The Unfinished Search for a Man Named Satoshi
In 2005, a portrait was distributed to hundreds of people around the world as part of an online “Alternate Reality Game”, initiating a global game of hide and seek which still hasn’t been revolved.
This is a transcript of a podcast episode. Listen here or on iTunes.
Do you ever, with your idle time, find yourself reading a random Wikipedia page? I can’t be the only one who does that. Maybe it comes up in conversation and you get curious. And you go to this Wikipedia page, and one link leads to another, and at some point you’re reading about Galapagos tortoises. Well do that once in awhile, and that’s how I came across this story.
It started on the Wikipedia page for Six Degrees of Separation. You know the phenomenon that any individual can be connected to any other individual in six degrees or less? Yeah, so I was reading about that, and there’s this one section on that page about a sentence long called “Find Satoshi.” I remember reading it and wanting more information because it’s this short sentence, and there’s no Wikipedia page for Find Satoshi. So I followed the external link, and it led me to this website: findsatoshi.wordpress.com.
So I went there, and it’s just this basic website. It says Find Satoshi across the top in big red letters, and it says underneath: a six degrees of separation puzzle. Is it possible to locate a man given only his photograph and first name? And underneath that on the homepage is a photograph. It’s a picture of a Japanese man. He has jet black hair, he’s wearing a scarf, a black peacoat, there’s a river behind him, and some old European looking buildings and a hill behind him. That’s it, a regular photograph.
Underneath the photo, a caption reads: Do you know this man?
That got me interested, so I sent an email to the site’s email address. And I found out the person behind this site was someone named Laura Hall. I got in touch with her.
Laura: Can you hear me?
Asher: Yeah, can you hear me?
Laura’s had a lifelong interest in solving puzzles. That’s what got her interested in Find Satoshi.
Laura: My whole life I’ve been interested in detective stories. I still have the book I was obsessed with as a kid, The Young Detective’s Handbook, which taught you fingerprinting techniques and deductive reasoning sorts of things. My whole life never been able to get enough of that stuff. It’s certainly a fundamental part of my makeup to want to solve things.
She’s been looking for Satoshi for a long time now.
Laura: Uhh, 2006? 10 years ago. I did think it was going to be a lot faster, here we are 10 years later or however long, and it hasn’t been solved. I was confident at the time it was gonna be possible. Cause you know I had all the time in the world as a student to mess around with that stuff.
Asher: The fact that ten years on it’s not solved…
Laura: I know.
Asher: Do you ever go to sleep at night and think “where is he?”
Laura: Sometimes, I have not forgotten it. I do think about it sometimes.
And the reason it’s taken so long? Well, there really isn’t much to go on. All she knows about the man she’s looking for is his name, Satoshi, and what he looks like — or at least, what he looked like in that photograph.
The first time she saw Satoshi’s face was in a photograph in 2006.
Laura: It’s a selfie, and he’s standing in front of a Germanic looking river and houses.
Yeah there’s really nothing too special about the photo. It just looks like any selfie you might see today. He has a slight smirk on his face, but it’s an enigmatic expression, it’s hard to read, like the Mona Lisa.
But there’s one more thing about this photograph that got Laura looking for Satoshi, it’s the call to action sort of.
Laura: Down the side in Japanese it says “find me.”
Yeah, find me. Ominous, right?
Laura: At the time the game was live, there was a hint line you could receive one hint for each card. The hint for this one was “My name is Satoshi”. And that’s it — that’s all the info you’re given. The creators said it was an experiment in six degrees of separation, was it possible to harness social networks to locate this person.
So, what is this all about? Who is Satoshi? Why is Laura looking for him? Why does he want people to find him? Why does she have his photograph? There’s a lot of questions to answer here, and we’ll get to them, but let’s start at the beginning, over 10 years ago.
So where did Laura get this photo to begin with?
Laura: Are you familiar with the genre of Alternate Reality Games that used to be a thing? Probably not, it’s very niche.
Laura first saw Satoshi’s face on a puzzle card that was part of this Alternate Reality Game
Laura: called “Perplex City”, which is one of these Alternate Reality Games.
If you don’t know what an Alternate Reality Game is, they’re also called ARGs,
Laura: That were basically online treasure hunts, presented as a mystery story online, with websites and characters you’d interact with and so on,
they’re sort of these massively multiplayer real life puzzle games. They’re popular marketing campaigns for films — the first major ARG was a campaign for the Spielberg film Artificial Intelligence in 2000, and some more recent examples were for the Cloverfield movies.
Laura: There’s no, it blurs the line between your life and the game, it’s asking you to accept this level of immersion. And then you get like, I’d say 100 people who are super deep into it. The number of active players is very small, but for those people, and I’m one of those people, the experience is incredibly deep and filters into everything.
So Perplex City, launched by a British company called Mind Candy in 2005, had players searching the world for this hidden cube — an actual, physical, cube hidden somewhere on Earth, and with it came a sizeable cash prize, $200,000. And to find the cube, players would have to solve this series of 256 puzzle cards.
