Puzzle Hunts: Fish Retrace No Prose

Other reports
  • GC's official site
  • GC's list of videos
  • March 31-April 1 2012, the team Mystic Fish played in The Doctor When Game. This was the second running of the game; several teams had played the weekend before; now several other teams were playing. The folks running the game were, as near as I could tell, a mix of Team Meat Machine (the bay area one), Team Drunken Spider, the Talkin' Eds, some "all-star" folks from The Burninators, LXP, volunteers from other teams, and some folks I hadn't heard of because... this game wasn't like some past games. It did some things differently, and some different folks had a chance to shine.

    For this game, Mystic Fish was:

    Dwight Freund, often of Mystic Fish was in the game, but he wasn't playing with us: he was one of the folks running the game. He'd pressed his offspring into service, too: over the course of the weekend, we'd fiddle with a physical puzzle assembled by his daughter and visit his son at said son's apartment.

    When I say this game did some things differently, what I mean is: They put a lot of emphasis on the story. This game had a narrative, and the puzzles served it; the narrative wasn't just a spindly frame on which to hang some puzzles. The World Henchmen Game had also done something like this: it had concentrated much more on characters than most games did. Doctor When concentrated on plot and narrative. Folks who have endured my rants on narrative vs. game might be surprised that I point this out. (For folks who haven't endured my rants, a summary: narrative is good; game is good; narrative and game don't help each other; blah blah whine whine blah blah.) But this game had tightly interwoven game and story; the story was largely delivered via the game. There were some... I guess if this was a videogame you'd call them cutscenes. But they were done well and they delivered more gamestuff, so even I couldn't get angry about them.

    This also meant bringing in some new-to-me talent: people who knew how to act, people who knew how to build stuff. This game was a time-travel story, with a time machine: and the time machine looked and sounded darned impressive. When Game Control (GC) folks acted out a scene, it wasn't just some puzzle enthusiasts monotonically mumbling; these folks emoted. (There were also chances for teams to role-play; but it wasn't so clear what the rules were here.)

    This was a difficult hunt for Mystic Fish—our skill set skews towards crosswords and wordplay. Do you know how to shoehorn crossword puzzles into a storyline about time-traveling mad scientists? I don't, and GC didn't ruin their storyline trying to find out. We had a bunch of logic puzzles that we struggled with; sometimes we solved them, but sometimes we had to ask for hints and sometimes GC had to gently lift the puzzle out of our hands and nudge us onward.


    Months before, the San Francisco-area part of the team had assembled at Cafe La Boheme in the Mission and then headed to a nearby apartment: We got into this game by giving a presentation as Mystic Fishwrap, incredible tabloid reporters. We'd given our presentation, a mysterious skull symbol recovered from a flooded construction site on the east coast. Rex called in as our on-the-scene reporter. We had a laminated poster of the skull's symbols—itself a poster. We had attached some gourmet sheets of peppermint candy to our presentation as a GC bribe.

    And that was enough. We got in. Nearly all the teams that applied got in: there were enough of them such that GC ran the game for two weekends, enough to handle everybody.

    And thus, on game day, ...

    The First Arc

    Our team had gathered at Rex and Devon's airport hotel; we'd set up our van (undeterred by rain) and made our way to the game start: Trenchwood Institute in the hills above San Mateo. (IRL, this was Highlands Elementary school, as we'd find out when we needed to give AAA directions to our van... but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

    It was 10:00 at Trenchwood Labs. Tiresias the janitor was cleaning up even as crowds swirled around him. We did some paperwork to get signed in. We sought out seats. Todd Etter walked up and showed me a photo he'd snapped with his phone on his plane: he'd been working on a 2-Tone Game puzzle on his flight out west. But soon it was time for us to take our seats and watch a presentation: Doctor When of Trenchwood Labs was going to show us his exciting invention.

    Introduced by his high-school chum (and fellow mad scientist) Professor Catherine Chronos, Doctor When soon strode bravely forth to tell us of his invention: a Time Machine! To prove that it worked, he was going to enter it and travel one minute into the future. He entered it, to the audience's applause. And he was in. The time machine started working; it was an impressive set with some impressive sound effects; I was almost stunned by what a good time machine set it was. Unfortunately, something went wrong and Doctor When was lost in time!

    Professor Catherine called up members of each team so that each of us could have a copy of the core dump and a scrambled memory core—except that the memory core had just 16 rings, extra-big, each with four letters printed on it. The core dump was a long list of words printed out on old-style pinfeed computer printer paper. The core's rings rotated; of the four letters on each, just one would face up at a time. It was labeled Toggle Burner, a spoonerism of Boggle Turner: probably we needed to rotate the rings as if they were boggle dice to make a boggle board to spell out... what? We noticed that some of the core-letters were in a different font than the others; they spelled out a message telling us that the last step would be to read the edges. OK, but we had to figure out what to do first. The core dump was a strange list of words: they were mostly listed in alphabetical order, but not all. Some words were out of order, some were listed twice, some didn't seem like words at all. We wasted a fair amount of time trying to solve the word list; teams were solving and leaving. Finally we asked for a hint, and got one: instead of trying to figure out the anomolies in the word list, just try to make one boggle configuration that lets you make all the listed words. Soon we'd done that. Figuring that we were at the last step, we now tried to read a message from the letters now at the edge of the boggle-core. But that didn't make sense. That's because we weren't at the last step yet, but we didn't realize that until someone from GC looked at our lack of progress and suggested it. Oh. That's when we saw the message on the tops of the rings, right there on the boggle configuration we'd made, the message telling us to rotate some rings. Eventually we made our way through that puzzle and could tell Professor Catherine that the core dump said there was a problem with the co-keypads. Soon one of her lab assistants was asking us to visit a clock repair shop in San Francisco where someone would give us the information we needed to repair the defective co-keypad #34.

