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⊥ornados, Intertextuality, and Weird Al Yankovic: The Obligatory Wrap-Up Post for MIT Mystery Hunt 2022 by a Member of Team Palindrome

It isn’t typical to start a blog post with “hello”, but considering that I’ve been thrust into an event that introduced me and my work to plenty of new faces, I think it’s appropriate here. So… hello! I’m Justin Ladia, a Winnipeg-based graphic designer, and I was the Art Director of the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt.

In this wrap-up post for the Hunt, I’ll be talking (in so many words) about the things me and my team has done for the art of the Hunt, the creative process, some of the puzzles I’ve written, and other behind-the-scenes details. As you can imagine, based on the amount of “stuff” there was in the 2022 Hunt, this post will get fairly long (like CJ Quines levels of long) so I don’t expect everyone to be interested in all the minutiae of the event, but I promise that there will be some level of “juiciness” in the things I talk about here.

The first part of this post will be a bit of background to my own history with Hunt, which I wanted to include because I’m not yet a familiar face on the puzzle hunt scene. Part two will talk about the behind-the-scenes process of how we built Hunt. Following that will be the meat of what I did, the art and design. And lastly, I’ll be talking about my other contributions like the puzzles I wrote and which ones I contributed art to before summarizing the experience as cleanly as I possibly can.

Table of Contents (Spoilers ahead!)

  1. Part 1: Background
  2. Part 2: The Process
  3. Part 3: The Art
  4. Part 4: My Puzzles and Other Contributions
  5. Part 5: Summary

Part 1 : Background

What the MIT Mystery Hunt Is and How I Got Into It

For those unaware: The MIT Mystery Hunt is an annual puzzle-solving competition held every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend at MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Every year, teams gather to solve a large collection of highly varied puzzles which lead to finding a coin on campus. The team that finds the coin first is given the right to develop the hunt for the following year. The first MIT Mystery Hunt was held in 1981 by student (at the time) Brad Schaefer. Early hunts had around 40 puzzles and were distributed as print-outs. MIT Mystery Hunts now feature comprehensive storylines, interactive events, and one to two hundred puzzles primarily accessed via a dedicated website. 

I learned about the MIT Mystery Hunt in high school after stumbling upon the website in Yearbook Club when I was 17. I was fascinated by the idea of it, but at the time felt that the chances of actually participating in it were slim-to-none considering I live in a city that did not have a centralized community of people who would be as interested in the event as I was.

The Coin from the previous year’s MIT Mystery Hunt

As with every good opportunity I come across in life, the chance to dip my toe into the Hunt came by through a series of fortuitous circumstances. I graduated from the Faculty of Architecture University of Manitoba and became a graphic designer. Through University, I learned of American graphic designer Aaron Draplin, and I was a fan of a lot of his work including the line of well-designed micro notebooks, Field Notes. For one of their subscription campaigns, Field Notes put together a weeks-long Alternate Reality Game (ARG)/Puzzle Hunt event that was designed and ran by Palindrome member and puzzle writer Sandy Weisz. When it comes to ARG’s, I have a hard time wanting to participate or being motivated to help out unless I’m there from the very beginning. So when the campaign for Field Notes’ Clandestine notebooks came out, I saw it right as it was announced and jumped on the opportunity to join a community of people to solve puzzles as a single team. There, I met Ben Smith who mentioned that he regularly participated in the Mystery Hunt. I expressed that I’ve always wanted to take part in it, so Ben invited both me and Jacob Ford to team Palindrome and participate in the following year. I joined as a remote solver immediately after Clandestine ended, but found the experience as an online solver for a mostly in-person event to be difficult immersion-wise, so the next year (2020) I flew out to MIT in person to have my first full-fledged experience of the Mystery Hunt. One year later, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event to fully become remote, Palindrome won the Hunt written by the team ✈️✈️✈️ Galactic Trendsetters ✈️✈️✈️ after a number of consecutive years of coming just short of a win. Thus, the curse was broken, and it was bestowed upon my team to produce the Hunt for 2022.

To be able to participate in the Hunt in the first place was — as cheesy as it may sound — was a dream come true, but to be able to do what I do as a graphic designer and actually produce it is an idea that is hard to describe. The conditions and the context required for things to come together in my favour at the same exact time tempts me to believe that there is indeed some higher power that’s looking out for me, but doing so would discount the possibility that I’m responsible for my own story. Who knows. This is getting a little too philosophical for a wrap-up post, so I’ll just accept that it happened and move on.

Becoming the DAD Art Director

When we won the 2021 Mystery Hunt, I was more than ready to help out. I immediately knew that I wanted to offer my capabilities as a graphic designer for the Hunt but I was under the impression that Joe Cabrera, a fellow graphic designer, would likely get the role of Director both because he is an excellent creative and a seasoned member of the team. I ended up getting the role of Art Director when Team Captain Eric Berlin asked me to fulfill the role, after following a recommendation from Joe.

I bring this up because I was told that the way this assignment played out was atypical for most Hunt writing teams. In previous years, elections are held for all major positions, which I think would have been fine and democratic but I’m not sure it would have worked in my favour if we went that way. I didn’t think I necessarily had yet built enough social capital in the team, so I felt like it may have taken some effort from my part to convince people that I was the right person for the job1.

The Golden Palindrome Arrow

In my opinion, Eric did the right thing by instead approaching the right people for the right roles, which I’m not saying necessarily as someone who benefitted from that strategy. I say this because Eric is one of the best leaders I’ve met and that is not an exaggeration. He is everything I’d want a leader to be: he knows this team inside-out; in dealing with issues, he is straightforward yet measured and not manipulative; and his approach overall with people is empathic but not glib. As such, Eric has more than earned the trust and the respect Palindrome puts in him and we knew that he often will do the right thing for the team. I think at least most — if not all — of Palindrome would agree with that. So while it was not exactly the approach teams would take to building their organizational structure, we explicitly trusted Eric to make the right calls when filling the major roles, and I think he did that.

By now, it’s been announced that Eric Berlin, having reached his goal of leading a Mystery Hunt writing team, has stepped down from leadership after 15 years at the helm. Ben Smith has taken on the mantle of Team Captain and I’m excited to see how B-Side will lead Palindrome’s existing membership and the new generation of puzzle solvers and writers.

1 To that extent, I wanted to start proving myself early by designing the “golden Palindrome arrow” after the team won and started a writing team Discord. This eventually ended up becoming the server’s icon.

The Art Team

Before I get into the details of the writing process, I want to acknowledge the people that were part of Palindrome’s art team, which I dubbed with a palindromic acronym, DAD (the Department of Art and Design). More details on these individuals’ contributions will follow in sections concerning their work.

Justin LadiaArt Director, Social Media, Round Art Production (The Investigation at MIT Campus, The Ministry of Intertextual Transportation, New You City, Recipeoria, Howtoona, Reference Point, Whoston, The Plot Device), Area and Round Wordmarks, Puzzle Art, Trailers and Animations, Solve Sound Design, Coin and Token Design and Production
Joe CabreraAssistant Art Director, Round Art Production (Noirleans), Coin Contributor, Puzzle Art Lead
Suzanna RobertsRound Art Production (The Quest Coast, Whoston, The Phantom Tollbooth), T-Shirt Design, Coin Contributor, Video Backgrounds, Puzzle Art
Lea BerlinRound Art Production (Star Rats), Puzzle Art
Christopher BensonRound Art Production (Lake Eerie)
Alexandra PlanteRound Art Production (Heartford)
Scott FordRound Art Production (Sci-Ficisco)
Sam PosnickRound Art Production (Pen Station)
Jacob FordRegistration Site, Coin Contributor
Yao YuRound Art (Whoston), Puzzle Art
Helen ArnoldPuzzle Art
April PinnickCoin Contributor
Debby LevinsonAccessibility Lead, Round Page Production
Aaron FeldmanPuzzle Art
Matthew Sorensen (Puppet Bucket Productions)Tock Puppet Design and Fabrication
Jenny GutbezahlSolve Sound Design
Ezra WeiszSolve Sound Design
Wayne ZhaoSolve Sound Design

Part 2: The Process

In this part, I’ll be walking through the design process for Hunt. It includes details like some of the techniques I’ve learned as a graphic designer and brand specialist, and some inside information on the process we undertook to build this Hunt. In summary, Art had three major phases: a foundational Design Brief phase, Concept Development, and Production.

Everyone Is Excited and We All Want to Write!

As one would expect, Palindrome was very excited to write when we won. It’s especially unsurprising if you know that the team has been hungry for the win for a very long time. Before finding the Coin in 2021, Palindrome seemed to always just barely miss out on the win each year. As such, when we did win, the energy of the team was frenetic, and being a group of fairly creative people we had a lot of ideas that we wanted to express right away.

To help channel that creative energy, Eric made a few channels (before any of the roles were decided) that allowed all of us to express our opinions on what we think the hunt should be. We gathered a lot of content in these channels over the days that followed.

The first channels of the writing process

There was a lot of discussion particularly in the goals channel. I said this, in fact, back in January 19, 2021, right after the channel was made. (I took this screenshot after our Hunt ended. I’ll explain who Randy Rotch is in a later part.)

Some would say that we accomplished this.

A lot of the goals people had mentioned in that channel also ended up being met, like the Sunday morning completion time, high regard for accessibility, and showing Palindrome’s sense of humour. The whole Palindrome “forward and backward” thing was definitely mentioned, which I wasn’t necessarily a fan of despite how on-brand that would be because personally I didn’t want this Hunt to be completely about our team. In my mind, we weren’t doing this for *us*. We were doing this for MIT and the puzzling community at large.

“So I’m starting to get the feeling you guys have some opinions about all this.”

— Eric Berlin

I’m not going to go into the details of the other channels, but for a good week or so, people were freely contributing to the discussion of what our hunt should be or feel like.

Design Jams

By the end of January, the preliminary theme proposals were due. To aid Pals (the name I made up for Palindrome team members) with their decision making process, Sandy had asked me to lead at least the first couple of Design Jams to help generate and iterate new and exciting theme ideas for their proposals. I had experience with leading design jams and introducing design thinking to groups in the past, so I brought my knowledge of conducting big-picture discussions and the process of quick, iterative collaboration to Palindrome. Later, Pals would conduct their own Design Jams based on the techniques and processes I introduced in the first few sessions.

I can’t show the results of the Design Jams here, but I can at least show you the outline that helped frame the discussions that took place. These Jams took place on Miro, and the structure was based on similar Design Jam techniques from IBM and IDEO, and I found this general framework to be effective in the past.

The first session was split into two days. Day one focused on the big picture and had us collaboratively discuss our goals, desired outcomes, the audience, mission, vision, and values. Participants were asked general questions and were given some time to write whatever they wanted on sticky notes within a time limit, and then we voted on sticky notes that we agreed with. Even though these questions seem like they can be answered fairly quickly over a Discord channel, allowing everyone to contribute in this democratic process allowed us to get on the same page before we generated ideas. We summarized the things we agreed with the most into a concise “design brief”, which helped steer our discussion when we broke out into groups to quickly iterate ideas for a theme and structure.

The second session introduced Pals to “mind mapping”, a quick diagramming exercise where we start with a central concept. From that concept, participants are encouraged to add “nodes” to build off of the central concept. If participants see a node that sparks an idea, they can add to it by adding another node to it. After about five minutes or so, we stopped to discuss the ideas presented. We had about ten central concepts to build upon in these sessions.

I have confidence in saying that these Design Jams were fruitful for most of the writers on the team, and I think it did help refine the proposals that we received at the end of January, including the one for Bookspace by Dan Lepage. Personally, I find it funny that the person who proposed Bookspace has the last name of Lepage.

Picking a Theme

After proposals were submitted at the end of January, Palindrome had its first round of voting in early February. I believe we had narrowed down the themes to five contenders, and afterwards, the writers of those themes expanded further on their initial proposals. To aid their proposals, I introduced the SWOT Analysis to the writers. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. I encouraged each writer to take some time to describe the SWOT of their themes and then quickly iterate ideas to strengthen the good parts of their proposal and develop solutions on the things that could be improved.

The theme writers were expected to expand upon the story and structure and consider what would happen if the hunt was again forced to be fully remote. Five expanded proposals were then put to a vote, and three made it past to the final round. In the final round, the “Theme Committee” instead discussed each of the three finalists and they chose one by the end of February.

Creating a Set of Values

After the theme was selected, I got to work putting together the first chapter of the Hunt’s Brand Standards document, which included things like background information and the values that our Hunt should have. Regrettably, I did not add other chapters after the first one was completed.

For the values part of this chapter, I reviewed the channels where we discussed our goals and desires. I compiled all of the information from the channels and summarized as much as possible.

The goals and desires of Palindrome, distilled into one page

Completable by many. Humorous. Polished. Beautiful. Coin found by Sunday morning or noon. Accommodates new solvers. More representation. Wondrous. Delightful. Have rewards and defined goals. Innovative. Varied. More creative events. Happier storyline. Likeable characters. Accessible. Remote-friendly. More interactions. Punny. Uniquely Palindrome. More streamlining features. Have more meaningful metas. Deceptively difficult puzzles. Agency for teams. Memorable moments. Be challenging, yet fun. Theatrical. Make positive change. Be hint-friendly. Stay true to the MIT Mystery Hunt. Make designing future hunts appealing. Build the puzzle community. Easy to pivot from online to MIT. More MIT involvement.

From this exercise, I distilled these goals and desires into four distinct values to help us with decisions related to art and design. In short, we wanted the Art of the Hunt to be: Immersive, Polished, Accessible, and Delightful.

IMMERSIVE: The Mystery Hunt is a unique experience that is driven by a narrative. As such, good storytelling is key to delivering a positive Hunt experience. The visual design of the hunt should not only support the theme of the Hunt: it should also be full, rich, wonderous, and lively. It should transport teams to the world that has been built for them and they should feel as though they’re breathing its air, walking on its soil, and writing its history. Doing so allows teams to feel the weight of the stakes that’s been written for them, and motivates teams to progress further.

POLISHED: In order to be immersive, the visual design of the Hunt needs to be polished. Every deliverable must all be executed at a level that appears professional and presentable. It should look cohesive, comprehensive, consistent, and aim to effectively represent the story well. In short, all aspects of the visual design must be done well.

ACCESSIBLE: The Hunt sees thousands of participants every year, and many of those people experience visual elements in different ways. Some solvers experience challenges in processing and synthesizing colour, motion, sound, and text. Because of this, it is our responsibility to ensure that the Hunt is as functionally accessible as possible so that people who experience these obstacles are still able to participate and progress through the story.

DELIGHTFUL: The Hunt must bring joy to the solvers. It must be satisfying to experience visually and emotionally, and it should surprise and delight all who experience its world. Solvers should be excited to see how a new area of the hunt looks when they unlock it. Palindrome is a team that is highly creative and humorous, and the visual design should reflect that creativity and sense of humour that we our proud to possess.

— The IPAD Values of the Hunt

Following establishing these values, we started the process of developing concepts for the Hunt based on the winning theme and its structure.

Concept Development

In March, after the theme was chosen, I took a bit of a break and resumed a couple of weeks after to start the Concept Development phase. I e-mailed the Art team to engage its members to begin collecting inspiration for moodboards for each individual region of Bookspace.