Adrian: which were the core of Perplex City, and you would buy these puzzle cards in stores/online and they would each have a puzzle on them.
This is Adrian Hon, he was Perplex City’s “Director of Play” when it launched in 2005.
Adrian: I joined at the start, I was the first employee at Mind Candy I think.
It was Adrian’s job to oversee the creation of the game. Along with his team, Adrian helped to write the story and come up with the puzzles. And, just like Laura, he’s always had an interest in stories and games, since he was a kid.
Adrian: I’d always wanted to make games.
Before Adrian started working on Perplex City he was doing something totally different, studying for a PhD in neuroscience at Oxford University.
Adrian: Which has nothing to do with games. And even though i was doing my PhD in neuroscience, I always had it in my head that I wanted to go make games. I remember there was a day in the lab when I was, during period doing half working at Mind Candy in spare time, and half working on my PhD, and I had a bad day, someone had a go at me for using their syringe or something, I thought “you know what? I could do something else more fun. If it doesn’t work, I can go back and do my Ph.D. And the reason why I got approached to work at Mind Candy was simply because if you typed in “alternate reality game” in the UK, my name came up. So I sort of positioned myself, I engineered it, not in a bad way, I’d just been writing about it for four years, people would want to talk to me about making these things.
Another interesting thing about Adrian: he’s not really a puzzle kind of guy.
Adrian: No, I’m not good at solving puzzles. I don’t even like puzzles that much, and I think that actually helps in making puzzles, certain kinds. I get frustrated with puzzles. I’m not the sort of person who would buy puzzle books, so that does make me strange because I’m the game designer but it helped because it meant I didn’t want to do 20 word searches, that’d be so boring, I want to make every single one, 256 puzzles were made, to be unique, and you know not being super into normal puzzles helps with that because you want to try new things.
So Adrian started hiring this whole team of game designers.
Adrian: I remember to find interesting people we put an advert in the newspaper and it was just in code. I mean the whole thing, the whole advertisement was in code. There was no call us at this number, just in code. Everyone got really excited about it, thought it was an advert for MI5 or something.
And with these new, probably slightly disappointed MI5 hopefuls, they got to work on these 256 puzzle cards.
Asher: How did you come up with all those?
Adrian: I didn’t come up with all of them. I think I came up with half of them. I think if you do nothing but try and come up with puzzle ideas for like 6 months you’ll come up with some decent ones. Some of them were pretty derivative, despite what I said about wanting to change things, but some of them I’m really proud of, were really original.
Asher: Which ones in particular?
Adrian: My favourite… I can’t remember what it was called.
I looked it up; it was called “Elucidate”.
Adrian: and it was based on voice spectrographs. And really good scientists can look at a voice spectrograph and figure out roughly what you’re saying from this picture, I thought it’d be cool to do a puzzle show voice spectrograph and you’d have to work out what it is. For this particular one, we drew the voice spectrograph as a contour map. People thought it was a place, because that’s what it looked like. Everyone sent themselves crazy trying to work out where it was. We just watched these people saying “where is it? Where is it?” someone finally figured it out. That one took a few months for people to figure out. I was pleased with that one because it was satisfying, they solved it, no clues or words, that was it.
And there were a whole bunch of them, all colour coded by difficulty level:
Adrian: From red, orange, yellow, blah blah blah, all the way up to black and then silver, and silver were the rare cards and also extremely difficult cards to solve.
And they all got a number, 1–256, and a name — like “Elucidate”,
Asher: I hear about the Riemann Hypothesis was one of them, there was 13th labour, Shuffled, there’s a few more. Do these ring a bell?
Adrian: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, you know the first three are ridiculous, the Riemann hypothesis is a silly puzzle, not something our players would solve, it’s a very difficult mathematical problem.
Yeah, the Riemann Hypothesis is a well known mathematical conundrum, very difficult. It was put in sort of as a joke. And to this day, over ten years later, the Riemann hypothesis is one of only two cards that haven’t been solved.
The other unsolved card was card #256, a silver, the last card in the game, called “Billion to One”. The Satoshi card.
Asher: Can you tell me story behind that card?
Adrian: I wasn’t the one who came up with this idea, although I think I was around when we talked about it, and we thought what would it be like if we just took a photo of someone and you had to go and find him? And this guy was called Satoshi, and if you found him then I think you would solve it. I can’t remember what would happen when you found him, but something probably. And because it was one of these silver cards, we thought it doesn’t really matter if people find him or not, but we actually thought that people would, because of the internet we thought it would catch people’s attention, and did catch attention but it was difficult and as it turned out to date too difficult.
Asher: Do you happen to know where or who he is?
Adrian: I did know, and I think I’ve forgotten. I know I could find out quite easily if I asked someone.
Asher: Cause someone knows.
Adrian: It’s a friend of someone. It’s a friend of someone.
And there it is — the birth of our card, the one that started the search that’s gone without closure now for over ten years.
