If you ask someone what they think about video games, chances are that the answer won’t be reading, or anything book related. After all, video games as a medium are all about interactivity, so, when someone thinks of video games, it’s very likely that they’ll think about a new release, an action-filled adventure, or an engaging game that had them glued on their chairs and couches for countless hours. However, every now and then, there comes a game that tries to do something new, or that brings a new approach to already established mechanics and ideas, and these games manage to create a special spark.
For the overwhelming majority of such creative cases, I’d dare say that indie games dominate this field. From time to time, I come across a few games that might not have a widespread appeal, but they’ll stick with me for years to come. For 2022, it seems that the first of such games is Prose & Codes, a game where all you do is decrypt excerpts of various books.
It’s such a simple concept, but I can’t think of any other game that tried to do something like this. The entire game is about solving substitution ciphers, where each letter of the alphabet has been replaced by a random one, and it’s up to you to find the solution to all of them. The game features a total of 350 ciphers, to be exact, and these are spread evenly across seven different genres. There’s Adventure, Children, Sci-fi, Drama, Notable, Mystery, and Horror.
There’s pretty much something for everyone, and what’s even better is the fact that, once you solve a cipher, not only do you unlock a synopsis of the original book, but the game actually rewards you by providing a direct link to the book’s page on Project Gutenberg. A lot of people might be familiar with this project, but, in case you aren’t, it’s essentially a massive preservation effort that seeks to store literary works in a digital form, and, therefore, distribute them online for free, for everyone.
In a way, I feel that Prose & Codes is trying to rekindle that fondness for reading that, perhaps, a lot of people have lost throughout the years. The truth is that, many people, myself included, have found that some video games have cultivated or sparked a long lost interest in something, namely reading. For me, this was the case with visual novels and text-heavy RPGs. However, Prose & Codes is possibly the best example of how you can captivate someone’s attention through an interactive medium and draw it towards the literary realm.
The excerpts that the developers have picked for each of the ciphers seem to have been carefully chosen in order to draw people into the various literary works. It’s almost as if each cipher is a tiny window through which you can only catch a glimpse of another world and another story. However, the great thing about it is that these worlds are only a few clicks away. It’s really quite wonderful. I’ve certainly have added quite a lot of books to my reading list that only keeps getting bigger.
Regardless, Prose & Codes stands out as a good game on its own, even if we’re not counting its connection to the Gutenberg Project. There isn’t really an ever-increasing degree of cipher difficulty that culminates in a massive cipher that would supposedly represent some sort of boss fight, but the game gives you plenty of tools to tailor the experience to your liking.
There are four different difficulty modes, Easy, Medium, Hard, and Progressive. Easy will reveal six letters right from the start, while Medium will reveal three, and Hard will keep them all hidden. Meanwhile, Progressive will make things more difficult for you as you make your way through each genre of literature.
As a non-native English speaker who learned English on their own playing games, reading, and watching TV shows and films while growing up, I have to admit that I spent way too much time trying to get through my first cipher on Hard. I then switched to progressive, but my success there was short-lived as well. It was then that I settled with Medium, as starting with a few letters already revealed was a huge help. Furthermore, you can always ask the game for a hint, and the game will then reveal a single letter for you, but you can only do this three times per cipher.
There were plenty of moments when I just couldn’t wrap my head around a few ciphers, and when I finally gave in to the temptation and asked for a hint, everything just started to make sense and it was like a flood of words coming through my head as I furiously finished the rest of the cipher as I could then easily figure out what was missing. Sometimes, all you need is a small helping hand. In fact, there’s also an option to enlarge the text, and there’s even a dark mode. It really feels like the developers have thought about everything extensively, but from my experience, the game can’t solely be played on just a mouse or just a keyboard, you have to use both.
Although these difficulty options are great to have, it should be noted that the game always presents you the books in the same order, no matter which difficult you play or if you start a new game. Therefore, once you’ve gone through the 350 ciphers, there isn’t any incentive to go back and try everything again in a harder difficulty, because you’ll probably just remember everything from your first playthrough.
I definitely wish there were more ciphers in the game, or that the game would always generate a random cipher in case someone wanted to replay the game, but I guess that just isn’t something that’s feasible to implement. Likewise, the dreamy version of me wishes that, in an ideal world, this game would simply be a tool that would allow anyone to add their own excerpts and ciphers to the game and share it with others. Maybe an idea for the future?
At the end of the day, there really isn’t anything about the game that I’d change, even if I could. Prose & Codes is something quite special, not because it’s groundbreaking in gameplay mechanics, but because it excels in being exactly what it set out to be. The ambience with the music and the background sound effects are phenomenal, and while the puzzles might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is surely a very niche audience that will absolutely adore it for what it is.
Prose & Codes is more than worth its asking price. Still, I’d like to point out the fact that the developers mention that “a portion of every sale goes to Project Gutenberg”, but I was unable to find any concrete information regarding how much a “portion” actually is. Nonetheless, the fact that sales of the game support the Gutenberg Project is just the icing on the cake. If you’re an avid reader and enjoy solving puzzles, this will most surely be a great addition to your digital library.