Puzzle Hunts: Ghost Patrol, Hooray!

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November 8-9 2008 was the excellent Ghost Patrol game. This is a disjoint write-up of how Mystic Fish made our way through the game. Dave Shukan took the photos.

The volunteers were great. There was a rainstorm during the game; they stuck around, probably getting pretty soaked. There were some awesome activities and some great puzzles. Going into this game, I'd forgotten how much fun they can be; I emerged exhausted but happier.

The Night Before

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Magnetic Fish]
(This magnetic fish stuck to the outide of our van the whole game!)

I was at the front gate of the apartment building, scanning the building directory for "Wesley Chan", wondering which room number to buzz. That was dumb--Wesley lived in Seattle, but was staying at a company apartment while working in San Francisco. His name probably wasn't on the building directory. Fortunately, Brian Larson was also out in front of the building and set me straight--Wesley was already on his way down.

I asked Brian if he was really writing a novel called "Billy and the Cloneasaurus". It sounded like a fine project, but it also sounded like something lifted from an old episode of The Simpsons. His real life involved less writing and more skiing.

Soon Wesley was downstairs. Where were other folks? In theory, we were gathering here so that we could pick up the rental van and start loading it with gear. In practice, we weren't all here. We reviewed our gear: We had some Sprite, as suggested by a pre-game puzzle, but didn't have the exact size which the puzzle had suggested. If we were to use the bottle as a scytale, we'd be in trouble. I had a large number of small plastic fish--purchases from a spree at Archie McPhee's in my previous Seattle Trip. Many fish, suitable for scattering over a dashboard. There was practical gear, too. We had gear, but no van.

Alexandra Dixon showed up at about the time folks were ready to give up and get the van without the rest of the team. They scrambled off to the airport to fetch the van.

When Dave Shukan emerged from traffic hell and showed up at the apartment, I was there to greet him. He and I headed out to a supermarket to pick up a six-pack of half-liter Sprite: exactly what Game Control had suggested. I was distracted--this neighborhood was no longer a mess of newly-constructed luxury condos. People had moved into those condos. It wasn't exactly a neighborhood, but it was feeling somewhat less wastelandish than before. And I was distracted by the white vans, already slipping into The Game-ish paranoia, looking out for other teams. It wasn't until we got back to the apartment that we got to talking.

Dave Shukan lived in SoCal; he'd driven up to the bay area for this. I asked him about his previous The Game-ish experience. He hadn't played in The Game exactly, but he had a good background. He'd played in Mystery Hunts, in Shinteki. And he'd done Rallye--something I'd seen flyers for, but never seen done. He said that Rallye used to be in SoCal, but had moved to Mountain View. He said that most Rallyes weren't so puzzle-y, more challenge-y. Like, the challenge might be to drive from point A to point B by a certain route with an average speed of 40 mph. But Gimmick Rallyes were puzzle-y: they had complicated, self-mofiying instructions with deliberate "traps"--tricky bits which players had to recognize and puzzle out. This seemed like the kind of puzzle which would irritate the heck out of me.

(The day after Ghost Patrol, back in my apartment, I looked in an issue of Games Magazine I'd picked up this evening--it had a puzzle by Dave Shukan in it.)

The van came back. We loaded some things into it--things that wouldn't provoke car thieves. Plastic fish, carseat "aprons" with pockets for pencils, that kind of thing. We removed a bench from the van and carried it up to the apartment, where it would serve as an awkwardly-placed sofa for the weekend.

Dwight wasn't there that night, but he'd be there the next morning, for The Game. But I'll keep track of his gossip here, where I'm keeping track of the rest of the team: he figured that he'd be spending less time in San Francisco in the near future since two of his kids were moving away.

