AJD (dr_whom) wrote,
AJD
dr_whom

The year the Hunt ate Cleveland

This is the time of year when I post my thoughts on the Mystery Hunt!

Usually I say something about the overall structure of the Hunt and how it related to the theme and so on... but this year I have basically nothing to say about that, because I don't know anything about the overall structure and how it related to the theme. This Hunt was a behemoth; and since my team went in with the intention of Not Winning, and the general belief that the Right Time for the Hunt to end is mid-afternoon Sunday, we planned all along that we'd solve till mid-afternoon Sunday and then shut down. So, given the size of this Hunt—the coin wasn't found till after 3pm Monday, breaking the previous record by over six hours—shutting down Sunday afternoon means we didn't have time to learn anything about the overall Hunt structure. We had completed only one out of six main rounds by the time we closed our HQ, and one more through desultory solving by Reid between then and when the Hunt actually ended, which wasn't enough for us to get much of an idea of how the rounds all fit together into a structure, what the role of the Obstacles was, and so on. We didn't even learn, for example, that most of the rounds had multiple metas. So, the theme... seemed nifty; the Heist concept was well suited to being a Mystery Hunt plot. The "recruit a team of characters from a variety of real and fictional sources" structure allowed for some variety in theme while still all being coherently tied in to the overall plot, in a way that I think was a bit more effective than our use of the same basic concept in SPIES. And that's kind of all I have to say about that?

Some of the problems that led to the Hunt being overly long are discussed at interesting length over here. A lot of people have mentioned that it seems likely that Manic Sages underestimated themselves as testsolvers, and therefore ended up writing puzzles that were harder for other teams to solve than they expected them to be; another possibility I want to mention is that it seems likely that a lot of members of Manic Sages overestimated the typical magnitude of a Mystery Hunt puzzle. The Hunt is a big event with very challenging puzzles, and it's very easy to remember some of the longest Hunt puzzles you've seen, with the most steps and the most clues and multiple ahas, and start thinking of those as your canonical or prototypical examples of Mystery Hunt puzzles—"oh man, that time there was a duck conundrum with 40 steps and 8 special operations! Or the infinitely tall cryptic crossword! And that 35×11 diagramless crossword / slitherlink puzzle! That's what the Mystery Hunt is all about, let me tell you!"—forgetting that those are the outliers. So you go overboard on writing big puzzles that seem worthy of an event with the magnitude of the Hunt—24×24 cryptics, interacting Nikoli puzzles with ten 10×10 grids, song-identification puzzles with 263 mp3s to listen to, 2400-piece non-interlocking jigsaw puzzles, the works. And these start to add up, when the writing team has unwittingly fallen into the trap of taking super-large puzzles as the norm. One of the most important things I learned from writing the SPIES Hunt was the value of short, easy puzzles as part of the Mystery Hunt ecosystem.

There's a lot of places where better editing would have worked wonders, I feel. I and my teammates saw a lot of puzzles that were based on really excellent and elegant ideas but that turned into awkward or frustrating slogs as a result of something that an attentive editor could have averted by saying, for instance, "How about having this extraction step produce the final answer, instead of instructions for yet another stage of the puzzle?" or "I don't think this clue unambiguously indicates the answer you want it to indicate" or whatnot. There's at least one case where my teammates successfully reached the final cluephrase of a puzzle, and not only failed to extract the answer from it, but dismissed it and assumed they had been on the wrong track because it wasn't clear enough that what they had could even be a clue for an answer. In particular, I felt that the crossword clues (both vanilla and cryptic) overall seemed problematic in this Hunt, at least insofar as a lot of them failed to conform to conventions (e.g., there were many vanilla clues in the form of verb phrases whose answers were noun phrases). You can get used to this, but it leads to the solver being unwilling to trust that the clues are going to be well-written or solvable, which broadens the search space for correct answers (making even the clues that are well-constructed harder to solve), leads to some persistent irritation that eats away at enjoyment, and can introduce red herrings by letting solvers assume their own mistakes are actually the results of faults in the clues.

My team was noticeably smaller than usual this Hunt, and that made the overwhelming size of the Hunt even more overwhelming for us—puzzles came in much faster than we could deal with them, and there weren't enough of us to start working on all the ones we had, in a way that as a team we're really not used to. So by Sunday almost half the puzzles in the Hunt were listed as "not started" on our collaboration site. I think this may have actually contributed to our overall level of impatience and antsiness: it was all too easy, toward the latter part of the Hunt, to start work on a puzzle, and then at the first sign of frustration abandon it just because you knew that there were so many puzzles out there you hadn't even looked at yet, and maybe one of them would be more to your liking. So a lot of low-hanging fruit, as mystery_fish put it, may not have gotten solved just because the large number of unstarted puzzles that we had available to us made it easy to lose focus on what we were working on.

This Hunt was obviously deeply problematic in a lot of ways; but I think the best thing about it was probably the elegant and interesting ideas underlying a lot of the puzzles, even if the implementations of those ideas in a lot of cases could have used some editing. In a future post I'll talk about some individual puzzles that I have specific comments on, many of which, in whole or in part, I enjoyed or respected a great deal. In the meantime, I do want to thank cmouse, purplebob, and the rest of Manic Sages not only for all the effort they clearly put in to producing a monumental Mystery Hunt, but also for holding up under pressure and holding the Hunt together as, as Sunday got later and later and turned into Monday, it became clear that things were not coming in on schedule. The Hunt is never the same twice, and I totally saw and solved my fair share of amazing puzzles to justify the trip.
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  • Okay, yeah, Dreamwidth

    Seems like it's time to finally move this blog over to Dreamwidth. See you there, folks.

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