Electron Dance
11Dec/159

Chekhov’s Collectible

GTA 3 hidden package

“One of the weirdest / saddest design exp I had: [Bioshock 2] playtesters carefully loot every container for hours, then report hating every moment.”

-- Zak McClendon, Lead Designer on Bioshock 2

The car smashes through the glass front of Easy Credit Autos and I brake to a halt. I hop out of the car, run to the back of the showroom and grab the package. Nothing happens. No one wants this package. No one even gets upset at the damage, which will be repaired without fuss while I am away.

I was a moth to the dull flame of the hidden packages of GTA III (Rockstar, 2001), pieces of virtual tat that simply add one to a meaningless counter. I continued to burn rubber for hour after hour until I had found every last package.

They’re just one example of the now ubiquitous collectible. Today I’d like to introduce the collective noun for the collectible: a fucking plague.

When I was a child, I enjoyed looking for things which were uncommon in some sense, a particular urban strain of treasure. A "vehicles may pass either side to reach same destination" road sign. The one house in the street with a garish colour scheme. Disused alleyways. I once walked around compiling a list of every nearby street name, categorising them by “road”, “avenue”, “street” and the rare “crescent”. So, yeah, you can say I like looking for hidden things.

The hunt for pointless trinkets in games was preceded by the hunt for not-so-pointless trinkets – such as loot or insight.

Ultima III: Exodus (Origin Systems, 1983) was based on a 64x64 map which felt expansive due to the sluggish speed of progress: mountains and bodies of water forced players to take longer routes between A and B, while the world continuously spawned hostile creatures, each acting as a brake on a player’s passion for exploring.

But forest and mountains also served to block line of sight: the town of Dawn was hidden in a thick forest; terrain obscured a Moon Gate to the west of the town Montor West. And every town and castle contained its own map which had to be explored as well as the hidden world of Ambrosia to discover. Some of the secrets were actually vital stepping stones to completing the game, so players searched not just out of curiosity but because it was in their interest to do so.

Ultima IV: Used balloon access secret dungeon Hythloth

Ultima IV: Used balloon to access secret dungeon Hythloth

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems, 1985) stepped things up to a 256x256 world and sprinkled secret doors into the town and castle maps. Secret doors looked like ordinary walls and other than pushing at the walls around suspiciously inaccessible sections of a map, there wasn’t much else you could do. But secret rooms often held important revelations or treasure that helped sustain the long journey towards the climax in the Great Stygian Abyss.

Saturating games with important secrets encouraged players to see space itself as purposeful. Virtual space cost memory, therefore we assumed developers wouldn’t have just frittered away memory without good reason. Games were generally efficient and there was an expectation from players that this would always be the case, partially contributing to the rise of a hard ludological perspective in the early waves of gamers.

Areas which seemed functionally dead would attract the videogame necrophiliacs like myself, returning again and again to caress these dead places, convinced they were actually alive - with the correct touch, we’d trigger a hidden secret. The absence of FAQs and YouTube videos led us to concoct all sorts of outlandish theories about their real purpose. But, occasionally, it dawned that something was just for show and you felt like a bloody fool. You can see this attitude still prevalent today with games such as Fuel (Asobo Studio, 2009), the driving game set in a vast post-apocalyptic environment, and even Jim Rossignol at Rock Paper Shotgun wished there was a little more to its open world than just the pretties.

But there’s another kind of secret which is more revealing: the Easter egg. The original Easter eggs were more akin to acts of developer rebellion. Warren Robinett inserted a credit into the Atari 2600 game Adventure (Atari, 1980) to defy the Atari policy of not acknowledging the programmers behind the products. Emilie Reed wrote on Electron Dance last year about the “himbos” inserted into Sim Copter (Maxis, 1996) which were soon patched out after discovery; Maxis fired the developer responsible, Jacques Servin. (Servin went onto found the culture-jamming groups The Yes Men and RTMark.)

Sim Copter Himbos

Sim Copter Himbos

However the term “Easter egg” has broadened in scope and now refers to any hidden game artefact that runs contrary to a game’s focus and themes. While I complained about the Easter eggs of The Talos Principle (Croteam, 2014), they are honest in intent and Croteam make no attempt to bake these Easter eggs into the fictional world presented. They are moments during which the developers step through the fourth wall and address the player directly. These Easter eggs are beautiful, amusing or just plain weird. Many players love to find them and in these treasure hunts, players are asking themselves, “Where would I hide something if I was the creator?”

