Solution: Research Center
Answer: LUNAR

Written by Lewis Chen

We are presented with the ASCII art of several questionably drawn circles enclosing text and some dashes with an X. Inspecting each circle, we note that they each contain the word "this" and the word "that" exactly once, so it seems natural to try to replace these words with other words, perhaps matching the enumeration provided. Doing so with a few sentences, we may stumble upon the realization that these pairs are in fact anagrams of each other, which makes the objective of these clues more well-defined. We record these pairs, and then index into each word by the position of the X as follows:

This wordThat wordThis extractThat extractPossible clues
ANTIPLAGUEPLATEAUINGGI"team fighting a pandemic", "stave off" -> "number will end up [stabilizing]"
PEACHCHEAPAE"fruit stand ... sale"
FILERRIFLELFAn action you could take on documents, and someone who could organize these documents
DERIVATIONALREVALIDATIONAO"showing your work", "checking it again"
HIKERSSHRIEKKR"climbing [people]", "piercing [sound]"
ASSISTANTSATANISTSTS"demonic cult", "join" implies entering at a low rank
MARASCHINOHARMONICASIC"cherry liqueur", harmonicas are instruments found in a "blues band"
SHAVENHAVENSSHcontrast to "beards", "hideout"
CHANTEUSEUNTEACHESCU"cabaret singer", "forgot a bunch of things"
SKETCHINESSTHICKNESSESHN"drawing ... rushed", a quality of pencil marks
GARNISHESSHEARINGSEGdecorative thing that could be made out of wool, wool is taken from shearing sheep
COMPLIESCOMPILESSSwhat a programmer could do to company (e.g. dress) code and company (programming) code, respectively
DELIVERSSILVEREDEIwhat a shipping company does, what mirrors could be
NECTARINESTRANSIENCETN"fruit stand" (again), "fleeting"/"once every month"
PLASTERYPEYTRALSYS"armored cavalry", "cement slurry"
SMITEITEMSMTJunglers in LoL almost always take smite, and have a special item line that upgrades smite.[1]
MOISTUREMISROUTEOIsomething that can condense on the windshield, "off the path"
DILATEDETAILLTsomething that means to expand, "view it in greater [clarity]"
UNSOILEDDELUSIONOUsomething that would likely not happen if you walk through mud, equally incredulous word
GRITTRIGGTsomething meaning endurance, "sines and cosines"

Reading across and down, first taking all of the "this" letters and then all of the "that" letters, we get GALAKTISCHES ETYMOLOGIEFORSCHUNGSINSTITUT (using the spacing provided by the enumeration at the bottom of the page). It turns out that this actually refers to a particular game, "Galactic Center for Etymological Research", written by Stephen Lavelle (increpare) - which is also titled in German as "Galaktisches Etymologieforschungsinstitut".

Not only do the words Research and Center appear in the title of this game, several other references in the puzzle nicely correspond to the game. The planetary ASCII art in this game is reminiscent of the circles drawn on the puzzle, and furthermore if we play the game we see that anagrams are quite relevant - each level involves going from anagrams to other anagrams, with every switch of adjacent letters costing one fuel. Since we have pairs of anagrams, it seems natural to compute the minimum amount of fuel needed to go from one anagram to another. (More technically speaking, this is also known as the Kendall tau distance, also known as the bubble-sort distance.)

There are some sufficiently efficient ways to compute this. For instance, we can consider the first character of two strings. If they are both the same, chop them both off and move on. Otherwise, find the first occurrence of the first character in the first string in the second string, move that character forward to the front of the second string, and then chop them both off and move on (adding the number of moves needed to our running total), continuing until both strings are empty.

This gives us a number between 1-26 for each pair of words, so the natural extraction would be to convert these numbers using A=1 Z=26, for which we get the cluephrase THE SILVER STAR RPG FIVE. The Silver Star is the subtitle of the 1992 role-playing game LUNAR, which is the desired five-letter answer.

Here is a table regarding the final extraction:

This wordThat wordFuel requiredLetter

[1]: The author hates jungling in League of Legends, so you should take any advice regarding jungle item timings with a grain of salt

Author’s Notes

When I first heard about the title of this game, I knew I had to write a puzzle about it, since it aligned with our hunt theme (xenolinguistics) and our hunt name so, so, nicely.

Some of the more obscure pairs (PLASTERY/PEYTRALS comes to mind) are unfortunately somewhat forced by the construction of the puzzle.

Initially, it was hoped that there could be "Schroedinger clues" where each clue could clue two possible words that both happen to be anagrams, but that was ultimately deemed too difficult to construct for even most of the more common pairs. (An attempt at it can at least be seen in, say, COMPILES/COMPLIES.) Ultimately, it was decided to write the clues in a roughly NPL wordplay flat style.

An earlier version of the puzzle did not provide the enumeration in the puzzle, which provides a few complications. First, it made the cluephrase quite a bit harder to recognize, and furthermore it might be a little tricky to Google for this game, because simply Googling for the unspaced "GALAKTISCHESETYMOLOGIEFORSCHUNGSINSTITUT" does not get us anywhere (at least at the time of writing), but here are a few potential strategies that do work:

  • You can use another search engine - in fact, I was surprised that Google didn't work, because DuckDuckGo gets the unspaced query (and various other spacings) easily.
  • With a little knowledge of what German looks like, or by using the Detect Language feature of Google Translate, we can directly translate what we have. It turns out that Google Translate directly translates it as "Galactic Etymology Research Institute", which is almost a good query. We might consider replacing Institute with Center, as per the title of the puzzle, and this indeed gets us to the game.
  • You could experiment with various spacings, which would eventually get you there.