Collectibles have always been at the forefront of making games seem longer than they are through busywork. They’re not a bad solution for games that feel a little too short or lack replay value, but their execution tends to be clumsy at best. Whether poking around for COG tags in Gears of War or constantly looking behind yourself in DmC: Devil May Cry, these tasks can start to feel more like work than something that’s been added to the game to enhance it. There are a few developers out there who work to create collectibles that are worth getting; either because they’re entertaining, they unlock interesting content, or are fun to collect in and of themselves.
What got me thinking about collectibles was Farcry 3. I can’t think of a game that uses them in a more inelegant fashion than poor old Farcry 3. The items gave more experience, which was pretty sweet, but they don’t have much in the way of personality. There are a couple of interesting letters and data cards that provide a bit of story about the island, but I found them to be pretty boring. I stopped reading them in hurry, but the idols were even worse. They didn’t even have much in the way of flavor text, giving a bare explanation that wasn’t all that interesting. Sure, I was getting some experience, but it was still pretty dull.
What was worse was that they took away the exploration element involved in getting the collectibles. If the items are boring then the developers could at least have put them in fun places to locate, but they took that away by plunking the items right down on the map. Sure, you have to be in the general vicinity of an item in order to see it on your map, but that icon shows up when the player is still pretty far away. It spoils the surprise of finding the item on your own, and kind of discourages aimless exploring. You’re never really going to find something by accident, never going to just make an unintended discovery. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t even be bothered to go out of my way to pick the items, as all of the joy had just been sucked out of collecting them. A little experience wasn’t going to fix that.
Bioshock was one of the first games where I enjoyed looking around for items. They weren’t exactly set out of sight or even all that far out of the way, but the content on each of those recordings was interesting. The game didn’t do much in the way of overt storytelling, so if the player really wanted to know more about Rapture and its inhabitants then the player pretty much had to pick up these items. I liked it because I could ignore the collectibles if I wasn’t in the mood to hear a story, allowing me the choice of whether I wanted to play a straight action game for a while. I could opt out of most of the story if I was in that kind of mood, but the recordings were lying there waiting for me if I ever changed my mind. They only existed to make the game more interesting for people who wanted to know more of the world’s lore, so I thought they were a pretty cool collectible. I wanted to know everything I could about Rapture, so each time I saw a recording I scrambled to get it despite any nearby dangers. If I’m willing to get my character killed to pick up a collectible, someone’s doing their job right.
As for flavor text, I really liked the various named zombies in Lollipop Chainsaw. They kind of stretch the definition of a collectible in that they were monsters you had to kill if they showed up, but they did only appear if you met certain criteria or were playing on a specific difficulty so they felt like collectibles to me. The texts describing these specific zombies could be pretty funny and I loved finding new ones while playing through stages. The beauty of them was that they encouraged me to try the game out at different difficulties so that I could get them all. Once you unlocked some of the most powerful attacks the game could get a little boring so I really didn’t have a whole lot of interest in playing it another time or two, but those goofy zombie descriptions were just enough to keep me excited and playing more.
Making the journey interesting in itself may be the hardest one. I can’t imagine anyone having all that much fun looking for the golden reels in L.A. Noire even though the developers did a beautiful job creating that world. It was an amazing representation of the time period, but screwing around in back yards and on little side streets wasn’t exactly filling me with a sense of wonder. I know that the developers were trying to get me to really savor the world they’d created, but it’s not like I could interact with the locations in any meaningful way. All I could do was look, and given how many buildings looked the same, it’s not like I was dying to see the next slum neighborhood.
Anodyne somehow pulled off making exploration the best part. The handful of items I’ve found don’t do anything that I have figured out yet, and they aren’t all that interesting, but the kicker about them is that they’ve been hidden outside of any place you could visit while playing the game. I noticed a few of these places as I played through the game, stumbling across a ladder I couldn’t reach or piece of land filled with enemies that didn’t seem to have any entrance. I wondered if it was sloppy coding or places that got cut, but after I received a tile-swapping item after beating the last boss, things started to make sense. I could take a tile that I was allowed to walk on and switch it with one I couldn’t, allowing me to create paths to places that used to be blocked off. I raced for the places I’d seen before, wondering what could possibly be inside them.
Once I found the first item in one of those blocked areas I was hooked. I’d had fun exploring the varied world of Anodyne before I beat it, but now it felt like this whole secret realm had been left open to explore; one that essentially promised hidden secrets on every single screen I’d been on since I started the game. A lot of the times I used the item I ended up with a bugged-out screen filled with weird code, but every once in a while I made my way into a real place that the developers had hidden. Instead of just having the collectibles as the secrets, the game had made the areas that contained them into secrets in and of themselves. It just added this feeling that secrets could really be anywhere, that finding the places and items opened up this other side of the world that the developers had hidden from all but the most dedicated players.
How is that any different from being bored to tears poking around L.A. Noire, though? Why is it interesting to pore over every map in one game and not the other? Well, it’s a small thing, but it feels like there’s an element of naughtiness when I’m moving out of the game’s regular areas to look for items. I know that the developers have designed a lot of these places in advance and that you’re supposed to be able to reach them, but swapping game tiles to get outside of the game’s normal maps just feels like something you shouldn’t be doing. I love game glitches, and this just feels so much like manipulating a glitch that it puts a smile on my face every time I move into a bugged room. It feels like they’ve included a whole other game world for me to find and explore when the game should be done and less like they put something in just to give players some more busywork.
It is a fine line, I have to admit. The smallest thing can shift collectibles from being a fun diversion to an obvious game-lengthening chore. Most games put a lot more spirit into it than Farcry 3, but even then it often isn’t enough. Developers really need to think about how these collectibles are adding value to their game and whether picking them up is really going to be all that worthwhile to the players. Collectibles have to add something more than just game length; have to be more than just something else for the player to do in order for them to be worth collecting. If you’re going to take the time to put them in at all, then at least look into how they enhance the game or engage the player. If they’re dull you may as well leave them out altogether for how many people will bother getting them.
I have help for you, developers. If you’re ever in a pinch, just use the Mafia II approach where you can collect photos of naked chicks. Sure, almost all of those women are dead or in nursing homes, but I bet it made more people look around the game world.
Images courtesy of blog.livedoor.jp, visualwalkthroughs.com, videogamesblogger.com