I spoke at Jake Tucker’s Videobrains event again recently. It’s a great series of monthly talks where journalists, academics, developers and fans come together to discuss their passion.
This month saw Emma Sinclair talk about the role of games in scientific research; Tom Hatfield talk about what computer games can learn from tabletop games and Kate Gray talk about games as a tool for overcoming anxiety. Videobrains is a great event that deserves your support.
I spoke about Easter Eggs; how we define them, what my favourite ones are and what they mean to me. I’ve also written up my presentation notes here, with slides in the right places and added links – but you can also watch a video of the talk on YouTube too.
Hello. I’m Joe Martin, a semi-retired games journalist who writes mainly about why writers should not work for free and stuff that gets cut from games before they’re released.
But today I’m here to talk about secret things that developers leave in their games – or what we call Easter Eggs.
People have a lot of different opinions about what counts as an Easter egg.
To some people they have to be something carefully hidden, while to others they can exist in plain sight. To some they have to be funny; to others they can be anything at all. Some people think they should be subtle, while others don’t care about how overt they are.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because, while looking online for Easter Eggs in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I kept finding one particular Easter Egg being singled out and highly lauded…
It’s this one; this poster in an office at the start of the game. It’s for a Final Fantasy doesn’t exist yet and, sure that’s funny, because Human Revolution was made by Square Enix and the game is set in the future and…
And I don’t want to be the sort of pedantic ass who quibbles over videogame definitions in a pub on a Monday night, but to me this isn’t an Easter Egg – it’s just a vaguely humorous sort of in-joke. It’s a reference.
In fact, I’ve come to define Easter Eggs in a very particular way recently. To me, Easter Eggs aren’t just jokes or pop culture references – they’re more than that.
I didn’t always think this pedantically though. In fact, when I had the idea for this talk a few months ago, the Easter Egg I originally wanted to talk about was this one, from SiN: Episode(s)…
This used to be one of my favourite Easter Eggs. It’s from the very start of the game where your character, Blade, has to walk through a metal detector and this LCD screen above it is issuing warnings.
It says: “No guns, no needles”, etc – but if you watch it long enough it eventually says “No blades, no bows, leave you weapons here.”
Which is a reference to this one really forgettable scene in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves…
I used to think this was the most hilarious Easter Egg I’d ever seen. I thought it was the perfect Easter Egg because it was subtle and it was hidden and it was secret and it referenced a movie and…that’s what Easter Eggs are, right? Also, I was the only person I know who has ever noticed it!
So, if it has all the hallmarks of an Easter Egg – if it’s funny, hidden, geeky, etc – then why am I being a pedantic ass about it? Why don’t I think this is an Easter Egg anymore?
It’s because, when I was writing this talk, I asked developers to tell me about their undiscovered Easter Eggs. I hoped they would tell me of more things like this and that would allow me to present a cool talk about really funny and totally undiscovered Easter Eggs.
But, of all the developers who responded to me, not one of them came back with something like that. Not one of them said anything about Final Fantasy posters or Kevin Costner quotes. Instead, they all came back with things which were a lot more personally meaningful.
Things like this…
This is a game called Trashmania, by Jonathan Bont. It’s an Atari 2600 homebrew game about collecting rubbish and he made it when he was 14.
And Jonathan told me that, back then, there was a girl he liked in his class called Megan and that, if you reach the last screen of the game without collecting any rubbish at all, the scoreboard shows a ‘I ‘ message.
Unfortunately, Megan never found his message and she rejected Jonathon shortly after, but still: it’s a lovely and very emotionally motivated little message.
This is The Night Flower, by Katriel Page. She put a cameo in the game of a friend of hers, who appears as a spirit-flame because he’s a huge fan of Wraith: The Oblivion.
Again, it’s quite sweet, but it’s only really significant to a few people. It’s got a very specific audience in mind.
Then there’s Dishonored. Amanda Williams is a freelance game artist who worked on games such as Waking Mars and, thanks to game designer Harvey Smith, she appears in the first level of Dishonored as a plague victim who has hidden in the sewers to spend her last days cuddled up with her partner, Damien.
So, again, it’s a sweet and emotional tribute and it’s got a specific audience in mind – but in this case it’s not hidden at all. It’s literally in plain sight at the start of the game and you almost can’t miss it.
On the other side of the coin, there’s this Easter Egg from Deus Ex. Basically, if you enter IAMWARREN as a cheat, it puts a permanent EMP field around you which breaks everything you go near – a reference to game director Warren Spector’s tendency to break things.
Like the others, this ticks all the other boxes (emotion, specific audience) and is clearly an Easter Egg – but in this case it’s very well hidden.
This is Ford Schick, by the way – a character modelled on Warren. I have to get Deus Ex in here as much as possible.
The thing that all these things have in common is that they’re personal to the developers, emotionally motivated and usually intended only for a specific audience. It doesn’t matter if they’re hidden or visible; it only matters that they come from a personality.
Personal emotion for a specific audience. That’s what qualify an Easter Egg for me now – and what qualified the first ever Easter Egg too! You can see it here. This is Adventure on the Atari 2600, where a single hidden pixel put a scrolling ‘Created by Warren Robinett’ message on the screen.
This was an instance of ego, by one person and intended only for his friends. It certainly wasn’t intended for everyone to find, because Adventure was the best selling game of its time and it STILL took over a year to find. When the publisher’s found it, they tried to take it out.
THAT’S AN EASTER EGG.
This is not an Easter Egg. It’s an in-joke or a reference or…whatever you want to call it.
This isn’t emotionally motivated and it’s not an expression of a developer’s personality. It’s out right in plain sight – and the poster is actually reused several times throughout the game – because it’s intended for everyone, not a particular audience.
This isn’t a developer’s Easter Egg. This is a publisher being calculatingly cool; being ‘hip’.
And to throw it in to contrast, here’s what I consider the ultimate Easter Egg to be. It’s a developer message in a hidden room of Clive Barker’s Undying…
I thought I’d write you a sappy little love letter and hide it away, deep inside this crazy horror game I’m working on. Of course, the only way you’ll ever see it is if I show it to ya, since you’re much more of solitaire/Tetris kind of girl.
So here I am at work on a Saturday night. You’re out with your girlfriends, fighting off morning sickness all the while. You’re about 7 weeks pregnant with Jr (Tamie or Dave Junior, we don’t know which) and we’re still trying to get a handle on how our lives are going to be in another 7-8 months.
Well, I think things are going to work out great no matter what your uncle thinks (just kidding). Just think, in another 3 years or so he or she’ll be old enough to play Undying and find this note!
Wow, I’d better keep it on the mellow side, huh? Seriously Babe, I love you. You’re going to make a great mum to a great kid.
So, why am I in the pub being a pedantic ass over the definition of Easter Eggs in games?
It’s because words matter. It’s because we have other ways of describing in-jokes like the Final Fantasy poster; of summing up references like those in SiN: Episode(s)… but I can’t think of a single word in our usual game jargon to sum up that Undying message.
I’m being pedantic because I think we’re doing ourselves an injustice if we enable a world where you can search for Easter Eggs in games and find dozens of articles that list the Final Fantasy poster in Human Revolution – but even dedicated fan-written strategy guides gloss over Undying’s hidden messages. Especially when the latter are the examples that are really worth searching for.
Update 15/05/2015 – Video below!