(This is a recap/review of the 2023 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles, solutions,and solving stats can currently be found here. This recap will contain spoilers.)
Erratum on Tue 1/17/23, 4:36 PM EST: The narrator of this story may occasionally be unreliable.
Mystery Hunt was back on campus this year, and I applaud Teammate for the Herculean organizational effort that that must have been involved. I know from working at a university myself that over the course of the pandemic, a lot of administrative procedures have been interrupted and complicated by staff turnover and reluctance to reinstitute stuff that wasn’t necessary when classes were remote. All things considered, MIT is very supportive of Hunt (if you don’t think they are, name another college that yields this much classroom space to an event they don’t directly supervise that doesn’t directly give them money), but getting everything you want when running Hunt is still a delicate process in the best of years. This may have been the worst of years, but apart from clearing out of HQ overnight, things felt shockingly back to normal.
Jackie and I decided that Simon is still too little for on-campus cameos (particularly with XBB raging in New England; I still seem to be healthy thanks in part to Setec’s requiring everyone to test every morning, knock on wood). I essentially asked for Mystery Hunt for Christmas, so effectively I got a weekend pass to stay in Cambridge for the entire Hunt, and Jackie showed up on Saturday when we could get babysitting suport during the day. I’m hoping that next year we can find a way to have us both there longer, because I especially missed solving with her during the quiet morning shifts (though I also missed large chunks of those shifts anyway, for reasons I’ll describe).
I parked at the same Red Line garage I’d discovered as my go-to Hunt Weekend access point in 2019 or 2020, got to campus bright and early, and got lucky twice in that my hotel room at the Marriott was available early, and I was able to find a kiosk quickly to print a physical alum ID. Unfortunately, neither my mobile ID or physical alum ID was able to open a single door all weekend. I’ve got to get that looked at before next year.
Setec has used a non-classroom Stata HQ for years, but since 2020, our connection has been severed, so we were in the classroom HQ pool for the first time in ages. Even if we’d still had our previous home base, maintenance work in Stata would have displaced us anyway. I had some trepidation about how much the change in location would faze us, and the answer was surprisingly not much. There was a classroom next to us reserved for The Team… To Be Named Later, which they apparently decided not to use, and which they even more apparently (by now) didn’t need. If our classrooms had been too crowded, I assume we would have hijacked their room once it became clear they weren’t using it, but since we didn’t, I guess we were ultimately fine. We also had an overnight HQ booked at the Marriott, which was very helpful (we had arranged for a suite, which flooded shortly before Hunt(!), and the staff at the Marriott was gracious enough to find us some meeting room space and waive some of the rules that had caused us to choose the suite in the first place). That worked out nicely and definitely soothed some of the sting of having to relocate a couple of times per day.
When Hunt runs smoothly, I tend to focus on metas whenever possible. Maybe that’s just an internal yearning for glory, but I also just like getting big ahas and solving around things. When we were solving 2021 and 2022 remotely mostly in Zoom breakout rooms, it was often hard to find the people who were thinking about metas. One of the best things about being on campus again was being able to hover near the front of the room and get involved with the meta brainstorming easily. We only solved two metapuzzles on Friday, but I ended up doing a lot of work for both of them on paper. Our first meta fell after someone found the restaurant connections for Atrium, and then I solved the Waiterlink (which probably could have been done in a spreadsheet, but it was faster just to draw lines).
And I also ended up being the pencil guy for a small group collaboratively labeling molecules on the Science meta. The latter is in a category of metas I often don’t appreciate, since it’s much more of a self-contained puzzle that happens to have the feeder answers as givens than a final stage bringing the answers you’ve gathered to life. But among metas of that ilk, I thought the Science meta was really nice; the examples given did a good job gradually revealing and confirming what color meant, what order meant, what interactions were happening, and so forth. Visually it reminded me of the Feynman meta from 2013 (maybe not the best meta collection to emulate), but I found this solve path much smoother. I usually try to be one of the team members that goes to sleep early and wakes up for the morning shift. We started making Science progress when I was about to leave, and it kept me up for at least another hour and a half.
I also typed STOP at Mate earlier in the day, but not until we reached the point where puzzles weren’t loading. I had noticed much earlier that there were weird square sequences but assumed it would come up in the Science meta (which wasn’t open at that point), and when this opened a new level, I was very pissed at myself for not trying anything an hour before I did.
