Theme

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The first step for a team organizing an MIT Mystery Hunt is selection of a theme; a basic  idea that informs the story presented during the Hunt and helps inspire structure, puzzles, interactions, and characters. Theme selection is also the first step for a puzzle room designer. This month I participated in theme selection processes for both of these project types.

Members of Setec Astronomy, my Hunt team, met to brainstorm theme ideas. One topic that came up early in the discussion was whether the Hunt theme should be based on a specific pop culture property, like The Wizard of Oz Hunt in the 2000, or be in a general narrative category, like the 2006 S.P.I.E.S. Hunt. Our 2017 Hunt had references to Dungeons & Dragons but I would argue that it was a broad celebration of high fantasy role-playing games. Hunt organizers who prefer general themes tend to cite personal taste. When I select puzzle room themes I keep in mind that Puzzah!, unlike the Mystery Hunt, is a for-profit enterprise and much more susceptible to trademark infringement issues. I know a few escape room owners who have built rooms with egregious references to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. One such owner proudly displays framed copies of cease-and-desist letters on his office wall. Trademark use aside, I prefer selecting a general theme and coming up with an original story and characters.

My Setec teammates also expressed concerns about the target audience. Several theme ideas prompted the question, “Would that mean anything to a traditional MIT student?” I don have the experience of living in Massachusetts, attending an engineering school, or growing up in the 2000s, so I defer to my Setec teammates on these points of relevance. I don’t have teammates to fall back on at Puzzah! and I often struggle to design a theme that resonates with our customer base. My struggles are partly based on age but also in my affinity for traditional puzzling and my quirky pop culture tastes. An escape room owner recently told me that his two-room location will always have one tomb adventure and one sci-fi adventure because those are well-established entertainment genres that spark customer interest. If I adopted a similar approach to themes I would probably serve my employer better, but I’m a Gen-X maverick and the themes that excite me are also the ones that prompt the owners of Puzzah! to ask, “Would that mean anything to … anyone besides you, Todd?!”

The amount of story in a Mystery Hunt is topic that generated some disagreement in our Mystery Hunt theme discussion. Some feel that a rich, detailed narrative is a highlight of a Hunt solver’s experience. Others feel that heavy storytelling tends to get lost in web-page text and character interactions that only a small percentage of a solving team gets to see. I have attended several Hunt wrap-up meetings and learned surprising plot elements that never registered during the actual solving phase. In the puzzle room context, storytelling is a delicate art that I am still trying to master. I’ve written expository voice-overs that end up overlong to the point of disengaging customers. I’ve written narrative punch lines that hit the ground with a thud. My friend Cody Borst who owns Escape Realm is thoughtful storyteller and adept at weaving a compelling narrative into the structures of rooms he designs. I’m becoming a better storyteller through experience and the advice from people like Cody. I have seen many escape room business that use sophisticated fabrication and electronics to compensate for a thin plot, but feel that stronger storytelling will be a pack separator in the future of my industry.

Setec Astronomy started with about a dozen preliminary theme proposals. We voted to narrow those down to four semifinalists and then one eventual winner. At each voting stage, designated teammates drafted proposals that outlined story, structure, puzzle requirements. I wrote three theme proposals for “Room 9”, i.e. the yet-to-be titled ninth Puzzah! adventure. One is a fairly common escape room theme that Puzzah! has not used previously, one is variation on a less common escape room theme, and one is a theme that I haven’t seen done before but would have some high demands on sound and visuals. The owners and I ultimately decided on the second proposal, which could be included with reproductions of our sci-fi adventure Specimen and crime-fighting room M.A.S.K. to provide variety in a future location. Time to start developing some themes!

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PUZZLE: Rice Milk #27

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FIRST (3 4) / SECOND (5 2) / THIRD (7)

The school FIRST has positions to fill
So my mom’s trying out! Really chill!
Some might claim she’s too old
If she SECOND. That’s cold!
And a THIRD: She’s not over the hill!

Comments contain the answer to Rice Milk #26 and may contain other spoilers. For information on solving transposals and other “flat” (verse puzzle) types, visit the National Puzzlers’ League’s Online Guide to the Enigma.

