Last weekend was the latest Bay area Game, Midnight Madness: Back to Basics, and possibly the final one to be run by Snout now that team captain Curtis is moving to Portland (although a Portland-based Game would be many kinds of awesome). As with their last Game, Hogwarts and the Draconian Prophecy, Snout hit the ball out of the park on theme and story. Midnight Madness was a cheesetastic Disney film from 1980, notably mainly for the screen debuts of Michael J. Fox and Pee-Wee Herman and the scene-chewing performances of virtually everyone else in the cast. There's little to recommend the film otherwise, except that the plot revolves around a puzzle-filled road rally and inspired Joe Belfiore to create the first incarnation of what we now call The Game at Stanford, and later again in Seattle.
This Game followed the basic plot of the film, and as with The Apprentice: Zorg which aped The Fifth Element, this proved to be a tremendous amount of fun. The route of the Game echoed that of the movie as much as possible (given that the former took place in the Bay area and the latter was set in Los Angeles), and many of the clues themselves took their cues from the film. It was fun to know that our next stop should be a mini-golf course, a diner, or a brewery, and sure enough, we wound up at one. The one-to-one mapping of Game to film has multiple side effects. It creates a narrative without one being explicitly laid out within the Game itself. It increases the payoff to some clues, their alignment with the movie increasing the sense of elegance and craftmanship of the overall event. It centers the player, giving them a sense of progress and advancement. Briny Deep has already decided to follow this model for our next Game, whenever that might be (and we know the film that will form our template).
It's unfortunate, then, that so many of the clues themselves were disappointments in one way or another. Many felt arbitrary. Some flat-out misled us unfairly. At least one was broken. If the Game's artistic program scored a 10, its technical merit only rated half that. There were few brilliant aha moments, no clues that felt revelatory, no intriguing handouts or manipulatives, and nothing that felt truly fresh. Snout used completely standard, off-the-shelf puzzle forms more than once. The clues often felt like afterthoughts, rushed together because something was needed rather than crafted for their own sake.
The game began with a delightful a cappella rendition of the Midnight Madness theme song, but instead of a tear-open-the-clue high-energy start, Snout opted for a Midnight Madness pub quiz. Teams were called at random-- some getting called multiple times before other teams got called at all (which, while "fair" in a mathematically pure random-is-random sense, was not a great experience for teams waiting to be called). No team waited too long, and the gap was unlikely to mean much overall, but it was kind of a downer to be all geared up and ready to go only to stall out and have to wait our turn to answer a question correctly and earn the starting clue.
Start clue: The opening clue, just as in the movie, was a card with a few cryptic lines and a row of numbers at the bottom. The text was straightforward wordplay, and the numbers a simple decimal-to-hex-to-calculator-spelling conversion (if I remember right, the card read "249973 ==> 773d5", nicely suggesting what to do). We were gone in no time. We liked this clue-- it was easy, everyone contributed to cracking it, it mapped directly to the corresponding movie clue, and gave us good positive energy to lead off with. All of which got sapped at the next location.
Binoculars: The idea for part one of this clue was terrific. At this point in the film, teams went to an observatory and looked through the telescope to find the next clue. A bratty kid was using the telescope before them, however, to spy on women as they got undressed. This location was atop a hill with a panoramic 360 view for miles. Forewarned to bring binoculars (thanks to an eagle-eyed teammate who saw the information hidden in the Captain's Meeting presentation), we were able to use them to find two female silhouettes and accompanying data posted in the windows of far-off buildings. The problem was, nobody could find the third. And the GC members staffing the location didn't seem to know anything about the clue. I specifically asked one of them if we could see everything we needed to see from that spot at the top of the hill, and she said we could. I later found out that the third was only visible from a location below and to the side of the hilltop. The way the clue was set up, with a box (bearing a combination lock) at the summit, there was no reason to think we had to venture off the hilltop. Time passed. Team after team arrived, and none left. If I'm GC, at this point I make some kind of announcement about the general vicinity of the third data set. Maybe a 60-120 degree arc to narrow it down for teams. Perhaps a nudge, at least, that we'd have to leave the hilltop. But GC remained mum and allowed teams to collect there, shivering in the cold, frustration mounting. Finally, sunlight gone, they distributed tubes (simulated telescopes) with the data embedded.
