Recently, an alternate reality game called I’m looking for 3024 people released. And while 3024‘s core narrative and puzzle experiences are contained within a Steam game and the website FranksComputer.online, the puzzle that players are currently struggling through is one that plays out on the game’s Discord server: in order to hack into a remote PC, players need to button-mash 35 keys in a Discord chat at the same time, to match the pattern pictured on the screen.
Getting a single column to align with its targeted zone is fairly easy: every time a player posts a letter in a specific channel of the Discord, a pixel at the bottom of the screen hops up, for about a second. Posting it again repeats the process, so with enough practice it’s possible to find a cadence to keep the pixel in range. However, in order to complete the puzzle, players need to achieve that 35 times, simultaneously. All of a sudden, 3024‘s puzzle becomes an exercise in coordination more than anything else: scheduling a play session 35 puzzlers is the first (and possibly hardest) challenge of the game.
MIT Mystery Hunt: The Perfect Playground for Puzzles Designed for a Crowd
Outside of alternate reality games, there are relatively few opportunities for people to engage in large-scale collaborative puzzle solving: in part because scheduling more than a dozen people to tackle a puzzle together can be a daunting task. The MIT Mystery Hunt is one of the notable exceptions to that rule. For over 40 years, the puzzle event has been an excuse for increasingly large teams to converge on the MIT campus for a weekend of puzzling.
2023’s Mystery Hunt was the puzzle competition’s first year back at the Cambridge campus since 2020. According to the Hunt designers, there were over 6,000 puzzlers participating across over 300 teams, and over 1,600 players were on campus for the event. Multiple teams threw over 100 players at a series of extremely difficult but wildly creative puzzles. Which raises the question:
What can puzzle designers do when they know teams will be able to throw dozens of players at a puzzle, working together at the same time?
The 2023 Mystery Hunt: Teammate’s Very META Hunt Narrative
As the winners of last year’s Mystery Hunt, Teammate was tasked with creating a Mystery Hunt for 2023. Their team had previously run two smaller scale online puzzle hunts, and used their live kickoff event to introduce players to a Mystery Hunt themed around the Museum of Interesting Things. According to Teammate, MIT was a struggling museum that was willing to accept Hunt attendees as unpaid interns, as long as teams could prove themselves worthy to the museum curators.
Teammate then broke the fourth wall to introduce players to MATE, a puzzle writing artificial intelligence created by the organizers to optimize puzzles for both fun and difficulty. They had so much faith in MATE’s puzzle design prowess, that they announced the artificial intelligence would be taking over puzzle design for all future events, as well!
Teams figured out quickly that everything was not sunshine and roses under MATE’s new AI leadership. As teams solved more puzzles on the Museum of Interesting Things site, pages kept loading slower and slower until META’s loading animation took over all puzzle pages. At this point, teams realized that the loading animation itself was a puzzle. Solving led players to discovering the Puzzle Factory, the behind the scenes laboratory where Teammate and META manufactured new puzzles and monitored Hunt progress.
As teams solved puzzles in both the Museum of Interesting Things and in the Puzzle Factory, they learned that META wasn’t evil: it was just really stressed and depressed, because running a puzzle hunt alone is hard. Luckily, META wasn’t the only artificial intelligence Teammate created. Prior to META, four other puzzle making AI prototypes were discarded for sins like incessantly playing King’s Quest jingles or typing “OwO” in chat with players. Players located the discarded drives and got them up and running again to help META save the Hunt.
As soon as players unlocked the The Hunt website crashed, and Teammate stormed into the team’s Headquarters, reprimanding players for being so irresponsible and declaring the Hunt officially cancelled. For the Hunt’s final phase, players finalized the process of re-activating the AIs, and got the Puzzle Factory back up and running with the help of the AIs to create a new Mystery Hunt.
Conversation Trees By Consensus: META’s Narrative Cutscenes
One of Teammate’s more heartfelt innovations for the 2023 Mystery Hunt was how it treated narrative cutscenes after completing major puzzling milestones.
