James Leach breaks out the Easter eggs a week too late

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame devel­op­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

If true Easter eggs punch above their weight as in­clu­sions in games, why are they get­ting more rare?

Have we wit­nessed the pass­ing of an era? Can it be true that the great days of Easter eggs in games are over? If so, a light has gone out in the gam­ing world. Ac­tu­ally, it might not have. I just haven’t seen one for a while so, like any rig­or­ous mod­ern jour­nal­ist, I’m sim­ply as­sum­ing some­thing and say­ing it like it’s ut­terly true.

When we were mak­ing Black & White, some­one had the ex­cel­lent idea of get­ting the game to in­ter­ro­gate the email names stored on the com­puter and ap­ply them to vil­lagers. Some­thing as small as that made a big dif­fer­ence to the way many peo­ple played. Throw a boul­der at that lit­tle char­ac­ter? No, you mustn’t. It’s your mum! Yes, I know your mum didn’t have an email ac­count back in 2001, but you see what I’m get­ting at.

In the se­quel, we went fur­ther. We cre­ated a list of hun­dreds of com­mon first names. We got th­ese recorded in an eerie whis­per by a voice artist who spe­cialised in eerie whis­per­ing. Then, if one matched with the name of the com­puter user, the game would wait un­til it was late at night in the real world and mur­mur that name into the ear of the player. Usu­ally, this would only be heard by those play­ing with head­phones, which made it all the more creepy, since lots of peo­ple never heard it at all and didn’t be­lieve those who said they had. When we came up with the idea, we didn’t an­tic­i­pate peo­ple doubt­ing their own san­ity, but once it hap­pened, it was a lovely byprod­uct of the game.

The thing about Easter eggs is that, as a player, they re­ward you for find­ing them, even if you weren’t look­ing. You think kindly of the devs who’ve both­ered to in­sert th­ese, you like the game more for hav­ing them, and you make up your mind to com­mit to buy­ing ev­ery prod­uct the com­pany pro­duces from then on. Ide­ally. We weren’t just do­ing them out of the good­ness of our hearts, af­ter all.

I like the dark­ness of many of the Easter eggs of old. Re­mem­ber Psy­cho­nauts? There was a burning or­phan­age in that. You’re given warn­ing if you get too close to find­ing it, but no­body heeds warn­ings, so off you go, and pretty soon you’re in dire need of mind bleach. It makes creepy whis­per­ing seem tame, but no­body who’s found it has ever com­plained. You can­not go wrong with Easter eggs. The same is true of the odd room of the dead in Skyrim. It was a room, deep un­der­ground, with dead NPCs in it. Not a game changer, but de­light­ful to find.

I have re­cently been help­ing out a po­ten­tial Kick­starter-funded game and its devs de­cided that they’ll put in Easter eggs as ex­tra stretch goals once the to­tal gets raised. I’m afraid I took is­sue with this. It’s a mo­bile puz­zle game, sim­ple and brightly coloured, which lim­its the po­ten­tial for truly evil hid­den gems. But that wasn’t the prob­lem. Easter eggs are not fea­tures to en­tice peo­ple. By their very na­ture, they’re hid­den and largely worth­less in terms of game pro­gres­sion. If you trum­pet their ex­is­tence, they’re sim­ply hard-to-find el­e­ments of the game. If you make peo­ple pay to get them in­cluded, they’re not quirky re­wards, but le­git­i­mately bought ad­di­tions. And, fi­nally, if you, the mak­ers of the game, tell peo­ple they’re there, then they are fun­da­men­tally not Easter eggs as I un­der­stand them.

Ac­tu­ally, am I right about all this? Di­ablo II fea­tured the Cow level. If you wanted a break from hack­ing up de­monic en­ti­ties, you could go up against a herd of cows. With mas­sive axes. It has all the hall­marks of a clas­sic Easter egg, but the cows weren’t enor­mously hard to butcher, and a dili­gent player could gain all man­ner of good­ies by do­ing so – good­ies that would ben­e­fit them in the game proper. Ac­cord­ing to my just-made-up def­i­ni­tion, an egg that lets the player profit is not an egg at all. Ac­tu­ally, Bl­iz­zard re­alised this and di­alled the re­wards back later.

Still, if true Easter eggs punch above their weight as in­clu­sions in games, why are they get­ting more rare? Granted, 2013’s Grand

Theft Auto V is packed with them, but that seems like an ex­cep­tion. Per­haps it’s sim­ply that smaller games can’t re­ally sup­port them. Time and space is at a pre­mium, and they’re a luxury that small, im­pov­er­ished teams just can’t af­ford. How­ever, I stub­bornly main­tain that they’re force mul­ti­pli­ers. All it takes is for some­thing cute – or, if I have any­thing to do with it, hor­ri­bly evil – to be hid­den and for it to get talked about, and sales can go up.

Ac­tu­ally, I wish to re­tract that last bit. In­sert­ing Easter eggs should not be done with an eye to in­creas­ing sales. They’re there for fun, not profit. And if that fun leads to years of sleep­less nights for the trau­ma­tised few who dis­cover them, then I’m happy.

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