Wot I Think (Or Seemingly Can’t Think): Cypher

A new game from Matthew “Hexcells” Brown is always a reason to sit up and remember where you are. Cypher marks quite a diversion from the likes of Hexcells, Squarecells and CrossCells. (Although so did Sound Shift.) Although it remains a collection of puzzles presented with his distinctively clean aesthetic, this time in 3D. It’s about solving ciphers. And it’s really bloody tough.

The game is presented as a genteel art gallery, about which you wander through its pharmaceutically white rooms, your feet echoing loudly in the chambers as you do. On the walls, presented as art, are puzzles to solve. In front of each stands a podium into which the solution can be entered. And at the start of each room is a large art-museum-style wall with information about each section’s cipher type to read. In this, the game is unabashedly educational, intending to provide a primer on various coding types, and then set the equivalent of comprehension tests to demonstrate your understanding.

Then you’re set free to wander the halls, and solve what you can, while listening to various piano sonatas. It’s all very relaxed and calm. Right up until you can’t solve a cipher.

This is, as it happens, is where I begin to struggle with Cypher. In a game like Hexcells, or any other logic-based puzzle, finding a solution is a matter of learning the rules of the concept, and applying them. But when it comes to code breaking, if you haven’t been able to discern or glean the trick behind a particular cipher, not being able to solve it presents you with little opportunity to change this. If you’re stuck, you’re stuck, right up until the puzzle has had a few external guides written for it, and you can go get help. Reviewing pre-release, that’s obviously not an option, so perhaps my perspective is somewhat skewed here, but I feel like Cypher might be a missed opportunity for offering better teaching.

You can type in “HINT” into any console to be given a prompt. And these can be useful. They can also be as subtle as giving you only a first letter, or saying a word it hopes will push you in the right direction. Fail to be pushed, and then that’s it. It strikes me, as I play, that much more could be gained from a more structured series of hints that eventually lead you in the correct direction.

Cypher seems to want to teach. Its explanatory texts for each room suggest they want the player to understand the concepts. But the issue, certainly for me, is the lack of application during explanation. Rather than running you through an example, it gives you the theory, then asks you to walk over there to do the practice. So when I read a block of text like,

“Digital substitution can be performed by combining a plaintext letter’s binary sequence and a key text letter’s binary sequence using an XOR (exclusive or) logic gate. This process is symmetrical, so combining a ciphertext with its key will return it back to plaintext.”

my brain says, “Uh-huh, OK…” and then waits to see it happening. But it isn’t. Instead I’m faced with a puzzle that’s a few binary numbers on a wall, and no notion of application.

I imagine for some there’s a reaction of sympathy reading this, and for others a frustration that it’s just not obvious to me.

The other issue is slightly more practical. Many of the puzzles require a pen and paper to solve. Which is great, except the puzzle’s on your screen. When you’ve got a 60 word clue of transposed letters to solve, what you ideally want is to be able to make notes where the puzzle already is, not have the transcribe the whole thing before you can start. It’d have been great if you could interact with the puzzles on-screen, or at the very least copy them as plain text into Notepad. For instance, this is a colossal ballache to solve, despite being incredibly simple.

It’s frustrating that, when sat at the ideal machine for solving substitution codes, that could let me tap a letter and see it replace all such letters in a message, that I’m having to fill pages and pages in my notebook just to solve one puzzle. In some cases I resorted to printing out screengrabs, which is not the most user-friendly approach to puzzling.

It’s clear that Cypher is beyond me. The first couple of rooms were a breeze, but quickly I was finding it too obtuse, too interested in being difficult and not interested enough in teaching me how to solve it. And that’s very much a personal taste thing. For people super into this sort of thing, with brains bigger than mine, this’ll be a sweet treat. My issue is that in not being able to solve a puzzle, I gain nothing, and don’t have the facility to find out what I needed to have known. I want to learn, to understand, and Cypher isn’t going to teach me the process through application.