    Time to get in the van. Drive to San Francisco's mission district. Find the clock repair shop.

    The Dorian Clair clock repair shop didn't have much room for customers to stand around: normally, one customer would show up, hand the clock across the counter to a repair person. Most of the shop's space was a workshop. But now our whole team squeezed into the customer area so that we could receive a puzzle. There wasn't space to work on it in the shop; outside, it was threatening rain.

    We made our way down to Cafe La Boheme so we could work on it, stay dry, with a big table to work on. And it's a good thing we were comfortable, because we worked on that puzzle for about four hours before the "lab assistants" called us up to ask us to send them a photo of our "progress" so they could gently tell us that with our "help" they'd figured out how to get the co-keypad working again and now they had something else for us to do.

    Time to get in the van again.

    On Cole Street near Haight, we visited Joe Freund's apartment—which, according to the story, was the place where Doctor When had grown up. We were supposed to look over artifacts from his past to figure out what he might be using as his present-day computer password. There was Dwight Freund in the role of Doctor When's father, telling us to look around. Soon Devon had spotted something: when he was a kid, Doctor When had written his own Choose-Your Own Adventure book, and he still had some copies lying around. We got some of those, were shooed out to make room for the next team.

    Soon we were at the Cole Valley Cafe poring over what would be my favorite puzzle of the weekend: a choose your own adventure book full of codes. It was a fine choose-your-own-adventure book, but there were hints there on special ways to read it that would reveal secret messages. One secret message gave hints on how to find the next. And the whole thing tied into the game's story: the book was written by a young Doctor When, and it foreshadowed the game's plot: When mooning over Buffy the cheerleader and ignoring Catherine. We needed a hint on this puzzle—we'd overlooked some semaphore but weren't sure what the root of our problem was. And yet this puzzle was awesome. It worked on so many layers: as a puzzle, as a piece of the story, as a choose-your-own-adventure book. I was kind of sorry when we were done with it.

    But it was time to get in the van.

    GC video: puzzle from the Long Now Foundation

    Our next stop was the Fort Mason showroom of the Long Now Foundation. There we picked up a disc with a video to watch on a laptop. Alexandra has chutzpah, and thought to ask at Greens restaurant next door if we could sit in their waiting area to watch this video. And... they let us. Which just goes to show that chutzpah is a good thing. I didn't get to see much of this puzzle—gathering a big team around a little laptop is hard. And we ended up calling up for a hint: by watching the video we had a list of dates and movies, and too many semi-likely ideas of what to do with them. But soon we had our answer: Doctor When had traveled back to the Big Bang. Now we needed to get a lab assistant to let us use a View-O-Scope to look at what happened at the Big Bang.

    It was time to get in the van and go to Letterman Digital Arts Center (a.k.a. the Presidiyoda). There were some lab assistants there, and they told us how our laptop with that disc we'd got at Long No could act as a View-o-Scope so we could see Doctor When at the Big Bang. This was another set of videos to watch on our laptop. Again, I didn't really get to see this puzzle, but it was basically Doctor When contorting his body into letter shapes. Thus, he instructed us to send him to Paine Memorial in 1986. This seemed a little strange: I hadn't heard of any "Paine Memorial" nearby and neither had Google Maps. But we reported our findings to a lab assistant who told us this must mean Paine Memorial High School, where When had attended back in 1986. Ohhh, it was part of the game, not a real-world landmark.

    GC video: at the big bang; footage from big bang puzzle

    GC video: we need to find an envelope
    But there was more to do on the view-o-scope: in the earlier video puzzle, Doctor When had dropped an envelope. We had to spot it. We re-watched that puzzle's videos—this was fun for me, as it meant I got a chance to see these videos. They were short famous scenes from movies with Doctor When added to them. E.g., several Roman slaves said "I am Spartacus" and there was Doctor When looking worried and yipping "I'm not Spartacus!" Aha: Doctor When had dropped his envelope in a scene from Vertigo, out at the road next to Fort Point. We told a lab assistant this and she said she guessed we needed to go to Fort Point, but that we should call GC.

