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This Article Spoils Love Actually: Breaking Down a Mystery Hunt Puzzle

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.

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Helios Saves the Planet by Farming Twitch Users for Resources (in a Good Way)

The dramatic conclusion to the Helios alternate reality game, where the planet Earth was saved due to the almost magical power of Twitchitrium.

Last month, Twitch’s main gaming channel was taken over a long weekend with dire news: the Space Weather Prediction Center projected that a massive solar flare threatened the planet with an extinction-level event on December 12th, 2021. The only way to stop the solar flare from wiping out life on Earth as we know it? Take control of production at a lights out factory in order to manufacture a series of multi-stage rockets capable of deploying a protective shield over the planet. Over 50K Twitch viewers were tasked with farming resources to manufacture ship parts, while 66 Twitch streamers banded together to assemble those parts into a fleet of rockets under the project codename Helios: Rampart Initiative.

If the thought of controlling remote factories over Twitch to save the planet sounds implausible, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Helios: Rampart Initiative was an experimental alternate reality game by Alice & Smith, the team behind ARGs for everything from No Man’s Sky and Bloodlines 2 to their single player ARG experience, The Black Watchmen. Helios played out on Twitch as an idle game, controlled through a combination of dedicated Twitch channels and the game’s custom Twitch extension.

Three levels of play to Helios: Rampart Initiative

Living up to the game’s incremental gaming roots, the primary method of engaging with the Helios game involved tuning into participating streamers’ broadcasts, collecting resources in the background. But players engaging with the ARG layer had to delve into the Twitch extension’s command prompt to activate the lights out factory and remotely resolve the occasional bottleneck stopping the factory operating at peak efficiency.

Helios‘ balance of low effort participation with higher intensity puzzle-solving did an exemplary job of providing broad swaths of the player base with concrete ways to engage on a meaningful level. The game’s greatest strength, however, and what might make this Alice & Smith’s greatest game to date, is how it played around with viewer and streamer dynamics on the platform. But to explain that, it’s first necessary to explain how the game unfolded.

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Midnight Society’s First Release: A Text Adventure FPS

Earlier this month, Midnight Society announced their formation as a new AAA game studio founded by Robert Bowling as studio head, Quinn DelHoyo as creative director, and Dr Disrespect as “6’8″ visionary”. Part of the studio’s promise in the press release was to “[include] communities and influencers much earlier in the development process”. That process has started surprisingly soon, as Midnight Society has already launched a teaser alternate reality game for their first game, playing out across their website and Discord server. Curiously, the core of that experience is a text adventure facsimile of a first-person-shooter game, coded to play out through Discord private messages.

Trail to the Text Adventure: Glitched Tweets and Virtual Consoles
On January 1st, the Midnight Society’s Twitter account posted a system error message directing players to MidnightSociety.com/Access, with the login credentials “VSM” briefly shown in a glitched GIF accompanying the tweet. At the time, logging in with those credentials would open up a virtual console and start to download a series of files, before the console crashes and reboots to try again. Every night so far, the console manages to advance a little bit closer to loading “Midnight Protocol”, adding more and more modules like security footage from a facility’s sectors and mission logs.

The Midnight Society Virtual Console at MidnightSociety.com/Access

Around the same time, Midnight Society opened up a Discord server, and gave members the choice to select the “Claws” role, granting access to ARG-related channels in the Discord. Players noticed that commands from the virtual console worked in these channels, and used the M:\Verify command to start receiving direct messages from the Midnight Protocol Discord bot, which requested a password. Using clues from the virtual console (which noted that the passcode format would be #####XXXXXX), players figured out the password was 14421PCGSPD – grabbing the numbers from the sector numbers displayed on the virtual console, and PCGSPD from the names of “watched users” in a separate popup.

This unlocked the ability for players to direct message the bot to access the M:\Access portal shown on the website, and query the console. Using command cues hinted at on the Access page paired with guesswork, players were able to map out commands, and check on what looks to be the aftermath of an FPS match involving ten players: three of them emerged victorious, and the rest were marked as “KIA – Loadout recoverable.” Through the M:\Map command, players even found an additional page on the website at MidnightSociety.com/Map, featuring annotated concept art of the facilities, including guard sight lines and potential routes.

