Cute Mage's Tower

Things I Liked About the 2023 MIT Mystery Hunt

Back in January, I participated in the 2023 MIT Mystery Hunt, of which many gallons of digital ink have already been spilled. My big takeaway from the Hunt? If teammate had hit their editing targets, the 2023 Hunt would be talked about as one of the best MIT Mystery Hunts that had ever been written. That being said, this Hunt was still pretty freaking good, and I want to talk about the things I absolutely loved about this Hunt.

Big Things

The Story

In most MIT Mystery Hunts, the plot is an excuse plot1 - a plot that exists only to give an excuse as to why we are solving puzzles. The plot determines the theme of the Hunt, which gives the set dressing for all of the puzzles, the context for the metapuzzle answers, and helps define the structure for the Hunt. However, you can solve the Mystery Hunt without interacting with the plot, and in fact, many solvers do so.

I would argue that the 2023 Hunt’s plot is not an excuse plot. This Hunt, more than any other Hunt that came before it, is intricately tied to its plot. I actually felt like I was affecting things - even though I was on rails just as much as I have been in past Hunts. MATE being a chat box that I could talk to did a lot in making them feel like a real character that I could interact with, despite my first instinct being to SQL inject “DROP tables” into their text box.2 Sorry.

The plot points were wonderfully crafted to consistently make me feel bad for MATE. I left the auditorium saying to the people around me that MATE would turn against us partway through, so I 100% took the bait. By halfway through, I was willing to throw hands for MATE. teammate is lucky that I wasn’t awake when they came for our interaction, cause I would’ve gotten so mad at them for creating intelligent creatures and then just “throwing them out.”

I love the trend of the writing teams creating a new mascot each year, but the function of their mascot tells a bit about who they are. The smobster from 2021 was a meme created by Galactic - the memeiest team I know3. Zappy was a manifestation of both Palindrome’s excitement for Hunt and their desire to troll you. MATE is a character that I have surprisingly deep feelings for and that I want to hug4.

How Brave They Were

When you’re running the Hunt, there is a lot of pressure to not screw things up.5 The fact that teammate brought a lot of innovation to the Hunt showed their bravery. Let’s talk about everything that they brought to this Hunt:

Honestly, most of these on their own would be enough to describe teammate’s Hunt as innovative. The fact that they put all of these in the Hunt and managed to pull most of them off is pretty impressive.

Hall of Innovation

Look, any round where I can submit the null string as a correct answer to a puzzle is a good one 😜

But seriously, this round was amazing. The idea of a round where the puzzles aren’t done yet and that they can be changed from the factory floor is a really good fit given the story of this Hunt. It’s one of those perfect mergers of mechanics and story that game designers only dream of finding. Up until that point, the idea that the factory was creating puzzles was only theoretical. Then it became real.

The gimmick was really fun to solve as well. Despite the endgame of it being one giant logic puzzle, there was plenty for lots of people to do. Data collection was a huge task, and I was able to ask a group of people to make Cipher work while I took care of most of the rest of the round. This is different from other meta-level logic puzzles, where often the optimal strategy is to leave it to one solver or a small group that is used to co-solving.

I am very glad that they stayed with the conceit that solving one of the Innovation puzzles works like solving any of the other puzzles in the Hunt. It would be easy to say that the round “wasn’t finished” and therefore wasn’t connected to the main answer checker until they were complete, but they didn’t. This meant that every bs answer that I submitted would ring on all my teammates’ computers, getting them real excited that we solved a puzzle before realizing that it was Innovation bs. It’s one thing when the solvers find a way to troll their teammates or the running team6 with the mechanics provided, it’s another thing when the running team makes trolling your teammates the default. I love it!

Anyway, I can stand here and gush about every single bit of this round, but I’ll start repeating myself. From the solutions page, it looks like this round had a lot of love and care that went into it, and it shows.

Individual Puzzles

Museum Rules (Atrium)

This was a fun opening puzzle. A combination of silly state laws and surprising state supreme court seal details all thrown into a cute presentation made for a great warm-up for the rest of the Hunt. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Loading Puzzle (Museum)

This puzzle was brilliant. My only complaint was that my team was solving too fast - I had conclusively proved that the loading time was based on how many puzzles we had solved and that it was producing the same sequence every time, and then we solved our seventh puzzle and it went into infinite loading mode.

I initially thought that the solution was going to be based off the messages that the loading screen was producing at the bottom, since they seemed to be written to force certain letters to be the first letter of the sentence, but in the end they didn’t seem to be anything except hints that you needed to solve it.

