Quest for the Purple Unicorn

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I just played Scott Weiss’s latest virtual escape room, Quest for the Purple Unicorn, teaming up with Wil Zambole. The theme was delightful and the puzzles varied and clever. Wil and I completed the quest with shared insight and a little bit of trial and error. I highly encourage everyone to contact Scott through his website and schedule a game session. Two people seems a good number of players for the games. Scott charges $15/adult with charity options for the amount.

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The Game: Miskatonic University

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I first learned about “The Game” from articles in 1980s-era Games Magazine, where it was described as a puzzle-hunt format requiring teams to travel in vehicles around a specific geographical area and solve high-concept puzzles essentially nonstop for the better part of a weekend. Years later, Mark Gottlieb gave me more details based on his personal experience of The Games held in the San Francisco area. He encouraged me to try a The Game at some point, and emphasized the intriguing challenge of overcoming fatigue (physical, mental, and emotional) and hygiene while part of a solving team confined in a small minivan. I wasn’t accepted in the Ghost Patrol themed The Game in 2008 and only received postmortem reports of more recent events such as WarTron and Famine Games. Earlier this year I received an opportunity to join a team for a version of The Game based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft to be held in and around Boston. I happily accepted the invitation, excited to experience a puzzle vent with vehicular travel, high concept content, and sanity-compromising conditions.

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The lead-up to the event involved an application to Miskatonic University, the fictional institution central to the Lovecraftian horror novels that inspired the theme of this The Game. Dan Katz captained our team, Mystik Spiral, which was rounded out by Eric Berlin, Jenn Braun, Tanis, O’Connor, Scott Purdy, and yours truly. We solved entrance exam puzzles, found a hidden puzzle alluding to a secret fraternity, and produced a video that included elements of interest to this fraternity. After our acceptance , we spent a the next few monthsdiscussed the logistics of our The Game experience — the vehicle and equipment we would need for the event. We congregated in Dedham last weekend and, on Friday evening, set off in our van to answer the call of Cthulhu.

IMG_4348.JPGThe narrative frame of this iteration of The Game began with a Friday night freshman dinner in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Miskatonic University faculty members, portrayed by The Game organizers, revealed our academic responsibilities and guided us to exercises in nearby Hammond Castle. There we received some auxiliary responsibilities by members of the secret fraternity. After some sleep, we started fresh with academics in Newburyport, a quest for an invitation to a fraternity party in Bedford, a psychiatric evaluation in which we ended up on either a pro-Cthulhu or anti-Cthulhu team on our way back to Boston, and an endgame segment that culminated in a battle held in Boston Garden between teams that had adhered to the various Cthulhu cults. The results of the battle allowed all teams to solve one final meta puzzle that revealed the final message of the Lovecraftian deities.

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The content was created by a team of puzzlewrights lead by Sarah Leadbeater. The puzzles included some impressive technological mechanics We received academic credit in anatomy by playing a life-sized Operation game. We played word Master Mind with an automated, voice-activated Ouija board. We assembled gears to open a puzzle box and searched bushes at night (narrowly avoiding a rainstorm) for sinister, glowing eyes blinking in Morse code. I would have enjoyed seeing more puzzles with that level of sophistication, but a majority of the puzzles were handouts occasionally accented with props or small movable pieces, i.e solid but typical puzzle hunt fare. Among the puzzles presented over the weekend, I was tickled to discover one based on Exquisite Fruit. The puzzle included a link to my CV page. It was my first call-out in a major puzzle hunt event.

IMG_4389.JPGThe puzzle set was largely facilitated by staff volunteers, which meant that teams making only casual progress were likely to skip content in order to keep up with the pack. Mystik Spiral skipped no puzzles, but a few of the puzzles slowed us down. A puzzle in which we assembled construction paper cutouts to produce ship themed mosaics (findable on obelisks lining the Newburyport waterfront) had an ingenious extraction mechanism, but we fumbled on record-keeping and eventually had to start over to derive the answer. A puzzle based on the Witch Trials Memorial in Danvers used cards depicting the victims named on the memorial. We were instructed to peel the cards to get more information, but ended up mutilating them into paper bits and needed some help from staff to get on track. Aside from these incidents, we solved aggressively and managed to stay near the front of the curve throughout the weekend.

