Good Will Mystery Hunting by Yan Z. '12
63 hours of puzzle solving: a classic part of the MIT experience
“It’ll be over before sunrise.” The first time I heard it, midnight was approaching like a derailed train headed toward Charleston, West Virginia, the most important city in the world that night for all I cared (Read on to find why, after this commercial break). The third floor kitchen of Random Hall had melted from a relatively-docile social hub into a hyperenergetic refueling station for the 2009 Mystery Hunt team members as we slowly deep-fried our brains over the relentless course of 63 hours. Before me sprawled a miniature metropolis of snack foods inspired by the great American spirit of elementary school sack lunches: crackers, bread, peanut butter and jam, sodas and juice, cheese, mustard, apples, oranges, cheerios, granola bars and a box of organic alfalfa sprouts that appeared in no explicable context. For two protein-deprived days, I had lived off the sustenance of a third-grader who ate nothing but lunch and slept off the sleep schedule of a 24-hour pharmacy worker in Alaska. No wonder: Random Hall’s population had seemingly doubled on the cusp of the weekend as tides of alumni, friends, honorary residents, and other puzzle-obsessed hunters flooded into our warm, welcoming walls, while travel time from the 2nd floor kitchen to the 3rd floor lounge tripled due to the stepping-over of crowds of people stretched on the carpet, laptop cables and flipped-open screens, empty plates, and scattered scraps of paper marked with indecipherable words. Couch space was at an unprecedented premium.
On a tired whiteboard, someone had written:
BAND MITER SABRE JIG CIRCULAR SCROLL
DROOD PICKWICK RUDGE TWIST NICKLEBY CHUZZLEWIT
HURRICANE SMITHERS NITRO CHARLESTON HUNTINGTON WHEELING
DRAGONFLY REVENGE TESTAMENT FANDANGO WATERWORLD NOWAYOUT
(If anyone finds the pattern, I will be suitably impressed.)
After a few hours and a few more false starts, I was staring at this with half-a-dozen others as we soaked in a collective haze of puzzlement:
After a few additional hours and around 29842942 wrong leads, I drew some more lines on the hexagonal mess above, saw something interesting, and yelled “SPACEBAR!!!” A beat of silence, and then half the room was crushing my ribs with hugs while the other half burst into the lounge to phone headquarters with our answer. Confirmed.
It was 1:00 AM on Monday, and after puzzling, crosswording, board-gaming, coding, algorithm-writing, Googling-and-Wikipedia-ing, picture-analyzing, wordplay-solving, index-calculating, and head-against-wall-banging non-stop(ing) since Friday(ing) at noon(ing), we had dragged ourselves into the final stretch of Mystery Hunt. Solve two more meta-puzzles, find the hidden location on campus, call headquarters to confirm, and we’d be done before sunrise.
There’s just one minor hitch: MIT Mystery Hunt is diabolically hard. Quoth Wikipedia, “One of the oldest and most complex puzzlehunts in the world . . . the puzzle solutions require knowledge of esoteric and eclectic topics.” Somebody should edit this understatement.
For those who are morally opposed to clicking on hyperlinks in my blog, here’s the summary: Puzzles are organized into rounds and are posted online at set times. Few if any come with instructions (half the challenge is figuring out the challenge!). Rules change depending on the year and may or may not actually exist. Each round concludes with a metapuzzle, which integrates answers from that round, and solving all meta-puzzles plus a meta-meta-puzzle allows you to run around wildly on campus in search of the hidden item. First team to find it wins. Winning team writes the puzzles for the following year.
This year’s theme was an Interstellar Board Game Convention set in 3009, an epic-scale, unspeakably convoluted mash-up of sci-fi plots and RPG-inspired tasks that is undoubtedly much cooler than it sounds. Except that my description comes nowhere close to describing the exuberant creativity and sheer brilliancy that the puzzle-writers mercilessly flaunted in our admiring, frustrated faces. Examples included (1) an Apples-to-Apples applet (“apple-t”) that gave you strange error codes when you tried to play certain cards, (2) a series of lolcats with suspiciously accurate spelling, (3) a word puzzle grid that came with video clips of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers instead of actual clues, (4) a PDF that appeared to be blank, (5) a board game given to all the teams . . . without instructions.
(1)All the error codes were from the Mac platform (“apple” computers). Somehow, finding this led you to the grocery produce number for a certain type of apple. The answer was GINGER GOLD.
(2)Each lolcat only had one correctly-spelled word. Taking the first letter of these spelled a message that led you to the Frontier Airlines website. It turns out that each of the animals in the lolcat pictures was taken from images on the airplane tails. Organizing these animals by name and the tracking codes of each plane gave you a message about “Korean Star Margaret.” The answer was CHO.
