James Leach breaks out the Easter eggs a week too late
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
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.