Annotated concept art of what is assumed to be sector 1

First-Person Shooter As Text Adventure: Mapping Through Murder
Finally, on January 5th, the M:\Access page showed Sector 1 as “ready”, and players were able to trigger an interactive text adventure within the sector, making key decisions by reacting to each successive text post with emojis. The goal? Survive the mission while gathering loot, while simultaneously avoiding death – too many “bad ends”, and players are locked out for the day. Loot persists across mission attempts, so players’ item loadouts grow with every successive raid.

There are multiple valid routes to complete sector 1. Two in particular stand out for allowing players to collect “Visor Cortexes” from Nikolai and LordsofKarma, two of the players labeled “KIA – Loadout recoverable” in the virtual console. So while the text adventure so far is something that can be played solo, risking virtual death to map out each sector as a collective may help players piece together the broader mystery.

An example of Midnight Protocol’s emoji-driven text adventure format

Midnight Society has maintained an aggressive daily update schedule since the game launched with updates at 12AM PST (a potential nod to the Midnight Society’s @12AM Twitter handle), and signs point to that pace continuing through the month of January – typing in the command M:\12AM into the portal notes that “31 total moments [match] the start time of 00:00:00”, before tracking the number of moments that have progressed so far.

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Swamp Motel’s Isklander Hides Supernatural Thriller in Modest Beginnings

Swamp Motel’s three-part immersive sleuthing mystery Isklander is an ambitious remote experience that sends its players on a supernatural adventure, untangling the tendrils of a centuries-old secret society with the fate of the world on the line. But the entry point for the experience starts with surprisingly modest beginnings: players are invited to a meeting of the Plymouth Point Residents Watch, where a sweet older woman is worried that she hasn’t seen one of the neighbors in a while. It’s hard to overstate how charming this gradual entry into the world of Isklander is, and that reason alone would be enough to check out the show before its run concludes at the end of January.

It’s a particularly worthwhile experience for fans of alternate reality games, as it offers a fascinating example of how ARGs’ traditionally open-ended experience can be translated into a timed and ticketed event.

Breaking Down the Isklander Experience
The full Isklander experience plays out across three parts, with rapidly escalating stakes. In Plymouth Point (Part 1), the adventure begins with an investigation into the disappearance of Ivy Isklander, starting with a meeting of the local neighborhood watch for the apartment complex. The Mermaid’s Tongue (Part 2) starts pushing the narrative into supernatural territory in the hunt for an ancient artifact…that starts out in an online drawing class. The story wraps up in The Kindling Hour (Part 3), setting players in a head-to-head battle against a powerful organization…through a trial membership to an Equestrian Club.

The invitation to a meeting of the Plymouth Point Residents Watch, the narrative entry point to Isklander

These pretexts to enter the world of Isklander carry through the experience, leading to a customized video chat platform that serves as the experiential hub. While this initial website serves as a central collaborative platform, the full experience takes players on a journey across websites, social media platforms, and more to gather the intel needed to progress through each installment’s central mystery, serving as digital assistants to Isklander‘s various protagonists as the plot inexorably progresses to a climactic finish, with twists and turns to subvert players’ expectations. Narrative milestones are often rewarded with cinematic interludes that take full advantage of the show’s cast, including Lord of the Rings and LOST veteran Dominic Monaghan.

While the narrative of Isklander takes quite a few twists and turns, the experience itself is fairly linear. Solving each successive challenge unlocks the next one. For players who treat Isklander like a typical escape room, it’s possible to blow through the various puzzle challenges fairly quickly, and get pleasantly surprised by the shocking conclusions to each installment. However, the real joy of playing through Isklander is treating it like an interactive mystery novel, taking the time to chew over the narrative crumbs left behind to figure out the various twists and turns before they hit.

When the group I assembled for Isklander tackled Plymouth Point, we treated the experience like a digital escape room, and had players fan out to investigate the sprawling ecosystem created for the game in parallel. By focusing on puzzle progression, we made it through the experience quickly but missed out on the meat of the experience. For The Mermaid’s Tongue and The Kindling Hour, focusing on a more leisurely exploration of the story improved the experience immeasurably. Isklander relies heavily on ARG-style puzzles, so experienced players should be able to handle Isklander as a solo experience, and small groups are best served pacing themselves, to fully take in the details.

