Mystery Hunt ended just over a week ago and I think it’s safe to say that many people are still recovering from it. I’ve been trying really hard to work up the effort to do a comprehensive blog entry that detailed the storyline, the adventures we had, our victories and defeats, and ultimately how everything ended. Unfortunately, I’m still so overloaded by Mystery Hunt that I think all I’ll be able to manage is an entertaining little glimpse into the average Mystery Hunt puzzle solving session and a discussion of one of the puzzles. In about a month all of the puzzles will be published online for you to look at, so I’m not going to bother publishing a bunch here (it would mean uploading pictures, sound files, pdfs, and all sorts of time consuming stuff). So, without further delay —
Puzzles for Mystery Hunt were continuously uploaded to the internet for us to solve. When a new puzzle was uploaded, a group of people (generally the people who noticed it first and were sick of the puzzle they were working on) got together, read it, and started solving it. Puzzles oftentimes contained both a method of obtaining a series of numbers and also a series of words or pictures. This is the kind of conversation you might overhear while a puzzle is being solved:
(The following puzzle is completely fabricated, but a good representation of what one may encounter)
“Alright, check out these numbers, it looks like the number 6 never appears.”
“You’re right, that’s obviously a clue. We should add 6 to every number.”
“Ok, let’s see, when you do that you get a series of numbers that all seem like they could be the second half of a year.”
“Hmmm, how does this correspond to these pictures of fish? Should we identify all the different types of fish?”
“Ok, sure, why not?”
[Spend the next 3 hours identifying fish]
“Alright, we’ve got 30 names for 30 fish, but these 5 names are a spelled differently based on where they are found.”
“Maybe Latin names?”
“You’re RIGHT! THAT HAS TO BE IT!”
[Spend 20 minutes looking up Latin names for fish]
“Ok, so now we have years and Latin fish names. The relation?”
“Maybe they aren’t years. Maybe it’s an index? Maybe we’re supposed to use the nth letter of each Latin fish name, as dictated by the numbers we have.”
“But what order to we put the fish names in?”
“Well, since the number 6 was missing earlier we should sort them alphabetically by the 6th letter of each Latin fish name.”
“Ok, that makes sense.”
“Alright, now we just apply the index . . . there.”
“It doesn’t say anything.”
[stare at it for a while]
“AHA! When you read down this diagonal of letters and do a Caesar Shift it spells Loortg which can be anagrammed to spell Log Rot.”
“Let’s call it in!”
Now, granted, I made that particular puzzle up, but that’s not to say it was unrealistic. Many times it actually was that complicated and contrived, I kid you not. And the answers? They almost never had anything to do with the puzzle you were solving, which means you never actually knew if what you got was correct until you called it in. Ah the joys of Mystery Hunt puzzles.
Dan Sauza ’11 and I were working on misc. puzzles at around 6 at night when a new string of puzzles were published to the internet. We browsed through them and found one that might be fun so we decided to check it out (we had a web utility that let us check out, return, and monitor all the puzzles) and get to work on it. It was titled “Character Witness” and consisted solely of a PDF file, which you can look at here:
We decided, upon seeing it, that the first thing we should do was identify each of the cartoon characters and the show they came from. Little did we know how difficult that was going to be. Some of them were easy. We immediately identified Stimpy, the Big Bad Wolf, Remy, and El Kabong. We had to do some Google searches for the rest, and ended up with almost all of them. 5 hours after beginning the search for cartoon characters we were down to two: A ferret and a cat.
We looked everywhere for these two animals. I searched Google images for just about every permutation and combination of “Cat” “Orange” “Mixed Drink” “Martini” “Cartoon” “Rich” “Dressed” Character” “Snobbish” I could think of. That got me nowhere. Dan wasn’t having any luck with the ferret either. After a while (30 minutes) we started brute forcing cartoon character databases. That meant scrolling through every one of 45 different pages full of pictures of cartoon characters in hopes of identifying these two. No luck. We started running out of ideas so we decided to publish the pictures to my personal blog and see if any of my readers knew who they were. After blogging the pictures we just kept looking and looking. I called my dad and had him look for a while (many hours) and IM’d everybody I could and asked if they recognized them. No luck.
