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Linked List Clue Methodology

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"Why can't they just say 'go to this place and here's the treasure; spend it wisely'?"
Riley Poole, National Treasure

A common system for distributing clues in any genre where the heroes must investigate something (this includes not only Crime and Punishment Series but also many Action Series and Science Fiction series). In plots which use the Linked List Clue Methodology, each clue tells the heroes where the next clue should be found, and the next clue leads them to the clue after that, and so on until they get to the solution.

This is named after the concept of a "linked list" in computer science, where each element in the list contains a "pointer" to the next element, which can be anywhere in the memory. The only way to find a specific element in such a list is to look at each individual one that precedes it.

The Linked List Clue Methodology is extremely common in video games, particularly role-playing games, where it provides a convenient mechanism to force the player to follow the predetermined plot without appearing to put overly contrived restrictions on the player's actions. Compare Fetch Quest and Chain of Deals.

When the clues are being actively supplied by someone who thinks he's a Chessmaster, see Criminal Mind Games. For when there's a really weak connection between the clues see Plot Coupon.


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    Alternate Reality Game 
  • Some months after the Grand Finale of Gravity Falls, creator Alex Hirsch released the first of a series of clues left around the world as part of "Cipher Hunt". Fans online and in real life collaborated to follow the clues across the world, eventually finding a statue of Bill Cipher and a buried treasure chest full of fan swag just outside of Reedsport, OR.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn: Essentially The Da Vinci Code IN SPACE WITH MECHA! Replace "Priory of Sion" with "Vist Foundation", The cryptex with Gundam Unicorn, and the Holy Grail with the Laplace Box/Universal Century Federation Charter (which basically states that Spacenoids will be freed from Earth legally and thus affirming Zeonism and Newtype superiority) and you have the overall plot of Gundam Unicorn.
  • One Piece:
    • The Poneglyphs — stone monoliths which tell the forgotten history of the world. (It was rumored that one in specific tells of an ambiguously-described superweapon known only as Pluton. It may be an example of Wave-Motion Gun, but not enough information was really given.) Nico Robin, the Straw Hat crew's archaeologist, is searching for one in specific, referred to as the Rio Poneglyph, though she's been unsuccessful in her endeavors. Some Poneglyphs allude to the existence of others, though other times, the line ends up running dry for a period of time.
    • The Grand Line might also count in a more indirect way. There aren't any material clues, per se, but the idea behind the strip of ocean is that compasses are useless due to its magnetic fields — the only way to navigate is in a linear(ish) path using a tool called a Log Pose, similar to a compass: follow the needle to an island, wait for the Pose to adjust to that island's magnetic field, pointing it toward the next island, then follow it again, and so forth, until you reach the end of the Grand Line, wherein there's said to be... well, you know.

    Comic Books 
  • This is more or less The Riddler's MO in Batman. He leaves riddles at his crime scenes as his Calling Card and solving said riddle gives the heroes a hint as to what the next step of his Evil Plan might be. This is actually Justified since Riddler is an Insufferable Genius with a Complexity Addiction that enjoys matching wits with his pursuers and wants to prove he's smarter than they are. As the character evolved, it's revealed he became actually psychologically unable to commit crimes without leaving clues behind, much to his own horror.
    Riddler: You don't understand... I really didn't want to leave you any clues. I really planned never to go back to Arkham Asylum. But I left you a clue anyway. So I... I have to go back there. Because I might need help. I... I might actually be crazy.
  • The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: Some of Uncle Scrooge's more expansive treasure hunts take this form. The Dutchman's Secret by Don Rosa has at least a rich justification: the clues are not made by the same authors. The treasure had been found and lost many times, each treasure owner intentionally obscuring the maps they'd used to throw off the competition before being driven out of the mountains. Then, they wrote clear and straightforward directions for their friends or family which the next treasure hunter would use to find the treasure. Until Donald accidentally destroyed the last map, and the Ducks are forced to make use of the clues that are not completely eradicated.
  • In the comics, Spider-Man's first encounter with the Sinister Six worked like this. They had kidnapped his current girlfriend and Aunt May (mostly by coincidence), and planned battle locations where they would each have advantages. Once Spidey beat one, he received a card with the next villain's location.

