One of the many things I found amazing about Fez is its use of secrets as a prominent feature of the game. Not only does it contain hidden puzzles, locked rooms, and secret doorways between areas, but it actually labels these secrets for its players and encourages their discovery. Fez is a game for the completionist, and for those nostalgic for the feeling that discovering legendary game glitches and secrets, like the Konami Code, or encountering MissingNo in Pokemon Red or Blue, created. I really enjoyed this aspect of Fez, even more than I originally anticipated. And it got me wondering: what makes secrets so compelling within games? What do secrets add to our experience as players?
Secrets outside of games share some similarities with game-world secrets. Sharing a secret with someone signals intimacy with another person, as players might feel more connected to each other, the developers, or the game itself for having hidden knowledge about it. People can also feel special when they know that they are privy to something about a person that not many people know about. I think the same can be said for games that contain secrets. Players can attach pride to the idea that they are members of a limited group who knows some hidden detail within a game. This sometimes extends to situations where people know things that they aren’t supposed to know, or have gained information that is guarded. Players of secret-filled games might gain some satisfaction from the idea that they have earned access to forbidden, advanced, or classified information.
Even more similar to the secrets within games than real life secrets between people, though, is the opportunity to make a discovery. The feeling of making a discovery contributes greatly to the appeal of secrets within games. Players experience a sense of accomplishment and have fun earning access to a hidden feature. With games like Fez, applying their attention to small details, possession of pop culture knowledge, or investment in the game’s lore have the potential to pay off and reward the player with revealed secrets. There’s also some awe and wonder that can come of discovering a secret within a game specifically. I felt this with Fez when I started realizing just how many hidden areas there were to explore, and how awesome it is that the world is large enough to contain places like those to discover. If a secret was guarded by a particularly clever puzzle, too, I felt amazed once I figured it out that someone had created it for someone like me to solve.
Game secrets can also facilitate social connection surrounding a game, and support its community in its collective interest in the game. I was lucky enough to be able to play Fez around the same time that a friend, Trey, did, and we had some really fun interactions discussing the game once we had each played through a significant amount of it. I was wandering around an area with a secret cave I had opened to obtain an anti-cube (a collectible item often hidden behind a puzzle or secret passage) one day while Trey was watching me play. Trey noticed the cave and was interested in what I did to open it. He had encountered that puzzle before and decided to come back to it later because he knew there was a passage there but hadn’t known how to access it yet. The cave required me to use the same code system as another door I had found and opened earlier. So after I explained how the code worked and where I found it, I told him about a hidden door that I had been unable to locate and unlock. As it turned out, Trey knew how to get that door to appear and was able to help me open it and find the anti-cube inside. It was so fun to share things that we had figured out and fill in the gaps in each other’s knowledge. So fun, in fact, that for a bit after that we just continued playing together using our collective knowledge to open the paths to more secrets. We were able to use the fact that both of us had spent a lot of time playing this game in different ways to generate an even fuller understanding of the game world and its hidden features. Being able to help each other was rewarding, and made our experience with the game more compelling. This is an experience not unique to me and Trey, as many games have built this kind of relationship between players (both in online communities and in person).
This brings me to another interesting point about what makes secrets in games a compelling feature that adds to player experience. Unlike secrets in the real world, most secrets in games (barring things like discovered glitches or unremoved development codes) aren’t really meant to stay secrets. Once a person finds out, their friends will probably also learn about it soon after. In fact, now thanks to the internet, once one person finds out any other player can get online and learn about it. Walkthroughs, sites like reddit and community forums, and let’s plays are just some avenues through which game secrets can be distributed to the masses. Players have the option to seek out the answers in these places or can decide to discover them on their own. Either way, if a player knows that there are secrets to be found they aren’t barred from knowing them. Playing a secret-filled game and seeking out its hidden aspects is kind of like taking part in a collaborative Easter egg hunt. It’s meant to be like this too. Designers like Phil Fish don’t ask people not to share their discoveries, and definitely expects players who enjoy the game to want to poke into every nook and cranny of it. Designers can place secrets in for specific purposes, like increasing player enjoyment in an audience that enjoys the feelings that secrets evoke, to expand the lore of a game, to surprise their audience, or to send them a fun message. More often than not, secrets in games are secrets not meant to be kept.
Overall I feel that the large presence of secrets in Fez contributed a lot to how much I enjoyed playing the game. It made me feel excited to explore more of its world and motivated me to understand its story in a more complete way. I think that, along with all that’s been discussed above, is what secrets can add to the player experience.