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Wonderful Design 101 - Part 3: The Design of Secrets


Most games use secrets as a tool to inflate play time. Acquiring the secrets in these games is usually just a matter of spending the time to travel to some location off the set path. If it’s not this, it’s hiding them in such a way that is so obscure that the player would never discover them on their own. Good secrets are ones that reward the player for skillful use of the game mechanics or observations of the game world. These secrets are the ones that feel satisfying to uncover because they correspond to some kind of discovery or mental connection. In essence, good secrets are designed similarly to puzzles, but their very existence is what’s hidden.

This is where The Wonderful 101 shines: its secrets are designed in such a way that the visual and contextual design of both the world and game mechanics are used to give clues as to their whereabouts. The game is not flawless in this regard though, as some of the secrets are very counter intuitive.  I’ll address these first.  But for the most part, every secret just requires a small mental connection to find and unlock.

Useless Backtracking

Littered throughout every standard level are secret missions that necessitate backtracking to a previous mission to trigger. The game makes an attempt at signposting these secret missions by having each one be numbered in order. This makes it easier for those who are paying attention when suddenly they are entering Mission 5 after just completing Mission 3. If only this method were actually reliable.

Going down a certain elevator or reaching the point where a giant robot wrecks stuff will make earlier points inaccessible. So the only solid clue the player has to backtrack and find the secret missions doesn’t always work, especially when the mission after the point of no return is the one that tips them off.

One issue I have with the way these secret missions are done is that the backtracking itself doesn’t have a purpose. Backtracking done correctly, ala the Metroid series, rewards the player with new content. Each time the player backtracks in a Metroid game, they are doing so with the intent of either exploration or progression. Either way, when the player goes back they will obtain a previously unreachable item or open a new path to move forward in the game. Always something new and always with a purpose.

The backtracking required to find secret missions in The Wonderful 101 doesn’t offer the player anything. There is no insight gained as to the nature of the level; no new locales or other incentives either. The only things to be found are the secret missions themselves, and they can’t be considered rewards because they are designed as challenges. This results in the player feeling rewarded purely based on how well they accomplish said mission and not the discovery of the secret itself, which makes the backtracking completely redundant.

The second problem with this is the specific triggers for the secret missions.  These can be ridiculously obscure. For example, there is a level where the player first learns that using a Unite Hammer will result in them sinking in water. This part has the player jumping into a pool and running around on top of the water while they are hinted at to use the Unite Hammer. When they first enter the pool the player begins a combat mission. The player is being told that they have to fight but there are no enemies. They are shown a hammer here, so the player should make the logical connection that the Unite Hammer is heavy and will make them sink to where the enemies are.

The trigger for the secret mission requires the player to completely ignore what is being suggested to them. They need to wait on the top of the water for the enemies to swim up and then beat them. At no point before this is it established that the enemy even has the ability to swim… so, on top of doing the opposite of what the game tells them, the player must also assume the enemies have an ability that has never been shown or hinted at.

The secret missions are a good idea but are executed in a totally counter-intuitive way. A better option would have been to put them in secret areas of the levels that require creative use of the Unite Morphs to get to. This way the player gains the reward of a new area to explore, and the secret mission becomes an organic extension of that reward. The whole thing can then become a double whammy of: “cool, I found this secret area” and “I nailed that secret mission”. You gain the benefit of having a mission be a secret one, and reward the player’s use of the game mechanics without the tedium and ambiguity of the poorly-executed backtracking.

Rewarding Mental Leaps

Here is where we get into masterful game design. The secrets in The Wonderful 101 come in many varieties. Some are simple extensions of the game mechanics while others require the player to re-think the things they know about the game world. The game will never explicitly tell the player what to look out for or that secrets exist at all.

The analogy I like to use for the secrets in The Wonderful 101 is that all of them are like hidden chests. The game gives clues, usually visual, as to where these chests are and the player must use the game mechanics in order to unlock them. This leads to the player feeling rewarded for not only the discovery of the secret, but also in unlocking it.

There are boxes in the game that make that analogy literal. They are right out in the open and simply require the player to attack them with the corresponding Unite Morph to unlock them. The other secrets which will be discussed here are really just an evolution of these boxes. They are in essence the same, but have taken different forms and require different use of the game mechanics to unlock. The player must go beyond their basic understanding of how things work and with the aid of a few clues from the game, make the logical connections that will see the reward come their way.

Advancing Your Team Through Holes…

In the first mission after the prologue the player will come across a toilet where they are told that if they draw a wonder liner into it they will get a prize. From this set-up the world opens to reveal huge numbers of similar secrets that just require a little cognitive leap to identify. Take these open doors for example:

There’s nothing really out of place here unless the player makes the connection that the toilet and these doorways are both things you can shove people into. This mental leap will forever change the player’s perception of open doorways in this game world. They all now become secrets and if it works for doorways...