A Trip to the Museum (Science)

My description of this puzzle is that it’s a minipuzzle set with 4 really good minipuzzles. You may note that there are five minipuzzles. Let’s talk about the ones I liked first.

First of all, I am very glad I solved this puzzle with a bunch of current students and recent alum. The best group for a location puzzle at the Hunt is often a bunch of MIT students and one old–timer. First, my teammates got me to the Museum without me getting lost (and tolerated me constantly stopping to talk to people I ran into), and they were much better at finding the puzzles in the exhibits than I was. I’m pretty sure the only one I spotted on my own was the leaf, and that was because I was wondering why everyone was gathered around a plant. They also were very dedicated on getting the virus wall puzzle, and ended up pulling out a laptop and an image manipulator on pictures that were just barely not sharp enough to figure out what they were doing. But perhaps my favorite part was when I suggested what to do for the Starshade Puzzle, one of them immediately pulled out a laptop and started coding up some Python to do the extraction. That ended up being easier and more error-free than anything I would’ve done.

As for the puzzles themselves, they were generally pretty solid. The Tracing Threads mural was really cool and I wish that the mechanism was working at the time cause it was honestly kind of fun. While I was searching for letters, I was also taking in the picture. Some of those letters were super hard to find though, and I thought that this would have been the minipuzzle that would’ve benefited the most from having minipuzzle checkers. Virophilia Cookbook was a pretty straightforward Identify, Sort, Index, Solve puzzle with a slightly offputting dataset. Starshade was cute and it took us way too long to realize that there were going to be two separate messages. Virophilia Wall was a little tedious, but possible to do. It was definitely a choice to have two of the five puzzles involve the Virophilia section, especially since those two parts were right next to each other which caused a slight bit of awkwardness.

Location puzzles are really cool7, but their tie to a physical location introduces some logistical issues that can have a huge effect on solver experience. What happens when 10 teams are going to be at the same location at the same time? Is there one small thing that everyone needs to be at for a while, or is it one big item that everyone can congregate around? Or, even better, is it an item where taking a picture of it is sufficient information and you don’t need to solve in front of the relevant location? For four of the puzzles, these issues were not really pronounced. The Sunshade was a giant projection on the ground and was only necessary to motivate the first step. The rolling art was actually fun to solve around with other people until we realized that the mechanism was broken. It involved some cooperation, but not an unreasonable amount. Both Virophilia puzzles could be solved from pictures, and the cookbook one could be solved with some quick notes from a quick scan. The problem comes from the leaf.

On the one hand, I see why people would want to use the leaf. It’s the only minipuzzle that’s based on logic, and the leaf creates a weird grid that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s a really cool idea for a puzzle. That being said, it turned out to be a really hard puzzle to work with. First of all, compared to everything else, the leaf was tiny and hard to get access to. You basically needed to view it from one direction, which means that really only one person could effectively view the leaf at a time. This means that you really want to take a photo of it so that you’re not standing there hogging up the space for everyone else, but taking a photo of it is hard. Because the leaf is three-dimensional, this means that you need to take the picture at the right angle to project it correctly onto the 2-dimensional grid that you were given. This angle turns out to be from the top. However, the case was really tall and the leaf was far down in the case. This meant that you were basically placing your camera at the top of a tall case that you couldn’t see above, pressing your camera button, and then taking it down again to see your picture. I had a hard time getting a good enough quality picture of the grid to be usable.

Of course, there’s a second way of getting the grid, and that was to stand there and copy the grid from the leaf onto the frame that you were given. I tried this too, and it was super hard. It might have been easier had I known which triangles the numbers were supposed to be a part of, but even with the three given triangles in the middle, I never found myself confident of any of the lines I was drawing. Maybe there were people more capable than me trying this, but I just found this impossible and I had more fun when I gave up on solving the puzzle. Also, this gives the word “OR” for the cluephrase which like, c’mon.

That being said, the rest of the puzzle was great and I super enjoyed it. Overall, well done!

Fine Dining (Art)

This felt weird as a set of minipuzzles - I’d rather the minipuzzles do something a little more than have their answers form a clue phrase, especially if half of the clue phrase is just an enumeration. That being said, I liked the meta-matching and I liked the Bowl/Cup/Plate/Pot hidden theme. It didn’t really feel like a cohesive whole, but the four individual puzzles were pretty cool. While I may not have liked the clue phrase, I was surprised at how well it clued BOLESLAWIEC POTTERY, so credit there as well.

I also should probably be slightly ashamed at how quickly I picked up on the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup shapes. But only slightly - RPBC are delicious. Om nom nom nom peanut butter and chocolate.