It is in hunting such secrets, more so than the story or mechanics of a game, that players are forced to contemplate the developer’s intentions, ponder its design rather than fall for its fiction. This communication mechanism works in exactly the same way as the original, purposeful secret. Upon discovering a secret treasure, whether it be loot, a note or a hidden sidequest, we feel special for finding it, that the secret was made just for us. So when a player uncovered a dead area that looked like it harboured a secret, it felt like the developer had flirted with you… only to stand you up.

An argument for thematic consistency is important if trying to tell a big picture story, but fails to pay attention to this informal bond of trust between player and developer. It powers the completist players, who want to see everything a developer has made for them. It’s why I don’t get mad every time I encounter an ammo pack in a secret place that doesn’t make story sense: that’s the developer leaving a present for me and I found it. Cheers.

But all good things come to an end.

Increasingly, games became finite experiences with defined endpoints. The original coin-op single player games were about playing for high scores and scores seemed anachronistic in this newfangled world of big story games. DOOM (id Software, 1993), which kicked off the first-person shooter as a genre, scored your performance after each level but it’s descendent Half-Life (Valve, 1998) did not because Valve wanted to put the player inside a sci-fi B-movie.

halflifetestchamber

But this didn’t eliminate the desire for players of the single-player game to quantify their performance, to compare skills. The industrialisation of the “achievement” filled the void that scores had vacated. Achievements also increased the longevity of each game, encouraging players to run through again to see if they could conquer every achievement. Although this new version of score was finite, normally only the most obsessive and persistent player could obtain every achievement. Exhibit A: Tom Francis carrying a gnome through the entirety of Half-Life 2 Episode Two.

Virtual worlds were becoming bigger and more expensive to create. To help make that cost pay off in terms of playtime, secrets had a new role: they could be used to goad players to spend more time digging out the details of these worlds, instead of just ripping through the core of the game. Secrets were co-opted as achievements and thus became signalled to the player explicitly. Such signalling questions whether we can still call them “secrets”.

The cheapest kind of achievement-secret is mass-produced junk, also known as the collectible. It doesn’t even have to be a virtual asset to obtain, because the secrets are really about that old chestnut – giving space purpose.

However, beware the tautological devil in the details here. The space has purpose because it contains a collectible, but the collectible was created merely to give the space purpose.

Some developers do use collectibles to go beyond colouring space with purpose, to guide players or highlight challenges. Some of the GTA III hidden packages are located in areas that seem unreachable – the developer is throwing down the gauntlet, bet you can’t get up here? I’d also categorise the hidden jumps as collectibles, each of which requires skill to obtain. Most of the shiny trinkets of VVVVVV (Distractionware, 2010) are not hidden at all, but try to bait the player into attempting something extremely difficult (or extremely stupid) such as the notorious Veni Vidi Vici sequence.

gta3 statistics

But it seems videogames are bursting at the seams with collectibles. As the GTA series progressed, I lost my interest in them because, frankly, the GTA map became too large. I remember peering over my wife’s shoulder at the beautiful world of Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft Montreal, 2007) and being disappointed that the developers had puffed up its open world with passionless numbers - flags and viewpoints and Templars to kill. The numbers had already started to lose their hold over me.

Going back to Fuel, the developers attempted to fill out the sparse world with collectibles such as “liveries” and “vista points”. Each livery offered a cosmetic addition to your vehicle or avatar, which made the game feel like a tragic free-to-play failure where someone forgot to code in the microtransactions. The vista points were an endless series of vista disappointments, as free roaming yielded better visual treasures than what the developers had nailed in.

Even secret troves of ammunition or loot have been compromised, because scarcity is not something much associated with the contemporary shooter. In role-playing games, those of us with packrat behaviours loot every container for its worth. Hunting stuff has become a natural, joyless reflex. Some of us resent what these games have become, compulsions that turn us into hoarders and inventory micromanagers. Weren’t we supposed to be looking for treasure? I’d better hold onto this pile of bones, never know when this might come in handy.

Thank God for those first-person secret box games dubbed “walking simulators”. At least there aren’t any items to hunt, right? We don’t need rewards for our activities!

Oh reallllly?

Plenty of games falling under the derisory heading of “walking simulator” are actually scout-and-trigger types, where players search for hot spots to trigger events or dialogue. Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) doesn’t fare too badly because it’s linear in the main, although it has its little secrets if you go poking about – loiter near a cairn and you might catch the sound of something a little strange.

dear esther ghost

Dear Esther hidden ghost

In Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013), the Greenbriar home is filled with stuff to examine, cleverly distancing the game from one where you’re actively seeking a few key objects. Yet, despite this, Gone Home is still defined as a scout-and-trigger experience, with invisible monologue hotspots dictating the story to the player.

