Sunday, September 09, 2012

Black Letter Game: They Think It's All Over

I can't really discuss the solving process for artifact five, as I did not solve the artifact so much as endure it, counting the days until the hints, and then answers, were sent to me (except, of course, for the one answer that was deliberately not put in the answer document--even in the lab writeup that you only get after submitting all the answers, they blacked out one of the answers, preventing you from finding it out unless you know the arcane "highlight text in a document and copy it").

So I thought instead I'd talk about the event as a whole.  (This notion was probably aided by the recent post here and here about trust and story in puzzle events.)  This was certainly an ambitious project; five "real-world" artifacts with puzzles embedded in them.  The claim of round-the-clock GC interaction, even if aided by automatic correct answer recognition and immediately gainsaid by telling you when you wouldn't get a response and when that response would take a while, required a great deal of manpower to maintain.  I have no idea how many people were behind this event, either in terms of writing puzzles or manning the e-mail queue or wrapping up mugs or anything else; I can say they made a good run of it.  If my e-mail filtering is working properly, I sent off in the vicinity of 200 responses (some of which made very little sense outside of my own head) and they sent back the correct response nearly 98% of the time.  That sentence looks very snarky, but actually I think it's very very good, especially since the responses that are more important to us solvers (confirmation of methods, intermediate results, nearly but not right) are the ones that can't be automated.  (I know this is the thing that gave me the most indigestion while running the Valentine's Day contest: "What if someone sends me something while I'm asleep!  They won't get an answer for a long time!  Oh no!"  It never made a difference, but I wish I had had the time to get a decent answer checker thing hosted somewhere.  I should probably pester Foggy to find out what he uses for P&A.)

I got the sense at the time, I'm not sure how, that the event sort of tripped over the finish line, went splat, and was content to lay face-down without the will to get up and acknowledge the crowd.  Looking back, I don't think there was very much going on during the last puzzle to give me that impression, just that I found the last artifact's puzzles to not make a great deal of sense.  However, now that it has been over a month since I "finished" (and it took me a month to do so as well) with no real expression of "hey this is over now" (such as congratulating winners, or coming out with the promised solution manual, or anything else), the sense is getting stronger.  I suppose people may still be working on things, but I fear the top ten is probably set.

What about the puzzles?  This is the part where I welcome the wisdom of my readers (both of you), but in my opinion the puzzles started out well done but tapered off towards the end.  I didn't have any real complaints about anything on the first three; the paperback was marred (IMHO) by using OCR text; yes it is easily available, but deliberately choosing "filler" that has more (both less and more subtle) "anomalies" than the "anomalous artifact" we are supposed to be examining can only lead to heartbreak.  And again IMHO, the puzzles on the map started out well, but they all seemed to take a left turn at Albuquerque (difficult to spot, since it wasn't on the map) that I didn't necessarily see any reason to take (this is probably just me not being on the designers' wavelength).  The thing that got on my nerves the most, though, was the "story".  During all the interaction I had with the BLG team, they stayed in character (and believe me I know how hard that is).  There are only two problems with that: the puzzles didn't see any need to "stay in character", unless you think that a puzzleartifact created in 1930 would reference cities (and worse yet, a feature-answer fictional character) that didn't even exist yet (you could argue that the library card created in 1943 replaced some previous physical accompaniment), a book created in 1943 would have a web address on the back, as well as postcodes that didn't exist at the time either (you could, I suppose, argue that this is a reprint; after all, this is not an organization that would feel obliged much to keep fidelity I suppose, explaining why a book printed in 1943 contains a chapter of Jurassic Park).  At the time I spotted an anachronism in the receipt puzzle, but I've forgotten what it was (maybe something about when the Whitney acquired the painting in question?).   The other problem was that the story greatly restricted what the team could do and/or say; when I complained (okay, whined) about the OCR text in the paperback, they were pretty much stuck with the (paraphrased) response of "We had to solve them ourselves when we intercepted them from the Seventeen, so we know just how badly they were constructed."  Perhaps they saw the point, perhaps they didn't; I'll never know.

I've never had to deal with running a puzzle event where I was relying on other people to make the objects (I'm pretty hands-on with my PDFs), so I cannot complain about typos cropping up during the process, as I suspect that's a guarantee.  I would have preferred an errata list, rather than the errors either being ignored or being mentioned in the automated response to the correct answer to the puzzle they were in.  Congratulations to BLG for owning up to the castle errata, even if only via Facebook.

All in all, with the bit of perspective that a month can bring, I think the whole thing was well done, overall.  There were a lot of puzzles, with only a few clunkers; the organization was mostly well-done and I know what to avoid, in terms of dealing with the organization, if there is a future.  I would likely do it again; I like to think that the next iteration would be smoother, but of course I have no way of knowing if the second iteration would even have the same people in it, let alone whether they'd learned anything.  Still, one has to have faith in something in this world.


7 comments:

tabstop said...

Note: I am aware of the phrase "out not with a bang, but with a whimper". I was trying to be slightly more evocative about the "splat" aspect, but most likely did not succeed.

Jason Deakins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Deakins said...

