This Dumb Industry: The Secret of Good Secrets

By Shamus
on Oct 31, 2017
Filed under:
Column

This week, my former editor at the now-defunct Escapist said:

Like a lot of the questions I tackle here, this started off feeling like a nice softball column where I could compare good secrets (perhaps the hidden areas in Portal) with bad secrets (like the obvious puzzles in Skyrim) without having to do too much thinking. But then I started asking myself: What are we talking about when we say “secret”? Are we talking about hidden areas? Hidden achievements? Easter eggs? Secret endings? What about absurd jokes like repeatedly clicking on a sheep to make it explode in Warcraft?

Since I want to write a column and not a book, let’s limit our scope: We’re going to talk about environmental secrets like hidden rooms or seemingly unreachable items. Traditionally this stuff is part of a first-person shooter, but occasionally they crop up in third-person games as well.

The First Time

*HUGE GRIN*

*HUGE GRIN*

I remember my first secret. I was playing Wolfenstein 3D at my girlfriend’sNow wife. place in 1992 or so. I have no idea why I did it, but for some reason I hit the “open door” button while looking at a bit of wall. The wall moved, revealing a machine gun and some health.

This was obviously pre-internet. Not only did I not know how many other people may have found this secret, I didn’t even know if other people were even aware that such a thing was possible. Today we take secrets for granted, but at the time this a moment of discovery. I actually got a tingling sensation when I saw the treasure. As far as I knew, I was the only person in the world to have found this particular alcoveI was very wrong..

On the other hand, this moment also ruined the game for me. I found myself canvassing the levels, mashing the spacebar on every section of wall, looking for secrets. I’m sure that’s not what the developer intended, but that’s the behavior the game encouraged.

It’s been a quarter century, and game developers have continued to refine this idea. Some of them, anyway. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it sucks, so let’s talk about why.

Loot

A permanent health booster from Quake 2. Highlighted for clarity.

A permanent health booster from Quake 2. Highlighted for clarity.

The trick with secrets is that you want to reward players who take the time to find them. If a player spends fifteen minutes puzzling over an environmental obstacle, then they’ll probably be disappointed if their prize has no in-game value. If their reward is basically a checkmark on an achievement to-do list, then it starts to feel like busywork. The coffee thermoses in Alan Wake come to mind as a good example of an unrewarding reward.

On the other hand, if you put too many goodies into these hiding spots then you run the risk of making it hard to balance the game. Maybe a completionist player will get bored because they’re swimming in ammo and health resources, and a run-and-gun player will struggle because they’ve been leaving this stuff behindAnd just wait until these two get into an argument about how hard the game is. Whee.. You need to balance the game for secrets and non-secrets, and game balance is already hard enough to get right.

Wolfenstein did this by offering treasure. It’s useless in-game, but people are usually attracted to gold shiny things so it kinda worked.

My favorite kind of reward goes all the way back to 1997. In Quake II, each secret gives you a 1% increase to base health. I liked this because it was a permanent bonus. You can pick up a suit of armor and thirty seconds later it will be gone, but that health bonus stays with you. On the other hand, a 1% bonus is small enough that it’s not going to trivialize upcoming encounters. It’s a permanent, in-game reward that doesn’t create serious balance issues. And for some reason almost nobody has copied this system since then.

Enticement

I can see my goal on the other side of this electric field. Now I just have to figure out how to get there.

I can see my goal on the other side of this electric field. Now I just have to figure out how to get there.

I think the system where the player glides around the Wolfenstein 3D level randomly mashing the spacebar on every wall is obviously not a great design. The designer is incentivising fundamentally boring behavior, which is always a dangerous thing to do. For a secret to work, I think it needs to be either a puzzle for clever players or a prize for observant ones.

The puzzle works if the game shows you the reward and allows you figure out how to reach it. Maybe its on a high ledge, or on the other side of some bars, or visible through an unbreakable window, or otherwise clearly visible yet seemingly unreachable. This works really well because the player knows they’re being offered a puzzle, which solves the spacebar spam problem. They can also see the reward they’ll be getting, so they can decide if it’s worth their time or not. They won’t spend five minutes trying to open a door only to find their prize is a stash of bullets for a gun they never use.

The observation puzzles are more like the Lambda caches in Half-Life 2Although some lambda caches were also puzzles. Man I miss those games.. If the player is paying attention they’ll see the symbol, or the cracks in the wall, or the hidden button, and they can immediately claim their prize. The upside is that they don’t have to stop and solve a puzzle. If they see it, they win, which might be best for fast-paced games where you don’t want to kill the player’s momentum with puzzle time.

Stats

Looks like I missed two bone charms. So I guess I need to sit through a loading screen, a cutscene, reload the game, sit through another loading screen, and then go look for them.

Looks like I missed two bone charms. So I guess I need to sit through a loading screen, a cutscene, reload the game, sit through another loading screen, and then go look for them.

I like it when a game lets you know how you’re doing with regards to secret-finding. If you’re trying to find them all, then it’s nice to know when it’s time to stop searching. If I get to the end of a level and I see I got 2 of 3 secrets, I know there are still things to find. If I see I got 3 of 3, then I can know I’ve just done a thorough and meticulous job of wasting my time. And there’s a certain warm feeling of satisfaction to that.

There are two problems with this. The first is that certain OCD players will feel compelled to 100% everything, even if doing so isn’t any fun for them. They can’t stand to leave those treasures behind, even if they don’t need them and don’t enjoy looking for them. I don’t know how to save these people from themselves, and I suspect this is a problem with no solution. You can put in stats and give the secret-hunters warm fuzzies at the expense of driving the OCD players crazy, or you can give the OCD players a break while making things less interesting for people who are in it for the search itself.

The other problem is that stats are usually shown after you exit a level, which is exactly the moment where the player can no longer do anything about them. If you’re looking to 100% a level, then it would be nice to know the results before you dive headlong into all those loading screens and cutscenes. This was a constant source of annoyance for me in Dishonored 2.

And Also…

Always look under the staircase. Always.

Always look under the staircase. Always.

Two small additional things that makes secrets fun for me. The first is a really good sound to let you know you got it. This will give you a clue that you found a real intentional secret and not just a dark sideroom. Also, that audio cue triggers a literal Pavlovian response in me. If the sound is good and the loot is good, I’ll enjoy finding the goodies more.

The other thing I appreciate is when some effort is made to make the hidden space look somewhat plausible. Make it look like a door is jammed, or the catwalk is out, or the wall was bricked over to keep out the aliens, or whatever. I prefer this to having nonsense rooms in random locations that clearly aren’t part of the world. Then again, it sort of depends on the game. I don’t demand lore-friendly secrets from Duke Nukem, but I do think they were an important part of the Thief franchise.

So that’s my take on making secrets fun to hunt for and rewarding to find. Tell me what I missed. What makes secrets annoying, what makes them fun, and what game does them best?

Enjoyed this post? Please share!

Footnotes:

[1] Now wife.

[2] I was very wrong.

[3] And just wait until these two get into an argument about how hard the game is. Whee.

[4] Although some lambda caches were also puzzles. Man I miss those games.


A Hundred!20202017Many comments. 177, if you're a stickler

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  1. Tektotherriggen says:

    I think you’re very right. One addition might be that lore is a suitable reward. Obviously main-quest story usually shouldn’t be hidden, but you could reward exploration with foreshadowing, extra atmospheric details, or Bethesda-style worldbuilding vignettes.

    The Rattman rooms in Portal are an example, as you mentioned.

    • Hal says:

      I’m of two minds on making lore a secret reward.

      Lore and world-building material can be superfluous. Perhaps you’re that player who’s only in it for the gameplay, so reading lore entries or sitting through a long audio log is going to be dull for you. Perhaps you’ve played the game a half-dozen times already, and you really don’t need to hear some bit of exposition again.

      However, world-building can really flesh out a setting, and make the world not seem so two-dimensional. Hiding it under a bushel basket, so to speak, seems counter-productive to drawing players into your world.

      • Syal says:

        I think if you’re hiding lore, the extra lore needs to lead to extra quests. Lore on shipbuilding needs to lead to building a better ship, lore on villains needs to lead to a new villain, or a weapon to defeat them, something that affects the present. It’s not enough to just have more knowledge, it’s got to apply to something you couldn’t do without it.

        …or just make lore give exp, that works too.

      • Tektotherriggen says:

        Core worldbuilding should almost* always be part of the main game sequence, I agree. But in many projects, worldbuilding will be limited by the pacing requirements of the main quest. If a player has gone exploring, they have already chosen to slow down the pace, so it’s an ideal time to give them something extra.

        E.g., if it’s a post-apocalyptic game, I would want the main plot to explain what the apocalypse was, and why I’m doing whatever I’m doing; via environmental storytelling or dialogue. But survivors’ diaries could be hidden in hard-to-access attics or basements (the kind of places where survivors might hide for a while), adding to the atmosphere (dark comedy or poignant, whatever you’re aiming for) without adding exposition dumps to the main path through the game.

        *Unless the game is deliberately “explore the world to find the secret clues that reveal the story”, like some kind of detective story.

    • Cubic says:

      Infamous had these lore pickups, where you got to listen to various scratchy tape recordings in a mostly random order at irregular intervals. Not a great idea for a reward. I still have no idea what that was about.

    • TSi says:

      I wish collectibles weren’t tied to achievements because this basically means I’m forced to collect them all ( yeah, I can’t help myself) and as such I’m no longer exploring or side questing for fun or because I’m interested in the level design or looking for easter eggs but to be efficient. If the game is good, I’ll try to find stuff myself (Tomb Raider) but otherwise I’ll pick up a guide or give up on playing the game entirely (Thief) because it’s tiresome and the boring fetch quests kill me.

      If there were no achievements for discovering secrets, they would be fun side activities that I would stumble upon during one of my multiple play-troughs. Instead, the game is basically asking me to have a check-list and/or revisit previous areas even if it doesn’t make sense story-wise. The solution to this would be to have the offending achievement be a counter instead of a list. You could still get more out of the game even after you beat it multiple times. and it wouldn’t matter then if you collected “ALL” the individual crap at least once.
      In Rise of the Tomb Raider, you have to have to visit all the tombs, read all the fragile documents and bring artefacts into explosive battlegrounds. It would make more sense if she just took pictures and sent out teams of archaeologists there instead of destroying these precious sites. Go save your friends already and leave this place alone. Is it really an achievement to be a douche-bag to the people you want to save ? ; )

  2. Droid says:

    Not a single mention of the Arkham games? Was only waiting for you to finally get to them throughout the article.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Were there any actually secret rooms in them though?Especially since you could see trophies through walls later on in the game.

      • lucky7 says:

        There was a secret room in Asylum that had some concept art for City in it.

      • shoeboxjeddy says:

        Various Riddler trophies are linked to hidden rooms you need to bash through a wall through or do some tricky gliding or solve a puzzle or something like that. In City and Knight, they also had lore in the rooms to increase the reward for bothering to find them.

