“Puppy. Fried chicken. Puppy. Fried chicken. Aw, what a cute puppy!” A small group of people huddled together in a corner of an MIT classroom. As I rattled off proclamations of puppy-or-not-puppy, one fellow solver stared intently at the 20×20 grid of pictures to check my work while a third typed numbers into a grid to record our findings. The image were divided into four quadrants of images likely to fool deep learning algorithms: pictures that resemble fried chicken, pictures that resemble mint ice cream, pictures that resemble croissants, and pictures that resemble blueberry muffins.

The puzzle we were working on was one of the most adorable puzzles from the MIT Mystery Hunt. The puzzle hunt takes place in mid-January of every year…but opportunities to tackle challenging puzzles mean fans of the genre are rarely found wanting for puzzle experiences.

The MIT Mystery Hunt 2018: Head-Hunters
Every year, the Mystery Hunt embraces a new theme to provide the narrative structure for a weekend of puzzling in an experience designed by the winners of the previous year’s hunt. This year, Death & Mayhem turned to the Pixar film Inside Out for inspiration, asking puzzle hunt teams to get Miss Terry Hunter’s emotions under control so she could guide her team to victory, rediscovering many of the formative memories that led to her becoming a puzzle solver in the first place.

It’s relatively easy to experience the MIT Mystery Hunt remotely. Most challenges are delivered through an online website that progressively expands as teams unlock new puzzles, and the increasingly theatrical kickoff event that introduces players to the year’s theme is livestreamed.

But while the MIT Mystery Hunt creates an accessible experience for people solving off-campus, celebrating real world challenges and interactions is a core tenet of the Hunt. For instance, to complete the Pokémon round of puzzles, a small group from our team went to visit the “Safari Zone”, a classroom littered with dozens of Voltorb balls with five different sets of words written on them. After locating every ball, they noticed that one Voltorb in each group didn’t belong, giving them the combination lock password to obtain the bittersweet memory of Terry capturing her first Magikarp.

This year’s Hunt was strongest when it played with that line between digital and analog puzzles, exemplified by the paired puzzles Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt and Under Control. In Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt, teams were given a relatively simple video game to explore. The only catch: just like its namesake Twitch Plays Pokémon, each team was only given one avatar to control. After completing Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt teams unlocked Under Control, sending one member of their team to stand in front of a green screen for a livestreamed ninja dance battle. In order to defeat a series of ninja warriors the tribute had to be guided like a human puppet through a series of poses, with team communication managed by a synthesized voice reading out time delayed comments in the livestream.

The puzzle hunt finale returned to that same theme, with teams playing a modified version of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes by taking over the Emotional Command Center and following printed instructions to guide an overtired Terry Hunter through the MIT campus to the final location, solving the Hunt.

Other puzzles that are worth checking out include Marked Deck (a deck of laser-cut cards that, when properly arranged, provides a hint to the next step of the puzzle), Do You Want A (a puzzle that will be very familiar to people who know what MBMBAM stands for), Space Sounds TV (a puzzle about the history of spaceflight), A Pub Crawl (a very social drinking puzzle), and Special Delivery (a puzzle about musical mixes).

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