Guess what: those tricky mystery riddles are never easy to design. The idea has to be evaluated and brought into life, just to be crushed by painful user tests and then adjusted over and over again until it’s easy enough to solve — but difficult enough to not solve fast.
When we started out with riddles, we wanted to have an entertaining yet challenging game that wouldn’t be easy to crack, and would keep our dear readers busy for quite some time.
In the past, we’ve played with file names, labyrinths, Twitter handles and letters. In our test lab, we also tried out what we could do with mirrors, signage design and public Spotify playlists, but they proved to be way too difficult to solve (well, maybe they’ll be used one day after all!). In fact, if one out of 12 testers manages to successfully solve a riddle within two hours, that’s an indicator of success. Oh, those testers — poor souls!
The Riddle That Never Was
Now, sometimes things work out well, and other times they don’t. Some of you might remember a rather infamous mystery riddle which was announced in early September last year but was never resolved. The truth is we failed with that one — there was no winner, and for many readers it was way too complicated and time-consuming.
How did it work? Well, we decided to play hide’n’seek. We’ve hidden secret keys in different physical locations across the world. To move from one level to another, you’d have to find a hidden printout in a physical location. It meant you had to search for somebody in your social network who lived close to the physical location of the riddle’s key and actually go there to pick it up. That’s why some readers complained about the rules being unfair: what if your social circle didn’t reach people from those physical locations? Well, the idea was exactly that — explore your network and build connections to find the clues!
Well, if it sounds complicated, it is — and it was also extremely difficult to coordinate all of those physical locations to keep the riddle’s key in an agreed place for at least a week. We also had to find people who would place the keys right on time in just the right place in London, Paris, New York and Berlin. You know how difficult it is to set up a meeting with people working remotely? Well, you can imagine that setting up the exact time when everybody would hide the keys in different locations wasn’t a particularly easy task.
Sometimes it took quite a lot of persuasion and stubbornness. And of course, just a few days before the announcement, when the riddle was already designed and tested, we had to change the location. Fun times!
For each location, we created a one-page PDF with a clue that would be hidden in a specific place in a specific physical location. That printout would contain a key and a link to the next level.
Mystery Revealed: Hide’n’Seek Across The Globe
So, let’s get to the bottom of this. In the first animation, it wouldn’t be difficult to figure out that we are looking for a pub in London, but, well, there are very many pubs in London! The file name hints at a message in a bottle (01-the-message-in-the-bottle.gif), and if we look closely we see a green pear cider (sometimes called a perry in the UK) next to a suspiciously contemplative character in a chair. Well, maybe our “message” for the next level is actually hidden in a pear cider — now that’s what we should be looking out for!
But who could the characters represent? Well, a bartender could be pretty much anybody, but that suspicious character in the chair looks very much like Sherlock Holmes, doesn’t he? Oh, wait a second, isn’t there the Sherlock Holmes Pub right next to the Embankment underground station? Bingo!
Our dear friend Rade Brujić, living in London, was able to convince Sue, the owner of the pub, to hide a little message in a pear cider bottle on one of the bottle shelves in the pub — it was there for almost a week! Unfortunately, only a few people went to extremes of actually going to the pub and finding the message. (Obviously, they’ll be getting the prizes as well.)
The message in the bottle would lead to an animated GIF pointing us towards Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, or more precisely, a famous coffeehouse in Berlin. We didn’t get permission to hide the message inside, so we had to hide it outside! Courtesy of our dear friends Emanuela Damiani and Matteo Cavucci who live in Berlin.
After a (sensational) coffee break, we would be prompted to go explore a pizzeria in New York, just around the corner on Broadway — or more precisely, as the file name said, follow-the-flower-on-50th-street.gif. Well, as you can imagine, hiding anything around the Manhattan area wasn’t particularly easy. Tin Kadoić helped us hide the key taped behind a flower pot. Chances are high that it’s still there!
Eventually, you would have to travel back to the other side of the ocean and explore… yes, of course, Paris. The hint “Jules Verne” would bring you quite close to the Jules Verne Restaurant at the Eiffel Tower.
Well, we couldn’t hide anything at the Eiffel Tower, but we did find the closest spot. Initially, we wanted to put the key on the actual Eiffel Tower, but the entire area around Paris was shut down just a few hours before the riddle started, so we had to compromise on taping the key to the closest street lamp (the police didn’t like it, though, either!) You never know, it might still be there! Courtesy of our dear friend Herve Mischler living in Paris.
