Monday, April 16, 2012

Black Letter Games Artifact 1: The "Live" "Blog"

The BLG gang have allowed Internet discussion of the puzzles/solving paths after a suitable amount of time has passed (basically 6-7 weeks).  So to document my own progress, and maybe get some discussion started, I'm going to be "live" "blogging" the puzzles.  The first one is definitely written retroactively; I was planning to do the second one (or at least keep notes) in real-time, but I kinda forgot.  But I wrote it up reasonably soon after, so it's kind of live.  Anyway that one will come in about a month.  Right now it's time for installment #1!

The Website and the Key

The official start time arrives! With ... nothing in particular. Facebook/Twitter friends tell me that the go signal has been given, and eventually it shows up on my Facebook page, so away we go.

The box says "Black Letter Labs", so I assume that I should be heading towards that website. I inadvertently type "" into Google search instead of my browser bar; all the results I get are about that domain being added to spam blacklists. With not as much confidence as I might have felt, I visit the blackletterlabs website, and am presented with what appears to be a photography company website. I notice that "/key" is added to the end of the URL, and that the login box accepts my BLG username and password (but tells me I haven't found the key). When I return the main page, the quote has changed, which helps focus me to that area of the page. It was a quote that I knew (although I don't remember now what it actually was), and the blather about last names was enough to give me the key and get me in (where I had to log in again). At about this point I received the official start e-mail telling me that maybe I should visit a website to get started.

The Receipt: First Pass

After reading through the introductory material online, I proceed to examine the receipt. The interesting features I see:
  • The address looks like, essentially, words. "President" is pretty clearly spotted in the "Cross Top Resident" portion, and the rest looks like it can be re-spaced to form a phrase of some kind.
  • The phone number is given old-style. I suspect I would have tried to make a word out of the phone number anyway, but with two letters already there it becomes even more obvious.
  • The items have things like "(3/14)" after them. I at first suspect they could be dates until I get to "(18/18)", which is clearly not a date. At this point I strongly suspect them to be indices into ... well, whatever the items all represent.
  • "Our tax"? Why our tax?
  • The final total is missing.
  • The words when, who, what, and where are bolded in the bottom bit of text.
  • The back contains some poetry-like text, in a handwriting font that I very quickly come to loathe. Since "signature" didn't appear on the front, and this is "handwritten", I anticipate this will be the signature part of the artifact.


I decide, based on a whim, to start with the items. I recognize a couple of the items as animals used in ads: Spuds should be Spuds McKenzie of Bud Light, and Nipper is from RCA, and McGruff is from ... whatever organization does those crime ads. I look up the others and find that they're all dogs. To get the letters to come out, we have to use companies, rather than products (for example, Spuds needs to be 14 letters, which is Anheuser-Busch instead of Bud Light). Taking the indexed letters gives HECATMORRIST which if we start in the middle for whatever reason gives MORRIS THE CAT.


I then move toward the top, as that looks like the next easy thing to work on. The address as given is

75 Cross Top Resident # 4

Secorn, Ermanna Hata

(843) WH4-8639

(The numeral 4 in the first line is in a rather different font from the rest of the receipt, very obvious in the online hi-res image but still apparent in the printed copy, but that appears to be just a coincidence. At any rate, trying that as a method-check didn't get me anywhere.)
This can be re-read as "75 Cross to President #4, SE Corner, Manhattan". Getting Google Maps to show me the corner of 75th and Madison (who is the fourth president) shows that the southeast corner of that intersection is occupied by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which contains modern art (fitting with the supposed business name), so that answer gets submitted.

I then try to get some extra information from the phone number, but the phone number simply spells out (THE) WHI-TNEY, so that merely confirms my previous answer (at about the same time that the official response was coming in from the e-mail).