Hunt is not all metapuzzles, so for the record, some of the early puzzles I enjoyed working on near the beginning of things included Inscription, Museum Rules, Natural Transformation, Scicabulary (someone mentioned “Leakfast,” and I said, “Hey, I think I wrote that Shinteki Puzzle of the Month years ago!”), and One of the Puzzles of All Time, which was morbing great.
I wasn’t as consistently involved with metas on Saturday; Art was solved entirely while I stepped out of the room for five minutes, and I never really got what was going on with World History. I did help get the aha for Natural History, but I was mostly pleased I could guess the appropriate wrestler who’d held the KOD 6-Man Title without looking him up. Fun non-metas I worked on (some of these may not have been on Saturday) included Baking Bread, Redacted Recipes, and This Puzzle Is Just Another Regular Cryptic. And Think Fast was neat, though we got incredibly stuck on the final puzzle, even after winning the game step and the in-person testing step. Sometimes things that have three parts should only have two. Foreshadowing.
And one more time I did not get to sleep as intended, becasue around dinner time someone figured out that the factory gizmos altered Innovation puzzles. This was a fantastic mechanism, and once we opened the meta, I got very sucked into it. Unfortunately, we made some spreadsheet errors when solving the wordplay bit and placed old and new letters in inconsistent columns, and so we didn’t see the first phrase we should have extracted. This means that instead of the likely solve path (submit that phrase, be told your gizmos are wrong, fix the gizmos) we followed the not-recommended Setec solve path (don’t see a phrase, figure out all the gizmos, spend a long time trying to extract an answer from the gizmo positions, eventually fix the spreadsheet and submit, never seeing a message telling you your gizmos are wrong). The bright side of this is that while analyzing the gizmos, I drew a graph almost exactly like the one we ended up being given in the Factory Floor meta (same orientation and everything!). We’d also already written down the Factory answer-gizmo sequence, so we had everything in place to solve the Factory meta; that kept me up a solid three hours later than desired, but as a result, we did have the fastest unlock-to-solve speed of any team in the Hunt for the Factory Floor meta.
Sunday morning, after a decent but probably insufficient amount of rest, I came back to HQ and soon we opened the Basement meta, despite having opened the Office round first. We caught onto the recycling and plastics code theme quickly, and after a few false starts at how to approach things, we managed to solve the meta and discover the drives in the basement. After that, we focused on the Office, used a few free answer chits and solves to open the meta, and solved it in a big group, following a correct hypothesis that got much better once Josh Oratz proposed that SOLID YELLOW was a pool ball rather than a naval flag. Now having gathered all the key elements of the story beat (Mate’s having a rough time! There are mysterious hard drives in the basement! There are other weird AIs about!), we solved the four reactivation puzzles and initiated a final runaround in which we used the new AIs to improve the factory and brought our Hunt in for a gentle landing on Sunday afternoon.
…except the end of that last paragraph isn’t true. What actually happened is I woke up Sunday to be told that there was an entire third level of the Hunt we hadn’t unlocked yet. We did solve both the Basement and Office roughly as described, although we were given Reactivation to solve before we finished the Office (apparently because fewer metas were now being required for that step), which made finishing the Office very anticlimactic from a story perspective, and possibly unnecessary for advancement. But more importantly, completing Reactivation didn’t trigger the endgame. Instead it opened FOUR MORE ROUNDS of puzzles, many of which felt long for the sake of being long, arcane for the sake of being arcane, and I’m sorry to say, poorly edited (though probably not for the sake of being poorly edited).
I am speaking purely for me, and not for Setec or for the Hunt community at large. But for me personally, the AI rounds took what could have been a really great tightly constructed Hunt, and ruined it. While I have considered trying to retroactively brainwash myself into believing we finished Sunday afternoon, I’m not going to do that, both because I don’t have access to the right medications, and because I think there are some vitally important lessons to be learned by the Hunt community from this year’s Hunt. I apologize in advance that this will probably involve some harsh criticism. I again want to emphasize that I really liked most of what we encountered in the Museum and Factory. And also Dispel the Bees. But I value quality over quantity (most of the time), so in the next post, we need to talk about why more can sometimes be less. After I calm down a bit.