Under the Sea: Mystery Hunt 2015

One of my favorite parts of the MIT Mystery Hunt occurs hours before the event begins. I wake up, shower, shave, get dressed, and leave my hotel. I walk down Ames Street and enter building 66, one of MIT’s many buildings, which are linked together via a numbering system I cannot even pretend to comprehend. (Building 66 is connected to Building 56, which is connected to Building 16, which is connected to Building 26 on the one side and Building 8 on the other.) I’ve been attending the Hunt for eighteen years and still get lost at least once each weekend. But I can navigate the route from Ames Street to my Hunt team’s headquarters like a pro, like someone who belongs here.

Our main HQ is a classroom — 4-159, these past few years. I am almost always the first one there. When I arrive, it is empty and the lights are off. The blackboards are spotless. The tables are lined up in their orderly, businesslike way. We’ll soon see about that. I plug in our team’s phone and make sure it works. It does. I call my wife, who tells me that the Caller ID reads “Hunt-comma-Mystery.”

Do I want to start moving tables around and otherwise transforming this classroom into an official Hunt HQ? No. People will be here soon to help. For now, I’ll have breakfast and enjoy a few wonderful minutes of peace before a weekend jam-packed with the best kind of chaos.

Flash forward! The organizing team (One Fish, Two Fish, Random Fish, Blue Fish) has announced this year’s Mystery Hunt theme: A Jules Verne-inspired epic entitled “20,000 Puzzles Under the Sea.” The first batch of those 20,000 puzzles (actually, 162) have been released, and my team, Palindrome, has jumped in with the passion of people who have been waiting a long time for this moment. In no time at all, the previously spotless blackboards are filling up with answers.

Random’s collection of puzzles covered a delightful range of subjects. Over the weekend, we would solve crossword puzzles and other word puzzles, each with a particularly Huntish twist. (A “floating crossword” required answers to be entered in four directions; another one, entitled “This Puzzle Has No Errata,” was filled with mistakes.) (On purpose.) But those common puzzle types barely begin to scratch the surface of what we encounter over the weekend. We had to chase down four people walking around campus, using as clues the pictures they were posting to Twitter. Part of one puzzle appeared on a T-shirt that each team has been given. As always, puzzles took the form of a long list of pictures or cartoons, with no hint of what might tie them together.

The organizers did a wonderful job, too, at offering puzzles at a wide variety of difficulty levels. One entire round, “School of Fish,” was made up of 53 56 puzzles specially made to be a little more tractable, at least in terms of the Mystery Hunt’s usual offerings. Newbies and the easily frustrated were best advised to stick to those puzzles, lest you instead wind up staring at something like “Practice in Theory,” a series of physics problems that started off more-or-less understandable (though not, of course, by me) and then headed straight for Crazytown:

Matthias has a massive eel which behaves like a spring of spring constant K = 452.9269061N/m, unstretched length exactly L = 1m, and linear mass density exactly ? = 1kg/m. If he suspends it vertically, how far is the midpoint of the spring displaced relative to its unstretched position? Express your answer in nanometers, rounded to the nearest nanometer. Take g = 9.8m/s2 exactly.

…and that was one of the earlier problems. The ones dealing with superstring theory came later.

I personally kept almost all of my focus on the metapuzzles. These are puzzles made up of answers from the other puzzles in the round, and cracking them is always a big deal. We have a few teammates who are particularly good at metapuzzles, but this year the magic moments came from all over the room — insights and solutions came from a wider variety of people than I can previously recall. I was proud to break into one metapuzzle using only three of the eight answers — it helped that it was a Dr. Seuss-themed round, dealing with books I have read approximately one billion times.

My favorite solving moment of the weekend came as we were staring at the following answer words:

SUMMER
KERFUFFLE
WINNER
CURL UP
BIG SUR
SMS POMMERN
STIR FRY

We had previously realized that the title of each puzzle was the name of one of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, but with one word changed. But what did that have to do with anything? The best we could determine was that each word contained an “er” sound. Was that important, or was it a coincidence?

My friend Susan then came over and said something along the lines of: “This probably doesn’t mean anything and isn’t very important, but–“, and then she proceeded to hand us the key that solved the whole damn thing. She remembered the existence of a particularly silly meme that floated around the Internet a few years ago, of a very excited girl holding up three Goosebumps books. “GERSBERMS!” the caption read. “MAH FRAVRIT BERKS!” She quickly became known as the “Ehmergerd!” girl.

Sure enough, if you strung together the “er” syllables from the answer words, you got:

MER KER NER CURL SUR MERN STIR

And the answer to the puzzle was “Mechanical Sea Monster.”

