How secret rooms created magic in 90s shooters (Topic)

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How secret rooms created magic in 90s shooters


Many people associate old shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein precisely with the first gaming experience when they fought pixel enemies. Many will also recall spending enough time in addition to gunfights, heading into the textures in Doom, hoping to find the switch that opens the door to the secret room.

Secret rooms in 90s shooters have become a hallmark of the genre and something special in the hearts of players. David Kushner's book "Masters of Doom" tells the story of id Software's games. There he also told the story of how they came up with secret rooms in 90s shooters. With that in mind, PC Gamer talked to John Romero about the matter to share the story of how secrets came to be in id Software's games.


Scott Miller, founder of Apogee, wrote to id to introduce secret areas into Commander Keen in order to increase its size and make it the same as in the Super Mario games. Romero was sure that it was logical to introduce them, since Commander Keen is very similar in concept to Mario. As a result, there are a ton of secrets in all parts of Commander Keen. They turned out to be so good that the studio decided to incorporate them into their shooters, starting with Catacomb 3D.


Catacomb 3D is often overlooked, but it was an important step between Hovertank 3D and Wolfenstein 3D at a time when id felt the need to tell you exactly how many dimensions there were in the title. But while Catacombs 3D showed that secret zones in a game like this were a good idea, there weren't many in Wolfenstein 3D.


In Catacomb 3D, the protagonist used magic to find secrets or hidden levels, for example by throwing a fireball at a wall. BJ Blaskowitz, alas, did not possess such abilities, and for him it was necessary to come up with something new. It would have been nice to just push the walls aside for this, but John Carmack had programmed the engine without such capabilities and would have had to modify it.


“Carmack didn’t want to insert edits into his ideal engine and add new mechanics there. But he did it, even though we spent a couple of months convincing John to take such a step, ”says Romero.

But the lost pride of the programmer paid off, and in search of secrets, such as the hidden labyrinth of E3M7, players examined every swastika and every portrait of the Fuhrer. The same E3M7 is one of the hidden levels of Wolfenstein, which is modeled after Pac-Man with invincible ghosts. You have to navigate the absurdity, where the initials of the creators of the game were composed from the walls, but the reward is an easter egg that will be remembered for decades.


“Miyamoto taught us. After the success of Wolfenstein, we moved the secret rooms to Doom and they were much cooler. ”

Wolfenstein's secrets were difficult to visualize due to their plainness. Doom had a different engine and more features thanks to the increased amount of textures. This made it easier to find suspicious areas on the walls, making it easier for players to see them.

“Finding secrets in Wolfe was simple: go to a specific wall and press a button to reveal the secret. We realized that this was not interesting, so we decided that Doom would have clues to every secret. The hints were both subtle and obvious, ”says Sandy Petersen, co-creator of Doom's levels.


Petersen created most of the first two episodes of Doom. Its levels differ in that they are less scientific and more occult, with hellish images of martyrs on the walls. On the map Slough of Despair-E3M2, if you open the map, you will notice that one of the stone walls looks like an arrow, and if you go to where it points, you will find a plasma cannon and a first aid kit.

Developers consulted each other on secrets to make them more fun:

“I could play John Romero's level and say,“ This displaced texture that has a secret behind it is too obvious, you need to make the hint more subtle. Or he said, "Sandy, the size of the room is huge, and the secret is asking for it." And I added one. Sometimes Carmack or another programmer could come to us and say: "I added a timer mechanic for doors, maybe you know how else you can use it in design?" I ended up introducing secrets based on timing.


All parts of Doom followed the Wolfenstein tradition, featuring a score at the end of a level, including a counter of hidden rooms the player found. The secrets found were accompanied by a special sound and the inscription "SECRET FOUND!" - it was an inspiring award. She made you feel smart, motivated you to keep looking.

Spreading Secret Rooms

When all shooters were still called "Doom Clones," secrets were one of the traditions they copied as well. Subsequent projects such as Heretic and Star Wars: Dark Force were rewarded with points for their secrets, as in Doom.

The 1994 Rise of the Triad was packed with secret rooms. At the beginning of the very first map, you see a rocket launcher behind a fence, which you can bypass and press the touch pad there, it opened a secret area, with a clue to the next secret - and this is just the beginning of the game. Duke Nukem 3D, released a year later, was also riddled with secrets, often highlighting its innovations in destructible levels.

The mention of 3D in the title was a hallmark of shooters at the time, but it wasn't full 3D, just a sprite illusion. True real-time 3D rendering of the environment for FPS appeared only with the release of Quake in 1996. Jumping also appeared there. This was the next step [or leap] in how secret rooms were introduced into FPS.


Petersen created 7 levels for her, including the very first The Nameless City:

“I was going to show gamers how the jumping mechanic works, so I installed an obvious wall switch in the alley that cannot be activated by simply jumping up to it. For this it was required to reach it through the neighboring building and jump to it from there. I had a funny secret and felt that I also gave players the opportunity to master the mechanics. But it seems to me that secrets should not so much teach, but rather make the player feel smart. ”

While more complex secrets were possible in Quake, they were difficult to create.

“All because it was real 3D with complex geometry. In Doom, these were line segments. I could just draw three lines and I have a room and then I draw a door and I'm ready. In Quake, doors needed space. So I made the door in Quake that you shot at, and it slid sideways, ”says Petersen.

Secret doors that were opened by a hit are a Quake feature. She tempted players to waste her ammunition by shooting them.

How secrets in FPS have sunk into oblivion

And while secret areas became more difficult to create, they enjoyed a certain popularity in shooters of the time. Three of the major games from 1997 did a great job of perfecting them. For example, Shadow Warrior hid anime-styled women from players. Blood contained both normal and super-secrets - they were much more difficult to find, and often the search involved throwing dynamite in random parts of the location or exploring unobvious areas. Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 connected secrets to your leveling, giving you points for finding them to develop strength. And if other games inserted secrets, giving a reason to replay it in the future, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 made you search for them right away.

Jedi Knight turned out to be something of a last breath for secrets. In the 90s, the most popular shooters came out without this element, and not only because 3D design after Quake made them difficult to create. The first Half-Life and Medal of Honor were serious games with a screaming "SECRET FOUND!" was inappropriate.

Even Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, which had silly cheats like God Mode, Big Head Mode, and even Fart Mode, didn't have them either. The era of shooting at demons was replaced by the era of military shooters, where there was simply no place for such a thing.


It also didn't make sense to create secrets when some FPS levels were designed to be duplicated like multiplayer maps.

Daikatana and Serious Sam are exceptions that have been deliberately made to look like shooters from the beginning of the last decade. After that, only in FEAR 2008 one secret was found.

The School of Design that started with Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 was more or less dead and, with a few exceptions. It's funny, but everything has changed nowadays.

In 2018 and 2019, secret rooms were resurrected in many retro shooters: Dusk, Project Warlock, Ion Fury and Amid Evil - there were plenty of them. David Szymanski, responsible for the creation of Dusk, says that he could not miss such an important design element:

“I think they really make a significant contribution to the gaming experience with any kind of exploration focus. They not only add stimulus for deliberate exploration, but they also help the feeling that there is more soul in the world of play. Secrets make the game more interesting and motivate to learn it.


They also made a return to Doom Eternal, adding depth to the exploration of the map. In the end, perhaps, it is worth saying a simple truth: everything new is well forgotten old.

The Topic of Article: How secret rooms created magic in 90s shooters.
Author: Jake Pinkman