About that data. Each set consisted of three equations, one atop another, along the lines of X-X-X, (X^X)/X, X*X+X, and so forth. Each set had a total of nine exes. We got excited at the idea of replacing each X with a different digit from 1 to 9, so that each equation solved to the same value. But that was wrong. Instead, we were supposed to replace the X with a single digit-- the same digit for every X in every data set. Then we were supposed to solve each equation and sum the results within each set. That would give us the correct values to use on the combination lock. There was nothing to indicate what the correct value of X was, or that we needed to sum the equations. With no way to confirm either the value or the approach, the puzzle was essentially intractable. It could have been solved with minor changes to the notation they used, adding a horizontal line below each stack of three equations to suggest a sum. Instead, most teams needed guidance from GC to hit upon the right approach. By the time we left this site, we were testy and disheartened. We didn't understand why GC hadn't provided help on the hilltop when NO teams were able to make progress, and we were crushed when the puzzle itself proved so arbitrary and unsatisfying.
Pianos: The film brought teams to a piano museum where the clue was the Pabst Blue Ribbon jingle painted on a tiny piano. We arrived at a GC member's home filled with pianos and were handed a bundle of strips on which musical scores were inscribed. Immediately Andrew, our resident musical prodigy, perked up as the rest of the team shrunk back. But as he played one of the scores and looked at us quizzically, the rest of the team brightened as we realized it was a commerical jingle. And so we set to, Andrew playing the music and the rest of us identifying the products. We made short work of it and were puzzling over what to do next, when Andrew noted that each of the scores had a mistake. Aha! I'd already sorted the music alphabetically by product, so it was quick work to copy the wrong notes onto a blank staff in that order and identify the Klondike bar jingle. What would we do for a Klondike bar? Apparently, we'd hop around like kangaroos while singing an incredibly bad version of the Friends theme. This was a great clue for us-- we destroyed it in record time, leaving well ahead of all other teams, thanks entirely to Andrew's musical ability. I shudder to think about what this clue would have been like for teams without musical aptitude. But for us, this was a fun, high-energy clue that tied in to the movie beautifully.
Brewery Nonograms: This was just a clue drop at a brewery, but even so the location was a little wonky-- instead of finding it behind the brewery as advertised, we instead found it in the alley beside the brewery. A small detail, perhaps, but when you're told to find the clue behind the brewery, you expect to find it behind the brewery. I was expecting some kind of block assembly puzzle (in the film, the (very lame) clue was on the side of cartons of beer, revealed as a forklift moved them into place), but instead we got a trio of completely standard Paint By Numbers puzzles. We divided and conquered. I got about halfway through one and knew it was going to resolve to a NULL symbol. When another puzzle solved to a CARD, I put them together to make CARDINAL. Then I looked at the partially-solved last puzzle and saw it was a coffee cup. "Is there a CARDINAL COFFEE in the area?" Sure enough. This clue worked perfectly well, but was nothing special. We were shocked to get standard nonograms, and explicitly opted to solve them by hand even though plugging them into a solver might have been faster. The rebus aspect seemed out of place, since the visual rebus in the movie came much later in the story.
Melons: Another great thematic fit. At this point in the film, teams are sent to a diner and told to look between the giant melons. A large-breasted waitress wore a necklace with a HUG ME charm, which anagrammed into HUGE M and sent teams to a minigolf course. when we arrived at the diner, we saw a large-breasted woman at the back of the restaurant. Upon closer examination [ahem], we saw she wore a necklace that said "HOT METER", which anagrammed into THE METRO. Tucked inside copies of The Metro newspaper in the diner's vestibule were a completely standard word search puzzle which, when all words were found, provided a message in the grid's unused letters. Once again, an off-the-shelf puzzle form with no twists. To their credit, however, the content of the puzzle was both thematic and fun-- a list of dozens of euphemisms for "breasts". There was much mirth in the van as we solved, with cries like, "I can't find PAWPATTIES!" Nevertheless, it was disappointing to find no hidden layer or extra depth to the puzzle. We also heard that at least one team found the Metro puzzles without ever going further into the diner to find the necklace, which is a shame.