That’s why we come here every year, of course — that lightning bolt of inspiration known as the Aha Moment. But that is not all the Mystery Hunt is about. There is also ample opportunity to show off your creativity. At one point, we had to subtitle new lyrics to “Gangham Style.” I don’t know the translation of the original, Korean lyrics, but I would like to believe my teammates’ efforts are a vast improvement.

We also needed to acquire items for Ariel’s Scavenger Hunt. You’ll remember that Disney’s Ariel has no idea what various things are called, and so that’s why we were asked to find, among other things, a tracuddle (“to help me see better”) and ralners (“to help me walk on land”). The more items you were able to gather for each made-up word, the better — and so our representative proceeded to sell the Hunt organizers on a cowbell for every single item. (“A movale? To wear to the ball?” {hits cowbell} “You’ll be the bell of the ball!”)

For a while there, I am told, my team was in the lead, but then we got stuck on several metapuzzles, and forward progress came to a near standstill. Nonetheless, we eventually solved every single puzzle. With great excitement, we approached what we believed to be the final part of the Hunt: The runaround. We gathered up our belongings and headed for the Green Building, as directed.

…where we learned that, in fact, there was one more thing we needed to do before the runaround. Indeed, we were not supposed to have brought our entire team to this location: Only five people were needed. As captain of the team, I became one of those five people, and I chose four others to join me, and we walked through a stairwell door and into a total nightmare.

At this point, the story of the Hunt had us going up against the Four Seahorses of the Apocalypse, who were waiting for us on four different stairwell landings. The puzzle was basically a variation on crossing-the-river-with-a-fox-and-a-chicken, and solving it meant running up and down the stairs for half an hour. On, in my case, two hours of sleep.

Heavens bless my teammates James and Foggy, who were able to keep straight all the various things we needed to accomplish, and in what order we had to accomplish them — apparently we were the first team to get through the tower without making an error that would have caused even more vertical running. I, personally, was absolutely useless during this: My big contribution took the form of Not Keeling Over.

And yes, that is sort of funny in the abstract, the middle-aged person pushing himself way too hard for the sake of puzzles. Except a few hours later, one of my teammates did keel over, collapsing to the ground, dehyrdrated and exhausted. This was during the actual runaround, a series of five stunts and large-scale puzzles that took my team close to seven hours to complete. I personally bowed out after the second stage, content to put my feet up back in headquarters and then, eventually, give up entirely and go back to my hotel. Somewhere around then, at about 5:15 a.m., my teammate suddenly needed serious medical attention.

We sort of forget how hard the Mystery Hunt is, not just mentally but physically. We — and by we, I mean the older folks, with older bodies and older metabolisms — need to remember that taking care of ourselves over the course of the weekend is non-optional. The classrooms where we work are small and crowded, and in the middle of winter they become a self-inflicted form of germ warfare. I’m nursing a miserable cold as I write this, and my brother followed up his Hunt experience with a nasty fever and a trip to his local urgent care facility.

My dad joked that next year we should all wear those paper breathing masks, like they do in Beijing. Right now this does not strike me as a bad idea in the slightest. You can bet we’ll have an industrial-sized container of hand sanitizer, to boot, as well as a giant water cooler, as well as a team captain who will be a total bear about getting people to regularly drink water. (“Why is that water bottle empty???”)

I would also not argue with a final runaround that doesn’t take so many hours to complete. It is by no means Random’s fault that my teammate wound up in an ambulance — we are all responsible for ourselves around here — but there is no denying that over the past few years, Runaround Creep has taken a firm grip on the Hunt, resulting in finales that go further and further over the top. The logistics of running these extravaganzas are such that teams need to rely on the organizing team to get everything right — at one point, our guide got misplaced, and we all had to turn around and go back the way we came. That would have cost us valuable time if we had still been competitive at that point. (We were not. Ultimately we would come in fifth place.) Other teams also mentioned long delays between stages of the runaround. Apparently one team did pass another along the way, but I’d love to see a finale designed to allow for more of that down-to-the-wire horseracing. Right now it feels like your destiny is, to a large extent, in the Hunt organizers’ hands.

(Although I remember quite well the runaround years ago that had two teams simultaneously jockeying for position in a single elevator, which both had correctly detemined was the location of the Hunt’s Grand Prize, a coin hidden somewhere on campus. That was down to the wire, all right. We don’t have to swing the pendulum that far back, though.)

My teammate, incidentally, is fine, or will be. He needed a couple of days of rest. So do I, for that matter.

And so we eventually reached the final part of the runaround, and earned ourselves not a coin but a shiny, black rock. It was given to me the next day at breakfast, and I shall honestly treasure it, in the same way that I treasure that initial walk to campus, the one that gets this all started every year. I might not stay up for 29 hours next time, and I’ll leave the physical exertion to my younger teammates, but there’s no way I can possibly stay away.

