a television screen showing the easter egg from Adventure, posed against a cloudy sky.

Sneaking Things into Games

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Vintage RPG

In the late 70’s, Atari banned its games designers from being credited in the games they made. Atari feared that if their in-house talent could be identified, they might be poached by competitors or worse: wield their public recognition to bargain for better pay and (perish the thought) royalties.

Warren Robinett infamously defied this policy in the 1979 game Adventure, hiding his name in a secret room accessed only by transporting an invisible pixel to an obscure corridor on the other side of the map. Robinett quit Atari immediately after he finished Adventure and didn’t tell anyone about this secret room for over a year. After it was discovered by players, Atari bitterly attempted to have it removed for a re-release but found it was too late… it would be prohibitively expensive to make a new Robinett-less ROM. Instead, they decided to market the idea: Easter eggs. Intentional secrets for players to find, like an egg hunt at Easter.

The first Easter egg was an act of rebellion co-opted into a feature to swerve embarrassment, and ever since, Easter eggs became a mainstream business, deliberately integrated into achievements, featurettes and strategy guides. Yet alongside the “official” secrets shipped in a game so often collected in Buzzfeed lists and Youtube countdowns, are the fingerprints of an entire team. Dedications to family members hidden in collectible journals, a football team celebrated in the graffiti of a tunnel, an obscure quote from a TV show mixed into dialogue or the bars to a song hidden in numbers, a book from their childhood placed on a digital shelf, their new-born child’s name hidden in the paintwork of a spaceship, or an extremely personal in-joke you can only see if you squint at an animation. True to the very first Easter egg, these are messages in a bottle. From an unknown sender to an unknown audience.

I spoke to dozens of developers while fishing for the examples and quotes in this article, and when asked why they put these things into their work, a recurring answer was simply, “Because it’s fun and cool.” Like all ideas, born from a flash of inspiration and a rush of excitement. Until our conversations, most developers hadn’t found the need to reflect upon their motivation beyond the flash and rush, but the second most popular answer starts to dig a little deeper: “Because I could.”

When I was growing up, videogames grew on magical trees. Videogames and movies were like celebrities, they lived in another place beyond a layer of cloud that mortals weren’t meant to visit. There was no expectation of going there, no bitter taste of being left out. Writing Spiderman comics and partying with Robert Downey, Jr. was for other people. For those of us who grew up idolizing videogames as a place we wanted to go – there will always be a deep excitement and pride inherent to simply being behind the gates. Age, experience and Twitter may gradually demystify videogames and the industry they come from, and maybe it isn’t as pure or magical (or tree-like) behind the clouds as we thought, but it’s still just very cool to be here. Deciding to put something into a game, just because you think it is fun and cool, it’s a way to revel a little in that newfound power.

Considering the story of Robinett and his original Easter egg, it’s fitting that many developers use this power to sign their own name – or sometimes face – on the games they make. When I worked at Traveller’s Tales, it was common to see brick-ified versions of my colleagues find their way into the background of cutscenes or the streets of the open world. You can see the lovely bearded head of a LEGO Chris Rumsey branded on Cap and Tony’s coffee cups in LEGO Marvel’s Avengers. Open a map of LEGO City, and you’ll find Lead Action and Vehicle Designer Luke Cashmore commemorated there as a national landmark, Mount Cashmore. In fact when LEGO City Undercover needed to name its generic minifig citizens, dozens of the original development team took the opportunity to be immortalized in plastic (and brickipedia) forever.

Tree figures from LEGO Marvel

But as we know – giving is often better than receiving. I remember the excitement of my first game credit, but perhaps even more exciting was being asked to volunteer names for the Special Thanks. The ability to put someone I cared about into a game was a big milestone, and just how writers dedicate books or name their minor characters as a gift to their loved ones, game developers often take the same opportunity to show appreciation for their family and closest friends. While working at Headstrong, 3D artist (now independent game developer) Jamie Degen included his best friend Mike’s band logo on the side of a motorcycle in House of the Dead: Overkill. Veteran game developer Palle Hoffstein even named an NPC in the GBA version of Tron 2.0 after his friend and author Don DeBrandt, specifically because Don himself had a habit of naming characters in his books after people he knew. Palle adds, “Actually, I don’t know if ever told him.”