Hitchhiking: At this point in the film the protagonists separate, and two of them hitch a ride with an extremely slow-moving elderly couple. Upon arriving at our next destination, we were met by a convertible driven by a pair of GC members dressed as old people. They invited us to go for a ride with them, and once two of us got in, proceeded to drive around the parking lot VERY slowly, while the rest of the team walked alongside the car. The two of them rambled on and on in that stereotypical old person way, getting tripped up on certain words that we needed to fill in for them. Totally fun and thematic way to gather the data, and the GC actors were terrific. Shame about the puzzle. One of the fifteen words in the list was SCRABBLE, and the narrative made a point of mentioning how RATTLESNAKE hit multiple triple word score spaces. So we immediately tried to reconstruct a Scrabble game with these words. But a little analysis showed that the letter distribution was completely wrong, and the first word in the list was too long to be an opening Scrabble play. Even so, the Scrabble vibe was strong enough that we kept looking for a way to make the puzzle Scrabble-related. No luck. The puzzle was much simpler and weaker. Completely unclued, we were supposed to notice that the first letter of each word appeared somewhere in the following word. Aligning the repeated letters in a single column revealed a message spelled in the next column. Huh? How exactly were we supposed to notice that? There was no context, nothing to guide us to that observation amid so many other potentially interesting properties of the words individually or the list as a whole. The first letters of the words weren't unusual-- there was nothing noteworthy about the first letter of EMBEZZLED reappearing in the next word. Start the list with ZERO, and populate the rest of the list with XYLOPHONE, QUESTION, JOURNAL, and the like. Make me notice the repeated letters. They certainly didn't pop from words like RATTLESNAKE, SCRABBLE, ALOE, and PITCHFORK. The Scrabble puzzle we invented as we solved seemed far more interesting than the puzzle we actually had.
Minigolf: Another location that tracked perfectly to the film, in which teams had to play through a minigolf course to discover a message hidden on the drawbridge on the 14th hole. Merely skipping to the end or browsing through the course wasn't enough to get the clue. So too for this clue. Each hole had a picture on it which, thanks to the iPhone, we gathered quickly and translated into a list of words. But then what? Nothing leapt out at us, so-- mindful of the corresponding clue in the movie-- we went back to the course. Two holes stood out. In one hole, as the ball passed underneath the lighthouse a recorded voice shouted "Fore!" In the other, upon entering the windmill a recorded voice said, "How about a game of air hockey after this round of golf?" Both seemed reasonable in context, but a trip to the air hockey tables still seemed in order. Eureka-- taped to the side of the table was a solving grid. But none of our words seemed to fit-- each was smaller than their corresponding grid row. We had to be missing something. What if there usually wasn't any recording at the windmill at all, and instead of changing an existing recording GC had added it? That suggested that they did the same thing at the lighthouse, which meant "Fore!" was important. Bingo. Each of the words in our list could be prepended with FORE to form a new word that fit the grid. This was a terrific puzzle from start to finish. We loved that the snack bar was open and we could grab some food. The fact that, as in the movie, you had to play through the course to get the information you needed was fantastic. The insights were very satisfying. My only criticism would be that once the place got more crowded, it would be very hard for teams to get the info from the air hockey tables without giving it away to other teams, and having that aha spoiled for us would have been a bummer. This was my favorite clue in the Game.
Radio Station: The next clue in the movie came from going to LAX and tuning in to the AM radio station that normally provides airport information. The times we live in make it impractical to put any clues near a major airport, so a train station filled in. Incongruously, the pointer to the clue was hidden on a lone Obama '08 sign on the lawn in front of the station. We might never have found it without calling GC, and I'm not sure why they chose that form, which was so unlike how we found clues in the rest of the Game. Regardless, we dutifully tuned our radio to the far end of the FM dial and identified a series of song pairs playing simultaneously in the left and right channels. The on-air bumper made a point of saying "It's Midnight Madness-- as in the movie, not the band," so we ignored the bands believing they didn't matter. Wrong! Every team we talked to were likewise mislead by this. Fortunately we called GC to verify our data and specifically asked for confirmation that the artists were irrelevant, so we didn't spend too long looking at the wrong data. Since the songs were presented in pairs, we knew we needed to combine info from the left song with info from the right. The proper way to do so was arbitrary and unclued. For each pair, we had to notice that one syllable of the song title on one side was the same as one syllable of the artist from the other (eg, Adam SANdler and SANta Claus is Comin' to Town). Even when someone suggested it, it sounded wrong to me because it was so arbitrary and messy. The other half of the data-- the other artist and song title-- was completely unused. The overlapping syllables weren't in consistent places, such as the last syllable of the left title and the first syllable of the right artist-- they were random. The whole effect was deeply unsatisfying, not so much a puzzle as "guess what we're thinking."