Benign Booga / General Impressions

At the conference room of the Woodfin Suites Emeryville, there was a game brewing. This was a Game that had plenty of artistic + design talent on game control--there were professional-looking posters, a slick binder full of instructions. I thought about my time working at Infinite Machine, the computer game company. "Programmer art" was a term of art there--shorthand for "The programmers put in this placeholder art until the artists can do it right." I looked at these materials, and knew that anything I'd ever done for these events, I'd shipped with "programmer art"--homemade, honest, but... Wow, it was nice to look at what these kids had done for this Game. Over the course of the next couple of days, we'd encounter many puzzles. Some would show the touch of the professional designer, some wouldn't. I caught myself looking askance at some of the crudely-rendered puzzles--until I reminded myself that these were the sorts of things I came up with myself.

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Seminar Poster]

We were up against eight assignments. For each one, we'd have to gather a few pieces of data about some ghost: its name, date of death, aura (color), etc. There would be a slime sample to collect. We'd use a GC-provided device to navigate from site to site. I was impressed at how well they stuck to this, and how our team fell in to the "routine". GC had created an internally-consistent way of catching ghosts through decoding.

The navigation devices were somewhat tricky. It seemed that sometimes they'd get confused about where they were leading us--there were a couple of times where it seemed like we made it partway to a new clue site and the device suddenly wanted to lead us back to the previous clue site. (I'm piecing this together in hindsight--at the time, our best guess at a diagnosis was "it's freaking out again.") But mostly I was impressed at how well it worked. The combo GPS/compass was able to give very precise instructions. I remembered a night-time search of the length a beach for the Justice Unlimited game. A clue-finder accurate to within ~200 feet: darned nice.

There were a few puzzles within the Woodfin Suites conference room that we solved. We entered our answers into a GC-provided flash app loaded onto Wesley's PC. (I was glad to have Wesley along. For each game, it seems like each geek brings their laptop--and then leaves it in the van. Thus, we end up using my clunky laptop. Wesley brought a laptop and kept it with him. Yay. Once I figured out that he was carrying his laptop, I gratefully... left my laptop in the van, like everybody else.) Eventually, the flash app gave us a new location code to enter into our navigation device. It was tough to see where the device was leading us. (In hindsight, I think it was leading us to the front of the conference room, instead of outside as it was supposed to.) Eventually, Greg deBeer of GC suggested that we head outside... where the device seemed to lock on to a guy with a leaf-blowing machine. He wasn't part of the game. (I think the device was still hoping we'd go to the front of the conference room, inside.) Jesse took a look at our device, re-entered the navigation number... and now the device was pointing towards the Powell St. Market. We were in motion.

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Frisbee]
(Probably it took a GC volunteer more time to carefully make the Braille "toothmarks" on this frisbee than it took Brian Larson to read them off.)

We solved some puzzles. We tossed a frisbee. We had more trouble with the navigation device, collected some slime. Back in the van, we found out that our next destination was in Chinatown.

Kung Fu Fightr^W Fright

Alexandra was driving; she knew the way to Chinatown, but the GPS was spouting advice anyhow; Dwight had paper maps out and was sassing back at the GPS. I was trying to gauge whether this navigational bickering was going to drive me insane. We were back in San Francisco, my city of residence. It would be so easy to grab my bags and head out. After BANG 19, I was feeling burned out Games. Was it worth it? Why was I in this van? Sleeping is nice. Why was I planning to go without sleep for the next 20-something hours? (30-something, as it turned out.)

Alexandra and Dwight dropped the rest of us off at St Mary's square, then drove off to park. We glanced around the park, spotted some teams in one corner where there was a sort of flower-ish pattern painted on the ground. Other teams had papers--probably some clue we needed to pick up. Wesley and Brian followed the device which seemed to lead them to a chain-link fence. I spotted Scott Royer wearing a Ghost Patrol t-shirt. This was a relief--I wasn't so worried about a tetchy device if we'd have a recognizable GC person to spot at each site.

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Rubber Chickens]

Soon we had a puzzle to solve. And this led to another puzzle, elsewhere in the neighborhood. This was how this hunt worked in general--one or two puzzles each in a few places in some "neighborhood". Soon our team was all together, solving puzzles. One of the puzzles came in a rubber chicken. But--talk about production values--GC didn't just hand us a rubber chicken from a cardboard box. They'd set up a rack from which to hang the rubber chickens. Awesome.

