Secrets and intentionality

I originally wrote this post for spectaclerock.com.

When a PC is powered on but it finds no disk to boot from, it says to you in gray letters: “No bootable device — insert a boot disk and strike any key.” A Mac shows instead an archaic icon of a floppy disk with a blinking question mark. If you turn on a Nintendo Entertainment System without inserting a cartridge first, its power light simply blinks on and off as your television set displays a gray screen. But — there is a subtlety here not often found in computers. If the NES senses a cartridge but cannot read its contents properly, it will sometimes show its initial screen but with corrupted graphics, or with the first note of its song strung out into an endless tone.

This is a harmless occurrence whose traditional remedy is taking out the cartridge and blowing into its contacts, to clear out any dust. It’s a familiar, comfortable ritual to anyone who owned a NES in its heyday, like cleaning your glasses or trimming your fingernails.

When I was a child, I once turned on my father’s Atari 2600 with a cartridge half-inserted by accident. Instead of displaying a message, an icon, or even corrupted graphics, it emitted an unholy, piercingly loud shriek.

I found out later that this process is called frying, and that if you do it skillfully, you can alter gameplay — by causing sprites to act contrary to their programming, or the world of the game itself to warp.

But as a kid, I was scared shitless by the sound.

I scrambled to the 2600, turned it off, and didn’t touch it for the rest of the day, terrified of what might happen if I turned it on again. Such was my introduction to the world of secrets in video games.

Modern consumers expect games to have secrets. The more accessible game series, like Lego Whatever and Rock Band, put them right on the main menu. You do a Web search for them, tap the buttons it tells you to, and then you are immortal, or you never have to worry about running out of ammunition, or a tank falls out of the sky in front of you. A strong argument can be made that these secrets add immeasurably to a game. They allow players to bypass a section of a game that’s poorly designed and much too difficult or frustrating as a result, or conversely they allow players who’ve mastered the game to try new variations on its mechanics. They also allow players who just want to raise hell in Grand Theft Auto to jump in a tank whenever they like.

But there’s something that has changed as the conventions of games have solidified: intentionality. When you enter a cheat code in the new Goldeneye, you know that the game developers meant for you to do so. They may have specifically added the code for use by you, as opposed to cheats that were added to speed along the testing process during development. Secrets have become the equivalent of asking for something under-the-counter at a drugstore. They’re not officially on offer, but only in a wink-and-nod sort of way.

The original Super Mario Brothers, as always, has instructive examples. The warp zones were intentionally placed into levels to make up for the fact that SMB had no save feature. If you’ve already mastered world 3, you can skip it by displaying an extra level of mastery in world 2. Compare warp zones to the infamous minus world. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of people who played SMB have at one point used a warp pipe, but that the number who have actually entered the minus world is very small. I’m not part of it, at least. There is an element of the inexplicable to the way players enter the minus world — crouch-jump while facing the wrong way? how do you do that? — and once entered, the level ends abruptly in a blank wall. In a game where there is genius in nearly every block placement, the apparent randomness of the minus world is a disconcerting aberration.

The minus world disappeared from SMB sequels for obvious reasons. It was a glitch in game code. It was, to belabor the point, unintentional. But the question I want to pose is, which is a more interesting secret, a warp zone or a minus world? Which is more memorable?

I think that the answer to both questions is the unintentional, because it adds richness to the relationship between player and game. Most games are, from a certain point of view, deeply predictable experiences. There are rules as to what can or cannot occur in the world of the game, and developers spend many man-hours to ensure that the game enforces these rules rigidly and consistently. Players learn these rules and how to manipulate them in interesting ways — but still they remain in a well-designed playpen. Good games make the playpen impressively grand (Minecraft), fool players into either believing that it’s bigger than it actually is (Mass Effect), or find a way to content players with a small but focused experience (Portal).

But when someone enters the minus world or fries a 2600, something changes in our understanding of a game. We’re not sure if we’re meant to see this. We’re not sure if there are interesting things to be found. But we’re inquisitive. We want to go exploring.