It’s also not uncommon for developers to use their part of the game to celebrate their colleagues from other disciplines. The game director of the 2016 Hitman’s Game of the Year edition surprised one of his programmers by naming two of Agent 47’s assassination targets after him – Aitor Ibirka – and his best friend from childhood – Arey Seonane. While CD Projekt Red was developing the Witcher’s card-game Gwent, illustrator Bogna Gawro?ska slipped the likeness of her friend and level designer Seb McBride onto the Giant Boar card as a burly but gentle pig farmer. Seb was so pleased he quickly named his new piglets (Molly, Polly, Tom, Dick and Harry) – and still wears the card as his Twitter avatar to this day.

Aside from self-inserts and dedications though, perhaps the most common thing that developers sneak into games is the humble pop culture reference.

In the sewer sections of WiiWare water-physics puzzler Fluidity, you might notice four small turtles in colored bandannas arranged around an abandoned shopping trolley, courtesy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lover and artist Gaz Thomas. If you’re taking a swim through LEGO Legend’s of Chima on 3DS or Vita, you might find an Easter Island head that looks a lot like Squidward’s house – the last surviving reference left by a crafty SpongeBob loving construction artist. Digging deep in the collectible journals of Homefront, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend groupies can find a letter to Beckton Lake Village tourist board from “Rebecca” – pitching them a radio jingle that is actually a sly parody of one of the shows first musical numbers – gleefully hidden by tester Samuel Mottershaw.

Meanwhile in online FPS Battleborn, eagle-eyed Arrested Development fans should instantly recognize the taunt animations of brash bird-man Benedict as a perfect recreation of the Bluth family’s extremely imperfect chicken impersonations. You can send the wine and roses for that lovely touch to Gearbox’ Technical Design Animator Michael J Sewell. “Definitely not obscure, but when asked to make a bird-man taunt I knew what to put in right away.” The audio team got in on the action also, providing the chee-chaw’s and coo-ca-chaw’s. At the conclusion of his third dance variant – that of Bluth patriarch George Senior – Benedict even yells, “Get it?”

Game developers tend to be pop culture animals by nature, molded by their breakfast cartoons, childhood consoles, teen sitcoms and bedside novels. Everybody knows how a song you listen to during a break up or a book you read during a hospital stay can become irrevocably entangled with that stage of your life. When something resonates with you or even just interacts with you in a defining or vulnerable moment, it feels like it’s uniquely yours. For anyone who decides to get into making art, or music, or stories, or games, it’s very likely that stitched throughout their own patchwork quilt of media are the stories and entangled moments that inspired them to want a career making things. So, while nods to favorite TV shows and childhood cartoons are always fun and cool, they can also be a way to pay homage to the most precious jewels of our formative years. And for a creative, the chance to do that can mean a lot.

I have never told anyone this before, but I named LEGO Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin in homage of an obscure and mostly forgotten 1998 game for the original PlayStation called Ninja: Shadow of Darkness. In retrospect Ninja on PS1 was probably not a great game – in fact there’s a very good chance that it sucked – but pushing through its versatile and treacherous isometric maps with my younger brother towards the end of primary school planted perhaps the earliest seeds of my game development career. It was that year that I started doodling level designs on graph paper. Shadow of Ronin was my first project as a game director, so it felt poetic that the subject matter should cast me back to Shadow of Darkness. I had even intended a Shuriken spin special attack, but in the end the only true gameplay nod comes from the prolific timed traps, especially my personal favorite: the Rambo-ific spiky spinners.

