MIT Mystery Hunt 2014 Recap – Part 3

I woke up from my One Big Sleep at around 6pm on Saturday evening. I saw that I had missed a call from Todd, but a quick look through the Hangout chat seemed to indicate that I hadn’t missed out on anything too important (like, say, a Runaround). I got cleaned up, and used Hangout again (so convenient!) to check on the dinner situation, then headed back over to campus.

I’m reminded as I write this that when I had left for the hotel that morning, it had been pouring down rain. (My socks and shoes were soaked by the time I got to our hotel room.) When I headed back to campus that evening, I saw that the rain had changed over to snow and left an inch or so while I had slept. That was kind of fun, and sure made it seem like I had slept longer!

I got back to headquarters and found everyone pretty occupied by their current puzzles. Todd said he had called to tell me there was a puzzle about Japanese bands. I took a quick glance at it, but it seemed like the West coast had made most of the progress on it already. I kind of floundered around for a bit, trying to find something else to work on, but I was having trouble jumping into anything. Eventually, I ended up back on that Japanese puzzle, called 1! 2! 3! 4! 4649!

I think it would have been really fun to have been a part of the initial a-ha moments of this puzzle, which West had already knocked out. Despite getting a late start, I think being somewhat familiar with Japanese numbers gave me a bit of an advantage as I tried to help West work through the data. I did a little brute-forcing and figured out one key component, and maybe a piece of another? Before too long, we had enough data to extract the answer. It’s nice that even when you aren’t the one to have the big light bulb moment on a puzzle, or even to do most of the data work, you can still help push everyone over the finish line just by being interested with fresh eyes and energy.

(I had some nice entertainment during that puzzle as well, as Summer quizzed Matt for the Eggsam — a challenge which required memorizing a bunch of odd words and their incorrect definitions. Summer would quiz Matt with definitions like “a person who intentionally and illegally destroys property by setting it on fire,” and Matt would respond, earnest and focused, with a word like “organelle.”)

After that solve, I tried to help Matt and Summer work on a puzzle called Top Shelf, but wasn’t really able to add any insight. I noticed some other members trying to Photoshop together the jigsaw puzzle images we were getting from solving puzzles in the latest round, and I thought I could do it more quickly/efficiency with my mad skillz, so I hopped on that task. Shelly also helped me make notes of some important data in the images.

At 11:50pm, our team solved the last meta. The people on our team who had been paying attention to the various metas and flow of the hunt said they pretty much knew that the runaround would be next. Our team captain, Mike, started getting everyone prepared. The atmosphere got very serious and exciting all of a sudden! Mike was telling us what we would need to bring, and what to expect. Ah, I got very excited!

Mike preps the team, I am anxious!
Mike preps the team, I am anxious!

Before long, the Cheshire Cat came to visit our team and take us on the Runaround! She said she would be with us the whole time, in sort of a comforting way, which made it all sound very momentous and quest-like (and maybe somewhat harrowing?).

It's go time!
It’s go time!

We gathered up our things and followed the Cheshire Cat across campus to an auditorium-style room where we met the Queen of Hearts. She was upset about a white wooden bed structure in the middle of the room. She said she had bought it at Wonderkea (cute), but that it was too small, and she needed a Queen-sized bed. She also said she used the headboard to write her dreams (in red dry-erase marker). Finally, she heavily implied that we had the tool to take the bed apart, which was an Allen wrench we had received from one of the characters earlier in the hunt.

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Team Left Out crowded around the bed and inspected the pieces and parts. It seemed like it would be sort of like a Japanese puzzle box, where pushing and sliding certain parts in the right sequence would allow it to open or expand. We also discovered four sliding posts on both sides of the bed that were clearly meant to take in a combination.

An enigmatic drawing on the headboard
An enigmatic drawing on the headboard

We messed around with different ideas for some time, until GC interrupted us with an important question. Other teams were also on the runaround, which was structured in a nonlinear way so that you could hit the different key points in any order. But another team was ready to use the room we were in. If we weren’t trying to be competitive, it would be appreciated if we put that puzzle on pause and moved to another room. So, we were asked — are you trying to win? And Team Left Out’s collective answer was a resounding “NO!” We happily gathered our things and headed to another part of the runaround. We had been wondering about the other teams on the runaround, and were a bit nervous about what place we might be in, so we all appreciated the transparency from GC on the matter. (I’d say it was a win-win situation, but as I mentioned, we did not want to win-win at all.)

