Most of the images of Cicada 3301 were shown as private images. Interpreters had to look closely at these images, looking for hidden symbols, messages, or ciphers. Some images contained QR codes that, when recognized, directed participants to new images or pages. Others hide information through optical and visual techniques, such as hiding text within pixel data.
The difficulties were not only visible; some included audio. Some of these puzzles included spectrograms, where the shape of sound waves hides hidden messages or codes. Students had to use special software to convert the audio into images and then analyze them for analysis.
Puzzles often combine text from books and old books. Interpreters need to identify specific passages from literary or historical texts related to the subject of the image. These references were used to open up alternatives to the problem, to test the participants’ knowledge of the text and the ability to communicate.
Cicada 3301 usually uses secret characters to write messages. Solvers encountered a variety of ciphers, including Caesar ciphers, Vigenère ciphers, and more complex algorithms. Interpreting these messages is often the key to unlocking the next part of the puzzle.
Students were also often directed to various websites and online resources, which they had to dissect and analyze for hidden information. This may include checking the source of web pages, identifying URLs, and finding links to hidden or password-protected content.
The hallmark of the Cicada 3301 graphics was their layered complexity. Translators often need to solve several problems, which lead to others, and develop many methods that gradually reveal the final solution. This layer added complexity and required students to be alert and persistent.