My favorite puzzles from the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt

[Content warning: spoilers for the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt. All of the spoilers are in footnotes (unless you have a broad conception of what constitutes a spoiler). Also: at some point I expect the links to these puzzles to die. When that happens, I’d really appreciate if someone left a comment letting me know so I can fix them!]

(Unfamiliar with the MIT Mystery Hunt? See my 2020 post.)

Like most social events, puzzle hunts are much better in person. That said, the creators of this year’s Mystery Hunt really delivered, creating a hunt that was as good as it could have been under the circumstances.

Every year, the Mystery Hunt has a story. Something goes wrong — an amusement park runs out of money (2020); there’s a huge molasses spill (2019); etc. — and the only way to fix it is by solving puzzles together with your team. This year’s theme:

Yew Labs is an experimental cosmology research group headed by Dr. Barbara Yew. The lab’s research has revealed the existence of an alternate universe, with the Perpendicular Institute of the World, or ⊥IW, in the same location as MIT. The presenters began to panic when Professor Yew didn’t show up for her keynote speech, but they were interrupted by a recently-decoded transmission: a video not just from the other universe, but from Professor Yew herself.

Professor Yew revealed that she entered the portal to travel to the other universe the previous night, and that strange anomalies have begun to emerge at ⊥IW. Although the lab failed to open a stable portal to bring her back, they have been working on a Projection Device to interact with the other universe. The lab asked for your help to decode Professor Yew’s notes on her lab computer, get the Projection Device working, and save Professor Yew.

Usually — at least for me — the theme is mostly just a nice backdrop to the puzzles. But this year, exploring the Projection Device was a large part of the fun! I wish the Projection Device were still up, so I could link to it and you could explore it by yourself, but unfortunately it’s not. The best I can do is screenshots. Courtesy MIT News:

Video game rendition of 77 Massachusetts Avenue

This was a pretty typical scene. All of the characters with names that you see (Caroline, Delphine, etc.) were Mystery Hunt participants navigating ⊥IW (pronounced “Perp I. W.”) alongside you, the emojis indicating what team they were on. You could move about, following arrows into buildings (analogous to MIT buildings):

Video game rendition of MIT's Lobby 7

Some characters weren’t players — see e.g. the yellow-haired character near the center:

Video game rendition of MIT's McDermott Court with a building covered in icing and rainbow sprinkles

Some of these were just there to chat with you (you’d stand near them, press spacebar, and they’d say “Hi there, hope you’re having a lovely day!” or “I have truly found paradise“). Others would give you puzzles — talking to random NPCs was the primary mechanism for getting new puzzles.

And of course I ought to show you the exterior of ⊥IW‘s Stata Center (courtesy of The Logic Escapes Me):

The Stata Center inside the MIT Mystery Hunt Projection Device

The projection device really made the hunt feel interactive, in a way that would have felt otherwise felt lacking because of the pandemic. Funnily enough, the projection device wasn’t an adaptation for a Covid-era hunt; it was already in the works before the pandemic struck!

I only got to work on a small fraction of the puzzles over the course of the hunt — probably an even smaller fraction than last year. That said, here were some of the most memorable puzzles that I did get a chance to look at, with white text after each one for spoiler-containing commentary (highlight to reveal).

For Better or For Worse is a fun puzzle with cute drawings that’s on the easier side.

The puzzle consists of identifying what’s wrong with the pictures. For example, in #3, the police officer is showing a badger, whereas they should be showing a badge. #27 features a poke, whereas it should be featuring a player playing poker. The answer comes from identifying whether you need to add or subtract an “er” sound for each picture and coloring the grid at the bottom accordingly.

An American in Paris features hilarious audio clips of someone speaking foreign languages with an American English accent. Some samples:

With enough patience using Google Translate, you can figure out what the languages are and translate the questions. The answers (in the languages that the questions were asked) spell out the question “What is the capital of Slovenia”, yielding the final answer.

Yonder, featuring Google Street View images from around the world, is one of those puzzles that felt like it was made for me.

Each image was a composite of two images. After figuring out the locations, you took the latitude of one place and the longitude of the other, which would yield a new place to which you could apply the instructions at the bottom. Really impressively, a teammate figured out the place corresponding to instruction #5 at the bottom with only one of the two locations leading to it. He only knew the longitude, but the fact that it needed to be near a railroad narrowed it down enough that he was able to find the Pharaoh graffiti mentioned in the instruction (click here to see said graffiti).

World Search was another Google Maps puzzle, but unfortunately I didn’t run into it during the hunt.

Not Again! is a fun word puzzle.

Each sentence can be paraphrased in a way that can be split into two parts that sound phonetically almost identical. For example, the answer to “Wonderful! There’s a swirl in my minestrone,” — vegan southerner is “Superb, a vortex in || soup,” — herbivore Texan.

Infinite Corridor: The Infinite Corridor is a famed hallway at MIT, so called because of its length. The Infinite Corridor at ⊥IW is much longer — though sadly not infinite (it has 100,000 rooms). Each of the rooms along the corridor contains a puzzle. Obviously the puzzles weren’t all written by hand — there were a few puzzle structures, but each puzzle was generated algorithmically. If you figured out the patterns in how the puzzles were generated, you could solve the Infinite Corridor (meta)-puzzle. I don’t know how the puzzle worked in more detail than that, but I really like this concept — it’s really innovative.

Disorder: The first step to this puzzle was one of the highlights of the hunt for me.

You have to figure out how to reorder each list of trigrams to form a clue (with the word lengths given in parentheses). This was quite fun to work on! After that came the part of the puzzle featuring the game Diplomacy, which I hadn’t played before, so I didn’t get super into that part.

Ignorance: Remember the “Cheryl’s Birthday” puzzle that made the rounds in 2015? This is basically a much, much harder version of that. And it involves one of my favorite concepts: common knowledge. Unfortunately I didn’t find out about this puzzle until after the hunt was over!

No, I Understand You Perfectly features a dialogue with two people talking past each other.

One is “talking in Finnish”, one in Estonian. These languages apparently feature many false cognates. For example, “hallitus” means “government” in Finnish but “mold” in Estonian, causing confusion.

Bonus for making it this far (from the Teammate Hunt that was held in October-November 2020): This Anagram Does Not Exist, which is one of my all-time favorite puzzles.

This puzzle consists of pairs of clues: a picture clue and a word clue. By itself these would not be guessable, but the answers are anagrams of each other. The word clue was often for words or phrases that don’t actually exist (but plausibly could)! For example: the picture with a Saudi standing on a porch is CABIN SAUDI, and the corresponding clue (“Land across the river from the western regions of Hungary”) is CISDANUBIA (because “Transdanubia” refers to the western regions of Hungary). Figuring these out was a lot of fun.

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