Obviously, our smashing friends had to visit the places either a few times a day or at least once a day — to ensure that the hints were still where they were supposed to be.
But it didn’t help. We didn’t have a winner. While the riddle didn’t quite work out, we still had the animated GIFs, thoroughly designed and tested, so we let the steam cool off, and revisited the riddle for a new opportunity — which was the announcement of the SmashingConf NYC last week.
The Mystery Riddle That Was
Given the experience of our previous attempt, we had to entirely rethink the challenge of the new riddle and relax the rules to make it slightly easier to solve. While bound to the physical locations hinted at in the animated GIFs, we looked into ways of discovering these places from hints and constructing a solution out of them, piece by piece.
Let’s walk through the riddle and find all those tricky little keys — and announce the winners as well, of course!
Level 1: The New York Pizzeria
You know what to expect from a mystery riddle. Animated GIFs that never stop. Ambiguous hints in the filenames. And probably a few traps along the way. The new riddle had it all, yet the most difficult part (as always) was to figure out a way of constructing the key that would bring you to the next level. It would usually take a bit of experimentation — and oh boy, it did take a lot of experimentation in our tests.
So, we have a GIF containing a location clue. We have to find a few secret hashtags by going through the five levels of the riddle. But does it actually mean there are five hashtags to be found? Or are there more of them hidden? Well, we’ll figure that out soon!
We see a night scene with skyscrapers in the background and an open pizzeria, and one of them looking remarkably like the Empire State Building. The image caption prompts us to seek out the address. Also, apparently, spaces are overrated (what spaces though — in the pizzeria? — confusing!) The file name says “broadway-never-sleeps” which is a definite nod to New York City — ah, right, that’s where that weird conference that the riddle is dedicated to takes place!
So we have to find the place. What hints do we have? Well, if we look very closely at the sign next to the pizzeria, we’ll find “309 West”. That’s useful. We’re basically searching for a pizzeria at 309 West in New York City, and it’s located not far from Broadway. Searching for “309 West New York City pizzeria broadway” leads us to quite a few pizza places, but only one of them — the Don Antonio Pizzeria — is located at 309 West 50th Street in New York City! That wasn’t so difficult! But how do we get to the second level now?
As it turns out, there are many ways of turning a physical address into a hashtag. For one, should you include the ZIP code or not? What about the city? And what about abbreviations, such as “St” for “Street”? After a bit of experimentation, we could get frustrated and call the pizzeria (which some readers did!), or send a message to poor Don Antonio on Facebook or Twitter. Surprisingly, the owners of the place have no idea about any sorts of hashtags, and pizza with hashtags is probably out of question either!
Wait a second! Remember, “Spaces are overrated”. So what if we construct a hashtag by removing the spaces first? Well,
#309West50thStreet sounds like an option. Bingo! Now we’re getting somewhere!
All right! So we have to recognize the place, check for addresses, remove the spaces, construct the hashtag and search for this very hashtag on Twitter to move to the next level. And once we’ve got to the last level, we put all of those hashtags together and we’re done. Great! Sounds doable. Let’s get to work then!
Level 2: Seeking That Playwright
According to the hint in the tweet, we’ll have to deal with playwrights on the next level. And indeed, we see our mysterious character reading a book, apparently Jules Verne’s book, on a bench somewhere — with a coffee and croissant nearby. Next to him we see a map with a model of a building and a logo that looks like it could be a coat of arms of a city. However, it’s really difficult to recognize that coat of arms, and the building doesn’t look particularly unique.
Right, let’s look at the file name: playwright-who-never-been-to-venice.gif. That’s a bit… well, ambiguous! What does it actually mean? The coat of arms of Venice looks remarkably different from the one depicted in the animation, so that must be a wrong lead. Or is it?
Well, we know that there must be a connection with Jules Verne here somewhere. So let’s explore the author first. For one, he was a French novelist, and despite us not believing in stereotypes at all, a croissant might be a hint to France. Ah, wait a second: what are we looking for? A physical location. So what locations could be connected to Jules Verne? Perhaps some famous place from one of his books? Well, this could take a while to research. Luckily, his books are mostly science fiction novels, and they could refer to Icelandic volcano Snæfellsjökull, Cape Horn in the Pacific Ocean or London. Hmmm, all dead ends.
