The MIT Mystery Hunt is an annual puzzlehunt, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, these days, with an online presence as well.
Teams must solve puzzles, the solutions of which help to solve the meta-puzzles, which then help to solve the meta-meta puzzles, and so on. There are also some events that take place on the MIT campus. The goal of the Hunt is to use the solutions to the puzzles to help find a coin of some sort somewhere on the MIT campus.
Early Hunts were around 30 puzzles long, but they have since grown to be over 100 puzzles long, with 10 to 20 meta-puzzles. The winners of the hunt gain the right (and obligation) to design the next year's Hunt. A general intro to the Mystery Hunt can be found here. Puzzles can involve a variety of elements, from traditional puzzles/games like chess and (cryptic) crosswords, to a huge variety of trivia that can be recombined to spell out answers in certain ways.
The hunt is unique among many puzzle hunts in a few ways. There is no cap on team size, leading to a lot of really large and really small teams participating. Also, most of the puzzles in recent years have been available online, meaning that people who can't be at the MIT campus in person can still participate. And finally, unlike many other hunts that take place over a week or even an unlimited amount of time, this hunt is designed to be worked on in one intense, continuous effort, over the weekend (which often makes teamwork a necessity so people can work in shifts).
Hunts these days often come with an Excuse Plot in the form of an Alternate Reality Game to explain why people are going around solving puzzles. Past plots have included a murder mystery, a journey through hell, and an anniversary celebration of the Hunt.
The Hunt is held every January during Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, beginning at (around) noon on Friday, and running continuously until a team recovers the coin, usually 40 to 50 hours later. In recent years it's been customary to keep running the hunt a little longer after the coin gets found, so that more teams can enjoy finishing the hunt, especially if the coin gets found relatively early. Though, most teams don't actually finish the hunt, but designers have started catering for that too, with early- and mid-hunt climaxes being common features of more recent hunts.
Beware, the tropes list below spoils the solution to some past puzzles. If you want to solve them on your own, you may want to avoid reading the list.
The MIT Mystery Hunt contains examples of:
- Alternate Reality Game: While early Mystery Hunts didn't have a specific theme, more recent hunts generally have some sort of theme "explaining" why everyone is solving puzzles. The gradual shift to a mostly-online format for the Hunt has facilitated this.
- Artifact Title: In the first few hunts, the goal was to track down an Indian head penny, which came to be known as a "Coin." As the hunts progressed, what teams actually hunt for has evolved immensely, ranging from a weather-controlling machine to a piece of a manhole cover to a Core Memory. This object is still referred to as a Coin even though it is almost never a piece of actual currency any more. Although the all-online 2021 Hunt did have an actual quarter as the Coin.
- Blessed with Suck: Congratulations! You won the Hunt! Now design next year's Hunt!
- Continuity Nod: Some puzzles reference and/or reuse mechanics from past puzzles in the MIT Mystery Hunt, and in some cases solvers may need identify the past puzzles themselves. Many examples can be found in this index.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: The first few hunts were written by one man—Brad Schaefer—on a single sheet of paper and consisted of relatively basic codes and ciphers. The earliest example of having any sort of theme dates to 1992 (eleven years after the Hunt was established). Given the sprawling size of contemporary hunts and the dozens of people who write a single one each year, it's odd to look back at the original ones and how brief they were.
- Entry Point: People of all ages form teams and access the game by means of puzzles scattered around the city or during special events hosted on the campus—the only condition is that at least one person on the team has to have some connection to MIT.
- Excuse Plot: The reason teams are solving puzzles. "The path through the Mushroom Kingdom is full of puzzles." "You don't say."
- First-Episode Twist: This has become increasingly common in recent years, with the supposed theme of the hunt being set up only to reveal the true theme at the kickoff weekend event.
- In 2007, the entire hunt was apparently only five puzzles long, and nearly every team solved it quickly...only to discover that they'd inadvertently sold their souls to Satan in the process. The true hunt involved a descent into Hell to recover the souls.
- 2011's hunt began with an invitation to the wedding of "M & P." It wasn't until kickoff that the initials were revealed to stand for Mario and Peach—and naturally Bowser showed up to crash the wedding and kidnap the princess, forcing Mario to travel through a video game-themed hunt.
- In 2014, teams were invited to attend a high-level academic conference, which was immediately interrupted by the Cheshire Cat to kick off an Alice's Adventures in Wonderland theme.
- The 2018 Hunt was given a "Health and Safety" theme, but teams quickly discovered that they were inside the head of Miss Terry Hunter—the actual theme was Inside Out, as solvers had to help Terry's emotions regain control and discover her Core Memories to save the day.
- 2020's Hunt kicked off with two longtime solvers getting married (that wasn't part of a skit—the two genuinely had their wedding ceremony at kickoff), seemingly setting up a "true love" themed hunt; instead, the couple decided to go to an amusement park for their honeymoon, with the puzzles deriving from the various "lands" in the park.
- 2022's Hunt, ostensibly about super-intelligent rats, went off the rails when the organizers announced that MIT's entire library had mysteriously vanished. Teams had to enter "Bookspace" to restore it by solving puzzles themed around all kinds of literature.
- Metapuzzle: The Hunt is divided into multiple rounds; each round has its own metapuzzle, with the individual puzzles in that round (called "feeders") providing clues or information about the meta's answer. At times, figuring out the connection between the feeder puzzles is itself a puzzle (for example, all of the answers might have something in common, or hint at another form of code like Morse or Braille). It's then taken even further with the aptly-dubbed "meta-metas," which combine the answers from each round's metapuzzle into an even bigger metapuzzle that provides the final answer. Some Mystery Hunts have even had multiple meta-meta puzzles!