Similarly, when Ken Wong worked at ustwo games as lead designer and artist, he included a small tribute to a cherished game from his childhood. Nestled away in the debris of one Monument Valley level, camouflaged in green, is the iconic Arwing from Star Fox. “Star Fox was an important game to me, growing up. With Monument Valley embracing a flat, minimalist aesthetic, I thought a nod back to Star Fox and the beautiful Arwing ship would be a nice gesture.” Etched in a pillar within Monument Valley’s Forgotten Shores expansion pack, you can also find a very subtle tribute to both Fez and Legend of Zelda; two other games close to the developers’ hearts.

Steven Blomkamp of Cloudhead Games credited classic fantasy film The Dark Crystal as one of the team’s main inspirations when they were making Heart of the Emberstone and took an opportunity to honor their aesthetic ancestor by styling the floor of an Emberstone temple after the iconic ritual chamber from The Dark Crystal.

If “originality is the art of hiding your sources of inspiration,” then homage is the art of wearing them on your sleeve. I am easily drawn in by the origin story of ideas. Like meeting someone’s parents, it’s fascinating to spot the traits and idiosyncrasies that traveled to the next generation. It’s also compelling to think that even through new stories and ideas, a lot of us are trying to evoke the same emotions and attachments that entangled us. Even with new things we make, we’re sending the elevator back down to inspire a new generation.

Back in Warren Robinett’s day, his signature was the only one that needed a secret room. Most AAA games now have teams that are hundreds strong, steered in broad strokes by a select few at the tip of a very large pyramid. Even when you’re part of the games industry and working on its biggest and most innovative projects, fully credited in rolling text, it’s easy for your voice to feel lost. For those who don’t have sway over the features on the back of the box or the fate of the main characters, the details are the canvas; it’s where they can be heard. Every brick in a digital wall, every chair on the deck of a fictional ship, every lampshade in a virtual hotel. The objects in a game don’t appear from nowhere and they can’t just be borrowed from a second-hand store, each one is created by a human being for the purpose of the game. And if the game needs you to draw a painting for the wall of a haunted mansion, why shouldn’t it be a portrait of your own great grandfather, or of you in a curly moustache? It’s yours. Why not make it mean something to someone?

When the world of Paperville Panic needed to fill its convenience store shelves with cereal boxes and food products, artist Lucy Mutimer could have just stocked them with generic crates and Brand X. Instead, she turned every texture into an opportunity to enrich the paper town with everything from jokes about consumable stationary to musical puns and television quotes. “There’s a joke or reference on pretty much every item within the level and coming up with them was a highlight of creating the art for the level. Two of my favorite references being ‘Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks’ which is a reference to an obscure Panic! At the Disco song, and ‘Long Ass Rice’ on a ramen container, based on a line that never fails to make me laugh from Parks and Recreation. There’s so many in the game and if it makes just one-person (that isn’t just me) smile, then I’m a happy camper.”

Tasked with filling the open world of Homefront: The Revolution with quests, content and stories, game designer and writer Ross Wilding fulfilled a personal ambition by hiding a murder mystery in the darkest corners of a dystopian Philadelphia. “It was always something I wanted to do. One of my favorite things in a game world is when there are deeper mysteries and secrets that players only discover if they really go looking for them. I’m also a big horror fan, so when I was put in charge of a chunk of the open world, some kind of murder mystery felt like it would fit right at home.” The tale of the Butterfly Killer is discovered through several crime scenes in the cities underbelly and only exists due to combined efforts of Ross and a small team of co-conspirators in the art and narrative teams. “Ultimately I think people adding these little touches can be the difference between a good and a great game world.” added Ross.

The pattern of wallpaper, the inscription on the side of a pistol, Morse code from a flickering light; videogames are complex vehicles that speak a million languages and can transport any message.

Attention to these details and their meaning can be a powerful tool, especially when that space is filled with something personal. I spoke to Emily Grace Buck from Telltale’s Narrative Design team, who explained how her team works with the artists to ensure that the environmental storytelling of a space continues beyond the clickables. When players get to visit Catwoman’s apartment in Batman: The Telltale Series, Emily slipped a very specific book onto Selina Kyle’s shelf: The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Emma Orczy. “It’s both my favorite book and a nod to the fact that Selina would definitely know the first commercially successful superhero novel was written by a woman, with a female protagonist.”

