Cryptic Conversation

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Talia: I've been scanning Mr. Abbut all day, and his mind is still just as empty as when we started. And these phrases that you keep speaking in, they don't make any sense.
Kosh: Ah, you seek meaning. Then listen to the music, not the song.

Babylon 5, "Deathwalker"

This is the favorite pastime of the Zen Survivor, Waif Prophet, Eccentric Mentor, and any character with even a smidgen of knowledge on the setting's Backstory, or plots that are happening that the hero knows nothing about.

Just like a villain can't resist Evil Gloating, these characters will often hold entire conversations (one sided or not) using only vague, cryptic, ominous, and frequently Double Entendre laden terms and phrases to confuse the player and character. Why don't they spill the beans quickly to help bring down the Evil Overlord? Well, usually the character in question either wants to protect or manipulate the hero, other times they want to hide the truth. Of course, sometimes they do want to spill their guts but can't, due to a geas or binding oath, and even the little they do dish out can get them in trouble. The Author of the character in question might not have mapped out that far ahead into the series, or they want to have a character that's "in the know" who won't spoil the big twist in the end. And of course, there's always doing it just to look cool and mysterious regardless of reasons.

Often, these Poor Communication Kills will only frustrate the player/hero's attempts at solving the most recent dilemma, eventually riling them (and us) enough to tell the offending Mentors to shove your vagueness someplace painful.

This is related to how prophecies are never clear or straightforward, full of loopholes and interpretations. Creators might use these dialogues as place holders for Schrödinger's Gun, keeping them purposely vague enough to fit any Retcon in they need to.

Common set ups for this include but are not limited to:

Common Cryptic Conversations will have:

Common Cryptic Conversationalists will be:

Compare and contrast Trouble Entendre, wherein the sinister meaning is transparent, but not to passersby; and Talking Through Technique, where a concise conversation is held without ever saying a word.

Examples of Cryptic Conversation include:

Anime and Manga

  • Although not intentionally vague, about half of everything anyone said in the first season of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni was misunderstood by the other person because of their own preconceptions, usually leading to paranoia and literal Poor Communication Kills.
  • Quon from RahXephon speaks like this more often than not... the meaning of the terms she absently throw around in reference to the hero and his Humongous Mecha do not become clear untill the end of the series, but along the way, others 'in the know' makes occasional use of them, creating sinister suggestions of their true importance.
  • Yuki and Itsuki have one of these in the first episode of The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya. Predictably, Kyon calls them on it.
  • Carim Gracia of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha has the ability to magically create prophecies that turn out to be pretty vague thanks to the fact that they come in poem form, can be interpreted in many ways, and are written in the dead Ancient Belka language, adding even more ambiguities due to translation and mistranslation. Thanks to these factors, she considers them as useful as a fairly accurate horoscope.
  • Eden of the East is in love with this trope, and makes use of it so often that listing all the examples is simply impossible.
  • There are a couple of this in Fullmetal Alchemist, most notably among Father and the homunculi about the so called "promised day".
    • Which was pretty obviously going to be a solar eclipse long before Brosh's younger siblings woke him up wanting to borrow his telescope...
  • Used and abused extensively in both Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle and ×××HOLiC, most often delivered by Yuuko, Fai and Fei Wang. It took more than twenty volumes of hearing people referring cryptically to Fei Wang's "wish" before it was revealed what it actually was. Another dragged-out example are the constant allusions to how "Syaoran is the person closest to Watanuki".
    • Even the Exposition is typically given via Cryptic Conversation; you need to wait a while longer (sometimes months) to get more exposition to explain the cryptic parts of the last batch. Even when everything is said outright, its still somewhat hard to comprehend, giving the impression of this trope on occasion even when things are being said outright.
  • Lampshaded in Yu Yu Hakusho when Kurama says something akin to "Oh, I see. It must be... that." and Yusuke responds that he is going to start charging him money every time he is vague.
  • Almost everything Itachi from Naruto has EVER said.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena loves this one. Any time Touga is alone with Anthy or Akio, it's pretty much Cryptic Conversation time. Then there's the "chick" speech that Touga says every time the Student Council has one of their meetings. Then there's that time in Episode 13 where Akio is talking at Dios. And then there's the Shadow Play girls.
    • I think you mean that time in episode 13 when Akio is talking to Anthy. ;) Seriously, try watching that episode over with that impression—if the dialogue isn't enough to back it up, there's also the fact that you can see her figure silhouetted in the doorway with Akio as they walk out. And then when she walks back, Utena asks her where she was.
  • Vampire Knight has a lot of this, usually involving Kaname.
  • Justified in Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The reason Homura refuses explain herself is because she already tried in an alternate timeline. It didn't end well.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion is infamous for this, with any plot-related conversation involving Gendo or SEELE being the greatest offenders. Incidentally, it is far from the most Egregious example in anime; unlike, say, Xenogears, these conversations never resort to the cheap trick of vague pronouns or adjectives; the characters involved talk frankly about the subjects at hand... it's just that the viewers won't understand what these things are until they happen, if then.
  • Gilgamesh has some of this starting in the second episode. There are several sentences that are mostly composed of ellipses ("Debt collectors...?" "The contract for me... my organs... my sister... ...") At the beginning, since you've seen some of it, you can infer the lines not said, but the same can't necessarily of the characters, and in some cases is frustrating to the viewer.
  • Inuyasha finds himself on the receiving end of this from Sesshoumaru of all people. Tessaiga has gained a new power that Inuyasha is struggling to master. His brother turns up, dispatches the enemy Inuyasha was struggling with in a single swing and demands to know what on earth Inuyasha was trying to do. On learning Inuyasha was trying to destroy the enemy by sucking up the monster's power, Sesshoumaru leaves Inuyasha with a cryptic smile and an equally cryptic comment about having lost his way because he's failed to understand what the point of his sword actually is.
    • The same scene is also a play for irony since Sesshoumaru, although he dispatched the enemy, had failed to master his own sword in doing so even though he had increased the physical strength of his sword during the fight. This is because Totosai had left him with cryptic advice that to master his sword he needed to grow in strength. What Totosai was actually talking about was the strength of Sesshoumaru's compassion.

