Actually.

Mike Trapp starts every episode of Um, Actually with an overview of how the game works:

I have here a stack of statements. These are false statements about the franchises nearest and dearest to your hearts, or if not to your hearts, to some rabid fan base somewhere. It’s up to you to identify the thing that is wrong with it, buzz in, and correct me. There’s only two rules:

1) All corrections must be preceded with the phrase “um, actually”. If you don’t say “um, actually, you won’t get a point; and
2) You can interrupt me at any time. You don’t need to wait for me to finish my point.

Like the trivia game show, Love, Actually the puzzle presents a series of 24 statements, along with 6 “shiny” questions. Fixing the first few prompts, players would reenact a game of Um, Actually, flagging that:

Tom Lehrer’s play More of Tom Lehrer features “The Elements,” his pastiche of “Major-General’s Song” from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. Lyrics include “There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium.”

Um, Actually – It wasn’t Tom Lehrer’s PLAY, it was his ALBUM.

The 2016 movie Assassin’s Creed continued the streak of videogame adaptations that bomb at the box office (like 1993’s Super Mario Bros. and 2003’s House of the Dead). Michael Fassbender appears as both Miles Lynch and his genetic ancestor Aguilar de Nerha, original characters created for the movie. It failed to beat both Rogue One and Sing in its opening weekend.

Um, Actually – Michael Fassbender’s character wasn’t MILES, it was CALLUM.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander’s the “Zeppo” of the Scooby Gang, at least according to Cordelia Chase. Over the course of seven seasons, he falls in love with an ancient Incan mummy, is cursed with smallpox by the Ojibwa spirit Hus, and has his left eye gouged out by the mad evil preacher Caleb (played by Nathan Fillion, fresh off the recently cancelled series Firefly).

Um, Actually – It wasn’t the OJIBWA spirit Hus, it was a CHUMASH spirit.

One of the best-selling jazz records of all time, Kind of Blue was Miles Davis’s masterpiece. Recorded at Capitol’s music studio in New York, the record was named for how Davis felt at the time. In addition to Davis playing trumpet, Kind of Blue also featured John Coltrane playing saxophone and Paul Chambers on bass.

Um, Actually – It wasn’t CAPITOL‘s studio, it was COLUMBIA.

For fans of the show, this provided the opportunity to nitpick to their heart’s content. And for players new to the space, this allowed them to interact directly with the show’s central presence: that it’s fun to point out trivial details, as long as it’s structured as a game.

Sorting: Finding Order Out of Chaos
While engaging in raucous bouts of Um, Actually against the trivia questions, solvers might notice each of the correct answers to the trivia questions was listed in alphabetical order. The first correct answer was ALBUM, followed by CALLUM, CHUMASH, and COLUMBIA.

This ordering served as verification that solvers were on the right track (since a list of 24 facts appearing in alphabetical order by coincidence is next to impossible), helped players identify answers when they got stuck based on their relative positioning, and acted as a hint that a different way of presenting the data was likely necessary in order to effectively solve the puzzle. This is where the shiny questions came in: each of the choices listed in the Shiny Question rounds obliquely referenced one of the individual questions.

Sorting Things Out: mapping questions to their corresponding shiny questions

For instance, the first Shiny Question asked, “Who are the dogs shown below?”, featuring pictures of Buster, Spot, Hooch, and Scooby-Doo. Since “the Scooby Gang” was referenced in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer statement about Xander’s encounter with a Chumash spirit, the two would connect together.

Indexing: Finding the Right Index From the Rules of Um, Actually Itself
As a reminder, the trivia show Um, Actually has only two rules: every answer needs to include the phrase “Um, Actually“, and players can interrupt the host at any time to answer the question. Focusing on that fact, solvers might realize that they were following both of those rules, without even noticing it.

Looking closely at the substitutions made along the way, solvers might notice that the letters “UM” appear in every correct answer. When “play” was corrected, it became “albUM“. When “miles” became corrected, it turned into “callUM“. And when “ojibwa” was fixed, it turned into “chUMash”. These “UM” interjections could happen at any time, but it would happen for every word, without fail.