What about windows?


The mouths of statues?

The list goes on.

Wonder-Liner Circle:

Drawing shapes is something fundamental to gameplay and is taught very early on. The Wonder-Liner Circle is special as it is the only drawn shape that has a non-combat related purpose. As there is no other basis to the in-game effects of this ability, the game tells the player that drawing a circle around things can result in cool stuff happening. On the same screen are a bunch of visually distinct withered plants sitting in a circular container.

The player does what they are told and what will happen is very similar to when they draw a circle around a group of civilians. The Wonder-Liner becomes rainbow-coloured which signifies the player doing the correct thing and then - bang! Everything blooms, becoming more in tune with the game’s colourful artstyle and the player is given an item as a reward. To reinforce the power of the Wonder-Liner Circle, the player is shown a Kahkoo-Regah later on in the level which is essentially a circular portal and - you guessed it - requires a Wonder-Liner Circle to activate.

There are plenty of structures and other aesthetic things in the world that are circular in nature. Many of these will hold secrets that will reward the player for paying attention to the minute details of the world. These circular secrets in and of themselves aren’t that interesting but they train the player to look for things in the world to draw circles around. This combined with a few other things should lead to the player’s discovery of a new set of secrets.

Establishing the Secret Patterns

Take the above screenshot. This is one of the very rare moments in the game where the camera will be used to emphasise something. Normally, the camera follows the player’s movement but in this instance the camera settles in this position until the player moves to the edge of the screen. This is the game’s way of somewhat subtly telling the player to pay attention to what is shown. The key to activating this secret requires the player to make the logical leap that maybe circles aren’t the only shapes that unlock things.

The game aids the player in making this jump in a few ways. The camera trick is the first step in getting the player to notice the possibility that a secret is here. It is then up to the curiosity of the player to try to interact with the odd pattern centred in the middle of the screen. Since practically all interaction with the environment begins with a Wonder-Liner the game will know what the player intends to do.

[notice the slight shine compared to the previous image.]

When a Wonder-Liner is near the pattern the game will begin highlighting it, which reinforces the player’s initial curiosity. At this point the game is basically telling the player: “You're on the right track, but you need to do a little more. Here’s a clue”. The highlighting of the pattern in conjunction with the Wonder-Liner should be enough for most players to start tracing the pattern with the Wonder-Liner. Now this particular example is strange; the pattern is like an upside down bucket but the player is required to draw a fully-formed square to make it work.

I have no idea why this is the case -- it just doesn’t make any sense. Anyway, after the player has completed one of these secret patterns for the first time they should view the world differently. Any pattern drawn anywhere should now stand out and be viewed as a potential secret.

For me, the moment I realised just how well these secrets were designed was when I came across the following:

The visual design is so good here that when playing for the first time the numbers on the road didn't even register. My brain felt that they were inconsequential so I ignored them. But upon replaying the game and having my perceptions of the world altered by the initial discovery of the secret patterns, these numbers stood out juuuust enough for me to give a shot at tracing them. It blew me away the fact that the game was able to create a secret so innocuous yet so obvious at the same time.

Sneaking in Some Hammer Time!

This is one of my favourite secrets in terms of design in the entire game. Take a look at the following screenshot:

There’s nothing that visually gives away the fact that there are secrets here. You get a bunch of platforms floating on pillars of water. Now the reason the secret here is so well designed is that on the surface it looks like a regular platforming challenge. One that requires the player to time their jumps with the rise and fall of the platforms to progress. Everything here looks like it is meant to serve that one purpose. The pillars of water could be taken out but they seem like they are there to fulfill the theme of the level, which makes a lot of sense and the player should be none the wiser. Unless of course they make that logical connection between the water and something the game teaches them in the very same level.

The above screenshot shows an obvious break in the platform that blocks the player from progressing further. It’s here that the player must use the hammer in order to sink the platform and then progress. In one fell swoop the game makes sure that the player knows 100% how to sink in water and thus how to unlock the secret of the floating platforms.

[The hammer builds the pressure but when it's gone...]

[The platform shoots up to a hidden area!]

One on the Side

This secret I only discovered on my third pass through the game. It’s another one that opened my eyes to the brilliance of the visual design of this game. That screenshot shows a level that is entirely made up of circular platforms. Eventually, the player will come across this platform, with an odd looking right-angled protrusion on the side.

The great thing about this secret is that the protrusion doesn’t look at all amiss; the visual design of the thing blends in so well with the surroundings that it’s easy to overlook. Even when the player realises that the protrusion is an oddity they still have to figure out what it represents. The player has to look to an ability that is used regularly in the opening stages of the game but not in the mid-to-late game.