Another puzzle came as a DVD with a cheesy 70s-style kung fu movie with cheesy 70s-style bad English subtitles. (Brian Larson, team pop culture expert, had seen this movie. "Rikky-O" or something?) This video at first seemed to be making fun of bad subtitles--until you realized that each of these subtitles was a "translation" of a famous English-language movie catch phrase, which in turn forced you to realize that most movie catch phrases don't make much sense in their original language.

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Your Name On Rice]
(Yet Another Puzzle)

It was drizzly, which was fun. Maybe "fun" isn't the right word, but I was glad it wasn't sunny and hot. But the drizzle stopped being fun when Dave's feet went out from under him on a wet grate. He fell hard, bending a finger back, badly bruising a knee.

And then, on the last step of this leg of the hunt, the navigation device led us (as it should have) to the Chinatown Gate, where we were supposed to capture the ghost... and then suddenly started leading us back into the interior of Chinatown. We called up GC, who told us to try capturing the ghost at the gate, and this worked. But we were rattled. I was, anyhow--there wasn't any GC person at the gate for us to spot and help us compensate for our freaked-out device.

On the van ride to the next neighborhood, Dave taped up his finger. There was more bickering over van routing, which somehow resulted in one group of people being dropped off far away from the first clue site so that the rest of could park the van in a place far away from the parking lot suggested by GC. Humping gear along Crissy Field to get to our first clue, I was tempted to just hand over the six-pack of Sprite, wish the team good luck, and keep walking, just walk on home. I'm not exactly sure why I decided to stick with this game, but I'm sure glad I did. Our team started working together better. Things got better.

Pirate Deadr^W Dread

Buried treasure is awesome. In general, I am in favor of clue sites where you don't just pick up a clue--maybe you have to hop off a dock onto a piling to pick it up. Maybe you have to play 20 questions using no words over four letters long. Maybe you... well, anyhow, I like that kind of stuff.

[Photo by Wes Chan: At the Pet Cemetary]
(Photo, by Wes Chan, shows us at the Pet Cemetary--a clue site I don't even describe in this write-up.)

Our first site in the Presidio was a beach with buried treasure. Two of us got blindfolds and our still-sighted teammates had to direct us around an area on which there were some flags, each flag marking the site of a piece of our clue. So I wandered around as Dave called out orders. I was probably a difficult blind-man to order around. Dave called out distances by paces, but I don't think I maintained a regular-distance pace as I staggered across the sand. Anyhow, he called out orders, I walked around and dug up "treasure" with my hands. By the time I returned my blindfold and got most of the sand off of my glasses (whoops, they fell out of my pocket onto the beach), the team had mostly solved the puzzle. Each of those pieces of treasure--metal washers--I'd unearthed had a long word written on it. Nearby, there was a treasure chest containing... a cup and saucer, a pile of goldish powder, and stranger things. Each of our washer-words had embedded in it a treasure name plus one letter. E.g., we had the word "unchainable". That cup and saucer were, you might say, CHINA. So we had "unCHAINAble".

Another puzzle forced us to listen to that "All For Me Rum And Tobacco" sea chantey a lot, but let's not dwell on that.

Night fell. Dim turned to dark; cool turned to cold; mist turned to drizzle.

By the time we got to Baker Beach it was raining. There was a puzzle, one with shells. A volunteer, normally a player with Blood and Bones, was watching this site. While we were there, the rain picked up. It was a downpour, like something you'd see in the tropics. Except that it was night-time and cold and... and...

The volunteers for this leg of the game impressed the heck out of me.

This puzzle was pretty discouraging. The shells had had pieces of paper in them with onomotopaeia words on them. We'd also been given a map on which were drawn certain features. We were supposed to match up the words with the features. We ended up taking a hint on this one, basically finding out that we didn't agree with GC about what many, many things sound like.