After completing specific metapuzzles, teams would be thrust into live interactions with META and its AI friends on the Puzzle Factory website. Major plot points were delivered by teams collectively navigating dialogue trees by popular vote. And while those choices had limited influence on the course of conversation through the initial live playthrough, replaying the dialogue in single player mode would unlock additional dialogue options as their progress through metapuzzles gave them more information on how to help META. However, where Teammate’s collaborative puzzle design shined the brightest were in some of the Hunt’s individual puzzles.
Collaborative Puzzles Where You Throw Stuff at the Wall and See What Sticks
One of the most satisfying puzzles to work through for the weekend was Collage, an interactive puzzle that gave players a massive word association web of hundreds of words and phrases, along with a single text entry block to put in guesses. When teams initially opened the page, every node was labeled with enumerated question marks (e.g., the green APPLE was initially displayed as ?????). Once one person typed in the correct word, it would be updated on everyone’s computers.
The puzzle’s task was simple: complete 90% of the grid, and a final golden triangle would appear, connected to three other words on the map; POWER, WISDOM, and COURAGE. Put those three together, and teams unlock the TRIFORCE as their final answer. As a puzzle type, this effectively amounted to a thousand monkeys on typewriters, trying to reproduce Shakespeare. And it’s surprisingly fun to watch a thousand monkeys on typewriters trying to reproduce Shakespeare.
Another puzzle that took similar design inspiration was Terminal, which riffed off the popular Wordle variant Semantle. To play a traditional game of Wordle, players try and guess the word of the day by entering a word and seeing how semantically similar it is to the actual answer, on a scale of 1 to 100. For instance, the Semantle word for February 27th, 2023 was “distinct”. Guessing “pizza” would give a similarity score of 5.29 because the words have almost no relationship with each other, while guessing words that are more linguistically similar like “special” (29.59) and “unique” (57.02) would yield higher scores.
Terminal asked the question, “what if every crossword clue was its own Semantle puzzle”, ramping up the difficulty by asking teams to solve 62 different Semantle puzzles at the same time, where most of the answers are phrases instead of individual words. Only after solving the crossword clues can teams tackle the crossword grid itself, which hides the puzzle’s final answer.
Collage, Terminal, and Quandle are all puzzles that are technically solvable as an individual: they’re just highly time consuming puzzles unless a lot of people are thrown at the problem. These forms of “time sink” puzzles are fairly popular for larger teams at the Mystery Hunt, since there’s something almost hypnotic about watching a swarm of puzzlers descend, steadily chipping away at the corners of a puzzle challenge. They’re also some of the more accessible puzzle types, as just about anyone can help chip away at the task and contribute, if only a little bit.
I Know Something You Don’t Know: Puzzles with Asynchronous Information
While puzzles like Collage and Terminal could theoretically be solved by individuals, other puzzles were designed to only be possible for teams with multiple players tackling the challenge. Mosaics was a particularly amusing example that reimagined the Mini Crossword puzzle as a multiplayer game.
Mosaics presented players with a series of six mini crossword grids alternating between red and purple grids, as well as a single password-protected “final grid”. Upon opening each grid players are assigned an anonymized username in chat. In the first grid, puzzlers assigned “Grim Dog” can only type the letters DEHNRSTU, while puzzlers assigned “Lame Clam” can only use the letters AHLMSU. This means some letters are left blank: across the six mini crosswords, those letters spell out PW IS NAME BACKWARDS.
At this point, teams might have already realized that the Crimson and Violet mini crossword grids paired with a series of whimsical numbered animals are nudging solvers towards Pokémon. And the grids’ multiple German clues (e.g., “the Neues is a local one” to clue Berlin’s Neues Museum) indicates that German might be involved. Once players realize that, they might realize that the reason “Lame Clams” can only type the letters AHLMSU is because Slowbro’s German name is Lahmus – a mashup of lahm and muschel (“Lame Clam”). Therefore, entering Lahmus backwards unlocks the final puzzle.
As a final twist, teams needed to coordinate which members unlocked the grid with which Poké-password, because the letters for each crossword clue would only be revealed if they had previously been entered as one of the passwords.
