Is The Internet Killing Secrets in Games?

The original Binding of Isaac, and the newly released Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, are great at staggering unlocks in a way that gives players a consistent flow of new stuff to play with, while also offering rewards for players who put 100 plus hours into the game. The original game had a number of secrets that Team Meat hid, and one of the game’s creators, Edmund McMillan, has said he was surprised by how fast they were discovered, and wanted to step up the difficulty level for Rebirth.

I won’t reveal what that secret is in this article, but players were just beginning to piece it together when someone posted online that, by data mining the game’s source code, they found the conditions that had to be met in order to unlock this particular bit of content.

So only a week after the game’s release the cat was let out of the bag, except instead of undoing the elaborate knot that sealed it, someone took a knife to the bottom, and maimed the cat in the process.

There was a time when you could beat a game over and over and over again without seeing everything it had to offer. Tales of secret levels, characters and weapons would move their way through social circles, and a lot of the time finding out about them was predicated on a friend’s brother’s girlfriend’s cousin, named Jamarcus, accidently stumbling upon it.

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The internet gives us access to every Jamarcus out there, so developers started to get a lot more obscure with their secrets. Games like Trials HD and Braid had secrets so deeply hidden that it started to take teams of Jamarcuses, no longer stumbling onto hidden rooms but now actively seeking them, all working together to uncover clues and test theories before finally and triumphantly discovering what they were looking for. It created a meta-experience in a lot of games, and seeing complete strangers coming together to uncover everything within a game they all enjoy is a beautiful thing. But data mining is making this process less rewarding for the Jamarcuses and non-essential to uncovering the hidden treasures within a game.

There are many people who don’t hang out in message boards, or if they do will be able to avoid spoilers, but there is something lost when the initial discovery or success is gained through illegitimate means. Part of what drives the Jamarcuses is a desire to be the first ones to do it or figure it out, and the data mining approach strips that away along with the reward for the developers who put this in a game to create an experience for its players.

Edmund McMillan was asked about this in an interview with Vinny from vinesauce during a vinesauce livestream on Twitch. “It’s disheartening,” he said “I can say right now that I don’t think the expansion is going to feature any buried secrets that anybody will care about.” So not only has it ruined the fun in the initial discovery for a lot of people, but it’s deterring, at least one developer, from trying to create those meta-experiences for fans in the future.

McMillan also said “I think I’ve learned that there is no point in really doing that stuff, and that the best way to hide a secret is to put it locked in a really challenging area. So I think if we end up doing anything like that in the expansion, that it’ll be behind a barrier of entry that means having a certain skill level.” How sad does that sound? Vinny follows McMillan’s answer with a very disappointed sounding “yea,” that I think sums up the position perfectly.

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Players want these kinds of experiences, but data miners are going to continue to do their thing and there isn’t any way to stop them. McMillan says that Simon Parzer, one of the lead developers for Rebirth, spent a lot of time trying to bury the secret in the code so this wouldn’t happen, but clearly it didn’t help much. These secrets create something for more than just those who work so hard to find them. They create stories that spread throughout the internet like the secrets themselves used to spread back in the day. These become the lore and legends of gaming culture and data mining strips that story element away.

There is still a lot to discover in Rebirth, and for most people this isn’t going to take away from your experience. But I can’t help but feel bad for the Jamarcuses and weary of a future where these great stories no longer exist, because the people out there who don’t seem to have the patience or ambition to help untie those knots, are going to continue maiming the cats that everyone else wants to enjoy and play with.