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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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The Aeternus Trailhead: Return to Center

Yesterday, ARGNet received a letter in the mail from an anonymous party. Inside the outer envelope was a letter wrapped around an unsealed envelope, containing what I would soon learn is the trailhead to an alternate reality game centered around the company Aeternus Center. And within an hour of opening the letter, I mailed the contents off to make this someone else’s problem. But to explain why, it’s necessary to learn a little more about this enigmatic trailhead.

The letter contained within the outer envelope was straight to the point:

Subject: Aeternus Center

Hi ARGNet,

Received the following in the mail a couple days ago regarding some sort of ‘company’, though the contents seem ARG-ish and the name it was addressed to was only used in ARG contexts. Unfortunately I don’t have time to investigate with classes going on, but also want it somewhere accessible in case the contents are important for whatever thing is going on.

Out of concern for their privacy, the anonymous sender took a permanent marker to blank out their return address and postmark before forwarding the letter they received from the Aeternus Center. Even if someone claimed they were the original sender, I’d have no way of verifying that fact. The only unredacted information on the envelope was the Center’s return address: a PO Box in Cambridge, Massachussetts.

The contents of the Aeternus Center’s letter was thankfully more forthcoming, and included:

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Caught in an Infiniti Loop with Deja View

deja-view

A sharply dressed man and woman are lost on an empty stretch of road, with no memories of who they are or where they’re going. The only clues to their identity are the personalized features programmed into their car, and your phone number in their phone’s call history. The nameless man calls your number. For the next 15-20 minutes, you’re tasked with guiding the pair as they retrace forgotten steps, piecing together their past lives and their current predicament.

Welcome to Deja View, a visually stunning interactive film produced by Campfire to promote the Infiniti Q50, that delights in throwing you into the center of a mystery with characters as confused as you are. The experience (limited to United States residents) begins at infinitiusa.com/deja-view. After watching a brief explanatory video and calling a number to sync up your browser and your phone, voice inputs on the phone can direct what video content plays out in real time, creating the illusion of natural conversations with your fictional on-screen collaborators.

As Deja View progresses through the story’s three main narrative checkpoints, you’re led on a seemingly simple, linear journey. Once or twice per session, you receive a phone call from one of the characters and are asked to respond to a few simple questions: say you’ve spoken with the man before, or deny it. Go to the gas station, or to the diner. Your answer changes how the video progresses, while still driving you inexorably towards a happy ending where the pair free themselves from the loop that has them trapped. The only challenge? One of the central themes of Deja View that enables you to reach a successful conclusion to the story is the idea of eschewing the well-worn path, and breaking free from constraints. You can’t complete Deja View without convincing the on-screen characters to go against their own instincts, but the story rewards you for taking the easy path with a happy ending. The message is conveyed, but you aren’t forced to live it as a co-conspirator.

To address this potential for cognitive dissonance, Deja View has secret narratives that are only exposed to people who resist the easy answers. Ask the right unprompted question, and you might ferret out some additional information about why the pair are stuck in a loop. Make a conscious effort to thwart their journey, and you might make one or both of the characters lose trust in you and each other, irrevocably altering their path. It’s not easy, and most of the changes you make only have a small impact on the overarching narrative. But push the edges enough, and you’ll take things in a completely different direction.

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ARGFest-o-Con 2011 – The 10th Anniversary

ARGFest 2011It’s the 10th anniversary of ARGFest-o-Con August 18th-21st in Bloomington, Indiana. Perhaps this seems inconsequential to you. Perhaps, you forget that 10 years ago an interactive experience called The Beast shook people’s lives more than any church mass ever has. So, chew on this: what once seemed crazy is now a definitive part of the future of interactive media. Today everyone from across the entertainment and media industries now lines up to imagine how an alternate reality game or transmedia storytelling strategies could be used to help market their products or shake their communities into action. In the music business right now, it’s the Lady Gaga ARG, while video games generate buzz through ARGs as with Valve 2’s ARG, and ARGs are used to support reality TV. Earlier this year, Fourth Wall Studios received a $15-million investment to bring together some of the most renowned ARG designers in one studio. They’re preparing to tempt the ever-growing audience for some of the latest and greatest blockbuster films on the horizon.

Not sure if ARGFest is for you? In the words of ARGFest’s primary organizer, Jonathan Waite, are you “ready to take part in a unique, perhaps life-altering experience”? Do you have “an open mind and a curiosity about how gaming can go beyond traditional media”? Then by all means, catch the early bird discount (promotion ends today!) and get yourself a ticket to ARGFest.

I asked Waite about the context of this year’s ARGFest: “I think one of the most exciting things about ARGFest-o-Con 2011 is that we are celebrating our tenth “anniversary.” Even though the first ARGFest-o-Con was in 2003, this is the 10th time we are gathering as a community, and the tenth city playing host for the event. I’m also very excited to be visiting Bloomington, Indiana, as it is a unique and welcoming city that we think will really impress the attendees. As always, ARGFest-o-Con will be a fun, informative and educational event where fans and players of games can sit alongside leaders in transmedia while enjoying intimate, interactive discussions and presentations.”

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