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Slash Fiction and other puzzles

mime_slashfiction.pngAs I have done every year since 2004, I spent the second weekend in January playing (or solving, to use the field-specific lingo) in the MIT Mystery Hunt. I always feel quite privileged to play; each hunt iteration represents a one-time-only interactive artwork that a team of passionate amateurs spends the better part of a year planning and constructing, culminating in a single weekend where a thousand puzzle-hungry solvers trample through it.

Like an informational World’s Fair, it leaves its husk behind for the late-but-curious to tour: you may browse all this year’s puzzles online, and note that they seem to be arranged around a theme of ill-advised Broadway mashups. Without the context of the hunt alive around them, though, the puzzles lose a certain amount of motive force. When presented all at once like this, they lack the light but necessary hunt-specific narrative that organizes paths for the solver to follow. (This year, it featured a storyline based on the further adventures of the swindling showmen from The Producers.)

I would also argue that, even though each puzzle now links to its own solution page, these puzzles must still seem impossibly obscure to curious layfolk who stumble upon them. So in this article, rather than examine the hunt’s overall form where carefully paced groups of puzzle-sets slowly reveal the twisty superstructures of meta-puzzles, I’d like to highlight a few of the several dozen individual challenges which defined the weekend for the hunt’s players.

Let’s start with the puzzle titled Slash Fiction, designed by (and starring) Seth Schoen and Vera Yin. It makes a nice blog-post headliner because it happens to take the form of a six-minute video, one as fun to watch as to solve.

Have you watched it? All right, then: your challenge, as with every hunt puzzle, is to somehow definitively produce an English word or phrase based on this input.

A novice solver might start searching through the video to see if the answer word flashes by at some point, or might forgo analysis entirely to simply guess answers like MIMES or PARIS. A more experienced solver knows that well-constructed puzzles avoid expressing any information that don’t contribute to their own answers. This player will take the more fruitful route of examining the video shot-by-shot, probably creating their own table of contents for the video on paper or in a spreadsheet. They would then proceed to look for interesting patterns, and move forward from there.

In this case, the first level of pattern that emerges is that the video is broken neatly into groups of three shots: first the gentleman-mime does something in close-up, followed by an oddly minimal intertitle of “/” (or sometimes “/x-“), after which the lady-mime does something else in a sunny urban setting. After a flash of static, the pattern repeats. The video contains twelve twenty of these static-separated scene-triplets, and nothing else (beyond a delightful accordion-and-piano soundtrack). [Thanks to Seth Schoen for the correction.]

Having built a neat three-by-twenty table describing the scenes, a seasoned solver now has reason to suspect that each such triplet corresponds to a single alphabetical letter, and that these letters should, when ordered properly, spell out an answer. This may seem like quite a logical leap to the uninitiated! However, encoding letters into distinctly non-alphanumeric stimuli (such as video snippets of capering mimes) represents a very common design pattern in hunt-style puzzles, and solvers who’ve played through a hunt or two learn to recognize its signs. The solver’s ability to organize the puzzle’s surface-data into a regular table is a strong indicator that this puzzle involves a string of encoded letters, one letter per table-row.

So now, there is the simple matter of working out those letters, as well as the order in which to arrange them. This particular puzzle calls for further pattern recognition regarding the landmarks which the lady-mime cavorts around, as well the significance of the mimes’ antics paired with those odd intertitles. The willingness to perfom a bit of web-based research helps in both cases. I invite the reader to try working out the answer, perhaps with a friend or two. You can find the answer, along with a full explanation of its derivation, on the puzzle’s solution page.

It happens that I didn’t get to work on Slash Fiction during the hunt, sadly. I, a single player from a team of around 40 solvers, see only a few puzzles on any given hunt weekend. A typical puzzle can take hours to work through, while the hunt only lasts two or three days — and unlike some of my harder-core teammates, I like to leave campus at night to sleep in my own bed. Before calling a taxi home on Friday night, however, I had the pleasure of solving most of Andrew Lin, Elan Pavlov, and Jit Hin Tan’s The Undiscovered Underground, a puzzle which, while suffering from broken design, worked well enough to lead two teammates and I to build a very satisfying logical bridge, and follow it up with an unexpected and rewarding bout of real-world exploration.

