As I’ve gone through the Final Fantasy series recently, it’s notable that the games used to have secrets, and now, they pretty much don’t anymore. Somewhere in the late 90s, and certainly by the mid 2000s, it was decided that secrets are bad and games shouldn’t have them. While secrets do have their costs, and they can be implemented poorly, we are much better off making use of them.
Before I get started, I should make it clear which context it is that I’m talking about: single player, somewhat narrative driven videogames, like RPGs or adventure games. This concept of “secret” doesn’t really make sense in a strategy game, contest, or a puzzle. It also is kind of hard to do, practically, in tabletop games (although it is possible!). As I have mentioned elsewhere, I’m starting pre-pre-development on an RPG of my own, and so this is something I’m thinking about a lot for that game.
What are secrets in videogames?
Let’s quickly try and define “secret” in this context. A secret is a bit of content – a part of a level, an item, a character, or any other thing in the game, which is (for lack of a better term) “missable”. I hate to use the term missable, because that has a negative connotation, but it also points to an important part of what secrets are. Secrets are hidden, but findable parts of a game that help give games a sense that there is “more than meets the eye” and that this is a world, not just a content delivery mechanism.
To help establish what it is I am talking about, here are a few things I am not talking about:
- “A Secret To Everyone” – The type of secrets that don’t get discovered by anyone for years, or possibly even ever, such as the ones listed here. The secrets I am talking about get figured out by a healthy percentage of players just playing blind, and which can be looked up on the internet. Secrets in this sense definitely get found by a certain percentage of the player base, naturally. They are findable.
- Part of the “golden path” you just haven’t seen yet – If it’s your first playthrough, and you’re watching the first cutscene, whatever is in the next cutscene is not a “secret”, it’s just information that the player hasn’t encountered yet.
- Content that you just don’t access in one playthrough – If the game has several classes you can pick at the start of the game, the skill trees for the classes you didn’t use this playthrough aren’t a “secret” in this sense, they’re just other content that you didn’t access this playthrough.
- Something you have to do to complete the game. If it’s required to finish the game, it really doesn’t quality as a secret in this sense.
I’ll give a few examples of what I consider to be secrets in videogames next. Obviously, these are all, to a small extent “spoilers”, but I’ll use mostly pretty old games that most people either have already played or probably will never play anyway. (Also, I’m using older games because there aren’t a ton of great examples from newer games.)
Super Mario Bros.
Many readers probably know about this 1-Up mushroom block in the first Mario game’s first level. Basically, it is entirely hidden, until you jump right under it and hit it. When you do, it appears, and produces the 1-Up green mushroom. Totally unsignaled, extremely easy to miss, but also pretty low stakes whether you find it or not.
The Legend of Zelda – the best or maybe second best Zelda game!
The first Zelda game is full of secrets! Arbitrary trees can be burned, walls can be bombed, and so on which allow access to new areas.
Final Fantasy IV
In this spot in Final Fantasy IV, there are two visible rooms, and there’s a hidden passage that connects them, allowing the player to move between them. In the early Final Fantasy games, there are many hidden passages like this, some being “more secret” than others; for example, many of them have their destination room off screen, so the only way to find the secret passage is to try to walk into the wall.
This article actually has secrets, such as this text.
The Final Fantasy games up until about X or so also had certain kinds of world objects you could click on and potentially get an item, which is also a common sort of secret.
Dark Souls I seriously tried to get into this game many times, but like I’ve said before, I hate i-frames. You should play Bushido Blade, it is the anti-iframe.
Dark Souls has lots of secrets, but one of them is an area called Ash Lake – described by my friend as (put this in white to avoid a slightly bigger and more relevant spoiler; highlight it to read) “Hidden Wall behind a Hidden Wall in an optional area, opens up to this new very mysterious area, where there’s a secret covenant that allows you to turn into a dragon guy.“.
I still haven’t been able to enjoy Dark Souls myself; I really just am not a huge fan of the iframe-based combat, actually.
Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest
This is why we can’t have nice things. Ok, technically this may or may not be a “secret” because you can’t really “miss” this; it’s required for progressing through the game. So technically, it may be more like a “bad puzzle”, but in any case it shares a lot in common with secrets. One of the most infamous secrets in videogame history, in this part in Castlevania 2, you are meant to kneel while holding the Red Orb for a few seconds which allows you to progress. It’s not very clearly communicated to players, and was required to continue the game, so it’s one of the more disliked things in videogames from the era, and it’s worth knowing about in this discussion. Castlevania 2 OST is great – I used to cover a couple songs from it in my Video Game Cover Band back in the day.
The Secret Spectrum refer to my chart and it will be clear
We can organize secrets in a two dimensional grid that expresses how secret they are, and how big a deal they are if you find / don’t find them. I made this graphic just to show that “secret or not” is really not a binary quality.