  3. Tektotherriggen says:

    A question for people with OCD: if a game had the option to turn off stat reporting, would that solve the problem of obsessively trying to 100% the game (far beyond the point where it stops being fun)? Or would you find yourself forced to enable tracking?

    • Abnaxis says:

      Honestly, I prefer having the stats on anyway because if they aren’t I have to hunt down a checklist somewhere on the internet to track my findings, which is way more inconvenient. I.E., I turn on tracking even if it isn’t a feature…

    • Fizban says:

      Similarly, what if there was a No Secrets mode, that closed off all the secrets on that playthrough?

      If the secret balancing problem is figuring out how many people are expected to find vs the max vs how good they are, just put in a fixed mode where they only get the stuff that’s put in front of them with no hunting. The only problem I’d see it causing is if there’s a disagreement on weather the secret mode or no secret mode is the primary point of balance, but if you’re seriously balancing your secret mode then you should know exactly what you need in the no secret mode.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Nope.If you even suspect that there is a secret you simply HAVE to find it,even if you dont get any satisfaction from doing so.

      It was extremely difficult for me to break this habit,and my ocd isnt even that severe.Years of really bad games helped me stop 100%ing,so in a way bad games were kind of good for me.Thank you ubisoft,bethesda,ea,and the rest.

      The only solution that the game can do in order to help ocd is to have an upgrade that you can get to highlight these,or show them on a map,or something like that.

    • KarmaTheAlligator says:

      No, unless you could make sure that no-one else would talk about those secrets ever. If you know there are secrets but you don’t get stats… you’re just going to search the whole level beyond what is fun. At least stats let you know when you’re done (unless they’re at the end of the level, in which case people probably just use a checklist).

    • Decius says:

      When it stops being fun to 100% a game, I stop trying.

      Maybe there are some people with compulsive elements to their behavior that play games long after they stop being fun, but that seems to be an actual mental health issue that would be expected to exist in the portion of their lives that isn’t gaming, and would need a solution that isn’t limited to gaming.

      But quite a few 100% completionists actually have fun even doing the things that take forever or are particularly frustrating.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        but that seems to be an actual mental health issue that would be expected to exist in the portion of their lives that isn’t gaming, and would need a solution that isn’t limited to gaming.

        As Ive mentioned,plethora of bad games have made me stop 100%ing them.But I think that has actually spilled into other aspects of my life.Its hard to break off some instinctual habits like that,but if you do it once,it becomes easier to do it again.

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Whole article on the front page,boss.

  5. kdansky says:

    One detail which has started to bother me: Secrets are so predictable. I can find 80% of secrets in current games instantly, because I have seen the same tricks again and again. Check under the stairs. Check in the wrong direction from where you are supposed to be going. Many games go for quantity over quality with secrets, and that’s a shame.

    Essentially walk into a room, and think to yourself: “If I was the level designer, where would I put the secret?” – and as I’ve played thousands of games, that’s usually good enough to find the vast majority. And because I value my time, I just ignore the urge to be a completionist, and continue on. Turns out it’s not actually fun to complete a check-list, even if it is compelling.

    • Nick-B says:

      Ya know, this is me, too. I’ve gotten pretty good at getting the majority of secrets already, and am generally content when I end up – say – one or two heart containers short of max in the end of a Zelda game.

      Or maybe devs are good at making easy-to-find secrets that people will get the majority of. Maybe they are balancing games around expectations that 80% of secrets are found?!? Man, mind=blown.

    • default_ex says:

      Going the wrong way has become my standard practice in games because of how predictable it is. Almost always it results in finding something that either wasn’t there before or your didn’t noticed before. It annoys me when games prevent me from going the wrong way because of the things I didn’t notice at first.

      I genuinely enjoy finding every last thing I can in games and there have been a few cases where I just say, “this is boring” and move on but that’s not very often. Usually I’m more upset by the fact that it was so easy, especially when the reward is really good.

      FFXII’s Zodiac Spear is a secret that I think is done very well. It takes skipping chest which have things that are useful in the short term. For a good player missing those probably wont make any difference at all. For your average players they might make the game slightly more challenging temporarily. Then there is your first point where you can get it. Incredibly hard to get to as everything there can one or two shot you. Takes careful juggling of your reserve characters and precise pathing through the areas where it’s located. The prize may not even be there so you risk making that almost suicidal run for nothing. You can however wait until later when your more powerful to get it. If you get it early on it makes majority of fights in the game relatively easy so long as you aren’t stupid with your characters. If you get it later in the game it doesn’t have as large of an impact but still makes things a lot easier. In either case the reward is well worth the risk.

      • FluffySquirrel says:

        Oddly I found the Zodiac Spear a terrible example of a secret (well.. for me anyway, it’s a very well hidden secret in the technical definition)

        I want secrets I could reasonably find out myself, not needing datamining and people on the internet telling you specifically how to get a thing that you likely would never find out about yourself.

        All that does is make me sigh and play the game with walkthrough open all the time. Same as any game that has permanent missables, those are the worst

        • Abnaxis says:

          IIRC, the general consensus toward the Zodiac spear when FFXII came out was “Yeah, this only exists to sell strategy guides”.

          Of course, that was kind of the tail end of when you actually COULD sell strategy guides…

          • The Rocketeer says:

            As bad as the Zodiac Spear itself was, the IZJS version of the game added a handful of new, overpowered weapons, including the Zeitengrate/Seitengrat, which was both the most powerful bow in the game and, by a large margin, the most powerful of all weapons, period. It can only be obtained from an invisible chest, which appears on the near-purposeless Skyferry, which has a 1% chance of appearing at all, a 20% chance of containing an item (rather than gil) if it appears, and a 5% chance of containing the Seitengrat if it contains an item, but ONLY if the player has the Diamond Armlet accessory equipped.

            there aren’t enough middle fingers

            There’s also a new sword and a new shield, which are also the most powerful of their kind and similarly nigh-unobtainable. FFXII’s plethora of shitty RNG spawn mechanics have made precise RNG manipulation a very well-studied science for the game.

          • shoeboxjeddy says:

            The Zodiac Spear is on the block for “one of the worst secrets EVER.” Skip chests that you are encouraged to get for no explained reason in game (nobody advises you to avoid being greedy for example). Then, a chest with a Random number generated chance of appearing will SOMETIMES appear in a random dungeon later on (that has nothing to do with the Zodiac). It’s horrible and purely put in there as something for the Player’s Guide to hold over your head.

  6. Ingo says:

    The first episode of doom did them really well. Many of the secrets were visible, but it wasn’t really obvious how to get to them. Eleven year old me would stare at them in longing, wondering what that blue face on the pedestal was supposed to do. Later entries had too many of the Press Space on the Unmarked Wall type secrets.

    I’m playing through unreal at the moment, which is at the weird intersection where secrets still existed, but were no longer marked. Also, games before that point trained you to be suspicious of architectural embellishments, but in 1998 complex 3d level architecture was starting to be present, and having the 7th decorative stone in a row of 12 actually be a switch (that blocked progress even, not just serving as a secret) is, to me, really bad form.

    I think a good example of how not to do them would be the serious sam series. Some of the secrets were cool, but the majority were just incredibly obscure (I.e. pull that monster’s eye out and throw it at a specific object) or spawned more enemies than it gave health or ammo (like out in the desert in the first level. Pick up that health and now you have four of those cyberdemon-type things to kill with just your pistol).

    • Tizzy says:

      Doom also had the secrets on the map, though they weren’t clearly marked as secrets. You could infer where the secrets were by seeing the start of an opening somewhere off a room you’d already explored. Still didn’t tell you how to get there, but saved you from trying every piece of wall.

    • Andy says:

      E1M3 Toxin Refinery is my hands-down “secret” favorite. There are things you see (misaligned textures, rooms of guys you can shoot but not obviously reach) and things you hear (cross a certain line, you hear some wall segments slide down). There’s a crazy chain of secrets that lead to secrets (I wonder if I can fit through that tiny passage?), and at the end — you get a whole new secret LEVEL.

      But like all things DOOM, that was then, and this is now. Do the things that worked then still work, or was it just a singular moment in time? The particular kinds of visual and auditory clues it used just kinda seem like they’d get lost nowadays. I mean, I played DOOM 2016 and I don’t really remember how the secrets were, so.

    • Cubic says:

      The platform style games on consoles are often good at luring you to search for secrets by showing you glimpses, either while playing or in cut scenes. The best part is when you find something that’s not just a room but an entire area to explore.

      Another nice approach is when you get some piece of equipment that allows you to revisit and replunder some level. Like you now can swim underwater and look through the lakes and rivers you previously just passed by.

      • FluffySquirrel says:

        Platforming and parkour based secrets are my favourites. I just love jumping and trying to get to places that are challenging to reach.. and it feels very nice to be rewarded when you do it

        Can work against at some points, when you just keep jumping to the top of things and finding nothing there, making you slightly disappointed. Windlands was kinda half and half for that.. there’d be some of the hidden bits in hard to reach places.. but then other times you’d parkour your way up to the most ridiculously cool places and.. nothing

    • Bitmap says:

      Yes, John Romero is a master of designing levels that “pull” the player towards areas that are not yet accessible. Have you played his recent Doom levels, E1M4b and E1M8b? Highly recommended!

      Unreal has some very atmospheric secrets, such as an underground pool in Harobed Village that can be reached by opening a tomb in the cemetery, or a large dungeon prison beneath the Dark Arena. I played through Unreal multiple times without finding the latter secret the natural way (even though it’s not particularly difficult to find), but I stumbled on it when I opened the levels with the level editor. Man, was I floored.

      In this case I think it’s a good thing that Unreal doesn’t show you any information about the number of secrets you found or missed. The game retains a bit of magic and mystery when you don’t know whether there are still some significant secrets in the game that you never found.

    • Adam says:

      Serious Sam is a strange one – many of the secrets are traps, but then isn’t killing stuff what Serious Sam is all about?

      Also, I clearly remember a secret from SS1 which was a spherical room where you could run around all the walls i.e. gravity, in just this one room and no where else in the game, radiated away from a point. Pointless in-game, clearly showing off the Engine as a tech demo, but amazing when I found it.

  7. Grudgeal says:

    The first is a really good sound to let you know you got it. This will give you a clue that you found a real intentional secret and not just a dark sideroom. Also, that audio cue triggers a literal Pavlovian response in me. If the sound is good and the loot is good, I’ll enjoy finding the goodies more.

    I couldn’t agree more.

  8. Anorak says:

    I really liked the secrets in the Shadow Warrior reboot from ~2013. One I remember in particular was finding an area that was decked out to look like the original shadow warrior, low resolution textures and 2D sprites for guns.

  9. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The worst secrets are the ones that are required in order to finish the game,yet are not obvious.Old games often had these.

    • somebodys_kid says:

      Hexen II did this.
      Though I still love the game. My God where’s an HD remaster for that baby.