So when Perplex City launched in 2005, Laura was in college, and as an avid fan of puzzles and mysteries, she got really excited about it and found time between classes to play. And it was this card with Satoshi’s face on it that really piqued Laura’s interest. She dove head first into the search, she set up a Find Satoshi website — findsatoshi.wordpress.com, still live — and sort of became the unofficial “coordinator” of finding Satoshi, pursuing leads and spreading the word. She was even interviewed on ABC News about Find Satoshi.
So the natural place to start, of course: the internet. Even in 2005, when the internet was a very different place, there were forums and places where you could interact with other players to discuss the cards. And during the game’s run, most of this takes place on a site called “Unfiction”, it’s a forum dedicated to alternate reality games. This is where most of the cards are solved, and where most of the players congregate to share clues and ideas.
Turns out, Adrian actually spent some time browsing Unfiction when the game was live.
Asher: Must be fun to sit back and watch people work it out.
Adrian: Yeah, it’s fun it’s also frustrating, because you’d just be watching forum thinking “Almost got it! Almost got it! No, don’t do that thing!” so it was fun but a bit strange.
It’s also a bit strange reading through the forum now, so far removed in time — it reads almost like an historical document, like a series of firsthand accounts of some historical event, like following a trail of breadcrumbs.
And while the forums were active with lots of players, and the Satoshi card garnered over 41 pages of posts, the world of alternate reality games has always been a small one. They tend develop strong cult followings. A lot of the players got to know each other over the years. Like, even though Adrian’s in UK and Laura’s in Portland, they’ve gotten to know each other through the game.
Asher: Do you know Laura by the way?
Adrian: Yeah, yeah I know Laura.
Asher: You do? Because she was saying it’s a small world, this puzzle solving group.
Adrian: Yeah it is.
Laura: Yeah, the puzzle community is very small. This game went on for so long, you just get to know everyone in general. I eventually started dating someone who had worked there, and friends with a bunch of people.
Asher: And do they know who Satoshi is?
Asher: What’s that like knowing that this ten year search, this person is right there and they know the answer.
Laura: I would be so upset if they were to just tell me. So mad. It’s funny though, cause at what point do we say hey give us a hint? But you know what, no, I don’t want any hints. I want it to be the purpose of it to find this guy without help.
That’s the thing here: there are people who know who Satoshi is. And they could drop a hint at anytime. But it’s sort of the purpose to find Satoshi without any help. If they just told Laura where he was or who he was, it wouldn’t be the same. It’d be like dousing birthday candles with a fire hose. It’d ruin all the fun.
Early on, as you can see in the forum, players are optimistic that they can find Satoshi — it doesn’t seem so farfetched.
But despite that early optimism, it’s important to consider the odds against it. Looking at this today, it’s easy to think of posting the search to Reddit or Facebook, and if it goes viral, it’s solved just like that. That could very well happen today. But “going viral” wasn’t really a thing in 2005. It was much harder to harness people en masse. The internet in 2005, when this search started, was a very different place.
The public internet in 2005 was almost half as old as it is today. Think about that. It was so different then. Facebook was just a baby, not public yet, and Reddit didn’t exist. Twitter started up in 2006, so a year after this game launched, and YouTube had just launched at the same time as this game, in 2005.
This was a time when Myspace was still the king of social networking, and it was the only real means of harnessing people en masse, which it wasn’t very good at doing.
Laura: Yeah, I mean the internet is so different now. My approach now I think would be different and more methodical, maybe even less reliant on the internet than before.
So with this in mind, it’s easier to understand why it proved so difficult to find Satoshi. Still, people were optimistic — I guess you had to be.
So, then, where do you start the search? Quick inventory: you have a photograph, and you have a name, and the words “find me” in Japanese. And the power of the 2005 internet at your fingertips. What are you supposed to do with all that?
Well, on the forum, the players start theorizing, and at least learning which directions not to pursue.
Some wonder how we can be sure he’s Japanese, but it’s quickly determined that, in all likelihood, he is — the Japanese writing on the card and the origin of his name are sufficient evidence for that. And another quick note on his name: Satoshi is one of the most common given names in Japan, it’s like John or Steve here in North America, which really doesn’t make it any easier to find him.
Lots of ideas are floated around, some more inventive than others, some tongue in cheek. I’ll quote a user from the forum here:
I was thinking of other things to try. Here’s what I got:
I don’t suppose anyone works for the CIA, FBI, Interpol, etc.. or knows someone who does. I bet you could do a pretty good face search in a place like that. Well, assuming you worked in the right area and didn’t mind risking your job and possible federal prison time.
And while interesting ideas abound, finding Satoshi might be simpler than it first seems. From the outset, it was meant to be an experiment in six degrees of separation — testing the idea that any individual can be connected to any other individual in six degrees or less.
Adrian: It is, I mean that was the idea. The thing with six degrees for most people is you know you go “how far are you from Kevin Bacon?” So you know the person you’re trying to find, you know who they are. Right? What we’re saying is here’s a picture of someone, and I’m sure most of our players would find themselves only 3 or 4 degrees of separation from this guy. But you’re not going to send around this photo to everyone you know, force them to look at it, and then force them to show their friends and have them show their friends. It might work in theory, but convincing people is another thing.