In moodboarding, pieces of real-world inspiration are gathered and later edited and collected into one “board”. This exercise is done to help steer later decisions during the production phase and narrow the scope on a specific design concept for one or more products. The practice of making moodboards for concept development to me has been an important exercise in my work as it helps me focus on a specific “vibe” for the end-product. I think it’s even more helpful when the event is based around a central narrative or theme, and it also allows your team members to understand the concepts we’re aiming for.

I gathered most of my inspiration using behance.net’s moodboard feature. Behance is a high-quality portfolio site for creatives that has a ton of inspiration for graphic designers, and it has many useful features that I find helpful for my own practice. In April, I started gathering inspiration from the site by occasionally browsing and adding projects using Behance’s Collection feature in a collection called “Dad’s Place”, which you can view here. It was entirely public, so I had to be careful to name it something that people would not link to the Mystery Hunt right away. If you browse through the collection, you’ll find some pieces of inspiration that were formative for the design concepts of Bookspace.

Dad’s Place: A Behance Collection that helped me with concept development

In May, the members of the Art team met in another Design Jam session. There, we put in all of our inspirations for each specific region of Bookspace and we took some time to talk about why we chose them. After this session, the Assistant Art Director, Joe, and I culled them down to the most compelling pieces, discussed a potential colour palette for each, and gathered them into one final document before I began sketching out concepts. All of the moodboards also contained descriptions of what we were trying to achieve for each region, in a sort of loose and airy way.

In June and July, I took some time to sketch out the concepts for each of the Round 3 regions (which we called “areas” or “neighbourhoods” sometimes also). Anyone who knows me knows that I’m primarily digital, but I found sketching a lot of these out by hand to be a fun exercise.

The finished sketches were passed to the people assigned to produce the assets for their specific regions. While some of the artists took some creative liberties for their own assignments, the sketches were more or less followed. When I presented these to the team, I also included an even more specific description of each region’s “vibe”. At that point in time, I was also trying to convince Palindrome to have a hub world called “Pen Station” (which Wil Zambole named) to act as a central map that allowed solvers to travel to the many regions of Bookspace. That’s why you can see a circular icon on the top-left corner of each sketch. I’ll talk more about the inspiration and process of making Pen Station in Part 3, but for now, here’s the sketches I sent to each of the artists.

After completing the sketches, we started production of the round art in August, and we were producing all the way until January. In Part 3, when I talk about the art of each Round 3 region, I’ll likely reference these sketches and moodboards again, so come back to this section if you feel like taking a deeper dive on those. A note, though: I didn’t sketch or moodboard Rounds 0, 1, or 2 as I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do there.

Choosing the Right People for the Right Places

When all of this began there was a high amount of enthusiasm to help out with different parts of the Hunt. We had polled the Pals early on to let leadership know what areas of the Hunt they wanted to help out with, including art. At first, we had a good number of people who said they were interested, but the actual number of folks who helped out regularly throughout the year waned significantly as the realities and weight of the real world took priority for a lot of people. Regardless, as Art Director, part of my job was knowing the skills and proficiencies of all of those who were interested, understanding who would be best suited to produce certain areas, and delegating those responsibilities properly.

Because of the degree of openness and the democratic approach we took, we at first had wildly varying levels of experience and skill throughout the team. I had asked everyone to first provide me with examples of their work but, with the exception of a handful of people, not everyone was able to give me demonstrated examples of their experience with art or design. Because of that, I knew that the bulk of the illustrative work will be done by a much smaller group of people. I had to be fairly straightforward about how I was going to assign a lot of those to the people on our team who had demonstrated illustration work and experience, and thankfully it was not received negatively.

It was during this time as well that one of Eric’s kids, Lea, had joined DAD. Lea’s work reminded me a lot of the art done by the illustrators from Ai-Kon, the anime convention that I help run in Winnipeg. What I saw from Lea was promising, and because I had some familiarity with the style and vibe they had in their work, I had confidence in what they would be able to deliver. Lea would later of course illustrate the most well-circulated part of our Hunt, but we’ll get to that later.

I didn’t start assigning the Round 3 areas to people until after I completed the sketches, and it was around that time when I was told to consider outsourcing some of the work as it became evident that the Hunt required a high level of effort from the Art team. Throughout the Concept Development phase, I took a lot of time to consider how to best utilize the different styles and idiosyncratic techniques we had in our team. I immediately knew that I wanted Joe to put together the Mystery area, Noirleans, because of his affinity for that classic comic book aesthetic, and it seemed like the best fit2. Suzanna is particularly gifted at watercolour, and her understanding of colour felt most appropriate for the vibrant, optimistic, old-world vibe of the Fantasy round, The Quest Coast. Lea’s illustrative style I thought best fit Star Rats because it needed a more energetic, cartoony touch.

Beyond the team, I had decided that I would only commission people from my hometown, Winnipeg, as I felt this event was a great opportunity to showcase the city’s potent creative energy to a wider audience. I waxed poetic on why that was important to me in the wrap-up presentation that happened on the Monday after Hunt, but in case you don’t want to watch that, I basically said something about how our city often gets a bad rap from the more well-known Canadian metropolises, but having been not just a member but also an advocate of the local creative scene, I had first-hand experience of its brilliance, and I thought it deserved to be showcased. To that extent, I had Christopher Benson illustrate Lake Eerie because of his affinity for Horror. I asked Alex Plante to put together the Romance round, Heartford, because her use of texture and colour had a lovely, feel-good vibe. Scott A. Ford was a no-brainer for Sci-Ficisco, since he’s well-versed in the genre. And Sam Posnick was asked to do Pen Station because I liked their line work and the intricacy of the reference material was something I knew Sam would be able to handle.

I think I’m particularly proud of how I assigned the right rounds to the right people. Part of the success of art is not just in having a great vision or concept: it’s also in how you delegate the work but you can’t do that properly unless you have an innate understanding of your team’s strengths. Future Art Directors should also know from the get-go that they won’t be able to do everything, so knowing your team well is key in ensuring a high level of quality in the work. A year is barely enough time to get everything done, so spreading the work effectively and efficiently is particularly key, and you have to trust your team members to be able to execute the work properly.

Which brings me to this point about balancing editorial control and your own personal goals with your team members’: even though you can have a clear and singular vision as the Art Director, the concepts you develop need to adapt to your team members’ strengths. Avoid trying to think of this Hunt as “your baby” because it’s not solely your child: your team has joint custody over its well-being, and you can’t expect to fully control every creative aspect of the Hunt. Simply put: this is not your Hunt. It’s the Hunt your team put together for MIT and the puzzling community at large, and your decisions as a leader should reflect that. I feel that if I was less democratic about how the assignments played out, the art of the 2022 Mystery Hunt would not have been as successful, and I’m glad that I was able to carefully balance my own expectations with the needs of the team.

2 I realized too late that Joe had already previously done Mystery-themed art for the last time Palindrome ran the Mystery Hunt, which was in 2008 and themed ENTIRELY around the Murder Mystery genre. I feel a little bad that I didn’t give him a new challenge, but I still think that it was the best choice for his aesthetic.

Production and Implementation

From August all the way until the start of Hunt, the team was in Production and Implementation mode. Production basically includes the the development of the assets, and Implementation is making sure it reads on the website in the same way it was envisioned. It’s a fairly hefty phase: it has the most things to juggle and it involves every single part of the Hunt including story (like videos and such), puzzles, and tech. Personally, I took care of production on a lot of things in this Hunt in addition to general art direction. Being a designer who has a lot of opinions on type and lettering, I took charge of the wordmarks for each of the rounds. I also put together the maps and backgrounds for half of the rounds, produced the animations that teams saw after completing each major milestone, and did some of the visual assets on certain puzzles, among many other things that I’m sure I’ll touch on in this write-up.

In addition to the members of DAD, who took care of the production of the actual assets, the implementation was headed by our incredible Tech Lead Sahil Bhasin. Debby Levinson, the Accessibility Lead, was responsible for a lot of the front-end assembly, especially for the maps. Sahil and Debby would take a look at the mock-ups or drafts of each area that DAD had put together (which I assembled in both Adobe XD and Adobe Illustrator) and try to interpret what I had done into something that actually works as a website. Sahil, Debby, and I were most often communicating from about November onwards. Sandy Weisz swooped in to lend a hand in December or so and helped in putting together the bits and bobs of the site. He was also thankfully very aware of the tiny UX details that I may have overlooked and would often ask me to look at certain details we missed. More information on how these details and other assets were produced will follow in later parts of this post.

Towards the end of the process, I had put together a spreadsheet to help communicate with the tech team the assets and requirements for each round. It was a big list, but it became much larger when I needed to disseminate more detailed instructions for other assets in the Hunt. This spreadsheet included links to other relevant sheets (like one that listed the unlocking order), and tabs that contained a change log, the list of what png’s go with which puzzles, the fonts and their links, a summary of how labels and hover states should be handled, the solve sounds, and the design of the notifications that pop up on the top-left corner. I think this sheet proves that art direction is as much an organizational position as it is a creative one.

The “Summary” tab of the art spreadsheet. I couldn’t make it all fit in one screenshot.

In all honesty, throughout the year I was worried that the design we were putting together was actually going to be impossible to execute, but I had to operate on the faith that it was going to work out. For the majority of the year, I had to push forward on the art despite not knowing who would be responsible for putting the front-end of the site together. Admittedly, this was a long-term cause of anxiety for me because I had conceptualized a fairly ambitious design and there was a degree of complexity to each individual area. I didn’t express this concern as hard as I maybe should have, as I was trying to be considerate of how occupied the other organizers were, and I didn’t want to be pushy or a nuisance about its urgency. Debby was great in alleviating some of the worry and assured me that what I had come up with was fine, but it wasn’t until much later that someone was assigned the task. Honestly, I think I would have felt less burdened and some of the issues would have been ironed out earlier if I was either more verbal or insistent about how urgent I thought this was, but in the end the product turned out fine.

The Production and Implementation phase was definitely the hardest part. This was when I felt the most stretched out, as I had to be an illustrator, a liaison, a critic, a conductor, a manager, and a diplomat both to my own team and the rest of the major departments. Art had to be involved for the story, the videos, the puzzles, and the UX/UI, and I constantly had to assess what “hat” needed to be put on and when. In a lot of projects with many different parts, writers or major departments won’t realize the necessity of art’s input and reach out until it’s a little too close to the deadline, so I expected some amount of crunch to happen during this phase. In fact, there were a fair number of times during the latter months of the year when I would hear that discussions on aesthetic or execution of certain elements of the Hunt were made without consulting with DAD first. While that was a source of great frustration, I also understood that what we do in the art department is not at the front-of-mind for a lot of the writers and editors, and I also assumed others would know to follow along with art’s progress instead of constantly reaching out for feedback. This admittedly did make my job harder than it should have been and I found myself regularly having to choose between being adaptable to situations that I thought were unexpected and being more steadfast and resolute to save time.

I think knowing what I know now, I’m more able to recognize the steps, techniques, and actions that need to happen in order for things to run more smoothly, but I think despite having made a few incorrect assumptions in this trial-by-fire, I did the best that I could. I still think of myself as a bit of a neophyte in this community having only hunted for three years at the time of writing this, so there were some things that I did not expect. I maybe should have not expected everyone to pay attention to the art when it was “finished” and posted to our public Art discord channel when there are so many moving parts, or thought that there was some universal understanding of good web design principles and the amount of effort it takes to build a website. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected people to remember the things we discussed and agreed upon months ago without some follow-up record of the discussions. I also maybe should have anticipated that volunteers would drop off after the initial wave of enthusiasm, having led volunteers in the past. But it doesn’t really matter now: this is all behind us. If I were to do this again, I think I’d be able to set more realistic expectations for the Production and Implementation phase, and I’d probably be able to better balance my own sanity with the many differing requirements of this process and its people.

It goes without saying that Art Directing this entire process took a bit of a mental toll. Hunt virtually occupied the rest of the time I had when I wasn’t working, and it was a large burden I had to carry for a while, for the most part in silence. I couldn’t really talk about it with my friends or family here in the city because they don’t really understand it (and because of spoilers), so it was a fairly lonely endeavour at the worst of times. It didn’t really occur to me how much this process affected me until we were finished with the Hunt and our team got together and discussed how the year went for them. Still, despite it all, we pushed through and managed to maintain some level of mental fortitude throughout. We made it through to the other side with an incredible site that I believe we can be proud of for years to come. So all-in-all, it was worth the effort.

Thank god for that.

Part 3: The Art

In this part, I’ll get into the meat of the work that we did in DAD: the art. Here, I’ll explain some of the concepts that drove each area of the Hunt, and talk about some of the behind-the-scenes details and easter eggs that were included in the illustrations. Please note that due to the nature of this part, there will be spoilers throughout.

The Registration Site, and Other Generic Content

Web Design: Jacob Ford
Print Design: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: An original design by Jacob Ford, NoName Brand, Muriel Cooper
Link: mitmh2022.com

We were very thorough with the art and design, and we tried to make sure that we at least looked at every single detail. This extended to the stuff that people saw before the Hunt began, including the Registration Site and the wheatpaste-style poster teasers that circulated around the internet.

The design of the registration site was the brainchild of Jacob Ford, who based it on a previous design of his that I really enjoyed. Jacob has an interesting point of view when it comes to design, so I was excited to have him bring that to this part of our Hunt. Jacob and Sahil worked together on its implementation, and Sahil had some great ideas on a few of the details that are currently on the site. Adding Zappy’s icon (which squeaks when clicked) as a link to the Star Rats website was a bit of an impromptu decision, but it was well-received.

A screenshot of the registration site, taken after the Hunt finished

Following Jacob’s design and prior to the site being released, I put together a couple of teasers for Hunt registration via the wheatpaste promotional posts. I chose that particular aesthetic for a couple of reasons: I wanted to subtly hint at the fact that the actual theme we had this year – which is about books – had something to do with paper, and I wanted to parallel the generic, minimal, and typographic style of the site itself. Because it had to lead into a “surprise” round that nobody expected, I wanted the contrast between the more illustrative and eccentric “Star Rats” prologue and the registration site to be fairly stark and have a jarring and unexpected transition.

When I did the posters, I was partly inspired by Canada’s No Name Brand, which I thought was an excellent reference for something that was “generic” but still successful in its design. By choosing this approach, I serendipitously also made a nod to the late, prominent American graphic designer Muriel Cooper who, in the late 20th century, was instrumental in establishing the design identity of MIT, the very institution that hosts the Mystery Hunt. I also kind of enjoyed how the minimal, typographic aesthetic lended itself paralleled the same visual quality of word puzzles which is nice considering Palindrome’s fondness for the genre.

In addition to these more public-facing assets, I also “designed” a shirt for the Pals in the same generic style. The base design was black text on yellow in that generic NoName style, but some Pals got shirts in different colourways like white text on black, or black text on white or grey. The shirt, which was temporarily available on Redbubble3 was another one of those impromptu decisions that happened rather suddenly, so I did a few rounds of the shirt and sent out a team-wide e-mail to the writers. Some people still missed out on the chance to get their own shirt despite that.