Choice / Damn This Traffic Jam

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I didn’t participate in last week’s MIT Mystery Hunt, but I dropped in on my team’s Slack channel throughout the weekend to monitor my team’s progress. I also accessed the Hunt website to get a sense of this year’s puzzle structure and theme. The organizing team Death & Mayhem (rebranded as Life & Order) designed a Hunt that took place inside the head of fictional puzzle enthusiast Miss Terry Hunter, with liberal references to the Pixar film Inside Out. The puzzle rounds were themed around reigning in the five anthropomorphized emotions and then retrieving four core memories, ultimately enabling Terry to go on the final runaround. The hunt, titled Head Hunters, had an engaging story and polished puzzles and metas. I was very proud of my team completing the Hunt first in a close finish with several other talented teams.

L&O used an interesting gimmick for the core memory puzzle rounds. The memories represented four different stages of Terry’s youth and adolescence. Rather than present these rounds in a uniform order for all teams, L&O allowed individual teams to choose the order. A team becoming eligible to unlock a new core memory round received cursory information on the available options and then made a selection. The structure was innovative, but also controversial. “Choose-you-own-adventure” supporters appreciated having more agency in the Hunt experience and L&O mentioned during the wrap-up meeting that the structure allowed them early vetting of the core memory rounds. Opponents of the choice system pointed out that the core memory rounds included scavenger hunts, physical puzzles, and other specialty items that are more manageable when timed with particular solving shifts. A team discovering that the chosen round is not suited to the current contingent of awake puzzlers would likely feel screwed by poor luck of the draw.

The controversy was good food for thought in my explorations of immersion and escape room design. Immersive artists would applaud the introduction of choice, but the stakes are different when the experience is a theatrical experiment or art installation such as House of Eternal Return. The Pastore home was designed to illustrate how experience is non-commutative. Impressions depend on the order in which we perceive the data. On the other hand, Pine and Gilmore in The Experience Economy warn that too much variety can be harmful in a business context because the participants become overwhelmed with choices and consequences. Business owners should strive for customization and personalize experiences with a combination of moderate client interaction and empirical research. I suspect that the Pine and Gilmore approach would have benefited Mystery Hunt teams, but it would be a dealbreaking effort for the organizing team to customize solving trajectories for a hundred participating teams.

All current Puzzah! adventures feature a strictly linear narrative. Teams must solve puzzle A before solving puzzle B. In some cases a team making good time can unlock a bonus puzzle between two puzzles on the schedule. This is an example of customization based on automated assessment of a team’s skill level. But teams still recognize that they are being leash-led down a singular path and request having more control over their journey. I have some ideas on introducing more agency in our next room, but I must keep choices manageable and benign. At the end of the day, it’s all about providing the experience of success.

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Mystery Hunt solving team Palindrome was one of the top finishers this year. Members of Palindrome constructed a practice Hunt called Damn This Traffic Jam. The Hunt was distributed among teammates earlier this month and now is publicly available on The P&A website. I finished the Hunt yesterday and enjoyed it immensely. It contains several puzzles that are suitable for beginning solvers. Check it out!

 

CURRICULUM VITAE: Quizardry

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QUIZARDRY
(Trivia/Wordplay)

Teams participate in a pub trivia game with six rounds. Each round features four trivia questions. Teams have a category sheet listing the categories for each question. The questions are fairly easy but the announced answers, while always falling within the corresponding categories, are clearly wrong. Teams must discover four wordplay transformations that convert an actual answer to the “correct” answer within the trivia game.
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Quizardry was an event written the 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt. That year’s Hunt, called Monsters et Manus, featured a fantasy-genre roll-playing theme. The events were inspired by the six character attributes in Dungeons & Dragons, with Quizardry representing both Intelligence and Wisdom. I had been brainstorming swapped-initials pairs, e.g. U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler, during my trip to Ireland. That led to the the basic idea of trivia with wordplay transformations. Many members of the Setec Astronomy Hunt team, especially Jeff Roberts, helped with game development, editing, and play-testing. The event was presented as the Saturday night event during the Hunt. I read questions, Matt McGann deejayed the think music, and Nancy Taubenslag facilitated the players. In practice, several teams completed the Hunt puzzles and metas long before Saturday night, but needed event participation points to be eligible for the final runaround. This means that I and several of my teammates ran single-team versions of Quizardry starting in the wee hours of Saturday and continuing through Saturday afternoon. This question produced the biggest audience laugh during the Saturday night event: What 1989 Oscar winner for Best Original Song, sung by a crab named Sebastian in the animated feature film The Little Mermaid, is ironically part of the official soundtrack for the Disney Cruise Line? (We hope it doesn’t describe the final destination of their cruise ships.)

