9 January 2013

[SquareGo] Feature: Easter Egg Apocrypha

Myths – in either religious or urban flavours - tend to conform to a particular structure. If the myth requires the person to undertake any “ritual actions”, these actions will often either be particularly difficult to perform (“It only works on a night where there's a second full moon in the same month....”), or it will be next to impossible to verify it the actions were even performed correctly (“If you draw the symbols even slightly wrong, it won't work at all...”)

Video game cheats follow a similar pattern, often requiring the player to perform a series of button-presses, finding secret codes (either written in levels themselves or worked out, usually through trial and error) or hunting down hidden objects, or even single pixels.

Read the rest of the feature over at SquareGo, or click below to read more!

The first “Easter Egg” is thought to be a secret room created by Warren Robinett in Adventure for the Atari 2600 – due to Atari's policy of not crediting designers, Robinett decided to circumvent this by hiding a tiny grey dot in one of the levels of Adventure which allowed the player to pass through a wall into a secret room with Robinett's signature inside. It was a fairly difficult secret to find, but eventually, someone did – and since then, gamers the world over have sought out Easter Eggs, cheats, glitches and secrets like pilgrims seeking relics.

Examples abound: the Mortal Kombat series, with secret characters and secret messages - some of which only exist to fuel yet more rumours; the Mario Bros. series, with hidden levels, or Red Dead Redemption, with cheats, secrets and rumours of hauntings...

A particularly prominent example is the Pokémon series, largely because it was aimed at children and strongly encouraged socialising using the game itself. When Pokémon Red & Blue were released in the west, rumours quickly sprang up about secrets hidden within the game, such as that it was possible to find the 151st Pokémon, Mew, hiding under a truck in one town in the game; numerous methods to actually getting to the truck evolved, some of which were easier than others – and, when players tried out the easier methods with no result, new clauses began to appear - “It only works if you talk to a particular NPC one-hundred times first...”, “If you don't have level 100 Pokémon in your party, it won't work at all...” More of these legends appeared over time, some with religious overtones – a secret garden where you could catch any Pokémon; Pokémon with overtly demonic appearances named “Doomsday”; a whole pantheon of ultra-powerful Pokémon called “Pokégods”...

In the late 90s, the Internet was becoming more and more popular, but few people had developed net-savviness to the point where they could spot false information being peddled on dubious websites, let alone schoolchildren looking up cheats for their favourite games, eager to get an edge over their friends. Cheat codes and rumours were shared all over the world, occasionally transmogrifying as they went, leading to a vast slew of misinformation and misinterpretation.

The web also contributed to the creation of “creepypasta”, horror fiction in the form of short stories that were often framed as personal experiences and cautionary tales, shared over forums and imageboards. Over time, playground myths seeped in, creating parables like the Lavender Town Tone, the Tails Doll Curse, and BEN DROWNED (which moves from a typical “cursed object” story, up to a metafictional haunting, then expands out to include doomsday cults and searches for a Messiah).

Luckily, the Internet became a better source for information, and people adapted to become better at filtering through facts and fiction – to the point where we discovered that there were a lot more apocryphal secrets yet to be found... and that there were even secrets hidden right in front of player's faces, according to theories and interpretations of videogames that only became widespread due to the accessibility of the internet, such as the Split Timeline theory of The Legend of Zelda series (which was developed by fans of the series based on a cursory remark by developers in an interview, then later became canonical), the idea that Super Mario Bros. 3 was an elaborate piece of theatre, or “The Last Big Secret” - a meta-quest for a secret that almost seemed to comment on the quest for Easter Eggs themselves.

The “Last Big Secret” was an undertaking started in 2007 by dozens of regular contributors over several forums and messageboards, who, for various reasons, believed that there were clues scattered throughout Shadow of the Colossus, a trail of breadcrumbs left by Team Ico leading towards... something. Nobody knew exactly what it was, but oblique references in the game's opening sequence to “ens and naughts, etched in stone”, “intersecting points” and so on seemed to suggest there was just that there was more to the game than just murdering colossi, killing lizards, eating fruit and murdering colossi with a clock attached.

The hunt began, and evidence piled up – textures used for motifs on architecture were analysed and compared against the layout of specific map areas in the game, every line of dialogue was taken and searched for double-meanings and associations, the in-game mythology was pored over and researched, the game's data files were scoured for hidden material, and wholly new terminology came about just to describe the system that the contributors were creating – the Azure Circle, the Point of Intersection, the Door Medallion, and, late into the search, Pikol's Dam. So much vigor and energy got pumped into the search that event without conclusive or compelling evidence, it was so easy to get swept up in it, to really feel like this small group of people, distributed all over the world, would be hailed as vindicators of fangirls and fanboys everywhere, their perseverance, dedication and ingenuity would show the world – and especially game developers - that the fans were smart enough, were invested enough, to find anything that they had hidden away with the hope that someone, some day, would find it. A bible code for videogames.

But, after years of searching – and more than a few discoveries, though not of the magnitude the contributors were expecting – most of the interest in the Last Big Secret diminished. The game's source code was hacked and treated to a thorough exegesis, but no Revelations were found. The Last Big Secret felt like a requiem for the more optimistic days where players would share their myths and legends in whispered tones in class, scrawl button combinations on scraps of paper for secret moves, stockpile libraries of cheatbooks and game guides in their rooms, and espouse complex, ecclesiastical theories in dorm rooms about the Tower of Babel and its link to Link.

One interpretation of Shadow of the Colossus' opening lines posits that the game actually refers to itself – ens and naughts are the ones and zeroes of machine code; the resonance of intersecting points is the grid of pixels on the screen, and so on. In a sense, there really was a “Last Big Secret” hidden away in the game – it just took more than hacking code and drawing maps to find it. Perhaps there's yet more to find in our vast library of videogames, a bible code that has gone unnoticed, apocrypha yet to be uncovered - a tiny grey dot yet to be found.

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