Weaver (World History)

I was not involved with solving this puzzle, but since we unlocked it right when we were closing up shop at 1AM on Saturday morning, I volunteered to go pick it up from the hotel that I was staying at. As soon as I picked it up, my Handicraft experience started laughing at me. I decided that sleeping was still the better thing to do here, so I decided to try to archive it in such a way that someone could solve the first step in a spreadsheet and then go to sleep.

Have you ever tried to get 12 reeds to stay still for a photo when they’re all bendy? It was not fun. I ended up taking a video of me holding each one and flipping it over. Then when I woke up the next morning, I brought the reeds in with me and passed it off to people who were excited about weaving8.

Looking over the solution, it sounds pretty funny. I’m very glad that it involved putting the basket underwater.

Lost to Time (Basement)

I took one look at this and went “Oh right - these are the puzzles missing from the 1995 Hunt”, then told my team who had not identified that yet, despite putting quite a lot of work into the puzzle. I then proceeded not to look at it anymore, since my team was going to buy that answer. I’m in the middle of postsolving it, and it’s been very exciting.

This is one of those puzzles that you look at and go “damn, how did I not think of that before?”. The idea for this is brilliant, and i can’t wait to finish my postsolve.

X Marks the 🍎 (Basement)

I didn’t solve this at all, but I found it very funny that my team found the apple before we unlocked this puzzle, then proceeded to call in OVERARM for any puzzle that seemed to be remotely related to apples.

Quandle (Office)

This puzzle was just fun. The Wordle-variant space is a wide swath of untapped space for puzzle hunts9, and this did just enough to change the rules of Wordle to add interesting depth without overcomplicating it. The extraction was interesting, thematic, and simple. This is my favorite feeder puzzle in this Hunt just because of how well it was executed. Its job was to be fun, and it did that well.

Quality Assurance (Factory Floor)

This is a really cool puzzle. I love puzzles that break the fourth wall of puzzle creation, and this was absolutely perfect in its timing - opening right at the beginning of the Factory Act. The extraction on this is pretty creative - I was just slightly mad at myself that I forgot that people could put “ANSWER” or similar strings at the beginning of an answer and tried to figure out what kind of NEUTRINO this puzzle was trying to clue. That was silly.

5D Barred Diagramless with Multiverse Time Travel (ABCDE)

Someone really wanted to put 5D Chess with Multiverse Time Travel in the MIT Mystery Hunt. To be fair, this is a pretty cool way of doing it, and it works pretty well. The problem is, I’ve been meaning to learn 5D Chess and I never got around to it. 5D Chess is cool, but it’s hard to learn during the Hunt. I do appreciate that the puzzle really simplified what you would need to learn in order to solve it which makes it very much doable. If I had a little less ADHD during the Hunt, I might have stuck around to actually learn and extract, but we solved or bought the rest of the ABCDE answers and we didn’t end up needing this.

This is on my post-solve list. Not for the diagramless part, but to copy my team’s grid and then solve from there, cause honestly that part sounds fun.

Touch Grass Challenge (IMPOSSIBLE!) (ABCDE)

I loved this scavenger hunt. As someone who helped write Book Reports in the 2022 Hunt, this very much felt like a successor in the same style - focus on making the Hunters do weird tasks instead of gathering a bunch of weird items. This was fun and refreshing. Writing a MIT PuMaGraSS was an excellent activity for me to do over breakfast as a warmup for actually solving puzzles. You can see this excellent talk here:

My only issue with this scavenger hunt was how late it was in the Hunt - lots of teams enjoy the scavenger hunt and when it’s gated all the way in the back there are a lot of disappointed teams. That being said, after the sheer amount of work Palindrome did on the scavenger hunt when we unlocked it earlier in the Hunt, I don’t blame anyone for putting it closer to the end10. The nice thing was that the amount of time and effort adequately reflected its location in the Hunt.

Two More Things

A Notable Omission

This may seem weird, but I’m also going to mention one thing that I’m glad that this year’s Hunt didn’t have - something equivalent to the Star Rats round from 2022.

This is not based on any sort of claim that Palindrome or I have towards the concept of a prerelease round, nor do I feel like it was a bad idea. This instead stems from the big worry I had from releasing it in the first place. I was worried about setting a precedent. I was worried that we were going to be increasing the workload that every team was expected to do in the future. The fact that Palindrome was able to create that was definitely a Palindrome thing - if there was one thing we were good at, it’s creating lots of easier puzzles11. We had many professional and semi-professional puzzle writers who had created lots of puzzles at a variety of difficulties and could churn out easier puzzles. We also had a really good workflow, and we could handle the workload that the extra 14 puzzles handled. That’s definitely not going to be true of every team that writes the Hunt. Just like the Projection Device was ✈️✈️✈️Galactic Trendsetters’ ✈️✈️✈️ thing, and future teams are not beholden to make a video game12 as part of their Hunt, I was worried that people wouldn’t recognize that this was a Palindrome speciality and not a permanent change.13 Fortunately, teammate recognized this.