Indexing: you can count on these letters to give the next step

That pattern became used as the extract method – matching “UM”s in the corrected statements with their corresponding letters in the incorrect statements provided a method to turn a random assortment of words into one final message.

Solving: One Final Um, Actually to Wrap Things Up
Reading the indexed letters horizontally may not be particularly helpful – UALIMLUSALESCYIITASNUCMG doesn’t translate into anything useful. However, when read vertically, the message “UM, ACTUALLY A CLUE IS MISSING” appears.

Submitting that phrase as puzzle’s solution triggered one final clue: “In 1980’s Friday the 13th, Kane Hodder portrays the serial killer hell-bent on slaughtering counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, including a young Kevin Bacon, whose throat is pierced with an arrow as he’s lying in bed. (5 6).” Remembering that Jason Voorhees wasn’t the real killer in Friday the 13th, submitting BETSY PALMER as the answer completes the puzzle.

Love, Actually acts as a love letter to the Um, Actually series. After tasking players with solving trivia questions like guests on the show, it uses the core functionality of the show as the mechanism for solving the puzzles: the show’s “shiny questions” feature tells players how to organize their answers, and the show’s rules explain how to extract an answer from that organization. But the most satisfying part of the whole puzzle? Getting to send a message to the team running the hunt telling them “Um, Actually, you forgot to give us our final clue” let the experience culminate in one final dose of nitpicking.

In a puzzle about Um, Actually, teams played Um, Actually in order to use the rules of Um, Actually to Um, Actually their way into a final solve for the puzzle. It’s Um, Actually’s all the way down.

New You City: one of the most aesthetically pleasing rounds, for both graphic and puzzle design

Final Thoughts on the 2022 Mystery Hunt
While Love, Actually was the most personally satisfying example of an ISIS puzzle in the 2022 Mystery Hunt, it was not the only one to offer a final solution that asked teams to do more than just submit an answer. Fittingly enough, the entire round of the Self Help book round in New You City asked teams to be creative. During the round, teams were asked to decline a Nobel Prize, send a telegram, perform a Eurovision song, make a Star Trek episode, and adapt a book into an award-winning movie. Highlights from these challenges can be found at the end of the Mystery Hunt’s wrap-up video, and those creative tasks served as a welcome respite from more traditional puzzling over the long weekend.

A full archive of Hunt puzzles can be found at Individual puzzles I particularly appreciated include Please Prove You Are Human (offering a CAPTCHA test with the difficulty level ramped way up), ❤ & ☮ (a Eurovision puzzle that introduces solvers to the deep lore of the program), The Nonsense Show (turning William Carlos Williams’ This Is Just To Say memes into a puzzle), The Mlystery Hunt, as Told By a Thief of the Bases (a love letter to the fictional sport of Blaseball) Go the F**** to Sleep (turning F-bombs into visual puzzles), Frankenstein’s Music (monstrous mashups), and the Ministry Meta-Puzzle (turning the parable of the blind men and the elephant into a puzzle). Many of these puzzles adhere to the ISIS puzzle structure, so you can see how a relatively straightforward process can create such a wide variety of creative puzzles.

For those curious about the story, the Hunt website also features a narrative archive includes a summary of the story, including many of the videos that unlocked as teams advanced through the Mystery Hunt. The Recipeoria video in particular should be interesting for those interested in the surprise Weird Al Yankovic appearance players unlocked after solving a Weird Al-themed puzzle.

The Mystery Hunt team named “teammate” won the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt, and will be running the 2023 Hunt next January. They previously produced Matt & Emma’s Carnival Conundrum in 2021, which is currently online and will give a sense of the team’s puzzle design aesthetic.

You may send requests for corrections to this article at any time, but please start all such requests (including recommendations of other favorite Mystery Hunt puzzles from the 2022 Hunt) with the phrase “Um, Actually”