A hallmark of puzzles to come…

Cleverness abounds in the puzzle community, both in those who create puzzles and those who solve them. But the advent of the Internet has truly raised the bar in what you can accomplish with a puzzly mindset and some serious ingenuity.

From Easter Eggs concealed in DVD menus (like the blooper reel hidden in the silver box DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy) to viral marketing campaigns that conceal plot details and exclusive scenes for industrious fans (as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films frequently employed), there are delightful little entertainment nuggets secreted away in all sorts of media these days.

But only a select few of these hidden puzzles reach the level of complexity and elegance embodied by a series of puzzles lurking within the game Portal (which eventually unlocked details regarding the upcoming sequel).

Portal, itself widely regarded as a masterpiece of outside-the-box puzzle-solving wizardry and gameplay, demands a great deal from its players, so any hidden game designed for these players would have to be something special.

Adam Foster did a thorough and fascinating write-up on both the hidden puzzle game itself (known as the Portal ARG) and the process behind creating this dastardly electronic scavenger hunt, and you can read the full details here.

What’s particularly brilliant about this particular multitiered puzzle is that it incorporated rewards for both mid-level gamers — collecting all the radios in the game and locating where they received broadcasts — as well as the stunningly devoted fans who were willing to chase the puzzle farther down the rabbit hole, delving into top-tier decryption and deduction puzzle-solving.

This sort of chain-reaction puzzle-solving is becoming more and more commonplace. For a simpler example, you need go no further than PuzzleNation’s own Guessworks game. You start with a Hangman-style guessing and deduction game, which leads to clues to be solved, which then lead to a quotation to be unraveled.

As you build upon these earlier steps, you not only challenge yourself in new ways, but you develop multiple puzzle-conquering skills at once. Tackling a puzzle as wily as the Portal ARG is some serious mental exercise.

By pushing the boundaries of what form puzzles and games can take, people like Adam Foster are redefining and rejuvenating the puzzle-solving experience for a new generation of savvier solvers.

Where brilliance meets joyous frivolity…

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the 29th birthday of Tetris in a blog post, and I referenced the famous MIT prank where a giant game of Tetris was played on the side of a building.

This prank is one of the most recent in a long line of “hacks”, and MIT students have performed some impressive feats of creative whimsy along the way.

From a fire hose drinking fountain in 1991 to the installation of a shower stall in a common area in 1996, from turning the dome into R2-D2 (as pictured in our opening picture) to the “discovery” of an elevator in the remains of the demolished Building 20 (purportedly leading to a secret subbasement), these are top-tier pranks executed by some of the cleverest students in the world.

The Great Dome is often the palette of choice for MIT hacks, having featured a Triforce from the Legend of Zelda video games, the TARDIS from Doctor Who (which appeared all around campus), a fire truck, the Batman symbol, and numerous other Hack endeavors.

Here, the Apollo lunar lander looks down on a statue of Athena also added by industrious students. (Apollo watching over Athena, how apropos.)

One year, board games invaded campus. Giant versions of Cranium, Mousetrap, and Settlers of Catan appeared around campus, and all of the helpful maps around campus were altered to feature Risk gameplay.

Another time, an enormous game of Scrabble appeared on the wall, complete with MIT-inspired words fluttering in the breeze.

To honor the posting of XKCD’s 1000th comic — a comic that has also made appearances on this blog — XKCD comics appeared all over campus, often spelling out “1000”.

A Newton’s Cradle with imagery inspired by the Portal video game series appeared in 2012

But the best part of MIT hacks? Wondering just how the heck they managed to pull it off without anyone seeing. Like the urban legends behind stories of cars disassembled and reassembled in a professor’s office, the technological wizardry and sneaky cunning required for these marvelous pranks makes MIT Hack enthusiasts fellow puzzlers in spirit AND practice.