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In the main leg of the hunt between 9 a.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m on Sunday I slept for a total of forty minutes in a conference room at the overnight stop in Bedford. I did okay physically, but was happy to bow out of the Sunday afternoon Simon Says activity in Boston Garden. I’m not sure if the lack of sleep affected my mental performance as I feel that I always struggle to maintain focus in stressful puzzle situations. I noted a couple of  lapses in emotional stability. Fortunately, a few prickly moments with teammates quickly corrected course to productive puzzle solving. I went a bit longer than I would like to without a shower or tooth-brushing but managed to stay hygienically acceptable. People who were around me through the weekend are welcome to contradict. Was it fun overcoming the physical/mental/emotional/hygienic demands of The Game? Um…sort of. Puzzle events of this magnitude are going to experience hiccups: website glitches, answer-checking mistakes, shortages of puzzle materials. These issues can become  volatile when both solvers and staff are sleep-deprived. I am immensely grateful for the efforts of the Miskatonic organizers, but after watching Sarah Leadbeater put out fires with a pasted-on smile I have mixed feelings about the value of the structure inherent to The Game.

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I stayed in Boston an extra day. Jenny Gutbezahl, who participated on another team, put me up at her place in Somerville and after a long shower and a night’s rest I was fully recovered. I have no idea where or when the next The Game will occur, but I am always excited to expand my knowledge of the puzzle hunt genre and experience all the new twists and turns that members of the puzzle community come up with.

ETA: The organizers released a solving report indicating our team did skip one puzzle that would have been provided just before the fraternity party invitation meta.

 

CURRICULUM VITAE: AUDIO TOUR PEARL STREET MALL

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AUDIO TOUR: PEARL STREET MALL
(Puzzle Hunt)

An audio tour guides solvers to specific locations along Pearl Street Mall in downtown Boulder, Colorado. Solvers use information from the audio clips and locations to solve puzzles and eventually discover a final answer phrase that compared Pearl Street Mall to actual pearls.

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(NOTE: the puzzle can be accessed at this website and is still solvable as of July 2019. Minor spoilers are included in the description that follows.) Kristy McGowan sent out a request a few weeks before the National Puzzlers’ League convention she was hosting. She wanted walkaround puzzles for the Boulder area. I’d written puzzle hunts but never for the NPL Con and with Boulder close by it seemed like a good opportunity. I wanted to come up with a paperless hunt since I had committed to a fair amount of printing for other convention activities. An audio tour interested me as a way to be paperless and introduce auditory elements to the puzzle structures. I thought of a final answer phrase and a meta extraction mechanism that required six 5-letter answers. I spent an afternoon in Boulder making notes and taking pictures of items that lent themselves to puzzles. I then worked for a week and a half on the final puzzle formats, the tour script and the sound editing. Kristy and her friend Jenny tested the first draft and helped me with revisions for the final version. I created a website and posted a link. The hunt was ready for the convention attendees.

Each puzzle featured an element that exploited the audio format. Some are obvious, such as the pitch adjustments for the older and younger brothers in the Boulder County Map puzzle and the insect sound effects in the Little Bug Bridge puzzle. The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse audio gimmick is subtler. The sound shifts from the left to the right channel as the crossword-style clues shifts from the roses on those sides of the garden. The guitar songs played by the “street musician” (six different YouTube clips) were difficult for some solvers to identify, so I provided the song titles along with the entire tour dialogue in a series of transcript files that solvers could reference.

The puzzle hunt had a few execution hiccups. Despite a lot of research and assistance offered by Internet-savvy friends I couldn’t find an embedded audio player that worked consistently on various mobile device operating systems. Many solvers linked to the source files on my Google drive and then found the audio difficult to hear from a smartphone speaker. So most solving groups stuck with the transcripts. In retrospect I could have used Cluekeeper but I wanted to maintain control of the content after the convention. I was happy to discover that solving groups managed to complete the hunt using only scrap paper so smartphone hunts, with or without audio, is a form I will continue to explore.

