When the triple-a game we are playing inevitably tells us that aside from saving the world/the universe/our girlfriend, there are a hundred meaningless trinkets that we also have to find for some completely arbitrary reason, we don’t even blink. Collectibles have become as ubiquitous to modern gaming as frowns and rippling biceps. But why do developers feel the need to dot their world maps with curios?
You may be thinking ‘why are you complaining about an aspect of a game that is entirely optional? If you don’t want to hunt down the collectibles, then don’t!’ This is my problem with collectibles in games; I have to hunt them down. I’ll spend hours combing the landscape for the red jewel that was hidden behind the evasive rock. My social life will stagnate because I’m too enveloped in my mighty quest to gather all the intel on the enemies that I’ve already filled with bullets. If I don’t collect them all, I get the harrowing feeling that the game looks down on me for it. I’m niggled by the missing trophies or achievements reminding me that there are knickknacks to be found. I’m not sure if gamers are all budding obsessive compulsives, but surely collecting fifty of something only because it’s there smacks a little of pointless busy-work.
Collectibles can be an entertaining addition to games with an emphasis on exploration, such as the fantastic Far Cry 3. Rook Island is a vast, jungle-themed playground in which the player can sweep across the landscape in a wing glider or rumble through dingy paths on a quad bike. In a game like Far Cry 3, collectibles are essential. They give the player an excuse to flit through the jungle, chopping down vines to access ancient temples that hold valuable relics, Indiana Jones style. This is an example of competently employed collectibles. Although the collectibles themselves hold no other reward than the satisfaction of finding them, seeking them out is such fun and the environment is so vivid that no added reward is necessary. As I’ve said, if the game has a large, interesting world and focus on exploration, collectibles are a must.
But what about linear, testosterone-fuelled shooters like the critically acclaimed Gears of War, or any Call of Duty game? I only played through Gears of War fairly recently. I was happily giving aliens what for with a number of huge, over-compensatory guns when I noticed something shiny underneath a staircase. Upon further investigation I discovered it was a cog tag. By this stage I was late into the first act, and my first thought was ‘Wait, were there more of these? Am I going to have to slog through these missions again?’ What is the point of placing completely useless baubles in unintuitive places? We aren’t magpies. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could revisit the rooms later in the game to search endlessly for anything sparkly, but in a strictly linear game like Gears of War, once you’ve missed it, you’ve missed it. It feels more like an afterthought than a well-thought out aspect of the game. It’s like the developers had a checklist of features that had to be included. ‘Protagonist? Check. Friendly NPC companion? Check. Witty one-liners? Check. Collectibles? Damn, I know I’d forgot something. I’ll do that now’.
There has to be some thought committed to where the collectibles are placed and how the player will access them. In Gears of War, the cog tags are just led on the floor in the corner of the dimly lit room. Consequently, there is no satisfaction in plodding over and pressing A to collect them. Collectibles can add variation to linear games if they are given dedicated thought. No game exemplifies this better than Batman: Arkham Asylum (and probably the sequel, although I haven’t played it yet). I hunted down every Riddler trophy with unbridled glee because it felt like a genuine challenge to overcome rather than just a senseless fetch quest. To find them all, you have to use all the tricks the game teaches you, employing the grappling hook here, blowing up a wall there. The enjoyment to be had in just finding them through your own gumption and Batman’s arsenal of gadgets is enough to justify their existence.
So, what if the world map isn’t a huge, non-linear box of toys? What if there really is no other way the player can access collectibles than bending down and picking them up? If this is the case, the only way a collectible can be justified is by making them something the player will want to collect. Make it something valuable, or something that adds to the experience of playing the game rather than some random glittery object. BioShock (along with many other games) had collectibles in the form of audiotapes which elucidate on the plot. It’s true that the process of finding them was no more complex than finding cog tags in Gears of War, but the audio tapes in BioShock added even more gravity and tension to a game that was already brimming with intrigue. They aren’t a cheaply tacked-on extra feature, they are essential to truly understanding the motives of the characters who disfigured rapture into the sinking hell-hole it is. They offer an insight into people who, although long dead, are affecting the protagonist with each step he takes. This is the antitheses of the worthless items I’m rallying against here.
I’m going conclude with the way developers should handle the notion of collectibles. By all means have them, but ensure that they are either a pleasure to seek out or that they offer tangible rewards and consequently, a motive to collect them. The alternative? DON’T INCLUDE COLLECTIBLES! Gamers won’t look down on you if you want to deliver a well-executed, tightly-focused experience without throwing in the odd souvenir. Now that we’re clear, I’m off to mine every planet in the galaxy on Mass Effect.
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A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. However, I'm more than happy playing a wide range of genres on both consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I'm also a History student.