    • BlueHorus says:

      Or the ‘If you don’t get all of these, you get the truncated, unsatisfying ending that don’t explain nuthin’ ‘ secrets.
      Oh, you want the satisfying ending? Better start searching/crack open that guide, bitches!

      Bonus points for locking away an extra level at the end of the game (Sonic/Chaos Emeralds style).
      Dammit game, you’re locking away part of the content until I scour the other levels for McGuffins?
      And in an era BEFORE game saves?
      You cruel, cruel bastards…

      • Lars says:

        That sounds pretty much like Oddworld: Abes Oddysey/Exoddus, where you find Modokons to save in secret rooms. And if you don’t save 51 out of 100 you get the bad ending. And what Shamus mentioned: You get too know your saving rate at the end of a level. Before you are just told, if you “accidentally” killed some Mokokons.
        But I liked the games anyway. The secret rooms contained more and even harder puzzles, than the challenging main route. I’d love to see a new Oddworld game.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          The problem with oddworld games is not that there are hidden guys around levels,but that these hidden areas are in places before you are told how to use the powers you need to get them all out safely.So usually on your first play youd end up with some 20 or so dead ones as soon as you finish the first section of the game.

    • Asdasd says:

      If those are the worst type, then the second worst has to be the one in a MetroidVania-style game, where the secret is out in plain sight, but it isn’t made sufficiently clear whether your gear- or skill-set yet has the necessary tool to obtain it.

      This can lead compounded frustration as you either spend long stretches of time trying to best what is an as-yet unsolvable puzzle, or give up on a solvable one dangled right in front of your nose in the mistaken assumption that you have no choice but to come back to it later.

      It’s in circumstances such as these that the unspoken bond of mutual respect between developer and player – the one that states that a player will only waste their time willingly, and won’t be tricked by the developer into so doing – comes under strain.

  10. John says:

    I don’t play a lot of games with secret collectibles, but I thought that Mark of the Ninja handled them fairly well. The game tells you upfront that there are three secrets per level and rewards you for finding them by unlocking new abilities for your character. The secrets are not so much hidden as stashed in out-of-the-way places. In other words, there’s a reasonable number of secrets, they aren’t absurdly difficult to get, and the rewards for finding them are pretty useful. So, mechanically speaking, things are fine. But the thing is that the secrets take the form of scrolls belonging to your ninja clan and it’s totally unclear why so many of these scrolls would be stashed in such random places. I guess it’s the quantity of secrets that strains at my suspension of disbelief. It’s not a total immersion-breaker, since Mark of the Ninja is a very video-gamey video game to begin with, but it’s still a little weird.

  11. Erik says:

    I really like the “secrets” in The Last Of Us. Mostly because they made sense thematically. You’re supposed to be scrounging for resources the whole time, so going out of your way for more resources seems like something your character would be willing to do.

  12. DanMan says:

    Have you read Ready Player One? It’s the book that the Internet is super excited/hates is being turned into a movie by Spielberg.

    I ask because this topic is the basic plot of the book. A person develops an entire VR World. This person is obsessed with the secrets in ancient video games, so he hides his fortune behind secrets hidden in his VR World. Then the good guys and the bad guys have to race to discover all the secrets.

    I liked it in a nice, simple, time-wastey kind of way. I’m not presenting it as high art, but I felt like it was one of the first novels I had read built around gaming tropes that didn’t feel pandering.

    • Alex says:

      I’m in the “hates” category. If you put your story’s central challenge in a virtual reality, that challenge must not be arbitrary within the story. For example, in Inception the person whose mind is being infiltrated does not want the protagonists to succeed and isn’t going easy on them to ensure that happens.

      • shoeboxjeddy says:

        I don’t understand this complaint in the context of the story. The creator of the challenge wants the Hunt to be hard because he’s an ubernerd who wants all the challengers to have a sincere, detailed appreciation for all the things he cared about. If it was easy, a cursory knowledge of those things would suffice. And the challenge gains additional pressure from outside forces (the Sixers) who stand to gain by winning instead of our protagonist.

        • Alex says:

          There’s an important difference there: Halliday wants the easter egg hunt to be hard, but Robert Fisher wants infiltrating his mind to be impossible.

          • shoeboxjeddy says:

            Sounds like we agree on this point, so why does it contribute to you hating the book? Completing a difficult puzzle that someone wants to be solved is a pretty well worn story trope…

  13. Joshua says:

    I was lucky enough to score a Classic SNES last Friday. I’ve been playing the heck out of Super Metroid, and it does a decent job with secret caches. Apart from Energy Tanks (which are like Heart Containers), most secrets are just extra caches of Missiles, Super Missiles, and Power Bombs. You get a nice warm fuzzy if you find that extra missile pack, but going from having Max Missiles of 135 to 140 (for example), doesn’t impact game balance at all. There is a goal for 100% completion, but there’s also a goal for fast runs, to get a better ending.

    • Blake says:

      I think the Metroid Prime games were good this way too. A lot of the secrets were things you could see earlier and needed a specific upgrade to be able to get later, but there was also a lot where you just needed to be observant and think about things and you could get lots of non-essential upgrades.

  14. Nixorbo says:

    I’ve been checking behind waterfalls for decades now.

  15. Thomas says:

    I didn’t realise the Escapist had folded :( I figured the writing was on the wall when they had to keep losing their best producers and I stopped following then, but it’s sad. It gave me a lot of fun memories.

    • Kavonde says:

      I was coming down here to say the same thing. I know Shamus stuck around for awhile, but booting Jim and Bob, not to mention the morass the forums became… yeah. RIP, Escapist. You were pretty awesome for a couple of years, there.

    • Drathnoxis says:

      The Escapist hasn’t folded yet. It’s still up, it’s just that the community are the ones making the content now. Not sure why people keep coming to that conclusion after reading that article

  16. galacticplumber says:

    Lets talk xenoblade chronicles again. That game handles secret area placement, mostly, in the sense that it’s usually not very difficult to find the actual area if you’ve a mind to, but places them just far enough out of the way from most quests and even sidequests that you aren’t likely to find them unless you actively seek them out. Mostly not actually secret so much as really cool places to hike.

    Now how are you rewarded for going out of your way? Well most areas when first discovered offer scaling amounts of the game’s three main long term progression points. Scaling based on how late in the game the area actually is. Secret areas offer way more of these than surrounding areas.

    In addition item orbs commonly litter the environment and have multiple purposes. Sometimes you’ll need a few of a certain item for a sidequest, there’s a collectopedia for completionists that offers increasingly tasty rewards for filling ever more of it with items, you can trade both loot items and found items to NPCs for various things some of which can’t be bought or sold in stores, you can improve relationships between party members by gifting items between them.

    Okay you get it. Item orbs have dozens of uses for anyone who cares. This relates to secret area placement by the fact that item orb drops that are rare other places are often much more common in secret areas. This becomes more pronounced the harder the area is to find. Sometimes also a much higher rate of item orb spawning.

    In addition EVERY secret area has a goddamn kickass view, and some of them have heart to heart locations that flesh out characters and have the same effect on party relations as dozens or in some of the later cases hundreds of gifted items.

    BUT WAIT THERE’S MOAR! There’s also link coins which are essentially an ever expanding limit on the total number of skills you can take from other party members trees and gain the benefit of. Mostly passive bonuses and more powerful skills cost more coins to link. You also need to manage party relationships between people to get the most out of this. Now how do you get link coins? Oh many ways. As you level up, every time you kill a unique monster, EVERY SECRET AREA, and so on. Also, no, these link coins are not one of those three progression resources that normal areas cough up just for finding them either.

  17. Crimson Dragoon says:

    I know this is going off topic, but this is the first I’ve heard of what’s happening to the Escapist. That used to be such a great site, too, with a lot of really talented writers and contributors (Shamus included, of course) and a well maintained forum. I’m not sure what kind of mismanagement went on to let it fall so far, but its a real shame.

    Also, whatever did happen with Susan Arendt? She was always my favorite reviewer.

    • Thomas says:

      I don’t know if it _has_ to be mismanagement. There aren’t really any prestige games journalism sites that have survived. Waypoint doesn’t count because it probably doesn’t have to turn a profit yet.

      If you combined the best of Eurogamer, RPS, Kotaku and PC Gamer you’d just about get the kind of content sites put out in The Escapist heyday.

      Journalism struggles in the age of YouTube, Facebook and Reddit. You get a bit crud or you die. Its been the same with news journalism too.

      • Supah Ewok says:

        It was actually mismanagement. But also the ad crash. Around ’13 I think, advertisers figured out the real worth of sidebar ads on the Internet. This caused a crash in what they were willing to pay for those ads, and lots of websites that relied on that income felt the pinch (at the same time, adblock started getting popular as ads got more intrusive to try to make up the income loss). The Escapist got sold to a company called Defy, and all of the great original content started disappearing (both print and video) in favor of click bait and 30 minute articles pulled from what was popular on Reddit that day. A bunch of the old talent started drifting away, community management went downhill, and the site just dwindled. The Escapist isn’t even listed on Defy’s list of properties anymore. Nobody knows who’s paying for the server anymore, or why.

        As an aside, 2013 was also the year of Gamergate, and the Escapist became a controversial flash point for it because they allowed discussion of it at a time when pretty much all other forums were banning it. Some people think that that had a big part in souring the community and the site’s reputation. I’m not so sure, but I brought it up to be thorough and complete, not to open up a discussion about GG.

        • Crimson Dragoon says:

          Thanks for the info. I had heard it had something to do with the parent company, but never really knew the details. I remember back then when it seemed like they were going through a new editor-in-chief every few months, and thinking something something must be very wrong behind the scenes.

        • Kavonde says:

          I can confirm that the GG fallout and the site’s handling of it had a serious negative impact on some users’ views of the site and its forums. I would say, though, that the most severe wounds came from axing some key content creators.

    • Supah Ewok says:

      Oh, and as far as Arendt goes, I don’t know what she did immediately after she left the Escapist, but at some point she was part of Russ Pitts’ filming company. I think that might be defunct though.

  18. Cubic says:

    GTA 3 and GTA 3 Vice City among others used the approach where better weapons spawned at your safe house the more items you found. It meant the game became a bit easier, so you could spend some time doing this if things were too hard.

    I don’t really have the inclination to search seriously, I’m not so much OCD as demotivated, but it can be fun to replay a game with a walkthrough guide, pick up everything as soon as possible, and see how things turn out.

  19. Drew says:

    The first secret I can remember encountering was the warp zones in Super Mario Bros. Sure, there were some funny easter-eggy things in other games (Zork, Adventure, etc) but as far as in-game secrets which were really part of the game, this was the first I can recall.

