I love secrets in video games. Just beating a game isn’t nearly as fun for me as tracking down all the extra collectibles and optional challenges, preferably hidden away in some ingenious and confounding fashion. But not all secrets are created equal. While the hoarder in me will always go out of his way to scoop up any extra item or investigate any suspicious-looking architecture, there’s no denying that in many games the treasure hidden behind a cracked wall is a big disappointment.
Let me start with one of my favorite secrets in a game, which I think will really illustrate what I like about optional content. Shadow of the Colossus is a straightforward game featuring 16 bosses that need to be killed in order to complete the adventure. However, the Forbidden Lands in which the game takes place consist of a vast peninsula featuring incredibly varied geography, from deserts to capes to plains to remnants of an ancient civilization, and huge parts of it never need to be explored to finish the game. The ultimate easter egg is in the Shrine of Worship, the central structure and hub of the game. It can actually be scaled by carefully climbing a section of the northeastern wall, leading to a secret garden which contains fruit that actually lowers the player’s health and stamina when eaten.
So why do I like this secret so much? It’s totally pointless, but amazingly cool at the same time. It represents exploration for exploration’s sake. When you, the player, see the massive shrine, but are only given access to a small portion of the lower levels, you naturally wonder what the rest of it looks like, and if there is a way to access it. The game gives you no indication that there might be, save for cutscenes at the beginning and end. But if you’re observant and persistent enough, you can in fact find a way to ascend the shrine and steal your way into its hidden recesses. The game’s aesthetic sensibilities give everything an otherworldly flair, nowhere more evident than the secret garden, and the extremely long adjoining bridge, that most players will never reach.
Most games don’t have secrets on that level, but the best of them have at least a handful of collectibles to ferret out. If the designers are doing their job well, these will unlock interesting things in-game, like new equipment, abilities, areas, or gameplay modes. Unfortunately, they all too often do absolutely nothing or give you an underwhelming reward that has no impact on gameplay whatsoever.
Take, for example, Epic Mickey, a decent platformer for the Wii that featured an awesomely dark and disturbing aesthetic (at least relative to other Disney games). The secrets of the game are limited to finding items that unlock concept art in the main menu, or finding pins which do absolutely nothing. The concept art is neat and all, but it should be a reward in addition to a gameplay benefit, not the sole outcome. This kind of collectible seems to be becoming increasingly common, and it’s a trend I’d like to see stop immediately.
Another example of mediocre rewards is the Riddler challenges in Batman: Arkham Asylum. There are 240 of them to find, which is truly a lot, and the only reward for getting them all (besides experience) is a stupid achievement. If I was designing the game, completing all the challenges would bestow some kick-ass uber weapon or open up a neat optional area. Achievements are a really lazy way of creating a feeling of artificial feeling of accomplishment. It seems like a reward because you get a fancy pop-up telling you how great you are, but in reality you get nothing but fake gamerscore points.
Spyro the Dragon for the original Playstation has one of my favorite secret rewards of all time. If you manage to ferret out every last scrap of treasure in the Dragon Realms (totalling 12,000 in all), you unlock a special final stage called “Gnasty’s Loot.” This stage features free-flying, chasing, exploring, and collecting a completely unreasonable amount of treasure, bringing your total to 14,000. It has unique gameplay mechanics and a totally original design, but more than that it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Achievements and gamerscore are all well and good, but the game itself needs to give you a reward to make all the effort of collecting treasure worthwhile, and the original Spyro trilogy did an excellent job in that regard.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Super Mario 64’s reward for picking up all 120 Stars. This was one of the first big post-game rewards in 3D games and is still the gold standard. How cool is it to meet Yoshi on top of the castle? How great is it that you get a sweet triple jump that you don’t really need since you’ve already gotten all the Stars? This is the essence of a secret for me: practically pointless, but incredibly cool all the same.
It kind of seems like games today are moving away from meaningful collectibles and unlockable rewards in favor of DLC, pre-order bonuses, and achievements. I think that’s a damn shame. Gamers need an incentive to delve deeper into a game and discover everything it truly has to offer. The prospect of an amazing reward tucked away in a game’s world gives people a reason to press on. Secret weapons, items, abilities, and areas are great ways to hold a player’s interest. Unlockable concept art and achievement points? Not so much.