Easter Eggs: they make you feel like a child again. Hunting through the grass, climbing under tables, peering around corners where dust gathers and people don’t usually go.
That’s where you find them: A man buried head-deep in the sand. A hidden unicorn gun that poops rainbows. Disused ladders leading you to the giant, beating heart inside the Statue of Happiness.
Easter Eggs are a part of gaming culture. While they’re often out of place in the games they inhabit – many run against the tone of the world – they exist at the meeting point between designer and player, serving as both knowing wink and a reward for looking deeper. But Easter Eggs are not unique to games, and their lineage dates back hundreds of years.
The first videogame Easter Egg appeared in Adventure for the Atari 2600 and started, interestingly, with a frustrated game designer. Warren Robinett had signed on as a programmer at Atari in November 1977, and by the next year he was – on his own and against orders – exploring the possibility of adapting the classic text adventure game into a graphic format. It was one of the first games where a player could explore a multi-screen world, and the first game with movable objects the player could pick up and take from place to place. The game would go on to sell a million copies and serve as a landmark in game development, but Robinett would get zero credit through official channels. Formal credits weren’t common at the time, and Atari policy didn’t allow programmers to put their name anywhere in the game or on its packaging. As you can imagine, this was a sore spot with both Robinett and other developers, some of whom left to found rival company Activision (which, incidentally, included the programmer’s name and picture in game manuals).
Robinett’s solution was the Grey Dot. The Dot was an in-game item one pixel in size that players could find in the catacombs. It was almost impossible to notice, since the player could only see a limited distance in that room, and the Dot was the same color as the background. But if the player managed to acquire it, they could access a secret room that bore the words: “Created by Warren Robinett.”
The secret took a whopping five percent of the game’s memory (Atari games only had 4k of ROM then), but went undetected until a fan stumbled upon it and wrote the company. By then, Adventure had sold enough copies that it would’ve cost $10,000 to fix the code – and, besides, the design team liked it. One programmer tasked with removing the message joked that instead of wiping it out, he’d alter it to say: “Fixed by Brad Stewart.” Software managers at Atari suggested that it be left in and termed an “Easter egg,” likening the secret to an old-time egg hunt. Far from removing it, they said, they wanted to do it again.
Though Robinett’s Easter egg was the first to bear the name, he was hardly the first craftsman to hide a reference in a work of art. Renaissance masters, for instance, hid coded images in famous works – though the most familiar examples tend to be speculative and unverifiable: That Michelangelo painted a cherub flipping off the Pope on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Or in other cases total nonsense: Everything you’ve ever heard about da Vinci’s The Last Supper. There are genuine examples. Michelangelo probably did, in fact, hide an Easter Egg on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling: When he painted God separating the light from the darkness, Michelangelo seems to have painted himself as the deity, in the same pose he used to paint the ceiling – neck craned and right arm reaching up above his head. A poem Michelangelo wrote, along with a sketch, seems to support this theory. He wasn’t the only one, either. Flemish master Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait included two tiny figures reflected in a distant mirror. Rafael got in on it too: the philosophers in his The School of Athens are thought to be modeled on his contemporaries like Michelangelo and architect Bramante. Perhaps most impressively, the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger placed the image of a skull in his portrait The Ambassadors – but the viewer can only see it when looking at the painting at an extreme angle.
But hiding images in art wasn’t an invention of Renaissance artists either. Medieval manuscripts are full of what’s known academically as marginalia, or illustrations and messages that monks or scribes drew in the borders of illuminated manuscripts. Sometimes marginalia are scrawled complaints about the scribe’s conditions. “I am very cold,” reads one. At times they’re even profane: “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.” But most often, marginalia tended to be illustrations, often lewd ones, like pictures of penis trees with women picking the phalluses like fruit, or monkeys defecating or sticking things up each others’ rectums. One picture – showing a man playing a trumpet with his anus – inspired Terry Gilliam’s famous animation in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Popular culture tends to misinterpret marginalia as clever gags monks and commercial scribes slipped into the text while no one was looking, much like the phalluses Disney animators were (falsely) rumored to have smuggled into The Little Mermaid. In reality though, as pointed out by the marginalia blog Got Medieval, they were often supposed to be there, and in some cases were probably requested by the patron who ordered the book. (The Medieval period was a lot more ok with lewd humor in religious context than we are today – nudity and bodily functions were more public then.) In other words, rather than covertly added flourishes, marginalia are intended as funny and bizarre gags for the observant – exactly what modern Easter eggs are.