As this puzzle is literally unsolvable by people who don’t happen to have immediate access to the MIT campus, I shall speak less coyly about its construction. The puzzle presents you with a faux text adventure. While its title and opening paragraph both directly quote a real game, the rest of the text is only Infocom-esque pastiche, with no real next parser; the player may only key in compass directions to move around the game’s map, unable to interact with anything its text mentions.

Clearly, the first step to cracking this one involves drawing that map on paper. A wise solver will follow up by marking the map with the locations of all the conspicuously repeating props and phrases that appear throughout the text, such as mentions of carrier pigeons or the message “you can rest here”. Steps three through ten, for my two co-solvers and I, involved turning this information around every which way. My friends experimented with folding the map into some sort of three-dimensional object — maybe you were traversing the inside of an person’s body, somehow? — while I played through the actual Undiscovered Underground interactive Fiction game, looking for similarities with the puzzle text.

After an hour or two of this, we took a break to compare notes and bat ideas around out loud. This is when I hit on a breakthrough: one room’s description of three portals leading to vertical shafts, one strangely giant-sized, reminded me of the elevator doors found on every floor of the very building we all sat in, which included an extra-large freight elevator. So if mentions of “vertical shafts” referred to real-life elevators, then the “carrier pigeons” might be… mailboxes? On a hunch, we called over another teammate, an MIT alumnus intimately familiar with the university’s famous underground tunnel system. “Oh yeah,” he said, as soon as he saw our drawn-out game map. “This part here’s under Lobby 7, and over here would be underneath Building 26…”

After getting directions to the nearest mapped intersection our teammate recognized, the three of us bolted down the stairs and into the tunnels. Very quickly, and to our profound delight, we saw we were right: the “pigeons” were indeed FedEx drop boxes, while “you can rest” statements pointed to nearby bathrooms. Other notable features of various tunnel locations all appeared in the game text, though similarly obscured into the language of fantasy role-playing quests. Most rewardingly, every place the text mentioned a pile of coins, there existed in reality a plaque with a you-are-here map of the whole tunnel system. Each of the 20 plaques we found prominently featured a single, large, unique letter. Score! Surely, we were steps away from the answer now. Once we completed our unexpected guided tour through MIT’s bowels, we rushed back to the our team’s headquarters to wrap the puzzle up.

Unfortunately, our team progressed no further with this puzzle. Unlike an elegantly constructed puzzle like Slash Fiction, The Undiscovered Underground presents far too much information. We had connections between these screenfuls of bogus text-adventure text and letters, but no idea how to shake an answer out of them, because there were so many things we could do. And the connection with the actual Infocom game continued to nag at us — why would the fake game’s text extensively quote the real game, if it wasn’t important somehow? Before we gave up, we pursued the possibility that the game’s exact wording about whether you picked up the coins you found clued whether you should “pick up” the associated letter and add it to the answer, but that went nowhere.

As the puzzle’s solution page states, the real answer involves taking note of features in the map that weren’t reflected in the actual tunnels, and using only those locations’ letters to spell out the answer. Sadly, this wouldn’t have worked for us: in at least one case, I was able to connect one of these extraneous features (“a temple to the goddess of wisdom” — a reference to Athena, MIT’s campus computer network) to an object at that location the designers apparently hadn’t noticed (a locked but clearly labeled network-utility closet). The following afternoon, during the hosting team’s wrap-up presentation, The Undiscovered Underground received some catcalls and boos, so I suspect we were not the only players who fell victim to a puzzle that asked its solvers to not pattern-match as much as they could.

In closing, I can link with pride to Andrew Lin’s Any Old Puzzle, the only puzzle I managed to definitively co-solve all weekend, right up to confirming the correct answer. I suspect, alas, that it was also one of the easier ones (though not the most minimal). If you can wring the right word out of this one, you’re at least as good a solver as I.

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Local puzzle hunts, part 2: Daffle and Bash

And now, the part where I review DASH and BAPHL (spring 2011 editions). Okay, not really review. The part where I call out some interesting aspects of each, and compare them. Because I like it when game design improves over time.

The first point of comparison is how well we did. (I speak for the mighty puzzle-solving engine that is Team Win Lose Or Banana.) BAPHL has not yet posted official results, but unofficially, WLB was the second team to finish, after Team Plugh. DASH's scores are also sort of unofficial, but it looks like we're at the 75% mark in the pack. (Both nationally and among Boston teams.)