New “walking simulators” by up and coming developers also exhibit a predilection for scout-and-trigger collectibles. Connor Sherlock creates intriguing environments with enough atmosphere to choke on, yet in THE RAPTURE IS HERE AND YOU WILL BE FORCIBLY REMOVED FROM YOUR HOME (2014) the player races between coloured beams of light to trigger fragments of H. P. Lovecraft stories before a disc in the sky destroys the world; Sanctuary (Connor Sherlock, 2014) exists in some kind of strange other-place, yet still buries three collectibles for the player to find. Kitty Horrorshow builds interesting places like CHYRZA (2014) and Actias (2015) but these also require players to touch collectibles, the latter actually including a count at the base of the display.

actias 2015-11-24 22-08-55-93

Actias

Will O’Neill, who wrote Actual Sunlight (2014) and provided words for Planet of the Eyes (Cococucumber, 2015), tweeted that he walked an entire football pitch in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (The Chinese Room, 2015) hoping to trigger a scripted response but there was nothing. He felt the game was forcing him to do tedious things for fear of missing out.

O’Neill is not the only one to feel like his time is being squandered by these games. But when players who are into walking simulators complain they have no reward other than walking – you know something has gone wrong. It’s our old friend the overjustification effect: once you wrap an incentive around something people enjoy doing, it performs a weird kind of alchemy that transmutes the fun into drudgery, into work.

A collectible infects a virtual environment with Chekhov’s Gun: suddenly everything has to have a purpose. No longer can you just amble the countryside minding your own business, now you need your six gold stars for reaching each mountain peak otherwise, like, what’s the point?

The mass-produced collectible has nothing to do with an intimate relationship between the developer and the player and in fact this particular door swings the other way - I feel abused. Some videogame strain of Stockholm syndrome compels me to burn away the hours with search and rescue missions for meaningless collectible candy. In Kairo (Locked Door Puzzle, 2012), dozens of glyphs were hidden throughout the game and I realised I didn’t enjoy searching for them at all. My brain was simply occupied, scouring the same areas again and again trying to find every last glyph. I got that dopamine chill from the first few easy ones but towards the end I began to hate myself. Why couldn’t I just give up?

Hidden Kairo rune

Hidden Kairo rune

Last year, I spoke in length with Dan Stubbs, who is working on a ridiculously ambitious work called The Hit, a very different sort of open world game. Stubbs said he enjoyed firing up the modern GTAs just to roam a virtual world. He tore off the goals and used the games to relax, like I had used Fuel previously. I had an epiphany in the middle of this conversation – that GTA was the original Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013).

When I played Fuel, it was easy to concentrate on the driving and forget about those paltry liveries and vista points because they were too sparse, but the scrum of missions and sidequests and collectibles had come to define GTA more than its cityscapes. I had hated GTA: San Andreas, with prior GTA experience convincing me to conquer everything – but San Andreas was overwhelming and I was left dejected.

Yet all I needed to do was forget about the objectives and collectibles.

All I needed to do was get in a car and drive.

NOTES

  • Update 22 Dec 2016: I think it's likely I unconsciously adopted an idea put forward by a commenter named Fernando as my own. He wrote beneath Into the Black: "If my life was a video game, I’d be jumping around the boat, running against it pressing X, keeping an ear out for any mentions of boats in every conversation. So this whole thing is like Chekov’s Gun." Sorry Fernando! I noticed my oversight eventually!
  • The Will O’Neill tweets were the inspiration behind this article.
  • “These pastoral open-nature games tend to hide or de-emphasize goals, but what if an open world game hated its goals?” Robert Yang on The Loch.
  • You might argue some of these games are not really about exploring environments, but about exposing stories or eliciting emotions. In that case, motherfuckers, stop calling them walking simulators.
  • My point is not that these are bad or are failures, but to acknowledge their form may be short-changing the work that went into making their virtual environments.
  • If the purpose of these games is about exposing stories, then I think these places probably need to be more dense. The story is the meat, not the expansive environment. Gone Home is dense. Another personal favourite of mine, Verde Station (Duelboot, 2014), is compact. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (The Astronauts, 2014) feels a little sprawling at times. Then again my suggestion sounds like a call for… how shall I put this.... narrative efficiency? But that's a little troubling - because it reminds me of "demanding functional efficiency" in a game, so probably we should ignore this advice entirely.
  • I discussed the relative merits of Verde Station and Ethan Carter previously.
  • Maybe the real question at the end here is whether a game can both serve the genuine exploration urge while supporting a mechanic that involves searching for something. Well, sure it can. Haven’t you played Miasmata (IonFX, 2012)? Holy shit, this game.
  • Rob Fearon recently wrote about his disappointment with Just Cause 3. He notes the previous version was great for larking about with, but the new version keeps locking the player into doing what the developer desires. Of course, this end result has emerged not just from developer paranoia but from extensive QA testing and feedback. However, I see some interesting parallels with collectibles. Players want to have fun, but developers insist on making it about goals. Explorers want to see the world, but developers insist on making the world about collecting things.