    Time to get back in the van. GC wasn't answering the phone. GC wasn't answering the phone. GC wasn't answering the phone. At the Fort Point parking lot we looked around: there wasn't anything obvious to do. GC wasn't answering the phone. GC wasn't answering the phone. Was Google Voice on the fritz? Were all the GC folks busy? GC wasn't answering the phone. GC answered the phone! They said that though the envelope had been dropped at Fort Point, it had been picked up by archaeologists and stored at Sports Basement so we should go there. We'd passed that Sports Basement on our way to Fort Point several minutes before. We cursed the uncaring phone system and got the van turned around.

    It was at the Sports Basement that we had to present our journalist credentials: a hat with a press pass on it. I'd brought my own (thank you, Paparazzi game, for the press pass), but it... wasn't good enough? So we went through a little activity to fetch another journalist hat and presented that. There we had a puzzle to solve involving anagrammed city names. Meanwhile, Dwight stopped by to razz us a bit. In the end, someone from GC nudged us along: we had many theories on what to do next, and he told us which one to try. Soon we had our answer and an envelope to give to the lab assistants to send back in time to Doctor When.

    Time to get back in the van. We talked about Chinese New Year's Treasure Hunt along the way. I was happier to be playing the Doctor When Game.

    Our next stop was at Shroeder's Beer Hall near San Francisco's Embarcadero Center. This was a chance for teams to gather. Fast teams could get more puzzles to work on. Since these were more versions of that puzzle we'd sat with for nearly-three hours, we weren't so eager to pick up more. But we did pick up a different bonus puzzle: a short story, Intense Secrets. One of us spotted "tense" in the title and noticed that the story's verbs were in past, present, and future tenses. Someone else suggested ternary. And pretty soon we had an answer, yay. We made the mistake of ordering food. It was a lot more expensive than we expected, and we even ended up arguing with the waitress.

    GC video: effects at the 1986 science fair

    But soon the lab assistants had some news for us: they had sent the envelope back in time to Doctor When at Paine Memorial High School in 1986. So we watched the effects on a big view-o-scope: at the high school science fair in 1986, When and Catherine had both had entries. One was about Diet Coke, one was about Mentos. In a freak accident, mentos had fallen in the coke spraying whoever was standing between those exhibits. Originally, When had been there. But we'd sent him an envelope back through time, an envelope which contained a note to his past self: to take a couple of steps to the right at 3pm. So, in 1986, he dodged the spray of coke. And he stumbled into Buffy the cheerleader, who was glad he'd saved her from getting sprayed, too.

    The lab assistants told us that we should head back to the lab in San Mateo.

    Time to get back in the van.

    The Second Arc

    We arrived back at... not Trenchwood Laboratory. It was Peach Frontier Co. And there were lab assistants greeting us and telling us that we needed to register. We'd altered the timeline. Trenchwood Laboratory had never existed. We were showing up at this laboratory for a different event: Professor Catherine Chronos, head of Peach Frontier, was going to show her amazing new invention.

    People were wandering with forms to fill out. It was time for us to get registered. This was something like the registration maze from Bang 7, which I'd solved quickly through incredibly good luck. This time I wasn't so lucky—I'd started out having completely overlooked the point of the activity; I was one of the last folks to finish. Ah well. Now it was time for the presentation.

    Introduced by her high-school chum (and fellow mad scientist) Doctor Wesley When, Professor Catherine soon strode bravely forth to tell us of her invention: a Time Machine! To prove that it worked, she was going to enter it and travel one minute into the future. She entered it. The time machine started working; it was an impressive set with some impressive sound effects; I was almost stunned by what a good time machine set it was. Unfortunately, something went wrong and Professor Catherine was lost in time!

    Soon we had a "core dump" to look at: a jigsaw puzzle, each piece an apple core with a letter on it along with some ASCII art printouts. The ASCII art gave us words (like BASSOON) associated with colors; that gave us what we needed to assemble the jigsaw puzzle. (Meanwhile, in the background, game control role-played: lab assistants argued with a government inspector) Once again, we worked too hard for a solution instead of just reading the simple message in front of us: the quantum chronomentometer was a problem this time.

    The lab assistants weren't able to do anything about the quantum chronomentometers. The government official was giving them a hard audit. Professor Catherine normally handled the paperwork, but now she was lost in time. Soon we had a copy of some old "paperwork" to figure out; maybe we could thus find out how to get the government official to stop being such a nuisance. Each form looked like a form up top: Professor Catherine had filled in her name and the lab's address. But each form's main body was a classical puzzle: a sudoku, a battleship, hashiwokakero (bridges and islands), etc. We passed around puzzles. I worked on the battleship puzzle for several minutes... and failed to solve it. I ruefully put it down and picked up the hashiwokakero. I failed to solve that, too. And then I counted up the hashiwokakero's numbers—and they added up to an odd number. Was that possible, or did it mean the puzzle was "broken"? Were these puzzles outright impossible? Meanwhile, someone else on the team had noticed that the name and address on each form was somewhat different: some letters were more serif-y on some forms. (The team gracefully put up with me insisting we call these letters "plain" and "fancy.") The "puzzles" weren't the point of this puzzle at all. I couldn't see how to turn the plain-and-fancy letters into a code: the number of letters on each form was divisible neither by five (for five-bit binary) nor by eight (for ASCII). But someone smarter than me pointed out that we had eight puzzles. We could make ASCII from that. And so we did: soon we had a message. It told us that the "forms" were indeed impossible and we should instead use creative bribery. I pulled a phat marker out of my bag and decorated a dollar bill with a happy face. Was that creative enough? Soon we had slipped outside with the government official and slipped him our paperwork with the dollar. He liked that fine.