Difficulty: I'd say the two events were just about at the same difficulty level. (For comparison, a Panda hunt is considerably harder.) DASH and BAPHL each had some good solid thinkers, some puzzles that took a lot of pencil-pushing but weren't really difficult, a couple of puzzles that made us say "That's all? I feel like this should have another stage," and a meta that we sweated over for 45 minutes, asked for a hint, and then felt stupid for missing the obvious.

The most obvious distinction between the hunts is that BAPHL, unlike DASH, has two difficulty settings: hard mode and easy mode. (Oh, they call it "normal", but I'm on a Mystery Hunt team so I'm allowed to call it "easy". Says so right here.) This year, the puzzles were the same in the two modes, but the easy players got more information -- free letters filled out, clearer instructions, etc. Last year, I believe, the easy mode had different puzzles (although generally related).

This dual approach is clearly a big win for puzzlers (albeit a big extra workload for puzzle-designers). It goes a long way towards addressing the "but how do we get into this sport?" problem that I talked about in my last post. This is not to say that all hunt designers should be doing this; the cost is obvious, and writing (e.g.) an "easy mode" for the Mystery Hunt would kill the designers dead. But it's worth thinking about.

This gets into the second-order question of whether puzzle hunts should be trying to attract new participants. Purely online hunts (like Panda) scale well, but real-life events don't. Larger groups have increased organizational costs, both in effort and (eventually) in money. ("We need a permit for this?")

I guess my position is that as more people become interested in puzzle-hunting, more hunts will arise. People will say "Damn, we should really do one of these ourselves," and presto -- new hunt event. Of course that's easy for me to say. I've never... ahem. I did run a tiny puzzle hunt event in college. (It wasn't very good. I wasn't part of the culture yet and had no idea how they were supposed to go.) Anyhow, I've never been on a modern hunt-running team, so I should talk, right? But I don't believe that this should be a closed hobby, where the same group of people write hunts and play hunts forever. Ergo, there should be more hunts. Ergo, there should be more puzzle creators (because the ones I know are already working their butts off!) Ergo, there should be more puzzle enthusiasts. It won't be a stress-free growth path, but hey.

What was I talking about? BAPHL and DASH, right.

Pacing: BAPHL used the traditional marathon model. All the teams start at the same time; when you solve a puzzle you get more puzzles immediately; the first team to solve the final puzzle is the winner. (With adjustments if you ask for hints.) This is how the Mystery Hunt works, and it's straightforward. It produces a somewhat frenetic experience, since you're always "on the clock", but for a lot of players that's part of the fun.

(Note that "on the clock" does not have to mean "rushed". My team has an enthusiastic-but-not-stressed policy -- this goes for my Mystery Hunt team as well -- and this leads us to comfortably high, but not first-place, outcomes. In particularly, we did really well in BAPHL even though we never felt like we had sprinted.)

DASH had a different setup. All the teams start the first puzzle at the same time, but they're only timed while solving; the clock stops once you solve a puzzle. You then discover the location of the next puzzle. (This is itself a puzzle, but a deliberately easy one). You hike over there, and when you pick up your next puzzle, the clock starts again.

This is clearly to avoid penalizing people in difficult-to-navigate cities (DASH is a multi-city event) and people with mobility problems. (Which included me, as it turned out. I twisted the heck out of my ankle after puzzle 3, and spent the rest of DASH limping and grinning and swearing I was fine.) But it has the extremely nice benefit that you can take breaks -- stopping for lunch between puzzles doesn't cost anything. BAPHL, in contrast, encourages you to grab a sandwich and eat it at the puzzle table.

Use of space: DASH, running in many cities simultaneously, necessarily treated its territory in a fairly generic way. We had a map, and (as noted) we had to find locations on it, but these were clued as arbitrary markers. Every city had the same markers scattered around a different map. I gather that each city's organizers tried to match the puzzles to local landmarks, but it wasn't particularly visible to the players.

BAPHL was specific to Brookline, MA, and it used its space very well indeed. Early in the hunt, teams were given a "runaround": follow directions through a few blocks of the city, noting clues. Traditional enough for a hunt. But a later puzzle was photo scavenging on the same streets, which was considerably more fun than it could have been, simply because we had walked the territory already. The meta, too, turned out to involve that path and its landmarks in a sneaky way. These were simple elements, and certainly not the hardest parts of the hunt -- running around the city was more of a solving break than a solving experience. Nonetheless, it tied the afternoon together very nicely.

