Thoughts on Unlockable Content


The ability to unlock extra content in a video game has almost been around as long as video games themselves.  Sometimes they’re minor things, perhaps a palette-swap of a common vehicle or mount, or perhaps they’re major things like a potion to make you stronger and faster.  The interesting thing is how near-ubiquitous it is as a concept, and how they can change the games for the players.

Unlockable content is different from easter eggs, which we’ll get into tomorrow.  It’s a pretty good reward for a player, and makes them want to return to the game after they beat the “main” aspect, usually a “story mode” or some similar.  The history of the concept—of having players “unlock” things by fulfilling certain requirements in the “main” aspect of the game—is a bit hard to pin down.  It depends on how one defines “unlockable content”.

For our purposes, we’ll go with a definition of unlockable content being something not immediately accessible but present in the game.  As such, the more modern concept of “downloadable content” isn’t necessarily considered unlockable content since it’s not present in the basic game as you purchase it in the store.  Something like extra levels or characters or whatever—it’s in the basic game but you have to do something before the game allows you to access it.

One of the first examples can be said to be Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, in which you could unlock a second quest.  It’s a bit ambiguous, since in that era one didn’t save their game or the like, so you had to re-do it every time you turned it on.

Since then, there have been remarkable unlockables, some nearly legendary.  Depending on the genre, you can usually get a pretty good idea of what unlockables will exist, if any.  Take most standard fighting games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and so on—you can bet dollars to doughnuts that you’ll be unlocking characters to play as or against.  In first-person shooters like DOOM and Duke Nukem, you”ll be getting special weapons.

That’s not to say that those are the only unlockables, of course.  Many games will have certain expected unlockables like the above examples, plus perhaps things like different areas to run around or fight in, perhaps movie clips, and so on.  One of my favorite unlockables is when they change the dialogue.

One example of this is in Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven and its port to the X-Box Return from Darkness.  There’s a “B-side” audio option that changes the audio dialogue (but not the text).  Rikimaru (one of the three playable characters and arguably the series’ primary protagonist) talks about his quest for the enemy’s secret invention (of toilet paper, humorously enough), Ayame (the second playable character) talks about her modeling career, and Tesshu talks of his homosexual adventures.  It’s hilarious and makes working to unlock that option worth it.

Quite a bit of “unlockable content” is that enjoyable for the game it’s in.  Fighting games may have over-powered characters to unlock (and considering how insanely hard many fighting games can be, it’s extremely enjoyable to throw overpowered nuke-moves around—like the end-game bosses had been doing to you), first-person shooters may have some over-powered firearm with a near-bottomless magazine, and so on.

Another interesting unlockable is, as mentioned before, another area to run around in.  This is one of the more popular forms of unlockable content, regardless of the genre of the game.  Interestingly, quite a few “secret areas” were actually originally intended to be included in normal game play, but had to be removed for varying reasons.  Sometimes it’s that the deadline was approaching too soon to finish it, for merely one example.  There’s a whole wiki devoted to this concept, though it’s concerned with “dummied out” video game material in general, not specifically removed content that was turned into unlockable content.

One of the interesting aspects to having secret levels is that, for starters, it’s some place different.  I find it especially fun in games that allow a bit of running around; even in more linear games, you still have to actually have your avatar travel from one end to the other, and traveling through someplace different is a welcome change, especially if you’ve played through the “normal” levels numerous times.

What’s doubly interesting about “dummied out” content that’s been turned into unlockable content is that you can sometimes see an interesting direction the developers were going to go in before they had to stop working on it.  Take, for example, Freedom Fighters.  If you beat the game one either of the two highest difficulties, you unlocked an extra level to run through.  It seems somewhat unpolished (and the original title for the game was going to be Freedom: The Battle for Liberty Island, so it’s not like the Liberty Island level was simply going to be nothing more than a bonus level) and disjointed, but it was quite apparently worked on enough to at least make it a decent enough bonus level.

Still, you can see what the developers were going for.  Manhattan burns in the distance, the Statue of Liberty is in chunks strewn about, and it all creates a somber feel, making you understand what these people are fighting for.

Other times, secret areas are simply areas that are fun, silly, or otherwise ill-fitting with the over all tone of the “normal” game play, so you get to see the developers having a bit of fun and inviting the players along for the ride.  Take, for example, the famous (or infamous, depending on the player) Cow Level from Diablo II.  There were (false) rumors of a secret cow-filled level in the first game, and the developers (I must assume, being Blizzard Entertainment, after all) shrugged and rubbed their hands together, cackling with mad glee as they fulfilled player expectations in the second game.

To say that Diablo II‘s Cow Level is nonsensical would be something of an understatement, but not undeserved, either.  It wasn’t the first or last time that Blizzard had some fun with their fans, and the Cow Level is a perfect example of that fun as well as the idea of using an entire secret level for the developers to share a laugh with the player.

Over all, like the sister-concept of easter eggs, unlockable content makes the game a bit more interesting.  Unlike easter eggs, unlockable content can legitimately stretch the time the player puts into the game as they not only explore the new content for the first time, but see what they can do with it, see how it can interact with the “normal” game play.  Further, unlike downloadable content, it’s additional content for free.  It can make the player enjoy the game that much more, and that can’t be a bad thing.

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