(3)The trick was to identify the characters played by Rogers and Astaire and write them in the grid. The second trick was to realize that Ginger’s character name had to be written backwards each time, since Ginger “did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels,” a nod to the classic quote. Reading the grid vertically provided the necessary clue.
(4)Zoom in to 6400%.
(5)After about 3948293 transformations, the game turned out to be checkers. Every piece of the board game (pawns, spinner, the board itself, etc.) turned out to be necessary in order to solve another puzzle.
One of my personal favorites was the time-variant word search. Stare at it for a few minutes, and you begin to comprehend why MIT students lose uncountable hours of sleep during Mystery Hunt.
Rewind to Friday, noon. Thanks to Mystery Hunt Kickoff (a.k.a. “Zyzzylcon 3009”), Lobby 7 approximated the milder sibling of a bad sci-fi convention.
Soon after, the teams dispersed from Lobby 7 to commence the first phase of hunting. As a sad and unfortunate person, I broke away from Random’s team of 70+ members and spent 7 grueling hours working in my research lab instead of 7 grueling hours cracking through puzzles with maniacal fervor. By the time I returned to Random at 8:30 PM, puzzling was in full, glorious swing and my maniacal fervor was still screamingly repressed. Catherine ’12 handed me a fistful of gift certificates to the best ice cream parlor in America and I sprinted away into the snowy night, channeling my maniacal fervor into purchasing ice cream for Off by Two Pi. (It’s a tradition to pick horrifyingly terrible team names that put the worst of homemade garage bands to shame. Other gems: S.C. Johnson: A Family Company, The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight, Colon-Inflating Rhinoceri, Eigenpirates, Grand Unified Theory of Love, Team Unwanted Pregnancy, Jews for Cheeses, Hella Minerals, and Super Team Awesome.)
Rounding the end of the block, I dashed into Toscanini’s, nearly knocked over a few customers/chairs/tables, slapped down the gift certificates on the counter, and casually ordered $92 worth of burnt caramel, Belgian chocolate, coffee cookie sandwich, regular coffee, cookie dough, raspberry, chocolate banana, hydrox cookie, tiramisu, chocolate banana, and banana gingersnap molasses ice cream.
It took around 20 minutes for Tosci’s to process my order, so I lounged around, enjoying the cozy ambiance and savoring the last few drops of peace that I would taste all weekend.
With the help of Umaimah and Katelyn, Random Hall was thoroughly dairy-fied for the night.
After which I chucked my camera into the snow and finally plunged head-first into the madness of Mystery Hunt. Fortunately for this blog, part of that was a lie.
Parenthetical note, sans the parentheses: Somewhere in the haze of fluid time trickling around Saturday night, I caved in and took a break from puzzling and peanut-butter-sandwich-eating in order to join Fifth East on their weekly pilgrimage to Pour House (half-priced burgers on Saturday nights!). The treacherous hike across the Moat of Charles into the Kingdom of Boston gave me frostbite about 29 times in the course of 20 minutes, but luckily I ordered a Hawaiian burger and all was forgiven.
(American cowmeat topped with a luminous slice of pineapple glazed in Terriyaki sauce)
Anyway, since this post has thus far defied all chronological reason, let’s go back (or forward) to the wee hours of Monday morning, when Random Hall was as abuzz as the inside of a mosquito light. Desperately we scrutinized each luxuriant and perfect drop of a hint, stretching the exhausted limbs of our minds toward the gleaming secrets of Zyzzl 3009, striving mightily to beat the loathed genius of S.C. Johnson: A Family Company. Time crawled like a frantic beetle. 3 AM. Like the coming of daylight savings time, it caught us unprepared. At 3:02 AM, team Beginner’s Luck found the coveted location and won the hunt. Off by Two Pi finished in 4th place.
I missed the sunrise but was awake by sunset.
Epilogue: Win or lose or end-in-a-perfectly-respectable-fourth-place, Mystery Hunt was unforgettable, not least in the sense that my Google search history won’t let me forget it. For your viewing pleasure, here’s a selection of some deeply profound queries that I implored:
aliens in disguise
burden of eternity
charles xavier dickens
charles dickens basil
ex-hockey player niagara falls
greatest hockey players
high school aliens
hockey players list
randy jackson calls you
x men hockey
xtreme hockey player
know your sid
join military without dying
stunt double survival
airport tracking numbers
grizzly bear in front of mt. mckinley
boston cable channel ist
cast of x-men
clip art woodsaw
cream of mushroom soup
famous titanic survivors
good will hunting script
herbie hancock song list
let me google that for you
list of superhero movies
movies in 2000
people named rose
polaroid picture mirror
six degrees calculator
words ending in oilet
Real life resumed shortly thereafter.