284: Hunting for Mysteries

Hunting for Mysteries

At the MIT Mystery Hunt, the only things more confusing than the puzzles are the solutions.

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Wow, I think I've heard of this before. But hearing someone's story from it sounds awesome, I so want to try this someday

Jason Tocci:
Hunting for Mysteries

At the MIT Mystery Hunt, the only things more confusing than the puzzles are the solutions.

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Sounds like a complete blast!

I think it would be great if more games could include "meta-puzzles" like this. One of the best sort in this vein was present in the earliest version of The Matrix Online. Each "chapter" of the game introduced a new set of puzzles that had to be solved by a combination of in-game and out-of-game searching and riddling and collaborating. It was an excellent community and guild builder, and the absolute best part was that you didn't need have otherworldly knowledge or buy another product.

I those have to be the two cardinal rules of meta-puzzling, if we take this into the gaming world:

1) No "shibboleths: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibboleth#Modern_usage

This would be the equivalent of making extensive knowledge of Star Trek trivia a requirement in a puzzle that isn't specifically oriented toward the Star Trek crowd. In this case, it's not a challenge as much as it is a barrier to entry. It's used to exclude, not encourage.

If you're using clues from a movie, can you be sure enough people have seen it... or do you just want to favor participants that enjoy obscure tastes similar to your own? If you're going that Star Trek route, are you favoring one "era" over another without saying so (or even realizing it)?

Part of this comes down to the design of each team (if there are teams). If everyone is too similar in what they know and like, a common weakness may be exploited by the puzzle. The goal ought to be teams that are something of a human Swiss Army knife. (Dibs on the corkscrew.) But there is also a responsibility on the part of the puzzler to ensure that the body of knowledge required for the puzzle is either demonstrably common, or is provided in some other way (in the form of hints, word banks, etc).

2) No purchase necessary:

We really don't want to see games with these puzzles become rewards for buying additional stuff. Nintendo tried that with Gamecube games that required a GBA and cable, and people hated it. This is essentially a financial "shibboleth" (see above) at best... and shaking customers down for pocket money at worst.

Can this puzzle be solved by someone who hasn't seen the movie or read the book? If not, be careful with how many puzzles of this sort you're using. Can it be solved without buying a variety of tie-in products? It's one thing to offer hints if someone enters a code they got with a product, and it's another thing to make a puzzle that can't be solved otherwise.

Meta-puzzling done right

Hard to balance, but it could be well worth it. Encourage collaboration among players. This could mean players in MMOs being given random parts of the puzzle, but they have to work with other players to solve it. It could be something as simple as what was done with the Carmen Sandiego series--you need to occasionally consult your historical knowledge (or an encyclopedia) to make the right move.

You're linking the game to the player's social and/or physical world by way of a puzzle that reaches outside the game. And as long as you're not requiring them to purchase your whole catalog of books, or enter nutritional information from the package of your new power bar, this can add a whole lot of depth to a game.

I've read about this before, but damn it sounds awesome.

I always get too frustrated to accomplish these puzzles. I'm usually alone and beating my head against the wall just ain't that much fun.

But I do understand working out a problem with a group is pretty cool.

That's the interesting thing about puzzle games. I can do some types of puzzles all but in my sleep, but other puzzles I just can't seem to get. It's just how it is. That's probably what would make team based puzzle solving better.

It sounds like fun, but it's not anything I can do.

Man that sounds sweet. What a drag though, having to organise the whole thing for the following year. Is there any other prize? Other than the heavy yoke of administration?

This sounds like a really interesting pastime, and it's something that I, as a gamer, puzzle-solver, and long-time cryptography enthusiast, would quite like to try. Sadly I'm in in the UK and can't exactly make it to MIT for this, but nevertheless it sounds like a lot of fun. Maybe I should try setting up something similar myself at my university :D.

On a side note, to anyone interested in this sort of thing, I'd like to direct you to the University of Southampton's annual 'National Cipher Challenge'. It's a yearly event that takes place usually around the start of the academic year in the UK, though anyone can do the challenges, to actually enter properly (either as a team or individually) you need to be resident in the UK and be under 18, as it's a schools challenge (with a cash prize and tour of Bletchley Park, the HQ for WWII code-breakers in the UK). In any case, the puzzles are available online for anyone to see and they keep the ciphers, and answers, from previous years archived as well. It's done by the School of Mathematics at the university and is a great way of getting into code-breaking and puzzle-solving, especially as the first puzzles are usually very easy (often mere Caesar shifts) yet become much tougher near the end, often involving multiple levels of ciphers, extremely tough ciphers like the Vigenere, and sometimes requiring at least a basic level of skill in programming (or a lot of free time and scrap paper). Here's the site for this year's challenges, and you can find the archived previous challenges through there:

http://www.cipher.maths.soton.ac.uk/

Trivun:
This sounds like a really interesting pastime, and it's something that I, as a gamer, puzzle-solver, and long-time cryptography enthusiast, would quite like to try. Sadly I'm in in the UK and can't exactly make it to MIT for this, but nevertheless it sounds like a lot of fun.