Maso Award

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It’s Tuesday evening and all of my house guests who were in town for the 180th convention of the National Puzzlers’ League have departed. I’m alone in my condo to reflect on the events related to my 22nd reunion with my chosen family. I won’t bury the lede. The highlight of my weekend, and perhaps my entire NPL experience to date, took place on Sunday morning when Kristy McGowan and Wil Zambole stepped to the podium to announce the Maso Award. This is an award named for the “nom” (NPL nickname) of Thomas Gazzola who was taken so unfairly from the puzzle community in 2015. Wil approached me at last year’s convention with the idea to create an annual award in Maso’s honor to recognize the NPL member who showed the true spirit of the convention. I fully supported the idea as well as the suggestion to appoint Eric Berlin as the inaugural recipient of the award. At the Sunday awards ceremony this year I was sleep deprived and wondered why Wil had not sought my input on a Maso Award winner for 2019. And then it hit me. And then it really hit me.

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Eric was taken off guard when he was announced as last year’s winner. I was similarly stunned and unable to offer any kind of address beyond an emotionally hampered “thank you” as I accepted my certificate. Now that I have my bearings I want to share some thoughts on the honor and the convention.

Maso was an immensely positive force in my life as a puzzle creator. I am not a spiritual person but I still have “conversations” with Maso. My impressions of him as a vital force in the puzzle community remain very strong, and in our conversations he gives me comfort, keeps me honest, and guides me in the direction of being a better person. After the wrap-up of this year’s activities, I was included in a discussion of possibly renaming the award to something more general, so Maso’s nom would not be elevated above other great NPL members who are no longer with us. I respect that sentiment and hold memories of departed Krewe firmly in my feels, but Maso was special to me and the award as it was presented to me will remain dedicated to him.

Eric Berlin posted an excellent summary of the convention that includes a mention of my award. He describes the decision he reached with Kristy and Wil by stating “nobody else really comes close.” That is flattering, but I respond in all seriousness that I want more members of the League to “come close.” The growth of the convention is both exciting and concerning. We need more people to step up and help keep the convention running functionally in the wake of the expanded attendance. I know that many members of the Krewe look upon the convention as a vacation, but we need more contributions from the them to maintain the quality of the event. Even little things like volunteering to pass out answer sheets for large group games are helpful and greatly appreciated. Please contact me if you want ideas of how you can benefit the League through service.

ETA: I wrote the above in a slightly heated state and regret the way I used the quotation from Eric’s summary. Many people exhibited the spirit of the Maso Award to make RockOn a fantastic convention. I want to thank the members of the board, my colleagues on the program committee, the ambassadors, the code of conduct committee, and all of the presenters for their hard work. And I especially want to applaud Kristy McGowan for doing an amazing job hosting a seamless convention!

Anti-Match Game – The Neighborhood of Make-Believe RESULTS

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Answers to the quiz were received by 36 neighbors. In the results post, the neighbors’ names will be abbreviated as:

Andy Berisford – ABe
Andrew Bradburn – ABr
Andrew Esten – AE
Alex Jeffrey – AJ
Al Sanders – AS
Brigette Anderson – BA
Ben Smith – BS
Christopher Adams – CA
Christy Meisler – CM
Dan Katz – DK
Debbie Manber Kupfer – DMK
Erik Agard – EA
Eli Barrieau – EB
Foggy Brume – FB
Jackie Anderson – JA
Jason Brown – JB
Joanna Cheng – JC
Jeffrey Harris – JH
Joshua Kosman – JK
Jack Martin – JMa
J Melvin – JMe
Jeffrey Schwartz – JS
Katie Hamill – KH
Michael Fleck – MF
Mark Halpin – MH
Matt Jones – MJ
Miriam Nadel – MN
Marc Spraragen – MS
Nathan Curtis – NC
Neville Fogarty – NF
Projectyl – P
Scott Weiss – SW
Joe Cabrera – T!
Trip Payne – TP
Wil Zambole – WZ
Yossi Fendel – YF

