I think it’s time for the game industry to rethink collectibles. They’re breaking games, specifically games with a heavy focus on narrative. There are three types of collectibles from what I can tell, and I don’t think we need any of them.
Take a game like Uncharted (2 or 3, it doesn’t matter), a game that marries story and gameplay so seamlessly it’s almost like a playable action movie. Why are there collectible trinkets in Uncharted? What’s the point? When the camera swoops in behind Drake, clearly urging me to press forward, but then I break away from the main path to check that dark corner over there (which is almost always empty), it breaks the flow of the game. Make up your minds developers! Do you want me to barrel through this bombastic story, or do you want me to inch forward as I scour the level geometry for shiny things?
I know, I know, you don’t have to collect things in Uncharted. And I don’t. The older I get, the less time I have to play games. I’ve all but given up on achievements, and I never cared about trophies. I want to experience what a game has to offer, not go on a scavenger hunt. I don’t have time for that. So I skip these things in Uncharted, save them for that third of fourth play through I know deep down I’ll never do. Uncharted is a good, and recent, example of superfluous collectibles—they’re annoying, and can mess with the pace, but not necessary. What really glazes my donuts is the required collectibles.
They’re what drove my wife away from Enslaved. Sometimes she likes to watch me play games, and she was really digging the story and characters in Enslaved. But the little red orbs ended her interest. As Monkey, you have to collect red orbs to upgrade your abilities. Now you don’t need to get every orb (though there is an achievement for that), but the more the merrier. Who doesn’t want a fully upgraded cyber staff thingy? The need for the best equipment to handle the increasingly stronger enemies pushed me to deviate from the main path to pick up orbs.
After a particularly emotional and well-animated cut scene, instead of moving forward, I back tracked across a section of the level to grab some orbs I saw in the distance. Brooke threw her arms up in disgust. “Ugh! I just want to see what happens next! Why do video games put those things there? Do you have to get those? It’s so stupid,” she said. Leave it to my non-gaming wife to point out the absurdity of some of gaming’s classic trappings; she usually does this just by saying, “Oh, video games.”
From that moment on I decided to skip the red orbs that were out of the way, and I found that I still had more than enough points to power up my character and complete the game. So what was the point? If they were going to give me enough in the main path, why put hidden ones out of view of the limited camera angles? Why make me chase after stuff that breaks the flow of the story I’m sure they worked hard to create?
The final type of collectible borders on cliché these days. The whole, “Dear Diary, I’m dying!” thing is getting old. Who, in their last moments of life, would decide to make an audio recording? I don’t even know how to access the audio recording app on my phone. But apparently, in the worlds our games take place in, everyone always has a dedicated voice record on them. They must not be expensive though, because people seem to leave the everywhere. While audio recordings are ridiculous, they’re not as bad as the hidden documents that flesh out crucial bits of the story. I’m fine with ancillary details being squirreled away in some hard to find collectible, but come on developers, don’t hide relevant and important story information.
Resistance 3 is guilty of this, so is Gears of War 3. I don’t want to scan the environment for shiny things because it destroys the pace of the moody story, but one of those collectibles I happened upon revealed an important story tidbit, so now I want to find them all… but looking for them ruins the greater story progression. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. At least in Uncharted I can skip the collectibles and still know everything I need to know about the world, characters and plot.
I think some of this is a result of being too close to the fiction. There’s often a huge amount of back story created during the development process for narrative-focused games. Everything needs a reason for being the way it is, and so the developers create a series bible, or master document with all the world details. Some of the information is relevant, some of it isn’t. The relevant stuff, the things we need to understand and enjoy the main story, should be put in front of the player on the main path. Reward players that go looking with neat background tidbits, don’t punish players with an incomplete story because they don’t feel like pixel hunting through your levels.
Doing It Right
There are some games where collectibles are okay. Crack Down, for example, makes collecting orbs a crucial part of game progression. It also makes grabbing them fun, thanks to the crazy super powers your character possesses. But Crack Down doesn’t focus on story; in fact its story is paper thin, almost non-existent. Infamous 2, on the other hand, has a decent story, and there are collectibles all over the place in that game. Like Crack Down, going after them is actually fun, and they have an impact on the gameplay. Also, because they are literally everywhere, you never feel like you’re going out of your way to pick them up. In other words, they aren’t disruptive to the story or pace. It’s probably worth noting that both of those games are open world games. Collectibles are a little more tolerable in that genre (Rockstar pushed the limit by asking you to pick flowers in Red Dead Redemption though).
Of course, we could always just do away with collectibles. The developers at Valve are masters of the age old good storytelling practice of “show, don’t tell.” The Portal games and the Half-Life series don’t have story collectibles, because they don’t need them. Every environment oozes atmosphere. You don’t need a secret hidden email to tell you about the back story or characters, you just pick up on it naturally from the excellent writing and design. That is, of course, much harder to do than it looks. Need proof? Play through one of those games with the developer commentary on. They made very deliberate design and story decisions so that the player understands the world, their objective, and how to progress. It’s inspiring stuff.
So why can’t we have more of that? Why are we still picking up stuff in our story-focused games? What are all those macho gun-toting bald video game protagonists doing with the trinkets they pick up? I find it hard to believe that Marcus Fenix has a little shelf at home with neat things he’s found on the battlefield.