The Cake is a Lie: Easter Eggs in Video Games

What is an Easter egg?

I finally understood what all the fuss was about. In addition to finally playing through Portal, I finally understood the reference to “the cake is a lie” throughout video game and internet culture. As I walked through the room where “the cake is a lie” is plastered on the walls I felt that my status in the video game internet community was elevated. Not only did the Easter egg add some fun narrative to the game, it also made me feel like I belonged even more in the video game internet community. I was now able to contribute to the discussion.

Deep in the world of Portal, you find “the cake is a lie” easter egg.

Deep in the world of Portal, you find “the cake is a lie” Easter egg.

In video games Easter eggs are the “hidden properties of games that can be revealed by button combinations or by accessing remote areas in the game or on the disc itself,” says Colin Oguro, writer for Gamespot in his post on The Greatest Easter Eggs in Gaming. Easter eggs range from new and different ways to play a game, hidden music tracks, to visual oddities that a player would have to connect to a backstory to truly understand, just to name a few.

When designers put Easter eggs in games they do so for a few reasons. Easter eggs can identify the game as the designer’s creation. Easter eggs might also aim to create an emotion in a player and these emotions have an impact on the player’s experience with a game.

An Easter Egg for the Game Creator

Adventure

The first recorded video game Easter Egg in the game Adventure. Programmed by Warren Robinett in 1979 while working for Atari.

In Atari’s 1979 game Adventure, programmer Warren Robinett implemented one of the first Easter eggs in a video game. In an interview, Robinett says to get to the Easter egg the player has to find the gray dot. After finding the gray dot, he said, “[y]ou had to take the dot and use it to get through a side wall, below and to the right of the Yellow Castle, and then you got into the secret room, which had my signature in it: ‘Created by Warren Robinett.’”

At that time Robinett’s company did not credit programmers in a games packaging or materials. Robinett said that this influenced his decision: “Yes, this was part of the motivation to put my signature in the game”. Robinett implemented the Easter egg as a way to claim his work and make a statement to Atari.

Robinett risked losing his job in making this statement to Atari. Programmers and designers who work for large companies still face this risk when  they put their own personal touch on their games. However, they still risk their job because they feel the risk is justified.

An Easter Egg for the Game Player

As I mentioned earlier, besides identify a game as a designer or programmer’s creation, Easter eggs can to bring about a emotions for players. Rebecca Hoffman, graduate fellow at ASU’s Center for Games & Impact shared her experience uncovering an Easter egg in the game Math Blaster: 3rd Grade. By beating levels on a certain setting, Hoffman found out that she could unlock a clues. Then, she used these clues to find a room with a large amount of gems (which help players to track their scores).

“So I figured out this code and it was the most gratifying experience because I felt like I really solved something”, Hoffman said. This success drove her to return to the game repeatedly, “I remember continuing to go back and play the game over and over again, just so I could keep unlocking the Easter egg because it was just so worth it and it made it so much fun.”

 The Impact of Creating Easter Eggs

Some games, like Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, knowingly acknowledge the existence of easter eggs. In this case, saying that there are no Easter eggs is an Easter egg in itself. Creating a bond between the designer and player.

Some games, like Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, knowingly acknowledge the existence of Easter eggs. In this case, saying that there are no Easter eggs is an Easter egg in itself.

Future game designers can draw on experiences like Hoffman’s when developing their own games. Game creators can emulate Robinett and leave an identifying mark or object in a game. Sometimes, these Easter egg moments grow into something much larger, as is the case with Portal’s “the cake is a lie”. By surveying the history of video game Easter eggs, listening to player feedback, and taking stock of my own experience, I see that Easter eggs can add new layers of meaning to the experience during, and even outside of, playing the game.

For more about Easter eggs in video games:

What examples of Easter eggs have you found? What Easter eggs did you find impactful? Please share stories about discovering your favorite video game Easter eggs.


Ben Pincus is an Innovation Lab Manager and Designer with the Center for Games & Impact Innovation Lab. You can find out more about Ben at thebigblogofben.blogspot.com or follow Ben @benthegamemaker on Twitter.