The Geek Olympics

I don’t know much about the MIT Mystery Hunt, to be honest. I know that it’s an event in which teams figure out the rules to a series of puzzles, and then the solutions to those puzzles are clues for bigger puzzles, and then eventually some team figures out all the puzzles and is in charge of planning next year’s hunt. I probably don’t need to describe it further, as I suspect that most people who read this blog actually live in Massachusetts and played on Lake Effect Snow (a team name that baffles me only because I have no idea why it was chosen). Long story short, you hunt for mysteries. Also, I kind of like that you’d be hard pressed to come up with an event that sounds nerdier than “The MIT Mystery Hunt.” Here’s to hoping that next year it’ll be “The MIT Mystery Hunt (now with DRAGONS!)”

I don’t have many war stories from the Great Hunt, as I couldn’t go back to Boston for the weekend. I pitched in a bit over IM when I could. I spent awhile going through an essay about cryptography which was riddled with grammatical errors. Someone figured out that those errors corresponded to section numbers in a particular chapter of a scientific writing style guide online. I tried matching grammatical errors to numbers, and then other people tried running the numbers through a cryptographic string. I think they gave up, though. Later, I helped some people go through a web page with several letters which turned out to be paraphrasing the content of various Weird Al Yankovic songs. Once we figured out all the songs, some people figured stuff out with the dates on the letters and managed to yield “ARCH CHANCELLOR” as the solution, which in turn was a clue for some other puzzle. Later, some puzzle’s solution was “DRAW A SPY COMIC,” so I got a phone call asking me to draw a spy comic. I did, though I have no idea what the puzzle was or whether the judges cared about the quality of the spy comics to be turned in.

If this sounds vague and a little confusing to you, good. I want to relate this experience, what it feels like to be a tiny worker in a massive, puzzle-solving machine. I have absolutely no idea what went on elsewhere in the assembly line. It’s a unique sort of game experience for me, and I’m kind of glad it only happens once a year. Usually, I think I like my games in short, controlled bursts.

Anyway, I’m really just writing this for two reasons. The first is that I’m hoping it’ll inspire Tony and Dan to write about their experiences in Lake Effect Snow headquarters. The second is that I figured I might as well post a link to the comic, “Bing Hannigan: Spy at Large.” I wrote it in my head over dinner and drew it right after. While drawing it, I decided that I was mistaken, that it was not funny after all. The Lake Effect Snow people keep telling me that they are laughing at it, though, so either my own distaste was just a result of staring at it too long (like when you say the same word over and over and it ceases to have any meaning), or my ideal target audience is people who are strung out on two days of puzzle solving and sleep deprivation.

I decided not to draw “Ninja Butler and Sparky the Bionic Dog” because I didn’t want to have to draw two characters. After all, people were waiting on this to unlock more puzzles. The Geek Olympics wait for no man.

Hey, this is Reuven, one of the local folks from Lake Effect Snow… a few of us are hanging out with some of the people from Physical Plant, the team that ran the hunt — the comic came up in conversation, and they informed us that they LOVED it. A couple people were cracking up just thinking about it.

Just thought you’d like to know. :)

The spy comic did not have to be funny in any fashion. The requirements were exactly as stated: “draw a spy comic.” Photographs probably would not have been acceptable (b/c not drawn), ditto ninjas (w/o spies), and ditto music or interpretive dance. That’s all there was to it. :)

The Hunt is not much more coherent in person. It’s only in retrospect that you start to understand it. There are a set of some 100 puzzles, but you only have access to around 2 or 3 at first. Each puzzle you solve unlocks other puzzles. Puzzles are in groups, and when the group is solved the solutions together form another puzzle (called a meta-puzzle), and solving that unlocks further groups of puzzles. Eventually the metas are combined to reveal the “runaround” phase, a physical treasure hunt that only 2-3 teams get to each year.

Each individual puzzle has at least two levels. Dan and Tony were working on something where the first level of “solution” was “draw a spy comic.” You did the next level in drawing it. Your drawing had them return a simple one- or two-word passphrase (called the “answer”) that we then had to correctly spell for the HQ. Only after that part is the puzzle “solved” and new ones unlocked. And yes, often the “rules” of each puzzle have to be figured out as well.

As for the team name, it came out of a free association session and kinda stuck. It was a happy coincidence that in this year’s storyline, Professor Moriarti was trying to build a doomsday device that would cover the world in snow, except his fabulously expensive tropical real estate.

Well, I also enjoyed the spy comic and I was no so strung out or sleep deprived as the rest. When it comes to puzzle solving of the MIT Mystery Hunt variey I am essentially useless. Though if they include dragons next year (as you suggested) then I might be a bit more enthused. Have you noticed that the more time you see the the word puzzle written out the less it looks like a word and the more it looks like a wakced out shape?

Thanks, all. Makes me feel like it’d be nice to draw more comics, if only not for that pesky grad school… (And seeing some other team names makes “Lake Effect Snow” seem to make more sense to me, too.)

I’m afraid I’m about two years late getting to the party, but I loved your comic two years ago at hunt wrap-up, and I still find it hilarious. :-D

–A member of the Manic Sages, who will win this damn thing one day, we swear.

Thank you! I didn’t realize that the comic was shown in the wrap-up. (Are those things taped/online anywhere?) I guess I should write something up about this year’s Hunt, too, seeing as how I was actually able to show up in person finally…

[…] couple years back, I wrote a post about the MIT Mystery Hunt. I called it “the geek olympics,” as this is an event for people with esoteric […]