Thoughts on Easter Eggs


Yes, friends, as I promised yesterday, today we’re going to talk about easter eggs in video games.  Easter eggs are different than unlockable content, as we mentioned yesterday, but are fun in their own right, being usually small things to make the player chuckle or the like.  Some are easy to find, while others are almost harder than beating the game itself.

Atari programmer Michael Glass is credited as coining the term “easter egg” to mean some hidden bit of data in video games in this article of Electronic Games Magazine, precursor to the modern Electronic Games Monthly.

One of the first popular video game easter eggs could be found in Adventure for the Atari 2600, programmed by Warren Robinett.  If you had the right tools and knew what you were doing, in the depths of the game a player could find a single pixel the same color as the game’s background.  That pixel would let them get to a special room with “Created by Warren Robinett” running down the middle.

That’s a small one, compared to ones you’ll find these days, but it was important for a number of reasons.  For one, this was back in the day when programmers weren’t given credit for their work, so this was Robinett’s way of getting it.  He also did it intelligently, burying it in the code so that it would have been too costly for Atari to republish the cartridge without it, so, since it was so hard to get to, it was left in.  It wasn’t the first, but soon became popular with players, so it helped opened the door wider for other programmers to do the same thing.

Most of the easter eggs of that era were initials and, a little later, even pictures of programmers, again because this was at a time when programmers weren’t generally given credit for their hard work.

Another reason the early easter eggs were important is because it gave players something to hunt for.  Players go into their games with certain expectations—in a first-person shooter, you can reasonably expect to face hordes of enemies as you move from one area to another, in driving games you can expect to whiz through courses in souped-up cars, and so on.

Easter eggs can provide small, momentary breaks from the game play, and because they’re unexpected they’re actually somewhat refreshing.  Imagine playing through a run-and-gun game, passing through rooms of a castle—then you notice that one of the paintings on the wall isn’t like the others.  This one has pictures of real people, and below it is an inscription with something like “DEV TEAM” or some similar.

Some are almost only in-jokes for the developers themselves.  Take the chicken named Ooccoo from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.  The chicken’s name is actually the hex value of the color of Link’s tunic from the very first The Legend of Zelda.

For most easter eggs, it’s a small break, spending the moment looking at the easter egg that doesn’t really take you away from the game.  You stop shooting, driving, whatever, smile at the easter egg, then go back to what you were doing.  That’s one of the biggest appeals to easter eggs—they don’t take you out of what you played the game for in the first place, not really.

That’s for most, though.  Some are so obtuse, so difficult to find, and potentially alter the game play that they fall into that murky area between “easter egg” and “unlockable content”.  Take the quest to unlock Cloud in Final Fantasy Tactics.  To just glance at the required steps to obtain him, it seems fairly straightforward, even easy.  Go here, then there, then here, then there.  It’s easy to describe the steps in text, but actually executing them can take quite a while.  On top of that, by the time you get him, your other characters are so high-level in comparison that it’s not really feasible to take him into actual battles.

The fact that he’s not very useful makes him edge toward the easter egg end of the spectrum, though the fact that you can actually bring him along in battles in the first place and, if you’ve the patience, level him up makes him edge toward the unlockable content end.

As you can see, easter eggs run the gamut from easy to find to incredibly obscure, from momentary chuckles to things that stay with you for the rest of the game.  No matter what, though, as mentioned before they extend the life of a game legitimately.  Additional content, even something as small as a painting in a room the player would normally have no reason to go anywhere near, can provide a bit more enjoyment.

As the hobby has grown over the years, games have started to become more chock-full of easter eggs.  Certain franchises like the Grand Theft Auto franchise are well-renowned for it, for example.  That’s a great thing for gamers of all types.

The hardcore gamer can be fragging enemies left and right, and when they get a breather they can take a scant moment to appreciate some bit of humor from the developers, then continue on, blasting away.  The casual gamer who’s putting off the main missions so they can get better equipment or simply because they want to just look around can enjoy that same bit of humor.

It’s all in the name of enjoying the game, and anything that makes it more enjoyable, that gives gamers a reason to play a game for more than simply to beat it—that’s a great thing, both for gamers and developers.  Making a game more fun means we’ll recommend the game to more players, who will spend their money on the game.  It’s a win-win proposition.

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