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On Secrets

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If you have ever wandered away from your main goal in a video game, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across some type of secret. Secrets have been part of video games since nearly the very beginning. Whether it was a secret intended to assist players, or a hidden Easter egg, developers have been hiding secrets in games for years. The advent of the internet has changed this quite a bit, but game developers still hide secrets in their games, sometimes to help players, other-times to surprise.

The history of secrets in gaming is widely attributed to have originated back with the game Adventure on the Atari 2600. In those early days, Atari had a culture of not displaying the names of developers. While the official stance was that this was to prevent competitors from identifying and luring away their programmers, the developers felt it was a policy to reduce their stature and weaken their bargaining power. As a result, the developer of Adventure, Warren Robinett, created a hidden room that gave him credit for his work on the project. Robinett didn’t tell anyone about this room, and when the game was published, a random player ended up discovering the secret. By that time, it would have been a costly project to update the code to remove the room, so Atari decided to leave it in, and thus the first secret was born. From there, Atari made it an official policy that secret Easter eggs should be hidden in all games.

Secrets and Easter eggs became fairly common from then on in various games. While some secrets were messages or mementos coded into the game by developers for their own enjoyment or for fans to stumble upon, another type of secret began to appear in games. Typically off the normal path or hidden from players, these were secrets intended to help players or give them an edge. For many gamers, the Warp Zones of the original Super Mario Bros. may have been one of the first hidden secrets discovered. Warp Zones were hidden areas that allowed players to jump past levels. The first is located in world 1-2. By riding a lift up and running on the roof over the exit pipe, a player can reach the Warp Zone which allowed him or her to jump ahead to Worlds 2, 3, or 4. Another popular secret which is rumored to have started similar to an Easter egg but works to help players is the Konami Code. While many associate the code with providing additional lives in Contra, it actually originated with the NES port of Gradius. The story behind the code goes that Kazuhisa Hashimoto, the developer of the NES port, found the game too difficult to finish during testing and created the code. The code was left in the game and only discovered after release, and similar to the hidden room in Adventure, would have been a costly endeavor to remove and was left in the game.

As time passed and games evolved, new approaches to secrets developed. Some developers fully embraced the idea of secrets and built games around the idea of secrets and discovery. Secrets are at the core of games like The Legend of Zelda and raise the question, what is classified as a secret and what is not? For instance, is a sword hidden under a specific gravestone a secret? What about a heart piece located outside the map? What is the difference between the merchant who gives you rupees for finding him under a random bush versus the one who steals your rupees? All these items were described in the manual, so do they even count as secrets in the same way as some of the earlier examples? Of course, that’s not to say that the game did not feature its share of Easter eggs and other secrets. Players who finished the original Legend of Zelda unlocked a harder second quest, but players could unlock this immediately by entering their name as ZELDA (I’d be curious to know how many people did this unintentionally). And as far as Easter eggs go, one of the more obscure ones is hidden in the layout of the first five dungeons in the second quest.

Sharing is another way that secrets have changed as time and technology has developed. Back in the early days of video games, a player either found a secret by themselves, or heard about it from another player who stumbled upon the secret. Word of mouth was really the only way for one gamer to pass a secret along to another. During my childhood, my friends and I would discuss the games we played and the secrets we discovered at lunch and recess. Anytime two kids had played the same game, there was almost a guaranteed discussion of the different things they had discovered. Of course, the advent of the internet changed this forever. Now, a secret did not need to come from someone you knew, but could be shared by someone on the other side of the world. Whether it was an Easter egg or a secret that provided an advantage to players, it was easier to find that information online.

Easy access to the wealth of information online also introduced a new dimension to secrets: people making up fake secrets. Before the internet, we all had at least one friend who made things up for seemingly no reason. They would tell you about some cool thing in a game, but when you went home to try it out, you’d never be able to find it or pull it off. You’d then ask them to show you, but they never would be able to, and at that point you’d know they were making things up. The internet took this to an entirely new level. Strangers could create fake evidence to try to convince people of secrets that did not exist. I can still remember seeing images of players riding Yoshi in Mario 64, captures of Link collecting the Triforce in Ocarina of Time, or detailed guides on how to acquire Mew by using Strength to push a truck near the S.S. Anne in Pokémon Red/Blue. Fake images and videos allowed these people to fool others into thinking these secrets were real, and if you couldn’t pull it off, well you must have done something wrong.

Considering their long history, it should come as no surprise that secrets continue to permeate games today. However, developers trying to keep their secrets hidden in this modern era have faced a new challenge: data-mining. While there’s no denying that the internet has made it far easier to share information and secrets, in some ways, data-mining has eliminated the challenge at finding secrets altogether. Especially in online games, whenever a game or update is released, eager fans quickly dig through the files looking for anything and everything new. When I played Final Fantasy XI, whenever an update was released, I knew exactly which new pieces of gear I would be hunting and which activities I needed to do, even before downloading the patch. Breath of the Wild featured numerous Easter eggs for fans of the Zelda franchise. The map was dotted with landmarks referencing events, characters, and locations from previous games. However, as soon as players got their hands on the game, data-miners shared lists of locations and the Easter eggs those locations referred. I’m sure some players appreciated having access to the information, but it also took away some of the sense of exploration and wonder stumbling upon one of those Easter eggs would have provided.

Recently, developers have turned to new ways to keep their secrets hidden and even used the data-mining culture to surprise gamers. Having spent a lot of time in the Destiny universe, I have a large amount of appreciation for the effort Bungie puts into Destiny’s secrets. Back during Destiny 1, Bungie hid a secret weapon that required the community to discover and play an alternate reality game, read and translate binary, and solve math puzzles. More recently, one of the coolest secrets Bungie kept hidden from players was the Whisper of the Worm sniper rifle in Destiny 2. When the Warmind expansion was released, data-miners discovered there was a hidden gun, but no one knew how to acquire it or if players could actually acquire the weapon. Several weeks later, a player stumbled upon a random enemy which triggered an event. This discovery, coupled with the earlier data-mining discoveries whipped the community into a fervor. Unraveling secrets always brings the Destiny community together and watching so many players working together to reach the end of this puzzle made me eager to get home and dive in myself.

Every game these days seems to have some type of secrets. Sometimes it is something that the developers want players to find and use it to encourage players to explore. Whether it is a secret boss, secret tool or ability, or even secret level, there are countless games that have embraced the use of secrets as a core gameplay element. Sometimes developers use secrets to hint at their future plans for a game or franchise, sometimes going out of their way to reveal the secret when fans don’t find them. There are even some secrets that developers leave hidden and are only discovered by players many years later. And there are still some secrets that hark back to that original Easter egg and are included at the whim of a developer. What are some of your favorite secrets or what are some of your favorite stories about video game secrets? Feel free to share below!

The best way of keeping a secret is to pretend there isn’t one ~ Margaret Atwood