(The BAPHL designers, when asked, confessed that they hadn't planned this. Well, good work anyway.)

The Metapuzzles: DASH's meta turned into a whole argument behind the scenes, we later found out. I'm going to skip that, because really, it was just one of those well-that-puzzle-was-a-little-awkward-wasn't-it things that crop up in every puzzle event ever. (Go listen to a bunch of puzzle players at a post-hunt dinner, if you don't believe me.)

Instead, I will note the experience that Win Lose Or Banana had in both hunts, which was overthinking the hell out of some part of the meta. Lesson: before you go writing down columns of words and looking for the common letters, try reading the diagonal.

(I apologize to you non-Mystery-Hunt readers, who are asking "why the diagonal?" Just trust me: the diagonal is the first thing you try. First letter of the first answer, second letter of the second answer, and so on. It's obvious and usually right. You have to have figured out what order the answers go in, of course. Looking for common letters in two columns is obscure, wacky, and probably wrong.)

Narrative: This is an odd-dude-out category, because the Mystery Hunt tradition has very clear ratios: twenty minutes of narrative setup, then 48 hours of puzzles, then a bit more storyline at the end when everybody is too punch-drunk to object. It's not that players object to storytelling, it's just that they don't want it to interfere with their fun.

However: I am interested in interactive narrative, so I get to talk about it. Says so right -- er, well, somewhere around here.

(I'm distinguishing here between narrative and theme. Theme plays well in hunts, because puzzles have flavor text -- which can contain clues. The puzzles also have organization and structure, which can be thematic in both obvious and sneaky ways.)

DASH had a fairy-tale theme, which was maintained throughout. However, the story content was a sheet of text at the beginning and another at the end, which we were more or less explicitly told to ignore. Pity.

BAPHL had much more going on. The theme was Lovecraftian (as the web site hints). The teams were started off with a quick spoken introduction -- basically what you see on the web page -- and then handed their first puzzles. However, this was not a solvable puzzle per se. Each team assembled a jigsaw puzzle into what was clearly a small piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle. Everyone therefore gathered to put their pieces together.

The designers were clearly aiming to draw players into the storyline by use of the game mechanics -- puzzles and puzzle-solving action. The initial jigsaws were of course very easy; and the reward for assembling everything was not a big puzzle, but a chunk of story. Nonetheless, the players all seemed happy with the setup. It came across as an introduction rather than a distraction.

The plot continued with some nifty twists in the middle and a satisfying (albeit low-budget) conclusion. Our only disappointment was that the cipher drawn on the initial jigsaw never reappeared. Obviously it wasn't practical to solve a cipher on the initial jigsaw -- eighty players packed around one sheet of paper can't all have a good time. But the designers could have handed us copies halfway through, to be used in the endgame somehow. Even as a token bit of decipherment, rather than a serious puzzle, it would have made a nice tie-up.

Organization: Ahem. Neither hunt has posted official team rankings. The events themselves went off fine, to be fair.

DASH had another whole argument behind the scenes, about the scoring. I still won't get into it, because I know some of those people (and I don't want to see them cry). Coordinating twelve local hunt-running groups is clearly difficult, let's just say that. Possibly it's not worth it? But then, having those twelve teams write twelve independent hunts would be a huge cumulative effort too. I don't know.

In conclusion: Fun!

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Local puzzle hunts, part 1: Puzzle whats?

I've played through two puzzle hunts in the past two weeks: DASH and BAPHL. I want to talk about these events, and in fact I've been asked to compare them (hi Julia!). But I also want to talk about puzzle hunts in general, for the benefit of people who have never tried them. This leaves me writing a post which is more than usually disorganized.

(Some people would ask "More than usual?")

Okay. Audience breakdown. Who of you out there have never done a puzzle hunt, and have no idea what I'm talking about? Hands up. This is your post.

(The rest of you, don't go away. I will come around to you next post.)

A puzzle hunt, or puzzle extravaganza, is -- a bunch of puzzles, usually with some narrative frame, whose answers all tie together at the end into one big puzzle. Typically it's a "live" event; the game designers act as game-masters, verify your answers, and hand out more puzzles as you progress through the hunt. (Although you can usually re-play old hunts online; they get archived.)