    Fan Works 
  • Always Visible: At the end of the story, Galbraith solves a small puzzle, the first two clues of which were essentially indicated in the materials of the case of his late friend.
  • Fate Revelation Online:
    • This seems to be a common form of filler in quests, sent bouncing around the floors until you're inevitably right back where you started. Which is part of the reason that Ilya uses her Mystic Eyes of Binding to skip to the end as much as possible.
    • Asuna and her friends, while looking for an easy quest to kill time, end up with a Chain of Deals that Liz and Silica are pretty sure is going to end in a Gift of the Magi Plot. The reason why it's this trope is because the girls don't realize it's actually full of hints leading them to a much bigger plot. When they get to the end, they find that an essential NPC has disappeared, and dismiss the quest as Unwinnable by Mistake. If they had pushed harder, they would have discovered that the man they were talking to was the missing Floor Boss, and he ate the NPC they're looking for.
    • Griselda's guild takes a quest to track down a missing NPC. At each step they talk with another NPC who had worked with him and knows where he searched next. Partway through they decide not to bother with the breadcrumbs and just dowse for the man's location.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The entire point of the National Treasure movies was this kind of chase.
  • To a lesser extent, the Indiana Jones movies Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both follow this style, although Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom passes on this in favor of one long Death Course.
  • Mystery Woman: In the Shadows had a former spy hide the identity of a mole with this method and subverted it by putting nothing at the end; he didn't know the mole's identity, and the scheme was to get the mole to expose himself.
  • Subverted in the movie Day Of Wrath, where the main character stumbles into a series of murders with letters carved into the body. When he finally confronts the mastermind behind them and demands to know what they mean, presenting a bunch of jumbled letters, he is promptly told "It's supposed to be Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath. It seems you missed a few murders."
  • Candleshoe has the main character attempting to find a hidden treasure in a mansion using a series of clues.
  • The Spanish horror movie The Orphanage is full of them. The little boy enjoys setting them as a game for his mother; when he disappears, she finds herself following one to try to find him.
  • Most of Men in Black II consists of K trying to regain his memories through a list of clues that he left for himself.

