CRUX’s Musings on the Lost Art of Manual Cipher-Solving

Read this post on Patreon.

 I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy for saying this, and if so I embrace it, but the ARG community at large has come to rely far too heavily on automatic cipher-solving tools online. It’s to the point where a simple keyword cipher, or a random substitution cipher, is enough to completely stump entire groups of puzzle-solvers, when our grandparents have been solving random substitution ciphers in the newspaper for years.

It seems to me that being able to figure out a substitution cipher by hand is a lost art, and that’s a real shame. I don’t expect every puzzle to be solved by hand, of course. If you come up against simple binary, by all means please use a translator. I wouldn’t wish manual binary translation on my worst enemy – even doing it with a translator is tedious as all hell. But if you can’t solve what appears to be a substitution by any ROT or atbash, your reaction should not be to give up. Pull up an English language frequency analysis and solve that shit by yourself with a pen and paper.

Now, that comes with a caveat to creators. If you’re going to ask your playerbase to solve keyword or random substitution ciphers by hand, you have to give them enough material to work with. It just isn’t possible to solve what is essentially a glorified cryptoquote without a long enough piece of text to properly analyze.

Substitution ciphers aren’t the only type of puzzle I’d like to see solved by hand more often, but I think they’re potentially the best example just because you really kind find that exact kind of puzzle in your daily newspaper, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world solve them- by hand – for fun. What players seem to have forgotten is that the act of solving the puzzle is supposed to be part of the fun. Sure, we’re programmed to want the instant gratification of plugging it into the ROT solver and getting the answer right away, but I promise that it’s so much more rewarding to figure it out yourself.

While I’m on the topic of newspaper puzzles, I would also like to mention that I would love to see more ARG creators utilize classic puzzle formats in their games. I’ve used cryptoquotes, word searches, crosswords, and other such formats to great success in my games. It’s all about how you use them. Plenty of people the word over get paid to hand design these classic puzzle formats as their primary job in life. They aren’t easy to create, by any means, if you’re designing them by hand (as you should be), but a well-crafted puzzle is a work of art. And from the player side of things, I would like to see more people view those puzzles as an art form and give them the care in solving that they deserve. It’s not about being the fastest, or the first to solve it. It’s about respect for the art, and it’s about earning the reward of that rush of endorphins you get when you finally solve it.

What kinds of puzzles would you like to see more of?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *