mrghosty (aka skot deeming) is an artist, curator, researcher and doctoral student in Concordia University’s Individualized Program in the Humanities. skot is also a researcher at Concordia’s Amplab, & TAGlab. He investigates the intersections between gamer cultures, hacker cultures and new media art practices.
“The atmosphere of a few places gave us a few intimations of the future powers of an architecture that it would be necessary to create in order to provide the setting for less mediocre games.” – Guy Debord, 1959.
In 1979, Atari released the graphical adventure game, Adventure, programmed by Warren Robinett for the Atari Video Computer System (VCS) home gaming console. A remake of the text adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure (1977), Robinett’s Adventure became famous for its inclusion of a secret room, containing a message hidden within the game. This form of hidden message soon became known as the Easter egg; rooms, items and areas hidden within games waiting to be discovered by venturous players. While Adventure‘s hidden room was not the first instance of the Easter egg created in a game (in 2004, an Easter egg was discovered hidden in a game title for the Fairchild Channel F console, which predated Adventure by several years), it was the first ever discovered by a game player. In time, the Easter egg became commonplace in video games as a means for programmers and designers to place their own embedded authorial markers within a game.
The Easter egg grew in popularity as a design feature and came to be regarded as value-added content by the games industry. It was regarded as a means of encouraging players to discover all of the secrets within a game, thus keeping players engaged with a game for longer periods of time. However, Robinett’s motivation for creating the secret room within Adventure (1979) was born out of frustration over how Atari treated its programming staff. As an act of protest which was meant to speak to the lack of credit given to game designers at this time, Robinett’s creation of this Easter egg can be read as an act of ‘détournement’, a term popularized by the Situationist movement in the 1960s in France.
Meaning a diversion, turn, or reversal, the détournement became synonymous with the creation of art and media with the intent and purpose of subverting dominant ideologies contained within a specific medium. Thus, Robinett’s Easter egg became an act of creative subversion, left hidden and contained within the code of the game, until it was discovered by a young player some time after publication of Adventure. It was this player’s experience of finding the secret room which connects Adventure to the Situationist practice of dérive. A term linked to the Situationist concept of psychogeography, the dérive in this context connects player practice with that of “urban wandering […], the unexpected insights and juxtapositions created by aimless drifting,” and “new ways of experiencing familiar surroundings” (Coverly, 31). The inclusion of the secret room situates Adventure as a game which encourages players to explore and discover its secrets, to explore the game beyond the prescribed parameters of the game’s explicit goals, in search of a deeper understanding of the game space. In this paper, I will examine the legacy of Situationist practice embedded within Adventure, linking these practices through Warren Robinett’s creation of a secret room as an act of détournement. This act became a catalyst for other creators to introduce hidden elements into video games and became a means of encouraging player exploration of game spaces through the Situationist method of the dérive, or “drift”.
The Easter Egg as Détournement
Robinett’s creation of the Easter egg was born of a “partial response to the cold anonymity of the computer” (Bogost 37). It was intended to be a bold political statement on the exploitative nature of the games industry and its treatment of game programmers. In the early years of the Atari Corporation games were created “entirely by one person, the programmer, who conceived the game concept, wrote the program, did the graphics” (Bogost & Monfort, 61). Yet these same programmers were not credited for the creation of their games. Atari’s policy “about programmers not receiving publicity infuriated all of the company’s designers” (Kent, 186). Unsatisfied with this policy, Robinett elected to “circumvent this rule by burying his name in a secret room of the game” (Bailey, 69).
Acting as an authorial marker, this secret room was Robinett’s “signature, like at the bottom of a painting” (Bogost & Monfort, 60). In order to keep it hidden until the game’s release, he embedded his secret message “Created by Walter Robinett” (Robinett, 1979) directly within the assembly language that the game was written in. Robinett kept the information secret, not even telling his closest associates within the company (Kent, 189), which was not difficult given that Atari programmers often worked in isolation “without much guidance or supervision” (Ibid, 60). Thus, he was able to hide his message in the game’s code without it being detected prior to the game’s release to market.
While the creation of a game’s code can be read as an act of computational creativity, due to the labour conditions at Atari, the code also became representative of feelings of alienation and frustration by Atari’s programmers. As a creative action which détourned the game’s code, Robinett’s Easter egg injects a human element back into the game by subversively claiming authorship of Adventure. As a means of exposing capitalist ideologies in popular media, the détournement operates to create a reversal of these dehumanizing messages. Atari’s attempts to dehumanize its labour force by explicitly omitting them from the company’s publicity campaigns, had been effectively reversed through Robinett’s clever insertion.
