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.
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.
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.Continue reading