As much as we love playing video games, sometimes it’s hard work. That’s why the joy of coming across an unexpected surprise along the way can keep us going when the going gets tough. Play games long enough and you’ll come across a video game Easter egg.
Image: lmnopeas via Instructables
What are video game Easter eggs?
The video game Easter egg is a classic example of how game developers delight and surprise us players through inside jokes, hidden messages, and more.
The name was coined by the annual Easter tradition to hide colorfully-painted eggs for children to find, sometimes containing candy or toys.
Though candy and toys aren’t involved, video game Easter eggs can present themselves as meta-messages where the developers let the player in on a joke about creating the game, special video content of the creators blowing off steam in the office, an in-game character acting out of character, and more. It’s a fun way for developers to add their own hidden messages to us, whether it’s to entertain or add a different dimension to the video game’s story.
Where did video game Easter eggs come from?
“Easter eggs” have become synonymous with hidden surprises in media over the popular holiday activity: as of this article’s publishing, only 4 of the top 11 Google search results for “Easter eggs” relate to the brightly-painted ovums.
So how did Easter eggs get tied to surprises in media (movies, video games, television shows, and more)? For such a cultural icon, the beginnings are humble and understated.
During the dawn of popular video gaming, Atari game programmer Warren Robinett embedded his name in flashing text hidden in one room of the 1979 game Adventure. Get to the final room of the game where dragons lay in wait and you’ll see his name across the screen. (Jump to 2 minutes 15 seconds on the following video.)
It could almost be mistaken as the end credits, really. But this surprise was a cunning way to get his name noticed: to stay competitive, Atari kept their programmers’ names a secret. Robinett waited until just before publishing to insert his name at the end to leave it a surprise and earn recognition. Innovation deserves emulation, and Robinett has secured his place in the halls of geekdom history.
Types of Video Game Easter Eggs
Every video game Easter egg is unique. However, find enough of them and you’ll notice they begin to fit into categories, or archetypes. Learn the archetypes to be a better video game Easter egg hunter.
The Hidden Credits Easter Egg
Atari’s example above may be the most famous of them all but developers, designers, and creators hard at work on their masterpiece have been sneaking themselves into video games ever since.
Sneaking a developer’s name onto the screen right after a boss battle is one way to do it. Another is for a game designer to put their likeness directly into the game. One grisly example of this is John Romero, creator of the classic first-person shooter Doom 2. He snuck an image of his head impaled on a stake behind the wall where the final boss rests. If a player types “idclip” they can walk right through the final boss wall into a hallway where they can beat the game by shooting Romero’s head.
The Disgruntled Employee Easter Egg
Most of the developers who sneak their surprises into games are approved by their bosses. Sometimes, had the bosses known, some Easter eggs would’ve been removed before publishing.
Take, for instance, the disgruntled Skyrim developer who added a “Notched Pickaxe” as a key tool in the game. It’s a nod to Minecraft and Notch, its creator, as a show of solidarity during a lawsuit between the two game developers.
The Cross-reference Easter Egg
Cross-referencing other video games is one way for developers to pay homage to their other favorite games or to feature another game they have developed.
Retro Studios, developers behind the Donkey Kong and Metroid franchises, paid a tribute to their own Samus in Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze. Samus Aran’s Gunship seemed to have docked in the trees of the Busted Bayou level. Welcome back to Earth, Samus!
Other times, games pay tribute across developers. Developers behind Battlefield: Bad Company tucked in a hilarious sequence between its soldiers that give a nod to Japanese developer Konami’s Solid Snake from the Metal Gear franchise.
The troop comes across someone hiding in a barrel (Solid Snake commonly hides in objects to sneak to his objective). The boys try to decide what to do with him while making coy references to what Snake might do: hide in cardboard boxes, wear an eyepatch, and so on. The exchange is sure to earn laughs from fans of Metal Gear.
The Meme Easter Egg
A meme is an “inside joke” among a community that makes a cultural reference generated by the group. You can find memes all over the Internet and might have commonly run into the cat and dog variety.
Referencing memes in video games are an easy way for game writers to relate to their players and add a dash of humor. However, Internet memes can be brief in their spotlight and run the risk of getting stale quickly.
The Deal With It meme was popularized several years ago as a way for Internet users to shrug off negative reactions. It was characterized as sunglasses lowering onto a smug dog’s face.
The 2012 indie game breakout hit Fez features a special ability for the protagonist to earn glasses that change the perspective from third person to first person. How are the glasses presented? Well, of course they would be lowered onto his face.
The Homage Easter Egg
Sometimes a game’s own Easter egg or feature design is so ground-breaking that it’s forever a part of gaming vernacular. Developers will often sneak homages into their games to pay tribute.
The best and most common example of this is the Konami Code. Players entered in this code at the start of popular game developer Konami games to earn bonuses.
The Konami Code can be found in so many non-Konami games that you’re better off browsing this list than simply reading about one or two of them here.
The Debug Hack Easter Egg
This is an unintentional video game Easter egg but always a delight to come across.
Occasionally, games will allow special codes to be entered at the beginning so that testers can access different levels and features on-demand for debugging. This is a fun way for players to access special levels and features that are otherwise inaccessible.
For example, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 featured a complicated sound test code that allowed the player to “paste” different objects into any level for debugging.
The Emulator Hack Easter Egg
Surprise! Game developers are gamers who love playing games. Yup. So it only makes sense for them to tuck away games that they would like to showcase.
Game developer Rare created a series of games in the 1980s for the ZX Spectrum system that never were released. When they developed the classic first-person shooter GoldenEye for the Nintendo64, they embedded an emulator with ten games to see how they would perform on Nintendo’s system. A recent fan patch made the emulator accessible through GoldenEye.
And while we’re at it, here’s a great little Easter Egg of our own! Here’s the final video of the first round of Glitch spots created just for you here on the blog! We’re pretty proud of this one and we hope you’ll enjoy!
This list is just the beginning! What’s your favorite video game Easter egg? What other types have you found? Let us know in the comments.