Side Quest: The Blog of Interesting Posts

The text "Interesting things from the museum of interesting things" over the MKE Art museum's foyer.

“The hot plate works, // it is the sole heat on earth, and instant coffee.”

Frank O’Hara

It’s been about a month and a half since MIT’s Museum of Interesting Things opened, and by that I mean that MIT’s famous Mystery Hunt occurred. The hunt, founded in 1981 by Brad Schaefer, has been a persistent cultural touchstone for the puzzle hunting and “immersive media” community perhaps even more-so given the Hunt’s ability (in recent years) to be played remotely[1]. Naturally we over at “The Sidequest Inn”, the UWM Game-lab, started up a team to get in on the tradition[2]. Styling ourselves as “the bards” we braved the frozen tundra of urban Milwaukee to solve from morning to night daily from the kickoff on January 13th to the ending ceremony on January 16th. The team consisted of Laya Liebeseller, Kit Gorton, Robert Penner, and Wren Dalton; extremely small group by Mystery Hunt standards. As industry analyst Michael Anderson reminds us in his recent article “Puzzles Designed for a Crowd at the MIT Mystery Hunt”,

“According to the Hunt designers, there were over 6,000 puzzlers participating across over 300 teams, and over 1,600 players were on campus for the event. Multiple teams threw over 100 players at a series of extremely difficult but wildly creative puzzles.”

“Wildly creative” is certainly a good description of Teammate’s hunt, another would be wildly varied. As best we can tell the Puzzle Hunt contained in excess of 160 puzzles. Our team only reached a solution for about 11 puzzles, including our uses of the copious free solves handed down by our overlords and game designers Teammate. With that in mind this blog post can’t give a comprehensive digestion of all of the hunt, for that I’d recommend going to the Museum of Interesting Things webpage and poking around yourself. If you’re looking for even selective consideration for the broader hunt, I’d still defer you to Micheal Anderson’s ARGN piece – it’s exceptional[3]. The goal of today’s post is to give a sort of look into our personal experience with two puzzles: “H2No” and “Collage”. With Robert covering the former and Wren covering the latter, the following is a brief recollection of the experience of playing these wonderful puzzles.

H2NO: Account from Robert Penner

The H2No puzzle in the Science Center section is easily appreciable and embodies[4] one of the goals that was set by the puzzle makers, creating an hunt accessible to smaller teams with less experience. H2No was one of the puzzles two of our first time team members took great enjoyment in completing because it specifically combined elements of deep internet research with solving mathematical and word problems. What made this puzzle exciting and accessible is that we were able to grasp it fairly quickly and delve into the process of solving the first steps, with the problem solving getting more difficult as we got into it. This contrasted with many of the other puzzles in the hunt that we attempted to start that we were unable to get an initial grip on. H2No immediately required historical research in order to find geographical locations, with some of the clues being easy to determine

Image of the aftermath of Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland.

54 years before a rebellion protesting Britain’s rule started on a holiday, referring to the Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland

while others required a deeper dive into the depths of the internet

124 years after a glassware company was founded by Neumann, referring to the Ajka Crystal Company started by Bernard Neumann in Ajka, Hungary

Image of the industrial spill involving a caustic waste reservoir in Ajka Hungary in 2010.

This format gave us the feeling of being true internet sleuths and required us to probe beyond the digital world rendered through the puzzle hunt website.  In this sense, the puzzle spilled over into the real, blurring the lines between the contrived world of the puzzle hunt and the historical material realities that we were compelled to examine in order to bring the puzzle to completion.[5] Our first connection was made between Ajka, Hungary and Kingston, Tennessee via their Wikipedia pages, both of which had major industrial accidents which resulted in large scale spills (see image of Ajka spill above) . This opened up broader research possibilities, taking us beyond Wikipedia to find the major accidents/spills that took place in each of the locations we determined in the first part of the puzzle. From that juncture, some basic math and anagram solving brought us to the answer. The puzzle was easy to start on, and became increasingly difficult as the depth of our research increased. Finding the correct information allowed for a quick conclusion, which was not needlessly drawn out by a complicated endgame. In other words, this was a perfect puzzle for beginning puzzlers on their first MIT puzzle hunt. This is not a call for a simplified MIT puzzle hunt but rather a call for more puzzles within the overarching narrative that follow a similar format: relatively easy to start on, increasingly difficult the deeper one dives into the puzzle, all with a smooth finish that wasn’t excessively contrived. In order to really catch the attention of beginners and smaller teams, the MIT puzzle hunt shouldn’t settle for just one or two of this type of puzzle scattered throughout the digital environment, but should consider basing aspects of the story line and world building on the principle of puzzles that can be grasped relatively easily while still providing a challenging and stimulating experience.[6]

