There’s a common refrain in fandom that games just don’t have as many surprises as they used to. I get it - it’s easy to feel that way! Marketing cycles are well-oiled machines: delicate assemblies of deliberately timed trailers, content updates, and sales promotions. That cycle prompts all manner of takes and responses from fans, journalists, developers, competitors, and video producers, all vying over the same air supply on social media. It can often feel like we need to earn our personal value by conceiving Valuable Thoughts and unleashing them, moment-by-moment, onto social media. And even if we resist, even if we know that’s not true, that pressure remains. It’s human. In the era of brand-building and consumption, can a game developer afford to keep a secret? Lest they forfeit the never-ending, bare-knuckle brawl for attention?
It sounds bleak, huh? There are some highly specific aspects of this, at least, that aren’t entirely bad. For example: the prevalence of streams, along with our modern video-content-mill, helps us understand the “play experience” of games earlier and more fully than we ever have before. We can connect with people across the world over the games we like, and cross-reference our feelings with them to broaden our horizons, learn more about our own tastes, and hopefully spend our “entertainment dollars” more wisely. Aside from social media, surprises in games have been somewhat eroded by development of the craft. Advancements in game design, usability, interface design, and accessibility have cleared away even more of the fog around what was once hidden away.
Even still, it’s hard to overstate the excitement of being caught by something you never would’ve expected. So how do you sneak something cool in your game without compromising its promotion? There’s one particular strategy that I’ve been seeing more and more of, and although it’s often just a small thing, I’m extremely into the idea:
dump your food dump your food dump your food dump your food dump your food dump your food dump your food dump your food— trash king (@BkTrashking) February 16, 2013
You see that? You’re looking at tomorrow’s metanarrative storytelling, baby.
That odd tweet probably doesn’t mean anything to you right now, but it stems from Donut County, an abundantly bizarre Katamari-like. On the surface, it’s a game about, uh, sucking an entire county into a hole in the ground, but a lot of its quirkiness comes from its contemporary writing style. Story scenes often play out through instant message conversations, and even when they don’t, the things the characters say sound like things that would show up in your notifications. But that’s not faint praise! Donut County knows its audience well enough that the characters feel friendly right out the gate.
With that familiar tone in mind, it’s perfectly fitting that BK, the raccoon character that’s always fiddling with his phone, has a real-world Twitter account. I mean, he hasn’t done anything useful with it (have any of us…?). There’s nothing plot-consequential on it, but somehow, the fact that it exists gives the character gravity. He has posts from years before any of us even knew who he was! Maybe someday he’ll post again after we’ve moved on to other games. As silly and as slight as it may be, it’s believable details like this that ultimately make characters feel real.
This isn’t a technique that Donut County invented, obviously. To name a few: we saw a notable (but very spoilery!) example from last year’s biggest indie surprise, and recently, Marvel’s Spider-Man pulled social media into the game diegetically. My favorite example, though, without a doubt, is an extensive easter egg from earlier this year in Celeste.
This is Theo. Like our player character, Madeline, he heads to the exalted Mount Celeste for some honest soul searching. She bumps into Theo throughout the story, where he’ll offer advice, comeradie, and crucial moral support. He’s a laidback dude! There’s a lot more to him than meets the eye, though: if you find him in a secret room in the very first level of the game, he’ll tell you about how he came to Mount Celeste, his recent burnout in the American professional wasteland, and his new passion: his “InstaPix” account. He urges you to check it out - a not-so-subtle hint that he’s talking about a real Instagram account!
To say the least, I was knocked to my feet when I found this in my very first session with the game. Celeste adorns the guise of a traditional, 2D platformer, a genre that typically has more to do with level design & mechanics than narrative. As I scrolled through Theo’s Instagram, I unravelled a history that extended beyond the scope of the game. I traced the events that led Theo to Mount Celeste, reading every caption, and taking note of the dates on every post. This type of narrative context is incredibly difficult to weave into a platformer naturally, but on a social network that I was already comfortable with? I couldn’t get enough. Theo became more than a supporting character in a game, he was this cool cartoon guy from Seattle that I had to follow.
In the months following Celeste’s release, Theo has continued to post updates, providing fans with closure to the story and nice, little reminders of our time with the game. And when it was revealed that Madeline would be making her appearance in Towerfall, he even posted a picture of her practicing with her bow. It’s a small, warm little surprise - like hearing from an old friend after some time apart. Theo’s posts may all be comic-style drawings, but their presence in our own social spaces make him feel almost as real as anyone else. We’re all out here somewhere, doing our best, documenting our struggles, and celebrating our triumphs. And if Theo was able to get through it? I don’t know, maybe the rest of us can, too.