1. King Friday XIII
A black cat crossing one’s path (3) – BA JH YF
Breaking a mirror (1) – JB
Failing to respond to a chain letter (2) – AS MF
Hanging a horseshoe with the ends pointing down (4) – ABe ABr BS JS
Meeting one’s doppleganger (7) – MH
Opening an umbrella while indoors (2) – CM MN
Placing chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice (6) – CA EA MJ MS NC P
Saying the word “Macbeth” while inside a theatre (4) – DK JA JC JMe
Seeing one’s doppelganger (7) – EB
Shoes on a table (5) – AE JK JMa TP WZ
Three on a match (2) – NF T!
Viewing one’s doppelganger (4) – AJ FB KH SW
Walking under a ladder (1) – DMK

The “meeting” and “seeing” answers were ruled incorrect because they did not match the enumeration or RSTLNE pattern of the puzzle. The unchosen correct answers are THUNDERSTORMS and TIPPING A SALT SHAKER OVER.

2. Queen Sara Saturday
Antigua and Barbuda (2) – FB NF
Australia (4) – DK DMK JC JH
Barbados (8) – ABe EA JMe JS KH MJ P WZ
Belize (2) – BS MN
British Virgin Islands (9) – MS
Canada (3) – BA MH SW
Grenada (1) – JA
Jamaica (3) – AS JMa MF
New Zealand (1) – CM
St Kitts and Nevis (4) – CA JB JK NC
St Lucia (3) – ABr AJ EB
St Vincent and the Grenadines (1) – TP
Trinidad and Tobago (9) – AE
United Kingdom (2) – T! YF

British Virgin Islands does not have “nation” status. Elizabeth II was head of state of Trinidad and Tobago until 1976 when the nation became a republic and the head of state position shifted to its president. The unchosen correct answers are the Bahamas, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

3. Prince Tuesday
A – Bono (3) – CA DK JH
B – Common (1) – EA
C – Drake (3) – FB SW YF
E – Logic (1) – AJ
F – Lulu (5) – AS JK KH NC NF
G – Moby (2) – JS T!
H – Pink (2) – JC MN
J – Sade (5) – ABe BS EB MJ MS
K – Seal (2) – MH P
L – Shaggy (5) – AE BA JA JMa MF
M – Slash (4) – ABr CM JB WZ
N – Sting (2) – DMK JMe
P – Vanity (1) – TP

Flea (D), Pitbull (I), and Thalia (O) were the unchosen answers.

4. Cornflake S. Pecially and Mr. McFeely
B – Best Buy (2) – BS TP
E – Apple (4) – EA JC NC T!
F – Abercrombie and Fitch (7) – EB
F – Burlington Coat Factory (3) – JB JS P
G – Target (6) – ABr AS CA FB JA WZ
H – Kohls (2) – AJ MN
(apostrophe) – Wendy’s (3) – CM DMK JK
(hyphen) – 7-Eleven (1) – NF
K – Kroger (2) – MF MH
L – Walmart (3) – BA JH SW
M – Yum! Brands (6) – ABe DK KH MJ MS YF
M – Yum! Foods (7) – JMa
O – Amazon (1) – AE
O – Costco (7) – JMe

This question went through a few different formats before the final draft, which may explain why some of the retail company choices seem a bit random. Costco is a correct answer but for the “C” envelope. The unchosen correct answers are (A)lbertsons, Home (D)epot, and Walgree(N)s.

