Solution: Darker Doki
Answer: FILM NOIR
Written by Andrew Hauge
The actual puzzle page is rather scant here, to the point that it lacks even flavor text, and is just a mysterious link. Upon clicking the link, solvers are able to open or download a PDF file which, according to the first page, is a "Romance Choice Adventure" called The Academy in Autumn. The style of the cover, as well as the structure of the story, are reminiscent of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series of novels, where the story sometimes allows you to turn to a particular page among two or more options.
When you read through the story, you find that what initially seems like a cutesy high school romance story featuring four girls: Harriet, Bobbie, Emi, and Zoe. They're each described as having a different hair color, and they're introduced in turn in the first couple of pages. Then, the story takes a quick turn into something darker, when Harriet disappears and is presumed dead. From there, each choice you make puts you on the path to a bad ending that generally involves betrayal or some other dark twist.
As you read through the story options, you'll notice several letters that are colored strangely in the text. If you group them by color, you get the following words (ordered as you find them when reading through the story):
- INITIALS (blue)
- SENTENCE (white)
- PAGES (red)
- UNREACHABLE (pink)
These four colors correspond to the listed hair colors of the four girls in the story, and if you order the words by the order that the girls first appear in the story (or by their appearance on the cover of the book), you get SENTENCE INITIALS UNREACHABLE PAGES as a cluephrase.
You might have noticed by this point, but within the book, not every page is reachable by the choices you make. If you flip through the pages, you'll notice there's an infinite loop that's inaccessible from the main story: Page 6 leads to Page 9, which leads to Page 12, which leads to Page 13, which leads to Page 19, which leads back to Page 6. As an additional anomaly, a careful reading of these pages reveals that they fill in the blanks with Harriet's disappearance, being told from Harriet's perspective! There's definitely something different about these pages!
Taking the "sentence initials" (i.e., the initial letters of each sentence) on each unreachable page, you'll get the following sequences:
Obviously, there's some words there, but what's going on with the extra letters? Looking back at the pages, if you only look at the letters that came from the first paragraph of each page, you get the words "GENRE FOR EXTRA CONTENT EIGHT". The rest of each page is content that, on second examination, doesn't fit with the story at all: it references characters who don't appear in the story, features actions that don't match what happens in the story, and sometimes includes camera directions!
You might recognize them, but you can also put the text from the second half of each page into your preferred search engine, which quickly reveals that they're all from different movies. (Truly obsessive clue-hunters might have noticed that the page numbers 6-9-12-13-19 correspond to the letters F-I-L-M-S.)
- Double Indemnity (1944)
- The Lost Weekend (1945)
- The Big Sleep (1946)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950)
- Touch of Evil (1958)
Going back to the cluephrase we found ("Genre for extra content (8)."), the genre all these films have in common (which is also eight letters long) is FILM NOIR.
Choose Your Own Adventure and I go back a long, long time, and my initial inspiration was to combine the format of those books with a visual novel plot. My initial take on the puzzle was significantly inspired by the subversive horror visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club and leaned heavily into H.P. Lovecraft's stories, but I eventually decided to lean more strongly into the theme of my answer. (This also meant I had to cut out a lot of bizarre "special effects" like glitchy-looking pages, sadly, but the good of the puzzle came first!)
The biggest question I kept asking myself was "in what ways does this style of story allow me to hide information?" I had a brief moment of panic when, in the midst of my work on this puzzle, the 2019 MIT Mystery Hunt included the puzzle Send Yourself Swanlumps. At that point, I had an additional goal of making sure I was giving solvers a unique experience that didn't retread the same ground as that puzzle.
The idea of having unreachable pages as part of the solution came from an iteration of the puzzle where some truly (intentionally) weird stuff was set up in my book, and it was directly inspired by the hidden ending of Inside UFO 54-40, which can't be reached from any of the other pages in the book.
I also couldn't resist slipping a couple of references into this puzzle; Emi's fate on page 4 is inspired by the opening scene of Sunset Boulevard, and Harriet's character is inspired in part by the titular character in Laura, which I wanted to include a paragraph from but couldn't find the script for online (making sure solvers could find the title of the movie by searching the script text was a high priority of mine).