Suddenly we were back to work. Some research online revealed that each decoded string described a murder in a movie starring someone who had also starred in Clue. We tracked down each movie and counted into their titles by the number of letters they'd been shifted to derive one letter from each. The result spelled a word: EMOTIVE.
We clicked a button online, and the team running the Hunt called us on our designated headquarters' cell phone. The room fell silent as my teammate answered.
"Hi, we'd like to call in a solution for 'Cluesome.' EMOTIVE. E, M, O, T, I, V, E." She paused - and smiled. We started to cheer even as she was wrapping up the phone call. We updated the wiki and wrote the solution on the chalkboard for those working on the metapuzzle.
EMOTIVE! We had no idea what it meant, and over the course of the weekend, we never solved enough puzzles to find out. I only helped complete two puzzles all weekend myself.
For me, the real mystery of the Mystery Hunt may be why I would go back for more - and not just once, to try it in person, but year after year, on the same losing team. We never win, or even have any chance of winning. This isn't a Bad News Bears underdog comeback story waiting to happen. In fact, I don't think we even want the burden of competitiveness, of trying so hard that we lose sight of the pure joy of playing a really hard game, let alone the burden of preparing an entire hunt the following year.
As a longtime gamer, there's something exciting about facing puzzles you can't look up on GameFAQs, quests that force you to leave the living room, and challenges that turn a bunch of nerdy strangers into a team. There's something magical about those moments when the combined pop culture knowledge and analytical thinking skill of a room full of people fits together to unlock some carefully designed mystery. Though the MIT Mystery Hunt technically predates any videogame I've ever played, to me, it feels like the new "Hard Mode" in gaming. When you do finally (if only occasionally) succeed, it's so much more satisfying for being so unreasonably challenging. And, for my team, it's a challenge that you can't just face alone on the couch.
When Mystery Hunt weekend rolls around again in January, I fully expect to resent the odd sleeping hours, the junk food diet, and, most of all, the puzzles we never figured out how to solve. And I fully expect to be back for more a year later.
Jason Tocci is an academic, a writer, a designer, and kind of a huge nerd. He blogs about his research on gaming and geek cultures at Geek Studies.