Comic Books

  • In one FoxTrot strip, Peter and his girlfriend have a Cryptic Conversation over the phone; the last panel shows his brother Jason listening in and musing that his spying may have gotten a bit obvious.
  • From Birds of Prey

Shiva: The master left me only one item. It is on my person.
Black Canary: I'll give you a dollar to stop being cryptic. Please say you'll take it.

Fan Works


  • The Matrix films, a very lot, as skewered in this Maddox parody
    • The second two of The Matrix trilogy are possible subversions. It turns out that The Oracle makes deliberately vague prophecies partially because she only has a limited insight into the future through predicting the choices of others, partially so she has some way to pretend to have predicted any turn of events, and partially in order to cause the other characters to carry out her prophecies. After all, "would [Neo] have really [broken the vase] if [the Oracle] hadn't said anything?"
  • Tia Dalma from Pirates of the Caribbean really loves conversing in that way.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail has "Scene 24" (so called in the movie).
  • Star Wars, if you believe Obi-Wan Kenobi's story that Darth Vader killed Luke's father was, as he put it, "True From a Certain Point of View."
  • In Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan Kirk and Spock try to have one of these so that Spock can inform him that the ship is much less damaged than Khan had thought without letting their eavesdropping enemy know. However, the code is so ridiculously transparent that one has to assume Khan had an Idiot Ball stuck in both ears not to realize.
  • David Mamet movies are famous for their stylized and often cryptic dialogue. In Spartan, naturalistic speech is used only when the main character is speaking code phrases.
  • Humorously deconstructed in Oceans Twelve. Danny and Rusty meet up with an informant, with Linus insisting on tagging along. Before the meeting, they tell Linus that the informant only discusses business in a certain code and they don't have time to teach him, so he'll just have to play along:

Informant: So, business?
Danny: Business.
Rusty: A doctor, who specializes in skin diseases, will dream he has fallen asleep in front of the television. Later, he will wake up in front of the television, but not remember his dream.
Informant: (speaking to Linus) Would you agree?
Linus: *thouroughly confused*
Danny: If all the animals along the equator were capable of flattery, then Thanksgiving and Halloween... would fall... on the same day.
Rusty: Mm.
Informant: Yeah.
Informant: When I was four years old, I watched my mother kill a spider... with a tea cozy. Years later, I realized it was not a spider - it was my Uncle Harold.
Linus: ...Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face, stars fill my dreams.
Ryan: *Face Palm*
Linus: I am a traveler in both time and space, to be where I have been.
*Moments later, outside the restaurant*
Rusty: Kashmir?
Danny: Is that your idea of making a contribution?
Rusty: We hadn't even started. We ain't even got to the terms yet.
Danny: We came this close to losing that.
Linus: Hey, I don't even understand what happened in there. What did I say?
Danny: You called his niece a whore.
Rusty: A very cheap one.
Linus: What?
Danny: She's seven.

