Back when video games were first starting to make it big in the 90s, the internet wasn’t really a universal constant for people. Even if someone did have access to the internet, it was still slow, hard to find the information you were looking for, and the big sites like GameFaqs or Reddit didn't exist yet. This meant that you had to either find secrets in games on your own, or rely on totally different media like magazines. Usually this meant you either had to know that “one kid” on the block who had beaten the game you were playing (and who had allegedly beaten just about every game, whether or not that was true) or possess a guide like Nintendo Power to tell you what you needed to do. Games were often designed with nearly impossible-to-find secrets which were vital for finishing games. This occurred for multiple reasons: to promote subscriptions to Nintendo Power, to encourage repeated rentals at Blockbuster, or just because game designers had limited examples or academic resources to make a well-designed game at the time. In contrast, games like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest were obtuse largely because of odd translation issues.
This environment was one that was ripe for folklore to spread rampant among young kids who would spend much of their time on a single game, often owning a limited number of games. They would tenaciously spend hours poking and prodding at everything in the limited selection of games they had available to try and discover something new. I remember going through every room I could find in Super Metroid and using power bombs to try and find every hidden secret (which I was unfortunately still unable to find). Everyone had that one friend who would confidently tell you about something they discovered, which would often turn out to have been made up in order to sound impressive.
This was one of the unique joys of gaming in the 80s and 90s: the sense of community and collaborative exploration in old games that was necessary to beat difficult games. You were involved in something that felt important among you and your friends. You were slaying Dracula, discovering a new cave in Zelda, or finding some power-up that nobody else on your block had found.
Nowadays however, that kind of experience is effectively dead. The internet has spread so far and wide that most people who play video games have access to it effectively 24/7. The community that you “work with” to beat a game has spread from the 5-10 kids in your neighborhood to millions across multiple countries. Games are basically “solved” on the same day that they’re released (with maybe some more hidden easter eggs found and documented within a week). Game developers have learned so much more about their craft and have so many more resources available, allowing them to design less unintentionally obtuse games. Games are more polished than ever, making them easier for players to complete. It’s hard to feel a sense of community with others to finish a game when one doesn’t need to expend the effort that we used to: when the general gamer doesn’t want to spend their time doing so, and when there are so many others who have already done so for parts that might be harder to complete. Players might even just watch a Youtube video of someone else completing more difficult games instead of doing so themselves.
But even if that older concept of folklore might be dead and buried, a new trend has started to arise among game developers. Instead of allowing players to discover secret caves behind bombable walls (and then through word of mouth), developers now have to deliberately craft a folklore “experience” that takes collaboration to solve. This is something that modern gamers seem to want more than the localized “playground” experience anyway; more and more people want an entire experience crafted for them to enjoy.
A great example of a trend that takes advantage of this interest in players is Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs. ARGs are a set of puzzles that can interact with a game’s world through obscure elements within a game, as well as, or exclusively, through external media. In games like Fortnite or the multi-game ARG surrounding Frog Fractions 2, the developer hides clues in a specific location in a game, or the code, such as text hidden in the spectrogram of an audio file.
Similar to ARGs, developers have started to deliberately add obtuse elements to their games to create a challenging, collaborative puzzle for theory communities to solve. Five Nights at Freddy’s does this by embedding hidden Atari style mini-games that hint at the games’ central lore. External media like the Five Nights at Freddy’s Survival Logbook also give clues towards the story’s overarching narrative. Undertale creates obtuseness through randomization of certain events, allowing for very rare occurrences like encountering Gaster. Its multiple endings and specific conditions make it hard to discover all the game’s possibilities entirely on your own. Hidden easter eggs, such as the game renaming its own executable to “Undertale: The Musical,” create a unique experience for players and reinforce a fun self-aware tone. It creates an experience that no individual may be able to complete on their own, but collectively can contribute to stitching together a series of pieces, using their specific talents or experiences to create a larger picture.
I believe that these two “new” types of things that are becoming more popular methods to hide story or rewards, replacing the folklore of old. It allows for people to build a smaller community based on interests and solve a puzzle together that nobody else has solved before. It allows for people to swap ideas and theories, or brag about how they’ve moved on to some new piece of the puzzle, much like what we did on the playground back in the day. But we’ve found a new way to create this community, one where we don’t need to be in the same neighborhood and might never even meet face to face. Even up until the last DLC for Dark Souls 3, people were still trying to figure out all the complete picture of the lore for the Souls series of games from the one or two sentence descriptions for rings or small snippets of dialogue. There is real folklore out there about video games that hasn’t been destroyed by this new information age. In fact, When a developer does things right, the folklore is only enhanced by allowing even more people to come in and speculate and bring new information to the table that someone might not have noticed up to that point. It’s comforting that even as technology has changed so rapidly over some people’s lifetimes, that there is still room for a new incarnation of something we might be nostalgic over from our childhood.
Vincent Kuyatt is a developer and tabletop designer in the DC area. His game Smallworld Online was created during the 2017 Ludum Dare, and his game Global Crisis was awarded Best Game Design during the 2015 Global Game Jam at MAGfest. He has spoken at conferences including: RetroGame Con, Awesome Con, KameCon, and MAGlabs. His interests particularly include: 2D vs 3D game design, unreliable narration, form in video games, and using games to teach players real-life skills through engaging mechanics.