    The lab assistants were thus ready to get to work on the chronomentometers. They told us to go to a clock repair shop—the Peninsula Clock Shop in San Mateo this time around.

    Time to get in the van. Except... the rental van's key fob remote-control thingy failed to unlock the van doors. Normally, a rental van's key fob is on a key chain with, you know, a key. But not this one. The fob had been giving us trouble all day, and now it had stopped working. Probably it was just a battery problem—but where would we get a battery at midnight?

    A cameraman who'd been video-ing stuff all day wanted to talk to us about how we felt about being locked out. He offered to test the battery in his camera equipment so we could find out if the battery was the problem. And it turned out that someone else had a similar fob: so we could swap batteries, unlock our doors, give that person their battery back, and hope that our fob still had the ability to start the van, even if it couldn't lock and unlock doors anymore. We could risk going around with unlocked doors; we were only parking in areas swarming with puzzlers. But first we had to find out if this would work. (My bleak thoughts went back to the rental-van disappointment that caused my team to miss a few hours of Shinteki Decathlon 4) A swirl of activity: calling the rental company's "emergency" line. (Nobody answered. SFO's Airport Van Rentals company is cheap, but there's a reason they're cheap.) Prying open remote controls. Swapping batteries. Calling AAA. Finding out that the battery wasn't the problem. And, after half an hour, Sarah discovered that our van's key fob: had the key inside the fob. There was a little clicky lever thing that was supposed to make the key pop out. On our fob, it was broken, which made it appear to be a purposeless lever thing. We'd come out of that last puzzle relatively quickly, but blown our lead. But no use crying over that spilt milk.

    Time to get back in the van. Call up AAA to tell them not to send us a rescue locksmith after all. On to the clock shop.

    The clock shop wasn't open; it was after midnight, after all. But some GC folks were standing outside, handing out puzzles. We needed to design a few chronomentometers. These were more logic puzzles. We had a few of them of varying difficulty. We took them back to the van so that we could hand them around and solve them. I failed to solve mine, but a couple of folks finished off a couple of them. We looked at the remaining ones. We must have gone slow, because GC called up to ask us how we were doing. We told them some things we thought we'd figured out about the tough ones, GC gave us a nudge, and soon we had all of ours solved.

    GC video: we need that mixtape

    Time to get back in the van. A video gave us our next mission: get a secret message from an old mixtape. We drove to Vinyl Solutions Records in San Mateo. It wasn't open, but the irascible janitor Tiresias (Sean Gugler) was outside, handing out mixtapes. We suspected that when Catherine had made a mixtape for Wesley When back when they were in high school, she'd embedded a message. GC had warned us that we'd need to bring a tape player for this game. Alexandra had come through. And so we sat and listened to a mixtape. It was slow data-gathering: I'd pull out Shazam to identify a song. It just needed a few seconds to get them. But we couldn't then skip ahead to the next track. We had to fast-forward, listen to see if we'd made it to the next song, fast-forward some more. It could have got frustrating, but fortunately, we had enough to do trying to figure out the puzzle so that it didn't get bad, it was just funny remembering what we used to have to put up with. In the end, we had to call up GC to find out what to do with the data we'd gathered. But with a nudge, we soon had our next mission: a video told us that Prof Catherine was on her way to 1986 Paine Memorial High School, and that we should check our email for another mission.

    GC video: Chronos on her way to 1986

    Now the van headed over to Kaffeehaus in San Mateo, which had been transformed into the International Museum of Pretentious Art. I'm not sure how GC got this cafe to stay open all night or to replace its wall art with... recreations of famous paintings but with each subject's face replaced with that of Catherine Chronos. These paintings were pretty funny—and made you wonder what life was like for folks who knew painting models, who didn't just think "that's art", but maybe, "Hey, that's Cathy." (This puzzle was another favorite of mine.) This puzzle had number-words concealed in the new paintings' titles; this let us see the transcript of an audio tour which had more number words concealed in it, and also artists' names.

    GC video: Prof Catherine, in 1986, needs a locker combo

    When we let GC knew the messages we spotted, a video told us to go to Paine Memorial High School to investigate some quantum temporal anomolies. That didn't make any sense: when I'd searched Google Maps for "Paine Memorial" earlier, it hadn't found anything. But GC was telling us to go to... the address of the Highlands Recreation Center. So... they'd created a high school there? This GC was seeming more amazing by the hour.

    Time to get back in the van. Drive back up into the hills.