But what’s the connection with Venice? Hold on for a second. Jules Verne was born in the seaport of Nantes, France, and isn’t Nantes known as… the “Venice of the West”? Bingo! Coat of arms? Check! We’re almost there.
So what’s that building whose model we see on the picture? Well, it must be a famous one, so if we look at the most famous landmarks of Nantes, eventually… Right! Eventually we stumble upon Tour LU, which is actually the most iconic building of Nantes! The address? Right! 2 Quai Ferdinand Favre, which of course translates into
#2QuaiFerdinandFavre, which of course is correct!
However, it’s not the only hashtag hidden in the GIF. Just as well you could be searching for #LesChantiers which stands for the very unique Les Machines de l’île park where some exhibits are dedicated to Jules Verne. Or #4CoursOlivierdeClisson, the building where Jules Verne was born, and where you’ll find a Jules Vernes Restaurant these days. Or #3Ruedel’Hermitage where the Jules Verne museum is located. Surprisingly, most winners discovered only the first or the last hashtag. Nobody came up with more than one hashtag, though!
So, are we done with this level already? Not so fast! If you look closely, the second hashtag from the first level, #309West50thSt, actually leads us to a slightly modified level 2, which is not identical with the one we just passed! There we see a similar GIF, but with an Eiffel Tower placed on the map. Well, there is a famous Jules Verne place in Paris, of course, and it’s the Jules Verne Restaurant right at the Eiffel Tower! #AvenueGustaveEiffel is the address, but it’s actually a dead end. Yes, it’s a trap — well, good that we didn’t let ourselves be fooled!
The next level leads us to a study in green. Hmmm, what could it all be about?
Level 3: A Study In… Green
Well, that’s how fast it can be: once again, we’ve changed our location entirely and landed in what appears to be a pub – a British pub, to be precise. To be even more specific, a pub in London — at least, that’s what the Embankment underground station sign on the map and Big Ben outside the window seem to hint at! Since the hint is a study in green (cider), according to the file name, that’s probably what we should focus on here.
So that mysterious character in the chair — well, he doesn’t show his face so we can’t recognize him, but given his appearance and a pipe and a deerstalker, he looks surprisingly similar to… well, Sherlock Holmes? And doesn’t the title relate to A Study in Pink, the first episode of the TV series Sherlock, loosely based on the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet? Seems almost obvious at this point!
It has to be a pub related to Sherlock Holmes. In fact, something as simple as “Sherlock Holmes Pub” gives us something that looks suspiciously right — the Sherlock Holmes Pub, #10NorthumberlandSt — which is also located very close to Embankment!. Bingo!
Apparently, Mr. Holmes liked brandy more than cider, but that won’t stop us from moving to level 4.
Level 4: Good Coffee Spot Is Tough To Spot
After a short visit to London, we now seem to be teleported to… well, somewhere else! Apparently, good-coffee-can-be-tough-to-spot.gif gives us a clue that we should be looking for a coffee house. But where are we exactly? Well, Prenzlauer Berg is a locality of Berlin, Germany, so we seem to be searching for a location in Berlin. What could it be?
Well, we do see bad weather in Berlin, but that’s not really a surprise, and coming from London, it’s not really hugely different. Those Ampelmännchen, the symbol shown on pedestrian signals in the former East Germany, give us a hint that we should be looking at the East German part of Berlin. And we have a passing driving car — but it’s not just any car, but a Trabant, a car that was produced by a former East German auto maker VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau. Oh yes, the German language is known for its concise and short words!
But that animation doesn’t relate to a coffee house at all! Out of all places, there must be hundreds of coffee houses in Berlin! Oh, wait a second! If we slow down the animation, we can actually spot “THEBARN” on the car’s license plate. This could be a hint! Indeed, a search for “THEBARN” returns a coffee roasters’ place called “THE BARN”! #Auguststraße58, right? Oh, it seems to be not quite the right one. Ah, #SchönhauserAllee8 then — those little sneaky traps!
Good, we are almost there! Good coffee can be tough to spot, but not when you’re in Berlin. The final challenge lies ahead. Bring it on!