5. Henrietta Pussycat
A – “Annyong” [Hel-loh “Annyong” Bluth from “Arrested Development”] (4) – CA JS MF MS
B – “Beep beep” [Road Runner from Looney Tunes animated shorts] – (1) JB
C – “I am Groot” [Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy”] (3) – BA DMK JC
D – “Hello” [George from “Crazy People”] (2) KH MJ
E – “Hodor” [Hodor/Wylis from “Game of Thrones”] (2) JK MH
F – “Meep” [Beaker from “The Muppet Show”] (1) YF
G – “Mine” [Seagulls from “Finding Nemo”] (6) ABr FB JMa NC T! TP
H – Nevermore [Raven from “The Raven”] (5) ABe AS JMe MN SW
I – Pop pop [Magnitude from “Community”] (10) BS CM DK EA EB JA JH NF P WZ
K – “Timmy” [Timmy Burch from “South Park”] (1) AJ
M – “Yarp” [Michael “Lurch” Armstrong from “Hot Fuzz”] (1) AE

When a question requires players to identify an answer from a closed set, I tend to order the set members in alphabetical order by answer as a minor solving aid. An early version of this question used “Groot” as the catchphrase, and when I changed it to “I am Groot” I failed to adjust its alphabetical order. Even though the alphabetical order wasn’t explicitly established, I apologize if this caused confusion. “Smurf” from the animated series “The Smurfs” and “Whatever” spoken by Duane Moffat on “Full House” are the unchosen correct answers.

6. X the Owl
box elder (2) AS EB
boxwood (2) FB NF
flax (2) WZ JB
foxglove (11) ABr AE AJ  BA DK DMK JA JH KH MH YF
ilex (2) EA NC
oxeye (4) BS MF MS SW
phlox (8) ABe CM JK JS MJ MN  T! TP
redbox gum (12) – JC
wax bean (1) – JMa
wax palm (1) – CA
xanthum (12) – JMe
xeranthemum (12) – P

Redbox gum and xanthum are not 11C (xanthum is not a close-enough misspelling of a valid plant name). Xeranthemum is appears in Merriam-Webster Unabridged but not 11C. Most of the common tree and plant names were chosen, but an unchosen answer that puzzlers might be familiar with is saxifrage.

7. Lady Elaine Fairchilde
Alpha – For all (8) – AE AJ AS JA JK MS NF YF
Bang – Signo de apertura de exclamación (8) – ABe ABr EA JMa MF MJ MN WZ
Because – Therefore (2) – CA JC
Circumflex – Hacek (2) – JB KH
Comma – Okina (1) – NC
Euler’s number – Schwa (5) – BA BS EB MH SW
Fasila manqoota – Semicolon (1) – FB
Grasshopper – Queen (3) CM JH P
Intersection – Union (2) – DK T!
Mho – Omega (3) JMe JS TP
Omega – Union (9) – DMK

Omega – Union is a reasonable guess but I could not find a typographical variation of an omega that resembles an inverted union symbol. Komi de/Rho and Tau/Up tack are the unchosen pairs.

8. Ana Platypus
aboriginal (9) – YF
billabong (6) – CA JK MJ P TP WZ
boomerang (2) – AE DK
coolibah (9) – JC JH
corroboree (1) – MN
didgeridoo (9) – BA SW
dingo (1) – MS
kangaroo (5) – DMK EA EB JB MF
koala (2) – JA JMe
kookaburra (8) – ABe ABr AS BS CM FB MH T!
numbat (9) – NC
wallaby (4) – AJ JMa JS KH
wallaroo (1) – NF

“Aborginal” comes from Latin roots. “Coolibah” (a variant of “coolabah”) and “numbat” are in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged but not 11C. Theories on the origin of “didgeridoo” vary though most scholars believe the word is an imitative Western invention, which is the theory presented in 11C. Unchosen correct answers include barramundi, budgerigar, galah, and wombat.

9. Donkey Hodie and Harriet Elizabeth Cow
A – bubble and squeak (6) – CM DMK FB JMe MJ P
B – chowder (1) – JB
C – colcannon (1) – BS
D – French fry (3) – ABr AE BA
E – gnocchi (6) – AS JA JC JH MN YF
F – hash browns (1) – MF
I – knish (2) – DK SW
J – kugel (2) – JK JS
L – raclette (8) – ABe CA EA EB MH NC NF TP
M – red flannel hash (1) – KH
N – shepherd’s pie (2) – AJ WZ
P – bouillabaisse (9) – T!
P – vichyssoise (2) – JMa MS

The unchosen answers are G – hotchpotch, H – Irish stew, K – latke, and O – tzimmes

