Mystery Hunt 2022: A Lot of Hats

while pulling together material for a stream I did on Twitch, adding to the chorus of voices from my team that talked about our various Hunt experiences, I put together just how many things I had done as part of Palindrome this year. Some of these I’ve covered already (so I’ll just link to the appropriate post), but here are the many that I wore over the course of the year, including a few I forgot to mention during that stream.

Theme Committee Member

Writing Mystery Hunt starts with choosing a theme. Every team does this differently; Palindrome did some really excellent work using design-based processes. Early in our okay-we’re-writing-Hunt excitement, we had a session where we talked about the values a Palindrome Hunt would have, then armed with that and a general structure for theme proposals, went off and wrote those if we were interested.

I didn’t necessarily have a strong theme idea, but the process of attempting to pitch a theme felt like a good thing to practice, so I whipped up a pitch based on Jon Bois’ 17776, asking what the future of Mystery Hunt would look like, rather than normal or college football. There were some cool ideas, and I had a few collaborators that helped flesh the idea out a little further, but by the end point of my own writing on it, I was also collaborating on at least 5 other themes and waaaaaaaay more interested in the ideas happening in those discord channels rather than in my own idea. Apologies to my idea, but when we were asked to vote for our top 5 themes, it didn’t make my own ballot

Once the top 5 ideas were selected, I continued to be in the “writers room” for most of the ideas that made it to the next stage, and pitched various ways those could be fleshed out into full-scale Hunt themes while their primary authors pulled everything together. We also continued our design process exercises, trying to think through how we could hit various goals we had established in our initial sessions talking about what “Hunt” meant to us. It was a lot of fun (I’m a very collaborative writer, so this was entirely my jam), and we got that down to a final group of 3 themes.

I had also been invited to be part of the final committee that reviewed all of the final 3 themes and made a final decision on Palindrome’s selection. While all 3 of our options felt great, Bookspace was my favorite from the initial theme stages – it had a nice depth, a lot of potential for puns and thematic puzzle content, and felt like it had the strongest potential for tying things into the MIT campus, which was a major factor for me, especially since at the early stage we were in, it still felt like a strong bet we’d be fully virtual again.

Metapuzzle Tester

With our theme chosen and story fully developed, it was time to build out the various metas that would populate the world of Bookspace. Though I initially wasn’t planning on doing anything with metas (it’s not how my brain is wired), Jen McTeague managed to get me to re-consider and I joined her meta team. I feel like my main contributions were in cheerleading our crew’s fantastic efforts and testing other meta teams’ puzzles as they were developed, but that’s an important skillset.

It was very cool being a fly on the wall as the Introspection meta came to be (and convincing Jen that puzzles that had 26 different answers was a Bad Idea), and it’s always fun to watch Kevin Wald work the magic he does when the Ministers meta was one of the first metapuzzles pitched (and accepted)

Writing & Editing Puzzles

I wrote about the puzzles I wrote here.

I wrote about the puzzles I edited here.

Virtual Retreat Coordinator

As part of our writing process, Eric asked me to organize some kind of focused writing retreat for early June. With COVID still COVID-ing and Palindrome’s general widespread nature (and especially with an Australian contingent joining us from Ange Management that we wanted to accommodate as much as possible), that was organized virtually on our Discord.

Pulling that together was a little more seat-of-the-pants than I maybe would have liked, but I think we were able to pull off lots of focused worktime, discussions about areas we wanted to build out more puzzle content (we’re VERY word-y people on Palindrome, so it was important to think about potential “swag” puzzles that would be physical items, “scrum” puzzles that could be multiplayer “teamwork time” style puzzles, and puzzles that pulled from STEM and other core curriculum topics at MIT. We also tried to take 3 of the answers we had pulled from our answer bank and tried to come up with concepts for these. Of these, I think only one actually emerged from its session into becoming a final puzzle in the Hunt, Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Script Punch-Up

Jenny Gutbezahl and Eric Berlin did the initial pass of the scripts for Tock throughout the plotline of our Hunt, and various members of Palindrome wrote the end videos for each neighborhood of Bookspace, to provide a variety of styles, themes, and voices.

As someone who LOVED The Phantom Tollbooth as a young reader (seeing a diorama of one of its scenes at Planet Word (above) brought me to tears both because of fond memories AND because we were building it into our own world), I added some color to Tock’s character profile to make sure our Tock matched Book Tock before we recorded video with the puppet.

I also made a few writers’ room suggestions on the neighborhood scripts, adding a “like and subscribe!” tone to the Howtoona script to make it more Youtube-y, and suggesting some kind of “it’s only Narnia Beeswax if it comes from the province of Narnia” joke be added to fantasy that was wonderfully finessed into the final “sparkling pollen” bit of the script.