  20. Bubble181 says:

    One thing you didn’t mention is the fact that many types of “secrets” these days are trivialized by the existence of wikis/walkthroughs.
    Of course, there have been versions of walkthroughs since practically the inception of the computer game (I remember seeing a “how to” on Pac Man in a discount bin once). But before the internet, you had to search for them, too – they came o nthe CD or disc of a gaming magazine, you exchanged them with a class mate, what have you.
    Nowadays, if the game doesn’t tell me how many doodads I have to find in a level, fine, I’ll just look it up beforehand. If I don’t find one, or can’t figure out the solution, I’ll just read up on it on line.
    Especially if the loot is actually useful/important/necessary, where you feel more or less “pushed” to go out and look for them.

    There’s no really good solution for this, mind, but it’s worth noting that many of the types of secrets that used to be fun to search for are now more or less useless or have been incorporated into the main game design.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Personally,I dont think this is something that needs to be solved.People can ask the world if they know where something is.Whats so bad about that?If they want to search on their own,they will search on their own.If they dont,theyll ask the internet.Its the choice of the players.

  21. Rack says:

    Currently I’m deeply obsessed with VR and my favourite secret is in The Mages Tale. There’s a mechanism with a missing cog, find the cog in another secret area, take it back, solve a puzzle and you get a short song and dance routine from a little gremlin you rescue.

    That level of content is unsustainable for every secret in the game, but the sense you might get something that cool is a huge incentive to keep your eyes open.

  22. Nick-B says:

    Secrets, you know, vary depending on the game type. In particular, I’ve been playing a lot of Hollow Knight lately. Metroidvanias like it love to have their secrets that they shove in your face, then laugh at your attempts to get. They are specifically “walled off” by mechanics you don’t have at that moment. Perhaps the wall is too tall for you to jump right now (wall jump). Perhaps there is a hole in the ceiling you cannot jump high enough to reach (double jump). Or maybe there is a giant spike/lava pit in front of you (horizontal dash).

    Regardless, you are presented with a secret and the game laughs at you, mocks you. “Hope you are taking notes!” it seems to chuckle at you. Games like this have maps, but generally refuse to mark down discovered-but-uncollected loot.

    I suppose there are exceptions to this. The batman series not only lets you tag an items location for later, but lets you do a sort of mini-game to add the markers to your map. It was this function that made me 100% a collection-heavy game like this for the first time. The juicy lore about various villains and allies were a bonus. In fact, they actually got me interested in finding comic reader apps and looking for batman comics. The fact there is not some simple “series” I can locate and read ended that pursuit.

    Which is odd, since I think I remember you absolutely detested the Batman collection chores. We’re usually in agreement on a lot of things game-wise, but this one thing…

  23. Attercap says:

    Like the original Wolfenstein 3D, I remember accidentally whipping a staircase in the original Castlevania arcade game, only to be rewarded with a piece of meat (not a euphemism). Subsequent playthroughs had me whipping everything, to the detriment of my quarters. Unlike Wolfenstein 3D, Castlevania didn’t have resource management, so spamming attack didn’t feel as boring as spamming a space bar against a wall, it was more like the typical “bunny-hopping,” it satisfied a constant action response.

  24. IanTheM1 says:

    To stick with the Dishonored example, an incredibly important distinction for me is what’s being tracked by the game. Personally, everything in the screenshot Shamus posted is fine, with the exception of that damn coin count.

    All of the supernatural gewgaws can be revealed and homed in on using the Heart, and knowing the exact location but not the route is a simple and generally effective way to pull the player into new situations. Fun. They’re also usually immediate chunks of additional power, so it’s in your best interest to seek them out no matter what, no-power runs aside.

    Paintings and blueprints tend to be squirreled way in notable side areas and worst case scenario are large enough to stick out like a sore thumb when you use the enhanced vision mode. Potentially annoying, but fine. Some blueprints are minor, others are incredibly useful, so again, worth poking around for even if they’re not an immediate power increase.

    But coins…oof. No joke, that coin stat is part of why I bounced off DH1 hard when I first tried to play it. I generally pride myself on being good at finding secrets and collectibles, so finishing the tutorial level of Dishonored only to discover I was missing at least a good third of the money was frustrating.

    It’s the worst possible intersection of elements: Money is super useful for buying upgrades or other vital supplies so you should never outright ignore it. It’s also ridiculously granular. Coins, coin purses, gold bars, valuables, paintings themselves, all sorts of stuff counts towards that stat. That makes it impossible to look at a value of 2957/3813 and have any clue what you missed and where. Even playing the game near-permanently in detective mode won’t necessarily help due to draw distance and the sheer tininess of some of the items. (And the coin purses on guards are also mobile!)

    Money is also the loot goodie with the most delayed gratification (not counting paintings largely just being a game-spanning achievement collectible I guess). You don’t know how much money you’ll actually need, when you’ll need it, or for what. It’s just nebulously a Very Good Thing to find every last cent you can, just in case.

    Of course, the secret (heh) is that, at least in DH1, scouring the levels for money becomes pointless about 2/3rds of the way through because unless you need every single possible ammo capacity upgrade or something equally frivolous you’ll never actually need 100% of the money. Is it worth stressing out for those first two thirds so you can fly through the last one? Ehh, probably not. (Though at least some of that is thanks to the enhanced vision in DH being headache-inducing and really, really bad for like five different reasons all on its own.)

    I had to go remind myself how Thief did it and I had forgotten that it does track loot identically to DH, but it’s at least buried on a separate stats screen. There’s also something about how by design you’re intended to steal at least SOME of the loot to complete mission objectives, which reduces the anxiety. Plus, IIRC, Thief’s money is use it or lose it. Finding everything you can in one mission might allow you to grab some extra supplies for the very next one, but it’s not banked. Which means that it’s always of significant interest, but you’re not hoovering up every last coin with the expectation that it will payoff big time later on down the line. (Naturally, by relentlessly copying Dishonored, Thief 4 made the same mistakes by having money go towards both short and long term purchases.)

    • KarmaTheAlligator says:

      Yeah, the coin stat (especially those individual coins hidden in tiny corners) can go to hell in both Dishonored games.

      They’re the only ones I gave up on. Everything else, I’m quite happy to hunt down, but the coin total? Don’t care.

    • PhoenixUltima says:

      While Thief 4 definitely copied a lot from Dishonored, your coins being banked between missions actually goes back to Thief 3.

      That game also made you manually go to your fences in the hub area to sell off your loot, and none of the fences would buy every type of item, so you had to go around to a couple of different ones to sell off everything. And you also had to visit different stores to buy different resources. This was something of a pain in the ass, and I can understand why people would hate it, but TBH I really liked how the whole system made me feel like I was actually a part of the game world, and not just collecting stuff that magically transforms into coins so you can buy stuff from the vend-o-tron 3000 between levels.

      So of course Thief 4 kept the (single) store, but got rid of all the other stuff that helped sell the immersion. Bah.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Thief games at least have the excuse of you being a thief.So hunting cash IS what your character is after anyway.Thats why on higher difficulties your “required loot” objective is a larger percentage.

        In dishonored though,there is no in universe excuse for it.

      • IanTheM1 says:

        Does Thief 3 have both small, consumable equipment to buy and long term permanent stuff, or just the former? That’s more what I was getting at. I’m into the realistic fencing idea too, sounds like something that might make you have to weigh the risk/reward of stealing certain things (though I’m guessing it doesn’t quite work that way in practice).

        Thief 4 actually had two shops – one was for basic equipment, plus one or two permanent upgrades, the other was the old woman who upgraded your magic thief powers. Though in fairness to that mess, I strongly suspect that the latter didn’t use gold before they ripped out the controversial XP system.

  25. Bitmap says:

    Somehow no one has mentioned temporary power-ups yet. These can be super powerful since their duration is so limited, and they have no influence on the long-term balance of he game. No one who has played Doom 1 or 2 has forgot the Invincibility mode with its cool black-and-white vision, right?

    One game that used temporary bonuses especially well is Blood from 1997. One let the player fire two guns simultaneously, and another one reflected all bullets, but didn’t protect against splash damage from explosions. Of course these were often planted shortly before areas with an especially large number of enemies, and made a big difference as the game is much, much harder than Doom. But the trick is that while they make the player much more powerful, they don’t fully protect the player from damage and the player often plays much more recklessly during their duration. This sometimes leads to hilarious player deaths where you’ve got no one to blame but your own recklessness.

  26. For my money, the original Eye of the Beholder game was one of the all-time best examples of How to Do Secrets in Your Game. The entire game was puzzles and secrets with occasional fights sprinkled in. And then there were the EVEN SECRETER SECRETS. And the things that looked like secrets that could not actually be solved (the unreachable loot behind the teleporter maze) just to MESS with you. So much fun. Someone made it into a Neverwinter Nights mod and it was also fabulous.

    Plus, the opening music in that game was the best.

    If you want to talk about more recent games, Grim Dawn actually has quite a few secrets hidden in it, and they are enjoyable to find. It’s unusual for an isometric game to have secrets like that, but they hide them in two ways:

    1. They don’t appear on the level map.

    2. They’re not remotely invisible, but most of them are hard to see if you don’t look at the wall from the right angle. And you can rotate the camera view (unusual in an isometric game) so chances are good that you won’t run in and be at the right angle by default.

    So, in Grim Dawn it rewards exploration without resulting in a “must get them all!” feeling.

    DDO has a lot of secrets and even skills based on searching them out, but you tend to run quests repeatedly in that game a lot. Even so, after 7 years of playing I still find stuff that I didn’t know was there. It’s not always particularly *meaningful* stuff, but it does help keep the game from getting boring.

    • Cybron says:

      I quit the game over that teleporter maze. Fun is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

      Bad puns aside I really did quit over it. I find stuff like that incredibly frustrating. I wouldn’t call myself a completionist but I often fall into the mindset of wanting to achieve some short term goal irrelevant to the larger game and if that goal is frustrated I often stop having fun and quit.

  27. BlueHorus says:

    I don’t know if these fall into Shamus’ definition, but I remember early Final Fantasy games having some real bullshit secrets.

    Example: In FFIII, at one point in the story you’re asked by an NPC to join a group of rebels. The plot won’t proceed until you say ‘yes’, BUT!
    If you say no, go through a door and then back again, talk to the guy and say ‘no’ again (repeat 3 times), THEN go into a previous room and talk to that other guy in the corner, he will give you a powerful, really rare item to persuade you to join up.
    However, if you talk to the guy in the corner before doing the Yes/No Door Shuffle (Like, say, if you were in the spirit of playing some kind of Role-Playing Game…), he’ll give you a different, much less valuable item.

    Yeah, that kind of ‘secret’ can go jump in a lake.