One of the things I was hoping to have (but not at all expecting to get) was a picture of Jen McTeague and Eric Berlin side by side wearing their shirts. I would have posted that picture on social media to hopefully drop a hint to the generic (i.e. “Jen” + “Eric”) nature of the registration site, but that period’s now long past.

3 Redbubble doesn’t have the option of making an item private yet accessible to those who have that link, so while the shirt was available for members of Palindrome to purchase, it was public and available for anyone to buy. We kept the window of time for its availability relatively short to avoid it being discovered by people outside of Palindrome.

Round 0: Star Rats

Illustration: Lea Berlin
Wordmark, Trailer, and PDF: Justin Ladia
Link: bookspace.world/prologue/

Star Rats was an innovation that Palindrome introduced to the Hunt this year. It’s the first instance of an official prologue round (which didn’t provide an advantage to your progress during the actual Hunt). This round was inspired by a suggestion made by the MIT Puzzle Club representatives on the team: then-President Julia Wagner and Treasurer Wayne Zhao. I also personally liked how it mirrored Palindrome’s old tradition of making a set of pre-Hunt puzzles as a practice round for the team.

The official art of Star Rats, which also ended up being the cover of the PDF. Artwork by Lea Berlin, Wordmark by Justin Ladia.

When the round was conceptualized, we had initially just thought it would be a Panda Magazine-style PDF with an answer checker page, but Debby had correctly suggested that we turn it instead into a full-fledged working website where the puzzles had their own pages for the sake of accessibility. We ended up doing both but having a website that already structured the puzzle pages in the way it would be presented for the Hunt was extremely useful and spared us from some potential headaches later in the process. In a way, it was just as much a practice round for Palindrome as it was a warm-up for the participants of the Mystery Hunt.

As I mentioned earlier, Eric’s daughter, Lea, joined the Art team to help put some things together. Lea’s illustrative style was really befitting for a round as caricatural as Star Rats, and I think it’s evident that we made the right choice in having Lea lead the charge on the prologue’s creative. I didn’t really have to do much in regards to the art direction for the illustration: I only provided the direction that the illustration needed space up top for the wordmark. In fact, I think Eric provided more direction on the visual direction of Star Rats than I did. Once it was done, Lea had sent the illustration to me and I had made some suggestions on some colour changes, but she pushed back on it and retaining the original palette ended up being the right call to make.

Star Rats’ illustration included the character of Zappy, the rat at the very front and centre of the illustration, which was completely Lea’s invention. I only had asked that we name this rat, and I presented it to the community at large as the official “mascot” akin to the Smobster from the previous year’s Hunt. The community immediately warmed up to Zappy, and the character became an indelible part of the year. Memes and fan art would be made of Zappy, and we all really enjoyed that the community became attached to him. I also asked Lea to make an emote for a specific Discord server to add to its series of emotes with a similar expression, and she thankfully obliged.

We released Star Rats a month before Hunt started, and to announce it, I had created a simple animated trailer that we uploaded to YouTube. This was the first of five different animations I would make for Hunt, and it announced the transition between the Generic theme to Star Rats. As I said earlier, I wanted the transition to be have a fairly dramatic shift visually, but I also wanted the music and sound effects to reflect this change in mood. For the Generic theme, I used a Bossa Nova track, and for the Star Rats theme I used this royalty-free bop from Premium Beat. I went with the elevator music track as it, by contrast, just *felt* generic and it was much calmer than the Star Rats theme, but I also initially wanted to pair it with a glib voiceover to give it that cheery-announcer-that-says-everything-is-totally-fine-while-something-sinister-is-happening-before-your-eyes sort of vibe. I cut that idea once it was clear that I was going to be too busy to make that happen.

The trailer to Star Rats. This would be the first of five animations I made for Hunt. It was also my very first animation that made use of Adobe AfterEffects’ 3-D features.

This trailer also had a subtle hint to the actual theme: at the end of the trailer when the URL is shown, crumpled paper can be seen in the background. Similar to the wheatpaste posters announcing registration, this was an indication that the theme had something to do with paper in some way. Paper could also be seen in the torn newspaper pieces and the background of the PDF’s introductory page. Additionally, on the website, the content areas were flanked by a “torn paper edge” on the top and bottom. It was also going to include a subtle crumpled paper texture, but I found that it wasn’t really adding anything to the site and was too distracting, so we eliminated it before Star Rats came out.

Round 1: The Investigation

Illustration and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Forced perspective maps (like in the video game Two Dots), Myst
Link: bookspace.world/round/the-investigation

The 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt began on January 14, 2022, and an hour after the Kick-Off (which I will briefly touch upon later), the first round unlocked for all 300+ teams. This first round, The Investigation, had teams try to figure out why Hayden Library disappeared by solving puzzles in books that were flying around a tornado.

This map was one of the last ones I drew and as I mentioned earlier, this round (along with the Ministry, the Plot Device, Pen Station, and the Tollbooth), it didn’t go through the same moodboard and concept sketching process like the Round 3 areas did because I had a fairly good idea of how I wanted this round to look.

The Investigation Map

I knew that I wanted to draw the campus accurately, but in a way that was bright, eccentric, and stylized. To do that, I decided I would draw the campus and its buildings in a sort of forced perspective technique, kind of like the maps that the talented illustrator Aldo Crusher draws for the game Two Dots. I drew all of this in Adobe Illustrator, which is my go-to drawing program. In order to represent the campus’ buildings accurately, I used Google Maps’ Street View feature to find references for the façades and Apple Maps’ 3D feature for the rooftops. For the repeating elements like the grass, the smaller flying pages, and the trees, I used Illustrator’s brush and symbol features.

I think I was a little too confident with how quickly I was able to put this together because I’ve forgotten how irregular MIT’s layout was and how complex some of the buildings were. I have the tendency (i.e. bad habit) to want to have some level of fine-tuned accuracy in these kinds of illustrations despite them being caricatures, and so things take longer than I think because of my hubris. In fact, as I was taking the time to draw the Stata Center as accurately as possible, I would regularly curse Frank Gehry under my breath because it became excruciating to illustrate. I used to not mind his work, but that’s all changed after this. The rest of the buildings were fine enough to draw, except for the ones that had to appear at an angle.

I included an Easter Egg here in the form of the Plot Hole. The Plot Hole is shaped similarly to the Star Fissure in Myst, which parallels the story of the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt. In Myst, the Stranger falls through the Star Fissure and enters a world “written” in a book, and the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt’s plot has teams falling through the Plot Hole and entering the world of books. I wanted to include this detail not just as some sort of hint for what’s to come: I also added it in because Myst was a formative video game from my childhood that cultivated my love for puzzles. After talking to some of the teams at the endgame, the game appeared to also be important to a lot of other people, and a few solvers even shared with us that they recognized the shape. This did convince them to enter incorrect Myst-related answers for the meta puzzle of this round, which I think is hilarious.

This easter egg is not the only visual anecdote I would include in the Hunt. I put in a lot of personal references in the art and because of that I was more attached to the work, which can be either good or bad depending on how you look at things. I’ll give more insight on what those personal references were in the appropriate sections of this post.

The second animation I did for the Hunt appears after the teams solve the meta puzzle for this round. Once they discover the answer to the puzzle, the teams are meant to “fall through” the Plot Hole. To aid in representing this part of the narrative, I once again used Adobe AfterEffects to animate this scene. Just like in the Star Rats trailer, I used the 3D feature for the part where solvers are in “space” and falling through pages and stars to land in the world of Bookspace. Keener eyes may notice an error in this animation: the tornado turns in the opposite direction it was intended to rotate.

The Plot Hole references the Star Fissure from the video game Myst.

During the Pre-Hunt period, I gave some thought to the transition between the Generic theme and Star Rats. For the Investigation, I similarly considered how solvers would experience this round versus the next round, the Ministry of Intertextual Transportation. Here, I wanted solvers to start off with a bright, basic map and later end up with a map that shifted to something that was darker and more surreal.

Round 2: The Ministry of Intertextual Transportation

Illustration and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Game Central Station in Wreck-It Ralph (in a way), and The McKim Courtyard in Boston Public Library
Link: bookspace.world/round/the-ministry

The Ministry of Intertextual Transportation was thought of as this wide, sprawling institution where intertextuality occurs. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, intertextuality means “relating to or involving a relationship between texts, especially literary ones”. When Dan proposed Bookspace, he had imagined this part of the world to have the same vibe as Game Central Station in the movie Wreck-It Ralph. The doorways of this map were inspired by this central idea, but everything else had a more tenuous link to that reference.

The Ministry of Intertextual Transportation Map

The structure of this one round — a mixed meta format with 25 feeders, five mini metas, one meta meta, and one run-around — is particularly large. As such, we wanted the map to exemplify its largeness, so we made the map too big to be seen all at once in most browsers. This map features 31 doorways and one architectural central structure that lead to puzzles (with the exception of the one that leads to Pen Station), and they can be accessed by dragging the map around. Each of the feeder puzzles was named after a certain kids book, and its respective doorway featured an image from the cover with the exception of one: Kid Start-Up (I wasn’t a fan of how it looked). The five minister meta puzzles had doorways in a different colour, and each was accompanied by a different icon representing one (or two) of the six Ministers. These Minister icons, by the way, were inspired directly by the features of the real actors who played those roles. I played the role of one of those Ministers — more on that later.

The full map for the Ministry of Intertextual Transportation
The Minister icons for Randy and Riley Rotch, Dewey, Barker, Hayden, and Lewis

Behind the map is this ethereal composition with a light grid, blurry text (which was just Lorem Ipsum), and noisy gradients in magenta. Throughout the Hunt, magenta just happens to appear in a lot of the maps and it’s a colour I tend to use a lot in my work. I did not intend for that to seep into the Hunt’s art, but some habits die hard, I guess.

The header image itself shows this structure of arches that lead into the “city” outside of the Ministry. The arches were actually inspired by the McKim Courtyard at Boston Public Library, which is a place that I explored when I first visited Boston (a few years before I started participating in the Mystery Hunt). I thought it was a beautiful place, and I figured it was contextually appropriate to reference given our library-themed Ministry round. The medallions above the arches in the header image aren’t in the same place but still call back to that same detail in the real-world reference. I added in lines that represent pages in an open book between the arches as a way to tie into that same detail that appears in the Coin, which references the Ministry by name. The city landscape in the background are made of buildings that were imagined to look like book spines, and the overall tone for that part is warmer to add some contrast between the deeper purple hues in the rest of the composition.

The wordmark itself includes the Ministry’s official “seal”, which has a rondel that contains the letters MIT configured to look like a book on a pedestal or a torch. The design of this seal was also meant to reference the Coin’s design: The Ministry of Intertextual Transportation’s name appears around the border in the same manner, but “Ex Libris Bookspace” appears where “MIT Mystery Hunt 2022” would appear. The undulating lines around the rondel references the wavy pattern of book spines found on the circumference on one side of the Coin.

The Ministry of Intertextual Transportation Seal

The Newberry Token

Designed by: Justin Ladia

When solvers finish the last required puzzle of the Ministry, the Fruit Around, they learn that to tame “The Voracious Bookwyrm” they have to “feed it a new berry”, which is a reference to the Newbury Medal, the prize for Children’s Literature. To indicate that they’ve progressed past an important point in the story, I created this animation that shows the Voracious Bookwyrm, which was actually the Very Hungry Caterpillar, being fed the Newberry. Please turn on Closed Captioning on the video, as Jenny Gutbezahl’s excellent captioning work helps elevate the animation.

The Bookwyrm being the Very Hungry Caterpillar was an homage to the writer Eric Carle, who passed away in 2021. The team had planned on making this reference to The Very Hungry Caterpillar because we knew how important this character was to so many people, but we decided on this before we heard the news that he had passed.

We also rewarded teams who finished this Round with a Newberry of their very own! One of our intentions from the outset was to have some sort of mid-point reward so that teams still feel like they’ve accomplished something major even if they don’t finish the Hunt. That’s why we designed a 1 1/3″ enamel pin of the Newberry that includes a visual nod to the Newbery Medal: the stem of the berry is meant to parallel the torch in the Medal itself. Additionally, the metal used in the pin is bronze, which is the same type of metal used in the Medal.

Approximately 2800 people solved the Fruit Around and were eligible to get a Newberry token of their own. We ordered around 2500 pins, and we managed to have just enough left over for Pals to have their own Newberry after gauging actual interest from eligible solvers.

The 1.3″ Newberry Token. Photo courtesy of Ben Smith.

In addition to the Newberry Token, the certificate (above) was another reward teams got for solving the Fruit Around. I don’t know if people actually printed these out or even noticed that it was something that was available to them, but this particular reward was made as a printable PDF for solvers who wanted another piece of evidence that they made it past a major milestone in the Hunt.

There are a few cute details in this certificate that I included. First, I tried to design each Minister’s signature in the way I thought they would sign their own names. Secondly, the position of each Minister icon in the border mirrors how the Ministers are arranged in the SpaceBook Messenger video that teams saw after they fell through the Plot Hole. Lastly, the year next to the Ministry seal, 868 AD, is the publication year of the book to have existed the longest (the Diamond Sutra, according to Wikipedia) and therefore canonically, it’s also the year Bookspace came to life.

These two rewards were made available in a separate page in the Hunt, the Rewards Drawer, which is also a palindrome. This page also included the rewards solvers got for Star Rats, and eventually a congratulatory image for teams that finish the Hunt. I came up with the name and the idea for the page after we identified the need to separate the information for acquiring the Newberry Token from the rest of the Hunt. The rewards for Star Rats and for finishing the Hunt were added in as an afterthought to help fill in that page, because we realized it needed more things to appropriately classify it as a “drawer of rewards”. It ended up being a nice touch to have different rewards at these levels, and I’m glad we had thought to include those additional prizes.


Puppet Design and Fabrication: Matthew Sorensen (Puppet Bucket)
Inspiration: Jules Feiffer's original design for the character Tock in Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth

One of the other fun things we did was have the character of Tock appear to solvers after they solve the Fruit Around. We knew we wanted to include a reference to The Phantom Tollbooth in the Hunt because this book by Norton Juster (who, like Carle, passed in 2021) was formative in shaping the childhoods of a lot of the members of Palindrome. It took us some time to figure out exactly how we would best represent Tock in Hunt, but Eric had landed on the idea of having a puppet. After a bit of research and reaching out to various folks, we ended up commissioning Matthew Sorensen of Puppet Bucket.

When it came to the design of Tock, I had directed Matthew towards the illustrations made by Jules Feiffer that were in the novel itself. Based on the Feiffer’s line work, Matthew presented us with sketches of the puppet’s design. After approving the design, Matthew proceeded to fabricate a great representation of the character and we were happy with how it came out. We had asked him to ship this puppet over to Dave Shukan, who was responsible for manipulating and voicing the puppet in the videos where Tock appears.

Here’s one of the videos of Tock so that you can see it in action. The background of this video, by the way, also referenced the original line work in The Phantom Tollbooth by Jules Feiffer, and was drawn by Suzanna Roberts. This background would change slightly depending on what part of the narrative teams were in, but it would also be seen in the endgame of the Hunt, which we’ll get to later.

Oh, and if you were curious: yes, the clock does indeed work.