For those who aren’t me, with their clever wiggly eyebrows, the game also features a room containing twelve cryptography puzzles that require some real-world research. Now this should be my bag entirely, but again, getting stuck means getting stuck. And the hints seem to miss the mark. Sure, I realise those letters are arranged like a periodic table – that wasn’t the nudge I needed. And at that point, I’m abandoned in my unknowing. Which is a bummer for me.

But not for the clever-clogs out there, and frankly, the clever-clogs deserve more games. There are almost none, and that number rounds to zero when you eliminate those made by insufferable blowhards. So here’s one for you! Just, it seems, not for me.

Cypher is out today on Windows for £4/$5/5€ via Steam


  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I really like the aesthetic. But I think I’m far too dumb to work out any of the ciphers, aside from maybe simple substitution.

    Still though. Looks nice.

  2. phlebas says:

    Hmm. So it’s quite nicely presented but as far as the actual puzzles go it’d be slightly better as a book? That seems a bit of a wasted opportunity – I’d assumed from the screenshot that the written-in letters were ones you’d guessed, but by the sound of it they were already there to help you.

    (Nevertheless: wishlisted)

  3. April March says:

    I think even without guides, you might be able to solve cyphers in the game by looking up real examples. Cyphers are a known quantity.

    I think I’m in a similar boat. I like solving cyphers, but I find doing the gruntwork of solving a sentence after I’ve cracked the code to be immensely boring, especially when I’m sitting at a machine that could do it in an instant.

    (Nevertheless: wishlisted, too).

  4. poliovaccine says:

    I always feel like a fool when I’m playing a game like this, not because I’m sucking at the puzzles (tho I probably am), but moreso because I feel like, if I’m willing to work this hard right now, it should be on one of my own projects, and not on beating a game haha. If anything, that’s why I play them – they get me away from the computer…

  5. Thomas Foolery says:

    I love the idea of a game that has code-breaking as a central mechanic, but I’d want to see it tied into an ongoing story and world in some way. Whose codes am I breaking? What are the stakes? What am I learning once the text has been decoded? That seems far more interesting to me than just being given big white walls with cyphers and no real connective tissue.

  6. something says:

    That feint design aesthetic may be stylish but it can really be a pain in the butt, certainly when playing Hexcells. Hopefully this game has a gamma correction slider.

  7. brulleks says:

    Having to copy out a Codeword in order to solve it? Not sure I see the point of this being a computer game if it’s not making the most of the technology. Might as well buy a puzzle book and cut out the busywork. A shame, as the general concept sounds interesting.

  8. Matt_W says:

    Hey, it’s like Fez without the game part of it.

  9. Cederic says:

    Needing pen & paper is a pain, but I’m buggered if I’m XORing stuff like that. So no, sorry, this one’s a skip for me whether I can decode ciphers or not.

  10. Martijn says:

    So it’s sort of like The Witness: looks great, but no fun from the moment the puzzles become too much of a struggle?

    • Guy Montag says:

      Exactly where my mind went. I wish that these games would go the multiplayer route, so I could drag friends along and we could get through the more obstinate parts together.

  11. reddog says:

    Thinking about these kinds of puzzle games reminds me of Secret World and its puzzles; in one of them, you listen to a bit of morse code, so you have to google how morse code works. After transcripting the audio you have a short message that solves something else.

    There was a moment of realization while doing this; I found myself thinking – I don’t really need to learn morse code, and doing so isn’t really all that exhilarating or interesting. It’s the kind of pastime that would have entertained me when I was, say, 12 years old (not to disrespect anyone who, for whatever reason, had a good time in Secret World).

    “Puzzles” in computer games are a tricky design element. If done poorly, they are basically just arbitrary obstacles, feeling like they’re meant to slow you down, so that you don’t proceed to the end of the game too fast. If Secret World had been a more interesting game in terms of story, gameplay, art etc, I would have perhaps felt it slightly less of a silly thing to do, the morse code stuff. But it still would have been just a “puzzle” instead of an actual compelling experience.