    • It isn't until much later in the movie, after Linus is rescued from prison by his mother that he figures out that all the nonsense phrases he'd heard really were just nonsense; a Lost in Translation con that Danny and Rusty (along with the informant) played on him, partly as a practical joke, and partly because they didn't want him screwing up their negotiations.


  • In one of the Dresden Files novels, it is explained that prophecies have to be deliberately vague. If a prophecy is too detailed (e.g., "Your car will be stolen Friday"), and you act on it (move your car so it's not stolen), then that creates the question of how did you know your car would be stolen if it wasn't, which leads to a paradox, which can lead to very bad things.
    • In the RPG book, Harry notes that the Gatekeeper always speaks like he knows more than he's letting on, and if you asked him something as simple as "What do you want on your pizza?", he'd ramble on and give you an answer that didn't make any sense until later. Then he giggles at the idea of the Gatekeeper eating pizza.
    • Harry is also sometimes deliberately cryptic when talking to his allies. Not because he's trying to protect them or anything. It's just that being sneaky and cryptic and mysterious is pretty much heroin for wizards.
  • Weber & Ringo's novel We Few has a two-page conversation consisting of mixed allusions, metaphors, indirections, and double meanings. On the surface, it's about a meat supplier trying to get a contract with the Home Fleet. The subtext is that 1) the Prince has returned, 2) he is neither the useless playboy people remember him as nor the villain that the current powers are painting him as, 3) the current powers have turned the Queen into their puppet, 4) he is preparing to overthrow them, 5) he has support among some of the other fleets, 6) part of the plan involves assassinating the admiral of the Fleet, and 7) he is requesting that, once that happens, the Home Fleet support him or, at the least, stand aside.
  • The Amber series begins with Corwin/Corey having conversations with his sister and brother about things they know all about, and he has no memory of... and yet he still manages to make them think he's fully aware of everything and perhaps knows more than they do, and takes over control of the situation.
  • In Mad Magazine's spoof 'Doone' 'Duke Leto' rules that until the end of the crisis they will converse only in complete sentences. To the relief of his mentat who was about to call a time out to find out what they were talking about.
  • Ayatani Zweil in Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40,000 Gaunt's Ghosts novels is so prone to this that Gaunt wonders why they have kept him on as chaplain.
  • Would you believe Eragon had one of these with a bird?
  • Traditional Chinese courtesy requires indirection and ritual self denigration in conversation allowing for very polite and cryptic threats. A prize example is Judge Dee's various conversations with the Big Bad in The Chinese Bell Murders.
  • Conversations between mortals of various stripes and Elves apparently tend to go like this a lot. After trying unsuccessfully to get useful information out of Gildor near the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo tells him, "And it is also said, 'Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.'"
  • Robin Goodfellow from An Elegy for the Still-living loves these.

“I want to say that I dislike you, but I find that I cannot.”
“We know each other too well for dislike. There's only hate between us now.”
“I never saw you before today.”
“Aye. And how long's today, then? The lives we tell ourselves are the ones we begin to believe.”
“Do you mean the lies we tell ourselves? I did not lie about it.”
“Not you sir. No. You would never lie. Why, I can't imagine what came over me, to even suggest such a thing as that. That you would lie? Absurd.”
“Me what?”
“To be frank, I doubt I have understood any word that's come from you since we met.”
“Frankly, Frank, if I made any more sense I'd go mad. Then they'd call me wise.”
“Who would?”

  • Steve Perry's Matador Series occasionally mentioned something called "playing fugue," in which body language as well as elliptical phrasing altered the meaning of the words actually spoken. One sequence in particular included translations, when Sleel had been sent to prison while assassins attacked the other Matadors.

"Really? Sorry I'm missing it." It have anything to do with me being here?
"Ah, well, you aren't missing much." Yes. You being here is part of it. Watch yourself.
"...I'll drop by as soon as I'm out." I am going to escape. I can't wait. something has come up in here.