    • Kathryn says:

      Pretty sure that was FFVI. You get the Black Belt, which I always equip on Sabin. Agreed that it definitely goes against role-playing…although as I type that, it does occur to me that in the cutscenes, Terra seems pretty reluctant to fight…

      Anyway, also not secrets exactly, but FFXII does a good job of rewarding OCD players who absolutely have to go everywhere and do everything. Usually, if you fill in every map, you find small treasures tucked in the out-of-the-way corners, like gold or an elixir or a nice but not unique piece of equipment. In FFXII, though, there was a lot of content that you wouldn’t see if all you did was the main plot. (Zertinan Caverns, the other part of the Henne Mines, several sidequests, etc.) Most of the Espers were off the beaten path, and there were some very nice items like the best gun in the game in those areas (but don’t get me started on the random chests, ugh).

      As for shooters, Wolfenstein 3D is the first and last shooter I played…

      • Thomas says:

        On the other hand, the Zodiac spear existed purely to sell guides. No in game way of knowing what to do and it actively punished you for looking in every nook and cranny despite needing to look in every nook and cranny to find it.

        The shortcut that lets you find it early is great though.

      • Dreadjaws says:

        “Pretty sure that was FFVI.”

        Which was called FFIII in the US.

    • KarmaTheAlligator says:

      Sounds like the Dark Souls BS. Oh, you want to do that DLC you paid for? Well you need to save a certain person (by fighting an enemy in a very remote area that you have no reason to go to), kill a golem on the other side of the world to get an item from it, then go back to where you saved the first person even though there’s no reason to.

      Or the whole Undead asylum and painted world adventure. How are you meant to even find those things without being told?

      • BlueHorus says:

        Huh. Adding that kind of bullshit to a DLC after you’ve payed seems somewhat…
        I just…
        Why would a dev do that?
        Microtransactions are supposed to make the game annoying if the players don’t pay extra, guys!

        Was the company going for a Spec Ops: The Line-style ‘fuck you for playing this game’ message or something?

        • galacticplumber says:

          No. Dark souls is just fundamentally against the idea of people not having to work for things. Also it’s not microtransaction. It’s an entire series of areas with their own story arc, bosses, and dozens of items spells and other equipment.

        • Cybron says:

          The DLC is what would have traditionally been called an expansion pack. Adds a new area with lots of content.

          Thematically, Dark Spils focuses on stuff like triumph in the face of adversity and curiousity. The secret areas seem to operate pretty well along those parameters. A huge part of the fanbase is people who love digging for secrets, both in terms of the game’s lore and in the actual gameplay.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          You dont get it,its actually a super important part of the theme of the game,where you need to pay sweat AND blood for everything you do.If you didnt git gud in the game,paying money for something should not allow you to skip the ever so important content.It actually improves the game by making you play through it even more.

      • Cybron says:

        “Or the whole Undead asylum and painted world adventure. How are you meant to even find those things without being told?”
        The Seek Guidance miracle reveals developer messages that hint at many of the game’s less obvious secrets. More importantly, the game’s message system lets players guide each other.

        I love the way Dark Souls handles secrets. They sound like the sort of thing that one kid on the playground would come up with (like Mew under the truck).

        • KarmaTheAlligator says:

          Never used that miracle, so I didn’t know that. So it’s not quite as obtuse as I thought, but only just.

          Also I barely play online, so yeah, there goes the help from player messages.

        • KarmaTheAlligator says:

          Anyway, other point, both the Seek Guidance and player messages fall under the “being told about the secret” category.

    • Dreadjaws says:

      Man, that’s one of my favorite games of all time, but “bullshit” is the correct word to describe some of its secrets. You really need a guide in hand. It’s not just that game, of course, it’s every Square game from the era, like Chrono Trigger. Oh, sweet, you found a place in the future with a chest that contains an amazing item! … Unless, of course, you had actually opened the chest when you visited that same place in the past, when you had literally no reason not to, and the item inside was severely inferior.

      • BlueHorus says:

        Ah, Chrono Trigger’s time chests. They’re better than that, though – once you get the magic locket that opens said chests, to get the best item you have to:
        a) Find the chest in the past
        b) Use the locket to activate/unlock it, which only happens with these chests
        c) Leave, go to the future and find the chest again
        d) THEN open it

        And of course, if you just open the chest in the past, or in the future without activating it… you get the worse item.
        Thanks for making that clear, game!

    • Echo Tango says:

      I never played that game, but the 3-door-rebel thing actually makes a lot of sense in-world / in-character. I mean if you just go up to some random guy asking for trinkets, of course he’s going to give you trash (either as a joke, or to get rid of this weirdo nobody he’s interacting with). If his boss has talked to you and decided that you’d be a valuable asset to his rebel cause, and that you’re rejecting his offers, he’ll offer a greater reward to bribe you.

      • BlueHorus says:

        You’re not asking for any items, though. You just walk through the base towards the leader, and everyone you meet spouts one line about whether you should join or not if you talk to them with no dialogue choices.
        This guy gives you something completely out of the blue, no chance to ask, and he’s even got the same generic ‘guy-in-uniform’ sprite as loads of other people in this section.
        It’s one of those ‘you’d only do this if you read it online/in a guide’ style secrets. Nothing in the game itself suggests that it’s possible.

  28. toad says:

    Jedi Knight had secret areas, which generally had a little bit of ammo and health or shields in them. At first they seemed useful, but not mandatory. Then — and I can’t remember if this happens in the base game after you get Force powers or if it started in a later installment — you find out that if you find EVERY secret in a level, you get an extra star to spend on Force powers.

    This wound up really frustrating 14-year-old me. The game gives you two stars per level after you get your powers — this adds up to something like 24 stars. There are 32 spots to spend stars, which means if you don’t find any secret areas you’re going to be at 75% ability by the end of the game. The game also doesn’t tell you how well you’re doing at secret-area-finding: in one level you find seven and it turns out that’s all of them. In the next level you spend a bunch of extra time to find seven, but this level actually has THIRTEEN. Now you’re frustrated not only because you failed to find all of them, but it turns out you spent an extra half hour bumping around the shaderless geometry and trying to jump over impossible chasms (just because it MIGHT be possible, and maybe on the other side there’s something behind a corner that you can’t see), and you barely got half of what you were looking for.

    On the one hand, this was back in the day where you could save your progress and reload, so if you wanted to go back and replay the level, at least you could. On the other hand, getting through a level could take a while and fourteen-year-old me didn’t have unlimited play time. Some of the secrets were well telegraphed environment puzzles: you see a shield pack across an impossible chasm and have to figure out how to get there. Some were behind cracked wall panels that turned out not to have collision boxes. But some were just around dark corners in a level full of dark corners, 95% of which did not have secret areas at the end of them.

    I can’t tell if this was a good system or a bad system. But, it felt mandatory because getting more Force stars was hugely beneficial, and it was impossible to know if you were doing a good job. So, that doesn’t feel like a good system.

    But I still remember having fun.

    • KarmaTheAlligator says:

      I remember finding this out, and it just made me replay the game. Managed to find all of them back then.

      Also, did you know that putting your stars in only light or dark unlocked a secret power at the end (protection or destruction)? One that cost either most of your force power or nothing, depending on how much you had (if you had little left, the power was basically free to use)?

      • toadicus says:

        I did know that! I can’t remember if I ever actually buckled down and did it. I certainly knew people who did, though.

        Back in the day when if you wanted to talk to people about a video game, you had to talk to people. ;)

  29. The Rocketeer says:

    I found myself canvasing the levels

    Unless you and Beej were literally covering the area in sailcloth, that should be canvassing.

  30. Kelhim says:

    The original Thief games had a pretty good approach regarding secrets: Stealing was already a fundamental part of the game, and hiding valuable or secret items in unusual places worked not only from a game-design perspective, but also from the standpoint of the concerned wealthy citizens.

    Of course, after you found a secret switch in a chimney that opened a secret door, you would crawl into more chimneys, just to be sure not to miss another one. But you knew at the same time just how silly this was, and that it would be boring to pull off the same trick twice. So every secret was rather unique, and during your first playthrough you stumbled upon them rather by accident than by exploration. There was no sense in checking every single gobelin, looking for a hidden opening behind it.

    Thief also played a nice DUM-DUM-DING sound when you found a secret to let you know you found something special.

  31. Mephane says:

    I deeply loathe secrets that provide any permanent ingame bonus. That 1% HP per secret means I have to get them all on any play-through. I am not going to run through gimping my character knowingly (and will be extremely angry if I find out later that I have been doing that all along).

    The best secrets in my view are in Shadow Warrior 2. They are essentially small golden statue-things hidden in various places, some easier to find, some extremely obscure, sometimes their surroundings themselves are part of the secret, too (e.g. retro style art, nods and references to other games, or that one room with a giant poster of the whole development team). Now the thing is, each of these statues gave you a bit of cash, which especially at the start is a nice boost, but as you get further into the game it serves more as an acknowledgement than a real advantage to collect them.

    Also, money is not a finite resource in this game. You can go out and hunt more monsters if you need more cash, as levels are repopulated when you are away for a while (technically, when you (save and re-)load a savegame and when you have visited 2 other levels). Some may remember my long comment a while ago on resources in games and how I greatly prefer it if they are renewable in some form or another, and not just a finite thing where for example misspent cash is permanently lost from this play-through.

    But the most important part is that the game is semi-open-world, as in you can freely revisit almost any place, so you can just play through the different areas normally, hoping to find a few secrets but not going out of your way to meticulously check every room, and then later come back and try to see if you can find more (or with a Steam guide that shows the locations…).

    • Echo Tango says:

      Another game that had good secrets – Tomb Raider 2. It had…bronze, silver, gold, and jade statues in each level? Something like that. Either way, they provided no in-game bonus at all, and were purely trophies to brag about, and a reward for fully exploring the levels. :)

      • RobS says:

        I actually consider TR2 to be an example of horrible secrets. Individually they have nothing, but if you collected all three in a level, you received a large-ish, fairly powerful weapons reward. And at least one in each level was “right in the open” but in the middle of a critical timed run (spiked walls closing on you or something) which required *exact* timing and positioning to grab.

        There were several levels where I wouldn’t bother to get any because of the all-or-nothing nature and one nearly impossible secret.

        I’ve always thought TR1 did it better. The secrets usually only required exploration and patience and provided a small cache of medpacks, ammo, or a more powerful weapon slightly earlier than you’d otherwise find it.

  32. Alrenous says:

    On the other hand, if you put too many goodies into these hiding spots then you run the risk of making it hard to balance the game. Maybe a completionist player will get bored because they’re swimming in ammo and health resources, and a run-and-gun player will struggle because they’ve been leaving this stuff behind

    I’ma go ahead and solve this right now.

    0. Make the secrets full of powerful goodies. (I’m actually thinking of Metroid here.)
    1. This is one of the few times a difficulty setting is simply a good idea.
    2. The game needs to telegraph the fact secrets are optional. (Or not, on hard mode.)

    As long as the player is clued in and on the lower difficulty then the secrets function as dynamic difficulty. If they’re lost, which strongly correlates with low familiarity with the game, they will find more stuff and have an easier time on bosses. If they’re already at a boss but struggling, they have an opportunity to take time out and ‘level up’ so to speak. Or not, if they prefer. They can find exactly as many power ups as they want, fine-tuning the difficulty by spending their own time. The game is harder on replays, as it should be, instead of easier.