The Ministers

The majority of my script-writing this Hunt, though, was with Renee Ngan as we developed the Ministers. These needed a unified voice, and both of us like writing in collaboration, and I’m so glad we worked together to tackle how to make this work.

Because we knew we wanted to have this be a live interaction, we knew costuming needed to be easily identifiable so that no matter who was playing the role, if you saw overalls, you knew that was Billie Barker, etc. We also worked out having only two ministers of the total six in the live version of an interaction to allow whatever minister team we ultimately had Hunt weekend to be able to handle multiple teams at once during our busy period. Once we had written all of the variant scripts for a combo of a “exposition” minister and a “wildcard” minister, we combined the best bits of all of those to make the all-six-ministers final video version.

The intro video went through a lot of revisions, since it needed to deliver a LOT of plot immediately after teams solved The Investigation’s meta. For a while, we were trying to frame this as a conversation teams were listening in on, and Eric rightly put his foot down with us and told us we absolutely needed to include the solver as an active character in the script. That was absolutely correct, and it completely fixed a lot of weaknesses in v1 and v2.

Since we needed to record all of our video parts separately, but have it look like a seamless video call with all of us, I organized two rehearsals with our cast where we read through things, figured out the beats and timings, and recorded a “digital storyboard” that could be used by our video editor to piece everything together from our individual footage. Everyone went off and filmed their portions from that storyboard, and somehow it all came together.

For our live teams, we had 6 teams of 2-3 people set up as minister crews – 4 that were mostly on the east coast, one on the west coast, and one in Australia. Australia’s crew was a life-saver for the overnight shift pieces that was hitting the edge of what our west coast crew could cover. Hopefully, whether your team got either a Barker or a Rotch Brother, along with Dewey, Lewis, or Hayden, you had a good time. I know Justin Ladia and I got particularly goofy as Randy Rotch and Alexei.

We had a fantastic crew of ministers both in the video and over the weekend, as noted on the credits page. Huge kudos to all of them for making it so that only a few teams missed getting a live interaction.

Costumes & Props

I wrote about making Alexei Lewis’ costume here.

I also made one of the crucial pieces of the Plot Device:

One member of Palindrome donated an old college dictionary that served as the base of this, and the feet/handle are wooden cubes from Michael’s that I colored black with a Sharpie and sealed. Lettering was some foam lettering, also from Michael’s, colored gold with another Sharpie.

The toast is a few pieces of foam board stacked and covered with lots of felt.

Swag Captain

Sometime in August/September, Eric asked me if I was interested in heading up the logistical side of getting physical puzzles to teams. I wanted a buddy since it felt like a job for more than one person, and suggested Matt Cleinman, who had also been chatting about the details of getting those to teams in our Discord chat, and we made a fantastic team (that is still in the process of finishing everyone’s pin orders).

Getting to be hands-on with the production of Diced Turkey Hash and What’s In The Box was very fun. What’s in the Box was a full day of work assembling boxes, shredding each set of papers individually, and very carefully making sure each set of shreds fully made it into each box. I had to deal with customs issues on the dice, but those made it here just in time for an in-person test and final packaging with plenty of time to get those to teams.

We mailed somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 packages before Hunt, and all but 15 didn’t make it in time. I’ll take that success rate.

Puzzle Post-Production

I turned 70 puzzles and solutions from their various Google Sheets form into final HTML.
S E V E N T Y. Most of these were puzzles I either wrote or edited, but beyond that, that is a staggering amount. It’s almost certain you touched a puzzle in 2022’s Hunt that I had a hand in as a result.

In hindsight, I would have advocated more strongly for us to start post-prod as soon as we could (it’s always a back-and-forth process between the person who made the puzzle and the person who’s turning it into HTML), or at least a month to a month and a half earlier than we did, and it would have led to a lot less crunch time unpleasantness.

Endgame Assistance

I woke up Sunday morning at 8, saw that we had teams nearing the endgame, and got my ass over to campus to hang out in Hayden Library and be ready to welcome whatever team that was. Jen graciously walked Julia and I through the beats of the endgame scene approximately 7 billion times (my brain was not committing things to short-term memory) before I just typed them in my phone. Improv! Yes and! I did the thing.

Fun fact: the hat I was literally wearing here is the logo of the Beloit Sky Carp, the ONLY team that changed mascots in the process of post-prodding Minor Details, necessitating a slight content change. I love the logo SO much, hence I got it on a hat.

One More Hat

Picture of the author in their new role as cat-herder. K I T T I E S!

It’s worth mentioning here that I’m taking on a new hat for next year’s Hunt as the new captain of Palindrome. I’m honored to take the helm after Eric Berlin’s 15 years as our leader, and I have some MASSIVE shoes to fill, but I’m excited.

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