The Secret Area
The Hidden Room, Easter Egg, and Secret Area were, for a time, important and familiar aspects of mainstream First Person Shooter computer games. Starting from a necessity to turn a small game space (due to technical limitations) into a robust space for play, these Hidden Rooms became a familiar aspect for players even after the technology progressed past their necessity. Map makers (professional and amateur alike) maintained the use of these secrets, sometimes as adjunct areas of a map, or if not then abstracting them into escapes from the map; a refuge from the game proper. These uses, however, abstracted further as the genre desired and moved towards broader appeal with emphasis on game immersion and immediacy.
In cases where the former approaches are found (here we can generally look to FPS’s pre-2000), these secrets were built in such a way as to emphasize their being outside the game. In other words, the Hidden Room/Easter Egg/Secret Area took on a metaphysical quality that, although not necessarily marketed as such outright, was understood as such implicitly by its players. They became a way for the player to achieve transcendence from the confines of the game, from its rules, and from its goals. However, to recognize this more clearly I ought to give background into how these areas contrast from the rest of the game and its elements.
When playing these games it’s often thought that proficiency is attributed to the character of a reflexive athlete. The reflexive or ‘twitch’ gamer is believed to have kingship over this space because they are able to react more quickly and with more accuracy than their competitors, and although this is certainly a factor it is not a necessity in most cases. More necessary is a robust and dynamic spatial awareness of the game space, in this I mean recognition of how the map is laid out and where all the actors might be in such a layout. It is via practical skill in, and fluid improvisation from, this aspect that turns one into a dominant player for most FPS games.
Additionally, the FPS genre started itself as a Single Player game. That is to say a single human player. A game programmer would create a player character, a world for the player to explore, and a goal of some sort with a number of obstacles (usually enemy AI) to overcome on the way to the goal. Due to an array of limitations in computer graphics and speed, real-time renderings of this world were generally confined to a small plot of virtual land, self-contained, and broken up among multiple plots (also small and self-contained) with loading in-between to denote transport from one to the next. As such, their small size meant the edges of their worlds were easily recognized; further emphasizing the fact that the place they played was not representative of the real world it simulated. Consequently, these limitations generally gave maps an austere architectural sense with an emphasis on, and economy of, the space used.
Stemming from this economic necessity maps became maze-like. Where acts like doubling-back, shifting, and exposing hidden elements were common events as the player progressed through the map. As a result, it was very important for one to have a good sense of space in an environment like this because the hallway you just came from might now be a staircase to a lower level and look entirely different. In a way, the environment itself was part of the game, and recognition of its layout became an aspect of its appeal. As a result of this inclusion the players of these games developed a keen sense of space along with a number of tricks to determine where changes in maps might occur. One began to search environments for shapes and textures that followed some previously understood cue that denoted interest. These imperfections or differences then acted as symbols to perceptive players.
One such cue was that of a wall seam. Where a hidden passage might exist along a wall, the seams of each wall piece were usually imperfect, and from this imperfection a seam of either overlapping walls(two walls pieces occupying the same space) or gap between them could be seen. It became a cue, then, for an area of interest whenever one would see such a seam. The limitations of the rendering engine used for the game space, alongside the limitations of the computer, gave cues like these an application outside of one particular game or map. And considering that many games used the same or similar game engines (which were used in the actual rendering of maps), one could begin to see cues like these as symbolic across the genre.
Another cue came from the maps use of textures. When a game engine is limited to a certain size and detail in its surroundings, a map maker begins to repeat elements to save file space. Repeating objects might be seen in a room or repeating textures applied as one might apply wallpaper, continuously along a wall. Here, when a hidden passage requires a hidden doorway, that doorway is broken from the rest of the old, contiguous, wall. The visual effect produced is salient to a player exploring the space as a continuously repeated texture is seen along a wall until one reaches the hidden doorway, where the texture does not line up with the texture before or after it. This cue implies a separation and therefore a reason for it to be separated, inviting a player to seek something hidden.
Among the core principles of a First Person Shooter was to have enough room to play with. Many of these FPS games achieved a frantic pace once combat was engaged and this pace was best achieved in maps where players had space to move. For instance, when a map was highly partitioned and its movement restricted, a player would likely find themselves moving more slowly. Conversely, when a map was wide open and expansive, a player would likely find themselves moving more quickly.
These constructions were to limit ones own exposure to enemies, and again ones spatial awareness becomes important here. When a player recognizes an open area or a bottleneck they travel through it with different strategy, and when a map-maker creates a map that is representative of an actual place it would generally include some spatial reductionism or abstraction of its real-world source material to facilitate these aspects. A house might have its multiple rooms reduced to one room and its furnishings removed entirely. Or a museum might be given partitions to separate its wide open space, where there previously were none, with the intent of giving cover to players. It is from recognition of these spaces as being open or being constrictive that a player is able to form strategies and improvise actions.
Therefore, when these aspects of the game were well understood by game players they began to implement secret areas using their familiar spatial cues as clues (familiar by experience to players in the genre) to entice them into exploration. Sometimes these were tribute or monument rooms, identifying or glorifying the map-makers. Other times they were wholly unrelated to either the larger map or the map maker; things like dance clubs, picture galleries, or utterly surreal environments. Aside from these benign intentions, and in fewer cases, the space might even be used a reward or punishment; conferring a benefit to the player upon their return to the game proper, or killing/confining the player who finds it. Nevertheless, in all of these places a player was at rest from combat, and it is in this resting that I see a more abstract, and therefore more spiritual, desire being fulfilled.
When a player engages in a game they necessarily accept a more rigid world than the one they inhabit outside the game. In so doing, a player limits their interactions with the game to the stated aims of the environment. These secret rooms, then, encourage and satisfy a more general human interest outside the game. They satisfy an interest in a world outside the world, in a purpose outside the general purpose; an interest in the metaphysical by way of rejection of the physical. In this case it is a rejection of the life of a ‘player’ and the environment they play in.
This recognition, both of the game world they inhabited and the belief that there ought to be a place outside it, stands as a fascinating and compelling example for today’s virtual spaces, not to mention today’s games. Even though these Easter Eggs were still technically part of the game, they appealed to a longstanding desire of individual transcendence. Compelling their players to act as more complete human beings, casting off the goals and fears of game-life; challenging them to overcome what boundaries they might perceive, and examine the role of ‘player’ and ‘person’ more closely. The Secret Area is therefore available to any player, but is experienced by a single person.