Figure 1. Robinett’s Secret Message, represented both graphically and in assembly code. ©Atari, Inc.
Hidden within the code of the game (Figure 1, right), the means of discovering this secret message required a sense of exploration and experimentation on the part of the player. In order to gain access to the secret room, players had to find a hidden ‘dot’ in an easily accessible room near the end of the game. This dot was the same colour as the game’s background and was thus difficult to discover. Once found, the player had to carry this dot back to one of the game’s earlier screens and had to push up against an invisible door that was one pixel in width. Once these conditions were met, the player would find himself in a room containing Robinett’s message (Figure 1, left).
This creative use of “preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble” (Knabb, 67), or the game’s code, introduced a new paradigm into video game design. Robinett’s act of subversion acted as a catalyst for other creators to manipulate the code of their own games in order to produce their own hidden elements. Soon programmers such as Howard Scott Warshaw [the Creator of Yar’s Revenge (1982), and the infamous E.T. Video Game (1982) for the VCS], began inserting their own authorial marks and Easter eggs within the games they created. These practices led directly to new explorations of game space by the players, who began to interact in ways outside of a game’s prescribed rules. “Robinett intended players to find the secret room” (Bailey, 80), and as such promoted a new mode of player exploration based on the psychogeographic practices of the Situationists; that of the dérive, or “drift”. The first explorer of this new category of game player was Adam Clayton, who lays claim to the first documented discovery Robinett’s Easter egg.
The Player and the Dérive
In August of 1980, nine months after the commercial release of Adventure, 15 year-old Adam Clayton from Salt Lake City Utah wrote a letter to Atari’s Consumer Division Publications department. The letter began as a simple request for brochures and literature on Atari’s new home computers, and follows with one of the most notable fan letters in videogame history. Written as a post script to his letter, Clayton notes that he “found something strange” (Clayton, 1) in Adventure. What followed was an account of how he came to find Robinett’s secret room. Using a combination of hand-drawn maps (Figure 2, below) and descriptive text, Clayton outlines how he found the ‘dot’ (the invisible key), exited the ‘black kingdom’ (one of the game’s final screens), traversed back to the game’s beginning (while carrying the dot), and how he entered through an invisible door in order to gain access to Adventure’s Easter egg. There Clayton found Robinett’s creative act of subversion, the secret room containing his signature.
Figure 2. Adam Clayton’s Map Drawings. (unpublished letter, August, 1980).
More than simply elucidating Robinett’s hidden message within the game, Clayton’s letter operates as a psychogeographical map, compiled as an account of the memories of his experience of exploration of the game space, rather than a strict geographical representation of it. Clayton claims to have gone “all over these rooms” (Clayton, 1), exploring the game space beyond the prescribed manner as outlined in the manual which accompanied the game. The manual states: “the object of the game is to rescue the enchanted chalice and place it inside the golden castle where it belongs” (Atari, 2). While Clayton mentions his movements within the game brought him “by the Gold Castle” (Clayton,1), there is no mention of the chalice or the game’s explicit goal. In this regard, his actions employ the method of the dérive in which psychogeographical explorers “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord, 62).
While drawn by these elements which led him to explore the dungeons and mazes of Adventure, and no longer confined to the narrow definition of success made explicit in the manual, Clayton gained a new agency as a player. Through exploration and experimentation, Clayton acquired a deeper understanding of the underlying structure of the game space. However, in order for Clayton to gain psychogeographical agency over this space, its architecture had to be built in a manner that encouraged this behaviour. As Debord states in the “Theory of Derive”(1958): “Within architecture itself, the taste for dériving tends to promote all sorts of new forms of labyrinths made possible by modern techniques of construction” (Debord, 66). In this regard, Robinett became the architect of a new form of game space, a new digital labyrinth which encouraged open exploration and wandering. Due to these practices, Adventure is now situated as a notable game in the history of the medium, one which led to the Easter egg becoming a standard element in videogame design. It was not long after the publication of Adventure, that the Easter egg was recuperated by the game industry as a means of marketing new videogame titles.
Recuperation: Legacy of the Easter Egg
After the discovery of Robinett’s secret message, rumours about the Easter egg spread among fans; Atari noticed, and used the incident as an opportunity to gain publicity. In an interview with Electronic Games magazine in 1981 Atari Inc’s Steve Wright was quoted, saying: “from now on […] we’re going to plant little ‘Easter eggs’ like that in the games. Eventually we may have a real treasure hunt, with the clues hidden in various game cartridges” (Whalen, 72). This ‘real’ treasure hunt did come to pass, through the implementation of Easter eggs within Atari’s Swordquest series of adventure games. Atari offered prizes of jewellery worth $25 000 to players who could find and decipher the clues embedded within the games and their accompanying comic books. What began as an act of protest and creative subversion had been co-opted by the very company Robinett’s message explicitly criticized.