The Wonder-Liner throughout the game can be used up a building to create a ladder or chain that allows the player to traverse to the top. The only real thing connecting the protrusion and the buildings is the right-angle that is present in both scenarios. It is a bit of a leap but the cost of trying out the theory is so minimal that the only reason the player would have to not do it is if they haven’t made that connection.

But once it clicks in their mind, the game quickly reciprocates after the Wonder-Liner is used. Once it extends past the edge of the screen the game will turn the Wonder-Liner into a step ladder bridging the gap between the platform and the off-screen platform above. The player then feels the elation of figuring out the puzzle of the right-angled protrusion and with this new insight in hand they should begin wondering if the game has hidden these anywhere else…

Match the Shape

OK, so this secret I did not discover on my own. Though when I read about how to find it I never once thought “Jesus, how the hell was I supposed to figure that out?!”. Admittedly, this secret is still very obscure. It requires the player to use the Unite Ball to plug certain air vents or water spouts that will build pressure and end up shooting the player vertically upward to the hidden item. This secret is difficult to uncover because it relies on the player using out-of-game knowledge to figure out and requires using an ability that is completely optional and often overlooked. It also requires utilisation of that ability in a situation that the game never even gets close to teaching.

Now, the reason why it doesn’t feel cheap is that upon investigation the player should realise that something was amiss with these water spouts and fans all along.

Take this screenshot; the fan in the middle is the only one of the three that is at a lower elevation than the others. This is the game telling the player that something is up with that particular fan. All that is then required is for the player to experiment with their plethora of skills and play a successful game of match the shape.  

Here’s an example without the aid of a highlighted difference between similar objects. Even here, if you really think about it, the game reveals the nature of the secret. The circle that the water spout is placed in is what gives it away. Mechanically, there’s no reason to have that circle there; the water spout would still function the same way even if the hole it came from was much smaller. However, having it come out of a hole that size is a subtle clue that a secret is here and becomes immediately apparent to anyone who has already figured this secret out before.


You see how part of the mob of Wonderful Ones spills over one side of this wall? Well that’s the player’s tip-off that there’s probably something there. This one seriously blew me away because it’s not  tied to an ability the player uses. It comes about as a consequence of the player being familiar with how the mob-like nature of The Wonderful 101 works with the world around it.

Invisible walls are commonly found where the designers don’t want the player to die for attempting to find a secret. This is what stops the mob from spilling over the left wall, and the fact that they spill over the right means there’s no invisible wall there.


There are many more secrets in The Wonderful 101. The ones I have brought to light here are just the ones that stand out to me the most in terms of great game design. I find it so beautiful how the game handles every single aspect of secrets. The subtlety and the way they are logically hinted at to the player makes finding them so incredibly rewarding. Having to use the game mechanics in different ways in order to unlock these secrets also adds a puzzle solving satisfaction to the whole thing. This is the kind of game design that sets The Wonderful 101 apart from the rest of the pack.

Boy those sub headings really took a dive toward the end there...
(I wonder what that was all about?

In case you missed them:
Wonderful Design 101 - Part 1: An Overview
Wonderful Design 101 - Part 2: Player Guidance 
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About Chimpomageeone of us since 3:20 AM on 09.08.2013

Hello all!

I am just your average gamer with aspirations to enter the gaming industry. I live in Australia and as such get raped by technological pricing and policies by the idiots who run the country and various other backwards thinking organizations. So yeah...I have to buy a lot of lube...
on a lighter note, why is this not Australia's National flag?

Anyway, my favouritest thing in all the world is good design. Not just in video games but in the real world as well. It baffles me in so many ways how badly some things are designed and how so many people will overlook/ignore these problems. This is probably why i am deeply cynical in regards to the human race and spend so much time in escapism. However, good design just kicks ass.

Here are the parts to the as of yet incomplete
series of Design analysis posts for The Wonderful 101:
Wonderful Design 101 - Part 1: An Overview
Wonderful Design 101 - Part 2: Player Guidance
Wonderful Design 101 - Part 3: The Design of Secrets

I'll leave this section with just a bunch of my favorite things in no particular order.

Favourite Game: Super Metroid
Favourite Genre: Action Adventure
Favourite Dev Studio: Retro Studios
Favourite Console: SNES
Favourite Anime: Tekkaman Blade
Favourite TV Show: The Wire
Favourite Movie: Terminator 2
Favourite food: Tacos
Favourite Yoshi: Blue Yoshi
Favourite Food Group: Meat
Favourite type of pants: Trackie Dacks
Favourite pocket: Inner Left Breast
Favourite REAL number: Shintysix
Favourite Temperature: 88 degrees
Favourite News Network: CNNNN