Wednesday, November 4, 2009

EXP Podcast #50: In Search of Secrets

Invisible coin blocks, hidden passages within a level, and obscure collectible trinkets are just a few of the conventions often turn games into digital Easter egg hunts. However, in a time when large numbers of gamers never even bother to finish a game's main story mode, the reason behind the near-ubiquitous inclusion of in-game secrets is a mystery unto itself. This week, we use Andrew Vanden Bossche's recent GameSetWatch column as a starting point to discuss secrecy in games. How do deceitful children, James Bond, and avian harassment factor into the conversation? You're one click away from finding out. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments: do you crave concealed cash, or are you simply sick of sleuthing?

Some discussion starters:

- What sets your favorite examples of secrets apart from your least favorite examples?

- Are secrets that affect gameplay any more or less ethical than those that do not?

- In light of the Internet, what is the future of secrecy in games?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 31 min 37 sec
- "Design Diversions: 'It’s A Secret To Everyone'," by Andrew Vanden Bossche, via GamaSetWatch
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. Congrats on your 50th podcast guys.

    Now here's my try to kind of classify secrets in games:

    1) Collectibles:
    Not really secrets, but you already metioned that flag collecting in AC, it seems that developers like to stretch their games with these kind of things. Even FPSs nowadays have this little "collect intel" and whatnot stuff in them. And I admit it, often I'm stupid enough to go to GameFAQS and print out that guide to hunt down all of them! ;)
    I remember Jade Raymond saying that she thinks that players like to collect stuff. I think it's more or less the cheapest way of giving the player more things to do, but hey Assassin's Creed made us do a lot of stupid things over and over again to do already, so it kind of fits into that game's philosophy ;)

    2) Gameplay related secrets:
    That's pretty much the Metroid approach: Spend some time exploring the world and we will give you things that make your life easier, the harder you look the more valuable the reward will be.

    3) Easter eggs and other stupid shit:
    You already mentioned the Zelda Cow. Another example would be the beating heart in the statue of liberty in GTA4 or developers carving their names in walls( I think that was Doom 3). These are basically the things you put on youtube to find out how many other people have nothing better to do than to check out every corner of the game to find random stuff that someone might have hidden there.
    I remember reading about some game from the early 80s where the developer put some stuff in a game of which he thought no one would ever find it(don't remember what it actually was, but I think he almost lost his job because of it) which was like the birthday of easter eggs in games.

    In my opinion the stupid shit category is getting more interesting because in light of the internet and GameFAQs even the gameplay related secrets become just another(a little more rewarding) type of collectible.
    With a nice yet useless secret you can at least get some humor or whatever you want in a game. The MGS games do that a lot.

    Moreover I think that with achievements and trophies people are willing to accept the collecting for the sake of collecting type maybe more than in the past. I could't stop myself from shooting all of the 200 pidgeons in GTA4(what a pain in the ass...) and you get nothing for doing that except that damn achievement and a 100% status later on. Shame on me ;)

  2. Hey Christian! As always, thanks for stopping by.

    I like your categories. For some reason, I was a lot more tolerant of collectibles when I was a kid...probably because I had the time to waste on them.

    These days, when gaming time is at a premium, the gameplay related secrets really stress me out. I have to balance the impulse to finish the game against the nagging feeling that I'm really not experiencing the game if I pass on the secrets.

    I guess the stupid shit category is becoming more interesting, especially as I start to think about games more as works that say something about their creators or society at large.

    Of course, all of this is really mixed up once you throw achievements into the equation. As you said, they create a meta-collecting game that might turn otherwise uninteresting secrets into objects of gamer-score lust.

    Quite interesting.

  3. I wasn't able to listen to you guys for some time. Yesterday I finally had a LONG Experience Points Podcast session... while grinding Red Fraction. ^_^

    I think it was already mentioned by Christian but I think you should make a distinction between collectibles, which is a more modern game design feature and real secrets which is more old-school.

    Collectibles (aka Collecting Shit)are meant to be found by the player. The game even gives you hints on how to find them. They are many and you are implicitly challenged to find them ALL. They got big in the N64 era. You mentioned Skullthulas which (together with the Mario 64 Stars & Coins) may be the model for all the following power cells, stars, flags, secret packages and whatnot.

    The REAL secrets, the ones we used to find out in Nintendo Power are different. They are super arbitrary and difficult to find. The game doesn't give you hints. They are often against the rules (permeable walls). I'm pretty sure that many of them were actually backdoors made for testers of the game to test certain parts of the game more quickly. Nowadays, such REAL secrets are much less common.

    And actually, you can see this change if you play the entire Final Fantasy series. The early parts have a lot of secrets that depend on walking trough walls in certain places. They often seem like glitches. There is even a "Developer's Room" in one of the parts. At around FF7, the secrets are starting to be much more deliberately designed. They often even involve some characters you need to talk to. The actually start to be more like super-hidden mini-subquests.

    And yeah: one game with a different ending depending on the number of collectibles you got - Metroid! Which is also a counter example: an old-school game with collectibles... But then it also has a secret - JustinBaily.

  4. Hey Krystian,

    I never thought about secrets as a kind of baked-in debug mode, but it makes perfect sense!

    Good call on Metroid. Whenever I play Halo, I always half-expecting to run into a "JustinBailey" moment. I don't know what that says about me...