These things are generally tuned for groups of people. You can tackle a hunt on your own, but the kind of lateral thinking and brainstorming involved in these puzzles works much better with many eyes. A hunt may involve running around a city looking for clues, or sitting in a room staring at puzzles, or (most commonly) a little of the former and a lot of the latter.

The great grand-daddy of puzzle hunts (within the eastern US!) is the MIT Mystery Hunt, about which I have written before. The Mystery Hunt is a marathon-scale event -- it consumes an whole weekend, and a serious team might have forty or sixty solvers coordinating for that entire time. (I am not so serious about it: I sleep. Not all of my teammates do.) This post isn't about the Mystery Hunt. This post is about events that four people can finish in an afternoon.

My message to you, o person who has never done a puzzle hunt, is that you should try a puzzle hunt. They're fun! Find a few friends and sign up. The next DASH isn't for a while, but there are many events like this in various cities...

...Here's where it gets complicated.

Puzzle solving (like interactive fiction, and this is exactly not a coincidence at all) is a very enculturated pastime. By which I mean, puzzles are built on a shared set of conventions: how clues are conveyed, what can be left unspoken, what kind of puzzles players are familiar with, what kind of puzzles players are good at. The whole point, after all, is to induce players to think of the right thing without either telling them too much (giving the secret away) or too little (making the game unsolvable). If the players aren't all on the same page, they will fail.

And this is a multidimensional page, not a simple "how good a puzzle solver are you, a scale of 1 to 10". Being good at crossword puzzles doesn't mean you're good at cryptic crosswords. Being familiar with cryptics doesn't mean you're good at that crazy one where the words all bounce off angled mirrors in the grid, and by the way, we're not telling you where the mirrors are.

(But my teammate said "Oh, it's a mirror one" and started sketching in the lines. He'd seen 'em before. I hadn't.)

Just as in interactive fiction, players are dropped into a deliberately fuzzy range of possibility. You know certain tools (mechanics, approaches) are likely to be useful. Others are a stretch but might turn up. In other places, you will have to invent a new solving idea, but it will be similar to something you already know. Then a few things will be the craziest ideas the inventors could come up with. And you don't know which is where! Pick up a puzzle and start experimenting. No path is guaranteed, but if you're not familiar with the terrain, you're lost.

I don't want to sell a scare story. Newcomers do enter these events, and some of them do fine. But it's much smoother if you enter with more-experienced friends, and learn by watching. (Believe me, if you like any kind of puzzles, you will not be dead weight. I was crap at working out the mirror positions, but I helped with the crossword clues.) Or look at some archived hunts -- links in a minute -- and see how the common puzzles work.

...Did I mention complications?

Just as with any enculturated activity, there are many cultures. NPL puzzles are not Mystery Hunt puzzles, for example. There's plenty of overlap (due to the many people who take part in both) but they still have distinct ranges of what's-common-and-expected.

Better example: I heard about the Boston Hub Crawl, which turned out to be the same day as BAPHL. The web site describes it as an afternoon of "digital photography, puzzlesolving, teamwork and finding out how well you know your way around Boston". Same sort of thing as I've been talking about? Yes and no. The Hub Crawl's focus is on locating things and taking photos. The puzzles are light teasers that point at the target locations. This year's BAPHL happened to also have a photo scavenger event, but that was a lightweight intermission -- a rest break from the puzzles. You see the difference.

I do the Mystery-Hunt-style hunts, because I enjoy the scary evil puzzles -- and because that's what my friends enjoy, obviously. (Causality runs all ways.) Teaching you the common baseline knowledge of these hunts would be another complete blog post in itself. (Not currently planned, but ask if you're interested!) The very short form is: Figure out what you're looking for, then figure out what order it should be in. The answers to all the puzzles will fit together into the final puzzle (what we call the "meta"). There. You're set.

So what do you sign up for? As I said earlier, old hunts are often available online (because nerds love collecting). You can view the puzzles, and peek at solutions, for:

These, of course, are just a tiny fraction of the puzzle-related events that go on. Take a look at the Puzzle Hunt Calendar and see what's up in your area.

If you're not up for running around a city, you should check out Puzzles and Answers Magazine (affectionately or frustratedly known as "Panda", for reasons I hope you see). Foggy, the editor, sends his subscribers a complete puzzle-hunt -- of the "sit in a room and work it all out" variety -- every other month. (See the free samples PDF.)

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