It was still raining. The downpour had lightened up--but it was still raining.

The next puzzle would have been pretty cool, but it was pretty much done in by the rain. There were some giant "sand dollars"--I think they were made out of pottery. They had markings on them. Had it been dry out, we could have used our GC-provided tracing paper and crayons to make rubbings of them. As it was--it was raining. Tracing paper would not survive. Two of the sand dollars had broken. The brave volunteer on site (Ann-Marie something? I'm not sure I got her name right) lent us pieces of paper with drawings of what had been on those sand dollars. We hustled back to the van with photos. We tried overlaying them with bitmap software, but that was going pretty slowly, and the data that we had from paper (vs photos from real sand dollars) wasn't fitting so well. Greg stopped by to visit the van--he said that the site was now fully compromised--another sand dollar had broken--and they were just giving teams the answer to the puzzle.

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Wet Paper] [Photo by Dave Shukan: Wet "Sand Dollar"]

We struggled with the bitmap-editing software a while longer and finally decided "to heck with it" and asked to be skipped to the next puzzle. Soon we were on our way to another ghostly neighborhood--in this case, Fisherman's Wharf.

Hirsute Haunter

We got puzzles. We wrestled them to the ground, some faster than others.

We picked up a venn diagram puzzle from the Smoking GNU guys. It must have been a fascinating puzzle because we solved it outside the window of a Hooters restaurant but we concentrated on the puzzle. There were some connections that were easy to make, others that were less clear--but fortunately, putting together the easier connections helped us to figure out what to do with the others. This was a fun solve.

[Photo by Wes Chan: at the Hooters Window]
(This photo, by Wes Chan, shows us outside the Hooters.)

There was a fun quick puzzle made from pieces of animal crackers. The cracker pieces corresponded to parts of the names of the animals. So the head of an elephant cracker might mean "ele". We were given some words made from these name-fragments and had to figure out another word from a leftover set of fragments.

There was another puzzle--maybe my favorite "gimmick" puzzle--that had a crossword based on the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant, with answers feeding in from mini-puzzles, each mini-puzzle themed on how the blind men perceived an elephantine body part. Maybe I liked this because I worked on the SPEAR (tusk) feeder mini-puzzle, which was quick and fun. Wesley and Larson worked on another mini-puzzle a color-by-numbers on a brick pattern. They worked for a long time, and we never figured out what they were drawing; a flower, a splotch, a... another splotch? Fortunately, we were able to figure out the answers from the other parts.

From another puzzle, we found out that not everyone knows the original meaning of "geek", but fortunately a couple of us did.

Split Spiritus

Our next set of puzzles was around Ashby Street in Berkeley.

The first set of puzzles we encountered in this set was just the sort of thing you want to encounter in The Game:

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Suicidal Cartoons]

We entered a house. Its main room was mostly cleared out. Except that there was paintcloth on the floor, a posable artist's dummy starkly lit by three harsh lamps, and nine pieces of cartoonish art on the walls. There was a GC volunteer (Sean?), who I recognized as a volunteer from the BATH 3 game, who handed us a worksheet. Then you realized that the reason the place seemed like it was lit funny was that the three harsh lights shining on the dummy were three different colors, casting three different-colored shadows. (Bonus joke: there were labels on the lights reading "SHINE KIT", a Shinteki anagram. The Shinteki folks love anagramming their name, and you can imagine creating their logo by shining lights in a patterns) Go look at Eric Prestemon's photo of the room and/or Curtis' close-up of the dummy.

Wes Chan got some good photos here:
[Photo by Wes Chan: Dummies under lights] [Photo by Wes Chan: Dummy under lights]

In another room of the house, there was another paintcloth, an artist's easel, and on the easel a rough painting. And on the floor a palette. But someone (Wesley?) thought to shine a UV light on these: revealing two more pieces of paint on the palette, and some new, scary details on the painting.