Verwald’s Treasures

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Nathan Curtis is kickstarting a sequel to his 2016 puzzle hunt What’s That Spell. Verwald’s Treasures will feature 30+ puzzles, metas, and meta-metas. Backers who pledge at certain levels will be eligible to attend the live-solve in Boston or solve at home with mailed props that “take the puzzles to new dimensions.” The campaign lasts through February 8.

House of Eternal Return / 19 Crimes

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Immersion is one of my new topics of interest. I want to learn more about immersion and apply that knowledge to my puzzle room design work. I want to participate in immersive experiences to broaden my aesthetic sensibilities. It’s a little bit daunting, but I’ll post my insights and journeys, starting with my recent trip to House of Eternal Return.

DISCLAIMER: My description will include some mild spoilers. These will only be harmful to purists who want to visit House of Eternal Return with no advance knowledge. Most readers will be fine.

Two years ago the art collective Meow Wolf purchased an abandoned bowling alley in northern Santa Fe. A group investors, including George R. R. Martin, commissioned dozens of artists to collaborate on a massive immersive installation for the new space. I heard about the project from two Denver-based Meow Wolf organizers who are friends of Puzzah! I also got some details from other friends who visited the installation shortly after it opened. My colleagues and I agreed on the business research benefits of the site, so we planned a road trip and made our way down to New Mexico in early December.

The Meow Wolf installation, titled House of Eternal Return, begins in the front yard of a Victorian house constructed inside the former bowling alley building. A mailbox reveals that the house belongs to the Pastore family. Visitors find no prescribed route and wander through the house in the manner they choose. The house interior features pleasant furnishings and walls decked with family photos, but no sign of the actual Pastore clan. There is evidence of supernatural disturbance that beset the home sometime in the recent past. Visitors can explore the living room, dining room, kitchen, and climb the stairs to the second-story bedrooms, but the doors and hallways eventually lead to areas that … one would not expect to find in a Victorian house.

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The people exploring House of Eternal Return seemed to fall into two categories. First-time visitors, like me, and groups with young children were drawn to the exotic environments. The installation contains over 50 “rooms” with amazing visuals and sophisticated technological interactions. People who had presumably been to House before took a more investigative attitude. They stayed in the house proper and combed through newspapers, desktop computer files, and diaries looking for clues. Who left this business card for a self-help cult? Why was the government surveilling the house? These carefully placed bits of data are meant to fuel speculations over the fundamental mystery of the experience: What happened to the Pastore family?

The road trip group compared notes as we drove back to Colorado. The installation contains a lot of authentic detail, but the use of fragile materials (paper, glass, textiles) in a hands-on space with thousands of weekly visitors must be a maintenance nightmare. Several of the technology elements are worth incorporating in future escape rooms. The installation contains a couple of “puzzles” but most of the experience was passive. The narrative structure is not perfect but the immersive qualities of the space are definitely memorable. I would enjoy a return visit, and I’m excited that Meow Wolf announced a new immersive installation will open in Denver in 2020!

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And on the subject of immersive technology: A friend game me a bottle of 19 Crimes wine as a holiday gift. I learned from a recent post in the escape room technology Facebook group that 19 Crimes wine bottles have a fun augmented reality feature, which you can see in this video. As a possible escape room element, it sure beats blacklights and ultraviolet paint.

Monsters et Manus Documentary

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The 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt was a role-playing themed puzzle quest called Monsters et Manus. I was part of the team that organized and presented this Hunt last January. Tom Buehler, one of my teammates, filmed the activities of the Hunt and edited a short documentary film. Even if you’re not a puzzle fan, I recommend that you scrub through the documentary to some of the highlights, such as the Hungry Hungry Hippogriffs event and Racing Techies (in which I am costumed as mathematician Norbert Wiener). Great job, Tom!