    My favourite part of Metroid Prime was the backtracking. I memorized the locations of all the places I couldn’t go and pickups I couldn’t reach, and went back for them as soon as I thought I had the necessary tools to get them. Was a wonderful memory game. Also, it completely killed the challenge of the combat, and Prime isn’t that difficult to start with.

    But then they screwed up. “Hard” mode is actually “take longer” mode. Taking double damage doesn’t mean anything when I’m already avoiding every attack.* Instead it should have been “masochistic completionists only.” (And not require beating the game to unlock.)

    Stuff you find in secrets ultimately makes some simple scalars go up. It is not complicated to scale the enemies based on how many caches the player is expected to find – then let the player tell the game how many caches they want it to expect them to find.

    *(In Super, the very first boss has an attack that can be mitigated, but not entirely blocked, by a skillful response. At least, not by unaided humans. This is a much better design given Samus’ typical health maximums.)

    • Echo Tango says:

      Yeah, the secrets in Super Metroid were a pretty good way of rewarding players for exploring, or to help lost players get more powerful. On the other hand…I don’t think it had a difficulty setting. But on the other other hand, apparently Super Metroid is very easy and I’m a scrub. :)

      • Alrenous says:

        The boss designs are harder than Metroid Prime’s. Yes, you have an embarrassingly large number of energy tanks. Also, bosses can easily combo Samus for hundreds of damage. They don’t follow set attack –> opening sequences like modern bosses, they fight like they’re actually trying to kill you.

        Super’s metroids do actual damage. If you’re young enough to lack the coordination to pull off the bomb escape reliably, they’re incredibly dangerous. Or if you’re young enough to panic easily.

        It is possible to get killed by Mother Brain. Her limit break does a fixed amount of damage, and is guaranteed to fire once, so if Samus is already low enough on the first launching, it will be lethal. I cannot find any confirmation that depleting your missiles is important. Everyone else seems to think you do actually have to deplete her HP to trigger her limit break.

  33. etheric42 says:

    The game that best handled secrets that I have ever seen/played was The Witness. Sure, the theme of the game was discovery so it would be pretty hard to replicate in games with a different theme/focus. Even the “levels” themselves were in a way a secret as you would sometimes have to wander to find the next panel.

    A game I did not like secrets in was Wolfenstein: The New Order. Some of them were neat, but I felt compelled to look closely for each one because of the unlocks attached to them and the levels (at least the early ones) felt like they had multiple unannounced point-of-no-returns in them. It especially felt at odds with an action-movie style experience (in spite of some of them being really clever and interesting Nazi listening rooms, etc).

    • IanTheM1 says:

      Oh lordy, I hate how games seeded with arbitrary collectibles took off pretty much in tandem with every game using UE3 or the like and blatantly cutting up level chunks using small ledges, one-way doors, or random cutscenes. And probably auto-saving at those very points as well.

      I have no idea how you’re supposed to find everything in a game like Alan Wake without meticulously following a guide, because you never actually know the boundaries of the area you’re searching in.

      Say what you will about finding all of the flags in Assassin’s Creed (like, for instance, that it’s dumb and bad) but at least the entire city of Damascus doesn’t cease to exist when Altair trips an invisible cutscene trigger. :P

  34. Mattias42 says:

    I’d personally guess that nobody’s copied Quake 2’s ‘one percent max health per secret’ because it’s too tiny and easily missed a bonus.

    Heck, back in the day I could rattle every cheat from memory and damn near play the entire game backwards, and I STILL never noticed that bonus until this article.

    I noticed the increase in health, sure, but I thought that was plot based. As in, your marine dude getting burlier due to surviving the Strog.

    And, frankly, unless there was a line in the manual I missed, I doubt I’m alone in that more logical but faulty assumption, and you can’t inspire people if your innovation is so subtle nobody ever talks about it.

  35. `Retsam says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with the secrets in Dark Souls. All items are white mists (which are pretty easy to see), and they’re pretty good at putting the white mist in plain sight, but out of reach, but with a path to the object that an observant player can find. (Like dropping down from above from a particular ledge)

    Having the item be in plain sight tips the player off that there’s a puzzle, and the design of the puzzles reward the player for paying attention to the level design. And Dark Souls does well enough with its item economy that the rewards can be pretty good, without necessarily being essential for progression.

    The hate side of the love-hate relationship is that they still do the Wolfenstein 3D thing where you walk up to a solid wall and press a button and it disappears or opens. Or worse (depending on the game) you might have to swing your sword at it. It’s obnoxious to go around testing all the walls in the whole game… (and it’s a little immersion-breaking to have my character running around swinging a sword or rolling into all the walls in this somber dark fantasy world).

    It’s especially egregious since the game doesn’t (as far as I can tell) bother telling you that illusory walls exist, and then it hides rather important things behind walls. Like bonfires (checkpoints). The internet features of the game help: there’ll usually be a player message in front of illusory walls: but that’s a pretty kludgy fix.

    • The Rocketeer says:

      In all three Dark Souls games, you reveal secret walls by striking them in some way. In Dark Souls II only, there are also hidden doors you have to press A (or X or whatever) to open.

      Personally, I like the “strike” kind better, but nevermind that; to me, it’s having both kinds at once that’s a big problem, especially since the doors you had to press A to open were far less common and weren’t distinguished in any way from regular hidden openings.

      I remember once I was summoned in Earthen Peak, and I was trying to lead the host to the hidden bonfire right above the boss door, which was behind a “press A” hidden door. He followed me to the wall, and I rolled, gestured, attacked, did everything I could to indicate that there was something there to find. He eventually attacked the wall, cluing in that I was trying to indicate a hidden door, but obviously he never realized he needed to hit A. If it was just the regular kind of illusory wall, he would have found it, but he never did, and eventually he just gave up and pulled me on to the boss. (Which we beat, luckily.)

      And then you have the hidden door in the High Wall that can only be opened from within. You can’t open it with A and it doesn’t disappear if you strike it… but if you keep making noise by hitting the wall, you’ll attract an enemy inside who will open the door from within. There’s no other hidden room in the game like it, and no reasonable way to reason that there’s anything there aside from looking like a typical spot for a hidden door. (Inside is the Life Ring and a very early Large Titanite Shard, by the way.)

      • The Rocketeer says:

        Just barely missed the edit window, but that last one is in the Forest of Fallen Giants, not the High Wall. (I guess I have DSIII on the brain.)

        • `Retsam says:

          I’m actually just a bit into DS2 (hence my confusion over “Press A” vs. “hit with sword”), and the Forest of Fallen Giants thing is actually a normal door, not a hidden door, at all. (Though it’s in the same room as a hidden door that needs to be revealed with a Lockstone)

          That one particularly doesn’t bother me, as much as it feels like a missed opportunity: it’d have been a real clever puzzle if they had provided any sort of hint to it.

          Sad to hear that they didn’t just change the walls from “attack” to “press A”, like I assumed they did. BRB, going around and attacking all the walls I’ve been pressing A on…

          • Khazidhea says:

            I’ve got a bit of the completionist OCD in games (not overwhelmingly, but not a non-factor either), so I tend to like secrets in games where you can back track easily, like Dark Souls or Tom Braider. That way I can play how I like through the game, but I’m not ‘punished’ when I miss something, and can look up an area guide afterwards to see if there’s anything worth going back for.

    • Cybron says:

      I missed the hidden bonfire in Izaltih because I hated the area so much and was trying to blitz through it so I could leave. What a pain. Thankfully most of the hidden walls are on the beaten path and tagged with player messages.

      Also you can roll into the walls as well, which is what I usually do. I’ll leave it up to you if rolling into walls face first is more or less immersion breaking than attacking them.

    • Echo Tango says:

      Wolfenstein 3D had most[1] of its secrets in places that made sense in the game world. For example, some were behind the flags on the walls, and if there were two flags or two statues on nearby sections of wall, then the section in between them was a secret. They didn’t feel like arbitrary sections of wall to me, because they seemed like reasonable places that might be secrets in a real-world Nazi dungeon/stronghold.

      [1] If not all – I haven’t played the game in over a decade.

      • LCF says:

        Not all.
        At least several were behind standard wall, undistinguishable from other non-secret-hiding walls.
        Return to Castle Wolfenstein had some nice secrets, working in-universe (the wealth of the ennemy, where it makes sense), observationnal in nature.
        New Colossus “gold” feels jarring, as there are golden objects lying on the ground seemingly anywhere, for no reason. I’d understand (zeppelin, others) toys or pictures better but precious objects in sewers/maintenance shaft/random places?
        It’s just immersion-breaking.

  36. Viktor says:

    IMO, the type of reward and the type of challenge it is to find both feed into each other.
    Rewards:
    Temporary power bonus(cloak, a weapon that’s useless in 3 levels, ammo).
    Permanent power bonus(stat points, unique weapon, new ability).
    Lore(cutscene, diary, environmental storytelling).
    Bragging rights(achievements).
    Aesthetic(new hairstyle, swimsuit mode, classic filter, chicken suit).
    System unlocks(any of the above that carry over when you start a new game).

    Ways to hide them:
    Telegraphed puzzle(There’s an armor pack on the other side of this chasm, how do I get there?)
    Unmentioned challenge(Beat the level without using grenades, advance all party members to full affection, etc).
    Concealed area(behind the waterfall, turn around at the start, fight down the tunnel enemies are spawning from).
    Hidden area(shoot the wall, interact with the correct statue in the hall of statues, melee the wooden stairs).
    Strategy Guide BS(turn on lights in the correct 3 rooms only, bring the vehicle you get at the end of the level back to spawn, have X and Y in your party while doing conversation Q)

    So as a dev, you have to decide what rewards you want to give and what playstyles you want to encourage. “Check every wall” doesn’t work in a fast-paced FPS, but it’s perfect for an RPG. Backtracking is fine in an RPG, but that means rewards on a timer are a bad idea. A secret that takes most of a game to get means the reward is useless for most of the game, so it either has to be out-of-game(lore or cheevos) or it needs to carry over. And lore is always good, but if it’s too hard, players will just look up the cutscene on YouTube rather than playing through the whole game using only the pistol. Combine that with online guides and it’s easy to see why devs these days are keeping the secrets basic, there’s a lot you need to do to get it right.

    Still, that moment of discovery is well worth the effort IMO, and I’m sad it is so rare these days.

  37. Agammamon says:

    If their reward is basically a checkmark on an achievement to-do list, then it starts to feel like busywork.

    Au contraire – to the hunters of filthy cheevos, the cheevo hunt is the game and all the rest is just annoying crap getting in the way of their 100%.

  38. In an unrelated comment, I feel like this article needs a comic that goes something like this:

    In the game, are secrets
    BUT . . . the secrets are full of zombies
    BUT . . . the zombies have cake
    BUT . . . zombie cake is terrible

    • BlueHorus says:

      Hey, attach an ‘Ate All The Zombie Cake’ achievement to it and some people would be driven to find it all, I’m sure.