My next best bet seems to be the back of the receipt, so I spend some time deciphering the writing on the back. The phrases "Count Seventeen" and "each syllable is surely significant" suggest to me that I need to examine every seventeenth syllable. (I'm a bit hesitant as Seventeen could simply refer to the name of the organization, but barring any other candidates I go with it.) I'm not sure of the starting point, so I open up Excel, size my window so that I can see seventeen boxes across the screen, and type one syllable in each box going across and then down. This is tricky, as I have a tendency to mentally turn "small word" into "single syllable", which leads to me having to redo some spots. I'm expecting a phrase to phonetically read down a column, although I don't know which column (the first and the last are the likely candidates, but really it could be anywhere). It quickly becomes apparent that the last column is the important one after all (which helps find those pesky syllable-counting errors before getting too far), and the haiku "All those who consume Consider this your receipt You shall be consumed" appears. This gets submitted as the signature and is confirmed as correct.

A New Day

The previous sections took about three and a half hours Saturday afternoon, and that was the end of progress Saturday afternoon. (A nap may have been involved.) Sunday afternoon brought another look. The next thing that I noticed was that not only were the key words bolded, but the phrase also contained a hint as to where on the receipt the puzzle was located: "our address has never changed, so you always know where we are" confirms that the where puzzle is in the address, and "We source all our products from large corporations so you can be sure who you're dealing with'' confirms that the corporations from the list of items ("products") would be needed. The two remaining phrases are "We provide up-to-the-minute prices from day one no matter when you shop", which suggests that the when puzzle uses the prices, and "We carry the perfect spectrum, the ne plus ultra, of what you want" for the what puzzle. I decide, against all seeming reason, that since I can see the prices I should spend some time figuring out the basis for the what puzzle, since I have no idea what that could be referring to. Nothing in the receipt appears to relate to a spectrum, or even colors. (I suppose that the dogs have colors associated with them, but that feels like reusing a clue a bit too much.)

The inspiration for the what puzzle actually strikes when I consider making a "funny" Twitter post about how stuck I am: "it says it has the perfect spectrum, but I think I need infrared and ultraviolet too!" At that point the ultra in the clue clicks with ultraviolet above. I send the confirmation request of "black light" to BLG, and they confirm that a black light is indeed necessary. I then e-mail a bunch of colleagues who I suspect might own one to see if they could bring one to work on Monday. One of them confirms they have one, and I put the receipt aside until then.

Monday: The Highs, The Lows

After getting to work on Monday, I get the black light from my coworker and run it over the receipt and see a Campbell's soup can, specifically tomato soup. After a painful moment of thinking "the what is a can of soup?!?" I recognize that this probably refers to Andy Warhol's painting. After a quick Google check that Warhol's painting resides in the Whitney (which, given the alternative reality that the puzzle is based in, would be irrelevant anyway) and that it has some sort of a name, the answer is submitted and confirmed.

At this point, I probably did some actual work.

That afternoon, I then examined the prices, which is where the final puzzle should be. They quickly show themselves as likely dates; the tax isn't, but looks very much like a time (which with the "our" for hour seems like a good place to leave it). The clue tells me that the prices are from day one. Day one could represent Jan 1, or it could represent the first day on the receipt. By a funny coincidence, the very top of the receipt shows a date, and that date is Jan 1 1964, so both approaches lead to the same place (although we now know we are dealing with a leap year). Getting out a 1964 calendar shows that all the dates given are "holidays" that year—things like Labor Day, Easter, Halloween, etc. The only non-holiday is Election Day, which is at least a named day. This is a good sign, the prices must certainly represent dates (and specifically dates in 1964), and I'm now ready to take Julian dates for each of these dates (and then subtract one, of course, since we are measuring "from day one"), and since the total is conspicuously blank, I guess I'm going to add those dates to get a total and take that many days after Jan 1 1964 for my final answer.

Fortunately, I own a financial calculator (okay, several financial calculators), and I can easily do date calculations. I find the Julian dates (minus one), add them all up, and then count that many days forward from Jan 1 1964 and get November 23, 1970. At this point, I am expecting the answer to also be a "holiday" since all of the clue dates were, and my initial reaction is "That must be Thanksgiving, so that's okay." I then notice the "1" at the end of the calculator display, which is my calculator's way of telling me "Monday". I am concerned, as I really really want the answer to be a holiday. I am concerned enough that I send a method-confirmation submission for "Julian date".