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Riddle Me This: When Does Batman’s Enigmatic Cipher Hunt Become an ARG?

In August 2020, Warner Bros shared the first trailer for Robert Pattinson’s debut as the caped crusader at DC FanDome. Attentive fans noticed that during that trailer, the Riddler carefully wrapped up a greeting card for Batman, posing an initial challenge: “What does a liar say when he’s dead?” The card went on to say “Haven’t a Clue? Let’s Play a Game, just Me and You…” before devolving into a series of nonsensical characters. Nonsensical, at least, until a fan decoded the script to complete the macabre puzzle: HE LIES STILL. A fun, throwaway easter egg that has since returned, launching what looks suspiciously like a new alternate reality game leading up to the March 4th release of The Batman.

Known cipher letters: EHILST

Image by @Bat_Source on Twitter – (full resolution image on their account)

The Batman (Cipher) Returns: Finding the Rabbit Hole
Last week, fans started to notice an enigmatic message at the bottom of movie standees at their local theaters. Using the letters uncovered from the prior easter egg, the message spelled out ??? ??E EL ??T? ?L???. Incredibly, fans were able to piece together the context clues to spell out YOU ARE EL RATA ALADA – a message that doubled as multi-lingual accusation of being a “winged rat”, as well as a clue to check out the URL “RataAlada.com“. At the time, visitors were greeted with a glowing green question mark, and nothing more.

Known cipher letters: ADEHILORSTUY

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10 Tapes ARG Tracks Down Paranormal VHS Cassettes Across Sweden

Earlier this spring, the TikTok user hamcitynr2 moved in to a new ground floor apartment in Stockholm. A few weeks after settling in, he found a strange flyer with GPS coordinates taped onto a road sign outside his apartment, just out of reach from the street. Curious, he did what all too many of us would have done in that situation: he balanced precariously on his windowsill, snatched the flyer, and went off to investigate the coordinates with the words, “beautiful day to not get murdered.”

During that outing, hamcitynr2 (commonly referred to his channel’s followers as “H”) discovered the first of what he would learn was a series of ten VHS tapes, hidden by an unknown figure for equally unknown reasons. Once he realized what was going on, the channel was rebranded to 10_tapes, and a community was formed to help track them down. Over the past five months, H collaborated with his followers to recover seven of those tapes, acting as an impromptu Swedish tour guide through Stockholm’s more esoteric locations for a deeply intimate scavenger hunt. But recently, the tapes have triggered strange events bordering on the paranormal, and other forces are starting to pay attention to H’s otherwise lighthearted search.

10 Tapes: First Person Gaming, Empowered By Silence
As you might have guessed, 10 Tapes is a TikTok-centric alternate reality game created by the actor who plays H. The vast majority of videos are shot from a first-person perspective, with a silent H providing commentary through the videos’ text captions. This is a highly effective method for the viewer to project themselves into H, as years of video games have conditioned our minds to embody avatars in exactly this fashion.

While 10 Tapes has increasingly expanded outside this framework by allowing H to speak to the camera, it’s often reserved for moments where he is either recapping the story so far or describing events that took place off TikTok. Because of these updates, it’s possible to experience 10 Tapes exclusively through updates to the main channel, although the story has spread across additional YouTube and TikTok channels, websites, and even a custom sidescrolling video game.

Because the game’s structure draws so much inspiration from puzzle and scavenger hunts, the city of Stockholm plays a major role in the story. Alfred Nobel’s Blasting Bunkers, Telefonplan’s Colour By Numbers installation. The V√•rbergstoppen Viewing Platforms. Even neighborhood street art installations, with public space features prominently in the ARG, in ways that go beyond passing reference or picturesque settings.

While the game has gradually introduced more narrative context around who keeps hiding the tapes and what is actually going on, the bulk of the experience to date remains centered on the process of uncovering each new VHS tape, with player decisions and advice serving as the driving factor behind practically every new upload. Because of this structure, 10 Tapes has a lot of videos. By the time this article posts, the story will have played out across over 100 “parts” on the main channel alone. However, “essential viewing” to get caught up is limited to a series of in-game recap videos filmed by H that are positively dripping with the character’s dry wit.

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