Live-Action TV

  • The Hybrids in Battlestar Galactica are the CPU of the Cylon Basestars. They all speak in surreal phrases which mix ship status reports, poetry, quasi-biblical verse, and ominous prophecy on current events. Of course, they're insane, so it's not like they have a choice in delivery. However, the eldest Hybrid was scarily lucid, and gave pretty concrete prophecy and warnings.
  • The Doctor in Doctor Who once explained why he doesn't give out a proper name thusly.

Do you know like we were saying, about the earth revolving? It's like when you're a kid, the first time they tell you that the world is turning and you just can't quite believe it 'cause everything looks like it's standing still. I can feel it... the turn of the earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour. And I can feel it. We're falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world. And, if we let go... That's who I am. Now forget me.

    • "The Stolen Earth/Journey's End" had the Mad Oracle Dalek Caan in this role.

"He is coming. The threefold man... he dances in the lonely places..."

  • Pretty much every line in Lost.
    • Lost is this trope.
    • But no scene in Lost better demonstrates this trope than the opening of the season 5 finale, in which Jacob and a currently unnamed man casually discuss the usage of human beings as pawns in some kind of battle of wills on the island.
  • Kosh from Babylon 5 exemplifies this trope, except that it's frequently hard to get him into a conversation at all. Here, take a read, it's hilarious.
    • What's scary? Many of them DO make sense in the end.
    • The page quote is a subversion, Kosh and Abbut are simply trying to get specific reactions from Talia in order to record her emotions.
  • Skins: In season 2, Cassie exchanges one with her teacher during her final exam. It ends with them dancing on Funkytown.
  • Oma Desala in Stargate SG-1.
    • Pretty much anything to do with the Ancients or other Ascended beings, as evidenced by Daniel when he got ascended for a season, to name one example.
    • This appears, on some level, to be because of the "rules" of being Ascended, which includes not being able to directly interfere, which probably extends to just spitting things out.
    • Lampshaded when he uses one of Oma's particularly confusing statements ("If you immediately know the candlelight is fire, then the meal was cooked a long time ago") to test a fake version of Oma taken from his memories: since he never figured out what the hell Oma was talking about, the fake Oma didn't know what it meant either.

Oneill: No, I'm all for subtlety but that is downright encrypted.

  • Angel in the first few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Appears out of the darkness, says something cryptic, then disappears.
    • She lampshades it nicely, with 'you couldn't just say it's a vampire with a fork?'
  • Father Mulcahy tries this strategy several times on M*A*S*H in order to give another character vital information without revealing what someone told in in confession. One led to him and Klinger getting shot at while trying to retrieve penicillin stolen by the black market, and worse Klinger ripping his skirt.
  • Twin Peaks; The owls are not what they seem.
  • Parodied in Mitchell and Webb where a generic evil genius is giving vague commands to his minions until one of them objects on the basis that it's confusing. And brings up the time they spent months actually hoping a guy would have an accident instead of arranging one.
    • Yeah, here we are: [1]
  • Darmok, and Jalad... at Tanagra
    • Though TNG has many examples of this (The Samaritan Snare and Rascals immediately spring to mind), Darmok might not qualify. The alien species were speaking quite plainly, it is just that they speak a different language, built around a radically different communications phenotype.
  • Go ahead, have a chat with River. Good luck.
  • And if you’re ever in Fraggle Rock, ask Cantus the Minstrel for advice. He’ll freely give it, but you’ll have to Figure It Out Yourself. Lampshaded by frustrated fellow minstrel Murray, and an exasperated Red Fraggle.

Tabletop Games

  • A lot of Forgotten Realms sources used this.
    • The best case may be this Mintiper's tetrastich. It ostensibly speaks about the beauty of the forest, for those in the know hints at a weird magical artifact, and "mantle" as an elven type of personal magical defences in Forgotten Realms. With a straight, but obscure reference to the matter at the end. Also may be misinterpreted as a reference to another artifact and comparison with elven royals who tend to practice High Magic.
  • In Paranoia, the GM may narrate this way to help keep the PCs in the dark:

PC: (in a vehicle with unlabeled controls and no manual) I press button #5.
GM: Sounds like something big just fell off.


  • In Bionicle, this drives Kopaka nuts. Every second character he comes across talks this way.