    In the "Teacher's Lounge" there were some mysterious artifacts making noise: time-echo-emanations from a faculty Christmas Party long past. The audio made for a Smith-Jones-Robinson logic puzzle of figuring out which teacher sat in which office. I'm no good at Smith-Jones-Robinson puzzles, but I'd noticed a strange "campus map" on the wall so I did some exploring. I headed out to the room marked "Principal's Office" and knocked on the door. There Tiresias the janitor poked his head out: what did I want? I said that I wanted to see the janitor's office. He said I should come back when I wanted something more specific. OK. Next I wandered over to the lockers. In the view-o-meter we'd seen Doctor When slip our envelope into a locker. Now Professor Catherine wanted us to fetch the combination. I wandered back to the Teacher's Lounge and reported my findings. It will not surprise you to learn that my findings were not useful. Soon my smarter teammates had gotten a message from the Smith-Jones-Robinson puzzle. Now we were ready to go to the principal's office.

    We had a list of master locker combinations from years past and we were in the principal's office. The princial was responsible for coming up with the locker combination each year. Could we figure out his system so that we could get the combination for 1986 and send it back to Professor Catherine? There were basketball posters up on the walls, including one showing the NCAA playoff games as a binary tree. Tiresias let us stare at the walls for a while, then we left. We thought we'd figured it out: just give the top combination from our list, that was from 1986. But when we called that one in, the nice lab assistant told us that when they started thinking about sending that combination into the time machine, the fabric of time had started unraveling: We should try again. In the end, we had to go back to the office and ask Tiresias for a nudge. He pointed out a couple of the posters: did we notice anything special? Someone else figured it out: oh, they showed players holding MVP trophies. Part of the principal's system used the names of the year's MVP winners. And thus we got our answer.

    Our next stop was the "school" gym. This was another waiting area, like Schroeder's had been. At 8:30, there would be a presentation so we could see the effects of sending the locker combination back in time, much as we'd seen the effects of sending the envelope back in time. We had about an hour. We picked up some bonus puzzles and headed down the hill.

    There was a breakfast place, but we weren't sure we had enough time for a sit-down breakfast. There was a bakery and a Starbuck's. We had baked goods, coffee, juice. Smart people on the team wrestled with bonus puzzles.

    GC video: The effect of our investigations
    There was another team here, with Charlie, Martin, Rachel, and...? I sat, smiled, sipped espresso, and didn't try to think about anything.

    We headed back to the gym. Some teams were running late; this was awkward. Apparently a Jazzercize class was expecting to use the gym starting at 9. Thus, instead of a long presentation, we had a hurried one: in the View-o-Scope we saw Professor Catherine in Paine Memorial High School in 1986. With the locker combination we'd sent back in time, she was able to open When's old locker and steal the envelope (which we'd previously sent back in time) and throw it away. And thus, at the science fair later that day, When got splashed with Diet Coke instead of "saving" Buffy.

    The lab assistants told us to head back to the lab. Then they started tearing down equipment in a hurry to make way for Jazzercize. It occurred to me: it was strange that we'd been playing in this time-travel game for nearly a day, but we hadn't traveled in time. We'd just been... base camp support for the actual time travelers.

    The Third Arc

    "TheKamendae," who was there the weekend before we played, recorded this video of the Grand Unveiling

    It was 10:00 at Trenchwood Labs. Tiresias the janitor was cleaning up even as crowds swirled around him. Trenchwood Labs was Trenchwood Labs again. The lab assistants greeted us for the big event: Doctor When was ready to reveal an exciting new invention. We'd undone everything we'd done over the weekend.

    Todd Etter walked up to me and showed me a photo he'd snapped with his phone on his plane: he'd been working on a 2-Tone Game puzzle on his flight out west. (If you didn't already, now you know why Todd is awesome.) But now it was time for us to find our seats.

    Introduced by his high-school chum (and fellow mad scientist) Professor Catherine Chronos, Doctor When soon strode bravely forth to tell us of his invention: a Time Machine! To prove that it worked, he was going to enter it and travel one minute into the future. He entered it, accompanied by calls from the audience: "No!" "Don't go in there!". He acknowledged: "It is exciting." And he was in. The time machine started working; it was an impressive set with some impressive sound effects; I was almost stunned by what a good time machine set it was. Unfortunately, something went wrong and Doctor When was lost in time!

    Everything was happening as it had before. Except...

    Professor Catherine didn't call up members of each team to look at the core dump. Instead, she seemed to be waiting for something... someone in the audience piped up: Check co-keypad #34! Aha, co-keypad #34 wasn't working, so we'd to re-desig– "Hang on, I've got a picture." OK, so we had the design, now we just needed the passwo– Folks called out the password.

    It was at this point that Prof. Catherine figured out something strange was going on: How could we already know the answers to these questions? She figured it out: we were in a time loop.

    It reminded her of a cryptic puzzle from the 1986 Paine Memorial High School yearbook! Unfortunately, the only copies she had had been cut out and cut to pieces. Each team should send up one member to collect a copy, leave the Lab building so that the lab assistants could set something up, assemble the puzzle, then come back and talk to the lab assistants when we thought we had a message.