Our new task was to visit the Duchess and help console her crying baby (played by a grown man GC) with a lullaby. Our tools were a record player (which we were not allowed to plug in) and a table full of random stuff (which we were not allowed to move away from the table).

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We recognized that the record player would want a record, and we had received one from a character earlier in the hunt. Unfortunately, it was still with Dan (I believe?) who had been off trying to find some way to play it and record the contents. For about three seconds, we thought we were going to be up a creek for a while, but then Dan magically appeared, record in hand. He had managed to get a faint recording of the record’s contents, but it seemed at first unusable. And in any case, the Duchess required us to prove that we could make the record play manually before using any supplemental materials.

Making a DIY phonograph with a sewing needle, paper cone, and manual spinning action was a job that required only about three people and total silence (and was amazing to watch), so the rest of us occupied ourselves with other things. I spent most of the time studying the photo we had taken of the drawings on the Queen’s headboard, determined to solve this strange puzzle before we went back to that room. After a while, the phonograph team started getting some solid (and very creepy) results. The Duchess then allowed us to use our recordings, and our team quickly started solving the non-mechanical parts of this puzzle. The audio on the record was a voice listing off items found on the table in the room, each of which had a single letter taped to it. The message “SING I AM THE WALRUS AS A LULLABY” was soon deciphered (though with partial data we first tried to “SING I AM THE WALRUS SILENTLY” — surprisingly difficult!).

walrus

The lyrics to the song were brought up, and Team Left Out awkwardly, halfheartedly, mumble-sang them to the tune of Brahms’ Lullaby, laughing in between, feeling totally unsure that this was the thing we were supposed to be doing. Finally, after enough lines had been sung, the “baby” drifted off to sleep and the Duchess thanked us for our help. As a reward, we could take one object from the table. Knowing that one of The Beast’s weaknesses was her own reflection, we dutifully took a mirror.

The Queen of Hearts room was still occupied, so we headed to another new room, just around the corner from our home base. There, we found the Lion and the Unicorn having an argument about playing games. One of them had stolen the game pieces from the other and smashed all the boards. We provided some little playing cards we had received, and they were magically transformed into little playing pieces. Then it was our task to reassemble the playing boards, which turned into some various Nikoli puzzles.

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This was another activity that seemed to be pretty easily saturated, and we also happened to have a Nikoli champion on our team, so I was happy to sit back and look at the bed puzzle some more. It was a little bit easier to hash out ideas since we didn’t need to be silent for record-playing, so I worked through every logical path I could think of out loud trying to make sense of the thing. Maybe some of the letters are numbers? Maybe it’s a rebus? “This is the kind of puzzle where we’re going to feel sooo dumb when we see the solution,” I said. “There’s just some connection we’re not making,” I said. “Every puzzle has an answer,” I might have even said.

Meanwhile, our team made quick work of the Nikoli puzzles, and the characters turned a tiny chess piece into a comically large chess piece for us to take along on our quest. On our way back to the bed puzzle, we heard that the coin had been found! This was at about 2:30am. At that point, I don’t think any of us were seriously concerned about winning anymore, but it was still exciting to know that someone had won.

Back at the bed, we noticed that the headboard had been partially redrawn! Likely due to other teams messing it up while moving things around. This was HUGE for us! We could compare the two images and see what was consistent. Maybe some of those letters weren’t numbers after all?

After even more head-scratching, things still weren’t making any sense. But then we had the most brilliant a-ha. It was so simple, so perfect: some parts of the drawing were actually drawn in permanent marker. If we just erased everything, the answer would be revealed! Erase it! Erase it! There is a huge eraser just sitting there! Just go for it! Don’t erase little parts, just erase the whole thing! Yeah!!

And then… well, I think it’s best to let Hangouts tell the rest of the story:

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Perhaps we were too hasty. It really was the perfect solution, though.

Eventually, the Queen of Hearts fed us a much more blunt hint about using the Allen wrench (which we hadn’t yet found a place for and assumed we would need later in the process). It’s funny how hints work. I think as soon as that hint was given, everyone in the room immediately knew what to do — and felt like a bunch of idiots. But how many more hours would we have spent floundering if we hadn’t been nudged in that direction?