In past years there have sometimes been groups of helpers to a MIT team based in the UK. It's online help, but with a bunch of you in the same place it's got some of the same social and collaborative atmosphere as being there.

dastardly:

1) No "shibboleths: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibboleth#Modern_usage

This would be the equivalent of making extensive knowledge of Star Trek trivia a requirement in a puzzle that isn't specifically oriented toward the Star Trek crowd. In this case, it's not a challenge as much as it is a barrier to entry. It's used to exclude, not encourage.

One of the weirdly interesting things about how the Mystery Hunt is run is that it is absolutely FULL of "shibboleths," like the Xbox 360 Achievement icons mentioned in my article, "Console-Nation Prizes": http://www.mit.edu/~puzzle/09/puzzles/consolenation_prizes/PUZZLE/

In this case, I think the result of this is not necessarily to exclude, but to guarantee that nobody can actually solve every puzzle alone. You NEED to work in teams because nobody can be that much of an expert in every area imaginable. Taken into the single-player gaming context, it does make sense to discourage "shibboleths" in design, but I wonder if this approach could be leveraged for other multiplayer gaming applications?

CINN4M0N:

Man that sounds sweet. What a drag though, having to organise the whole thing for the following year. Is there any other prize? Other than the heavy yoke of administration?

Not that I know of. Actually, on my team, we often joke, "If you see anything that looks like a coin, DON'T PICK IT UP." (Of course, the Hunt organizers don't actually plant "The Coin" until some teams are ready to start looking for it.) I heard of at least one year that the Hunt faced some organizational hurdles because some of the people who won weren't interested in actually helping to run the thing, but most years it seems to go pretty smoothly. I get the sense that a few really competitive teams kind of cycle between themselves for leadership. Since I started, anytime a team has won, someone on my team remarks, "Oh, that's the team that ran the hunt this other year...."

Jason Tocci:

dastardly:

1) No "shibboleths: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibboleth#Modern_usage

This would be the equivalent of making extensive knowledge of Star Trek trivia a requirement in a puzzle that isn't specifically oriented toward the Star Trek crowd. In this case, it's not a challenge as much as it is a barrier to entry. It's used to exclude, not encourage.

One of the weirdly interesting things about how the Mystery Hunt is run is that it is absolutely FULL of "shibboleths," like the Xbox 360 Achievement icons mentioned in my article, "Console-Nation Prizes": http://www.mit.edu/~puzzle/09/puzzles/consolenation_prizes/PUZZLE/

In this case, I think the result of this is not necessarily to exclude, but to guarantee that nobody can actually solve every puzzle alone. You NEED to work in teams because nobody can be that much of an expert in every area imaginable. Taken into the single-player gaming context, it does make sense to discourage "shibboleths" in design, but I wonder if this approach could be leveraged for other multiplayer gaming applications?

Oh, definitely--I was using this specifically with regard to gaming. In an open-air game like the Mystery Hunt, you're going to have tons of people from all sorts of interests participating together, and you want to provide opportunities for a wide variety of skill sets to shine... while also forcing everyone to be dependent on others. Requiring bits of specialized (however trivial) knowledge can encourage and even demand that interdependence.

Plus it's fun to finally be cool because you know the model number for Han Solo's blaster or something.

The difference between "specialized knowledge" and a true "shibboleth" is that a shibboleth really is intended to separate the "ins" from the "outs," in a historical sense. It's a trick used to divide, identify "enemies," and otherwise exclude. The difference is in the intent of the designer (often the subconscious intent). If it's done for a sense of inclusion, I don't think it's a shibboleth at all, really.

Even then, it can be tricky to pull of in video games. When you've already got a $60 buy-in (in most cases), people might shy away from games that also demand they already be intimately familiar with a particular body of subject matter just to contribute. I mean, I have a hard time getting people to play tabletop games in genres with which they're not familiar. Imagine how much harder it would be if they also had to shell out $60 just to be able to join us.

It's a fine line between making Person A feel useful for knowing a trivia-tidbit and making Person B feel useless for not knowing it. While some of it rests on the personality of the individual player (some can't deal with not being completely independent), a lot of it rests on the designer(s). The higher the price to play, the less you want to force the player to depend on others--remember, video game players might not be on the same campus, time zone, or continent.

Things like this always interest me, although I am not the best at them. I loved working the ARG puzzles for Portal 2. R2D2 Droid 2, and Flynn Lives "For Tron: Legacy". I doubt I am smart enough to participate in something from the folks at MIT though.

Really makes me wish they had something like this in a city near where I live. I'd love to take part in a puzzlehunt.

WHERE R TEH CLUUUUUUEEZ?!

Helloooo? Completely expected to have the answer to the VICE CHANCELLOR puzzle in the conclusion to this piece.

grendelpete:
Helloooo? Completely expected to have the answer to the VICE CHANCELLOR puzzle in the conclusion to this piece.

Oops, missed this one. Better late than never.

VICE CHANCELLOR actually IS the answer. It's just that this is an answer that makes no sense whatsoever outside of the greater context. Also, it's a clue for a larger puzzle, which I never saw solved. And I think that one solution might even be part of a larger puzzle...

I was very pleased with the art that The Escapist provided for this article because it perfectly evokes something between a police detective's "clue board" and a crazy person's "conspiracy wall." Yes, that's exactly what this event is. Finding the answers is fun and rewarding, but one of the points I hoped to communicate was that there are always more questions than answers for most Mystery Hunters.

 

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