Round 3: Pen Station

Background and Kiosk: Sam Posnick
Wordmark and Map: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Penn Station, Massimo Vignelli's New York City Subway Maps and Graphic System, and the Greater Boston Area
Link: bookspace.world/pen-station

Pen Station was the hub world that linked all of the areas of Round 3 of the Hunt. The name is (of course) a pun on Penn Station, located in New York City. The art of this area was mostly put together by one of the four members of the Winnipeg cohort of commissioned illustrators, Sam Posnick. I had approached Sam because I loved their intricate line work and attention to detail, and I thought their work would fulfill the vision I had for the area, which sought to highlight the structure of Pennsylvania Station’s original architecture. I gave Sam a fairly loose brief: I just said that it needed to reference Penn Station’s architecture and to include references to books and writing. Sam responded by placing books throughout the art (including in the very back where they’re arranged haphazardly), adding bankers lamps for lighting, having the railings be made of fountain pens, incorporating library catalog drawers as a structural element, and putting in a library catalog card of sorts on the left-hand side. It’s the only area of the Hunt that really spells out the book theme, which is something I actively tried to avoid with all the other regions. I felt, however, that it was appropriate here considering how I wanted this part of Bookspace to feel “transitional” and represent multiple literary genres.

The Pen Station Map

When I informally conceptualized Pen Station, I immediately knew that I wanted to reference one of my favourite “pieces” of graphic design: the original New York City Subway Maps designed by Massimo Vignelli. I’ve always enjoyed the graphic system Vignelli designed because it was both beautiful and functional, and I think it’s a testament to the long-lasting power of good design. I like it so much that I even bought a copy of the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standard Manual on an impulse when I happened upon it in some random store in Los Angeles.

To fit the context of the MIT Mystery Hunt, I based the transit map on the Greater Boston Area and I placed this central hub approximately where Kendall Station would be, as I imagined the Ministry of Intertextual Transportation to be underneath or at least parallel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus. The lines themselves do not lead anywhere specific and were primarily designed to make sure that the clickable areas were distinct enough from the other links that were closeby. The colours of each line were chosen to fit its respective area, but to make the Plot Device and The Tollbooth more distinct from the other regions I needed to use a different approach. For the Plot Device, I used a vibrant gradient to get at the idea that this area is influenced by all of the other regions, so all of the colours from the other lines “combine” in this one place; for the Tollbooth’s circular emblem, I used the pattern that is seen on the Tollbooth in the 1970 film adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth.

This round started with only two areas open: Lake Eerie and Noirleans (you’ll notice that I spelt it as “Noir-leans” initially), and they were the only lines available at first. The other lines would not appear to teams unless they reach a specific number of puzzles solved. In the list of routes below the map, lines that are not yet available are shown as being “under repair”, denoting that these lines were damaged by the Bookwyrm during its destructive rampage. I think there was a bit of discussion on whether or not we should reveal that there are eight other areas of Bookspace to go through after the first two, but Eric wanted to make sure that teams at least had an idea of what’s to come instead of giving teams the unpleasant surprise of finding yet another region when they expected to be almost done.

The endgame, “The Tollbooth”, had been written in later in the process, so initially this map did not include a way to get to the Tollbooth. Thankfully, Eric had the idea to use the bookmark as a way to get to this last part of the Hunt. I ended up quickly making an “EXIT” sign for its icon, which was a bit of a snap decision but I now appreciate how it lends itself to the idea that you can open this kiosk to where the bookmark is, and go through it to get to The Tollbooth.

Pen Station was not something that was originally part of the plan, but I personally really wanted something in the Hunt that acts as a central hub. The idea for it came to mind after mapping out the solver’s experience for the purposes of understanding how the different transitions between rounds and areas would work. From that exercise, I saw that there was a jarring shift between the Ministry and the rest of Bookspace and I felt that there needed to be something that softened that edge a bit. Initially, the team’s concept for travelling to the other parts of Bookspace basically involved overlaying a new map in The Ministry, but I thought that Round 3 needed to start with an altogether different aesthetic to have solvers feel like they’re in an entirely new part of the Hunt. After finding that this area of transition was missing, I (lightly) attempted to convince the team to have a new hub world that leads to the other areas. I thankfully had the backing of a few of the Pals so it didn’t take much convincing. Still, to aid my argument, I drew a couple of diagrams — one which maps out the overall Hunt structure, and another where I would adapt the Vignelli style to represent the names of Bookspace’s regions.

In July, when I mapped out this structure, I had understood Pen Station to canonically be “part of” the Ministry of Intertextual Transportation, as though the two places are connected. But at that time, I also had imagined the Plot Device to be inside the Ministry of Intertextual Transportation. The thinking on that shifted a few months later and instead it became accessible as a separate area via Pen Station. By the way, credit where credit is due: Aaron Feldman came up with the name “Pencilvania Station” and Ben Smith shortened it to “Pen Station”. I was very fond of this punny name, and it solidified my resolve and strengthened my argument to convince the team to add this hub world.

There are a couple of easter eggs in this area, but I only know the meaning of one of them. The first is in the clock above where the wordmark is: the clock’s arms are pointing directly left and right, which references Palindrome’s emoji, the double-headed arrow. The second is Sam’s doing: the clipboard in the background shows a date of 12/10/21 but I have no idea what its significance is yet. I’ll update this post when I find out what it means.

Round 3.1: Noirleans

Background and Map: Joe Cabrera
Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Mystery/Detective Comics, New Orleans' French Quarter, and the video game L.A. Noire
Link: bookspace.world/round/noirleans

Noirleans was one of the first two areas that was unlocked for teams after making it past the Ministry, and it was a round entirely based on the Mystery genre. Right after the moodboard jam session ended, I told Joe right away that the Mystery round was his because the inspirations we gathered were leaning more towards a more classic, comic book illustration style. It’s the kind of style that Joe excels in, so to me it was an obvious pairing.

The Noirleans Map

The sketch we had put together imagined a dark and gritty scene with buildings inspired by the architecture seen in New Orleans’ French Quarter, and Joe delivered something fairly close to what was originally drawn out for the concept. In the middle, a single doorway in a colour that stands out from the background illuminates a chalk outline of a body. Surrounding that outline are polaroids that represent various “pieces of evidence”, which each linked to a different puzzle. In the Hunt, when puzzles are unlocked, a new polaroid would appear. However, I had initially imagined the polaroids to be present all at once with puzzles yet to be unlocked shown as an undeveloped picture. After solving the initial offering of puzzles, another polaroid would later develop once its respective puzzle is opened. We simplified the implementation here (to save time) by instead only having one state per image. In the original sketch, we also had the polaroids encroach on each other for a bit more visual interest, but to further aid implementation we had given each one their own space.

The colour palette here resembles one of the images in the moodboard. Both Joe and I liked how in that one image, most of the background is dark and brooding, but bright, warm areas of colour highlight scenes of significance or interest. It’s a nice detail but those little drawings in each polaroid were my favourite parts of the art Joe had put together for Noirleans. Speaking of: if you haven’t noticed, this year each map icon was drawn to fit the title of the puzzle it represents. There is a bit of a risk in doing that because you might accidentally spoil the puzzle’s mechanics or its answer through the icon if you aren’t familiar with how that puzzle works. Because of that, the art team had to be spoiled on the answers and the puzzles for the rounds they produced. I had to basically be spoiled on everything in the Hunt, which I didn’t mind as it made me more familiar with our work.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Gritty, inspired by film noir and detective comics. Rough and a little dusty. Lots of chiaroscuro. Colour palette is dark and mostly cool in tone but with some strategic areas of warmth and brightness. Doesn’t use hues that are fully black or white.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Mystery Round, written in May

Background: A dark, rainy evening with buildings inspired by the French Quarter.

Wordmark: Modern typeface, grey gradient that becomes darker as it descends, with a thick black shadow just slightly behind it. Type is arched and modern.

Map: Chalk outline surrounded by polaroid evidence photos. Photos start out as “undeveloped” when a puzzle is unavailable. When a puzzle becomes available to access photo develops to show a piece of “evidence” inspired by the name of the puzzle. Chalk outline is the meta.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Mystery Round, written in July

My main contribution for the production of Noirleans was mostly providing Joe with some feedback to fine-tune the details, but I also had put together the wordmark for this round as I did for all of the areas in this Hunt. For some reason, I kept the video game L.A. Noire in mind as I was trying to put the wordmark together. I think really it was that 1940’s Noir aesthetic that I enjoyed from it the most, so I tried to encapsulate that same style in the wordmark while also incorporating the same colour palette and ambiance that Joe had constructed for the region.

Round 3.2: Lake Eerie

Background and Map: Christopher Benson
Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Goosebumps, Scooby-Doo, the Addams Family
Link: bookspace.world/round/lake-eerie

Lake Eerie is based on the Horror genre, and at first, it was meant to be more serious and somewhat “bloodier”. The colour palette we had in the moodboard for this area was high-contrast and had a lot of darker colours and a hit of red to really embody that classic slasher movie vibe. However, after discussing the Round 3 maps with Eric and the editors, we changed the overall vibe to be lighter, campier, and more comedic in tone. Mentally, I went from a Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street frame of mind to a Goosebumps/Scooby Doo/Addams Family vibe. These references were what I essentially described to illustrator Christopher Benson (who I more commonly refer to as “Benson”) when I gave him the brief for the art of this region. I’m not sure exactly when we shifted to a magenta and purple colour story from red and black, but I think it happened as I was describing the change in tone to Benson. I quite like the colour palette we ended up with, but it’s yet again one of those examples of how we managed to subconsciously slip in magenta to make it one of the main colours of the Hunt.

The Lake Eerie Map
The header image for Lake Eerie without the Wordmark

The name of this region was finalized after the moodboard was finished but before the sketches were made, so at first the “lake” wasn’t part of the plan. I had to adapt what I had originally envisioned for the round after hearing the name, which I believe was just going to be a forest scene with little clearings where horror scenes would play out. Admittedly, I was a bit thrown off when I realized that I had to incorporate a body of water into the central concept, but I think the solution of having the lake in the shape of a skull hit the mark in terms of campiness.

After the sketch was completed, I had sent it off along with the original moodboard to Benson. Christopher Benson is another one of the Winnipeg illustrators who I commissioned for Hunt, and I chose him specifically for his distinct art style and affinity for the horror genre. When Eric had asked me to consider commissioning artists to help ease the workload on the team, Benson immediately came to mind as the first person I would approach and I knew right away that I wanted to give him the reigns on producing the art for the Horror round. I personally know Benson from the local Winnipeg art and convention scene, and I consider him to be one of my good friends. I also regard him as a brilliant illustrator who deserves to have his work seen on a larger platform, so I was more than happy to give him this opportunity. Frankly, Benson smashed the brief and exceeded my expectations, and I hope you take the time to look him up and admire his body of work.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Darker and moodier. Textured and grainy. Harmless (not gory, more approachable). Kind of monochromatic, but with distinct areas of red.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Horror Round, written in May

Background: A spooky mansion on a hill. Full moon in background.

Wordmark: Goosebumps-ish

Map: Lake Eerie is a skull-shaped lake where the “mouth” contains the graveyard meta. Icons are places that surround the lake, and will be trope-y images that are related to the title of the puzzles.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Horror Round, written in July

Lake Eerie’s map was one of the first Round 3 areas to be completed, so at the time, a lot of the icons were made without knowing the final puzzle titles. When I gave Benson the brief, I had also given him the titles of the puzzles I knew were there with the caveat that they were likely to change. This thankfully wasn’t too big of an issue after all of the puzzles of the round were finalized, but there are some icons that aren’t *quite* as nice of a fit as some of the icons in other rounds. I don’t think it was a huge deal, and I’m happy with the icon-puzzle pairing that we had in the end.

The original vs the final wordmarks for Lake Eerie

The wordmark for this area was revised quite a bit from its original incarnation. The first attempt I had here was inspired by the iconic title font from the Goosebumps series of books. I felt that I couldn’t quite get it right so later in the process, I reattempted it and approached it with a different style altogether. What we ended up with was a cartoony wordmark that was overall one of my favourites from the Hunt.

4 Benson is one of the small number of local friends that I had introduced to puzzle hunting. I introduced him to Panda Magazine’s Puzzle Boat, and he regularly showed up for other puzzle-related events I had hosted, including Head Cheese!, my once-regular puzzle-inspired trivia event.

Round 3.3: The Quest Coast

Background and Map: Suzanna Roberts
Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: The Hobbit
Link: bookspace.world/round/the-quest-coast

The Quest Coast was the third area of Bookspace to unlock for teams, and it’s based on the Fantasy genre. One of the Pals, Suzanna Roberts, took care of the art for this round. Suzanna’s handle on the medium of watercolour is masterful, and I liked the way she approaches and uses colour in her work. Because of that, I assigned this area to her as I thought she would be the most appropriate member of the team to put together a region that required an aesthetic that was adventurous, storied, hand-made, and full of life and texture. In my opinion, Suzanna had accomplished all that was required for this round, and then some. This map had become the favourite of a lot of solvers in the Hunt and it’s well-deserved.

The Quest Coast Map
The header for The Quest Coast without the Wordmark

The concept we had originally started with for this round was a little more “heroic”. The inspirations we gathered before finalizing the moodboard leaned more towards an epic aesthetic, and it had a bit more contrast and I particularly enjoyed the idea of having a “fog of war” somewhere in the distance. A lot of the gathered inspirations at first had a sensibility that seemed to be from the late eighties and early nineties: it had a bunch of lightning, and long-haired blonde men on horses holding swords in the air on a particularly stormy day, and dragons flying around ominously around volcanoes while knights wait to raid their caves. After talking to the editors, however, they had mentioned that they imagined it to be more like the “start of a journey”, so we shifted the concept to be brighter, lusher, and more optimistic. My reference for this round was the beginning parts of the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, which had a similar sort of brightness and beginning-ness that the editors were looking for. From what I saw from the folks in chat during the wrap-up presentation, the idea of this round looking like the start of some great adventure came across very well, so I’m glad to hear that that was successful.

In the original sketch, we had explicitly made reference to the Hobbit by incorporating the iconic house in the header image. It was later replaced by a dragon’s cave after we were told that the Hobbit is referenced in an earlier round. Due to the nature of the meta, we needed to switch it out with something else.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Bright. Lush, vast landscape, lots of sky. Reminiscent of the start of a journey in Middle Earth. Colour palette: optimistic, sunny, natural, potent.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Fantasy Round, written in May

Background: A rich, verdant, lush, and colourful landscape with fantastic elements.

Wordmark: Somewhat medieval-looking text.

Map: A piece of parchment being held from a first-person perspective. Icons on the map will be clickable and be inspired by the name of the puzzle. The majority of this region will be hand-painted.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Fantasy Round, written in July

Suzanna had a good handle on how to approach the art of this round, so most of the feedback and direction that came from me were mainly about colour changes in the background and adding the topographical details to the map. The map went through a few iterations after the editors wanted to make changes to some of the icons. By the way, my favourite icon in this map was for the puzzle about cookies called “Magically Delicious”. I believe that that icon is supposed to represent the Keebler Hollow Tree and I find that to be both delightful and appropriate.