I love reading these!
I, too, have been ruminating on the IAP12, but the month's distance has only increased my goodwill toward the game.
It was easily the best puzzling experience I have ever taken part in. The context less, laid-bare printouts of a standard puzzle hunt event just do not hold a candle to the artifacts provided during the five months of the BLG.
Where other puzzle sets present metas that consume arbitrary information from unrelated solutions, the IAP12 artifacts intertwine data sets in seamless fashion, adding the additional and extremely successful puzzling layer of figuring out where each piece goes, how you should be interpreting it, and which bit of flavor text goes with which set. Mentally crossing off large swaths of each artifact from consideration - adding them to my mental blind spot as I solved their contents - was an incredible feeling that just doesn't exist in any other type of puzzle event that I've seen.
Now, I have been thinking a bit about what might have happened to sour my BLG experience. I did pretty well with each artifact; I generally started on a Friday when I got home from work and would have all but one puzzle solved before I went back in on Monday. That last puzzle would lodge itself in my craw, and I would turn it over and over in my head, but I usually got the last answer before I was back home for the day. This was pretty much how each of the first four artifacts went for me, and it was pretty much the perfect amount of satisfaction, frustration, payoff, and mental catharsis.
So, would I have had such an overwhelmingly positive experience had my puzzle solving cadence been different? Very likely no. Had any of those final puzzles stumped me for longer than a couple of days, I probably would have been miserable for the duration.
And I have an example:
On Artifact 5, I believe I was the first to identify the red castle printing error. I had solved everything else on the map, I had put on my favorite puzzle-solving music (Disasterpeace's Fez soundtrack), and I had posted a slightly braggy status update to Facebook to be read by friends who couldn't care less about the black letter game. I was ready to go. I was going to be the first solver for artifact 5, and thus the first finisher of IAP12! I got the first seven countries within that hour. And then I hit the castle bug. And my momentum was shot. For another day I wrestled with the last country, the one with the Green, Yellow and Red flag. By the time puzzle control got sick of my shot-in-the-dark guesses and asked me where I was getting these submissions from, likely wondering why I had blown through the encoding for 7 of the 8 countries but couldn't get the last, I had already discounted the data generated by the next step in the puzzle. So when I noticed that my castle was a different color than the one in the image on the artifact page, and let Miss Lis Pendens know about it, I had mentally cordoned off the next step in the puzzle as being nonsense. I spent another day, and sent several ridiculous submissions, before I was able to get that "nonsense" step back on the table. I was mad, frazzled, disillusioned, pretty much all-round demoralized.

Jason Deakins said...

...continued... (also: apologies, I didn't realize how long this had gotten)

Would I have just submitted the "nonsense", were it not for the bug-induced extra day? Probably. Would my time have been better? It probably would have been about two days better. Did it lessen the artifact? Not for me. I LOVED the puzzles on the map. I thought they were sublime. They were tactile, they were engaging. Every single one was pitch perfect. Even the WHAT puzzle, in spite of its momentum stopping bug, had such an elegant finish that I just couldn't stay upset.
But - I was only stymied for two days. What if it had been two weeks? I would likely just hate the map, the puzzles on it. The whole thing. And what if that had happened two artifacts earlier? Perhaps that did happen for several groups, explaining the drop-off between each artifact's participation numbers.
I am wondering if it has to do with the hint system.
On the third and fourth artifacts I received hint #1 on the last puzzle I had to solve, both of which were woefully unhelpful to me, since I had already “consumed" everything on the artifact except for the last smidge of data I had yet to figure out. Both times I got one of these hints I opened the mail, read its contents, and then went back to wracking my brain, with no new information to assist me. (The hint for the piano puzzle in artifact 4 was especially painful; I had already decoded the notes, had already submitted happy birthday, and was pretty much just trying to figure out who I should hum the other songs to, in the desperate hope they might hear something I couldn't. Then the 72 hour mark rolled around and I was provided with very basic just-getting-started hints that I had already solved past some 40 hours previous.)
Perhaps a more targeted hint system might be in order. Rather than time elapsed since the beginning of an artifact, perhaps triggering the hints based on progression through a puzzle thread. Maybe at Kickoff + 3 days give the team a nudge from their last successful submission in each chain. Then from last successful submission + someTime another nudge. It would require a bit more bookkeeping and time spent on hint design, but I think it would alleviate much of the dissatisfaction and fatigue I've been hearing about without being arbitrarily unfair (though you would also have to consider the disparity between the solving cadences of a single solver and a team). I also don't know how quickly the hints ramp up after #1, or the schedule on which they are released.
I've written a lot, and rambled for most of it. I desperately hope there is more Black Letter Game for us in the future and that the coordinators implement some sort of feedback system to request and then possibly address the most-heard complaints.
I also hope that you continue to blog about IAP13, should it come to exist.

tabstop said...

For me, the flags were another instance of being spectacularly bad at managing the answer submission system. I got three colors (I don't even remember which ship I started with), put that together with where I was on the map, and submitted "nautical flags", which got a big red X; and then never went back to flags again.

I know that 3&4 were 3 days for the first hint, plus 3 days each afterwards and the last one was 9 days for the first hint, plus 5 days each after. I think 1&2 were the same as 5. The first hint was pretty much always "the XXX puzzle is located at YYY", then three progressive hints, then the hint 5 was always the points-earning answer.

I like the idea of progressive hinting, but I got the impression (again, nothing formal) that the BLG group deliberately eschewed the idea of "checkpoints". A good thing, that if you followed a puzzle all the way to the end you only had to submit the final answer. However, it makes any sort of non-uniform hinting very difficult. (Even when I was in an e-mail back and forth with GC, there were a couple instances when they would try to point me to an intermediate step that I had already submitted, as there (apparently) wasn't an easy way on their end to see that I had done so.) I know a person here who runs a yearly hunt for HS students, and what he's done is written four (I think) hints of different point values, and then when a team requests a hint, they do a little back-and-forth to see where they are and then they're told "the hint you need will cost you 10/20/50/75 points. Take it, yes or no?"

tabstop said...

And to add, I'll probably also think the puzzles are elegant (or at least more elegant); right now my opinion of WHAT and (the date half of) WHEN is "fiddly". SIG was good; the time half of WHEN and WHERE were excellent.

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