Secret Level

Why explain it when I could show it?

Great, you got my note.

I am a big fan of hidden stuff. Scavenger hunts, secret codes, armchair treasure hunts, things hidden in plain sight, and of course, secret levels in games. When I was a kid, I was deeply inspired by a book called Masquerade by Kit Williams. It looked like a children’s storybook but actually held the clues to a real treasure buried somewhere in the real ground. Every year in the spring, I went bonkers for Easter egg hunts — honestly, I didn’t even care about the candy. To this day, I like journeys of discovery for both the journey and the discovery. I like being rewarded for looking deeper.

I think game reviews should do the same thing. When I worked at Future, the term used in the office was “surprise and delight.” The reader expects to get the facts about the game as well as your opinion, but they don’t necessarily expect to be entertained by your presentation, or given an “A ha!” moment that sticks with them after they’ve read the score. The conveyance of basic review information is assumed; surprise and delight is everything beyond that.

There are lots of little ways to offer surprise and delight. It could be a pun in a headline, or a sidebar only slightly related to the subject matter but educational and amusing in its own right. Maybe it’s the player name you choose before you take your screens; they can easily be made into commentaries of their own, or simple references that give the reader a chuckle. Official Xbox Magazine uses a “bottom filler” on most of its editorial pages, which contain little related facts or quotes or some related tidbit to the story listed above. These have become such a signature of the magazine that, after they disappeared with a redesign, the reader feedback was so loud and so passionate that they were almost immediately reinstated. It was realized that people could get their gaming information anywhere, but bottom fillers were a specific reason people enjoyed getting it from OXM.

And that’s just in the realm of words; surprise and delight can easily extend to design. For its annual Geek Quiz article one year, Maximum PC planned to run a photograph of a scientist in front of a chalkboard as a feature opener. The chalkboard could say anything, so I was asked to create a secret message that matched the theme of the piece. Several readers wrote in after solving it; once they realized the markings on the wall were not random, they dug deeper.

The most ambitious implementation of surprise and delight I’ve attempted was at GamePro. In an effort to boost the low-selling March issue, I was allowed to create two issue-wide scavenger hunts, largely because I said I really wanted to do it and they let me. I needed the full cooperation of the staff — editors needed to know which bits of text were not typos but hints; the art team had to create visual clues with care; the production team had to add a step in their check process so that all the puzzle pieces fit before they left the office. It was one of my proudest moments. It was also probably not worth the effort; the audience kind of didn’t care. But I’d rather overestimate the reader than write down to them.

Surprise and delight basically means exceeding your readers’ expectations in a creative way. You are giving your reader everything they need and a few extra things they don’t — but when those extra things click, they make the difference between them wanting to keep reading your work and casually reading someone else’s. Surprise and delight gives them a reason to bond with you as a reviewer, and get to know and trust your advice.

Hopefully, if you found this secret level on your own, you were a little surprised and delighted yourself. That’s why I did it this way.

Congratulations! Well, assuming you found my other hidden message, too.