Yeah, well, some users suggest trying that, but it’s ridiculed pretty quickly as just unfeasible. Nobody wants to be that person emailing this photo of a stranger to everyone saying “Do you know this man?” Plus, 2005 was at the heyday of spam and chain email. It was rampant. What you do see a lot of on the forum are people posting Google images of Japanese men whose name may or may not be Satoshi. This becomes a common attempt, prompting one of the users to respond:
Not every Japanese guy with hair brushed down on his forehead is a potential answer, gang.
And of course, in trying to find who Satoshi is, ruling out Satoshis one by one doesn’t sell as an effective method of approach. On that note, spamming false Satoshi’s was so commonplace that Laura became a bit concerned about the way the search was being conducted.
Laura: people were hassling Asian men who may or may not have been named Satoshi. I was in contact with a lot of them, because anytime someone emailed me a tip I would write to them and explain what was going on, and they would say “I had no idea why I was getting these emails!” And none of these people were the guy of course. But they were inundated with people trying to reach out and contact them who were not explaining what was going on.
Basically, when using the internet to search for somebody, you have to think about collateral. And this is something that the players on the forum had to wrestle with.
So, clearly, a novel puzzle such as this requires a novel approach. No idea is a crazy one. Adrian himself comes up on the forums as well, as some players on the forum toss around ideas that he is a potential connection to Satoshi.
Asher: So, your name comes up a couple times, people are theorizing, people are saying, maybe Adrian knows Satoshi, … .
Adrian: I don’t know why they would think that, no, I mean it wasn’t me, I’m surprised it was that difficult for people. It depends, there wasn’t any big reward for that card, and people knew it wasn’t relevant to the story. If we said if you find him we’ll give you 100,000 pounds, he would be found. But no, I can confirm it wasn’t me, that’s for sure. Yeah, I mean I’m not going to say any more. I don’t know where he is now, so I don’t know how useful I can be.
Throughout the forum there’s an underpinning of paranoia that the players are being tricked somehow, like Mind Candy is lying to them about something, throwing them for a loop.
There’s a lot of people questioning the obvious as potential red herrings. They wonder whether the words printed down the side, “find me”, mean something else altogether. Others think maybe Satoshi’s not even real, that he’s been invented by Mind Candy and exists only in the universe of the game.
As time goes on, the theories just get farther out there. Ideas are tossed around very much like someone on their last chance in a game of 20 questions; each is as speculative or farfetched as the previous. Reading some theories you might think they’re about to try linking Satoshi to JFK’s assassination, or to DB Cooper.
They try everything, they even try linking Satoshi to another elusive figure of the same name, who became infamous shortly after Perplex City: Satoshi Nakamoto.
Adrian: Oh, Bitcoin.
Asher: Yeah, Bitcoin.
Satoshi Nakamoto is the elusive alleged founder of Bitcoin, he’s been the source of a great deal of mystery. Nobody knows who he is or where he is or whether he’s even real, sort of like Satoshi.
Asher: one of them’s saying, and you can confirm or deny or not, that Mind Candy knew about Bitcoin ahead of time —
Adrian: If Mind Candy knew about Bitcoin ahead of time, we’d be much richer than we are now. Yeah… no, we’re not that good. That’d be fun.
And while tossing around all these theories and asking all these questions isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when it comes down to it, there’s a balance to be had between asking lots of questions and becoming lost in those questions.
Adrian: Yeah, we made these puzzles to be solved, apart ones that obviously can’t be solved like Riemann hypothesis. So I don’t think we ever really tried to fool people. Sometimes there are red herrings, but these puzzles were made to be solved, and I feel bad when I see people run into dead ends, and of course you have people speculate that “maybe it’s someone who Adrian knows!” and that’s natural, I would do that as well, but I think people can get stuck on that a bit too much.
Eventually the strategy of questioning everything can lead to disorientation. If you’re lost in the jungle and you don’t trust your compass, how do you navigate? You can’t get too far that way.
Still, I get it, though — with seemingly so little to go on, the biggest question of all looms large: where do we go from here?
There’s one big mystery about the card that stands out to most people early on, and that’s the location. Those European looking buildings in the background, the river, the bridge, the hills: Where was this photograph taken?
The houses don’t look asian, more like european, and the hills might help too.
Writes one user.
He’s wearing a scarf and overcoat too, it’s cold. I say Germany or Holland.
Another user, GuyIncognito, whose avatar is a clip art Sherlock Holmes, chimes in:
As for where the picture was taken, I would think Germany, since it looks like that pretty much everywhere in the more rural parts… but it might as well be in Austria, Switzerland, France or even somewhere in the UK.
Location is one of the major questions about the card that most players seem to think is a big lead worth pursuing. Perhaps because it seems achievable. The location isn’t moving around, the location probably hasn’t changed significantly in appearance, and it seems unique enough to be positively identified — none of which can really be said for Satoshi himself, at least not with any certainty.