10. Daniel Striped Tiger
A – archery (10) – FB
A – boxing (2) EB WZ
A – judo (10) – AE
B – figure skating (5) – BA BS CM JA JB
C – curling (10) – T!
C – polo (9) – ABe AS EA JH JK JMa MN SW TP
C – rugby (10) – JS
D – rugby sevens (1) – CA
E – water polo (1) – NF
F – basketball (2 ) – AJ MJ
G – American football (2) – JMe YF
H – ice hockey (4) – KH MF MS P
I – Australian rules football (2) – ABr JC
J – roller derby (1) – NC
L – association football (3) – DK DMK MH

Timed rounds in Olympic archery have no distinction between male and female competitors. Judo matches are 4 and 5 minutes maximum for female and male competitors respectively. Curling has “thinking time” limits but the term chukka is specific to polo. K – Field hockey is the unchosen correct entry.

Tiebreaker:
550,000 – SW
650,000 – WZ
768,000 – T!
5,000,000 – KH
7,150,000 – MJ
8,000,000 – JA
8,000,000 – JMe
11,000,000 – MS
11,111,111 – JS
11,500,000 – TP
14,000,000 – AE
14,000,000 – JB
14,200,000 – DK
17,000,000 – MH
18,742,103 – FB
19,800,000 – CA
20,500,000 – BS
22,835,787 – CORRECT
23,000,000 – AJ
25,000,000 – DMK
28,000,000 – BA
29,000,000 – JC
30,000,000 – NF
36,000,000 – YF
37,000,000 – MN
37,000,000 – ABr
40,000,000 – JK
42,117,285 – EA
53,000,000 – AS
55,000,000 – ABe
63,000,000 – JMa
67,764,377 – NC
88,000,000 – EB
135,000,000 – MF
200,000,000 – CM
250,000,000 – JH
300,000,000 – P

FINAL SCORES

RANK INIT Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Q5 Q6 Q7 Q8 Q9 Q10 TOTAL
1 JB 1 4 4 3 1 2 2 5 1 5 28
2 AJ 4 3 1 2 1 11 8 4 2 2 38
3 MF 2 3 5 2 4 4 8 5 1 4 38
4 NF 2 2 5 1 10 2 8 1 8 1 40
5 CA 6 4 3 6 4 1 2 6 8 1 41
6 MN 2 2 2 2 5 8 8 1 6 9 45
7 BS 4 2 5 2 10 4 5 8 1 5 46
8 NC 6 4 5 4 6 2 1 9 8 1 46
9 DMK 1 4 2 3 3 11 9 5 6 3 47
10 DK 4 4 3 6 10 11 2 2 2 3 47
11 KH 4 8 5 6 2 11 2 4 1 4 47
12 SW 4 3 3 3 5 4 5 9 2 9 47
13 FB 4 2 3 6 6 2 1 8 6 10 48
14 JC 4 4 2 4 3 12 2 9 6 2 48
15 JS 4 8 2 3 4 8 3 4 2 10 48
16 TP 5 1 1 2 6 8 3 6 8 9 49
17 MS 6 9 5 6 4 4 8 1 2 4 49
18 BA 3 3 5 3 3 11 5 9 3 5 50
19 JMa 5 3 5 7 6 1 8 4 2 9 50
20 CM 2 1 4 3 10 8 3 8 6 5 50
21 MH 7 3 2 2 2 11 5 8 8 3 51
22 YF 3 2 3 6 1 11 8 9 6 2 51
23 JMe 4 8 2 7 5 12 3 2 6 2 51
24 JK 5 4 5 3 2 8 8 6 2 9 52
25 T! 2 2 2 4 6 8 2 8 9 10 53
26 WZ 5 8 4 6 10 2 8 6 2 2 53
27 AS 2 3 5 6 5 2 8 8 6 9 54
28 EB 7 3 5 7 10 2 5 5 8 2 54
29 AE 5 9 5 1 1 11 8 2 3 10 55
30 ABr 4 3 4 6 6 11 8 8 3 2 55
31 MJ 6 8 5 6 2 8 8 6 6 2 57
32 JA 4 1 5 6 10 11 8 2 6 5 58
33 P 6 8 2 3 10 12 3 6 6 4 60
34 EA 6 8 1 4 10 2 8 5 8 9 61
35 JH 3 4 3 3 10 11 3 9 6 9 61
36 ABe 4 8 5 6 5 8 8 8 8 9 69

Congratulations to Jason Brown! Thank you all for your participation and patience with the early postings of the quiz. Please contact me if you spot a problem in the results report and I will correct it as soon as possible.