  • Dan Brown's best-known novels, Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, both work this way. It's unfortunate in The Da Vinci Code, since the cryptex was a severely outdated security mechanism. Check this page for at least three methods of opening it without the password.
  • The Famous Five: In Five On a Hike Together, the Five receive a message: "Two-Trees, Gloomy Water, Saucy Jane, and Maggie knows", along with a hand-drawn map. At first, none of these make any sense, but when they realise that Two-Trees is a place, the rest becomes clearer when they arrive there, and the clues lead them to hidden loot.
  • Redwall uses this a few times. Pearls of Lutra is the most notable; how else are you going to find the titular pearls if not through a series of riddles?
  • Defied in Un Lun Dun by China Miéville. The protagonist consults a book of prophecy, discovers that she's supposed to follow a bunch of clues that work this way, and insists on skipping immediately to the end of the list.
  • Older Than Television: This was the basic plot of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual" (1893).
  • The novel Satan from the 7th Grade centers around an extended scavenger hunt following the clues that a long-dead French soldier left for his brother, that only the two of them were supposed to understand.
  • In Stephen King's Lisey’s Story, Scott and Paul play a treasure hunt game using linked list clues.
  • Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds works this way. Eunice, who planted all the clues, is smart enough to put a test in the final clue, to make sure its finder didn't try to skip over any of the previous links.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • Labyrinth of Evil concerns the Jedi's hunt for Darth Sidious, which begins when they seize Nute Gunray's mechno-chair and find a holographic message from Sidious. The chair is the first in a chain of clues, each leading straight to the next, that Obi-Wan and Anakin follow through the first 2/3 of the novel, then hand off to Mace Windu when the trail leads back to Coruscant.
    • Honor Among Thieves: Han spends an entire night searching for Rebel spy Scarlet Hark after her message drop was compromised before he could reach it. He knows which local criminal betrayed her, but not where he is, so he gets the address of a known associate, who says he's with his girlfriend. But she's already broken up with him, so Han steals her datapad with his contact info. The criminal doesn't know where Scarlet is, but knows a Rebel sympathizer who does. But, Scarlet has already abandoned her apartment, so Han breaks in. The trash indicates she orders the same meal delivered every morning, so he goes to the restaurant and gets her hotel room off that morning's order.
  • The path to the Lord Ruler's atium (a metal that grants Mistborn Combat Clairvoyance, making them practically invincible) in Mistborn is a Double Subversion. Starting with the palace (which everyone is afraid to enter even after the Lord Ruler's death), there are five caverns filled with supplies and the location of the next cavern. The last cavern never held any atium, but Word of God is that it held a clue to the real location, but Vin missed it.
  • The Trials of Apollo: At the end of The Tyrant's Tomb, Apollo receives the first verse of a prophecy in terza rima (a rhyme scheme where the first and third lines of each stanza rhyme with each other, and the second line rhymes with the first line of the next stanza). The first verse essentially tells him to go to New York (where the Big Bad has his headquarters), and Apollo realizes that he is going to receive the next verse of the prophecy there.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This is used often in Cold Case, in which every single episode consists of the cops following a trail of evidence (often 10, 20, 30, or in one case 70 years cold) that leads from one eyewitness to the next, each giving just enough information to get the next clue, but no more.
  • CSI: NY: A perp leaves a cardboard box on Stella's vehicle outside the courthouse. After the bomb squad clears it, a jigsaw puzzle and a clue are found inside. The puzzle is of a now-abandoned building. Another box and clue are found there, and so on. Mac is eventually led to his hometown of Chicago where he is confronted with a tragedy from his youth.
  • Mr. Bean: Played with in "Mr Bean Rides Again", in that Mr Bean sets up a chain of keys to be unlocked one at a time, to start his car. Unlocking the door (fastened with a padlock) reveals a key to the boot, which contains a small purse containing the key to the bonnet, under which is the key to start the car.
  • Power Rangers Operation Overdrive did this. Fridge Logic kicks in though, due to there being five major artifacts the Rangers must find, which they manage to do every six or seven episodes, at which point they just coincidentally find info about the next treasure without any sort of previous clue, leading to the newest linked list. They never find artifacts in the wrong order, not matching up? The Rangers and the four villain organizations are always on the same trail of the same artifact leading to the same jewel at the same time?
    • Maybe the Sentinel Knight didn't anticipate so many different factions going after the crown at the same time? he probably only expected only one group to do it.
  • Supermarket Sweep - in the Bonus Sweep (or in the UK, the Super Sweep), the winning contestants had one minute to find clues to three grocery products in the market to locate $5,000 in cash (the UK version originally had 2,000 pounds, then increased to 5,000 when it briefly came back in 2007).
  • Finders Keepers - the Room-to-Room Romp required the winning team to find a "clue card" in each of six rooms in the house, each of which outlined what room to go to next and the clue for the location of the card in that room. Finding the sixth card in 90 seconds won the grand prize.
  • The Amazing Race is set up like this, although some fans have complained that the "clues" were only truly clues in the first few seasons, and are now more often simply directions. Given that Jerry Bruckheimer is involved in The Amazing Race, Cold Case, and the National Treasure movies, he appears to have a fondness for this sort of thing.
  • The reality program Treasure Hunters.
  • The premise of Road Rules - five (later six) strangers traveled in a Winnebago to various locations in the US (or occasionally abroad) to complete missions and challenges; at the end of one mission, a clue was given to the location of the next.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • The History Quest for newbies in Achaea involves hiking from town to town talking to NPCs, each conversation pointing you to the next one. Subverted because at one point, the quest seems to dead-end; in fact, you have to retrace your steps.
  • In the MMORPG A Tale in the Desert, one standard puzzle-making challenge requires a player to create a series of linked 'clues' on random in-world objects, leading to the desired end result. This is then judged by the solvers.
  • Repeatedly used in the .hack games. Kite goes to dungeon, gets information about the next part of the poen, goes to next dungeon, same thing happens. Add some irrelevant sidequests (Piros is in danger again!) and a few boss fights, and you have a 4-game series.
  • Most cases in L.A. Noire work like this. With one exception, however, they're generally pretty subtle about it.
  • In The Lost Crown: A Ghost-Hunting Adventure, Nigel playtests a treasure-hunt game for Nanny Noah that uses this trope.
  • Ultima VI has Chuckles the court jester sending the Avatar on a cross-kingdom scavenger hunt, the last clue of which is hidden not far from Chuckles himself. For extra irritation points, that clue sends you to talk to Smith the talking horse, who promptly gives you a crucial piece of information necessary to solve... Ultima V.
  • The first act of the main quest of Fallout: New Vegas operates in this fashion when trying to catch up with the men who left you for dead: the tavern owner in the town you wake up in tells you they'd have to head south towards the next nearest town, someone in that town will point you to another town, and so on. Of course you could try to short circuit that and go straight to New Vegas but you'd miss out on a lot of XP and a number of clues that will help you stack the odds in your favor when you do catch up with your would-be murderer. You'd also probably die, since making a beeline towards New Vegas takes you through areas with enemies that are extremely tough for a low-level character; the roundabout route gives you time to level up before facing them.
  • Clues are presented as "Truth Bullets" in the Danganronpa series, with your own player character narrating where they should probably check out next after deciding that a certain room has received a thorough-enough once over. Amusingly, there are times when one character will explicitly tell you that an object likely isn't important, only for it be added as a truth bullet at the end of the conversation, proving that it will come up later and will probably be vital. One example is Kirigiri saying the Electronic ID's probably aren't related to the third case, and Komaeda saying the rope in that game's third case wasn't relevant (and in his case, he knew full-well that it was important).
  • Most Room Escape Games work like this: solve the puzzle on the wall to get the key that unlocks the drawer that contains a clue to the combination of the safe, and so on.
  • Treasure Trails in the online game RuneScape.