A lot of discussion goes into trying to find out where this location is, because if something on the card is possibly identifiable, then it’s probably meant to be identified.
Then, they find it. One user recognizes the geography and architecture as being reminiscent of the Alsace region of Eastern France, right on the border with Germany.
The location seems to fit general consensus that it’s a central European village, and others are quick to look into it. They’re looking for the rivers, the hills, and the distinctive European architecture.
They compare Google Image results for Alsace. A little more digging and one particular town comes up — it’s called Kaysersberg, a medieval looking settlement on a river, with red roofs and old buildings, surrounded by green hills and vineyards known for their Pinot Grigio. After comparing many photos, it’s determined to be a match.
And when Kaysersberg comes up, that seems like a big break. It was a real cause for celebration on the forum, and for Laura.
Laura: it put that person in a specific location in a specific context, so that was the first piece of information.
At the very least, it puts him on the map, it gives us coordinates and a physical space, a place where we know Satoshi stood once to take this photograph that has so many people searching for him. It gives us a starting point. At least, that’s the hope.
Soon there were posts on the forum calling for an envoy, someone to carry out a pilgrimage of sorts, a journey to Kaysersberg to snoop around for clues.
And someone did go to Kaysersberg, but sort of by chance: Laura.
Laura: I’ve stood on the location where his selfie was taken. That’s a weird story too!
Asher: Yeah, tell me about that.
Laura: Yeah, my job, at the time I was living in Dallas, TX, just completely randomly one of the companies we worked with was having a conference in France in this region that they wanted me to make presentation at and I was looking at it and I noticed how close it was to the location, and I was like “hey boss, I need you to drive me to this place and look for this thing,” and they were totally game. It was completely random that it was there, completely random that I was asked to go, and just like my boss’ willingness to humour me at the time was the reason I was able to do that. I’d never seen photographs there of anyone else who was ever looking. It’s out of the way.
Asher: small town right?
Laura: Yeah, near the border. Wine country sort of place.
Asher: Do you remember what it was like when you walk on that bridge and stand on that spot?
Laura: Yeah, there’s lots of bridges in that town so we spent a little bit of time hunting for it, and I think it was my boss who said “No, this is it,” we got the picture, we were trying to compare it. He was a professional photographer too so he helped position me to get the right angle to match as close as possible. It’s very surreal though, for something that, I’ve got the physical puzzle card, right, it’s printed out, but that’s the only tangible piece of it, otherwise it’s completely, it doesn’t even exist online except for the website, only in our heads and our desire to find this person. So to have this tangible piece of it in standing in that location is funny and interesting.
Asher: Did you feel a clue from the universe?
Laura: I wish. It would make it so much easier.
Asher: It’s findsatoshi.wordpress.com
Laura: Is the animated one on there, where it’s from me to the guy to me and back?
On her website, she posted an animation that transitions between Satoshi’s selfie and her own photo on the exact spot.
Asher: Oh here it is, yeah. It’s lined up so well. It’s the exact spot.
Laura: Right? Maybe I did absorb some of the molecules in the air or something.
Asher: Could be. Maybe the next game they’ll release “find Laura.”
Laura: Maybe in a quantum sense we’re probably connected, like we’ve mingled in some way.
Asher: You’ve probably breathed in his air!
Laura: Yeah. Haha, find Laura…
Asher: It’ll be on the same spot, and it will say “find Laura”.
Hearing Laura tell me about going to Kaysersberg got me curious. I wanted to have that experience. So short of buying a plane ticket, I settled for second best: I went to Kaysersberg on Google Maps. I zoomed in on the winding streets and dragged the little yellow street view man over to a bridge. First one, wrong, second one, no luck. Then I landed on one bridge, labeled D28, and there it was. Those buildings in the background, the river, the hill, the wooden trusses, they were all there in virtual reality. I could see the spot at which Satoshi once stood. I could look around and see what he saw, the view he had, the cobble streets beneath his feet. I could see it all. And although I’ve never been there, it just made it feel more real to me.
Finding Kaysersberg reminded me of my obsession with the location of one particular photograph I’d seen as a kid. It was a default desktop background on Windows XP.
The photo is suitably called “Bliss”. It depicts a lush, green hill under a blue sky dabbed with clouds. It’s been called the most viewed photo of all time. It’s vibrant and minimal and serene. I remember this photograph greeting me on computers in elementary school during library period, with its perfect minimalism interrupted by garish icons for “All the Right Type” and “Math Circus”. So, for me, there’s an element of nostalgia to it.
And I remember, briefly after logging in, this vague longing would overcome me; I’d want to go there, to where that photo was taken, and stand on the side of that road and look out over that field, discover what lay over that perfect green hill, feel the grass, see what was outside the frame. Experience that bliss.