The parchment that contains the map is held by two hirsute arms. Suzanna had mentioned to me that these arms were modeled after her partner’s. I believe her partner’s arms were used mostly as a reference for the anatomy. The hairiness — which I don’t believe was part of the original reference, but I’ve never seen her partner’s arms — came from an idea Suzanna had to have the “character” be a humanoid creature. Suzanna also made the medallion image in this round’s meta puzzle called “Once Upon a Time in the Quest”.

Round 3.4: New You City

Background, Map, and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Escher, Magritte, the video game Monument Valley, New York City
Link: bookspace.world/round/new-you-city

The fourth area of Bookspace to unlock is based on the self-help genre and is called New You City. This was one of the regions I handled from beginning to end, and it also happens to be the first area I drew for the Hunt. We took some time during the concept development phase to figure out how to best represent a subject as abstract as the self-help genre, but I had eventually settled on a direction that was inspired by psychology and surrealism. M.C. Escher’s work and the video game Monument Valley (which was also inspired by Escher’s art) were excellent germination points as they embodied the deeper nature of “self-help” and in my interpretation they both explore the labyrinthine nature of finding yourself in the mess of your own subconscious.

The New You City Map

In this round, the map is supposed to represent a bizarre skyscraper where gravity and the usual laws of physics don’t apply. This interconnected tower of modules represent different parts of one’s journey to find oneself. The round starts off with just a silhouette of the tower, and as puzzles unlock new parts of the structure appear to solvers. The meta puzzle, Introspection, is at the very top of the central tower and is represented by an area adorned by a colourful stained glass window of an eye. The background that runs behind the tower is a dense, neutral cityscape with buildings inspired by the architecture of New York City, and beyond it is a glimmering, psychedelic sky accented with glowing stars that represent hope and optimism. In this map, I’ve also included references to the fact that a team’s information may be important in this round by incorporating two references to Palindrome: the double-headed arrow can be seen in one of the blocks for “Does Any Kid Still Do This Anymore?”, and another can be found spray-painted underneath the tower that houses “❤️&☮️”.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Labyrinthine. Reminiscent of Escher. Vibrant. Surreal. Colour palette is vibrant, basic but refined, mid-contrast.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Self-Help Round, written in May

Background: A sky that’s fairly psychedelic and full of colour.

Wordmark: A street sign with the “introspective eye” in the top middle.

Map: Inspired by Escher and other surrealist works (like Magritte’s “Time Transfixed”), which is a reference to the psycological aspect of self-help books. A topsy-turvy, surrealist building where the links are different vignettes that appear through cut-outs or other scenes in the building. These will somehow relate to the titles of each puzzle.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Self-Help Round, written in July

As it was the first map I drew, it was made well before the puzzle titles were finalized. I was very much aware that there might be shifts in direction later on, so I kept some of the pieces open-ended. When it came time to finalize the draft, some puzzles had been changed or taken out completely, so the original design of the towers had shifted to the version that was used in the website, but not by much. Below, you’ll find how the two towers had changed.

Left: The first version of the New You City map. Right: The final version of the New You City map.

There’s a good reason why this was the first round I put together. It’s because it was intended to be completely drawn in my own art style, which is in the way that is architectural, surreal, colourful, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It also includes a lot of other details that I would pepper into my work like eyes, grainy gradients, and glowing four-pointed stars. Some may think that it was selfish of me to have an entire round’s art act as my “signature” in the Hunt, but is doing so really that tactless when the entire round is about looking within yourself and creating something greater from your own journey of self-discovery? I feel like there’s something really special and compelling about the act of constructing a personal representation of one’s complexities, idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and inclinations in a round that is completely about building yourself up, and I wanted to represent the idea of “making something of yourself” in a way that runs alongside that concept. This round asked solvers to look inside themselves and create something out of it, and I feel like I did just that. The map for New You City was that “something” that came from my own introspection, and I think it was contextually appropriate.

I maybe wouldn’t have done any of this in this manner if the subject matter itself wasn’t so near and dear to my heart, and I probably also wouldn’t have put in this much effort if it also didn’t contain my favourite metapuzzle of the Hunt, which was written by Jen McTeague. All-in-all, I think this was my favourite round to put together and I hope my love for this area came through in the art.

Round 3.5: Recipeoria

Background, Map, and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Honestly? Just food in general.
Link: bookspace.world/round/recipeoria

The cookbooks round, Recipeoria, was the fifth area of Bookspace. This area was not so much inspired by existing references. Instead, the overall approach we had for the art in this round was to incorporate the colour, decadence, and texture that good, tempting foods tend to have.

This was the second Round 3 map I drew, and it used an art style that I’ve never utilized before. I don’t typically draw things by hand — and by “by hand” I mean with an Apple Pencil and iPad — but I really enjoyed using new techniques like stippling and I was satisfied with how it turned out. The blue tile background, by the way, was a suggestion from Joe who liked the idea of referencing a classic diner aesthetic. I thought the colour of the background worked rather well strategically since there aren’t a lot of blue foods, and it added even more vibrance to the round.

The Recipeoria Map

One thing that I don’t think came across at the end was the idea that each of the foods are one or two storeys tall and act like buildings or large structures that people can visit. That’s why there’s doorways in some of the foods but I couldn’t really find a way to gracefully incorporate more of them in the other foods. The broccoli throughout represented trees, which also didn’t come through in the way I initially wanted. It doesn’t really bother me that this concept didn’t come across, though. Richness and decadence was what I wanted most from this round overall, and the “giant food” concept felt like a secondary idea anyway.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Dynamic. Super-sized foods. Slightly textured. Anthropomorphic food. Fun. Colour palette: appetizing, warm, decadent.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Cookbooks Round, written in May

Background: A pseudo-isometric landscape where buildings are food items. Food items are textured and warm. Items seem to be populated on a kitchen counter.

Wordmark: Hand-drawn, amorphous, cute.

Map: An area with food items related to the title of the puzzle. Meta is a brown paper bag with groceries.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Cookbooks Round, written in July

All of the answers to this round were names of food. There was a bit of a risk in drawing the icons as food items as there was the chance that we could spoil the answer accidentally if we weren’t careful. For example, for one puzzle in the round, “Night Out With Your Buds” (which also happens to be one that I wrote), we couldn’t use beer as its icon because the first aha had something to do with that as its subject matter. Thankfully, it wasn’t much of a headache to keep track of the puzzles in the round and the icons that they could be represented with. My favourite icon here, by the way, is the shakshouka for the puzzle named “Boom Shakashaka!”.

This was one of the other rounds where I revised the wordmark to something that was more appropriate. The original version was simpler: it was just the round’s font typeset inside some “red sauce”. I wasn’t convinced after the first pass of the wordmark, so I revised it towards the end of the process. The final version ended up looking like noodles covered in a bit of sauce, and I quite liked how that referenced spaghetti, which is an exercise that Eric had concocted years before.

Left: the first version of the Recipeoria wordmark. Right: the final version of the wordmark.

Art aside, Recipeoria ended up being the round with celebrity appearances: one from New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz in the puzzle “Sunday Dinner” (which I cameo in also, but we’ll get to that later), and the other from Weird Al Yankovic. I noted a lot of responses on our Hunt’s videos during and after the hunt, and a good percentage of people basically said that didn’t really watch or have an opinion on the videos we put together. That, to me, was admittedly a bit of a shame considering they took a lot of effort and ate up a bunch of production time, but we figured that that would be the case for a lot of teams and solvers. However, teams unsurprisingly made an exception in their otherwise tepid response for the one video with Weird Al. As expected, they were very excited to learn and see that Weird Al played the role of one of the residents of Recipeoria, and we were very happy to see the response people had to the video. During the Hunt and especially during the wrap-up, it was great to see people’s reactions to the video he was in after we had kept this secret for so long.

Round 3.6: Heartford

Background and Map: Alex Plante
Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Bridgerton, the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden in Winnipeg
Link: bookspace.world/round/heartford

Heartford was the sixth area of Round 3 and was based on the Romance genre. Romance can be interpreted in a number of different ways, but we aimed for a classical vibe instead of one akin to “Fabio in a windstorm with his shirt off” as the writers/editors of the meta modeled the entire round after a masquerade ball. This round in particular had the most back and forth between DAD and its writers because this map’s presentation provided actual information that may be helpful to solve the meta. Some compromise had to happen in this round from both sides, but despite that, I think the final product turned out fine.

The art for this round was drawn mostly by Alex Plante, another Winnipeg-based illustrator who I approached because I thought she could accomplish the romantic, soft, and textured feel I was looking for in this round. Alex is a massively talented self-taught illustrator who also very good at drawing characters in an approachable yet compelling style. As such, because the icons were arguably the main focus of this map and because she had exhibited experience in producing ethereal environmental compositions, I felt like she was the obvious choice for this round. Alex also immediately picked up on what I was trying to go for when I told her that an image from Bridgerton was one of the inspirations for the round.

The map for Heartford

Unlike some of the other rounds, the background for Heartford was not based on its real-life namesake, the city of Hartford in Connecticut. Instead, I had specifically asked Alex to be inspired by the most romantic place I know in Winnipeg that fits the frilly, floral concept: the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden. The most obvious reference to this can be found in the gazebo in the background — in the sculpture garden there’s a structure that is visually similar to the one you see on the website.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Soft. Floral. Motifs of a masquerade ball. Colour palette: A contrast of soft pastels and dark greens and browns.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Romance Round, written in May

Background: Botanical garden at sunset. Warm hues, oral.

Wordmark: Golden serif font, raised (like how Pal’s discord icon is).

Map: Masquerade Ball. Icons are costumed guests.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Romance Round, written in July

The icons here were all important to understanding the meta puzzle, so the list of “costumed guests” were first provided by the writers/editors of the puzzle. Out of all the rounds, this was the only area where I had to ask for approval on the icons first before delivering the final product. The icon of Cerberus for the puzzle Crowning Achievement, was at first a three-headed corgi, but we had changed it as the icons needed to represent actual people. On the topic of Cerberus, though: Alex, who doesn’t know anyone else on Palindrome, managed to somehow make the person wearing the Cerberus costume look uncannily like Palindrome member Kevin “Ucaoimhu” Wald. I very much enjoyed this coincidence.

The first version of Cerberus. Drawn by Alex Plante.
The final version of Cerberus, which accidentally looks like Kevin Wald. Drawn by Alex Plante.

The first draft of this round also actually had silhouettes of other attendees surrounding the icons of the main guests. Each of the attendees were also supposed to appear initially as silhouettes until their respective puzzle opens. Unfortunately, because this did give away how many puzzles there were in the round (which was an important clue for the meta), we had to get rid of it for the website. Instead, we included it in the poster version that was available in our art store on Redbubble for a short period of time.

The poster for Heartford which included the silhouettes originally drawn for the round.

In the original version, we had forgotten to make an icon for the meta (oops), but we found a solution in making a banner that incorporates the styling of the labels that contain the puzzle names. Additionally, in the first version, the wordmark was also different from its final version. The new wordmark sought to incorporate the texture from Alex’s work and improve legibility when its placed against the complex botanical background. A comparison of both versions is shown below.

Left: the first version of the Heartford wordmark. Right: The final version of the Heartford wordmark.

Round 3.7: Whoston

Background, Map, and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Portraits: Suzanna Roberts, Yao Yu, and Justin Ladia
Inspirations: The Students Round from MITMH2021
Link: bookspace.world/round/whoston

Whoston was based on the Biography genre and was the seventh round that unlocked for teams. This round, being based on another more abstract topic, was more difficult to conceptualize, but we knew portraits were going to be important in some way. Inspired by the one image in the moodboards where people explore a photo album, we decided to not overthink the concept and use “living frames” as a central idea. The idea was that the residents of Whoston lived in these picture frames, and they can freely go in and out of them to visit other frames or places in Bookspace. The frames were imagined to just float in a large, open space, but to add more texture and interest to the art I added in some soft, pillowy clouds.

The map for Whoston

Inspired by the Students round of the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, I wanted to include references to the members of Palindrome in some way, which is why various Pals were the subjects of the portraits. Before incorporating people in the art, I asked the Pals to let me know if they wanted the chance to have their portrait included in the round. We had a good response to this open call, but we didn’t have enough space for everyone, so I prioritized those who made significant contributions to the Hunt.

Strategically, I intentionally made the art of this round more collaborative so that people in DAD who weren’t assigned rounds were still able to contribute. I wanted a great variety of portrait styles to represent how diverse and eclectic people are, so I thought being stylistically open was strategically the best way to proceed. To help encourage people to contribute, this round’s production phase was a little longer and open-ended than most. I accepted portraits for a longer period of time, as new pieces could easily be incorporated into the final product.

Even though Suzanna Roberts, Yao Yu, and I were the only ones to contribute portraits for this round, the three of us were able to show a variety of different styles in the art. Suzanna took care of the portraits of Ashley Davis, Mike Nothnagel, and Matthew Stern. Yao Yu put together the portraits of Kah Kien Ong, Jenny Gutbezahl, and Katie Hammill. I made the portraits of Sandy Weisz, Renee Ngan, James Sugrono, Mark Halpin, Shai Nir Hana, Aaron Fuegi, Matt Zinno, Alison Muratore, and Joon Pahk using fairly simple techniques. At the last minute, I slipped in a years-old social media profile picture I made of myself in a style that was intentionally primitive-looking. I mean, why not, right?

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Eccentric. Variety of different portrait techniques (traditional, vector, etc.). Variety of frame types to house portraits (stamps, traditional frames, polaroids, etc.). Collage-like. Lots of paper textures. Colour palette: nostalgic, soft, but highly varied.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Biography Round, written in May

Background: Various types of frames for portraits. Idea is that Whoston is a place that is populated by these floating frames where people live. People can come and go from their frames as needed.

Wordmark: A “signature” on a piece of paper.

Map: A collection of frames with a door in the middle. Door is meta and is closed until teams unlock the meta. When a puzzle is available, a silhouette can be seen. When a puzzle is solved, the silhouette shows the “answer” to the puzzle, which is a specific person. When a puzzle is unavailable, the frame is just a background or is empty.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Biography Round, written in July

The collection of icons that make up the map are also frames, some traditional and others not. In the original concept, when a puzzle is available, a silhouette of a person can be seen in the frame. I was (maybe overly) fearful that by doing that, we would spoil the experience of the meta solve so instead we shifted to the idea of having unavailable puzzles show up with white noise to exemplify that the frame needed to be “fixed”. When the puzzle is solved, the frame is instead filled with a vibrant gradient indicating that the frame was able to be filled with a person.

Left: the Whoston map with all of the puzzles shown as “unavailable”. Right: the same map but with all the puzzles shown as “available”.

Round 3.8: Reference Point

Background, Map, and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Old encyclopedias, scientific diagrams, grids
Link: bookspace.world/round/reference-point

The eighth area of Bookspace was built around the Reference genre and was named “Reference Point”. Just like Recipeoria, this round wasn’t inspired by any particular reference (heh) and was mostly propelled by the need to show a different technique that hasn’t been represented yet in the Hunt. The inspirations gathered for this round were very academic and textured, and it included things like infographics, scientific drawings, and close-cut images and diagrams. Because Reference basically points to *everything*, it made sense to explore using collage as a way to build this complex and multi-faceted round.