I think we needed hints with both of these puzzles, but they were still pretty awesome, just for the disquieting feeling of walking in on these tableaux. Tableaus. Whatever, it was awesome: creepy, intriguing, deeply weird.

There was another puzzle which involved cleverly searching a haunted house for clues. Here, Wesley and Brian did a great job of spotting the info we needed.

We got skipped over one or two puzzles in this area--and I was pretty sure we'd been skipped because I remembered from a past game that Ian, a GC member, lived around here. Later on, I'd hear rumors of some "bananas foster" puzzle we'd missed.

This puzzle's final site was the HERE/THERE public art at the Berkeley-Oakland border. After the Hogwart's game, I'd staggered from the Emeryville Amtrak station to the Ashby BART by way of this place and thought "This would be an awesome game site". And it was.

Rockin' Wraith

I don't do well with audio puzzles, and I wasn't much help for these puzzles. So you'd think I'd be frustrated. But this section had probably my favorte puzzle of the whole shebang. A set of bottles with custom labels, each label with a (kinda disguised) syllable of the words "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall": "9", "Dean", "Ion", etc. Written on their sides were words with lines drawn by them. You could fill the bottles with water so that blowing the bottles would play the song "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall", and if you did that, the bottles would be filled to some of those lines. Reading off the words by those lines sounded out a hidden message, which was itself a fun pun.

The night wore on. We got pretty stupid. There was a puzzle in which I did more than my fair share of the solving. You might think, "Hey, Larry is bragging, talking about how much smarter he is than the rest of his team." And then you'd think "Waitaminnit, Larry's not smarter than the rest of Mystic Fish, what the heck?" Normally, one person on the team figures out something, blurts it out; someone else figures out how to build on that--you know, the ideas bounce back and forth. But by this time, we were all thinking pretty slow, part of the team starting to fall asleep. Me, I was going slow. And when I did spot things in this puzzle--a tendency towards Braille, and later figuring out how to tease apart some overlapping Braille--I couldn't articulate what I was spotting; the reason I ended up doing "more than my share" on this puzzle is that I couldn't explain to my team-mates the things I'd figured out. That should make you think "Wait, isn't that Larry's job? Aren't technical writers supposed to be able to describe stuff?" Yeah, that's true in general. But by this time of night, my descriptions had veered away from the technical and towards the oracular. "Guys guys there are 12 characteristics right? But there are 12 places you can place a 3x2 rectangle on this 4x4 grid? And yea verily you shall observe that the tops of the Braille shall always touch the edge of the grid, and the results will be most satisfactory. Guys? Guys?!? Hello?"

Visionary Vapor

We were in West Berkeley, the residential parts.

There was a puzzle called "Dig Your Own Grave". In a house's back yard, There were several grave markers, each with a team's motto on it. Our team got ready to figure out how to pull a secret message out of this, carefully transcribing each motto. Back in the van, we carefully copied our notes. But we didn't know all of the teams for the mottos. We'd need to call some teams. Alexandra called up Corey from the Burninators. Corey said he'd be happy to tell us the Burninators' motto, but we didn't need it for that puzzle. Oh, wait. "Dig your own grave". We were supposed to dig in the yard for our next puzzle by the grave marker with our team motto. So we did that, and failed to solve the puzzle we retrieved until we got a hint. (We learned that we'd been on the right track, but had talked ourselves out of it.)

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Gratuitous Slime Photo]
(We never saw the chalice of slime for the Visionary Vapor. This photo came from later.)

Our next puzzle was insde a house. We had a chemistry set. We asked Ariel the GC volunteer if it would be OK if we poured some Sprite into our chemistry set. She asked if we had a particular reason for wanting to do that. I said, "Well, we arranged the test tubes in ROYGBV order and their tops spelled 'SPRITE'." But really, that's not how we figured it out. We'd been carrying around that darned 6-pack of Sprite for the whole game, looking for the chance to use it. When we saw a chemistry set with six tubes, each with a letter on its cork, those letters spelling out P R I E S T, my first thought was "At last, we get to use the Sprite". My second thought was, hey, now that we re-arranged these test tubes to make SPRITE, the chemicals are in ROYGBV order. We needed a hint on this one, too. I think Jen had to explain it to us twice. We were punchy.