Eventually, at around 2:30 am, we had a breakthrough! Well, sort of. Dan had asked some people in Death From Above’s other puzzle-solving room and somebody said they recognized the animation style of the ferret. He said it looked like a show called “My gym partner’s a monkey.” We hit Wikipedia and found out that there is indeed a ferret on that show named “Vice-coach Horace Ferret” but there was no picture. We started combing the internet for a picture of the ferret but to no avail. We had a name, now we just had to confirm!!! We watched YouTube videos, scrolled through episode guides, and checked IMDB. Nothing. While perusing the Cartoon Network site for the show I noticed a flash game. I started playing and realized that there were characters dispersed throughout. THE FERRET MAY MAKE AN APPEARANCE! Identifying that ferret then hinged on me playing and beating that game. I jumped and swung my way through all of the levels before reaching the very last level. What was it called? “The Gym.” Vice-Coach Horace Ferret would be in the gym! Sure enough, in the very background of the level was a small ferret standing next to a container of dodgeballs. We had done it! At 3 in the morning we had beaten the flash game and successfully confirmed the identity of the ferret!
Now only the cat was left. We kept looking and looking but found nothing. Nobody was commenting on the blog post either, leaving us with nothing. We decided to take a break from finding the cat and focus on solving the puzzle. We worked with the numbers on the jerseys, the dates of the shows, the fact that they were playing soccer, and especially the fact that the pdf contained two of the same page. Surely there was a reason for that! We took both pages of the pdf and flipped back and forth between them really fast and sure enough, there was a difference! The bottom half of the image shifted up and down a small amount between the images. After some closer examination we discovered that there had been a line of pixels added to one of the images. This was a significant breakthrough. We extracted the line of pixels, measured it, found its relation to the rest of the image, checked it for morse code or binary, analyzed the colors, and basically beat it to death. We couldn’t figure out what it could mean! We investigated the pictures as a whole again, this time deciding to use Photoshop to subtract the two from each other. If they were the same then subtracting them should yield a black screen. It didn’t, the two pictures were aliased differently. This just confirmed that the two pictures weren’t meant to be identical and we should still pursue the line of pixels.
We checked the blog sometime the next day and somebody had left a comment identifying the cat! He’s a character on a show called “Queerduck” named “Oscar Wildcat.” We now had the names of all the cartoons so we took to figuring out the numbers on jerseys and how they related to the names of the cartoons.
Eventually, after a combined total of approximately 35 man-hours, we gave up. We just couldn’t get it, and it was disappointing.
After Mystery Hunt ended there was a Wrap-Up, which consisted of the puzzle-writers explaining some things for us. I made sure to ask about Character Witness. The guy who wrote it stood up to explain (the title of this entry is about to make sense):
“Well, what you were faced with was a pdf with two identical pages and two pictures that were exactly the same.”
“NO THEY WEREN’T!” No less than 50 members of the audience lost all composure and started screaming, several jumping out of their seats. “THEY WERE NOT THE SAME! THE ALIASING WAS DIFFERENT!” “YEAH!” “YEAH!!” “THERE WAS AN ADDED LINE OF PIXELS HALF WAY DOWN!” “YEAH!”
The man who made the puzzle was stunned. “I’m not that good at computers guys, they were basically the same thing.”
Someone from the audience yelled back something we were all thinking:
“If you’re going to give 800 MIT students two pictures that are exactly the same, you better be sure as hell that they are exactly the same. We noticed a line of pixels shifted and aliasing differences. We were trying to figure out which superheroes had aliases as these characters, we were completely misled.”
“YEAH!” “AMEN!” “HE’S RIGHT!”
The guy looked mildly horrified at this point, but did offer up the solution to the puzzle. I stopped listening after the first couple of lines because I almost started sobbing. I took two major blows during this guy’s speech. The first was that the countless hours we spent analyzing that line of pixels was completely meaningless. The second blow was when he said this:
“All of these characters are animals that have been cloned before, hence two identical pictures [growling heard from audience]. The names of the characters didn’t mean anything, we just looked for cartoon animals that matched animals that have been cloned.”
AAAAAAAAAAARRRRGHHHHH!!!!!!! SO MANY HOURS WASTED! It was completely demoralizing, honestly, all the work I spent on that puzzle was completely wasted. I hate that puzzle, I HATE IT!
So there you have it, a glimpse into the inner-workings/solvings of Mystery Hunt. It was maddening at times, but overall enjoyable. Except cartoons. I hate cartoons. And clones. Maybe soccer too. Yes, soccer too.