The map for Reference Point

This round was the most chill to put together. The concept played into my abstract/surrealist sensibilities, and I really enjoyed experimenting with images and seeing how pieces came together to form a somewhat sensical composition. Part of the joy I had from this round also comes from how much I already love grids and infographics, so the process of putting this area together felt natural, fitting, and less stressful. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t a lot of work: the icons on this page were more ambitious and had specific self-imposed rules, and there are a lot of individual edited pieces that formed the larger and smaller collages. Still, the eccentricity and the oddness of the aesthetic I thought was successful and it achieved what I had imagined in representing the highly-informational and vast nature of the Reference genre.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Academic, but in a campy way. Lots of pseudo-scientific and abstract linear/vector elements. Details that are logical and intricate. Infographic-inspired. Colour palette: A contrast of soft pastels and dark greens and browns.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Reference Round, written in May

Background: Collage-like, colourful space with floating infographics/diagrams. Different types of grids populate the page.

Wordmark: Scientific/infographic-ish type.

Map: Atlas-like map where icons are diagrams/mini compositions. Topographic map in background.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Reference Round, written in July

I needed to pull a lot of images from different places in order to compose the collages in this round. I’m not going to reveal all of the sources and trade secrets that I used for Reference Point’s art, but I will at least mention one highly-appropriate place that I got images from. For some of the older illustrations and diagrams, I went to the New York Public Library’s website for the images in their Digital Collection that fell under the Public Domain. Their Digital Collection contains all of these incredible archive images of older charts and scientific diagrams that had just the right feel for the aesthetic we were going for in this round. Even if you’re not making art, it’s fun to explore their website just for the hell of it because you can come across some incredible images.

The header was very fun to produce but I did make it WAY too tall at first. When we first implemented the header on the website it basically took up the entire browser window. We obviously had to shrink it to make it work better for the site, but the poster that was temporarily up in the official art shop incorporated the taller original version.

One of the icons for Reference Point

As I mentioned earlier, each of the icons in the round were collages that followed specific rules. They needed to include a monochrome element in blue, another monochrome element but in red, a flat shape in yellow, a diagram or chart in gray behind all the images, and at least one full-colour piece. Sometimes there will be an additional diagram in white on top of the grey image. All of these mini-collages were placed on a square “piece of paper” that’s attached to the map with a piece of orange tape.

These icons were arranged against a green background with a topographic map pattern and around an orange “mountain path”. When puzzles are unlocked the icon shows up along with part of the path. When all the puzzles are unlocked, it forms the complete map that leads to the meta puzzle’s icon at the bottom. The green/orange colour combination was a nod to the deep woods and camouflage aesthetic, but I do think that I was subconsciously influenced by the Trailhead edition of Field Notes, which came out in 2021.

The typeface we chose for this round has some relevant personal significance. For the wordmark and the puzzle titles we chose a Google Fonts dupe of Clarendon, which is a font that appeared in a set of old encyclopedias that my family owned when I was a child. I enjoyed the content of those encyclopedias but what really stood out to me then were the divider pages that signalled the progression to the next letter of the alphabet. Each new section began with these big letters in Clarendon Bold (how I managed to remember those letterforms and recognize them years later when I came across the name of the font is beyond me), and set against a fairly simple pattern. I was really compelled by those pages, and as nerdy as it sounds, looking at them as a child is a core memory of mine. So, when I heard that we were going to do a reference-based round, Clarendon was immediately the first font that came to mind as to me, it had a pretty strong connection to the genre.

Round 3.9: Howtoona

Background, Map, and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: IKEA Manuals, Home Depot
Link: bookspace.world/round/howtoona

The penultimate area was Howtoona and is based on the How-to genre. Finding the inspiration for this area was straight-forward because out of all the non-fiction rounds, this genre had one particularly obvious reference: IKEA. The exploded axonometric drawings found in the brand’s assembly manuals instantly came to mind for the art team as the most effective visual reference for the genre. In fact, before the Concept Development phase happened, the Howtoona meta was conceptualized with IKEA as one of its inspirations. We had also been inspired partly by the Home Depot brand initially, but in essence the aesthetic we were going for was utilitarian, diagrammatic, and logical (just like its meta), with a slant of playfulness.

The Howtoona map

To make the IKEA reference a bit more obvious and to add a twist of humour to the art, I included pseudo-Swedish names for the components that are in the background. We also selected a typeface that is reminiscent of IKEA’s earlier brand standards. Before the brand switched to (the questionable choice of) Verdana in the 2000’s, IKEA had used Futura Bold as their official font for a number of decades. I don’t understand the switch myself, but Futura was a great choice that is both elegant and logical. The wordmark was made using Futura (and Illustrator’s 3-D feature, which was also what I used for the modules) but for the live text we used a Google Fonts dupe — Jost — as all the fonts on the Hunt site needed to be open-source for archiving purposes. Jost worked pretty well when paired with the axonometric modules that make up the map for Howtoona.

I really enjoy exploded axonometric drawings. As I said in Part 1, I was a student of the Environmental Design program at the Faculty of Architecture University of Manitoba (I hate how FAUM made this the canonical arrangement of words for the name of the Faculty), and I would sometimes use this style of drawing to communicate the design of my projects. That’s why I think I was able to conceptualize this round fairly quickly: I instinctively knew how the background should look and how modular the map had to appear.

That isn’t to say that the round was a breeze to put together. With this concept, there is complexity in trying to make the modules look like they make some sense when assembled, so icons in close proximity to each other needed to appear like they connect. It makes it even more complex when you’ve endeavoured to have those modules illustrated to represent the puzzle titles. Because the icons were so specific, any slight change could throw off the logic of the modules in some way. Some assembly was required, indeed.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Industrial. (Exploded) Isometric. Inspired by IKEA and Home Depot. Utilitarian. Colour palette: Grey with utilitarian oranges and yellows.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the How-to Round, written in May

Background: Isometric, logical. Floating isometric islands in background.

Wordmark: Utilitarian.

Map: An exploded isometric drawing on an isometric grid. Puzzles accessed by clicking on part of exploded iso. Each part is labeled with a number indicating what step it’s for. Steps also indicated in puzzle list that follows.

— Directions from the Sketch for the How-to Round, written in July

Speaking of changes: the first draft of this map initially indicated “steps”, and numbers from one to nine were each attached to one of the modules except for the one for the meta. The arrangement of these modules started from one at the top and nine down below, which connected to the icon for the meta located at the very bottom. I had done this originally because in a previous voice meeting with the editors I remember being emphatically instructed to include “step numbers” next to each puzzle. These step numbers were an additional clue that alphabetization and ordering was important, as the steps indicated that the answers are presented on the map in alphabetical order. When I had posted the map, which already went through a couple of revisions due to puzzle titles changing, I had first accidentally switched two icons around, thereby giving them the wrong step numbers. Only after correcting this and posting the change did the editors and writers notice months later that the alphabetization was being clued by the steps. Apparently, the editors and writers had different thoughts after the meeting and communication broke down along the way. As such, in order to make the round less grok-able, I had to rearrange the map and its modules and redraw a few icons. But as I said, because these icons were so specifically arranged and illustrated based on the modules in close proximity, it was a bit of a pain to re-illustrate, especially because we were about two weeks before launch by the time we realized that the map needed to change. Because I had much less time and a lot to do still within that two-week period, I tried to use as much of the existing content that I had and I drew the map without as much consideration about how things connect as I did in the first version. I think it turned out alright in the end but I would have liked to have had more time to reconsider the map’s logic.

Round 3.10: Sci-Ficisco

Background: Scott A. Ford
Map and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: Blade Runner, The Visions of the Future poster series from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Nob Hill in San Francisco  
Link: bookspace.world/round/sci-ficisco

The final Bookspace region to unlock in Round 3 was Sci-Ficisco, the science fiction round. Sci-Ficisco had my favourite art of the entire Hunt, and art-wise, I think it was fitting to have it last as its richness and extravagance felt like a great way to end the visual journey through Bookspace’s regions. The art for this round was mostly put together by Scott A. Ford, the last of the four Winnipeg illustrators that I commissioned for this project. Scott was someone who I’ve known for a while: a few years ago, he had been the creative director for the Uniter, the student newspaper for the University of Winnipeg, and during his tenure, he asked me to volunteer some of my time to produce illustrations for them. It was great practice for me and allowed me to explore and find my own illustration techniques, so I wanted to return the favour and give him this opportunity. In addition to that, Scott is very well-versed in the science fiction genre and his illustration style and brilliant use of colour (which is evident from his work on his website) was perfect for what I was looking for in this round.

The map for Sci-Ficisco

A lot of the initial conceptualizing dealt with the ideas of suited explorers against a vast, alien, desert landscape, or starships travelling through space. Among those inspirations we gathered, I had included one of the posters from the Visions of the Future series from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This series of posters was one of many inspirations I had fell upon through University, and it had some part in convincing me to become a graphic designer. To honour the series, I wanted to reference the work in some way. Admittedly, it isn’t immediately obvious that the series is a reference in the art, but the final product does have that exploratory, adventurous attitude that I felt the posters embody.

The concept wasn’t set in stone until the name for the area was finalized. Before I found out that the round’s namesake was going to be based on a city, I didn’t know whether the context of the narrative was going to be in that “explorer in the alien desert landscape” vibe or not. When I heard that we named it after San Francisco, I knew then that the concept had to be contextually placed in a futuristic city inspired by the real-life metropolis. In that regard, I used San Francisco’s steep Nob Hill as a reference for the concept because it’s a place that’s visually recognizable and there’s already something about it that already seems alien-looking. To make Nob Hill fit the sci-fi theme, I had asked Scott to be inspired by the movie Blade Runner as it had a specific kind of grit that I enjoyed. Referencing this movie also helped in communicating the colour story we were going for as it matched the neon-toned colour palette that we had in our moodboard.

Notes from the original moodboard and sketches for comparison:

Spirit of exploring a vast and strange landscape. Foreign and alien. Futuristic and a little campy. Colour palette: Fluorescent, bright, high-contrast.

— Direction from the Moodboard for the Sci-fi Round, written in May

Background: A Blade Runner dark/neon landscape inspired by San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Giant sun/planet in top middle, with spacecraft flying out. Neon signs and gritty, hyper modern buildings.

Wordmark: Tech-looking, tall.

Map: A holographic projection from an arm (that may or may not be human). Map content is slightly more traditional in that it looks like a trope-y sci-fi version of Google Maps. Icons are simply pins on the map with “points of interest”.

— Directions from the Sketch for the Sci-fi Round, written in July

I really didn’t need to provide a lot of direction to Scott. He pretty much got it right away. Once he was finished I added the wordmark and the map, which compared to the other areas, was much simpler than the others. With the background art being so detailed and rich, having the map be less busy was the right way to go for visual balance. Because of that, there’s not as much to report on with these maps.

The first wordmark that I added to the map was supposed to look like a holograph floating in the sky, but I wasn’t convinced by it after I had put it against the rest of the art, especially because I realized that the wordmark also had to work in other contexts (like in the Plot Device pages). I revised it later to house the type in a glitchy “screen” of sort with a metal frame, which mirrors the art we did for the meta of this round. A comparison of the two wordmarks can be seen below.

Round 3.11: The Plot Device

Background, Map, and Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Plot Device Components: Shai Nir Hana (Lake Eerie, Heartford), Mark Halpin (The Quest Coast), Eric and April Pinnick (Recipeoria, Noirleans), Nate Heiss (Sci-Ficisco), Rae Hughes (New You City), r0b Elkind (Howtoona), Ben Smith (Reference Point), Alison Muratore (Whoston)
Inspirations: Terry Gilliam's art and his movie Brazil
Link: bookspace.world/round/plot-device

When teams solve any one meta in Round 3, the Plot Device page opens to them. Each meta answer was the name of a component of the device, which teams needed to fully assemble in order to get back home. The Plot Device component that they find gets placed in this area automatically when they solve the respective meta, and they also get an additional “manual page” which tells them how to assemble the device. These pages give one final answer to help power up the device via the “Battery Pack”, which becomes available when all the feeder metas are solved.

The map for the Plot Device

The Plot Device was always part of the plan, and it being inspired by Terry Gilliam’s art was something that the editors actually had requested from the start. Thankfully, I do like Terry Gilliam’s collage work and one of his films I believe influenced my own point-of-view in my work. In University, as I was trying to get into the Faculty of Architecture, I had to take a prerequisite course on culturally-important films and books (it was basically a glorified English class). As part of the course, we had to watch and write about some of the films that we watched, and one of those movies was Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Now typically, the intensity of this movie would be something I would avoid if I was given the choice, but despite being forced to watch it, I really enjoyed this film. I didn’t take a lot from the actual message of the movie, but the cinematography, imagination, and storyline was incredible, and I was inspired by its ambition, creativity, and distinct style.

I very much loved making the art for this round. It all depended on the components themselves, of course, and the map was stalled for a bit until we had all of the components made. At first, the plan was for me to draw each of the components without input from others, but when Jenny and the video team wanted to make the components as real-life props for their videos, I stepped aside and waited for them to complete their props. Once they finished the props, they took photos of what they did and I did some Photoshop magic to make them Gilliamesque. From this exercise, we made this fantastic, surreal “device” that only makes sense if you accept that nothing makes sense — at least in this region. I personally enjoyed the fact that we had a real person as one of our components, and just like in a Gilliam piece, they’re coming out of a hole.

Left: one of the Plot Device components in the “undiscovered” state. Right: one of the Plot Device components in the “recovered” state

Sahil made a great suggestion for this round. He was always very much aware of the awkwardness of empty spaces in our maps, especially when puzzles haven’t yet unlocked. Every now and then, I would be asked to consider the emptiness of those spaces and whether it was awkward or not. Sahil pointed out that there’s just too much awkward, empty space when components aren’t installed in the Device, which was an excellent point. After a bit of discussion and brainstorming, I had put together a simple solution where undiscovered components were indicated by boxes with dashed borders. In doing that, it made the act of filling in part of the device much more fulfilling and exciting.

One of the things I was hemming and hawing about at the end was whether or not I would add angel wings behind all the pieces after the components were gathered. I didn’t end up doing that for the site, but I did include it in the animation I made of the Plot Device activating. This video would show up after teams solve the Battery Pack, which unintentionally looked like the Great Dome on MIT’s campus. Thanks goes to Lydian for pointing that out in the live stream I did about the stuff I made for the Hunt. I was very happily surprised by this little accident (and by the fact that one of the Barkers was in fact played by a person whose last name is also Barker). In any case, the video of the Plot Device activating is below. Again, please do turn on closed captioning, which was done once again by the great Jenny Gutbezahl, for the full experience.

The Plot Device Activating

The wordmark here was the first wordmark I completed, and it was finished in June, which is before the sketches were even finished. One of the ideas that I didn’t end up implementing is having the wordmark also populate letter-by-letter as components get added to the device. With 10 letters in “Plot Device”, I thought it would have been a cute detail, but I didn’t want to add too much work.

This was also the round I used to demonstrate to the other members of the art team how we would be approaching the moodboard process. I had started it by doing the exercise for just this round by myself, and after it was done, I sent it over to the other members of the team. A sketch wasn’t made for this area, as it was one of those rounds where I had a good understanding of the visual requirements.

The first moodboard of the Hunt, which was made for the Plot Device round. This was completed in April.