    This probably has a lot to do with the type of gamer that I am. In games I’m looking for stories, experiences, having fun, aesthetics, not sudoku.

    • Scurra says:

      I think that’s kind of what Mr Walker is getting at here – this game evidently isn’t for you, so it’s good to be given that indication up front. (It is, however, clearly for me, like The Witness was.)

      I agree that if pure puzzles are a specific part of a game, they probably need to be entirely optional. I’m playing the early Assassin’s Creed games atm, and there’s a whole bunch of “secret codes” in them that clearly are not relevant to completing the game but which provide a nice diversion for those of us who like that sort of thing (and which make up for the times when the fun part stops being fun owing to difficulty spikes.)

  12. ersetzen says:

    Played it for a bit. The second and third room mostly by OCR-ing a screenshot and throwing it at a script, though. Are the later rooms less busy work-y?

  13. bonuswavepilot says:

    Hmmm…. I like the concept, I have generally gotten into Mr Brown’s work, and I am very interested in codes and codebreaking, but having to copy stuff onto paper to actually do the work sounds like a PITA.

    Then again, he may well make some changes if enough people give feedback along these lines – I know the Hexcells series improved in this regard as they progressed…

  14. LapsedPacifist says:

    I don’t think I could ever play this. First longish bit of cyphering and I’d sigh, and alt-tab into writing a script to solve it for me (which is, admittedly, how I’ve solved more than one sliding block puzzle) at which point the whole endeavor gets a bit pointless.

    • phlebas says:

      It does? I’d enjoy writing said script – and especially if more sophisticated codes are used later in the game you’d expect to want some computational assistance rather than pure pen&paper, fun as that might be in moderation.

      I guess the game I really want to play is pretty much like this but provides in-world mechanisms you can use to solve the codes – live replacement or markup for simple substitution, some kind of scripting engine, maybe emulated Bombe and Colossus for breaking the WW2-era ciphers…

  15. clockworkerr0r says:

    It seems like a really interesting puzzle game. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen another one like it, based entirely on ciphers. I’m not the best at solving ciphers, but I do love puzzle games, so I may give it a try just to see how well I can do. I’ve been finding a lot of really cool games lately though. Another game I’m excited to try out this year is Nova Nukers. It’s a competitive multiplayer that has a unique spherical stage design. It really stood out to me because I’ve never seen another multiplayer use that kind of design before. I’m also excited to try out the weapons because they’re supposed to effect the environment. I think it’s going to be one of the more fun multiplayers coming out this year.

  16. Nixitur says:

    I enjoyed the hell out of solving the monoalphabetic substitution ciphers in Axiom Verge and Hack ‘n’ Slash (before the game provided me with the cipher that does it automatically, but hey, I did it earlier). But there was still a game there. There was a point to it.
    However, I don’t know if this game is for me. As has been said in other comments, this really doesn’t feel like a video game. It feels like someone wrote a puzzle book and then scattered its pages throughout a bland environment. It’s the same feeling I get from The Witness, and why I don’t think I’ll ever play it.
    On the other hand, ciphers and cryptography in general are much more my jam than line puzzles. And writing scripts to automate busywork is what I loved about hackmud. But the puzzles really should be more embedded in the game. Your point about automatic replacement rather than having to pen-and-paper it is a really good one. Or if it’s a permutation cipher, being able to drag around parts of the text in the game (with the option to reset). Don’t just give me a puzzle, with the only possible interaction being to enter the solution.
    As an aside, that’s why I dislike many online puzzles. Because without the ability to make notes, I’m really just better off solving it on paper.

  17. darrrrkvengeance says:

    sounds like it would be more successful if there were a community/collaborative element built in for working through the puzzles together. i’m not a great brain myself; but i enjoy playing The Black Watchmen for example — even though some of the puzzles are certainly abstruse — because of the fun of working them out with other people.