IFComp 2011: Hat Mystery

OK, something very cool happened last night that people watching the IF Comp from the outside should be told about. An enigmatic post appeared on the forum at int.fiction.org:

No one has yet put together the full truth. Will the man with the hat ever be redeemed?

(signed) Lyman Clive Charles, Pam Comfite, Cameron Fox, and Edmund Wells.

The four signers are the authors of Cold Iron, Playing Games, Last Day of Summer, and Doctor M, respectively. Since Edmund Wells was known to be a pseudonym, it seemed likely that the other three were as well.

This sparked excited discussion on IFmud, the MUD were various IF authors and enthusiasts gather. No one seems to have suspected a connection between them beforehand, but once you isolate them like this, some patterns jump out. Yes, all four involve a mysterious stranger in a vaguely-described hat — although in Doctor M, the one where he plays the largest role, he isn’t wearing the hat when you meet him; he’s lost it and you have to find it for him. Which links to another commonality: in all four games, you trade a found item to the stranger for something else. Furthermore, the items are repeated from game to game: you trade a pocket watch for a gemstone in Games, a gemstone for a knife in Iron, a knife for a hat in Summer, and a hat for a watch chain in Doctor M. Clearly something was up. Other confirming details became apparent. For example, both Iron and Summer prominently feature a storybook written by a reverend, and a set of four paintings in Doctor M clearly depict scenes from each of the four games, once you’re sensitized to the connection.

A few hours later, a collaborative effort had put together the clues found in all four games and finally redeemed the man in the hat. I won’t go into detail here — Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin has posted a near-complete transcript of the proceedings if you’re interested — but it turns out that some of the games involved contain hints for actions you can perform in other games, some involving details that served no obvious purpose within their own context.

Once the riddle was solved, the authors unmasked themselves. Lyman Clive Charles tuned out to be Zarf himself, who had been discreetly observing the unraveling without comment. This surprised me, because Cold Iron had seemed rather cursory and incomplete, but I suppose that’s because so much of its content was bound up in the hat mystery. Also surprising is that Doctor M is the first released work by its author, Mike Hilborn. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Apparently the authors were hoping that someone would discover the secret during the Comp, and worried that the clues were too obvious, that people would pick up on the secret too quickly. It’s always hard to judge how difficult a puzzle is without testing it on people, which is difficult for secret puzzles like this one. I recall that Kit Williams, creator of the treasure-hunt book Masquerade, expected it would take a week or two for someone to solve its puzzle and find the jewel, but in the end, even the person who claimed the prize turned out to have cheated.

For my part, I recall noticing two indescribable hats in two of the games I played in close proximity, but thought of it as just a funny coincidence, not worth mentioning in my reviews. The thing is, there were a lot of funny coincidences in this Comp. I myself joked in a previous post about collusion between the authors of all the detective games. I mentioned the odd coincidence of two games about little girls playing hide-and-seek, but I didn’t even realize at the time that both were by Australians. Even the games in the hat mystery have strong connections to ones not involved. Cold Iron and Last Day of Summer both involve a rustic’s relation to a reverend, but so does Beet the Devil, which, like Playing Games, uses a tunnel hidden by a bush to divide the prologue from the midgame. (If I had noticed this during the Comp, I probably would have wasted some time searching Beet the Devil for that storybook.) Furthermore, 38 games is a lot, so without that nudge advising us to look at that group of four together, we didn’t really have a foothold. The nudge, however, is all it took.

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