I guess that dawn broke somewhere in here. Businesses started to open. Peet's was open. The good news is that we were able to bring out next puzzle to the nearest Peet's to recaffeinate a bit. The bad news was that the nearest Peet's was in Berkeley's $&#*ing precious Fourth Street and the $&#*ing precious Fourth Street people were out in force. And so the Bouzhie scum watched as we wrestled and were beaten a puzzle which involved shapes arranged around a star. We had a few interesting hypotheses, none of which turned out to be right. I say "we", but I mean "not me". No-one needed that coffee more than I did. It would be a while before thinking functionality re-arose in my brain.

At a house, there were a couple of technically-impressive puzzles: some magnetically "loaded" dice on a magnetic table and ouija board that ticked and vibrated when you moved over certain spots. Alexandra and I worked on the magnetic dice puzzle. It was pretty simple, but I made it complicated by insisting the Alexandra clarify the instructions a lot as she read them--even instructions that we never ended up using. I was getting obnoxious about it--turning into one of those people who has nothing to complain about but complains nonetheless. We finished off the dice puzzle--which turned out to be really simple, just following directions--and then I had a sandwich while watching folks work on the ouija board. The sandwich exorcised the whininess quite handily. There were two teams working on the ouija puzzle at the same time. (Was it us and the Boneless Chicken Cabaret? My memories are fuzzy.) We exchanged notes, and thus all solved quickly. It was time for another ghost.

Persnickety Poltergeist

The next challenge was a set of puzzles at Lake Merritt. We went through this set fairly randomly. There was a bocce puzzle--we could bowl four colored balls towards a target ball. Depending on the order of which balls were closest to the target, we'd get an adjective describing our shot. Each adjective started with a different letter. We knew we needed an answer of three of these adjectives, coming from a certain set of orderings. Brian did our bowling. He hit the combinations we needed pretty quickly--I think we were supposed to have trouble with that part, figure out the system by which balls mapped to adjectives from the what we learned, and deduce our target letters that way. Thanks to Brian, we didn't have to.

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Booce Balls Message]

We found one puzzle by walking in a direction we weren't supposed to and stumbling across a couple of GC volunteers. We eventually gave up on the puzzle they handed us and went to pick up the puzzle we were supposed to have picked up in the first place. It was much easier.

We figured out some parts of this ghost's story not from puzzles but by watching the cartoon which played after we "finished" him, which maybe helped us out since we'd been skipped over a couple puzzles.


[Photo by Dave Shukan: Cemetary View]

Next, there was a series of mini-puzzles at Oakland's Mountain View Cemetary. (I think at the tomb of someone named "Deming" or some other name I associate with software testing.) I think we figured out a few of these without hints. One of them involved playing and recognizing music. Wesley played the piano pretty well; that man has hidden depths. Mostly, we needed hints, though. Blearily, we realized that we'd solved the last puzzle. It was time to head back to the end party.

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Memorial aswarm with teams]

Then we went back to the hotel, where I slumped in a chair, made a couple of exhausted tries at conversation, gave up, and drowsed. We ended up leaving early, before all of the teams showed up even--we'd rented our van for longer than we had on previous games, but this game was running even longer than those.

[Photo by Dave Shukan: Endparty] [Photo by Dave Shukan: Endparty]
(Varying levels of wakefulness at the endparty.)

We rushed back to San Francisco so that we could clean up the rental van, re-install its bench, and let Wesley drive it back to the airport. Dave started his drive back to Pasadena. I slouched over to the N Judah streetcar stop, ended up running to catch the train, and slumped on a seat, exhausted, soon surrounded by jabbering Sunday shoppers. I blearily tried to follow their conversations, still gamely trying to find the hidden message.


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