This Game Teaches the History of Cryptography

Make sure you’ve got paper and the internet handy.

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Feb 20 2018, 3:00pm

Image: Cypher

It started simple. I woke up in a white room. Black text glared at me high on a wall, it was a puzzle. There was a simple console where I could type a phrase, a code word from the text that would start the game. It was an easy puzzle. I typed it in. Two hours later, I was desperately trying to translate a sentence into binary to unlock its secrets. I had a piece of paper covered in scribbling and a deep fear of the bright white room at the end of the hall containing puzzles based on the unsolved ciphers of the Zodiac Killer.

This is Cypher, a new game coming to Steam on February 20 from developer Matthew Brown. It’s a game and a history lesson. Players wander around a series of rooms and confront plain black text that contain cryptographic puzzles. Each puzzle is based on specific type of cryptography. Solve the puzzles and type the answer into a nearby console to proceed to the next room.

Cryptography is the process by which people keep their communications secret and it’s a practice at least as old as 600 B.C. when Spartans used Scytale cipher sticks to encode secret messages. I know this, because I read it on the walls of Cypher’s rooms before pushing out into the main game.

Image: Cypher

The first room is all steganography—the act of hiding the coded message in plain sight—and its first puzzle involves finding a spy’s message left on a military supply list. The last puzzle in the room involves binary code. At least, I think it does. It’s a simple sentence reading “Science is knowledge is power,” but the fonts throughout are slightly different and I think I’m supposed to translate them to 1s and 0s based on which font is used. I still haven’t figured it out.

Once you beat the majority of puzzles (but not all of them, thank god) you can progress to the next room, learn a little bit more of the history of cryptography, and apply those lessons to a new set of puzzles.

The game offers basic hints if you want them and I resisted those hints for exactly 20 minutes before breaking down and begging for help. I needed it. By the third room, my notepad was full of failed solutions to transposition puzzles and my browser tabs were open to binary code translators, theories on how to crack the Zodiac Killer ciphers, and a detailed history of Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine.

At that point, I was long past feeling guilty for looking outside the game for extra help. I went from feeling bad about using the in-game hints to loving them. They give away just enough info to get a puzzle started without spoiling it.

If you love puzzles or even just want to learn more about cryptography, pick up Cypher on February 20 for $5.