I did find out where the photo was taken — in Sonoma County, California in 1996 by National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear — but that didn’t satisfy me. I got what I wanted — an exact geographic location, but it didn’t feel like enough, it felt, almost, too obvious, or maybe too random — like, it could have been anywhere, why this place, why Sonoma County? I don’t know what I was looking for, but the location just wasn’t enough.
Anyway, I digress, back to the story. So we’ve figured out where the photo was taken… Where do we go from there?
Well, it’s hard to say. Kaysersberg doesn’t really offer much to go on. Although this revelation maybe aims the scope a little better, Finding Satoshi is still very much like shooting in the dark.
And here’s where the search starts to run dry. Subsequent posts on the forum, becoming fewer and farther between, are now grasping at straws, hail marys interspersed with the odd photo of an Asian man of vague resemblance to Satoshi, saying “Do you think this is him?”
As things slow down, that optimism that was there at the outset begins to fade. What once seemed achievable now seems to be falling further and further away into the realm of a dream.
Something else that came up in the forum, and when I was talking to Laura and Adrian, was the idea of puzzle design. In any puzzle, all the bits and pieces are put there by a person with a mind and a way of thinking and a personality, and all of that invariably goes into the puzzle to some degree. As much as puzzle designers would like to be completely random in order to make their puzzle more difficult and objective, people just can’t seem to keep themselves totally out of what they make. And if you can get inside the mind of the creator and think like they did, you might have a big advantage in cracking the code.
Laura is herself a puzzle designer — she now runs an Escape Room in Portland, Oregon. So I asked her about it.
Asher: When you’re doing something like finding Satoshi, that’s a game that was designed by people, and so you have to think about how people design puzzles to solve a puzzle. How have you encountered that since you’ve been into this whole thing?
Laura: It actually took a long time to think of myself as puzzle designer. With puzzle hunts and ARGs and things like that, a lot of the solving also comes down to knowing the mind of the creator. It’s certainly an advantage to know how the puzzle is constructed.
As for the search, things had reached a standstill. The last, and only, big breakthrough that comes through the forum is Kaysersberg. Other than that, it’s just inklings, head-scratching, some fringe theories, and those that deny or reject them. Then it’s back to square one.
The posts become increasingly sparse, and soon begin to dry out, along with the case. Most of the posts occur between 2005, when the game launches, and 2008.
One user writes in summer 2008:
So as someone who refuses to give up, I’m still in this. …
To this day, I believe the best lead we ever had was discovering the location of the picture.
After that, there are a few posts here and there, becoming increasingly sparse, with months between them. As of this recording, the last two posts on the forum come in 2011, and 2014, respectively. Then, silence.
Perplex City officially ended in 2007, when the cube was found buried in a forest near Northampton, UK, and with it came a $200,000 prize. The discovery of the cube put a stamp of conclusion on Perplex City, bringing the larger story to something of an end.
Asher: Once the cube was found in I think 2007, that was a long time, the game went on for a couple years.
Adrian: It was only meant to take 12 months.
Asher: It went on a lot longer than you guys thought.
Adrian: That was a problem, there were a lot of problems.
Asher: Any others in particular come to mind?
Adrian: Well there were many. I should say that none of us really knew what we were doing. Which is true of most people in life so I don’t feel particularly bad about that. But this was a new thing. And I think Michael, the founder of Mind Candy, had a brilliant idea with Perplex City, but we did a lot of things poorly, one of them was it was quite difficult to get into the game when it started, you’d get to the website and think “What is going on? I don’t understand what any of these things are? Do I have to read 100,000 words to get up to speed?”
I think in some respects the game was too early, because it was difficult for it to gain traction and people weren’t as used to buying stuff over the internet as they are now, but I think people really like it, so overall it made a big impression on people. I think if you were interested in those games back in 2000 and back in 2004, then, obviously you’re amazing, no, obviously what it means is that you have a certain interest in a certain kind of thing and you were lucky enough to be on the internet when it was quite a small world, and that meant that I met quite all sorts of interesting people, in a way that doesn’t quite happen the same way now, not to say the internet was better then, but I remember back then that it was cool to meet anyone from the internet, it was quite unusual to use the internet a lot.
I keep on meeting people 9 years on, 10 years on, from the game and I meet people all over the world, not all the time, but at interesting places. I was at this dinner in San Francisco after a talk I gave, and there were these two geneticists sitting next to me, and she comes over and she says “you know, before we sit down I want to tell you I really liked Perplex City, I was a player of it,” and I was like “wow, this is amazing!” And I think there was a certain type of person who played it, because this was pre-Facebook kind of, pre-Twitter, pre-iPhone, earlier in the life cycle of the internet, still felt quite strange and new.
Asher: Well I was reading a little about Perplex City season two. Is that gonna happen?
Adrian: Not as far as I know. We made a lot of it. That’s pretty sad, we had all the cards… did we sell the cards? I think we sold some of the cards, and it got canceled.
As Mind Candy, the parent company, pivoted to digital games.
Adrian: You know the 10th anniversary of the cube being found is coming up next year, and maybe something will happen, we’ll see. Not a whole new game. But we might do something to commemorate it.
