Perplex City SF Connection: What Went Wrong

I’ve been a big fan of pretty much everything Perplex City since I was told about it. It’s a combination treasure hunt, alternate-reality game, and collection of puzzles–absolutely right up my alley. I have been buying and solving cards, passing the word on to other people, generally being a cheerleader for what I think is a very clever, very creative way to play games in the new, hyperconnected, Internet-driven world.

But today kinda sucked. The first US-based live event for Perplex City went down today at the Palace of Fine Arts; I have been planning to attend for several weeks now, and I put together a crack team: Kat, expert on mythology, avid reader, and all-around smart chick; Fast Times keyboard player Jude, a Ph D with a yen for chemistry and math; his wife Wendy, another doctor who knows lots of academic stuff and is great at checking logic; and Fast Times vocalist Kimzey, longtime SF resident and our designated tour guide/wheelman, who could help us get from place to place around the city quickly and cheaply. We were told we’d be running around the city solving puzzles and we wouldn’t need our computers; this was not a laptop kind of game. “No doubt some teams will bring along all sorts of gizmos like laptops, GPS devices and binoculars, but they won’t do you much good,” said the official website. “The most useful thing you can bring along with you is a sharp mind.” Cool.

So imagine my shock when we finally tear open our puzzle packet and find four of the five questions we’ve been challenged to answer are about…The Rock, the 1996 movie starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. No, not cool things like “go to the filming location and bring back information or retrieve this object” but bullshit like “What does Nicholas Cage say at 48:55 into the movie?” and “What ancient Greek general does Sean Connery compare himself to in the interrogation scene?” That’s right–I got a team of five very smart people together and we all dragged our asses into San Francisco…so we could watch a fucking 10-year old movie. We had no DVD player. We had no laptop. We were expected to go find/rent/buy a copy of the movie and watch it “somewhere” to come up with the data. That is not a San Francsico scavenger hunt; that is a trivia contest for people sitting at home, playing along on the Internet. And several hundred people were; why was this puzzle even GIVEN to in-person players? Let them figure it out at home, happily doing their part. We spent the first hour or so on our cell phones trying to call someone, anyone who might have the movie in their collections or could look the stuff up on the Internet on our behalf…which entirely defeats the purpose and joy of an in-person scavenger hunt event.

I was a mix of disappointed and pissed, so we decided, as a team, that we were going to trade our puzzles for ones we were actually equipped to solve–we had all-day bus passes, and this seemed like a stupid way to use them. The paperwork said if you can’t solve the puzzles, answer the ones you can and they would pass them on to other players; if there was time, you’d be given extra ones (and other teams we’d seen had as many as five sets of puzzles). So we went in and were told “Sorry, I can’t give you any more puzzles. You should find other people who are also working on that puzzle and see if you can pool your resources.” Um, okay, who are they? Nobody knows. Puzzles were distributed randomly and nobody knows who’s working on what until people come back with the right answers.

I got pissed and started rather loudly pointing out to one of the PR people in a room of attendees that this was shitty puzzle design–you don’t mobilize people to send them back home to watch TV. Some complaining got us a second puzzle pack after all, this one much more in line with what it should have been: Go to Grace Cathedral and solve some experiential/location-based puzzles and trivia questions (ie, how many turns are in the labyrinth there, and what sculpture can you see when you stand between the 7th and 8th turns, etc). We went there and had a good time, even helped a few other people solve their puzzles while we were there. It’s around this time that Fast Times bassist Tim, who had a scheduling conflict and was bummed that he was not involved, called back and said he was going to go buy The Rock and get those answers for us. He totally saved our asses–by watching the scenes, he got everything we needed except one clue that we had been struggling with all day.

That clue was “Have a look under the bench where Sean Connery meets his daughter. What’s his next word?” That bench is at the Palace of Fine Arts, home base for the Perplex event, but we’d heard that the bench had since been removed. There was no bench. We looked at all the other benches. No messages under them. Tim confirmed that Connery does not look under the bench in the film, but gave us some dialogue that might be the answer. We found out after everything was all over that we were supposed to go to where the bench USED to be and look in the dirt for a hidden message. Well, guys, I hate to be a nitpicker here, but don’t tell me to look under the bench if there is no bench. This is not the goddamned Matrix. The phrasing of the question sucks. Say what you mean.

We noted that the schedule said 3pm was “Begin returning to the Palace of Fine Arts” and 3:30 was the “Deadline for activating the San Francsico Connection.” We got back at 3:25, eager to enter our answers but we were ushered into the auditorium where we found out, ta da, everything was done. Our answers were too late to be counted, game over, yay, everybody wins. All that and we didn’t even get the satisfaction of helping in the co-op game. We were at least able to check our answers later and found that we got them right, including one that nobody else answered correctly. But even that was one that we needed a lot of help from people on the phone with Google to solve.

The basic problem is this, and it should not even have to be explained to anybody who makes, plays, or respects games in any form: If you set up rules, follow them. Don’t tell people they won’t need laptops, then pass out puzzles that someone needs the Internet to solve. Don’t say you can come back if you cannot find the answers and not honor that statement. Don’t tell people things will happen at one time and then make them happen at another. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

I still like Perplex City. The master game with the cards, the ARG, and the treasure hunt still tickles my fancy. But I found the live event extremely frustrating and disheartening.

It’s sobering to think that I would have been more helpful to my team if I had simply never attended at all.

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