 

Immersive Theatre Pop-Up

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Immersive Theatre Pop-Up is performance event that took place this afternoon at the downtown branch of Denver Public Library. The event featured six pieces and was overseen by the creative teams at Off-Center, a division of Denver Performing Arts Center. The event was experimental and each small team behind one of the six pieces faced the same goal: to collaborate on creating a repeatable performance piece that lasted 6-8 minutes, addressed a relevant library topic, and offered active participation opportunity for every individual who attended the piece. The time span between conceiving the piece and striking the set after the final performance was just under 24 hours.

I volunteered to be an actor in the event and was assigned to a team that would create a piece on the topic of banned books. Our team of five actors and director Leigh Miller met at the downtown library on Saturday afternoon to tour the performance space and then relocated to a DCPA rehearsal room to hash out a concept. We noted that books are rarely banned in the U.S. but many are challenged, and we used the DPL’s book challenge form as the inspiration for the piece. We would prompt attendees to choose a word they dislike, ask them what they disliked about it, and then submit this information to an unseen judge who would ban it based on the attendees comments. We felt a printed except from a familiar literary work would be useful as a source for attendees to pick words, and one of my castmates came up with the inspired idea to use an excerpt from The New Colossus. After a word was banned, attendees would be led to a “redaction room” to mark out the chosen word as well as adjacent, corrupted text. The attendee would be invited to keep the redacted copy of the poem, “as a record of what would now appear at the base of the Statue of Liberty.” We drafted a basic script, ran some table reads, came up with a prop list, and called it a night at 10 p.m.

On Sunday morning we met at the library to set up our space. The main set piece was a mountain of books piled on a round table in a conference room where we would read the Judge’s ruling. The five of us rehearsed, taking turns as the “advocate.” We also went to the spaces of the other five performance pieces to experience their works. At 1:30 we opened to the general public. Our piece, titled “Banned Together,” attracted about 100 audience members, and I led about dozen groups made up of 1-4 individuals. The concept was admittedly blunt and manipulative, but many attendees seemed quite affected by the gut-punch line of the redaction scene. Our piece was often the last of the pieces experience by attendees because we performed on the seventh (highest) floor of the library. I regretted this and wished more people has finished on lovely “Soñadores/Dreamerswhich explored the library as a refuge for persons of different cultural backgrounds. The last “Banned Together” groups finished at 3 p.m. and the teams met for a debrief before going our separate ways.

I enjoyed being in an acting role again, though a lot of the advocate’s dialogue was giving instructions, something I do a lot in the puzzle community. The abbreviated creation process was more remarkable than the actual performance, and I hope Off-Center will try this experiment again in the future.

Overlook Film Festival

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Two weeks ago my friend Ryan, one of the Puzzah! founders, asked me if I wanted to join him at the Overlook Film Festival. I’m not a fan of horror films but I looked at the festival website and was intrigued by the immersive, virtual reality, and puzzle/game events included on the Overlook schedule. I was also in need of a vacation and imagined New Orleans, a city I had never visited, as a great change of scenery. We spent the next few days making flight and hotel arrangements and registering for the festival events. Last Wednesday we arrived in The Big Easy and our haunt-scene adventure began.