Level 5: Not Far Away From Hong Kong
Alright, well, at least it’s not raining any longer! Indeed, we are in a cozy cocktail bar, apparently “not-far-away-from-hong-kong”, with a small sign “28” next to the ice cubes in the cocktail. Well, one thing is pretty clear: we are looking for a cocktail bar. But it could be almost anywhere — we need to narrow down the search a little bit!
“28” isn’t a strong enough clue, so we have to search elsewhere. The location isn’t far away from Hong Kong, but it doesn’t mean that it’s actually located in Hong Kong. We are probably looking to Asia, though, and if we look closely at the image, we recognize a quite familiar lion in the upper-left corner. What is it again? Haven’t we seen it somewhere already? Well, it doesn’t seem to be related to Hong Kong.
We could explore what’s close to Hong Kong but there are many, many, many options to choose from. What about exploring the connections between lions and Asia instead? Apparently, there are many lions in Asia, and if we look for the right one stubbornly enough, we can find just the one — Merlion’s lion head, the symbol of Singapore!
But what’s the connection between Singapore and Hong Kong and 28? Aaaaah! How mischievous! There is a 28 Hong Kong Street cocktail bar – in fact one of the world’s 50 best bars from 2015 – located on… 28 Hong Kong Street in Singapore! So is it, is it, is it… #28HongKongSt or #28HongKongStreet? It is!
And if you look a bit harder, you might even discover SmashingConf Singapore 2017, coming late February in 2017! And no, it’s not a joke — although the conference will not be taking place in the small bar, of course! Well, the time to raise a cocktail glass would be now!
It looks like we’ve reached our destination! Time to collect the hashtags and tweet them out! Obviously, you could concatenate all the keys together in one single hashtag (which probably created the longest hashtag ever) or tweet them separately. Both options would be acceptable!
#309W50thStreet #2QuaiFerdinandFavre #10NorthumberlandSt #SchönhauserAllee8 #28HongKongStreet
Mystery Solved! And The Winners Are…
To be perfectly honest, having spent an hour observing the tweets after the riddle had been announced, we were getting nervous and skeptical about its difficulty. In our tests, around an hour was necessary to detect the clues if you had to actively search for them and couldn’t jump to the right hunch quickly.
It worked though. It took Danny Broughan 1 hour and 48 minutes to find all the keys and tweet them out. Just minutes later, we started seeing many tweets containing all the clues, and we must admit that some of them must have been copied and pasted since all the keys were identical. However, every level had at least two keys that were very different, so if somebody actually went through all the level, the chances are high that they should have found at least a few different keys.
Based on this, here are the winners of the mystery riddle:
https://twitter.com/peiledoir/status/692026312949698561 https://twitter.com/asinnema/status/692030340299362304 https://twitter.com/helloanselm/status/692029373260677120 https://twitter.com/Shanninchen/status/692369836643610625 https://twitter.com/michaelmior/status/692499071186112512
Of course, we haven’t forgotten about the people who made an effort to actually explore the physical locations of our hints in September, and they’ll be rewarded as well. If we missed your tweet for some reason, please send us the URL to your original solution @smashingmag and we’ll update the list of winners!
Congratulations! Thank you to everyone who participated! We hope we didn’t waste too much of your productive work time (and didn’t cause too many headaches either).
Behind The Scenes
Just like the last time, we worked with talented Guillaume Kurdjian on a series of animated GIFs for the riddle. This time, the discussion thread wasn’t particularly long, but we did make some final changes at the last minute, getting to the fringes of patience and stubbornness!
All designs were a series of iterations to make the overall riddle not necessarily perfect, but just right. So a big “thank you!” to Guillaume for following through and being so enthusiastic and kind about all the changes made.
Also, a kind “thank you” to all the friends who sent out quite ridiculuous, spammy and unrelated tweets at just the right time, so that this game would become possible in the first place. They kind of compromised their Twitter accounts for a little while — thanks Marc Thiele, Denys Mishunov, Sara Soueidan, Alla Kholmatova, Markus Seyfferth, Sarah Drasner, Heydon Pickering, Marco Hengstenberg, Yoav Weiss and others! You are truly smashing!
So this is it! It was quite a journey, but we hope it was worth it. We are really sorry about all the unproductive hours that you spent solving the riddle. Well, kind of. Now, are you ready for the next round? ;-) Stay tuned!