- Mini-Game: Some puzzles come in the form of little games or even little puzzlehunts themselves. Each Mystery Hunt also generally has a handful of events, which require a few participants from each team to attend, and contain activities with some puzzle elements but are generally easier than the normal puzzles.
- Moon Logic Puzzle: Some puzzles require you to take....interesting trains of thought. This sometimes means realizing that something familiar is being presented in a very unusual way (e.g. representing car models using chemical elements).
- Only Smart People May Pass / Viewers Are Geniuses : Not necessarily "smart" or "geniuses", but tons of trivia will be involved, and sometimes more formal "book knowledge" may be useful too, especially (but not limited to) mathematics and computer programming (unsurprising given the Mystery Hunts origins). However, this trope is somewhat zig-zagged in that participants are allowed to look up any resources on the internet to help them...though this still requires people to know what to look for and how, which is in turn a puzzle-solving skill, and being familiar with a thing may make it more likely for a solver to jump to the realization. Anyhow, here are a variety of examples of topics/skills used in puzzles:
- prescription medications
- words with different meanings
- more "traditional" puzzles
- a song by the Bloodhound Gang
- mapping out a dungeon
- Russian figure-skaters
- movie quotes said in Mac OS voices
- Absolut Vodka advertisements
- Chinese astrology
- Amazing Race participants
- measurement units
- more lolcats...and Frontier Airlines jets
- the show Look Around You
- biology/anatomy (in this case, neurons firing)
- board games
- the webcomic Problem Sleuth
- Overly Long Name due to Loophole Abuse: The name of the team that won the 2013 Hunt is the entire text of Atlas Shrugged. For their succeeding 2014 Hunt, based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, they renamed themselves "Alice Shrugged".
- Red Herring: Most come up accidentally in which solvers go down a rabbit hole, like "BE NOISY" from the 2002 Hunt. The red herrings themselves have appeared intentionally in some puzzles to indicate that a path is not the way to go or that a particular data is irrelevant.
- Scavenger Hunt: A recurring activity among Mystery Hunts is the scavenger hunt task, which involves teams completing a set number of tasks to get a reward. Some puzzles also solve to a submission task in which solvers need to do an activity before getting the final answer.
- Scrabble Babble: Puzzle 7 of Set 1 of the 2001 Hunt is about this trope.
- Sequence Breaking: Hunts contain examples of this trope played straight and averted. In individual puzzles, you can often figure out the solution without figuring out all the pieces, simply by inferring from how other clues work and filling in some blanks. You can also often solve meta-puzzles without figuring out all the solutions to their component puzzles. However, you can't find the coin early by accident; it's typical for the organizers to keep tabs on how close teams are to finishing, then only place the coin in its proper location when a team has reached the final run-around.
- Shout-Out: Many puzzles contain pop-culture references...which you need to know to solve the puzzle. This may prevent you from breaking open a puzzle if you've simply never having heard of some obscure webcomic or other thing that the designers love, though since you're allowed to look up as much information as you want, there are often ways to get around not knowing a thing — almost all pop culture stuff has fan wikis or other databases covering them these days. Furthermore, the sheer number of puzzles is often used by Hunt writers to cater to a large variety of niches, so given over a hundred puzzles you're likely to find something you can work on. Anyhow, examples of shout-outs include:
- The solution to Toto, I Have a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore requires the solver to recognize the pictures are referencing rock bands who took their names from movies.
- The images depicted in the 2005 MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle called "Telephone Pictionary" uses Beatle songs as the thing that's being illustrated.
- In addition, Hunt themes are often shout-outs to something, either an entire genre (e.g. the murder mystery) or a specific work (e.g. The Producers or Inception).
- Special Guest: As the Hunt has become more mainstream within the nerd community, some teams have recruited celebrities to help out.
- Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, participates on a Hunt-solving team and allowed some of his comics to be part of the 2011 Hunt. He even wrote a comic that contained his puzzle's answer during the 2011 Hunt itself!
- "Weird Al" Yankovic made a guest appearance in the 2022 Hunt's section on cookbooks (appropriate, given his well-known love of food puns).
- The Team: The Hunt, which generally spans a weekend with a hundred or more puzzles and involves people working continuously until the coin has been found, is pretty much specifically designed for a team solving effort to be finishable in time. Solving teams often have members taking on more specialized roles based on their knowledge of different fields and trivia. Teams can even be of unlimited size, though at some point adding more people doesn't help.
- Whole-Plot Reference: Some hunts lean heavily on their theming and recreate key scenes and elements from their source material. Particular examples include 2012's The Producers Hunt (which had solvers helping Max and Leo try to stage deliberately bad musicals again, only to inevitably succeed), 2014's Wonderland Hunt (which had players meeting virtually every major character from the books), and 2018's Inside Out Hunt (which recreated the Emotion characters, Islands of Personality, and Core Memories).
- Wiki Walk: In general, consulting Wikipedia and other wikis for information is a pretty much core part of the standard toolset of an experienced solver. Some puzzles are even built on finding Wikipedia links, like "Walkthrough" from the 2011 Hunt and "Erudite Game" from the 2024 Hunt.
- World of Pun: Puns and other wordplay are extremely common, with many puzzles bearing Pun-Based Titles and even puzzle mechanics that involve and/or were inspired by puns. Puzzle flavortext is frequently written in the style of a Pungeon Master, with the puns likely being meaningful clues to the puzzle's mechanics.