    We went outside into the schoo lab grounds. We found a picnic table to spread out our puzzle pieces on. It wasn't so easy to find a dry table—most were still wet from the previous day's rains. And as the wind picked up, we had to tape them down to the table to keep them from blowing away. Then a sprinkle of rain started: not too bad for humans, but enough to destroy delicate little paper puzzle pieces.

    Time to get back in the van. We quickly picked up our puzzle pieces, hustled back to the nice, warm, dry van.

    "Nice," "warm," and "dry" are generally good things, but for a puzzle-solving team that's been awake for more than 24 hours, they're a little dangerous. One of us fell asleep almost immediately upon sitting down. In the middle of the van, two of us were holding out our clipboards as a working surface for assembling puzzle pieces. I was one of those people and watched with consternation as the other one nodded off, then suddenly recovered: even though we were out of the wind, it was still a good thing that we'd taped down our puzzle pieces; our work surface was reeling with exhaustion.

    We tried some things, they didn't work. We spotted a lab assistant to ask for a nudge. Unfortunately this lab assistant didn't know the puzzle well; double-unfortunately, I was the only one who heard her say that she didn't know the puzzle well, but assumed everyone else on the team had, too. When the lab assistant said it looked like our current line of reasoning was good, we kept chasing that red herring a little too long: I waited for someone else to say it was time to give up and ask for a more-certain hint, but everyone else on the team was 100% certain that we were on the right track because we'd got a hint by golly. We finally figured out what had happened, that we were barking up a red herring; we asked another lab assistant for a nudge, and... we got another red herring; it later turned out he only knew an earlier version of this puzzle. But eventually Wei-Hwa came over to check on us, got us debarked from our herring, and back on track:

    Our puzzle pieces assembled to form an hourglass shape (and that hourglass shape elegantly echoed the shape of the pieces themselves). There were words on the pieces, but also numbers. Reading the words in order made no sense; but reading them in the order specified by the numbers gave us a message. That message-bearing-envelope that had been sent back to 1986 and then discarded: we had to find a way to un-discard it and alter the message: Instead of taking two steps to the right, When should take two steps to the left. OK, fair enough.

    Wei-Hwa was glad to hear this. He said that we would travel back in time to make this happen. (And I thought: Yay! We get to time-travel! Not just basecamp support anymore.) He gave us some instructions telling us what to do: go back, fix up the envelope situation, find a time portal to come back to the present. And to make sure we were prepared, he wanted us to tell him something about how Doctor When had been lost in time: so we needed to view that puzzle on a View-o-Scope.

    For some reason, we didn't want to use Wei-Hwa's View-o-Scope so instead we dragged him back to our van. Then there was some time searching the van for the laptop. I sat outside with Wei-Hwa as he waited for us to find the laptop. After a few minutes, he said "Back at the lab, we think we may have narrowed it down to something after the 1600s." I said, "Oh, like the French Revolution? I think one of the video clips showed that." I told the rest of the team what Wei-Hwa had said: if we were still having trouble with the laptop, maybe we could find our notes to find out the time associated with our French Revolution clip? There were grunts from the van.

    After a minute or so, Wei-Hwa said: "You say it was the French Revolution? French revolution is close enough. We were able to get a lock on Doctor When from that." (Remember, kids: you might not have to solve the puzzle. Sometimes, it's enough to outlast GC.)

    Our next stop to get ready for time-traveling was a life-sized boardgame that had been set up. Since we were the last team by this point, we didn't have to take turns with anyone. We sent Devon onto the board to mark our progress. There was a giant die to roll; Melissa Wilson of GC gave us 80s trivia questions to answer to prove we were ready to travel back to that era. Perhaps because most of us were puzzlers of A Certain Age, this part went pretty easily.

    We got sent over to the Time Machine. Its door was open. The lab assistants ushered us inside as it strummed to life. Wow, those were some great sound effects. Inside the machine, it was dark until its lights started up. After a few seconds, we made our way through the strands of time and emerged in 1986.

    Time to get back in the van (which fortunately also existed in 1986) and head on over to Paine Memorial High School.


    As we drove into the parking lot, Debbie Goldstein was there. Or, rather, as she explained, she was Jenny, Tiresias the janitor's girlfriend. And she could tell us how to learn how the school's garbage and recycling program worked. OK, mental note, that might be important later.

    Parked the van, piled out.

    We wanted to head for the lockers, but mean high school coach Erik Stuart was there and told us that we were in detention. I felt a little old to be mistaken for someone who might be sent to detention, but I rolled with it. Soon we were sitting at a table in the gym, filling in a puzzle based on SAT prep forms. Devon got called away for a few minutes for another piece of the puzzle: learning some dance moves. She came back with a list of dances. Meanwhile, we couldn't figure out what to do with our SAT answers. Our multiple-choice scantron form seemed significant: it grouped our answer bubbles into pairs. Each question had five answers. It made sense to draw out a five-by-five grid, write in the alphabet, and use that as a code key... but there are many ways to put the alphabet into a five-by-five grid, and two obvious choices didn't work. So we asked test proctor Thomas Snyder for a hint: he told us we were interpreting x incorrectly in one question; and that was enough—we had to interpret it as the letter "x". Soon our grid was filled, our SAT answers thus told us how to get a message from the dance moves: we had to perform the dance The Time Warp. So no-longer-seemed-so-mean coach Erik Stuart observed our heartfelt performance (during which I only collided with team members on 50% of the moves, probably because someone had wisely positioned me at the end of the line) and said we were free of detention.