One other thing I *think* I can say here is that the structure of Round 3 was going to be slightly different at first, which would have affected the art of the Plot Device. Initially, there were going to be two other Ministers who would appear in Round 3: Ministers D.C. and Annex, and there were the classifications of “Major” components and “Minor” components. I forget how all of this worked but I believe we had changed this and also removed the idea of unlocking Bookspace regions to alternate between fiction and non-fiction to simplify the scope a bit. Of course the scope increased later on, and I don’t know how things would have changed if the original plan for the structure was kept in place.

Endgame: The Tollbooth

Background: Suzanna Roberts
Wordmark: Justin Ladia
Inspirations: The Phantom Tollbooth
Link: bookspace.world/tollbooth/

The Tollbooth endgame was added fairly late in the process, but because it was basically a single puzzle, this round didn’t require a map. Instead, we reused the background for Tock’s videos, and I made a new wordmark for the endgame that references the lettering seen in the poster of the 1970 film adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth.

The page for The Tollbooth

In addition to the map, I made a few other things for the endgame. When solvers enter the endgame, red book icons scatter across the website. Clicking on these red books allows the team to earn one part of the final puzzle, and it turns the books green. I also redrew the borders in the PDFs that teams received after solving the first parts of the endgame puzzle. Not much changed from the original: I just redrew it to be less pixelated and switched the font.

Top Left: a book in a “not found” state. Top Right: a book in a “found” state. Bottom: part of the leafy border found in each of the endgame PDFs.

The Coin

Contributors: Justin Ladia, Joe Cabrera, Suzanna Roberts, Jacob Ford, April Pinnick
Production: Justin Ladia

Teams that finish the endgame by paying with a “litcoin” and going through the Tollbooth, returned to the real world and found themselves in the Nexus room of the newly-renovated restored Hayden Library. The first few teams were given a final interaction where a skit played out (which was acted out by Ben Smith, Julia Wagner, and others). It was a very cute skit: basically when teams “return with Hayden Library” a book comes along with them, and in it is the story of that team’s experience in Bookspace. Hilariously, the teams’ name was written in Sharpie on the cover as a personalized touch.

The first team to make it to this final part had a slightly different experience. After Ben and Julia went through the skit and “read” the book that appeared with the winning team, teammate, the cover was opened to reveal a page named “the Coin Return Slot”. On that page was the Litcoin, a highly-detailed 2.5″ gold coin, which liked that team so much it decided to come home with them.

As a reminder for those who are reading this without knowledge of the Hunt, the Coin is what the teams search for in the Hunt. The first team to find the Coin “wins” the Mystery Hunt and are bestowed the responsibility to write the Hunt in the following year. It being a clearly important element of the event, so this year, we wanted to make this year’s Coin as beautiful and well-thought out as the rest of the Hunt.

The Coin (along with the Newberry Token). Photo courtesy of Ben Smith.

When we started the process, a few members of DAD were excited to produce art content for the Hunt and some started to iterate ideas on the coin fairly early on. Because of this level of enthusiasm from several members, I wanted to make sure people felt like they contributed to the design of the Coin so I had decided to make the process democratic and have the team openly suggest ideas. It was around August/September when I asked people for suggestions, and at that time, some of the absentee members have already dropped off. We ended up having suggestions from four other team members, and we implemented all of them. I took what the team had suggested, added a few ideas of my own, and drew up a Coin that met my requirements for what characteristics I think a well-designed Coin should have: namely, it needs to be intricate, geometric, and filled to the brim with details. Doing the brainstorming for the design democratically allowed us to pack the Coin with details and achieve that level of intricacy I was looking for, but having just one person design the Coin allowed it to have a singular focus and point-of-view.

An explainer on the details of the Coin

Above is a diagram that explains some of the details we put into the Coin and who suggested them. If it doesn’t include a name, it’s one of my contributions. I’ve also included the text from above in the table below in case it’s hard to read the image.

A Two open books flank the middle rondel
B.The “seal” of the Ministry of Intertextual Transportation
C.The year “2022”
D.Three stacked books (one per Round), with MIT in the center and IAP referenced underneath
E.Book spines running around the circumference, undulating in size. Adapted from an idea
by Jacob Ford.
F.Open books, arched and in side view, linked together to make a pattern.
G.Reference to bookplates which usually include the phrase “Ex Libris” which roughly means
“comes from the library of”. Adapted from an idea by Joe Cabrera.
H.A “bite” out of the book made by the Bookwyrm. Ada pted from an idea by Suzanna Roberts.
I.The book has 22 lines, another reference to the year 2022. Adapted from an idea by April Pinnick.
J.Three “bites” from the Bookwyrm, each one makes a vignette that tells the story of the hunt, one bite per round. Round 1 is represented by the middle bite with a “portal” in the middle. Bite on right shows the Newberry, which represents Round 2. Bite on the left represents the collected [manual] pages from Round 3. Adapted from an idea by Suzanna Roberts

The first iteration of the coin had the Very Hungry Caterpillar in place of the three vignettes at the bottom. Eric wasn’t convinced by it and thought it was a little juvenile, so we had switched it out with something less obvious. I’m glad that Eric asked for us to change it as I think it strengthened the final design.

When I imagined the Coin, I thought of it as being completely flat with the lines carved into the material. To my surprise, the manufacturers added some depth to some areas of the Coin, particularly in the open books on the bookplate side, and to the closed books on the IAP5 side. It was totally unexpected but a welcome addition to the design.

There was a total of 180 coins made and it arrived much earlier than I thought it would. I actually thought we ordered the Coin pretty late when I sent it at the end of September, considering the global supply chain issues that was gripping the world at the time, but I was mistaken. The Coin arrived at Ben’s place on November 15, 2021, months earlier than I thought it would arrive.

5 IAP stands for “Independent Activities Period”, which is the four-week period in January where MIT students are given time to more freely explore, research, and participate in activities that interest them. In 1999 and 2002, IAP was explicitly referenced in the design of the Coin. We brought it back in our Coin here as another nod to MIT and its traditions.

Part 4: My Puzzles and Other Contributions

In this part, I’ll talk about all the other things I did for the Hunt that isn’t art direction (although I talk about some puzzles by other constructors that I contributed art to), including writing my own puzzles, some things I did on the Palindrome Discord server, and the roles I played during Hunt. Please note that due to the nature of this part, there will be spoilers throughout.

My Puzzles

In total, I wrote or co-wrote six (and a half) puzzles for this Hunt. I won’t get into too much detail on each one in case you want to solve it yourself, but if you want to read the solution on a puzzle, just follow the link and click on “Solution” in the puzzle page.

  • Your Name is a Song
    • A puzzle inspired by drag. Appears in the Ministry Round, so it’s *meant* to be easier, but I don’t think it’s the easiest of the puzzles I wrote this year. I give a little more detail on this puzzle in the Author’s Notes in the Solution page. It’s a little sassy.
  • 🔔🦇🦇🦇
    • A puzzle with a 12×12 grid of images. Appears in Lake Eerie. The first version of this attempted to make the entire puzzle work with no words and just images. It was too hard, so we made it a little easier by letting go of that goal and adding a few details.
  • Fruits Stickers
    • A puzzle with a large group of seemingly inconspicuous stickers. Appears in Recipeoria. It took seven test solves before it made it past the finish line. It was excruciating at the time, but I’m glad we went through that process because it, in my opinion, ended up being my most elegant puzzle.
  • A Night Out With Your Buds
    • A puzzle about groups of friends visiting a town that only has bars. Also in Recipeoria. This was the first puzzle I wrote for the Hunt, so that’s maybe why it’s the simplest one.
  • How to Have It All
    • An intimidating-looking dump of words and numbers. Co-written with Ben Smith. Appears in Howtoona. The most interesting tidbits here are in the Author’s Notes that Ben wrote, so I won’t spoil it for you here.
    • This is the one I didn’t really write but I have the credit in there because it’s based on the registration poster I made following Jacob Ford’s original website design. Appears in Whoston. Co-written with Ben Smith, Jacob Ford, Jen McTeague, Steve Kaltenbaugh. It was inspired by people making the tired joke of “oh it must be a puzzle if they say it isn’t a puzzle” when we released the promotional images for the registration site. See below.
  • Communicating with the Aliens
    • A metapuzzle (so you’ll need the answers for all the other puzzles in the round to solve this one) that uses strange alien symbols. Co-written with Eric Berlin. Appears in Sci-Ficisco. Fairly happy that I at least got to contribute to a metapuzzle in the Hunt. Nice to have that under my belt. Thanks for that, Eric!

The Art I Made for Other Puzzles

In addition to doing the art for the Hunt as a whole, I also contributed some stuff to individual puzzles by other authors. Here’s a list of those puzzles in no particular order.

  • Sometime After Midnight by Maree Cassidy
    • A series of photo-manipulated book covers.
  • Swingin’ by Eric Berlin and Gavin Edwards
    • Lea did most of the art here, but I contributed a couple of the illustrations on the page.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by joon pahk
    • Rows Garden grid.
  • Opening Bids by joon pahk
    • Refined some of the photo-manipulated images, but didn’t do a lot of extensive work here.
  • Strange Garnets by Celestine Lau, Kah Kien Ong, Renee Ngan and Steve Kaltenbaugh
    • Made the card backs for Matches 4 and 6; the images for Match 3, and the image for “Garnet Tower Stacking”.
  • How to Install a Handle by joon pahk, Sandy Weisz, Shai Nir Hana and Steve Kaltenbaugh
    • Out of all the puzzles I contributed art to, this one had my favourite aesthetic. Did a collage-that-went-through-a-xerox-copier approach here because why not. The subject matter called for this kind of weirdness.
  • Danni Dewey by Eric Berlin
    • An almost-similar drawing of the Dewey Library, with some modifications.
  • Teach Us, Amelia Bedelia by Matthew Stern
    • I only improved the bookmarks and the book that acts as the background to the puzzle.
  • Lessons Learned from Porcine Construction by Peter Gwinn
    • A large number of collages of walls and furniture.
  • Scream by Eric Berlin and Gavin Edwards
    • Some Netflix-inspired interface images. The “show covers” were chosen by Eric and Gavin before I added some design flair.
  • Shopping List by Andrew Esten
    • The metapuzzle for Recipeoria. Lea drew individual images which I animated for the puzzle. Video can be seen below also.

I want to give credit here to my Assistant Art Director, Joe Cabrera, who did a good amount of art for puzzles. He took care of a lot of them when I didn’t have time to put them together, especially during the crunch period towards the end of 2021. Suzanna Roberts, Lea Berlin, Yao Yu, Helen Arnold, Aaron Feldman, and Jacob Ford also contributed some art for puzzles.

Solve Sounds

Contributors: Jenny Gutbezahl, Ezra Weisz, Wayne Zhao, Ben Smith, Justin Ladia
Production: Justin Ladia

Since DAD had the goal of making the Hunt immersive, and because it didn’t seem like anyone was taking care of it, I took the opportunity to lead the development of the sounds teams heard when they solved a puzzle. I had asked a smaller group of people to suggest songs and sounds they think would be appropriate for the round. Opening up the brainstorming to more people helped in making sure our references spanned different eras and genres, and I really liked the diversity we ended up having.

When I looked up the solve sounds from the last two years (it only started being a “thing” in 2020), I had noticed that each one had three distinct parts: some sort of “correct” sound effect like a bell or a chime; a musical “sting” that’s thematic to the round; and a crowd’s applause. In the previous two years, the bell or chime had been the same throughout the Hunt, but this year I also wanted to make that thematically appropriate if possible. In total, we had 15 different solve sounds, and we kept track of which clips we wanted to use in a giant spreadsheet that I used for the design of the website. Because of copyright, I can’t replay those sounds here on my website, but I will at least list those sounds for you here.

Region/RoundLayer 1 (Fanfare)Layer 2 (Sting)Layer 3 (Applause)
Round 0.0: Star RatsGeneric chime similar to the chime from 2021’s solve sounds Star Rats Theme Applause
Round 1.0: The InvestigationGeneric BellStorm, Antonio VivaldiApplause
Round 2.0: The MinistryChild-like chime/tinkleA composition by Ezra WeiszApplause
Round 3.1: NoirleansPrison door slammingDragnet ThemeApplause
Round 3.2: Lake EerieWitch cacklingEzra’s calliope musicApplause
Round 3.3: The Quest Coast BuglesSearching for Friends, Final Fantasy VI Applause
Round 3.4: New You CityElevator “ding”Good as Hell, LizzoApplause
Round 3.5: RecipeoriaOven “ding”Cooking by the Book, LazytownApplause
Round 3.6: HeartfordAngelic harpCareless Whisper, George MichaelApplause
Round 3.7: WhostonGeneric glissandoWho Are You, The WhoApplause
Round 3.8: Reference PointGeneric chirpBeakman’s World ThemeApplause
Round 3.9: HowtoonaHammer hitting metalThe Syncopated Clock, Leroy AndersonApplause
Round 3.10: Sci-FiciscoLaser gun zapDie Roboter, KraftwerkApplause
Round 3.11: The Plot DeviceGeneric chirpBrazil, Geoff & Maria MuldaurApplause
Endgame: The TollboothRailroad signalling gates openingNew World Symphony, DvorakApplause

A couple of notes here. First, Sandy’s son Ezra contributed two sounds to our Hunt. One for Lake Eerie, and another for the Ministry. I liked having Ezra contribute the music for the Ministry Round: having a kid contribute to a sound for a round completely about children’s books felt like a nice parallel. For Reference Point, I had been inspired by how the round ended up looking reminiscent of the intro to Bill Nye the Science Guy, so I wanted to initially use its theme song, but because it had accompanying vocals that I found distracting, I switched to a similar show: Beakman’s World.


I refined the design of the notifications that popped up on the site when teams completed or unlocked something in the Hunt. The notification design was generic and pulled from the previous Hunt, but because ours had *a lot* of different things that unlocked and opened, it was necessary to change the design to distinct what sort of content was made available to teams. Sandy was the one who pointed this out, and he had asked if it were possible to integrate colour and emojis in some way. Easy enough, I thought, and accessibility-wise it’s clever to use emojis as an indicator for solvers who are not able process colours in the way it was designed. We had initially included a notification when teams entered incorrect answers, which I thought was hilarious, but we decided (maybe wisely) to take that out.

The notifications design draft

Being Randy Rotch, the Minister of Architecture and Planning

In late October, Jenny Gutbezahl was looking for actors to play some of the characters in the Hunt. At first I was reluctant to volunteer because I already had a lot going on, but something told me I should go for it, so I did. After I graduated from the Faculty of Architecture, but before I became a full-time graphic designer, I had worked in the architecture and construction industry so I specifically asked if I could be one of the Ministers of Architecture and Planning. Also, I thought it would be a nice reference to have the actual designer and planner of Bookspace’s aesthetic play that role in the story. Plus, I already had the costume that was described for the Rotch Brothers, so all-in-all, it felt like a good, easy fit.

It was a lot of fun playing the role of Randy, one of the Rotch Brothers. Riley, the other Rotch Brother, was played by Mike Nothnagel, who played the character in a much calmer and less eccentric way than I did. Randy was more panicky and kind of pretentious, which I don’t think was part of the original concept but it felt right for the character. We and the other Ministers (played by Ben Smith, Renee Ngan, Maggi Rhode, and Nic) rehearsed our lines in November and we each recorded our own lines separately afterwards. Aaron and the rest of the video team put the videos together after we recorded our lines.