      Put a fourth panel aftwerards with a guy preparing to shove a cake made of rotting meat and wriggling worms into his mouth. He’s going green and it looks like he’s been sick at lest once already, but he’s shouting “For the achievement!” (or something similar).

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      As long as there is no potassium benzoate in the cake,its all good.

  39. Decius says:

    A very important part of secret-hiding in games is to provide clues and breadcrumbs suggesting where to find them. Prey did that fairly well, hiding caches in the environment and then putting clues to the cache locations in the emails and audiologs. Where Prey did secrets wrong was by making backtracking excessively hard; as you advanced in the game, prior areas had more resource-draining enemies added, even if all the secrets were available the first time you entered (Like the exterior, the largest area, with no map, hiding secrets across the entire volume of the map).

  40. Christopher says:

    I really love the secret area in the original Dark Souls that’s hidden behind two secret walls behind a chest with an item, which is the kind of thing that’s only fair to do when a core part of your game is people being able to leave little messages to each other. Messages like “Hidden wall”.

    Behind those walls is an area called The Great Hollow, the inside of a giant tree that you can see from even your hub area in the game. After going inside it, you balance cautiously on roots to get down to the bottom. Once there, you exit the tree and discover Ash Lake. And it’s amazing. Gigantic, beautiful, a unique-looking beach-area in the middle of a sea of giant trees and water. Moody music starts playing. It’s one of the only areas with music in the entire game.

    There are things to do here. One questline ends here, there’s a covenant, there’s some treasure, and there are a handful of enemies including the second of two hydras in the game. The last remaining ancient dragon, as far as anyone knows, lives here. But in the grand scheme of things, there’s barely anything here. It’s just a beautiful, wonderful, completely optional secret that feels like an adventure to go visit.

    Those are the kinds of secrets that stick with me. Not just any wall you hit and then there’s a roast chicken there, Castlevania style. It’s gotta be something with some kind of emotional value, or story value.

  41. silver Harloe says:

    If a player spends fifteen minutes puzzling over an environmental obstacle, then they’ll probably be disappointed if their prize has no in-game value. If their reward is basically a checkmark on an achievement to-do list, then it starts to feel like busywork. The coffee thermoses in Alan Wake come to mind as a good example of an unrewarding reward.

    Wolfenstein did this by offering treasure. It’s useless in-game, but people are usually attracted to gold shiny things so it kinda worked.

    So if the coffee thermoses in Alan Wake were gold, it would’ve been cool? I otherwise fail to see the difference between those two situations

    I suspect it’s a matter of “I was enjoying Wolfenstein, so I didn’t mind secret hunting, but I hated Alan Wake, so the secret hunting was just more of what I already didn’t like.”

    • Shamus says:

      As others have pointed out, Alan Wake had an unknown number of secrets scattered around an area with invisible one-way cutscene triggers. Also, shiny treasure would have been thematically wrong for AW.

      Rather than coffee, AW probably needed something *interesting*. Probably something lore-based.

      Tomb Raider 2013 did a good version of that, with Lara geeking out over various artefacts you could find. I thought that worked really well.

      • silver Harloe says:

        I haven’t played either game, and my confusion was because the text seemed to present the same issue (“the secrets are useless and nothing but check-boxes”) as both a negative and a positive with just one paragraph separating them. I was only examining the text, not the comments (I searched on ‘wake’, found exactly one mention and it didn’t seem to help with my confusion).

        In my opinion, unless the treasures in Wolfenstein can be examined and are interesting to look at, they are closer to coffee than they are to Tomb Raider’s artifacts. I agree that Raiders artifacts are better, but next to every artifact search is also the “find the N random objects in the area and (shoot or collect them (or stack them slightly differently in that one level, wtf?)),” but you also have diaries and tapes as lore secrets which are cool, but then there’s also the GPS caches. Tomb Raider is pretty inconsistent.

      • Mephane says:

        invisible one-way cutscene triggers

        Ouch. These are terrible enough in and of themselves, but coupled with an unknown number of hidden secrets, and the ever-present risk of triggering such a cutscene while looking for said secrets…

      • IanTheM1 says:

        Alan Wake did have something lore-based, the manuscript pages. I couldn’t get too worked up over missing the arbitrary coffee thermoses (which are nothing but a one-note Twin Peaks reference) but boy was I sore whenever I missed a page.

        And then it turns out you can only get every last page on the highest difficulty mode anyway. Not cool.

  42. Dreadjaws says:

    I was a huge Monkey Island fan back in the day (I still am, but, right now I don’t have much to scratch that itch). After I had played the first game I had no internet access yet, so there wasn’t much I could do in the way of checking for info. Things were different with the third game in the series. I followed that game’s release on the web ever since it was announced (I remember having to leave the PC on all night while I went to sleep to download the game’s demo, a whooping 18 MB!), but it was around the time I played the second one that I got interested in pages about facts and secrets about these games.

    Anyway, as you probably know, the protagonist’s main skill is being able to hold his breath for 10 minutes. The first game has a “secret” in which there’s a scene the character gets thrown in the water and if you leave him there for 10 exact minutes he drowns. This little bit was plastered accross every webpage’s “secrets” and/or “easter eggs” section about the game.

    Now, in the second game there’s another scene where the character goes underwater. As I already knew about the thing in the first game, I decided to try again in that one to see if there was a reaction programmed as well. And there was! Timing was a bit off this time because I guess there was something involving the CPU’s clock speed to calculate the time, but more or less around the 11-12 minute mark the character realized he was about to drown and swam out.

    Here’s the thing, though. After trying that I scoured every single webpage I knew about these games, and I even searched for more in Yahoo, Altavista, Webcrawler and who knows where else but no one was talking about it. No one. It drove me crazy. I couldn’t believe I was the first one to ever try such a thing, but at some point I had no choice but accept it. The internet wasn’t the instantaneous monster it is now, but not only I hadn’t bought the game at release, I was playing the spanish version, which came at least four months after the original one. There was plenty of time for people to dissect the game for secrets. If someone else had found it before, it would already be widely known.

    So yeah, to this day I don’t know if I was genuinely the first person to ever do such a thing (which I promptly showed to fanpages, so it later started showing up everywhere) or people were being just incredibly lazy about writing that particular fact. A somewhat likely possibility is that the issue with the CPU speed caused people to assume there was nothing because they stopped waiting at the 10 minute mark. I don’t know.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      I think the issue is that people arent as fond of callbacks as originals,so they just avoid writing about things like that.

      • Dreadjaws says:

        I thought that at first, but man, does the Monkey Island community love callbacks. Everything that might or might not marginally be a reference to a previous game in the series (or something Lucasarts related) gets a detailed description in every one of these places. It gets annoying at some point, where people are clearly just seeing things where there aren’t any.

  43. Exasperation says:

    I don’t know how close it is to what Susan Arendt is looking for, but Twinbeard (the guy behind Frog Fractions) did a talk at GDC 2014 entitled “Preserving a Sense of Discovery in the Age of Spoilers“.

  44. DwarfWarden says:

    And then there’s games like Arkham City where you just get >200 Riddler things to collect because hey if you liked the city well have fun rubbing your face along every single inch of it looking for god-knows-what.

    I liked Deus Ex’s secrets but you’re right when you point out that it definitely doesn’t tell you when you’ve gotten 100% of them. And I NEED all the skill points. All of them.

    • DeathbyDysentery says:

      This is why I’m almost always against the act of hiding level-ups as items in the game. It just leans way too hard on people’s completionist/perfectionist instincts.

      I think the new Prey gets away with it, though. Neuromods are findable in the environment (and like in Deus Ex, there’s no counters or stats for them), but there isn’t a fixed number of Neuromods in the game. Instead, you’re capable of spending resources to craft them, and you can unlock the ability to craft as many as you want if you have enough resources. This makes it so they are still valuable or desirable, but not in a way that separates them too much from ammo or health potions. Finding them in the environment is just as important as finding all the other loot, since everything is crafted from the same resources anyway.

      This makes the idea of potentially missing some of them a lot less worrying. If you’re compulsive enough to NEED to get every single Neuromod, then you’re probably also compulsive enough to NEED to collect every single harvestable thing in the entire stage. Contrast Deus Ex, where there’s a limited number of augments in the game and if you miss one, it’s gone forever and you will be permanently less powerful than the players who found it.

    • Dreadjaws says:

      Arkham Origins and Knight are much worse than City. Origins has a preposterous number of these challenges, and at some point it becomes obvious they ran out of ideas about halfway through designing them. Meanwhile, while Knight has less challenges than Origins, you have to get them all if you want to see the full ending, which is even worse.

      • Potsticker says:

        Completely agree. I ignored Arkham City’s Riddler quests because I didn’t care that much, but appreciated that they had that extra subquest if you were really into the game. I enjoyed the game, but found the need to do 100 different versions of “bomb this one wall” or “use your zap gun three times” puzzles too onerous. But if that was your thing, awesome. And you should get a little treat for that.

        But when Arkham Knight made that treat actually necessary to get the full ending that’s awful. It just encourages you to never pick up any Riddler trophies until you’re almost done with the game, and then sit down with a faq to get them all in one go.

    • I loved the way Deus Ex rewarded me with XP cookies for being a nosy git. Heck, I even got XP for nicking gew-gaws and flags from the rest of the UNATCO offices and decorating my office with them. It really tickled me that someone had put that in, even more than That Loo Bit.

  45. Daemian Lucifer says:

    One bad way of secret making Ive just remembered is:Hiding a secret inside something establish as a death trap before.You know those pits in mario where you can actually fall to a bonus area?Stuff like that.

    The way shovel knight deals with these is actually good:They are still pits of death,but they get shiny lights floating above them.And you dont jump in,but rather cast your fishing lure down there.

    • Tom says:

      Speaking of Mario, I like it when platformers subvert the pointless tradition of always advancing by moving toward the right hand side of the screen and have a secret area that is reached merely by walking left at the start of a level :-P

  46. DeathbyDysentery says:

    Personally, I’m of the opinion that secrets and collectibles are simply too prevalent and are often put in where they don’t belong. I can appreciate them when they have a very minor presence (IE: hidden caches in old FPS games) or if the game is built around collecting, scrounging, or completionism (IE: Banjo Kazooie, -Shock games and Prey, the Arkham games to a certain extent), but for the past decade it seems they’ve been stuck into EVERY game regardless of genre or design goals, and in addition to that they are always tied to achievements and persistent stats rather than being there simply for their own sake.

    So we have games about soldiers, adventurers, spies, assassins, high school kids, shop keeps, heroes, and villains, but all of them have this obtuse, persistent element where you are supposed to fully explore every inch of every room as you progress in order to avoid missing marks for your checklist. Very rarely do I play a AAA game anymore where I actually just focus on what I’m doing and get immersed in the role or in the mechanics of the game.