    We wandered back to the lockers. We were supposed to go to the trash can next to the lockers and see the sign posted on it, but by golly we had a locker combination and we were going to try it out. Brave GC volunteer Ariel Rideout was watching the locker: was she supposed to be some kind of hall monitor or something? Did it seem suspicious that all these people were going to open up a locker? So I tried to fast-talk Ariel as the rest of the team opened up the locker with the combination we'd learned in Arc 2. But Ariel wasn't fooled: and soon set us straight: maybe we were looking for something that had been thrown away? Maybe that means that we needed to understand what happened to things that had been thrown away? Ohhhh, OK.

    So we headed back out to the parking lot to talk with Debbi Jenny again. She warned us that other teams had taken two hours to figure out how the garbage system work, but that this puzzle was shutting down in an hour. Thus, we might want to get not just the puzzle, but also two extra sheets that would nudge us in the right direction. That sounded like a great idea.

    It was a great idea: the high school's garbage system was very complex. There were rules about how garbage or recycling might move from one trashcan to another based on what was in the other trashcans. The nudge-sheets showed us a representation of the system as a four-dimensional maze drawn out as four two-dimensional mazes, with directions on how to navigate the mazes. How long would it have taken us to construct this maze from the verbal description of the garbage-moving rules? Probably more than an hour. Or maybe never:

    The one piece of information we'd had to write down ourselves was the end state we were interested in... or, since we were representing the state of the trashcans as a four-dimensional maze, we had to write down which, uhm, hyper-plane contained the exit. But we thought we were writing down which hyper-cube contained the exit. In fact, we were supposed to figure out which cube in the plane had the exit. But even if we'd known our goal correctly, we were still doomed:

    I was sufficiently alert to understand the nudge-sheets' explanation of how to navigate the maze, but not alert enough to do it. It involved keeping track of four points in the four two-dimensional mazes to make sure that those four points always formed a rectangle. Easy to say, but I kept messing up and making a parallelogram. So it wasn't too surprising that the rest of the team wasn't following my ragged "explanation." So... we decided to give up early this time.

    We headed back to Jenny at the debris box. She was talking to another team, but Erik the coach was there. We admitted defeat. Fortunately, that didn't mean we were done with The Game: there was more stuff to do!

    Erik gave us the answer to the puzzle, and sent us to the principal's office, the place where the envelope had ended up thanks to the school's complex garbage system.

    In the principal's office, Justin Graham let us root around in the trash to pull out the envelope. And he let us alter the envelope's contents. For our next stop, we went back to the lockers. This time, I didn't try to distract Ariel, so she was able to make sure that we did the right thing: open up the locker, put in the envelope. (And then she no doubt took the envelope out of the locker so that the locker would be ready for the next team that came along.) Our next stop? Go to the gym, which was no longer a spot for detentioneers. Now it was set up for the high school science fair we'd seen on the view-o-scope.

    We walked up to the gym. As we walked through the entrance, Tiresias stopped us: the gym's entrance was the time portal that was supposed to bring us back to the present. But it was blinking red: there was a paradox in the timestream. By now he knew that we knew that he was a time traveller. And he knew that we were time travellers. So we should tell him how we'd come to be here. So we talked. He stopped us when we mentioned the puzzle from the yearbook: how had that puzzle gotten into the yearbook. At that point, I'd assumed that When had put it in... but apparently that wasn't true. Tiresias told us: we had to go put that puzzle into the yearbook ourselves. Ah, so that yearbook puzzle hadn't been a message from Doctor When to the future, it had been a message from us. He sent us back to the school yearbook office.

    We showed yearbook editor Thomas Snyder our assembled puzzle. He pointed out that the puzzle didn't make much sense. This was true; it only made sense if you read the words in a scrambled order, and then it would just make a message about swapping left for right, not something that most yearbook-buyers would be interested in. Snyder suggested we look around the office for something that would inspire us to re-work our submission.

    There was a poster showing two configurations of puzzle-pieces. One in an hourglass, as we had; another in a different shape. This was presented in a strange way: as a poster about the presidents. (Apparently, an earlier form of this activity involved identifying puzzles via trivia without access to not-available-in-1986 internet. Instead what we had was... basically a set of instructions on how to re-assemble our puzzle pieces.) We were pretty bleary, but this activity was just about perfect for our alertness level. We labled pieces with presidential names, then reassembled them to form a red-white-and-blue shape—and in this shape, the words on the puzzle pieces formed a poem, an actual rhyming poem. Our secret message was actually a word-unit anagram of a poem. This was somewhat mind-blowing.

