Game Design Readings : The Code Book

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Two people want to exchange a secret by mail. They do not trust the mail system, and they live too far apart to meet, how can they securely send a locked box without also mailing a key?

The answer is surprisingly straightforward. Person A mails a box secured with a padlock to person B. Person B receives the box and adds their own padlock, then mails it back to Person A. Person A takes their lock off the box and mails it back to Person B, who removes their padlock, opening the box.

I credit games with granting me many interests and hobbies. One of the strongest in particular is a love of cryptography and cryptanalysis, which was started by a game series called Ultima. The Ultima games themselves contained many of the elements that we now consider axioms of role-playing games, but which were at the time considered revolutionary: Character progression, variable party members, ethical decisions, conversation choices — things that we take for granted now were strange frontiers of gameplay for me in the summer of 1986.

The game was perhaps most notable for what was absent. Entirely lacking was a quest log. You would traverse this fantastic world and keep your own physical records about what NPCs needed. By the end of the summer, I had a notebook full of crossed out quests from many NPCs that needed monsters killed and items retrieved. This level of immersion astounded me and I happily spent an entire summer exploring the world.

While I learnt many useful design lessons from the game, what I gained most was an endearing love of cryptology, thanks to the Runic Alphabet. Signage in the game was written in what is termed a substitution cipher. In a substitution cipher, letters are replaced with a new letter or new symbol (in this case, a letter from the Runic Alphabet). At the start of the summer, I would painfully transcribe each letter and word into plaintext English. By the end of the summer, I wrote and read the Runic Alphabet fluently. I was infused with a love of codes both historical and fantastic, and as dungeon master I forced many codes on my long-suffering Dungeons and Dragons compatriots. It is a wonderful reminder that games above all else are an educational technology, and a powerful one at that.

image for the Code Book

In the two and a half decades since Ultima IV’s Runic Alphabet, I have read many books on codes and code breaking. The best of which is The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography” by Simon Singh. Few recent games have taken advantage of this fascinating and fun source of gameplay, and I am convinced that a new fad of code breaking will strike the game industry at some point. Throughout Western history we have become fascinated by code breaking on a grand scale. Lovers in Victorian Britain would secretly communicate in newspapers via codes, Sherlock Holmes and Jules Verne stories are driven by code breaking, and even today we watch Nicolas Cage run from ancient code to ancient code. It is a fine reminder that information in its raw sense is one of the commodities designers have at their disposal and is given out in forms that best aid the design. Your users will work to learn, and even better, they’ll enjoy the act of doing so.


Chris Mitchell teaches Pre-Production, Game Theory and Game Design