In Depth: Gaming and the lost art of keeping a secret

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No one has ever found the Triforce in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

The easiest answer to this is probably the most true: there is no Triforce in Ocarina of Time.

Yet people still persist, playing the game’s puzzle-solving songs in specific locations, attempting to play through the game without dying, and doing any number of rumored quests to try and find that triangle.

It’s not the triangle that matters, though – it’s the idea that something exists out there that has yet to be discovered.

Keep it secret, keep it safe

It’s cartography for the modern era – we’ve uncovered and explored so much of what’s around us that we have to hide secrets for others to satisfy that urge to find something new.

In modern games, it’s much easier to discover secrets and much harder to hide them. More and more people delve into the code of a title to expose its enigmas, laying bare the innards of the thing and digging through with their hands to find what’s inside.

trifore

That’s how we know there’s no hidden Triforce in Ocarina of Time – if it doesn’t exist within the beating heart of the game, it’s an impossibility.

What is it about secrets that compels players to go above and beyond to find them – and to start seeing secrets where there are none?

A window between the players and the developers

“I think they’re a very personal thing,” says Lewis Brundish, a level designer who worked on Fable III, a game so packed with secrets it’s surprising they had any time to do anything else.

“Hidden content often doesn’t fit within the logic of the game world, and instead serves as a window between the players and the developers.”

That personal touch

It’s this personal connection between developer and player that encourages discovery and exploration – it changes your game experience from one of solitary play to a conversation between you and the people who made it for you.

The fact that secrets exist outside of the game’s logic is important, too – it’s how you find them in the first place.

“There’s a kind of language to level design that players recognise without even thinking about,” says Brundish.

fable

“It’s usually a case of hiding something in a very obscure way, but then leaving subtle clues in the environment to cue someone to start looking closer at that area.”

Think of Zelda’s cracked walls, a visual clue that it might be a good idea to place a bomb there; or a spray of small flowers that form an arrow if you look hard enough – go this way, there are secrets there.

This is the skill with level design – creating a world that’s so coherent and recognisable that anything that’s slightly out of place stands out, whether that’s a change in the texture of the ground or the color of a rock.

Manipulation as entertainment

Most of the time, players won’t notice that they’re being manipulated by level design, but it’s all about tricking the eye with clever placement of lights, objects, chests, doors and camera angles. But when it comes to leading players to secrets, developers have to deliberately obscure the level design while still making it obvious to the observant player – something that’s incredibly hard to balance just right.

“It’s quite easy to create an impossibly hidden secret,” says Luke Williams, level designer at Bossa Studios, who’s worked on games such as Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread – games that delight in obscuring content from their eager fans.

surgeon

“The biggest secret we hid was the Alien surgery in Surgeon Simulator, it was entwined in a big ARG outside of the game.”

ARG stands for “alternate reality game” – one which brings real-world elements into the digital one. The Surgeon Simulator ARG involved finding a phone number scattered throughout the levels, navigating a fake website, calling your real-life phone from the game, figuring out a morse code messageā€¦ in short, it was particularly in-depth, and a long way from the sort of secrets you’d find in the original Legend of Zelda.

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