Cute Mage's Tower

Vent Gas? Y/N

Puzzle hunts are incredibly emotional events. The feelings of the constructors shine through the puzzles, and the feelings of the solvers shine through the comments at the end. But how do we balance this when these emotions are seemingly at odds?

The Ministry of Bottlenecking

Let’s talk about the Ministry. That link details a lot of information about the round, but there is one important quality about the round that isn’t reflected in the page, and that is the unlocking mechanism. Puzzles were unlocked in a predetermined order, and all five minister metas were given at the start. Once the five minister metas were solved, the Ministry was unlocked. After the Ministry was solved, the Fruit Around was unlocked, and after that was solved, Pen Station (and therefore the rest of the Hunt) was open.

Putting the unlock structure that way highlights the issue with the round - it bottlenecks to the point where teams can have 1 puzzle open. Given the typical size of Mystery Hunt teams, this can be an issue and can affect how much fun people are having during the Hunt. Now, there are arguments about whether this was a good idea or not, and I’m not going to get into it right now1. That’s not the point this blog is trying to make. The point is that a structural issue in the Hunt caused some friction with some solvers. That is 100% valid.

After the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt, I scoured the internet for people’s reactions to Hunt. Being in HQ for a hunt can be kind of isolating, especially for online only hunts. I spent some time interacting with teams at the beginning with Scavenger Hunt interactions, and I spent some time interacting with teams at the end with the endgame.2 Other than that, it was basically responding to emails, which don’t have that same level of connection, even if you are flirting with a team in one email.3 Reading all of the wrap-ups and reactions and submissions to the feedback survey and things people said were super important to feel like we had done something that people had enjoyed.

Of course, when people made these posts, they also described their frustration with the Ministry Bottleneck. That’s totally fair and reasonable. It’s a part of their story from the weekend, and therefore should be mentioned when they talk about the Hunt. However, these comments generally broke down into two camps:

It was frustrating being stuck on the Ministry for two hours, and brought a damper on the weekend.

The Ministry was unacceptable and completely ruined my weekend. Palindrome should be ashamed.

My hope is that I don’t need to explain the difference between the two comments to you, but if you need a refresher, talking about what makes good feedback was the very first post on this blog. Instead, I want to talk about the effect of the second comment on the people who run the Hunt. In particular, I want to talk about the effect the second kind of comment had on me.

Puzzle hunt teams are like corporations4 - while the team as a whole may do something together, individual people do individual actions. The people inside the team know who does what, even if the organization is opaque to outsiders. In this case, and perhaps predictably since I am writing this, I was the person most responsible for the Ministry Bottleneck. I was the editor of The Ministry and the person in charge of creating the unlocking mechanism. I’m certainly not the only person who had an effect on the existence of the bottleneck5, but I am probably the single person most responsible for it.6 When I read a piece of feedback like the second one, even though it is directed towards the team as a whole, I know that it’s pointed at me.

But even if that wasn’t the case, both sets of criticism get the same point across, but the second one is meaner. Every puzzle hunt is a labor of love - the creators have poured tons of time and energy into it, and releasing it is bearing their heart to the world. When they are met with meanness, how is that going to change them? What is their next puzzle project going to look like?

There’s an argument to be made that this is the Internet, and creators should suck it up and deal with mean comments. I find this argument frustrating. Just because people are jerks online doesn’t mean that there need to be jerks online. It is important to be able to take feedback well, but let’s be clear - the person who is causing a problem is the person leaving mean feedback, not the creator who feels bad from reading it.

I needed a break from puzzle things after writing the Mystery Hunt because obviously I did, but the responses to the Ministry caused lots of consternation, even months after the Hunt. It took me a while to recover.

But, isn’t it important to express your feelings?

Yelling into the Wyrmhole

My previous post on this blog was a critique of the Wyrmhole.7 The Wyrmhole came out in January, but the blog post came out in November. Why the long distance between the two? Well… during the Hunt I was a lot less nuanced towards the Wyrmhole.

Let’s be clear - frustration is a totally valid emotion. You are allowed to feel annoyed by a hunt. You are allowed to not like individual puzzles. You are allowed to not like the theme. You are allowed to hate the overall structure. You are allowed to be upset. In fact, often times in puzzle hunts solvers are spending lots of time and getting emotionally invested in puzzles. Sleep deprivation and hunger can cause people to not be the best at communicating their emotions in a productive way. After the hunt, processing those emotions in a healthy way is important and should be something that every solver does. However, you are responsible for processing your emotions in a way that is healthy for you and the people around you.

After the Hunt, I discussed the Wyrmhole with my team and some friends outside the team. I spent weeks trying to figure out why exactly I felt bad, and attempted to separate my personal feelings from the structure of the round. I was not satisfied that I had separated my feelings from my critique until about August, and then August happened and it took me a little while to write. I would never dream of processing those emotions anywhere near where teammate could read them. These are my emotions to process, and it is my responsibility that my processing doesn’t make things worse. Venting in a place where teammate could read means that they will read it, and it will affect them. That’s what private conversations are for.

Wrapping Things Up

The end result of this is easy, right? Just don’t be mean on the Internet? Easier said than done.

Discussions on the Internet are an imperfect medium.8 Text doesn’t fully communicate the emotion behind our messages, especially since it erases the all of the nonverbal cues that we give while talking. Emoji help cover the gulf, but emojis can mean different things to different people.9 It’s very easy for people to read your message with a different tone than what you intended which means that when you want to strike a certain tone, you have to be really precise with your wording. This is hard and can take a lot of practice.

On top of that, a lot more people can effectively participate in an online discussion than in a real life one. An in-person discussion effectively has a cap of the number of people that you can have talking to each other before it really becomes multiple different conversations happening in the same space. The physical space and ability to hear others imposes these limits. In a digital chat room (like Discord), tens of people can be participating in the same discussion at the same time, and conversations are often preserved for people to later read. In addition, it is easy for anyone to publish their opinion and for other people to find it. For the solver, you may feel like one person voicing your opinion, but you are one of a series of voices that the constructors hear. For that constructor, it can feel overwhelming in a way that would never be the case in real life. That’s the kind of thing that hurts people.

Feelings are key. Context is key. Location is key. Empathy is key.

– Cute Mage

  1. Long story short, if I were to redo the Ministry today, I would put a blank grid on the Ministry meta page, and I would reduce the amount of time that you could be stalled on the Ministry from 2 hours to 1 hour. 

  2. Although I wasn’t even the one interacting with teams as part of the endgame - I was the one person in the room who wasn’t visible on camera since I was setting up the Zoom meeting and all the other tech. I was the “writer”10 though. 

  3. Look, I was very tired, and I saw an opportunity to write a paragraph that was simultaneously flirting and filled with LaTeX error codes, which were both directly relevant to the team’s submission. It’s not like it came out of nowhere. I will be as silly as other people are willing to be with me. 

  4. It is very hard to write this without cringing a little. Sorry. 

  5. And again, there is an argument about whether the existence of the bottleneck is necessarily bad or not. 

  6. I hope it is fairly obvious why I am not delving into trying to assign blame to other people who worked on it in this blog. It’s not productive, it’s not helpful, and honestly I’m not here to make people feel bad about their work on the Hunt. For more information why, read the rest of this blog I guess? 

  7. I also need to update that blog post with a link to Alex Irpan’s response. He said a bunch of good things. 

  8. Not that any medium is perfect. 

  9. I am still surprised in the range of meaning that people ascribe to 🙂. 

  10. The fact that “writer” is in quotes is my favorite thing on the whole Credits page, and I’m on there a lot.