This is not to say that other teams can’t do pre-Hunt puzzles. They totally can! It should just be a tool in their toolbox instead of a mandatory expansion of Hunt and used if it fits into what they want their Hunt to do and if they have the infrastructure to release a round of puzzles early.

The Curse of 3 Mod 10

While I’m talking about how I feel about this Hunt, can I just take a moment to admit something here?

I kinda like the overwhelming Hunts.

Look, I know that they’re not healthy for the MIT Mystery Hunt. They’re not great Hunts to bring new solvers in, they alienate a bunch of current solvers, and they cause a huge amount of stress on everyone who is running it. There is the potential for teams to feel more frustrated than they are in other Hunts, and oftentimes the actual puzzle-solving can feel less-satisfying because they are so hard and the free answers are flowing, meaning that fun-looking puzzles are just worth buying instead of solving.

That being said, I’m a structure person. While I like solving individual puzzles in all sorts of puzzle hunts, a lot of the fun of the MIT Mystery Hunt is the giant structure of the Hunt and trying to cut through it as much as possible. I’m not as bad as I was a couple of years ago when I would only solve metapuzzles and not touch any feeders, but it is still accurate that I tend to touch more metapuzzles than feeders. These Hunts have had interesting structure and it’s been really cool to see the whole thing.

I’m not going to pretend that this is healthy for the vast majority of the Hunt, and I don’t think that teams should ever try to create one of these Hunts, but I’m also not going to pretend that I don’t find them fun. Call it finding fun from hard times.

Wrapping it Up

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the things that I like about this Hunt, but there were also things that I didn’t like. This, however, leads to one more thing that I absolutely love about this Hunt - the issues I had with this Hunt have sparked new and interesting discussions in my mind about what Hunt should be like. They may have gotten some stuff wrong, but for the most part, when they got things wrong, they got things wrong in new and interesting ways14, which will help make Hunt better for the rest of us.

– Cute Mage

  1. I am so, so sorry for linking you to TV Tropes. Hopefully you weren’t sucked in too far. 

  2. My second instinct was to paste the entire text of Atlas Shrugged15 into it. As far as I could tell, it accepted the entire text as input and spit it back out to me with a confused look. 

  3. I hope they consider this a compliment. I consider this high praise. 

  4. Wait - with the Zappy reference in the Basement, in 2023 I got to hug Zappy after Round 1!16 

  5. I will admit that when writing the 2022 Hunt, we may have had a bit more pressure than some other teams in this regard. We very much wanted to give Eric Berlin a chance to run a Hunt from the beginning after he saved the 2008 Hunt. In addition, while most of Palindrome wasn’t on the 2008 writing team, there definitely was the reputation of that Hunt which was a silent albatross. Both of those things I think definitely pushed us to be a bit more conservative than the average team, but they don’t negate the point that the “don’t screw up” pressure is there. 

  6. Joke I didn’t use: “teammate or your teammates”. 

  7. I can feel this turning into a whole thing, so if it seems like I’m skipping over a lot, I am. This is now on the list of multiple topics. 

  8. Well, more excited about weaving than I was. 

  9. Oh I have plans… I have so many plans… 

  10. My experience coming out of the 2022 Hunt does not match some of my fellow teammates with respect to the scavenger hunt. I think it’s still a crucial institution in the Hunt. There definitely needs to be some changes to the scavenger hunt to make it fit in the current Hunt environment, but scrapping it I don’t think is the answer. It will probably be a whole different post from this one, but I will say that Touch Grass having “submit online” and “do in person” tasks was certainly a help. 

  11. Okay, if there was one thing that we were good at, it was cryptic clues. If there was a second thing, then it was creating lots of easier puzzles. 

  12. Please ignore the Conjuri’s Quest behind the curtain. 

  13. Compare this to the emails about unlocking, which should’ve been a permanent change. 

  14. This is not to say that teams “aren’t allowed” to repeat past mistakes, but I will be less happy if they do. Teams are allowed to make whatever mistakes and shouldn’t feel bad about them. Writing Hunt is hard. Anyone who does it should feel proud with what they’ve created. 

  15. I have taken to my new team very well. 

  16. But seriously, I was so happy with the Zappy and Tock references in the 2023 Hunt. They were small things, but they brought a tear to my eye. Thank you for that teammate.