Asher: Well I endorse that, I think it should happen. It’d be cool if someone found Satoshi on the 10th anniversary.
Adrian: I can’t promise that.
It turns out the person who found the cube was actively searching for Satoshi as well, and had been a regular poster on the Unfiction forum.
With the prize money, along with buying a house, he paid for a year of the running costs of the Unfiction forum, and added $1000 of reward money for finding Satoshi.
But, still, he hasn’t been found. With the end of Perplex City’s overarching game, much of the interest in solving the puzzle cards began to evaporate. This coupled with quickly shrinking morale due to a lack of leads or developments caused the case to stagnate, little by little, until it just became one of those forgotten nuggets of internet lore.
I can picture all the players moving on with their lives, resuming normalcy, their jobs, their commutes, their morning coffees, setting the search aside, only to have it drift into their minds periodically as they lie in bed, or hop on the bus to work, or wait at an airport, seeing all these passing faces, wondering if, hidden amongst them, they might see his face.
In all its magnificent unlikelihood, the fact that it’s possible is enough to entertain the thought. But then, day after day, year after year, no luck — until it’s forgotten.
Remember, Satoshi’s card is one of only two puzzle cards from Perplex City that to this day haven’t been solved. The other was a joke. The Riemann Hypothesis, something never truly expected to actually be solved. The fact that it’s only these two cards left, and that one of them is verifiably impossible, doesn’t seem to give much hope.
But, there is hope. To Find Satoshi doesn’t require being gifted in mathematics, it just requires living on the planet Earth, and maybe a stroke of luck. It’s a puzzle accessible to anybody and is challenging only due to the sheer number of people there are, it’s a quantity problem. Which makes you think that, maybe all those years of theorizing on the forums were overcomplicating everything — maybe searching for codes and hidden meanings and all this time spent on Kaysersberg was overkill. Maybe it’s just a numbers game.
After all, it’s more possible now than it ever was. The internet has brought us all magnitudes closer together. Facebook’s research team recently published a study saying that the average degrees of separation between Facebook users isn’t 6, it’s just 3.5. So, if Satoshi is on Facebook, and that’s a big if, he could be just a few steps away from any other Facebook user.
Adrian: I don’t think you can ever really underestimate power of internet, the power of crowd, but the problem is whether they’re sufficiently interested, and there are plenty of problems out there that the crowd can solve but they can’t be bothered. It’s not that people are not interested in Find Satoshi, but this is a hard problem. And if we did it again now I suspect we might have a bit more luck, but we’ll see.
The internet may not have been ready in 2005 for what Perplex City was, and if it happened now, both Adrian and Laura agree, it would be done differently — and that Satoshi could be found. So, in a sense, Perplex City may have happened too early, before its time.
Find Satoshi has fallen into obscurity over the years, surviving as an orphaned shard of a completed narrative. It’s a cold case, frozen in time, unfinished. And something like that just needs closure.
Laura: I do not think anybody is actively pursuing it. It has been posted to reddit before, but there’s never really any response. I mean for it to capture collective imagination is a separate thing. To make people want to do it.
Laura has a really good point. The challenge is capturing the imagination amongst the general population in Finding Satoshi, a mystery now orphaned from its mother narrative.
Since day one, though, even when the game was still live, there was no real endgoal to finding Satoshi, other than the closure of finding him. Satoshi wouldn’t lead players to the cube or to a cash prize, he wouldn’t solve any greater mystery. It’s just the world’s longest running game of hide & seek. But give someone a Where’s Waldo book and they’re going to look for Waldo.
Laura: I would love for it to be done. There are a lot of factors that make it possible. If he lies in an English speaking country it would be possible for me personally to find him, but yeah, I will not give up hope. As time has passed I’ve gotten busy, and it’s difficult to get reengaged because it takes so much time.
Asher: It’s just one of those things that needs closure. And the longer it goes on, ten years? The longer it goes on the more satisfying closure will be.
Laura: That would be great. The irony is that would be news story rather than hunt.
Asher: Does it surprise you that he hasn’t been found?
Adrian: I mean I think it’s hard now, probably, because there are fewer people looking and he looks different. You know, that’s all you have is his name. I mean, I dunno, if reddit suddenly got interested he could probably be found very quickly, or whatever people use in Japan for reddit, if that’s where it is. Oh no, did I give a clue? I don’t know whether he is in Japan actually, I could be wrong about that.
Laura: It’s an enduring mystery. We’re sort of in a time of storytelling that embraces gray area. There’s a nice quote about puzzle solving is like scratching an itch? So in terms of giving hints to people you want to let them scratch the itch themselves because it triggers that level of satisfaction. So maybe this is a nice way of framing the world in such a way that there could be, it’s black and white, there’s a conclusion possible, it’s just out there somewhere.
Asher: That’s exactly right, there is, there’s a Satoshi out there right now, just eating a sandwich somewhere.
