In the 1940s, humanity received a transmission from an unknown extraterrestrial source. Called "The Message", this transmission was classified and given to the US government's best codebreakers, who were unable to decipher it. Numerous odd but seemingly unrelated fatalities occurred during the attempt, however, leading to internal rumors of a "curse" on The Message.
Fast forward to 2015. The Message has been suddenly declassified by the CIA to the Cypher Centers For Communications, a famously effective, private team of audio scientists. They ask eager podcaster Nicky Tomalin to create a publicly-available account of their research, which she dubs "CypherCast".
An interesting thing to note about the podcast is that the plot picks up very quickly - expect to find yourself marathoning it by episode 3.
The Message provides examples of the following tropes:
- Abusive Precursors: The senders of the Message deliberately infect humanity with a fatal respiratory illness in order to force humans to reverse-engineer their advanced acoustic technology for a cure. They engineer a massive humanitarian disaster with the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people in order to technologically uplift the human race.
- Aliens Are Bastards: The aliens seem relatively unperturbed that millions or hundreds of millions of people will likely die of PA1 if the "message" isn't decoded. Taken up to eleven by "Nicky", who used CypherCast to communicate humanity's progress back to her civilization. CypherCast contained several repeats of the Message. "Nicky" personally caused the biggest outbreak of PA1 and the deaths of hundreds of people just to make a phone call.
Mod: Thanks for the solution to the problem you created, dicks.
- Lampshaded by Mod when they finally figure out that the "message" the aliens wanted to send us was a cure. Specifically a cure for the very same disease they sent in the very same message.
Robin: These are our bodies. This is how we breathe. If these aliens wanna talk to us, they have to respect us. If they want to talk to us, they have to respect us. If you want to talk to us, you have to respect us.
- Directly called out by Robin in Episode 8.
- Ambiguous Gender: Mod, one of the employees of Cypher Group, whose pronouns are 'they/them'.
- Apocalyptic Log: The podcast itself threatens this at times, especially when the Brown Note starts setting in.
- Arc Words: "There's a city made of song" - a phrase repeated by everyone who catches Pulmonary Anomaly 1. Its meaning turns out to be absolutely nothing - it is just meant to arouse the curiosity of whoever gets the Message and get them to start looking in the right place.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Message is decoded, and a cure to PA1 is successfully devised. Humanity now possesses incredibly advanced acoustic technology that may be used to make the world a better place in massive ways. But Tamara is irrevocably dead, as are hundreds of others who caught PA1, and "Nicky" turns out to have been an alien observer all along, with the real Nicky having died from alcohol poisoning three years before. It's heavily implied that all her friendly interactions and relationships with the Cypher team were a carefully rehearsed act, and that she never actually cared about any of them.
- Brick Joke: In Episode 1, Ty makes a speech to Nicky about how one can miss a clue right in front of their face because they lack the context needed to understand the clue, illustrating the point with finding an empty carton of orange juice on his kitchen counter. At the end of Episode 8, Robin realizes they had their own carton of orange juice right in front of them: that Nicky was an alien all along.
- Brown Note: The curse. Rumor is that people who listen to The Message become ill and die, like in one case where the only non-smoker in a research group developed lung problems. It's real, and it's contagious, meaning it can spread to people that haven't listened to it.
- Foreshadowing: In Episode 1, it is noted that the original decoding attempt, led by cryptographer Lewis Krell, had a civilian observer who didn't succumb to the "curse" despite listening to the Message many times. In Episode 8, Nicky notes that one of the lines in the "city made of song" poem were Krell's last words. At this point, it dawns upon Robin that Nicky would have no way to know Krell's last words, as they were in a classified document she didn't read. This leads her to the horrifying realization: Nicky was the civilian observer working besides Krell - she was personally there to hear his last words. She's actually an alien who impersonates people to keep tabs on humanity's attempts to decode the Message.
- During their confrontation in Episode 5, Robin asks Nicky why she wanted to work with Cypher in the first place, to which Nicky replies that she felt it was her destiny. Turns out it was literally her destiny: her job was to observe every attempt to decipher the Message, so she took over the real Nicky's identity with the express purpose of ending up with Cypher.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: After Nicky broadcasts recordings of The Message in the podcast series you are currently listening to, people begin developing lung problems referred to as Pulmonary Anomaly 1. The next episode starts with a warning to seek immediate medical help if you start developing symptoms.
- Government Conspiracy: The Message itself was one, but it's been declassified at the start of the podcast. Hinted at when it's revealed in episode 4 that reports of codebreakers dying of respiratory illness were either mixed or covered up.
- It's Probably Nothing: Subverted. As soon as a codebreaker falls ill, the episodes of the podcast that contain it are yanked. When the illness begins to spread person-to-person, the entire Cypher Group is immediately placed under quarantine.
- Red Herring: It turns out that the "City made of song" message that people hear as they die means absolutely nothing—the aliens just used it as a way to get the codebreakers curious and to look where the real answer was.
- The Right of a Superior Species: Implied with The Message's sender. As soon as a species starts to harness nuclear power, the aliens send them The Message, and observes how that species responds to its effects. Considering that the first step is a contagious, seemingly-incurable fatal respiratory disease, they obviously don't care much about how many people die in the process.
- Secret Test of Character: What The Message ends up being, on a species-wide scale. As "Nicky" explains, the technology revealed by The Message has the potential for great healing and quality of life applications, but it also can be used as a weapon to devastating effect. Now that humanity has its hands on it, it's a constant test to see whether it's used wisely, or humanity destroys itself with it.
- Sink-or-Swim Mentor: The alien civilization to the entire human race. "Nicky" notes that every attempt to just directly teach their technology to other species has failed, so they took up the habit of forcing their upliftees to reverse-engineer the technology themselves, or be wiped out by Pulmonary Anomaly 1.
- Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: The senders of the Message can use radio signals to convey infectious diseases. Infectious diseases which write information into the infectee's brain. Their technology is so arcane that it's first confused for a supernatural "curse".
- Synthetic Plague: Pulmonary Anomaly 1, or PA1. A seemingly incurable, fatal respiratory disease caused by embedded vibrations in the Message, and the first step towards deciphering it.
- Technology Uplift: The desired end result of The Message. If a species correctly "solves" it, they have the key to advanced, acoustic-based technology. If they don't, well, tough luck.
- Wham Episode: Episode 3: Tamara abruptly loses respiratory function mid-conversation.
- Episode 8: Nicky's actually an alien in human form. She's always been the civilian observer to The Message. And the real Nicole Tomalin's been dead for three years thanks to alcohol poisoning, or at least that's what her replacement says.