Hare Krishnas: In the movie, the next clue was disguised as the literature distributed by Hare Krishnas in the airport. Here, a couple of GC members costumed as Hare Krishnas pressed their literature on us as well. We later found out that only three teams were given this clue (the rest were skipped over it), which was probably a good thing-- it required a high level of attention to detail which wasn't easy to apply at that time of night. We received multiple copies of a religious screed full of typos. Close examination revealed that the copies weren't identical-- while some typos were shared, others were not. We had to find all the unique typos and highlight their locations on a master sheet. Those highlights formed a very good rendition of the Greyhound logo-- our next stop. This was a grind-- once we knew what we had to do, it took quite a while to actually do it. On the bright side, it lent itself well to parallelization and cooperation, so it was at least a good team puzzle. But shorter would have been better.LOLCats: At the Greyhound station we found a stack of LOLCat photos with edit marks in the margins. Obeying the edit marks allowed us to extract certain letters from the LOLCat text to get our next destination. I say "we", but I checked out on this puzzle and grabbed a few Zs while other pirates huddled in the back and forced an answer out of the LOLCats.
Pinball City: In the movie, Michael J. Fox plays a Star Fire videogame until he "beats" the game (which wasn't really possible), triggering a custom video telling them where the finish line was (also not possible). The house of a GC member stood in for Pinball City. No pinball machines, but three computers were set up running Star Fire via MAME. The ROM had been hacked to produce some incongruous sound effects under certain conditions. We needed to identify the videogames those sounds came from and, by observing the scores when those sounds got triggered, put them in the proper order and enter their initials into the high score screen. A for faithfulness to the film (although achieving a certain score would have been more accurate and, frankly, more fun), but much lower marks for the clue itself. Again, this felt arbitrary, and a long way to go for "name these three videogames". What if nobody on the team recognized them? Worse, entering the correct answer triggered a video that everyone in the room could see. This puzzle was only solved by a couple of teams-- everyone else just rode the solvers' coattails and eavesdropped on the video. Blech. Our team saw the video when another team solved the puzzle, but some of us felt dirty about leaving the site without having "earned" it. We had a little internal debate about it, but ultimately we decided to stick around until we figured out the right approach and solution ourselves. Making solvers wear headsets and providing key info through audio would have been one way around this problem, although there was no real way to prevent players from seeing the correct letters get entered into the high score board. Ultimately, the free ride was a better solution than some kind of turn-taking system would have been, but redesigning the puzzle to remove the problem would have been even better.
Hissy Fit: To reflect Michael J. Fox's character jumping out of his brother's Jeep and running away when he felt unwanted, we had to send our whiniest team member away, then try to entice him back via a cell phone game of Mastermind. We could only talk in 4 word sentences, and our teammate's response was dictated by the number of "correct" words we used. The magic phrase was "Jeff, you are special." You'd think that with an almost infinite domain space it would be exceptionally hard to zero in on the right words to say, but we locked on the "Jeff, you are" within about 5 minutes. Some fun playing around with filling in that fourth blank ensued, until someone hit on the right word. Amazingly, three teams-- none within earshot-- solved this puzzle within about 5 seconds of each other. We've had Mastermind puzzles before, but this was a fun twist.
Don't Get Hammered: This was a perfectly good puzzle wrapped in a frustrating form factor. Each of six inflated balls had about 14 pieces of data on them. Only two players from each team were allowed on the field at once, to gather the data or bat the balls toward the sidelines so teammates could read them. Meanwhile, GC members wielded inflatable hammers; when tagged, a player had to leave the field and tag in a teammate. Sounds chaotic and fun in theory, but was more chaotic and frustrating in practice. For starters, most of the balls were quickly punctured and deflated. There was a huge amount of data to gather, and strategy only got you so far amidst the chaos. Once we had the data, we completely blew the analysis phase by using the Post-Its GC provided instead of doing the smart thing and going directly to Excel, which is what we ultimately converted to. Once the spreadsheet was fired up, sorting the data into sets and putting each set in the right order fell out quickly-- hooray for the iPhone! The puzzle would certainly have been too simple had we just been given all the data, but this particular method of gathering the data was, I think, just a little too wild for my taste.
So where does that leave us? Overall the clues were disappointing-- there was too much unclued arbitrariness, too many instances where, in the course of solving, we created a more interesting puzzle than what we were given. There were too many opportunities for teams to skip their own ahas and get spoiled by the progress of other teams. On the other hand, the tight binding to the film made Midnight Madness: Back to Basics a lot of fun and solidified my belief in that model of Game structure. Snout has a lot of talent in acting, performance, and theatrics that was showcased quite well in this Game, and I'm glad I got the opportunity to play.