The MIT Mystery Hunt [2021] – a first-timer’s thoughts

The Stata Center inside the MIT Mystery Hunt Projection Device

Last weekend I was part of a team that entered the 2021 edition of the MIT Mystery Hunt. For those of you who haven’t come across it before, it’s a three-day-long puzzle extravaganza that takes place nominally on the MIT campus but with the ability for remote solvers to be heavily involved. Usually, at least some of the team have to be present on campus, but this year, for obvious reasons, the whole event was online. I’d long wanted to get involved with a serious puzzle hunt, so I took this opportunity to pull together a team from work and try it out. Fortunately, I work for a company where finding people to try out geeky puzzle challenges isn’t too hard, so I managed to recruit about 25 people – a good-sized team (but by no means big – some teams are 100+ people).

Puzzle-solving is a team sport

While my colleagues are highly intelligent, knowledgeable people, they’re not experienced in the puzzle world. Only one of them had played an MH before, and it was mainly through Puzzled Pint that they’d picked up experience. I knew Mystery Hunt would be…  more difficult. In preparation, I looked at past puzzles online, which is when the enormity of what I’d suggested hit me. I didn’t have a clue where to begin on most of them, and I could only get two of the easiest ones to completion. Gulp.

Fortunately, as I learned during the hunt, puzzle-solving is very much a team sport. There were more people to recognise those obscure references. A seemingly silly idea would give someone else inspiration. An investigation that would be frustrating for one was quickly done with five people working in parallel. We settled on Discord, and I spent a good proportion of the event sitting in voice channels discussing possible approaches to puzzles. It was fantastic fun, particularly in the context of the pandemic meaning we get less human contact than usual. Solving puzzles as a team is also more fun when you do get a breakthrough. I have great memories of people crying out in delight when they made the right connection and, on the many occasions that we didn’t, there was someone there to pick you back up or to step in when you felt blocked.

2020 was a pretty brutal time for most people. Having a real sense of connection with a group of friends that lasts more than a couple of hours is something that I’d been missing and not even known it.

A solid start

Friday night saw us working our way through a series of gentle introductory puzzles. Well, they were described by the organisers as “gentle”, but we really had to fight hard to make progress. I was pleased, though, because I thought there was a real risk that we’d get stuck quickly enough that people would lose interest and leave me to a weekend of solitude. I was certainly confident that most would have dropped out by Sunday. How wrong I was…

With each solved puzzle, a new one was unlocked, ensuring that a couple of stumbling blocks couldn’t halt our progress. In spite of this, the puzzles in that opening set fell slowly. Although we solved the first one in only 36 minutes, each subsequent breakthrough was harder and, despite starting at 6 pm with ~20 people, it wasn’t until early the next morning that we’d finished the opening set of fourteen puzzles. Just a couple of minutes before 2 am, we cracked the code and entered the Perpendicular Universe.

Mind Blown

Honestly, I was feeling pretty pleased at this point. We’d got through a good chunk of puzzles, we’d had fun and I was just considering calling it a night once I’d seen what the next set of puzzles might bring. Only it turned out that the next thing wasn’t a puzzle. It was a whole world. They’d created an MMO where you had to explore just to find new puzzles. While this had been in the works from before they realised the impact COVID would have, it was the perfect platform for a remote hunt, and their implementation made a massive difference to the experience. It gave a sense of togetherness that I don’t think they could have created otherwise. More than that, though, it gave something for everyone. If you were stuck on puzzles, there was still plenty of exploration to be had.

The Green Building and the Infinite Corridor were just a couple of the fun areas we had instant access to, but more and more would appear over the course of the weekend. Before we headed off to bed (at 5 am…), we’d uncovered another twenty-five puzzles and were feeling just a tad overwhelmed. Nowhere near as overwhelmed as our teammates who’d headed off earlier would be in the morning, though. They woke up to find not just a whole new world to explore but a huge puzzle list to boot. As pretty much the first person online in the morning (who needs sleep?), I spent a good proportion of the next few hours filling in teammates on what had happened in their absence…

Fond memories

I could go on and on about how the hunt unfolded, but you haven’t got all day, so I’m going to just spin through some of my highlights. Some are very specific to my experience, some to my team and some, I suspect, will apply pretty widely. However, it’s hard to talk about fond memories without talking about the details of some of the puzzles. Click on the text below if that’s OK with you…