Asher: Waiting for someone. And we’re talking about him right now, he doesn’t even know it. It’s this ongoing unknown, to think that Satoshi is somewhere right now, right now, doing his thing, maybe even forgets, he’s there somewhere!
Laura: We were told by the CEO of the company at the time that he had a passphrase that only he knows, so it’s possible to still find him and ask for the passphrase and confirm it with the people who worked on it. I can’t give up hope.
Asher: You’ve gotta keep it alive! Keep the website up, maybe one day you’ll get an email from Satoshi.
Laura: They told us that even if he sees that stuff somebody has to directly reach out and contact him. So it is completely possible that he has come across it. Wouldn’t you look for it if you were him? I certainy would, I would wonder about that forever.
Asher: It’d be an interesting existence. Going about your daily life and in the back of your head, you know there’s a group of people looking for you at all times.
Laura: This sounds creepy, but I’ve studied his photograph in detail, he has distinctive facial markings, the shape of his ear and earlobe are one of the best ways to distinguish between persons, cause his hair could be different, he could have facial hair, or he could be wearing glasses, or whatever, but ears and moles and stuff are gonna be the key thing. So what if one day I’m sitting in an airport and I look over and that’s the ear! It’s possible.
Asher: If that happens, okay Laura you’re in Portland International Airport, and you’re sitting in your chair waiting for your plane to leave, and you see someone that looks really familiar and you look up and you see it’s Satoshi. What would you do? Do you have a plan?
Laura: I would probably pass out! No, I would ask what the code is.
Asher: Would you ask if he was Satoshi first?
Laura: Yeah of course, politely in a non creepy way when I got control of myself.
Asher: As unlikely as it is, I do hope that’s how he’s found.
Laura: That would be the best.
Asher: I hope you bump into him somewhere. You deserve to find him and it should be somewhere random just at a place, on a sidewalk, at an airport.
Laura: That would be fabulous. It would make my life.
Asher: It could happen.
Laura: Never say never. They say if you spend enough time in Trafalgar Square in London you’ll run into someone you know.
Asher: Yeah, with enough people passing through. I really hope you find him, I think you should find him.
Laura: Maybe this will get people excited to contribute. It’s not something I can do on my own.
Asher: That’s right. It’s just so, it really captured my imagination as well when I first heard about it, and it makes me want to find him too. It’s interesting cause there’s this one guy, and it could have been anyone, but it happened to be Satoshi. I want to find him.
Laura: I do hope. I’m looking at all the stuff. There’s not a lot of recent things. This is what’s funny, too. It’s odd that in the meantime nobody else has sort of taken it up. Maybe it is my quest. You know? I need to draw up the weapon once more.
Adrian: Yeah, still out there, still part of the puzzle. Um and maybe someone will find him. It’s kind of nice to think that the game continues.
And so Satoshi waits, somewhere. Going about his daily life. Perhaps peering over his shoulder from time to time, waiting for someone to give him that look of vague recognition, like they’ve seen him before but they’re not sure where. As one user on the forum aptly reflected,
[It makes you] wonder how many people you have randomly seen in your lifetime. There’s a billion to one chance you’ve already seen [Satoshi].
All we have of Satoshi is this card, his face staring back at us, taunting us to find him. And so maybe, someday, somebody will recognize him, or maybe stumble across the the next clue, lying hidden somewhere: under the bridge, beneath the dark ripples of that river, over the hills in the background, or behind those dark, taunting eyes, whispering: find me.
But until that day comes, somewhere out there is a man named Satoshi, waiting to be found.
If you want to help track Satoshi down, a good place to start is Laura’s website: findsatoshi.wordpress.com, you’ll find Satoshi’s puzzle card there, and an overview of what we know, and the photo Laura took at the same spot Satoshi stood in Kaysersberg.
This episode was produced independently by me, Asher Isbrucker, with music by Yusuke Tsutsume, Chris Zabriskie, Kai Engel, and Dana Boulé.. Thanks so much to them, and to the freemusicarchive, where musicians make their music free to use. Highly recommend it.
And of course, special thanks to my guests; to Laura Hall, who now runs an escape room in Portland Oregon.
Laura: If you’re in portland come visit our escape room game! It’s called 60 Minutes to Escape.
And to Adrian Hon, who, since Perplex City ended, has gone on to start his own gaming company called Six to Start, which made a little game called Zombies, Run! You may have heard of it.
Adrian: That was a completely different kind of thing, we came up with idea with Naomi Alterman, lead writer for Perplex City.
And thanks as well to my very eloquent & talented friend Steven James who recorded a part for this episode that didn’t make it in the final cut, Steven I very much appreciate it anyway. I had to cut a lot of stuff out.
And, of course, thanks to you, whoever is listening to this inaugural episode of whatever this podcast becomes. Thank you. I appreciate you too. And that’s all I have to say for now. So until next time. Happy hunting.
A Season One retrospective of Perplex City that goes into more detail
The Unfiction forum thread about the Find Satoshi card (you can read through all the posts about the card and re-live the mystery as it unfolded)