Puzzle Box

Puzzle Box
Hunting for Mysteries

Jason Tocci | 14 Dec 2010 13:09
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You come across some letters in a waste paper basket in a mysterious apartment...

That was it: no instructions, no hint button, and no online walk-through if I'd even bothered to look. All I had was a website with some flavor text, a title for the puzzle - "Dear Reader" - and a series of letter fragments, each dated and written in a script font. For instance, dated March 6th: "Mother, I regret to inform you that I have just committed a homicide. I discharged my pistol into his skull, & the wound was most fatal; I am very young, but now I fear my future seems bleak indeed."

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"They're songs," my friend explained as I joined him in an online chat room. A bunch of my college buddies were engaged in some kind of weekend-long puzzle-solving competition at MIT, but I was stuck in Philadelphia for work at the time. I was curious about what my friends were up to, and all the puzzles were posted on the Web, so I logged on, hoping to help out remotely. As for the clue, my friend pointed out that the segment paraphrased Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody": "Mama, just killed a man / Put a gun against his head / Pulled my trigger, now he's dead." That's where my friends were stuck.

Scanning through my friends' notes in progress online, I mentioned that there seemed to be a lot more songs by "Weird Al" Yankovic than by any other performer, and even the songs that he hadn't written included some he'd covered. A long pause followed, as I eagerly awaited the next clue. My friend typed back, "Solved it. VICECHANCELLOR."

What the heck did VICECHANCELLOR mean? I asked, but got no response. My friend was already rushing headlong into another enigma without me. Somehow, the solution was even more puzzling than the puzzle itself. It was an apt introduction to the MIT Mystery Hunt.

The Mystery Hunt began in 1980, initiated by former graduate student Brad Schaefer. As one of the oldest and best-known "puzzlehunts," it attracts upwards of a thousand participants each year, drawn from both the campus population and unaffiliated problem-solvers the world over. The goal is to solve wave upon wave of puzzles, each without explicit instructions, each somehow yielding a text string as a solution, and each providing a clue toward an even larger "metapuzzle." The Mystery Hunting process is a mix of the technological and the personal, with puzzles delivered on a password-protected website, a link on each puzzle's page indicating when the team has a guess for a solution, and organizers calling and dropping by personally to check on solutions and progress.

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