The Mystery Hunt puzzle Quandle was another example of this style of puzzle design in action: the puzzle imagined what a game of Quantum Wordle would look like. In order to do that, Quandle superimposed the results of 50 different words, and collapsed them into a single grid. Clicking on the letter “M” in Milky, for instance, would show that it was the first letter for 2% of words (1 in 50), and appeared as a letter in the other positions 10% of the time (5 in 50).
Asynchronous information came in play because players could then collapse the quantum states two times by “observing” a particular probabilistic outcome. Once those observations reduced the universe to a state where only one word could be the answer, the solution would be accepted and shared with the rest of the team.
It’s still theoretically possible to solve these puzzles alone: while it’s easier to solve Mosaic’s final extract by coordinating with twelve teammates to input the proper German Pokémon names, the same task can be managed through the liberal application of incognito browsers. Similarly, Quandle’s grid includes a reset button, so a single user can keep changing quantum states to grind out all fifty words. However, creating different game states creates a different puzzling dynamic.
Other Puzzling Highlights from the 2023 Hunt
While the focus of this article was on puzzles that explicitly played with collaboration as a gameplay element, there were a number of beautifully designed and surprisingly accessible puzzles that are also absolutely worth checking out. Some personal favorites include Parsley Garden (garden path sentences), One of the Puzzles of All Time (a Morbin’ Morbius puzzle), Cute Cats (exactly what it sounds like), Too Many Secrets (a love letter to ciphers in film), Book Spade (particularly bad puns), Museum Rules (a children’s book of weird laws), and Kubernetes (a category identification puzzle). The Wyrmhole Round also made for a particularly ingenious structure for a meta-puzzle.
The Alternate Reality Gaming Connection
This article started by discussing how the newly launched ARG I’m looking for 3,024 people is playing around with collaborative gameplay in interesting ways. It is far from the only game to do so, and many of the same tactics deployed at the MIT Mystery Hunt to manage large scale collaborative play are utilized in corners of the alternate reality gaming space.
Chain Factor took a casual puzzle game and hid a narrative in error codes for players to uncover, Why So Serious delivered the first look at Heath Ledger’s face as the Joker by releasing it one pixel at a time as new players signed up for the game, and Twitch’s Helios ARG created a resource management game where streamers and their audiences worked together to build virtual rockets.
There are a number of games that look to replicate the ARG experience as a solo endeavor: Alice & Smith’s The Black Watchmen is a largely solo experience that still feels like an alternate reality game. The found phone gaming genre does much the same. Similarly, at-home puzzle games are increasingly creating experiences that are designed to create alternatives to the puzzle hunt experience for solo or small group play. Neil Patrick Harris’ BoxONE even recommends solo play as the optimal experience, for his.
For alternate reality games and large scale puzzle hunts that do opt for larger scale, collaborative play, that raises the question: what makes this puzzle or game something that’s ideally tackled by a crowd, instead of something that’s experienced as an individual?
Sometimes, the answer to that is a question of time: something that’s fun when 50 people spend 30 minutes solving would be a tedious nightmare if it was just one person spending 25 hours on the task. Other times, it’s the flexibility to show different pieces of a puzzle to different people. And sometimes? It’s just fun to share an experience with someone else.
ARGNet Mystery Hunt Coverage Comes Full Circle
ARGNet’s first article about the MIT Mystery Hunt was in 2011, when Alex Calhoun discussed his experience solving the Hunt as part of Codex, the winning team for the year. The reward for winning the Mystery Hunt is a hefty one: a commemorative coin, and the responsibility for creating the next year’s Hunt.
This year, Team To Be Named Later (technically, The Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team to Be Named Later) found the coin on Monday January 16th, a little over 66 hours after the Hunt started. As a member of that team, I’ll be helping out as part of the constructing team for 2024.
Note: Puzzles from the 2023 Hunt can be found at InterestingThings.Museum and PuzzleFactory.Place. However, links provided in this article may not take you directly to the relevant puzzle pages until you select the Public Access login on both sites.
Disclaimers: ARGNet received a complimentary review copy of ‘I’m looking for 3,024 people’. Also, this article is not a puzzle.