[Secrets and hidden treats are part of games' appeal and their lore, and can add depth and authenticity to the experience -- columnist Andrew Vanden Bossche explores ideal implementations, and those less so.]
Video game secrets were the schoolyard legends of our gamer youth. They thrived in the early nineties, due in large part to two key factors:
1. Actual secrets hidden within video games.
2. Lying children.
From this was born a beautiful cycle. Young gamers would, through luck or skill (mostly luck), find their way to some amazing unexplored aspect of the game and then gleefully share it with their friends. Those that weren't so lucky made them up, and so found their revenge. The only thing we were sure of was that anything could be true, so we were ready to believe anything.
Never before had lies been so believable. The rumors of the hidden Pokemon Mew lurking underneath a van, the dozens of ways you could supposedly resurrect Final Fantasy VII’s Aeris; all these and more generated days of frustration out of the fuel of raw hope.
A burgeoning internet, gullible userbase, dumb luck, and unscrupulous lying came together to make the mid-nineties the golden age of lying to (and by) children. But now there’s GameFAQs, better search engines, and more widespread internet access. It’s hard to tell if secrets still have a place in an age where you can’t keep them anymore. That is, if keeping them was ever the point in the first place.
Keep Pressing Spacebar, That Wall Looks Funny
Secrets mean different things in different games. Some games keep track of them, others don’t. For an appropriately wide definition, secrets can be any goodie or reward in the game that isn’t immediately obvious and isn’t necessary for the game’s completion. No matter how well hidden an item or tricky to solve a puzzle, it can’t quite be called a secret if you're forced to discover it.
Real secrets are buried deeply, the sort of thing you could play a game through without finding. It’s the difference between satisfying your curiosity about the environment and having a clear goal behind finding which door you need to get past.
That’s the secret to secrets. They stay hidden because you never have to look for them. You can miss them if you aren't careful, and that makes them precious. They’re tangential, an exercise founded foremost in curiosity. Lots of games (those of the Mario variety come to mind) spur this on by keeping a tally of the total collectibles that exist to give interested players an inkling of what they should be looking for.
This nudge can be even more subtle. Symphony of the Night
, the classic iteration of Castlevania
, has plenty of interesting areas to it that are normally impenetrable and aren’t required for an ordinary clear of the game. These little clues encourage exploration and curiosity. They may not encourage it over linear progression (depending on the game’s focus), but it certainly makes things a bit more interesting for the interested. It rewards people who like to languish in their games.
Something Behind Every Door
No useless rooms is just a dream for many games, but it’s a philosophy that’s great to believe in. This is the idea that every part of the game has a purpose, and that places that may seem empty or useless simply haven’t been searched thoroughly enough, or have some purpose that will be revealed in time. It’s the difference between wondering if there’s a point in what you’re doing, and knowing that your exploration and curiosity is not a waste of time.
Secrets help that process. The tantalizing possibility of what lies behind the obstacle you can’t seem to get past, and how to get past it, is the element of puzzle solving that gamers adore. Secrets are a powerful lure because players are aware they are looking for something without being entirely sure what it is or if it exists. Secrets are in the imagination. That’s how we were able to lie so convincingly to our friends about the code that would make Lara Croft take her clothes off. Anything could be possible if you looked hard enough.
Real secrets can add a lot of depth to a game. Lies about secrets can provide a lot of amusement for one person and a lot of frustration for another. So it shouldn't be too surprising that real secrets that sound like a lie lack both the enjoyment of exploration or the sadistic pleasure of watching a friend do something stupid. Instead, you get the experience of watching yourself do something stupid, the whole time knowing how stupid the thing you're doing is.
An Eternal Recursion of Idiocy
Final Fantasy XII
, a game with a fair share of both wildly successful and completely backwards game design, isn't the first to do this to its players, but it is certainly one of the worst. Specifically, it is the weapon called the Zodiac Spear (specifically, the secret of obtaining it) that is an example of game design that is so mind-numbingly cynical that even reading about it causes me to feel mentally cross-eyed.
Secrets exist to be discovered. Some don't, but they aren't intentional, and they range from the merely embarrassing KotOR II
's multi-million dollar cup of hot coffee. But it isn't often that a secret is paradoxically meant to be revealed but also impossible to find on a player's own.
The Zodiac spear was not intended to be discovered through natural play or even unnatural play.
Let me tell you about the Zodiac Spear. It's the strongest weapon in the game, and the process for obtaining it is almost insane. Scattered throughout the game are treasure chests. Oddly, they are random spawns, and usually contain nothing useful other than a handful of coins. Of course, early in the game, they're actually a tiny bit useful, so you'd think, given that this is a video game and an RPG at that, opening treasure chests would be a good thing.
A Puzzle That Makes Sudoku Look Like Hopscotch
And that's where you're wrong. Because when you open these treasure chests that have absolutely no distinguishing features, you lose the chance of obtaining this ultimate weapon permanently. Let me repeat: Not only is there no indication that this weapon exists at any point in the game, not only is there no way to know what chests not to open, in no way is any of this information in any way conveyed to the player. A player who decides to buy this game will remain blissfully unaware of this until his friend tells him halfway through the game.
Excuse me, I forgot for just a second. That's not how you get the Zodiac Spear.
You get the Zodiac Spear by buying the strategy guide.
I have nothing but faith in the abilities of gamers to discover the undiscovered, and no doubt in time it might have been found naturally. But no one even got that chance, because it was there as soon as people opened the guides. No joy of discovery. Not even a sadistic lie perpetrated by an entire corporation on an international scale. Just an embarrassingly obsolete plot to sell strategy guides.
The only thing more insulting than a cynical decision to sacrifice game design for marketing is an ineffective one. Perhaps informing those in charge of the existence of Google, or the internet, might have given them pause.
What's the Secret of Fun?
Now, I won't say that the Zodiac Spear is a mortal sin (only a venial one), and it hardly makes a difference in the overall scope of a game that had many other successes. But I won't back down from making a big deal over it because this is symptomatic of a certain kind of philosophy of game design that does not favor fun or the player. It is to trade the experiance of playing a video game in exchange for a very poor attempt to gouge players. Remember that games are made to be compelling and fun. As players, we should be suspicious when games are designed against us.
Sure, it might be fun to have the Zodiac spear, but gamers know the real fun is in the getting. Secrets tend to come out in one of two ways. You either figure it out yourself, or you read it on the internet. Which, of these two options, is the most fun for the player? Or, more easily answered, which of these options had anything to do with playing the game?
This is why the Zodiac Spear is the worst secret ever. To not know of it is to never find it. And to know of it is to instantly know how to get it. It’s like a puzzle that has no question, only a solution.
Secrets, as they exist in video games, thrive off of the nebulous state between ignorance and discovery. Only knowing that something is out there is enough. So all you need is the suspicious wall, the jump that seems impossible, the mysterious object without a readily apparent purpose. Players don’t need anything else. They’ll make the bridge between the two on their own.
[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and how he couldn’t eat for a week after playing Saya no Uta, and can be reached at [email protected]]