    Western Animation 
  • In Barbie & Her Sisters in the Great Puppy Adventure, every place the girls visit has a clue that leads them to the next area, and, ultimately, the treasure.
  • Dexter's Laboratory: In the episode "Nuclear Confusion", Dee Dee swiped a "strange glowing thingie" from Dexter's latest creation and set him on this kind of game in order to find it. Unfortunately, the "strange glowing thingie" in question was actually the core component for what amounted to a Nuclear Fission reactor, and said reactor would go critical after an hour if it wasn't returned, which made things a lot more urgent. Then after Dexter got it back, the book he was planning to read was taken by Dee Dee.
  • On one episode of Family Guy, Peter sends Lois on a scavenger hunt following this model to distract her while he plays golf on their wedding anniversary. She doesn't figure it out until the last clue, which tells her to go back to the start; there, she happen to run into Cleveland and Loretta, who tell her what's really going on. When Lois storms over to the club to find him, Peter admits he didn't expect her to make it this far before he got back.
  • In the G3.5 My Little Pony short "Sweetie Belle's Gumball House Surprise", Sweetie Belle leaves clues for the others at different locations in her house to lead them to her backyard, where she is waiting with muffins.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic
    • In the episode "The One Where Pinkie Pie Knows", Twilight Sparkle's older brother Shining Armor and his wife, Princess Cadence, leave her one of these to send her on a search around town; Twilight comments that her brother used to do this often when they were younger, and that the prize was often "a new book...or several books." This time, though, the prize is information: namely, that Cadence is pregnant. But Pinkie Pie already knows that (hence the title), as Shining Armor and Cadence wanted some help preparing the surprise; Pinkie usually Cannot Keep a Secret, though, so she has zero patience for Twilight thinking about the clues, instead solving them herself and outright yelling the answers.
    • In "The Big Mac Question", as part of Big Mac's Wacky Marriage Proposal to his marefriend Sugar Belle, he inscribed a bunch of apples with rhyming clues to lead her to the hill where he was planning to pop the question. Unfortunately, since Sugar Belle kept missing the apples (due to having her own plans to proposal to Big Mac), Discord decided to bring them to life so that they could tell her the messages. Unfortunately, Discord forgot to tell the apples which pony the messages were for, so they ended up chasing every pony they saw while spouting their rhymes.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Subverted: Bart has hidden something of Lisa's, having left a series of clues like this. Lisa, however, knows Bart too well and after five seconds of thought rushes straight to the hiding spot.
    • Played straight (as straight as anything in The Simpsons, at least) in the episode, "Gone Maggie Gone", considering there are plenty of jokes at The Da Vinci Code's expense.
      "You know, that only makes sense if I guessed wrong first."
  • Interestingly subverted in the Nineties animated version of Treasure Island: the Treasure Map seems to be this, and they spend the whole series following the clues in turn...only for it to lead them to an empty chest. About to burn the map in the rage, they then find the fake top layer burns away to reveal a perfectly straightforward 'X marks the spot' map for the real treasure.
  • This happens in most episodes of Yogi's Treasure Hunt.