(BBBC Spoiler Warning: this post contains light spoilers for the Dead Air mission of The Secret World)

There’s an excellent example of an investigation mission early in The Secret World where you need to repair a radio mast. Examining a plate reveals the mast’s model number and website of the manufacturer (http://manticore.orochi-group.com). Looking up the model number on the site reveals “… provisional repairs can be carried out without recourse to specialized parts and labour. Primary components: brackets, anchors, antennas, lightning arrestors. Provisional repair materials: household adhesives, conductors and amplifiers.” It might as well say “Have you played an MMO before? Just go and click on anything that looks clickable”, but y’know, it’s a nice touch. Having taped a bunch of random bits of metal to the mast it starts working again, and strange beeps start emerging… Is it malfunctioning? Is it tuned to a radio station broadcasting the very cutting edge of monotonic electro jazz fusion funk? No, obviously it’s Morse code, I was just trying to build tension there.

At this point you have two options: you could jot down the dots and dashes, find the Morse alphabet and manually decode the message, or you could download an app, hold a smartphone up to the speakers and have it do that hard work. Or you could just Google the solution, of course, so three options. Or find a friend who knows Morse code, four options… OK, *amongst* your options are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and a smartphone app. I downloaded “Morse Code Reader”, cranked up the headphone volume, held the phone up, and as glowing green letters started appearing on the screen spelling out a message I thought “that’s rather nifty”.

For me the various elements were pitched about spot-on, interesting and diverting without being frustrating. Another mission, The Kingsmouth Code, was a *smidge* on the esoteric side in a couple of places; never the full head-scratching madness of adventure game logic, but at a couple of points I’d deduced some elements of a clue and needed a little nudge to put everything together (hurrah for Dulfy and some great guides that give hints as well as spoiler-tagged solutions).

Last night I was investigating one of the new missions added in the latest patch with Kris, and after some fun collaborative puzzle solving on voice chat (“A series of letters and numbers, what could it be? Co-ordinates? A numeric substitution cipher of some sort? Let’s run around randomly and see if there’s something to click on!”) we found a van, and the headlights started blinking in (presumably) Morse code. Without an app to decode the message, though, the prospect of trying to manually decode the flashing didn’t appeal at all, so it was straight off to Google for the solution. Of course not every player owns a smartphone, or would necessarily want to bother to download a Morse code app, but for me the audio version was a nifty puzzle, the visual version was some tedium to be avoided. Some players doubtless solved The Kingsmouth Code in seconds, while simultaneously doing cryptic crosswords in both The Times and The Telegraph, others probably didn’t even pause to read the in-game text before hitting Google to find out where to go and what to click next, it must be difficult to pitch things for such a wide audience.

I got into codes and ciphers early with The KnowHow Book of Spycraft, simple things like pigpen, then later the work at Bletchley Park in World War II was the perfect combination of military and technological history to fire my interest. Simon Singh’s The Code Book contained a £10,000 Cipher Challenge, I had a crack at it, and was pretty chuffed to solve some of the early ciphers with a bit of coding, like a program to calculate letter frequencies for various possible keyword lengths of a Vigenère cipher, but gave up on the later, really rather tough stages. A bit of deciphering in The Secret World could be fun, but again very difficult to pitch; Fez included a particularly challenging puzzle that’s interesting to read about, but it sounded pretty frustrating to be involved with.

There is nothing new under the sun, though; Richard Bartle wrote an interesting post looking at some puzzles from MUD1, including a link to an article on the pros and cons from 1985. There’s even a few unsolved puzzles, or at least solved puzzles where the derivation has been lost; I presume the pronunciation question is based on the heteronyms of Polish (nationality) and polish (make something shiny), but as there are other five letter heteronyms it’s the sort of pub quiz question that causes fights in the car park, even if the “block capitals” part implies case is crucial…

Posted by Zoso at 1:26 pm