The Allen wrench matched up perfectly with the letter L (previously) written on the whiteboard, and something magnetized behind the board let us know we were on the right track. The rest of headboard mechanism involved guiding a magnetic ball through a maze with the wrench, which proved to be pretty tricky. When it was complete, the headboard shifted slightly, allowing the foot of the bed to extend a bit. The rest of the drawing was just a red herring!

The next step seemed to be to work out the combination of the sliding posts on the side of the bed. We spent some time half-picking the lock, half-trying to deduce a combination, until another GC hint told us that we were in fact meant to simply pick it. Luckily, we had Ben on our team who is very lockpick-savvy. He directed the effort, telling everyone which posts to push in and pull out and when to give the whole thing a good shake (all hilariously dirty for those of us in the peanut gallery, especially at 4:00 am).

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Finally, after yet another nudge about the combination not having any prime numbers, the bed was solved! The top of the bed slid away to reveal a compartment with a down pillow. It also revealed the combination lock mechanisms, full of very tricky “local minimums”, and also full of shredded wood splinters we had generated in the process.

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With an object corresponding to each of Alice’s weaknesses (a mirror for her reflection, a chess piece for games, and a down pillow for her allergies), we were off to the final showdown with The Beast herself. This part was definitely a Runaround highlight and extremely well executed. It took place in Lobby 7, once again taking advantage of the unique layout of the lobby with its third-story balcony overlooking the ground floor of the lobby (last year’s Thomas Crown game did the same). GC essentially recreated a maze-style puzzle video game with live actors and props on the floor of Lobby 7!

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From the third floor balcony, you could look down and get basically a top-down view of the maze. Alice and the Rabbit had their own set of rules for how they would move on any given turn. The game started out with Alice holding the Rabbit, and the goal was to get the Rabbit to the exit without Alice. The three items we had collected along the way could be placed in the maze and would have effects on Alice (such as making her drop the Rabbit, turn around, or pause one turn). Once the items were placed, the game would “start” and the actors would play out each turn according to a set of clock ticks, and we would see if we won or not. It was pretty much the cutest thing ever. The actors did a remarkably good job at remembering their move conditions, and even threw in some cute idle animations when they would get stuck. It was really like watching a couple of video game characters!

The rules of the game were pretty complicated, so it was tempting to just sit back and let another group come up with the solution, but it was a lot more fun to get involved, understand the rules, and try to work from the ending condition back to a solved game state. Eventually, one group from our team was ready to start trying out some ideas, and I think they got a solve in about 3-4 tries! It was fun to follow along from above, especially for the winning design. Since it was difficult to visualize how the starting conditions would play out, we got to be delightfully surprised when it became clear that the solution was going to work.

With the last activity completed, we were given a short paper puzzle that utilized a lot of the answers from the puzzles we had solved throughout the hunt, and produced a message for where to find the coin! We followed the directions to that location, and GC explained what would have happened if we had been the first team (actors would have lead us to each of the wormhole locations to seal them off, and at the last location, the courtyard right next to our HQ, we would have found the coin). We were also told that we were the third team to solve the hunt! Awesome! We finished at about 5:45am on Sunday morning.

We all headed back to home base to pack up our things and get some sleep, while the West Coast kept plugging away at our last remaining puzzle — Monster Potatoes. About 2 hours later, they had solved it and we had officially completed the 2014 MIT Mystery Hunt!

 

Sunday Afternoon

After getting a few hours of much-needed sleep, we had a partial team lunch at Chipotle and then headed back over to the classroom to help clean up. It was a pretty quick task, and we spent another hour or so just sitting and talking about the future of the team. We talked about our views on winning (now that our team seems to be a solid contender), our views on taking on new members each year, how to better utilize our two classroom spaces, and how to adjust the roles and responsibilities listed in our team docs to better reflect what actually happens during the hunt. This was all really interesting discussion, and it made me even more thankful to be on such a carefully crafted team with such a thoughtful and effective captain in Mike.

Unfortunately, I had to head out early to catch my flight back to Seattle. I had been really anxious all weekend about missing the end of the Hunt because I had booked my flight for Sunday evening instead of Monday, but it ended up working out okay. I was still bummed to leave the team discussion and miss out on games and visiting that night, but it all worked out better than I was expecting.

With that, my 2014 Mystery Hunt experience was over. In the next post, I’ll go over my closing thoughts about the hunt, and my feelings looking forward to next year.