Toward the right side of this chart, things get more obscure, harder to discover, more likely to get “missed”. Toward the left, more obvious or signaled (but still missable). If we were to go off the right side of the chart, we would then run into “perma secrets”, stuff that goes undiscovered for decades or maybe even forever. If we go off the left side of the chart, we’d be talking about things which aren’t really secrets at all, like “how do you get through the Great Deku Tree dungeon”. These things might be puzzles or challenges of some kind, but they’re not secrets in the way we mean.
Yuffie in Final Fantasy VII is a secret character, an entire character that it’s possibly to totally miss out on. Notably, in Final Fantasy VII Remake, Yuffie is a DLC with her own little campaign; totally not a secret, at all. RPGs like Dragon Quest VII would have objects (such as cupboards) you could click on to sometimes find items, but that feature is now gone from the more recent Dragon Quest XI.
The Arguments Against Secrets
There’s a few arguments against having secrets in games, and I hope I can do them justice before telling you that I think we should do secrets anyway.
- Some players will miss some things, including perhaps some potentially important or significant things, if there are secrets. This is true! Some players will in fact miss some secrets. However, I might actually argue that this, while clearly having a downside, also has an upside. It’s kind of cool to play through a game and then hear a friend tell you about something they found which you had no idea was even in the game. What else might be in the game?
- Secrets may result in degenerate, repetitive “searching” behavior, particularly for some “maximalist” types of players. This is also true. Once you find one burnable bush in The Legend of Zelda, there are some players who will then try to burn every single bush they see to uncover every secret of that type in the game.
- Some have tried to argue that secrets are no longer a thing we can do because the internet exists now. I think this argument doesn’t hold any water. If this were true, then puzzle games like Portal or would also not have worked, because after the first few days of Portal’s release, players could quickly just look up solutions to puzzles if they wanted. The same is true for secrets in games.
It is also possible that secrets don’t get put into games because games are so expensive to make, particularly the bigger AAA-ish sorts of games. Developers (or producers) feel like they cannot justify building content that most players won’t see. Of course, this is the developer’s problem to solve, not ours as players/critics. Some have suggested that in a way, “achievements” have come in as the cheaper-to-implement “replacement” for secrets. I don’t think achievements do the job that secrets did; if anything, I think they’re a net negative in terms of the value of secrets.
Finally I think a lot of why we’ve moved away from secrets has to do with thinking of games as products as opposed to art. There’s this mentality that we just have to “deliver the content” in this very commodified, alienated sort of way that I think it pretty hostile to the feelings that we really want to instill in players: the feeling that this game is special, it’s a world, and it’s one worth caring about.
Why we should have secrets, anyway
So if there are costs associated with putting secrets in your game, what benefit do they bring that makes it worth having them overall?
apparently some fake walls in Elden Ring take multiple hits to reveal, and oh my god this changes everything
(clip from user teristam on r/eldenring) pic.twitter.com/Jt8MNUDY0j
— Iron Pineapple (@IronPineapple_) March 18, 2022
When Elden Ring first came out, someone found a wall that you had to hit like 10 times or so to reveal that it was actually a secret. Later on it turned out that this was a bug and it was fixed in a patch, but the important thing is already there for us: the twitter user saying, “oh my god this changes everything“. That encapsulates the power of real secrets. They change everything.
Secrets have two primary functions:
- They create the sense that there is “more than meets the eye”. When I play modern videogames, like Final Fantasy VII Remake, I sort of have the sense that I am scraping through the thing uncovering literally everything that is in the game, except for the side quests that I explicitly choose not to take on. Other than that I feel like, there is really nothing more than meets the eye.
- Done correctly, they can be a really good way to help your world feel more like a world. When everything is clearly laid out for you in a nice little production line, it contributes to a feeling that you’re just using some “content delivery software” and not engaging with a special, meaningful place. Secrets are specific, they’re memorable, they’re distinctive. The fact that this stuff is hidden, the way that they are hidden, the surprise associated with finding it… a world should be a rich and mysterious place, to be believed as a world. Secrets go a long way toward achieving that.
I really think games need to bring back secrets. I think that games should have secrets of all kinds, all over the spectrum. One good secret that is actually surprising can get the player to wonder, what else is possible in this world? One good secret can “change everything”, and multiple well designed secrets overlaid with each other, interacting with each other, relevant to the narrative and the setting, can do so much for a game.
I regret very much that so many games have become so “secretless”. A secretless game delivers its content efficiently and without fail, but I feel like that’s a really conservative and unexciting way to make games. Sure, some people will miss out on some secrets, and that’s more than okay: that’s actually what makes it a secret in the first place. I think Dark Souls, a lot of the appeal of it really was because games were moving so far away from “secret” based design at the time. Players were amazed at the idea that a new game existed that had secrets. But we don’t have to make Dark Souls-like games to involve secrets again. There’s no reason that Fire Emblem: 3 Houses, or Triangle Strategy couldn’t have had secrets. We just have to decide that it’s worth doing.
For my RPG, I am definitely going to have a wide variety of secrets, ranging from the somewhat obvious and mundane to the massive and super obscure. More news on that soon!
Thanks for reading!