Collage: Account from Wren Dalton

Our hunt was largely characterized by flux between two periods: the ones in which we, atomized, looked for puzzles that we found achievable and the ones in which we, plural, landed on the same puzzle by happenstance [7] . Of the latter group I’m partial to “Collage”, a word association game mapped using D3.js. Data Driven Documents are a flexible format, in this case the puzzle took the form of a spider-web of nodes and linkages. The player may interface with it by putting in single word guesses and hoping they appeared within the web. I would describe the phases of this puzzle by using such academic terminology as:

  • we MUST be able to guess something
  • we must be ABLE to guess something
  • we must be able to guess SOMETHING

In the first phase, Robert, Kit, and I[8]put in a hundred random guesses to no avail. In the tradition of the institution, we finally got a hit with the religious figures (the disciples were the first grouping we discovered) and at that point the flow of the puzzle revealed itself to us. The web was hierarchical in nature; not a flat associative grid but one of higher order “categories” and lower order linkages. So then, the actual solution set came mostly by either flow A, gathering enough linkages to assume the state of a node, or flow B, gathering enough nodes to figure the categorical linkage between them.

"One does not simply, solve the puzzle hunt."

It’s at this point that a radical shift occurred: it was easy and satisfying to get answers. I’m glad that was the case, because in order for the final meta-answer to appear to us we needed a 90% competition rate on the grid as a whole. Kit would yell out something, we’d all put it in at the same time[9]. Robert would yell something, we’d do the same. Laya got swept up in the fun and despite would ask us what we have and haven’t tried. Like a good improv comedy group or a jazz band we went around the room riffing on the next link in the web. Sometimes one one give way to a veritable avalanche of new words (for instance “Disney” or the “Lord of the Rings” category, of which Kit was uniquely prone to simply solving on their own.) other movements were like a lurching diesel truck[10]. The tactile feedback of the ever growing web was just intimidating enough to seem insurmountable, and yet offered an excellent feeling of progression which the team could live in. At it’s best, the four of us were not so much immersed or in flow, but were able to celebrate the irregular but constant progress as a unit – sense the tension and relief concurrently[11]

Venti, the anemo bard from Genshin Impact.

And then the puzzle turned over. As we crept toward 75% to 90% it became a slog. Miss after miss. Each of us had to figure out a flow to keep our attention on the prize. My personal flow was to scan for linkages that I could fixate on, imagine the possibilities, and try to simply go one word by one word. Not a time efficient tactic, but my persistence was rewarded somewhat when we located the “Genshin Impact” link[12] . Frustration is perhaps the perfect word for this part of the process. That isn’t to say the practice became “unfun” so much as it became pressurized. I’m hesitant to call our collaboration “flow”[13] in the traditional sense, but there was a certain fluidity to it. The ever declining of potential correct guesses operated in the way that placing your thumb over a spigot might. That is to say, we wanted badly to press on but found precious little room to move. The relief though, upon hitting 90% and then locating the final super-category, was palpable. It was perhaps, a little anticlimactic that the final solution was simply “triforce” (in the shape of a triforce mind you); but after the amount of struggling we had experienced it was a welcome quick answer. And honestly it was in that moment that we decided to write this blog post about the collaborative process of play during the hunt; all four of us. So I’d consider it something of a high water mark in tandem puzzle solving. Perhaps the only time a road-trip game has been genuine fun.

A Fond Farewell

The Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team to Be Named Later is announced as the winners of the 2023 MIT Mystery Hunt (46:06).