Video Games

  • Yeesha of Myst V and Uru is the queen of this.
  • The Vortigaunts from Half-Life 2 may qualify here, although it doesn't always take a theoretical physicist the figure out the meaning of their word play.
  • In Baldur's Gate, you can carry one with a shady individual in one of the eponymous city's inn. The only way to end it is to acknowledge that you have no idea what you are talking about. The rogue expresses surprise, with a hint of respect, that you were able to fake the conversation for so long and then disappears, never to be seen again...
  • Subverted hilariously in Dragon Age. The PC is performing contract kills for an assassin guild. She or he corresponds with a messenger from the guild who constantly speaks in cryptic messages. By choosing the correct dialogue options and acting confused as to what the messenger means, the PC can eventually frustrate the messenger enough that he says (and I paraphrase), "Yes, yes, you kill the target, you get the reward!" Whereas before, he only alluded to it.
    • Played straight with Flemeth. Practically every conversation with her has her speaking in riddles and chiding you for acting like you understand what she's truly talking about. She gets no better when dealing with Hawke in Dragon Age II.
    • Similarily, the petrified oracle Eleni Zinovia is incredibly cryptic. In the Mage origin, Jowan dismisses the statue's prophecies as nonsense.
  • Taken to truly absurd levels with the Gazel Ministry in Xenogears.
  • Kingdom Hearts employs this trope several times over the course of the series, especially in regards to bonus bosses and secret endings that hint towards the next sequel.
    • Especially where Namine erases Sora and his friends' memories of their time together with her, the only remaining evidence being a cryptic line written in Jiminy Cricket's journal "Thank Namine" and "We must return to save them from their torment". The answer to the last line becomes a major focus of Kingdom Hearts coded
    • Doubly so in the Final Mix versions. The fact that there's a Bonus Boss known by fans as the "Enigmatic Man" should be proof enough of this.
  • BlazBlue, constantly.
  • It's more of a "cryptic monologue", but Tezkhra's thoughts in The Reconstruction often take the form of this, making vague references and trailing off before anything important is revealed.
  • Ulysses of Fallout: New Vegas speaks entirely in metaphorical terms with heavy use of symbolism in his language. For example, he tends to refer to NCR and Caesar's Legion as the Bear and the Bull, the animals depicted on their respective flags.
  • The Praetorian Resistance in City of Heroes communicates entirely in a metaphor- and symbol-ridden argot that is difficult at best to decipher. One Resistance contact with whom players may interact is so deep into their lingo that he is all but incomprehensible—despite the fact that he's handing out mission assignments.

Web Originals

  • In The Gamers Alliance, Taliesin talks to Leon about the Laws of the Andain by using riddles because he feels every Andain must figure out the laws and the true meanings behind the words themselves with no outside help.
  • Broken Saints can be heavy on this, particularly from the Big Bad.
  • Xkcd plays this trope off of several others in the "Race" story arc.

Nathan: "I'm down. Tell Summer 'The chickens are in the hayloft. Plan Gamma is a go.'
Jewel: She says 'Plan Gamma acknowledged. The meercats are in the bag.'
Nathan: ...
Jewel: So we're good?
Nathan: Hard to tell with her. Do you see an actual bag of meercats?
Jewel: No.
Nathan: Then we're probably good.

  • In Gunnerkrigg Court Annie once asks Coyote what the Court is, and he replies "It is man's attempt to become God." Coyote immediately lampshades this by asking Ysengrim if it's a sufficiently cryptic answer, to which Ysengrim replies "Very cryptic. It barely answers anything at all." and Annie appends that it just raises more questions. Coyote of course, being The Trickster, was going for this exactly and is delighted that it was so vague.
  • Invoked, requested, and lampshaded here in Homestuck:

JOHN: do you think that instead of telling me exactly why that is with a clear explanation, you can give me a series of really coy riddles about it and then sort of giggle?
NANNASPRITE: When you pass through the first gate, everything will change. You will find the place where the constellations dance beneath the clouds. And then your true work may begin. Hoo hoo hoo!
JOHN: i suddenly understand everything!

  • PS238 has Veles exploit this in his Impossible Task challenge to the heroes. One, this of course requires the heroes to solve his stealth riddle to succeed. Two, this gives them a chance to bring him what he wants, because when they seek the wrong target, all the mind-reading defences just let them go, except the one which starts protecting the false target, thus the heroes can freely go for the real one - if they figure out what he meant at the point where they have to stop and think.
  • Evil Inc. has a Crystal Ball "answering" the question about Captain Heroic's weakness. The witch thought it malfunctioned, but metaphorically it was entirely correct - Cap's main weakness is a "bombshell" with moderately short fuse. See another useless correct answer 2 pages later.

Western Animation