When Hunt rolled around, I was very excited to actually talk to other people as Randy. It didn’t happen right away since the one team interaction we had in the Hunt happened after teams solved the Ministry meta-meta. That’s why I spent some part of Friday afternoon visiting teams in their virtual Headquarters as just me, and I was sometimes accompanied by other people. It was really fun talking to the other teams, and I hope they enjoyed us visiting their spaces. Thank you to those teams that let us come in and talk to them! It really made the experience more rewarding for me and I hope we weren’t too distracting for the teams.

I believe we anticipated the first interaction to happen by Saturday, so when the first team reached the interaction by Friday night, we weren’t fully anticipating the need to be in character right away. Thankfully, Ben and I were prepared enough, so I got ready and we played our parts. I decided to have a lot more fun with the role as the night went on, and I improv’ed quite a bit. It was great fun because I didn’t really mind acting a fool in front of people. In fact, it was a nice release to just “let go” and have fun after the stress of working on the Hunt non-stop for a year. By late evening, we had more people ready to run those interactions from Australia and the West Coast, including the back-up ministers who played the roles of the Ministers when the OG actors weren’t available. Once more people were available, I didn’t do as many interactions like I did on Friday night, but I’m glad that I had at least interacted with the top teams in the Hunt.

After every interaction I did, I added a bit more “life” to the skit. I ended the subsequent interactions after the first one we did by abruptly cutting out after panicking for a few seconds with my scene partner, Ben, who played the role of Alexei, pretending that Randy forgot to exit the call before he started betraying his true feelings on the Bookwyrm’s rampage in Bookspace. I also vamped a bit more while waiting for teams to tell us they were ready, and in doing so I said some fairly stupid things which happened to add more texture to Randy’s lore. I loved playing Randy so much that in my downtime, I dropped in as him on some of the live Book Report reviews that other Pals ran via Zoom. I was told I wasn’t *supposed* to be in character as Randy when we did those reviews, but I didn’t think there would be any harm in it, and I also didn’t want to constantly get in and out of costume. I also said some interesting things as Randy during these reviews that may or may not be a little off-colour. Here’s a list of the things I said that I thought was notable:

  • After seeing one of the solvers have a Zoom background that was just a crowd of penguins: “Oh, are you surrounded by penguins? My father was a penguin.”
    • I honestly don’t know why this was the first thing that came to mind.
  • “Providence Transmutations? You know, I’ve been known to have a few provident transmutations in college.”
  • After seeing one of the solvers have camera issues and show up as a black circle against a scenic background: “You seem to be a void. I must say, you do have a nice radius.”
  • Randy: “Alexei, I’m feeling like hearing a song. Do you know Doja Cat?”
    Alexei: “Yeah, she my best friend!“
    • Alternatively, Alexei also said, “You know I don’t listen to Top 40!”. I also asked him earlier to try and play Smooth Operator, but it didn’t quite work out. We also referenced Evanescence for one team, but we didn’t get to mention Beyoncé to any of the teams.
  • “I see you’re the team Unicode Equivalence. Ah, I get it, like ‘Uni-code, Equivalence, Nerve and Talent!”
  • “I love your pink donut. Reminds me of my days in university.”
  • Baba is You? I don’t like how grammatically incorrect that is!”
  • “I’d like to draw a portrait of you.“ *scribbles in the notebook for a few seconds and shows a very bad sketch using basic shapes and lines* “Do you like it? It’s ‘constructivist’. I learned that from the Russians.“
  • “You used Steam!? You can’t build things out of vapour!”
  • After seeing one of the solvers have a rack of plants lit by what looked like the sun in the window: “Oh, is that the sun? Ah, it’s a lamp. It’s a fake sun. You know, my father called me a fake son once.”
    • This caused Tyler Crosby, who played one of the Danni Deweys, to break character for a few seconds. I don’t think the other team was as amused but I thought it was funny. My sense of humour gets a little dark when I’m stressed.
  • “Ah, it’s very Gehry-esque. I used to like him and his work until he called my brother a bad name.“
  • “In my notes, all I said was ‘yas queen, werq the house down boots’.“
    • For the interaction I did with ✈️✈️✈️ Galactic Trendsetters ✈️✈️✈️, I also *thworped* the fan I had that said “SHADE” on the front before we ended the call.
  • After asking Wayne Zhao didn’t know what to say when I asked for his opinion on a submission for the lip sync task that I had suggested for the Book Reports Scavenger Hunt: “Oh Wayne doesn’t get it, he’s too straight.“
  • “I moonlight as a drag queen when I’m not doing Minister work.“

As a little nod to what got me into the Mystery Hunt in the first place, in some of the interactions I pretended to write notes in one of the Clandestine Field Notes notebooks that I still have (along with the Code Wheel). Like I said way, way earlier, the puzzle hunt/ARG event for Clandestine is where I met Ben, Jacob, and Sandy and I liked the idea of using that reference as a little “full circle” moment. I also used a lot of the tools I was required to buy in university for design school that I don’t really need anymore. It’s nice that they still had a purpose.

After the Coin was found and the first four interactions were completed, I did a few other un-official interactions with ✈️✈️✈️ Galactic Trendsetters ✈️✈️✈️ and Cardinality when they completed the Hunt on Sunday night, but not as Randy Rotch. It was really nice chatting with those other teams, and it felt like a great way to end to the main event.

Other Miscellaneous Things

I did a few other minor things in the Hunt and in our team’s Discord server. Here’s a quick-ish rundown of those things.


I quickly designed the logo for the fake organization that we devised for the fake Star Rats theme. I also animated and voiced the Health and Safety presentation, and I made the two countdowns that followed the first countdown during the Kick-off.

The logo for the Institute for the Acquisition and Study of Hyperintelligent Creatures. Some people thought this was a reference to Harry Potter, which I wouldn’t make on purpose.

Cryptic Challenges

Inspired by a specific Discord server’s channel and from ✈️✈️✈️ Galactic Trendsetters ✈️✈️✈️’s daily exercise started by Anderson Wang using the NYT Spelling Bee, I started the channel #cryptic-clue-writing in our server. I would post the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day, and have Pals write cryptic clues that yield the Word of the Day as the answer. On Wednesdays, I gave an extra condition via an “Extra Spicy Challenge”, “Spaghetti Saturdays” asked Pals to form an additional cryptic clue which yields the answer to a spaghetti-ing of the Words of the Day from the previous weekdays, and “Bonus Challenges” asking for a new cryptic clue based on an entirely different set of conditions happened on Sundays. Katie Hammill and Kevin Wald participated daily, and always managed somehow to meet every single challenge no matter what I threw at them.

Here’s a selection of challenges I threw at the team:

  • The first letters of your clue must spell out the word PALINDROME.
  • Your clue must be a pangram.
  • Include at least three words with the same consonantcy – ie, words that share the same consonants in the same order.
  • The first letters of the words in your clue should be alphabetically consecutive. The order can go from A to Z or from Z to A, and if a word in your clue begins with Z the next word can begin with A or vice versa. Your first word can start with any letter.
  • Include at least two words from a non-English language in your clue.
  • Your clue should entirely be made up of titles of songs. Optionally, for even more spice, present your clue by only using links to the songs on Spotify or YouTube.
  • The letters of your clue must follow a consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel pattern. The letter Y can count as a vowel or a consonant and you can start with either a consonant or a vowel.
  • Write a clue using only one-syllable words.
  • Vowels in your clue must cycle through a pattern of a, e, i, o, u, looping back to “a” as necessary. Your first vowel may start with any of the five vowels.
  • Your clue must read like a four-line poem with an ABAB rhyming scheme.
  • Write a clue that yields the name of a song by ABBA. Your clue must either have four words in a row that goes by an A B B A rhyming scheme, or four words in a row that begin with the letters A B B and A in order. You could also do both (if you’re feeling EXTRA flirty).
  • Write a clue that yields an answer that is associated with the word “shock”. Four consecutive words in your clue must each respectively start with the letters A C D and C in that same order.
  • Each word in your clue must have more letters than the previous word.
  • Do not include the definition of the answer in your clue. Instead, the first letters of the words in your clue should altogether spell out the definition.
  • Each word in your clue must begin with the letter that the previous word ends with. The first word must begin with the letter at the end of the last word.
  • Write your clue in the form of a haiku.
  • Every word in your clue must contain the same number of letters. That length is up to you to determine.
  • The words in your clue, from first to last, must be in alphabetical order. The first word can begin with any letter, and you cannot wrap from Z to A.
  • Write a clue that yields a word that becomes a punny pageant name when you add the word MISS in front of it (e.g. Miss DEMEANOUR).
  • False Friends (it was bound to happen eventually)! Write a clue that yields an English word that is a false friend/cognate in another language. In your clue, however, you must somehow include a word or words that reference/s what that false friend’s definition actually is in the other language. For example: Gutting a prawn to bread a sloth is a bother. (4) The answer is pain (P+[AI]+N), which in French means bread.
  • We always see the names of Greek and Roman gods in puzzles, but there’s plenty of other cultures with mythologies of their own. Write a clue where the answer is the name of a god from an ancient mythology that isn’t Greek or Roman.
  • It’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day! Write a clue in Pirate speak that yields an answer that contains the letters ARR consecutively and in order.
  • Think of an iconic movie and a recognizable phrase or line that came out from that movie. Write a cryptic clue where the answer is the movie. The clue should have the same number of words as the phrase or line from that movie, and each word must start with the same first letters.
  • Your clue must solve to a single word (that is at least four letters long) found in the *BONUS* clue that was last submitted by another person and must ALSO include the first name or nom of the person who wrote that clue.
  • It’s the Neverending Cryptic! The answer to your clue must be the title of a movie that was released between 1990 and 2021. However, the clue must begin with the word that the last person’s Bonus Clue ended with.
  • Today, we’ll be playing “WHO’S THAT POKEMON?”, but instead of using silhouettes as the game usually does, we’ll use cryptic clues! Write a cryptic clue about any one of the first-generation Pokémon. Gotta write ‘em all! Just kidding. Don’t do that. Don’t try to write a cryptic clue for each of the 151 Pokémon. We’re not building a Crypto-zoological Pokedex.
  • Write a clue about a musical, preferably one that is currently your favourite. However, each of the words in your clue can only begin with the letters of the notes of the musical scale: A, B, C, D, E, F or G.
  • Think of something that you ate this past week. Construct a clue about it that is written in the form of a recipe or as an instruction from a recipe.

If a clue gets five or more of the same emote reactions, the clue gets added to a “Hall of Fame”, which I commemorated by turning the clue into a simple, colourful image. In the end, there were 19 entries that made it into the Hall of Fame.

The Cryptic Clue Writing Hall of Fame

The Cryptic Clue Writing challenges was the seed that inspired the Cryptic Dixit event that was part of the Hunt. I officially ended the challenge the day before Hunt, but at the time of writing this, the Pals are still going at it without my direction.

The Art Store

For a few weeks, until February 12, I put up some of the art in Redbubble for solvers to purchase, in case they wanted to own a piece to remind them of our Hunt. At the time of writing, 455 individual items had been sold in the shop. Unsurprisingly, the Zappy sticker/magnet drawn by Lea Berlin was the most popular item, accounting for just over 20% of total sales. All proceeds from the shop went to the MIT Puzzle Club.

A Couple of Memes, Without Context

Part 5: Summary

Whew. That was a lot, which is unsurprising considering that I did a lot of work on this Hunt. I don’t tend to realize how much I take on until I start to reminisce about it, and then it all hits me at once. To me, it always feels like I’m not doing enough, and I always strive to make sure that I’m doing well, even if I don’t know exactly what to do. I think this post was so long because of that sense of ambition but I also wanted to make sure that future writing teams knew the extent of the work we did and maybe learn the things they should or shouldn’t do when running their own Hunt.

After the wrap-up on Monday, I immediately had to go back into “real-life” mode because I forgot that I scheduled an appointment a couple of hours after it was over. It felt abrupt to go out into the world and be a regular human again after being in a three-day whirlwind that we made ourselves after a year of hard work. It seemed like nothing had changed even though I knew I had, and the people in Winnipeg were none the wiser. I wished that I was there in person at MIT instead of having to immediately be hit by the reality of being in Winnipeg. I was pretty sad that the Omicron variant made it less safe for me to travel to Boston and celebrate finishing this process in person with the Pals, but regardless, the remote experience was still worthwhile.

The world was different after I stepped outside. It felt foreign to experience it and exist without the weight of Hunt looming over. I sat in a taxi to go to an appointment that afternoon, and it was a few minutes after I left my front door that the rush of tiredness hit me. I felt very unwell on that car ride and I wondered if it was all worth the trouble.

There was still work to be done after the Hunt was over. I set up the art shop later that week, and on Saturday, we did an all-hands post-event meeting after the AMA where we talked about what worked and what could have been improved. I was the second-last person to speak, and when it was my turn I was surprised to learn how the burden of the Hunt affected me after hearing all of the things other people in the team had to say. I don’t want to get too personal about what’s been said, but I shocked myself by talking about some things I didn’t think I would have shared otherwise. After that, I had the best sleep I’ve ever had in a year. I could still feel the effects of working on Hunt non-stop even a couple of weeks later, and I didn’t really want to think about the event or writing puzzles, or speculate on the future of Hunt, or talk about how we could have improved the structure, or whatever. I just wanted to not deal with it for a while.

A few days before the Hunt I would have said that I would do it all over again, even after just two years. Right now, I’m not sure I would be as eager. I know I want the opportunity to run the Hunt again in person, which we didn’t get to do this year, but I don’t think I’d want to do that right away. For now, I just want to exist and enjoy the downtime.

All-in-all, despite how difficult it was, I’m grateful for the experience and for the people I worked with on this Hunt. I’m happy with how it all turned out, I’ve made my mark on this Hunt, and I helped a few others make theirs. I did what I had set out to do, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that unless the team trusted me. It’s rare to get a project like this, so I don’t take the experience for granted. I don’t think I would have done as good of a job if Palindrome wasn’t the team that it was, so I’m happy that I got to do this with them. Also, I should say that James Sugrono, Renee Ngan, and Ben Smith were my biggest cheerleaders in this process, so extra thanks goes out to them.

Not everyone in the community understood or found value in the art, but there is a good percentage of people who appreciated the work. If you were one of the people to express their appreciation online or via the survey, know that I’ve read it all. Your words made us feel like it was worth all the trouble, so our deepest thanks goes out to you. We hope we did you proud.

Part of me wonders if I’ve peaked. Have I put together the greatest design project I would ever make in my lifetime? Will I ever make anything as good as or better than this Hunt? It’s hard to know, but it’s going to be hard to beat. Not a lot of people can say that something you made was seen by at least five thousand people, and that Weird Al Yankovic now has something you’ve designed. But like I said earlier, a lot of the things I end up doing happen because of fortuitous circumstances and because of that, I don’t know what’s coming next. That’s thrilling to me and I can’t wait to find out what’s coming my way.

Oh, if you’re wondering what the final word count of this lengthy wrap-up post was, it’s 27,372.

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