Later that day, we cleaned our headquarters. We got all the tables and chairs back in order, and swept the floor, and threw away about a half-ton of scrap paper… and then, my least-favorite part: Erasing the blackboards.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted January 20, 2015 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to say thanks for the kind words, we really appreciate them. Among other things, the School of Fish round turned out to be at least as much of a hit as we were hoping, and it’s been wonderful to hear feedback about it. One small correction though, there were actually 56 puzzles in the round (plus a meta) :D

    Also, as one of the backup Ariels, I’m really sad I missed your Cow Bell submission(s).

       1 likes

  2. catherio
    Posted January 20, 2015 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Eric!

    One note on the runaround that I hope doesn’t get lost by future writers: for the top few teams, the guides were timing the duration of all transit time and delays, so that we could subtract it from overall runaround completion time and make sure we always had a clear picture of who was genuinely in the lead after factoring out delays that weren’t the fault of the team. I really hope that that addition doesn’t get lost in the future.

    Speaking as this year’s runaround coordinator, I agree wholeheartedly that all else being equal shorter runarounds are better. I certainly don’t want our runaround to be held up as an ideal standard for length, though I do hope we set the standard for full-team interactivity and for parallelizability. The point where the organizers tasked us with writing “the longest runaround that would still be fun” was at a time when our simulations predicted that the last metameta solve would occur before 6pm on Saturday, and a disappointingly short <24-hour hunt seemed likely if we didn't stall with a long runaround. Even having seen first-hand how our choices panned out, I still don't know how I feel about that tradeoff. If the last metameta had actually been solved at 6pm Saturday, what would the ideal coin-find time have been? 6:10pm, with a ten-minute runaround? Midnight, with a six-hour runaround? Surely somewhere in between, but where?

    In our case, in hindsight, we should have instructed our Ocean Creatures leading each challenge to dial back the tuneable parameters (number of Feud questions, number of Anglerfish bubbles, etc.) down from the "maximum that could possibly be fun" setting, but that didn't occur to anyone at the time. Which is why we talk to future teams =). Having those dials in there was a great idea and I definitely recommend it – later teams were told to take 100 selfies instead of 200, for example, and that worked great.

       0 likes

  3. Noah Snyder
    Posted January 20, 2015 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s a mistake to think of “when the coin is found” as an important measurement at all. The important thing that measures whether the hunt is too short (which personally I don’t think makes the top 5 most important things to worry about anyway) is “how much time do the leading teams get to spend working on puzzles.”

       1 likes

  4. Ewan McNay
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Our team (Central Services) had a minute of great team hilarity when we solved the Ermergerd meta at ~1 a.m. Sat. High point of the Hunt.

    For all of Friday and much of Sat, it felt to me – likely just because of inexperience; this was my 2nd Hunt – as though we were just *ripping* through puzzles and had a chance to actually get through to the end. But then the tower puzzles (somewhat) and tower metas (much more so) caused everything to come to a crashing halt :-/. The speed of the winning team(s) flabbergasts me :).

       0 likes

  5. Paul Melamud (Sin Vr
    Posted January 21, 2015 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Paul (from Team Luck, I am Your Father) here.

    First, Kudos to Iolanthe and the whole Random team for pulling this off. I have to say that for a predominantly (or maybe exclusively, for all intents and porpoises? See what I did there?) student run hunt, you guys surpassed even the high expectations I had going in. There’s some absolutely golden resume fodder you guys should be able to use here: project planning, problem solving, team building and participation, quality control, quality assurance, live performance, and real-time feedback controls based on taking metrics. It may sound a bit silly to some listeners (oh, it’s just puzzles) but there’s a ton of real life experience here that I have paid careered adults to accomplish less successfully than this.

    Oh, and if I may throw an extra-shiny kudo to whomever did the Random hunt’s artwork? It gave the hunt a really polished look. I also really liked the “teasers” of the blackness ahead, so you knew what might be coming up (and in a few cases, what fish it would be) but couldn’t confirm or access it until you got just a bit deeper. I understand you guys debated that quite a bit. :)

       0 likes

  6. Posted January 22, 2015 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    Team Luck will definitely have a big discussion about the runaround. It seems to be participants’ biggest issue with the Hunt in general right now.

       1 likes

  7. Ryan Lang
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    Is there a place to provide feedback about the runaround? I’d do it here, but it’s mostly about my team’s experience, and I don’t want to take over Eric’s blog for that. (For that matter, is there any way to provide feedback which isn’t puzzle specific?)

       0 likes

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