Games, as a medium, have been rediscovering the art of the secret, of the hidden. For a while, around the mid ’00s, it was incredibly rare for games to be anything beyond just what they appeared to be – and no more. The major studios didn’t want to pay for work that wouldn’t go directly into selling a game on day 1, and smaller indie games hadn’t really emerged into the market enough to fill the void left behind. Everything was exactly as it looked like. Surprise was dead.
It wasn’t just cowardice that made games so boring and averse to surprise: A substantial problem emerges when you make a game not what it appears to be, which is that, naturally, it no longer appears to be what it is. The problem with hidden depths is that they’re hidden, and many people who would love to explore those depths will never know there is anything to be explored. How can you sell a game like that?
Fortunately times have changed. Now that there’s a scale for game development below the nine digit development cost, we have a lot more leeway to make games that play with expectations. There’s room now for games to be strange and surprising, for them to have big secrets or sudden shifts.
One of the games most well-known for not being what it appears to be is Frog Fractions – and, at this point, if you have any interest in the idea of secrets and discovery in games and haven’t played Frog Fractions, now might be a good time to check it out Frog Fractions is, to first appearances, an educational game – this is, of course, just a facade. Underneath the surface, Frog Fractions becomes a series of strange, divergent mini-games that tell a surreal story about a frog’s adventures through space, with detours for a fanciful description of the invention of boxing and an exploration of the economics of bug pornography. One of the criticisms of Frog Fractions is that it fails to maintain plausibility as an educational game, being obviously absurd and lacking in educational value from the first moment. How, though, could this problem be fixed? This absurdity is necessary in order to signal that there’s something off about the situation, something to be uncovered, something to be found.
So we find we run into the same problem as before: How can you sell a game that is other than it appears to be? Not just in the sense of getting people to pay money, but even just getting people to pay enough attention to actually see the game for what it is. Holding something in reserve is an act of tremendous confidence as an artist, because it necessitates withholding the most special and exciting aspects of your project so that they can emerge later. Yet, still, you must have some way of signaling that something has been withheld, that something is hidden beneath, otherwise your audience continues sailing along the surface, unaware that anything unknown might hide within the depths.
A number of strategies seem to have emerged. Frog Fractions, as mentioned, is just a little bit too absurd, too out there to be quite what it appears to be. Dark Souls has messages from players scattered around, ensuring that those hidden things which a few players stumble across by pure chance can be found by other less observant or lucky players. Games like Axiom Verge, Anodyne, and Problem Attic signal that there’s something off in the world through the symbolism of video game glitches. Other games, such as Candy Box, just ask you to spend enough time with the game that the weirder elements of it will eventually become apparent to you just through exposure. Undertale uses all of these tricks to tell a stranger, scarier, and sadder story than it at first appears to.
Secrets are wonderful, but the only secrets we know are the ones we find – others fade away, merge into the vast sea of things we don’t know and never will.. It doesn’t help anyone if we squirrel around, hoarding nuts for the winter, only to forget where they have been buried and have all our work come to nothing.