On the subject of Easter eggs

 

When we began creating cartoons – starting with The Greys – it was as an experiment in the use of vector graphics. We never dreamt that we would still be creating them 25 years later, nor that our series would go on to appear in three magazines, a newspaper and be included in an exhibition at the National Media Museum in the UK.

No, our plan was simple: work out how to make some cartoons with a copy of Corel Draw that came free on a magazine cover disk, then try to sell them to SFX – pretty much the only science fiction magazine that appeared in our local newsagent (they never replied to our submission). As our target was print media, the notion of adding extra hidden gems in our source files never even entered our consciousness. But this was 1994, when barely anyone had an internet connection. The thought of making our source files available to download didn’t even register: neither of us had experienced the World Wide Web at that point, let alone owned a domain or storage space online to host the files.

So there was no reason to create any Easter eggs. Printed media offered nowhere to hide them, and there was no point sneaking them into the layer structure of the source files, since we were the only ones with access to those. The earliest Greys strips were naturally Easter egg free.


Now let’s travel forwards in time by 15 years. You can use whichever method you like – DeLorean, TARDIS or some Victorian contraption – but we went with the traditional approach of finishing our education, getting jobs, and entering into the mundane daily, weekly, monthly and annual cycles that make up a typical Western life. Before we realised it, we were most of the way through 2008.

“How do you feel about re-launching The Greys as a webcomic?” Mark asked.

“Erm… I suppose we could.” Vince was a man of many words, but none of the really good ones seemed to be forthcoming.

“But I’d like to make a couple of changes.” Mark was being deliberately disingenuous at this point – largely because he thought that would let him use an impressive word when writing about the event a decade later.

“What changes?”

“Well… I want to use an open license, and allow people to download our source files free of charge. But we can’t redistribute our original files, since they’ve got some Corel clipart in them – so we’ll need to re-create the existing cartoons from scratch. While we’ve got to do that anyway, I propose we use a different program: a Free software application called Inkscape – it’s pretty similar to Corel Draw. It means that anyone downloading the files will be able to look at them without having to pay for a commercial program.”

Vince was stuck at the phrase “free of charge”.

“You mean anyone can download them?”

“Yep.”

“For free?”

“Yep.”

“So some magazine could download them, print them, and we wouldn’t see a penny?”

“Erm…yep.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

That was how we ended up using the Non-Commercial clause on the Creative Commons license. Without it, Vince wouldn’t have been interested at all, so we agreed to include it as a compromise. We’ve managed to lose it on our later projects (‘Monsters, Inked’ and ‘Elvie’) – but that was an easier sell, since we were being paid to produce each strip in the first place. Now that The Greys will (hopefully) finally be paying for itself, via Patreon, we do want to go back and re-licence those older strips so that they truly are free for everyone to use.

Having persuaded Vince to let people download our source files we knew we had to re-create our older strips – and make a load of new ones – without including someone else’s proprietary clipart. Mark had used Inkscape a little previously, but Vince soon got the hang of it, and was quickly outpacing Mark’s earlier efforts with vastly more polished drawings.

Part of our aim through this was to encourage people to download Inkscape and experiment. To learn from our creations, but to go beyond them, discovering their own artistic style. But people wouldn’t go through the steps to download Inkscape in order to view our source files if they offered little more than the rendered PNG versions. So as an added incentive we decided to put hidden extras into our strips, referring to them as Easter eggs, after the name commonly used for such content in computer programs.

At first the Easter eggs were trivially hidden – or, in some cases, not really hidden at all. They ranged from the mundane and simple through to complex multi-level puzzles for the viewer to solve. In practice only a few people were searching for them, and fewer still were motivated enough to persevere with anything too complex. So over time the eggs became more sophisticated but easier to interpret: where once a path on a hidden layer might yield clues to a puzzle leading to another web page, we moved towards more hidden panels that continued the main cartoon, or contradicted it entirely. Sure, we still throw in occasional challenges, but today’s Easter eggs are usually both easier to find, and more immediately gratifying when you do. Which is a roundabout way of saying “the first few Easter eggs are a bit rubbish, but stick with us because they get better.”

Every Greys cartoon features at least one Easter egg, and some contain dozens (depending on how you count them). Some are immediately obvious if you look at the source file in Inkscape; some don’t require Inkscape at all. In the next post I’ll tell you a little about the tools you’ll need to go egg hunting.

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