The response I get is "That would not be a productive path."

Four Days Later

For the rest of Monday, and the rest of the week through Friday noon, I attempt several different paths with the prices: picking one of the dates off the receipt (the date where the M was in Morris the Cat, along with a couple others that I no longer remember the reason for), adding up the prices as actual prices and then converting that to a date somehow, and several others. My initial response had contained "10:45pm" and that part had been confirmed correct.

Friday noon, in response to yet another incorrect submission, and after either seven days or a certain amount of flail in my guesses (I don't know which), BLG sent a hint. It was written backwards, in case I wanted to keep going on my own (I didn't) and was a little cryptic (i.e., you would have to be thinking in those lines already to get the hint). Deciphered and interpreted, the hint was "Use Julian dates."

At this point, my co-workers started to fear for their safety.

Muttering various curses, I then went home (it was the usual time for me to leave on a Friday anyway) and re-did all the calculations to get November 23, 1970 and submitted the answer and finished the artifact.

The Aftermath

Eventually I calmed down enough to write a mostly-sane e-mail to BLG complaining about the Julian date response, and suggesting that if we end up playing keyword bingo, perhaps they could relax their two-word restriction on a confirmation e-mail. I considered adding something to the effect of "If this is the first shot in a meta about a mole in your organization, then I take it all back", but I decided against it. Their response was apologetic, but they weren't going to change the two-word limit. They also added "Julian date" to the list of keywords for that puzzle moving forward, and claimed that "The analyst [who read my original e-mail] has been sacked", which at least made me think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and so made me laugh.

Finishing the artifact also brought me via e-mail a "lab report" with the alternative reality backstory behind the artifact, which was a cool touch (and added a secondary thread to the total backstory, which I think has some potential for a meta if there is one). I keep forgetting that the link to that is not available on the website and if I want to look at it I have to go to my e-mail, but I can't hold BLG accountable for my failing memory.

In terms of the puzzles, I thought the puzzles were pitched fairly for a first "round" in a series, and the UV definitely brought out the advantages of a physical medium. (This is the sort of spy stuff I envisioned from the backstory! Black light secret messages!) I thought the puzzles were all well-clued, even with the date puzzle fiasco, although there will always be an element of personal "being on the same wavelength as the puzzle writers" in that sort of assessment—so far, anyway, I feel pretty confident that this is going to be a good set of puzzles.


  • If you have an answer, submit the damn answer. You can worry about what you did wrong once you know the answer is wrong. Save confirmation submissions for situations when you would need some serious research or actual props (e.g., the black light).


Clavicarius said...

Nice post! It was fun to read your thought process (though most of your paths seemed to lead straight to the answer while ours took the scenic route).

The first artifact definitely taught us not to be too conservative in our guesses/answers. I was really nervous about getting reprimanded in the beginning, but it soon became pretty clear that fishing around was the only reasonable way to progress on some of the fuzzier ones.

We also found the holiday aspect of the dates to be a huge red herring. I think maybe they could have just left one of them as a holiday (Halloween was the first one we noticed as a holiday which got us thinking about dates) and had the rest be regular dates. The repetition of the dates made us sure it was going to spell something somehow. And I'm pretty sure we tried every possible interpretation of adding up the dates before getting the right one!

Looking forward to reading your next write-up in a few weeks! BTW, did you ever call the phone number on the Lab website? That was a fun moment for us =)

tabstop said...

At this point, some of the blind alleys I've simply forgotten. I know I brainstormed several things for the what puzzle, but they only lasted a minute when I actually tried to follow them up. And there were many many many blind alleys on the when, but I've blocked all of that from my memory.

Who took some time, but most of it was research (and I think one of them I never did find) -- the indexing letters was there right away. How much of that is experience, how much is luck, how much is just happening to think the way the authors are thinking, I don't know.