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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In October 2020, the TikTok channel PBHere started posting videos from inside a seemingly abandoned facility. Over the next few months, player suggestions helped guide the alternate reality game’s amnesic protagonist to learn more about why they were locked in a room there to begin with, and how to escape. Over the series’ 31-episode run, PBHere told a remarkably succinct standalone narrative driven by audience interactions, that attracted over 1 million subscribers and 60 million views…as expressed through over 16 minutes of 3D animation by series creator yatoimtop.
One of the things that made PBHere so special was its ability to seamlessly create a project that felt highly interactive, while operating within considerable constraints in both time and resources as an animated TikTok adventure. And the game’s opening escape room challenge provides a perfect illustration of that balance.
Escape the Room: Stranded PBHere With No Memories PBHerebegins with video of a person trapped in a room talking to his cellphone with no memory of who he is, why he’s there, or even how long he’s been stuck there. A quick camera pan shows the room is sparsely decorated: there’s nothing in the room other than a bed, a chair, security cameras, and a keypad-locked door with a meal slot.
Since the letters “PB” were embroidered on the jacket, players quickly took to referring to their reluctant protagonist as PB. Over the next few videos, PBHere lays out the rules for interaction through PB’s video responses: first, by snarkily responding to a video comment of “hello”, before responding to a question asking if he remembered anything at all. In the next installment, PB explored the room in response to player feedback, confirming that the suggestions were good, but ultimately resulted in dead ends.
PB even followed up on the significantly more violent recommendation of throwing a chair against the window. After the chair breaks in pieces on impact PB quips, “well it was a good idea, it was just a flimsy chair. And also my only chair.” Within the sparse environment, PBHere established the rules for the game. The game responds directly to player input, that player input could range from open questions to recommended actions, and that those actions can have negative consequences.
Having set those ground rules, players proceeded to tackle the puzzle at hand: after more closely inspecting the keypad itself, players noticed that four digits were more worn out than the rest: 0, 2, 4, and 8. And when PB passed his cellphone through the door’s slot to get a better look at the hallway, eagle-eyed viewers noticed that a series of musical notes were etched into the ledge under the door’s windowpane. The notes spelled out ‘CECFD’ – in order to play those notes on the keypad PB had to type 80824, unlocking the door…before stumbling across a slumped body in a hazmat suit just around the corner from PB’s holding cell.
PBHere‘s initial locked room served as both tutorial mission for players, as well as an illustration of the types of gameplay to expect out of the experience. But as the door unlocked, both scope of experience and scope of gameplay expanded.
It’s been almost fifteen years since Andy Darley entered Wakerley Great Wood in Northamptonshire with his trusty trowel in hand and dug up the Receda Cube, ending the first season of Mind Candy’s alternate reality game Perplex City and claiming the game’s £100,000 prize. While the game’s main narrative was solved with the discovery of the cube, some of the game’s most ardent fans continued to chip away at the game’s unsolved puzzles, designed to be nigh impossible. And on December 30th, the final puzzle was solved when players got in contact with a man based on nothing more than a single photo, and a first name: Satoshi. After over a decade, the puzzle Billion to One has been solved.
A Brief Perplex City Primer Perplex City was an alternate reality game that launched in 2005, whose story unfolded through a series of collectible puzzle cards. According to the game’s lore, Violet Kiteway stole an object known as the Receda Cube from the Perplex City Academy Museum. After being teleported to our world, she buried the Cube and posted cryptic messages hinting at its location under the name “Combed Thunderclap”.
Not knowing his own daughter was the thief, Perplex City Academy Master Sente Kiteway partnered with Mind Candy to release a game: Perplex City. The game was designed to let people of Earth learn about their world and the theft, with the hopes that Earth’s puzzle-solvers could figure out what their Perplexian counterparts could not. And so, 256 puzzle cards were released into the world in four separate waves.
Clues on the cards might lead players to websites, blogs, emails, and telephone numbers, and a San Francisco live event even had one character escape the scene in a black helicopter…but for many, the heart of the game were puzzle cards themselves: every card had a silver scratch panel hiding a unique code that players could use to track their solves, powering a live leaderboard. Three puzzles were particularly notorious for being unsolved.