    Let’s disregard the fact that the coffee in Alan Wake was pointless and there was no incentive to collect it, because even if the game had better designed secrets, their very presence would STILL hurt the game. Why would a tormented writer who is constantly pursued by shadows stop to ‘collect’ anything besides batteries and ammunition? Why, in this story, do we need the character and the player to thoroughly search every single pointless side room? If you have lore or loot or supplies that the player should get, why not just leave them in obvious places? How does this story-based game benefit through this mechanic which only causes the story to be interrupted and slowed?

    I understand that it is possible to just actively ignore them, but it’s not always that easy. Oftentimes, the ‘Secrets’ are actually one of the primary means of character advancement (IE: Dishonored), so there’s a strong mechanical pull to seek them out. Even when they’re just for achievements, it can be difficult for most players to even come to the conclusion that they should be trying to ignore them. In my experience, thorough searching and collecting is the default behavior of most gamers, and yet I almost always find that when I do actively suppress it, the game benefits as a result. So why even have it at all?

  47. MaxEd says:

    A lot of old RPGs from 80s and 90s made secret doors an important, or even necessary part of gameplay. You HAD to stop at every tile and mash “Search” key every time, looking for a hidden passage, because otherwise not only may you miss a nice reward, but even your progress can be totally blocked. This is especially prevalent in rogue-likes and games that straddle the line between this genre and “normal” RPGs. If you read CRPGAddict blog (which I recommend a lot), you will see how many games required you to find a hidden room to complete a quest or progress to the next location.

    Personally, I’m glad those times are past. Nowadays, even modern rogue-likes (rogue-lites? E.g. Sword of Stars: The Pit) tend to avoid this mechanic, and most non-rogue RPGs generally use secrets for a small number of side-quests or random rewards, and then they tend to “mark” the secret in some way (unlike old games, where a tile that has secret door wasn’t usually in any way different from all the other tiles).

  48. PhoenixUltima says:

    Since it looks like The Escapist is in dire straits, do you have any plans to copy your experienced points articles here? A whole lot of your EP posts here are basically just “go see my column over on The Escapist!”, and if that site disappears (and I would wager it’ll happen any day now), that’s a LOT of your articles that’ll just fade into the ether.

    • `Retsam says:

      I’m not sure if Shamus could legally do that. I’m sure that the Escapist legally owns Shamus columns that he wrote for them, even if they go under.

    • Shamus says:

      I hadn’t thought about it until you brought it up. I still have the raw text for all my columns, so it wouldn’t be hard to repost. Than again, a lot of them were comments on the news of the day, which means they’ll have aged poorly. Then again again, I wrote 265 of the dang things. Even if 75% of them are expired, that means I still have over 50 relevant columns.

      • LCF says:

        I’d wager it would be nice to add today’s insight relating to how things turned out to past prospective.
        “[2009 column] How will Shoot Guy 3 fare in 2010 with the new Shoot Engine?
        2017 Addendum: Well, here how it went…”.

  49. ehlijen says:

    A related issue to secrets that rain players to comb levels with a fine brush is the RPG issue of doing quests in the order of least to most important. So the world needs saving? Better run all those errands first, or you’ll be behind on the XP or GP/Level curve when the next plot point locks part of the game away.

    I’m not sure how to fix that, though (or if it should be fixed). Sometimes to up the stakes, part of the setting does need to be exploded, e.g. Taris in KOTOR. And adding a doom clock like Fallout 1’s ‘days of water left’ timer adds a pressure that not every player enjoys in what’s meant to be their escape from stress. Nor do I think sidequests should be left out.

    But it kind of turns all sidequests into ‘secrets’ that the player combs the maps for, at times killing the pace of the main story. (“The Shadow king is marching on us and we are the last defence for the living!” – “Yeah yeah, just let me do two more sidequests so I can afford a library for my castle. I wanna see what items it comes with.”)

    • etheric42 says:

      Absolutely this. I hate it when games have plot pressure but you need to do everything but the plot. Some games can get away with it when their plot is terrible anyway and you are just using the game like a playground, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

      It isn’t like there aren’t options to solve this. If there is any plot pressure (including either fictional time limit or the plot is just really super important) the game could:

      1. Suspend all side-quests until you get past that narrative beat
      2. Explain why these side quests are almost as important as the plot while still being optional
      3. Allow you to only do 1 or 2 (maybe even spending a currency to do so) before forcing you onto the plot (and to prevent people from being upset about content gating, either allow you to go back to the rest later, in new game plus, or have scarcity of time be a fundamental part of the game).
      4. Allow concurrent completion (this especially is a very underused tool, how many RPGs do you use less than half of the joinable NPCs at a time and the others twiddle their thumbs at camp? Allow A-team to work on the plot while B-team saves kittens in trees.)

      And most importantly of all, whichever one you choose, communicate it clearly with the player and with the understanding that the player has been lied to by other games over and over again in the past.

      • galacticplumber says:

        Xenoblade chronicles method: Hey player! We have sidequests. Like, a LOT of sidequests. Sidequests for DAYS on these sidequest trays. Most of them give rewards that aren’t truly unique in any way, but are nice and appreciated bonuses that will give order and purpose to getting stronger so it feels less like grinding. Best to do them if you find you’re having trouble with the main story, or if you just want more game. Also an entire fifth or so of fightable encounters in this game are stronger than the final boss and you WILL probably want to do as many quests as you can to prepare if you want those optional fights.

  50. Lars says:

    I liked the secrets of the early Lego Games. (SW 1/2, Batman 1). Every Level had a defined number of secrets. You know if you miss one, but to find all you have to redo a level at least once.
    In the early games there where hidden rooms with funny scenes (android disco, Joker Poker, …). Something worth looking for. In the “Speaking-Age” of the Lego games that decayed to busywork. You have to do secrets to unlock characters to unlock more secrets to achieve a 100% goal that means nothing. Lego Batman 3 is the awful crown of that decay.

  51. Fade2Gray says:

    Wait. How is it that we have an entire article on secret areas in games without a single mention of the Secret Cow Level/Whimsyshire in the Diablo games? Not even in the comments!

    • BlueHorus says:

      Bah. So famous, and so underwhelming.
      By the time I bothered to go there in D2 (after reading Shamus’ D3 article), Blizzard had patched it so that the cows no longer dropped any loot. Apparently people were just grinding the secret cow level, because the chances of getting decent gear were so much better.
      Which, considering that grinding loot is kinda the point of the game, seemed like a dick move to me.

      Though it WAS a good secret/easter egg. It was something you’d hear about if you really cared, but you didn’t miss anything important/game breaking if you never went.

  52. I like secrets that let you do something different (like, say, go around several fights by going through a trapped passageway). They don’t necessarily need to be the equivalent of a goodie bag. Letting you have alternate experiences in the same area can be quite good enough.

  53. PPX14 says:

    Dark Forces, Thief, Deus Ex and the previous gen. Tomb Raider reboot trilogy all seemed to do it well.

    Dark Forces gave you the whole map so most of the time you could identify them but had to work out how to get to them.

    Thief – half of the game feels like a secret area because of the various intertwining paths in levels, and the rewards are just extra loot which can be spent only imediately after the level, or items to use only in the level you find them in. They feel very thematically appropriate.

    Deus Ex rewards you properly with additional upgrade points and again has such multi-path well designed levels that secret areas are part of the whole exploration aspect of the game.

    And Tomb Raider Anniversary/Legend/Underworld had nicely satisfying Bronze/Silver/Gold ones which gave a nice feel of a mixture of collectables/secrets, that unlocked outfits. Playing Uncharted, or Tomb Raider 2013, they just didn’t have the same satisfying feel of finding them or reaching one in a difficult-to-reach spot – compared with doing all of the climbing puzzles and exploring in Croft Manor.

  54. Rane2k says:

    There was an article a while a go by Dave Sirlin (used to be knonw as the “Playing To Win” guy,nowadays he´´´s s the Street fighter guy), about the secrets in Donkey Kong Country 2:

    http://sirlingames.squarespace.com/articles/the-secrets-of-donkey-kong-country-2.html

    Personally, I like it when secrets are visible, but can only be reached when you have mastered an aspect of the game (jumping tricks etc.).
    Secrets that can be found by “fooling around” are also good. The old Sonic games on the Genesis had some of that.

    One of the best rewards for finding secrets was the Super Sonic mechanic in Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
    You needed to obtain 7 chaos emeralds, which were the rewards for completing bonus stages. The bonus stages were hidden within the levels, but you only needed to find 7, not all of them.
    In practice, this meant that if you found the location of many bonus stages, you could gain the Super Sonic ability very early in the game. (As soon as the second of 6 zones, in S&K), You were n ot forced to find ALL of them, but knowning more locations gave you better chances to gain the ability before the end of the game.

  55. Dork angel says:

    No excuses for missing bone charms in Dishonoured 2. The Heart shows you how many there are and roughly where they all are through every level. Now blueprints and pictures, that’s a whole other thing…

  56. RCN says:

    Loved how they do it in some RPGs. My favorite recent game to look for secrets was Might & Magic X, which just took some of the best from the earlier games.

    You have three kinds of secrets in the game: stat based hidden walls, riddle-locked chests and puzzle crypts.

    The hidden walls could only be found if you use a certain spell only one class has access to (of twelve), but there are other ways to detect them. Finding them with the class was trivial, but failing that you could buy scrolls to usê the spell, have a dog hireling to sniff them out, or go after an optional blessing that allows you to detect them automatically for the rest of the game. Just detecting them isn’t enough though, you also have to pass a stat test of might, perception or magic. If you’re not good enough you can buff yourself or return later.

    The riddle chests are neat because they make you think for a while, giving the game pace viriety. Some of the riddles are general, some require knowledge of in-game lore. I never saw myself compelled to look out for the answer. And every single one I eventually figured out.

    The crypts are technically the most rewarding, but I was kind of disappointed. Every crypt has a relic, the most powerful item of its kind, though it needs XP evolve. But to get to the relic you need to complete an environmental puzzle. Which is neat, though I feel they should allow you to cheat a little with magic, but everything is rigged so that you have to follow the rules. The part I dislike is that once you solve the puzzle, it is trivial to solve it again. And they give you access to EVERY relic in every playthrough, to the point that regular loot is kinda useless. I’d rather that they had less crypts, make the puzzles harder, and randomize the relic found inside (while making sure it will be useful to at least one of your party’s classes). The way it was done means that new playthroughs are a rush to every crypt to get the best relics…

  57. Pinkhair says:

    I really loved the secrets in the original Tomb Raider. Great musical response, and the majority of them were just obscure enough to be tantalizing… And it had what may be the single best secret, which was right out in the open but required a bit of a leap of faith… (and perhaps a bit of cultural awareness…)

    Doom and Doom II secrets ranged the entire gamut from very clever to lolrandom. When they were good, they were really good.

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