Suggestions for clue formats for an alternate reality game.
January 16, 2021 2:52 AM   Subscribe

Looking for creative ways to hide information online and in the real world.

We’re working on a treasure hunt/alternate reality game which will mainly be online and with a few clues in the area we live. We’re going to wait until COVID restrictions are lifted, but we figured that it would be a nice activity for people to do when we're allowed to be outside more.

I’m looking for suggestions for ways which we could creatively conceal information which wouldn’t be too technically demanding to de-code.

So if you can think of a nice way to point to a location (physical or online) or conceal information, or encode something that would be great. If you have examples of clues that you've seen in other games/ARGs that were memorable I'd be really keen to hear them.

From a structural point of view we will probably make a few websites, use auto replies from sock puppet email addresses, have some burner mobile phones which have a voicemail message. Then we can do youtube/twitter/facebook etc. We also own a couple of commercial grade routers/access points which we have previously used to stream audio to people’s mobile phones for outdoor community cinema screenings. We’re thinking of installing these in various locations which when you’re in range of the router you can access information on the network. Also I work for a lighting company so we have access to projectors, lighting fixtures, Led sign boards, analogue video kit.
posted by multivalent to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This might be so obvious to you that you didn’t mention it, but the real world part sounds very much like geocaching, which is an activity with a ton of online resources for ideas and tips, once you use it as a keyword.

For virtual things, I love a simple substitution cipher because most people can grasp the concept very quickly but noticing the clues themselves can be made more or less obscure. Like you can do a letter shift all in the same alphabet and have words of the same letter count turn into other words, or you can create glyphs that can feel really special and mysterious but really it’s just this curlycue is a B and that jagged shape is a G, etc. Either way you can hide the clues around in stuff like odd shots on a short video, a signature line in an email, user icons on a blog post, papers in the background of a cute cat picture... Make one really obvious, like a forced encounter with a chat bot that just links to a url with a big clue on a single page, and then people will start to look for the more subtle ones. Different people will see different ones and have to communicate to put it together, but the actual translation is easy peasy, so nobody is left stumped right as momentum builds. I just did this in a collaborative board game I’ve been playing on tabletop simulator for over a year and it was pretty rad.
posted by Mizu at 4:29 AM on January 16, 2021

Best answer: Years ago I did a treasure hunt in Switzerland run by Foxtrail. Being Swiss, it was incredibly professionally put together. I've forgotten most of the clues, but two that stuck with me were:

One clue that was based on looking through the slats of a bridge from a particular angle as a kind of "decoder ring" on an image below - hard to describe but very clever;

And another that involved a public phone box were they had permission from the city to install a special button on the phone that played a recorded message when pressed. The second one was cool because of how the treasure hunt was so integrated into "real life" and the fabric of the city in an unexpected way and at an unexpected level of reality - like having to contact the real mayor to get a clue, or something like that. It reminded me of the famous Metal Gear Solid puzzle in which you have to look at the actual box of the game.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:11 AM on January 16, 2021

Best answer: You could encode a URL in the International Phonetic Alphabet. By which I mean, you'd speak the URL out loud and transcribe what you hear into IPA using its alphabet (you may want to see if you can find a linguist to help you with this, they're really good at IPA transcription on the fly kind of as an occupational hazard), and then someone would have to translate the IPA symbols to sounds and then reconstruct the sounds into the word(s) of a URL. This is relatively do-able for your players with the help of something like the IPA Wikipedia page where they can hear the symbols pronounced, I think.

So for example you could encode "Metafilter[dot]com" (the way I pronounce it) as "mɛɾəfɪldɜɹ̠dɑʔkɑm". Which is somewhat recognizable in spots if you squint, but depending on the sounds you're encoding, especially if you're using a language other than English, it can get a lot weirder compared to your usual English orthography.

If you want to get real fancy, pre-encode your IPA symbols in binary or unicode coding or something so your players have to wade through two layers of decoding.
posted by Hold your seahorses at 6:13 AM on January 16, 2021

Best answer: Also I work for a lighting company so we have access to projectors, lighting fixtures, Led sign boards, analogue video kit.

Maybe a projection of a clue onto a local landmark for one minute per day?

Or a colour filter clue - you look at an innocuous display in a shop window through a yellow filter and see a clue? Or even a clue that only appears through a polarized filter at a certain angle?

Also, could a local brewery or similar local business integrate a clue on to every label for one of their products? That's the kind of unexpected location that is unlikely to occur to participants who have subconsciously factored in that they are playing a game - what I was getting at in my previous comment (but didn't articulate well) was that participants tend to expect that the clues will be imposed on to the environment, rather than fully integrated into it.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:18 AM on January 16, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks all - this is helpful. I'm aware of geo-caching, but it's definitely a good avenue to look further into. The other clue suggestions are interesting. I'll look into them, will maybe post the event on projects here when it's done.
posted by multivalent at 1:28 PM on January 16, 2021

There is a twist on geocaching that I have always wanted to find an application for, because it is a property that matches very well with Shamir Sharing: any three clues from an arbitrary set of three or more can lead someone to a "next level" of clues.

Essentially, the clues of the first stage are placed in points that define the perimeter of a circle, the centre of which contains the next stage. Since any three points define a circle's perimeter, you can leave (say) 15 clues and any 3 of them are enough to find the next one. But if they're not getting it, they can keep going until the circle's boundary becomes more defined and obvious.

There are other geometric properties that can be used in the same way, like four points defining two intersecting lines.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:58 PM on January 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

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