I'm ok with spoilers

First and foremost, it was the conversation with my teammates that stands out. As I said above, puzzle solving is a team sport. I loved dropping in and out of Discord chats, trying to understand the esoteric conversation that was taking place or chatting about the ridiculous world they’d created for the hunt. The puzzles were a great context for conversations that would last several hours but, equally, if you were feeling quiet, you could mute yourself or even drop out. We’d laugh at the ridiculous searches we were making (I feel my targeted ads over the next week might be a little… odd), talk about the random facts we were learning along the way and marvel at the ingenuity of it all.

Wandering around the virtual MIT (well, the parallel universe equivalent of MIT ) was amazing. I was enchanted by the space from that first moment in the early hours of Saturday morning and, as the weekend moved on, I got to explore more and more. It wasn’t just the exploration, though: they threw in a million NPCs, each with their own cute interactions. As a way of “collecting” puzzles to solve, it was fun, giving those of us who struggled more with the actual solving a chance to feel a sense of achievement. Then there were puzzles embedded in the spaces themselves – requiring you to explore the Tunnels, the Stata Center and the Green Building, for example.

I was impressed with the story behind the whole event. I have to admit to being a little confused with the opening sketch, but thereafter I found the storytelling clear and compelling. They’d put together a narrative that ran through many of the puzzles and gave a concrete reason why we had to find the final coin as well as solve the meta puzzles. I loved the quirkiness of the lobster side-plot and the snippets of student life (gotta feel sorry for the football team).

The Infinite Corridor was probably the highlight set of puzzles for me. It was pretty much exactly what it said on the tin – a corridor that went on, seemingly forever, with rooms numbered from 1 upwards. Within each room was a pair of portals – one that took you to room 1 and another which took you to an unspecified room. In order to get to anything other than the first few rooms, you had to work out what algorithm was being used to determine the portal destinations. That was particularly clever, because you could either solve it mathematically or be a little more random and then spend five or ten minutes walking from a nearby classroom to the one you needed. The puzzles inside were varied – a fun challenge about building a wordsearch that met certain criteria, a song lyric rearrangement puzzle, a decoding challenge where you slowly built up enough information by looking at multiple puzzles, and a speed challenge where you pretty much had to have 5+ people in your team working on puzzles simultaneously to beat their relatively short time limits. They were pitched perfectly at our level – solvable but requiring effort. And there were effectively infinite puzzles on offer – by the end of the event, each room had an algorithmically determined challenge to work on, so anyone on the team who fancied a go could find a fresh puzzle to start on.

Team puzzles were another highlight. I’d expected to work as a team because the puzzles were hard, but I loved that we had to work as a team because the puzzles actually required it. There was a string of team puzzles at a variety of difficulty levels, most of which would fall to any team willing to put in sufficient effort. Boggle-, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes-, Anagramming- and Fishing- (!) inspired puzzles all required us to coordinate our team. And, as I keep on saying, being part of a team was one of the great things in this event.

And, of course, there were a bunch of amazing puzzles that I thoroughly enjoyed just because they were clever and interesting. Of those, I think Careful What You Wish For was my favourite because it had such a beautiful journey of discovery. It started off with a search engine interface that returned images. As we typed in our random search strings, we slowly started to see strange results – a few too many sharks, for example. After a while, we realised that it wasn’t just sharks: the word ‘dash’ was coming up quite often, as were images of stars. In parallel, we noticed that certain results weren’t returned, initially we noticed the palindromes, then realised that any word that started and finished with the same letter produced the same result, and finally we noticed that the same thing happened with anything that started or finished with the same letter or the rot-13 equivalent. Putting all those together told us how the search engine worked and, at that point, we had a relatively conventional puzzle to solve. Around five of us spent an hour or two slowly homing in on that solution with a constant feeling of progress and extra information to make it feel worthwhile. Not to mention an immense sense of satisfaction at the end!

What worked for beginners? (And what didn’t?)

As I mentioned above, we were basically first-timers to the event, so I think it’s interesting to see what worked well for us and where we struggled. I doubt any of this is new but, if you’re a new team in the future, maybe this insight will be useful.

