Many Alternate-Reality Games (ARGs) have come and gone throughout the years. They often involve puzzles and hidden information that people follow to uncover clues and reveal pieces of a story.
I’ve never participated in one, myself, outside of browsing old Slusho websites and wondering what the Cloverfield monster would be back in 2007. But that was a guerilla marketing campaign for a J.J. Abrams movie.
Cicada 3301 is something else entirely.
What Is Cicada 3301?
To give you the simplest description possible, Cicada 3301 is a kind of Internet puzzle, like an ARG. No one knows who’s running it, and no one knows why. Those individuals clever enough to decipher its strange messages, however, are taken on a wild ride spanning both the online world and the real one.
The puzzles started out rather simply, but have become progressively more difficult and esoteric over the years, with clues delivered via Internet, telephone, bootable Linux CDs, music, QR codes. Even unpublished books are involved, and this doesn’t include the myriad number of references to literature, popular culture, artwork, data security, and Mayan numerology that individuals are required to know to continue.
Clues have also existed in physical locations, mostly throughout the United States, but also in Spain, Russia, France, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Poland, and Mexico. All of this has led many to believe that Cicada 3301 has a great deal of funding and organization behind it.
And yet its purpose, even after four years, remains unknown.
The First Clue
It all began on January 4, 2012, when a mysterious image appeared on 4chan’s random and paranormal image boards.
“Hello,” it said, “We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in this image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through. Good luck.”
Who were they? Why were they seeking these highly intelligent individuals?
Many speculated (and still do) that Cicada 3301 was nothing more than one of those aforementioned Alternate Reality Games, while others thought it could be some kind of recruitment test for an intelligence agency – NSA, CIA, MI6. Take your pick.
Perhaps it was a secret society, or the formation of a new one. Perhaps it was a cult. The truth is, they didn’t know then, and they don’t know now.
The next question, however, was easier to answer: What was the hidden message? Quite a few people, it turned out, were up to the challenge.
When the cryptic image was opened using a text-editor, it was discovered that the message it contained was actually a shift, or Caeser, cipher – a simple form of encryption in which every letter in the message represents another letter, “shifted” down the alphabet by a particular number.
However, those who followed this path were led to another, even more confounding image: A picture of a duck.
Just decoys this way
Looks like you can’t guess how
to get the message
At this second step, things began to get even more complicated. While many at first believed this was a decoy, as the image stated – a “turn back, you’re going the wrong way” sort of thing – this image actually required the use of a steganography program – Guess Out, as alluded to in the image — to reveal hidden text. The next clue.
And so it went on, with clues following clues. But did these strange tests go anywhere?
Four years and counting, has anyone reached the end?
A Great Game
In short, not really.
In 2014, Fast Company published an interview with one of the individuals who attempted to unravel Cicada 3301 on his own: Cryposecurity researcher Joel Eriksson.
Unfortunately, “on his own” turned out to be a very important detail, as the group behind Cicada 3301 ultimately expressed disappointment that their strange puzzles had been crowd-sourced online. Eriksson himself had gone solo, but ironically, he still found himself “shut out” in the end.
A final screen told him they were disappointed. Cicada 3301 weren’t accepting anyone else, and Eriksson’s journey was over.
The Dark Net
However, one other individual, going by the online handle Tekknolagi, allegedly made it farther. That is, with the help of a small IRC group.
This led to a few more tests, until ultimately he discovered a discreet online community, consisting of only a handful of members, hidden away in the shadowy corners of the Internet. There were reportedly only 20 of them, but it was otherwise an ordinary community message board and chat room.
Even now, according to his story, he doesn’t know who these people were, despite communicating with some of them online. It was very “weird and creepy,” he told Fast Company, and he ultimately grew bored of it. He visited the community less and less, until one day it vanished completely.
Where Are We Going?
Cicada 3301 put forward new clues in January of 2013 and 2014, but mysteriously skipped January 2015. Each has been followed by a “round” of deciphering and clue hunting. On January 5, 2013, this image appeared on 4chan:
And a year later, on January 6, 2014, another clue arrived, again in the form of a simple image with white text on a black background. This one, however, was shared on Twitter.
Communities spread across the Internet participated in unraveling each clue. One Guardian writer even gave it a shot – and failed.
If you’re interested in more details on each round of puzzles, here’s how the ones from 2013 played out, and here’s an overview of the 2014 puzzles (which might make you go cross-eyed), courtesy the Uncovering Cicada wiki.
January 5, 2016 – Cicada 3301 Returns
On January 5, 2016, after a year hiatus, the most recent clue appeared, again in the form of an image. “Hello,” it reads, “The path lies empty; epiphany seeks the devoted. Liber Primus is the way. Its words are the map, their meaning is the road, and their numbers are the direction. Seek and you will be found. Good luck.”
It also warns of “false paths,” alluding to fake clues created by Cicada 3301 impersonators. If you want to follow along with its progress, and stay privy to any new clues that arise, you can visit Uncovering Cicada or the Cicada 3301 subreddit.
And that’s where we are today – with online communities working together to not only solve Cicada 3301’s esoteric challenges, but also to theorize about what it all means. Whatever Cicada 3301 is, and whoever they are, the puzzles and clues they provide are very meticulous, and their persistence is a very curious thing, indeed.
Will more clues and puzzles appear in the future? Will the search ever be finished? Will we ever even know? Many have claimed to have “won,” to have solved all the puzzles and reached the end. But there is no proof.
The mystery continues.