This tradition of hiding a nonsensical or humorous joke as part of a work became de rigueur once Hollywood dominated the film scene. Alfred Hitchcock famously appeared in all his own movies, usually in the background. But it was the Spielberg-Lucas generation that accelerated the trend in the 1980s and 1990s, falling all over themselves to reference each others’ films. The creatures from E.T.: The Extraterrestrial appear in the Star Wars prequels. In Predator 2 the Predator keeps a Xenomorph skull in its trophy case. Indiana Jones punches up Shanghai gangsters in Club Obi-Wan in Temple of Doom and R2-D2 and C-3PO appear as hieroglyphics in Raiders. With such a hyper-charged Easter Egg environment pervading Hollywood, it was inevitable that Easter Eggs made the leap to games – where Lucas had a hand as well.
The first videogame Easter Eggs were largely hidden credits like Robinett’s. The Donkey Kong port for the Atari 400 and 800, for example, shows the programmer’s initials after a set of conditions so specific, it wasn’t discovered until 2009. However, as technology progressed the Eggs themselves evolved too, from graphical jokes and callbacks to previous games to being full games themselves. Though many designers included secrets, LucasArts deserves a special mention for following their founder’s lead and peppering their adventure games with sly references. In Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine you can turn Indy into Guybrush Threepwood from Monkey Island, and find Grim Fandango‘s city of El Marrow on an ancient map. Monkey Island itself took a jab at LucasArts rival Sierra, while Full Throttle featured a brief cameo by George Lucas. In addition, nearly every adventure game the studio produced has a Sam and Max reference. But for sheer impressiveness, the winner has to be Day of the Tentacle which allowed you to play its predecessor Maniac Mansion in full using an in-game computer.
LucasArts adventure games didn’t invent the Easter egg, but their heavy use of it made the practice both more mainstream and playful. By adding multiple secrets per game, they changed Easter eggs from a bonus to an active pursuit. More than mere extra content, they offered social cachet to anyone who found them – schoolyard bragging rights that set you apart from your friends. “Oh sure,” you’d say to your friends. “You’ve finished Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but did you see Indy make a Max shadow puppet in Monaco?” The secrets added a game-within-a-game quality to the play and marked their discoverers as having truly mastered the game. In a way, they’re the more informal ancestors of today’s Achievements and Trophies.
Today, Easter egg hunting has moved out of playground lore and water cooler banter and onto the internet, where it’s morphed into a subculture all its own. Extensive wikis catalogue secrets by game, not only describing the Easter egg but how to get it. YouTube and social media has also brought a new dimension to the hunt, with studios hinting at extra content through Twitter and legions of hunters racing to capture it on video. At times these searchers can appear like Bigfoot investigators – plowing into the digital wilderness to chase rumors that someone saw a Sasquatch in GTA – but the payoffs can be spectacular. Witness, for instance, how DICE placed a Megalodon in Battlefield 4: Naval Strike that more than fulfilled the cryptozoology-like fervor the search engendered. But modern secret-hunters aren’t limited to combing the digital desert manually – they have tools that would make their forbearers salivate. It’s easier than ever to scan through a game’s code and find hints at buried treasure, especially since emulators can reveal much that was previously hidden in old cartridge games. It’s a testament to games’ complexity that after three decades, we’re still scouring the same fields.
Games weren’t the first media to have Easter eggs, but their interactive nature allows players to search for hidden content in a way no other form of media can replicate. Whether an in-joke, a covert signature, an achievement or a friendly rumor, Easter eggs have been a part of gaming culture for thirty-five years and show no sign of stopping. As the infrastructure makes leaps in complexity over the coming years, we can be sure that the surprises will only get cleverer, better hidden and increasingly spectacular.
So kids, grab your baskets and line up along the rope – because the hunt’s about to begin.