    We handed our puzzle to Yearbook Editor Snyder, he accepted it, showed us a neater version that hadn't been assembled from taped-and-retaped, rained-on-and-torn papers, and sent us back to the gym for the science fair.

    On our way out of the yearbook office, there was a large crowd of teams coming to the office. These, I presume, were teams that had worked on the four-dimensional maze puzzle until it was shut down. There were a lot of these teams, including at least a couple of recognizable super-smart teams. The decision to give up on that puzzle early felt retroactively justified.

    Back at the gym, Tiresias let us in: we were now paradox-free. It had been set up as a science fair. There was the diet coke exhibit next to the mentos exhibit. And around the rest of the room were more exhibits: the presentations that teams had made to get into the game. There was Mystic Fish's presentation... with the sheets of peppermint candy still attached. Oh man, nobody had eaten the bribe in all those months?

    There were also two Apple ][ computers (high-tech back in 1986). Tiresias had got a program up and running on one, but needed to get it running on another across the room. And he also needed to watch the door for paradox-laden teams trying to get in. So he asked me: "Can you take this floppy, put it in that machine, and reset the machine?" I said: "Sure, uhm..." He figured out the problem: "Do you know how to reset one of these?" I cast my mind back. Something#6 ...and my memory fizzled. "Nope" Tiresias suggested: "Just turn it off and turn it on again." Aha, that I could do. Soon the program was booted up on the other Apple ][. It was a fortune teller program that asked you some random questions and then showed you a photo of what you'd look like years in the fture. It showed you your team photo that you'd taken in 2012, as rendered on an Apple ][, which was pretty darned amazing. How had someone from GC found time to process all those photos and figure out which went with which team?

    There was also a Ms Pac-Man videogame set up with a bonus puzzle based on the bonus fruits in that game—but I was too far gone now to concentrate on any bonus puzzles. I didn't think about much of anything until it was time for all of us to gather for the science fair proper to begin.

    I was standing near the back of the gym when the diet coke started spraying, so I didn't need to deploy the umbrella I held handy. Following his altered instructions, high-school-When stepped left instead of right—stepped into high-school-Catherine. Buffy ended up getting sprayed with Diet Coke. When and Catherine looked pretty happy together.

    Time to head out through the time portal to re-emerge back in 2012. Time to head back to the lab. Time to head back to the van.

    (Except we stopped to talk with Dwight a little and ended up walking out through the gym's back door instead of the portal. And except one of us didn't get back in the van—she'd assumed that this was our last stop and had called her ride to pick her up here at the recreation center. So here we had an interlude of sorting stuff out of the van.)

    Lesson Learned: If You're Going to Ruin Something, At Least Wait Until that Thing is Almost Over

    The lab wasn't Trenchwood, nor was it Peach Frontier Co. Now it was Ethereal Endways, Inc. We'd changed history again. Folks were waiting on us: it had taken us a while to sort out our van. But we hustled inside and sat down at our usual spot in the front row.

    As we sat down, someone seated behind us cracked a joke: "Oh, you're sitting in the front row. So you inherit our duty: If anyone tries to get in that time machine, it's up to you to jump up and stop them. Just pile on." It was a good joke: each time we'd sat down to see an amazing invention, someone had gotten in that time machine and b0rken the timeline. Except... Uhm, I didn't realize it was a joke. I thought it was a fun bit of crowd direction from Game Control.

    Thus, we watched the grand finale: Doctor When and Prof Catherine finished their co-presention of their invention, a time machine, by emerging from the time machine theoretically just one minute after they had entered. They were somewhat surprised that their audience looked so much more tired than a minute ago, but whatever. They held hands and beamed at one another. It was a great day for science. Exeunt stage left.

    All was well that ended well: we'd stopped the time loop and had emerged with a romantic happy ending.

    But there was a twist: In this timeline, Buffy had become interested in science. She had had joined the Ethereal Endways lab. And now... now she made her move, hurrying to the entrance to the time machine.

    I "knew" what was going on here. This was my "cue".

    I hopped up, lumbered over and stopped the time machine's door from closing. I was kind of surprised along the way: if it was the "front row's" duty to stop any more time-traveling, why was I the only one who had leapt up to stop this thing? Why did Buffy seem so surprised that I was keeping her from closing the time machine's door?

    The lights came up. Buffy's scheme was, strangely, foiled.

    (Some part of my brain that wants to salvage the situaton can't help but wonder if there's a way to think this as a "branched" or "alternate timeline" to that of the batch of teams who'd played the previous weekend.)

    So, uhm, I kind of messed up the game's planned ending. It wasn't until later when I was talking to Erik Stuart of Game Control that I found out for sure I wasn't following GC's plan.

    Sorry about that.

    Still, I hadn't messed up much of the game. There was still an end party to exhaustedly shamble through with amazingly-decorated Trenchwood and Peach Frontier cakes, and people and...

    Rex gave me a ride to the BART station. I drifted off to sleep on the train, but woke up before I ended up on the wrong side of the bay. Soon I was home, and stayed awake long enough to post a public apology about my, uhm, overly-improv ending. And then it was time for glorious, glorious sleep.


    comment? | | home |