Over two dozen films were screened at Overlook this year. The marquee offerings were the premieres of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die and Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s The Lodge. I prioritized live events over screenings and in the end the only films I saw were a selection of horror shorts. I met one of the short film directors, Meredith Alloway, at festival registration. Her film Deep Tissue was technically adept and its theme of gender power dynamics was provocative. Fire Escape was an virtual reality narrative requiring special signup due to the limited number of headsets. The experience is a high-tech version of Rear Window set at a Brooklyn apartment building. The viewer watches the action from a fire escape across the alley and can select windows to eavesdrop on scenes in particular apartments. Afterwards I compared notes with some of the other viewers and got some insight on apartment scenes I had missed. Overlook had a free VR Lounge at the registration area and I experienced two short VR pieces: Campfire Creepers and Wolves in the Walls based on a Neil Gaiman story. I experienced very little motion sickness, confirming that refresh rates are improving since my last VR attempt two years ago.

I attended my first immersive piece of the festival on Thursday night. The Pumpkin Pie Show was a one-on-one storytelling experience performed by Clay McLeod Chapman. I met Clay at one of the theaters and he led me to an upstairs storage room, sat me in a chair, and told a creepy fifteen-minute story called “Rest Area.” The story was good and Clay’s first-person narration was powerful. On Friday I signed up for Home of Enchantments, another one-on-one experience. Belle (played by Ava Lee Scott) texted meeting instructions at the Olivier House Hotel. I sat beside Belle in the period-furnished and otherwise deserted hotel lobby and, unlike the explicitly non-interactive Pumpkin Pie, I was prompted to join her in conversation and … do other things. It was a mesmerizing and intense performance — the highlight of my festival experience. My Saturday night show was Room Service created by the team at JFI Productions. Ryan and I were ushered into a guest room at the Olivier, tucked into the bed, and told a bedtime story. The experience left a strong impression.

I learned that the Overlook organizers traditionally present a walk-around puzzle game that can be solved in free time throughout the weekend. This year’s game was built around the story of a pair of young artists who become consumed by a dark conspiracy. The structure was similar to an MIT Mystery Hunt. The organizers scheduled a series of events over the weekend where solvers viewed a plot-advancing “skit” and received puzzles that could be solved by visiting locations in the French Quarter. Festival attendees who registered at the premium level had access to more skits and puzzles. The project was ambitious and the skits had impressive production values, but the locations and times of the skits, which were revealed during the game, often involved a ride-share several miles from the festival sites and/or conflicted with other scheduled events. Ryan and I eventually abandoned the puzzles and sought out more dedicated solvers to get story updates. I hope the organizers continue developing games of this type, but give more logistical details in advance to help solvers prepare. Saintsbone was a two-hour puzzle event scheduled at various times throughout the weekend. Small teams attended a will reading in Jackson Square and then roamed the nearby streets meeting characters connected to dearly departed. Each character posed a puzzle and then gave a clue to the meta once the puzzle was solved. Ryan and I signed up for a Saturday evening slot and the parades and tourist traffic made the streets difficult to navigate. The game creators may have misjudged the navigation time and the character frequently rushed us through puzzles to ensure the event was moving at the right pace. Still, the characters were all very fun and the story invited solvers to consider issues of life and death and make a choice at the game’s climax.

Ryan and I took some time away from the festival to visit local escape rooms. We found two other festival attendees, Elaine and Rob, to help us make the four-person minimum for the games at 13th Gate Escape in Baton Rouge. Dwayne Sanburn and his team of film industry world builders have created games with amazing sets and effects. We played Tomb of Anubis and Cutthroat Cavern and were blown away by the spectacle. Back in New Orleans, Ryan and I formed a solving duo for Escape My Room. The games created by owner Andrew Preble and his team represent rooms in the mansion of the fictional DeLaporte family. Once you open Escape My Room’s door and step off the street you are immediately in the story. We played Smuggler’s Den and Inventor’s Attic. Both had clever puzzles and visually attractive period decor … well, I suppose I can vouch more for the visuals in Attic than Den.

Ryan did some advance research and scouted out some great restaurants and bars. Weekend highlights: Felix’s (great grilled oysters!), Bennachin (African comfort food), Loa (the Jean Lafitte cocktail contains “Spanish moss pillaged from city park”), Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 (I now want to make macadamia nut liqueur), and Manolito (intimate cafe with Cuban snacks and daiquiris — we went there four times!)