The Situationists appropriated the term recuperation as a means of discussing how subversive messages attained through détournement were recovered by capitalist powers. In Atari’s case, this recuperation came in the form of a trans-medial marketing campaign to boost the sales of a game which followed in the graphical adventure genre pioneered by Robinett. As a result, players no longer engaged in the drift of the dérive encouraged by Robinett’s programming; they actively searched for the secrets within videogames in the hopes of winning real-world prizes. By recuperating the Easter egg as a marketing tool, Atari opened the door for other game companies and programmers to use the Easter egg as a means of creating hidden content which would create a system of ‘player capital’, as Mia Consalvo noted in her 2007 book Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Video Games. These secret rooms, levels, and items soon became part of a system of player capital, in which those with richer knowledge gained cultural advantage over less knowledgeable players though a hierarchy of achievement-based status.
The introduction of the Easter egg to videogames had a profound effect on the videogame industry. Robinett’s single act of protest influenced subsequent generations of videogame designers, enabling them to experiment with secret paths and passages beyond the edges of the screen, as evidenced in the Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Brothers trilogy published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Entertainment System, as well as countless other game titles. Player practice shifted as they began to explore games in search of the hidden content that populated increasingly larger and more sophisticated digital environments. The legacy of Robinett’s work can been seen in the practices of participatory gamers cultures, as enterprising fans like Adam Clayton began to not only explore these worlds, but also bend and break them.
When players engaged the code of games through devices such as the Game Genie in 1991, they began to understand the underlying architectures of the game world. As a result, fans created new ways of interacting with game space, hacking and modifying game worlds in a practice which incorporates methods of both détournement and dérive. Through these game hacks and mods, fan cultures inscribe their own signatures on videogames, much like Robinett’s original act of subversion.
Zach Whalen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Linguistics and Communication where his teaching focuses on the critical study and practice of digital media in a variety of genres, including video games, electronic literature, comics, and other media. With Laurie N. Taylor, Zach Whalen is the co-editor of Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2008.
Easter Eggs (and not just those in digital contexts) are a situated cultural practice in need of further unpacking, and I love the approach you’re taking here to move a conversation beyond the metatextual fact of Easter Eggs’ existence to the political exigency of their origins. To me, what’s most compelling about these first Easter Eggs, and what your situationist reading underscores, are the ways in which previously invisible labor becomes evident through the programmer’s autograph (or maybe it’s an allograph?) on the work itself.
I’m curious about the concept of dérive and what it may or may not suggest about the game space of Adventure. On the one hand, it’s non-euclidean geometry (traveling in one direction through the blue maze will eventually bring you back to the same place) means that psychogeographical understandings of that space are more readily available. But on the other hand, is this an urban space? Who, further, is the “flâneur” of Adventure — is it the colored square a representation of the player-character or simply our focal point as we seek to understand solve the space like a puzzle?
In my reading, the architectural grammar of Adventure is structured around the objective finding the hidden message. Its design draws the player toward that room just as the yellow key next to a locked gate on a golden castle says, “Use this to open that”. Robinett’s message text strobes with the same color effect as the chalice, yet the data for the text graphic takes up 8 times as much memory. To me, this suggests that this latent spatial meaning — hinted by the presence of a uniquely inaccessible room within a room — is organized around this goal as an ultimate victory condition. The author’s signature works kind of like end credits on a film, you might say.
One last thought on recuperation: what about the bat? If recuperation is, as I understand it, a process of becoming-capital, then it seems significant within the textual space of Adventure that the luxury of wandering the space is only available for the player who has successfully glitched the bat to trap it inside the yellow castle. Moreso than the dragons which can be defeated rather easily, the bat — because he takes the stuff you need and moves it who knows where — is the real antagonist and competitor within the space of adventure. It’s his mobility that’s a threat, and the fact that it’s a zero-sum competition between the player and the bat for items which directly impact the player’s mobility through that space seems to resonate with the idea of recuperation as you’re using it here.
I’m interested, by the way, in the more recent recuperations and commodifications of the Easter Egg through Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. Do you think (if you’re familiar with it) that book’s focus on Easter Eggs (and Adventure gets referenced frequently with that text) is as cynical as Atari’s use of what was an originally subversive act? More broadly, what are the lessons to be learned here for video game historiography?
[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]
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