All storytellers project a little of themselves into their characters, and here by sharing something of hers with Selina, Emily has actually strengthened the world she helped build. “It’s the design equivalent of ‘write what you know.’ If you have a deeply relevant personal connection, players will be able to feel the care you put into those moments”

In the third act of Spec Ops: The Line, there is a section where the game surprises the player by replacing the normal death screen with a disturbing photograph hauntingly contrasted with an innocent lullaby. It doesn’t happen for all players. In fact, it only happens if you die in a specific spot in a very specific stage of the game and it won’t repeat a second time – but that lullaby was chosen and included deliberately by lead writer Walt Williams, who says it was a song his mother wrote and sung to him when he was a child. The primary goal of the special death screen was to represent a growing, bleeding subconscious realization from the games protagonist, Martin Walker, but Walt elaborated, “It also needed to unnerve the player, because it had to put them in the same head space as Walker. A lullaby was a natural fit for that. I picked this particular lullaby because the game had already become a highly personal project by this point, where it was mirroring a lot of my own life drama in the narrative.”

Making a videogame can take years, regardless of whether it’s a small independent project or a massive AAA blockbuster. A single project can accompany a developer through the thick and thin of their personal life, and just like a slice of pop culture, it can easily entangle itself in those times. Walt finished, “I probably wouldn’t have this career if it hadn’t been for my mom supporting my creativity from a young age. It felt right to include her lullaby in the game, even if the circumstances surrounding it are quite morbid.”

Another developer who told me a story about leaving a little part of themselves behind in a game is Alex Zandra. When she worked at Frima Studio, Alex was the games designer and writer of their adorable co-op platformer: Chariot. “This project was very important to me and I wanted to leave as many little pieces of myself in it as possible.”

It’s a well-known gag among her friends that if you greet Alex with a high-five, she is likely to swap last minute for a fist bump; a playful trait she imparted to Chariot’s royal protagonists. Look real close at their high-five animation, and you’ll notice the blue haired princess answers her fiance’s high-five, with a fist-bump. I asked Alex why this project became so special for her, that she’d want to insert such a personal detail. “It meant so much to me that the lead was a lady, and one with blue hair at that. I was at the start of a serious questioning phase during development and ended up coming out a little after the game shipped. I related to the protagonist in more ways than one. Now I’m a blue-haired lady too!”

Although the internet’s combined knowledge can spot even the slyest reference to a television show or another game within hours of release, these personal mementos are hidden in plain sight. It would be impossible to spot without being wrapped in an anecdote from the developer. So many might ask, why put them in at all?

I was in a café in a far-away country recently and wrote my name on the wall. It wasn’t an act of vandalism, the café provided a cup full of pens alongside a large matte wall. Visitors were encouraged to leave a mark. And that they did, the wall had become a multi-colored mural of names, doodles and improvised messages. I drew a quick picture of Sonic the Hedgehog to distinguish myself from the mass.

Wondering about why and others I found this little act so tempting, I read up a little on the mentality of writing on walls – bathrooms the most common canvas of study – and found a poignant soundbite “Visibility is its own reward.” It’s not macabre or egotistical to recognize the satisfaction of leaving your mark. Most people who decide to spend a life making things, they start because they have something to say, so it’s no surprise they get their kicks out of being heard.

Projects are big, and the world is big, and there’s a reassurance to leaving behind definitive evidence that you touched the walls of a place and wrote your name on it. It doesn’t really matter who (if anyone) will find your message in a bottle – it’s a warm thought in your pocket. It exists because of you, reaching out to touch other people. As many – if not all – of these examples show, creators acting on that desire only enriches the games they are making.

I know from working as a Lead Designer how much games rely on individual team members taking ownership over the parts they are given and making it their own. We all find it more expedient to credit entire projects to the figureheads in the media, but isn’t it fascinating to think that videogames are actually a huge melting pot of creative people? All making personal choices, all leaving their mark, all sneaking something that is uniquely theirs into the game. Just because it means something to them. Just because they think it’s fun and cool.