The Cracking The Cryptic YouTube channel became an unexpected hit during lockdown last year. Mark Goodliffe and Simon Anthony have been uploading two videos a day for the past few years now, showing them methodically solving very difficult puzzles (typically sudokus and crosswords, but others sneak in as well). Now, in an almost inevitable development, the Cryptic lads are poised to become your favourite video game streamers. For the past few weeks, Anthony has been streaming his playthrough of Jonathan Blow's huge and layered puzzle game The Witness, and it is some of the most enjoyable streaming you'll ever come across.
Goodliffe and Anthony are both extremely good at puzzles. I really can't overstate this. Goodliffe is the reigning Times Crossword Champion and Times Sudoku Champion, and Anthony was on the UK team for the World Sudoku and World Puzzle Championships. They're also both just very calming, which is why their videos have become a soothing part of daily routine for a lot of people (including myself). Goodliffe in particular has a voice that would serve a BBC announcer very well.
Once you get into the channel you start learning a lot of specific terms or the names of good puzzle setters. It's a bit like watching Bake Off and knowing when someone's made a good creme pat, despite never going near stuffing a choux bun yourself. You start giving it all, "Oooh, another puzzle set by Phistomefel, this'll be good." Hearing their intro theme, Mozart's sonata facile, makes me all relaxed and ready for some nice puzzlin' to be explained to me, like if Pavlov's dogs were really middle class. But as well as being great for helping smooth the course through lockdown, it turns out Goodliffe and Anthony's dynamic is a winning combination for streaming puzzle games. It's a lot of fun watching Anthony carefully talk his way through complex puzzles, with a gentle self-castigation of "That's nonsense!" when he makes a mistake, or cry of, "Oh you rotten thing!" when he realises how the game has tricked him.
I reached out to Anthony over email to ask about the brave new world of livestreams, which he says he's still learning about, but is "a heck of a lot of fun". Anthony says it's harder solving puzzles live, because for their regular videos he always has the safety net of turning the camera off and picking a different puzzle. "With trying to play The Witness live I always feel on the verge of coming up against a puzzle where I just sit there for 30 minutes not being able to see the solution," he says. "I’m very conscious (perhaps overly so) about the value of people’s time and I just can’t believe they’d want to watch me flounder around for too long."
This is extremely funny to anyone with even a passing knowledge of The Witness; almost the very first thing Anthony does in the first ever episode of the stream is to find and solve one of the more advanced puzzles in the game. And then apologise for taking so long with it. Anthony's appreciation of how the puzzles are constructed, with reference to what I might gibly refer to as wider puzzle-theory, has actually made me appreciate the game itself a lot more. I am also quietly vindicated because he dislikes the same sorts of puzzles as me, like the forest puzzles with those bloody bird calls.
"In general [our audience is] a bunch of incredibly clever, polite people who just want to share the passion for puzzles with others."
The thousands of viewers tuning in are almost universally supportive of how well Anthony is doing. The Cryptic community is large and diverse, with people tuning in from Boliva, Russia, and beyond. People in Australia get up early to watch. It is the only community I've seen where people send in superchats in the form of cryptic crossword clues, and indeed, Anthony says their audience is something he and Goodliffe are most proud of: "In general they’re a bunch of incredibly clever, polite people who just want to share the passion for puzzles with others".
Anthony says that he'd like to continue streaming games after finishing The Witness. Personally I'm hoping to see Goodliffe have a go at it too - it would certainly be something to see him try to bifurcate his way through Baba Is You - but Goodliffe has no gaming experience, unlike Anthony, whose first computer was a BBC Micro ("Chuckie Egg anybody?" he asks). Anthony also has strong opinons about StarCraft II. "The tl:dr version is: delete Protoss; nerf Queens and Lurkers; and buff Terran mech," he says.
Currently, Goodliffe is on hand to read the chat and moderate, where he is a tough but fair master, especially when he sees things he considers to be spoilers. He's also able to throw in some extremely-dad-joke puns when Anthony is scribbling on graph paper, or else rib Anthony for his sub-standard performance in the way that only real good friends can.
"The whole Cracking The Cryptic history has been one long 'how did that happen?' experience," says Anthony, who used to be an investment banker. "When people find out I’m a YouTuber they’re almost always ask what sort of videos I make... when I explain it’s a daily video of a man trying to solve a very difficult sudoku puzzle I’m always met with a look of utter bewilderment! I’m delighted if people are enjoying it but it does feel a bit surreal."
It isn't surprising if you watch the channel, and arguably at this point it shouldn't be surprising to Anthony any more either. The Cryptic lads have also got several games out, merch, and a successful Kickstarter under their belts. But their continued faint bemusement that people are interested in the channel is part of the charm. I almost regret bringing it to more people's attention, in case you all turn up to the streams without knowing proper CC etiquette and ruin everything. It's weird even referring to them as Goodliffe and Anthony, because they are Mark and Simon. They're like my nice puzzle mates. You might consider making them yours as well. If nothing else you'll probably understand The Witness a bit better afterwards.