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?
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.
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.
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.
Once a year hundreds of MIT students, alumni, and puzzle enthusiasts converge in Cambridge for a weekend of almost impossible puzzles, tied together under a light narrative theme. In the five years I’ve been participating in the MIT Mystery Hunt, teams have been asked to turn to puzzles to put on a Broadway musical, rob a bank, save Wonderland, and explore the ocean’s depths. Progress at the Mystery Hunt is driven by tackling meta-puzzles: puzzles that leverage solutions from a group of puzzles as elements of a larger puzzle. The 2016 Hunt prominently featured its elegantly crafted meta-puzzles, delivering a master-class in solid puzzle design.
This article will explore some of those puzzle design choices. In order to discuss those choices, it will be necessary to “spoil” the answers to quite a few puzzles in the Hunt, so read at your own risk. If you want to try your hand at the Hunt spoiler-free, stop reading now and explore the 2016 Hunt website, which conveniently features detailed solutions to every puzzle in the hunt alongside the puzzles themselves.
Theming and the Meta-Puzzle: The Red Herring
Every MIT Mystery Hunt starts with a kick-off event that introduces the year’s theme. This year, kickoff attendees were informed that the 64 participating teams were competing for the top spot in a Dog Show. Sure, there were a few glitches during kickoff. Slides showing scores to future football games…PowerPoint slides responding to questions from the presenter…all clearly red herrings. The 2016 Mystery Hunt was going to be all about cute, adorable puppies competing.