The MIT Mystery Hunt is a time honored tradition seminal to the puzzle hunt and immersive media communities. In our time trying to understand the semi-live experience of joining the puzzle hunt from Milwaukee we’ve tossed out concepts about blurring the physical and digital, copresence, flow, transmediation, and embodiment. This blog post remains a shockingly small account of our nearly 72 hour experience – and even then a shockingly smaller account of just a few puzzles we found exciting. If anything we want our readers to see the hunt, and perhaps all puzzle hunts, as one more place to further explore where the crossover between anthropology and game studies may lie. We would like to thank Teammate for their excellent hunt, and as we look back fondly on our first year as a team we also look forward to 2024. The Hunt’s winners, The Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team Formerly Known as the Team to Be Named Later, will be making next year’s extravaganza. Our bards will be growing their number in the meanwhile. We will hopefully collaborate across more departments (and perhaps Milwaukee based universities) and bring a bigger, better team to 2024. Perhaps, we’ll even bring a conference panel or twitch stream about the Mystery Hunt to a location near you! Stay tuned!


[1] My first Mystery Hunt was the previous 2022 Palindrome Hunt “Star Rats” and so I was the only team member who had done this before. To my knowledge, the MIT Mystery Hunt has had digital puzzles since 1993 and has had in in-game fictional website since the 2003 hunt. I’m not sure when the hunts began to be playable mostly remotely, but I suspect it was an accessibility feature brought on by the Covid-19 Pandemic. Luckily for us, it looks like it’s here to stay. – Wren

[2] Or perhaps… digitally naturally. – Wren

[3] Of course this is no surprise for our long-time readers, Michael Anderson is the best ARG analyst in the business after all. – Wren

[4] The embodiment of practical goals for the function of the puzzle hunt in a digital environment can be interrogated through Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality by Ken Hillis (1999). – Robert

[5] For further reading on the blurring of the lines between the “real” world and a contrived digital world, please see Synthetic Worlds : The Business and Culture of Online Games by Edward Castronova (2005). – Robert

[6] Digital environments and world building are relevant to a broader discussion and further information can be found in a variety of sources, including through Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics : Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism by Dan Hassler-Forest (2016). – Robert

[7] Or fate, of a sort less than terrible and perhaps even less than cruel. – Wren

[8] Laya was busy during this phase performing a very critical “Archeological Dig” in the Hall of Archeology. In other words, they were playing three different versions of minesweeper all-at-once. I think that’s what Archeologist are right? When I read Michel Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge, I recall a good deal of minesweeper.– Wren

[9] A note on interface design: “Collage” was built to show a record of the last handful of guesses by all active players on the top left hand side. The result of this is something not-unlike watching all of the failed attempts a player makes in Super Meatboy at the end of a level. Well, with the exception that your friends can call you out for misspelling Arabian Nights tales. – Wren

[10] That is to say enough noise to make you think you’re doing 60mph when you’re really stuck in a sand in the middle of the outer banks. – Wren

[11] Here, I can’t help but think of Erving Goffman’s description of Copresence in Behavior in Public Places; that it as a state-of-being, “renders persons uniquely accessible, available, and subject to one another.” (22) – Wren

[12] For the curious, If I recall it was Starbucks → Venti, Batman → Diluc, and Sugar →Sucrose. No Kazuha, “even in this age of almighty gods”… – Wren

[13] and here I’m thinking of Raymond William’s 1974 book Television: Technology and Cultural Form.– Wren

Works Cited:

Anderson, Michael. “”Puzzles Designed for a Crowd at the MIT Mystery Hunt”” Alternate Reality Game News Network, Feb. 28 2023.

Goffman, Erving. Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: The Free Press, 1966.

O’Hara, Frank. “Cambridge.” in Poetry. vol. 90, No. 2 Chicago: The Poetry Foundation, 1957.

 Teammate. “MIT Mystery Hunt 2023 Wrap-Up,” YouTube, January 16, 2023, Video, 01:07:20,

Teammate. “The Museum of Interesting Things”. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Puzzle Club. 2023.

Wren Dalton


  1. From what I understand about the MIT puzzle hunt, your team cannot win without being physically on-campus for part of it. I think that makes the remote endeavors– y’all’s and many other teams’– all the more interesting. Committing to the puzzle hunt not to win, but for the hell of it and for seeing where “flow” takes you as a team. Great article!

  2. I can’t believe that the teams on campus actually figured out all over 100 puzzles in such a short time even with large teams. Can’t wait to include more folks next year.

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