First off, before the event even started, having the back catalogue of previous years’ puzzles meant we had some idea of what to expect. While each MITMH is organised by a different team (the winner of the previous event), individual puzzles are usually of a similar standard. Similarly, the webinar put on by Left Out (the previous year’s puzzle setters) was great at reassuring us on what to expect from the weekend.

Qat. This is the word manipulation tool that I didn’t know I was missing. Yes, you can use it to do simple crossword solves, but there are a million tools like that. This one will let you search for a partially completed word where you may have got one character wrong, or where the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 7th letters of one word have to make another word or a three-letter word that is also a type of mammal (solution here, in case you were wondering). In fact, there are a bunch of useful tools linked from the MITMH’s site which are well worth checking out if you’re into either puzzle solving or puzzle creation.

The difficulty of the first few puzzles was really well-judged for our team. They were hard enough to keep us blocked for several hours but not so hard that we weren’t making progress. My only reservation was the feeling that we got blocked on the first meta because we hadn’t solved all the feeder puzzles, and so one puzzle could become a significant blocking point. Fortunately, there were clues if you got properly stuck and, although we didn’t realise it at the time, everyone was given access to the parallel universe late on the first day.

In fact, the difficulty level of the Students and Infinite Corridor was perfect for us too: we ended up solving more than half of those challenges. I wish they had been more clearly signposted as easier challenges. In fact, I wonder whether unlocking the other areas for us was actually a good thing. Several members of my team commented on how overwhelmed they felt by the number of puzzles on offer on Sunday. I wonder whether it would have been better to hide away most of the puzzles (which, frankly, we never had any hope of solving) and, instead, just give us access to the activities in those areas plus maybe one or two of the easier puzzles.

There were a bunch of challenges that were more easily accessible – for example, finding students to give you puzzles, clearing the Charles River of lobsters, looking at the graffiti in the Stata Center, the Stud Finder and For Your Eyes Only. The team challenges – Boggle, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Fast Cafe and the Pirate Ship – were especially good examples of that. They were easy to understand and, even if you couldn’t complete them properly, you could still derive satisfaction from how well you’d done relative to previous attempts. They were also fun to play – I can see people going back to playing these for fun, long after the hunt is over.

What next?

Well, hopefully they’ll run a fully online-accessible hunt next year. If so, then I’m pretty confident that my work team will re-enter. If not, then I guess I’ll have to work out how to either pick up some locals or, more likely, join an existing hunt team.

That’s far too far off, though, so I’m looking at what I can do to feed that puzzling addiction in the meantime. Short term, I’m looking at P&A Magazine, which offers a two-monthly selection of puzzles, and an annual ~400-puzzle challenge, as well as our now traditional monthly Puzzled Pint event.

In the medium term, both the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt (as a team event) and the Cryptex Hunt (most likely solo) are on the radar, but I’m on the lookout for puzzle hunts that fall at the easier end of the MIT Mystery Hunt, so shout if you have suggestions!

Why not you?

Honestly, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already played but, if you haven’t, then why not? I believe there’s a place for everyone at the MIT Mystery Hunt who wants to take part. If you lack experience or confidence, you can join an existing team who’ll have people who know what they’re doing and can guide you. If you’re feeling brave and have access to similarly brave people, then I’d guess there’s a decent chance they’ll run another online event next year, so you’ll probably be able to enter your own team.

Scared? Yeah, so was I. Start off by playing lots of Puzzled Pint. Try out other small online hunts (maybe the Cryptex Hunt) and, when you’re feeling comfortable with some of them, try out past puzzles from the Mystery Hunt – pretty much all the puzzles are online with comprehensive solutions. I recommend Monty Minotaur’s Magical Menagerie and The Scottish Display from 2020, and Don’t Let Me Down, Hockfield Court and Not Again! from 2021. If you like spreadsheets, then you may also find Hey, Can you Give me a Hand with this Puzzle? approachable. Obviously, those are all personal opinions – your mileage may vary!

Finally, if you’re responsible for the MIT Mystery Hunt 2021 in any way, no matter how big or small, thank you for bringing some much-needed escapism and joy to the world. Your efforts are truly appreciated by me and by all my teammates.

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