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

Sign up for the monthly Electron Dance Newsletter and follow on Twitter!

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (9) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Interesting thinkpiece. I don’t think picking things up in games is necessarily bad (I think you’d agree there) but I do think the craze for collectibles is devaluing games, forcing us to focus on stuff we actually don’t want to focus on.

    Andy and I are currently playing Kitty Horrorshow’s games and this is something I’ve been wondering about. She’s taken the “walk around somewhere and collect stuff” genre and run with it. With each iteration of the form she tries something different – it’s clearly a form she’s interested in, and which suits her purposes well.

    Often her worlds are surreal enclosed landscapes which I can’t help but wonder at. “Oh my goodness, look at the TREES!” And then: “Ok, so, anyway, back to business. Where’s that crystal I’m looking for?” (It’s not as cut-and-dried as that, but I do find myself switching out of “wonder” mode and into “search and find” mode.)

    So clearly she’s doing something with the collectibles – they’re a device for drawing the player through the experience. And they do that! They make sure you see pretty much everything the game has to offer, and act as a push to keep going, a focus for your goals and a pact between developer and player: “If you get all these things I promise you will have seen pretty much everything.”

    But finding these things does change the experience. You find yourself focusing on the item. Appreciating the world happens in between items. I mean, they still work well as games, and you still see some amazing worlds there. I’m not saying these games are bad. But I wonder if there’s another way to do this?

    But you’d need to find a way to give the player story exposition at regular intervals, ensure that they don’t miss anything, and push them through the story. And do all this in a way that doesn’t just generate the “walk around everywhere looking for triggers” problem (at least Horrorshow’s glowing crystals are actually obvious and visible). Could you just trigger story chunks when the player got near a significant place, like a monument or structure? But then the structures themselves might feel pointless, and be reduced to just another trigger. At least when I walk through a towering pyramid to get at a crystal I feel the presence of the pyramid, its loomingness, before and after I get the crystal. If all I had to do to trigger the words was move close to the building then I might never go inside it?

    Hm. Maybe I’m overthinking this. I’m very torn on the use of story-trigger collectibles like this.

  2. JAMES

    Oh absolutely, I think there’s nothing wrong with “picking up things”, but I’m convinced all this collecting we’re doing – whether it’s a collectible or straight-up loot – has become a crutch when trying to think of something for the player to do.

    Yeah and I’m not necessarily saying that Kitty Horrorshow’s works fail because of all that collecting, but I feel like they’re a very cheesy primitive form of interaction that’s daubed on top of something that compelling. I have a knee-jerk reaction to collecting these days, and I just end up running around after the collectibles. I actually prefer CHYRZA because (a) some of the activities are a little tricky, which slows you down and (b) there’s this delightfully disturbing horror story to listen to. Actias is more abstract (it’s more of an impression of something) but moreover it’s difficult to find your part in the story compelling because you’re just walking back and forth between five beacons. It just doesn’t befit the tale. I also think there’s a lack of cohesion between the different “sites” that is doesn’t feel like a joined-up world – more like a large area with several fairground attractions, and this was the model of CHYRZA as well. But I’d expect this to improve if KH continues to produce new work.

    I also played David Wehle’s “Home Is Where One Starts” and, for me, it shows up the problems more significantly. It’s actually a very large area and trying to find the relevant trigger points is frustrating. I don’t think enough story really comes out of the environment, so you’re reliant on finding the triggers. This is where something like Gone Home and Verde Station are very instrucive – you’re not really fumbling around looking for triggers because they don’t really work that way; Gone Home adds triggers to your natural route, you don’t have to find them. (My criticism with Gone Home is that it is too reliant on the invisible monologues to chart progress and tell the story. I’m not saying there are other options. It’s a “Beautiful Dead” game, so what ya gonna do?”)

  3. Zak’s tweet hit home with me, cause I’ve found myself in that exact place as a player—feeling compelled to keep collecting (or exploring, or grinding) on and on and on, without any goal to give it purpose or even an end; and then when I stop, realizing I was getting no joy out of it, and feeling faintly disgusted with both the game and myself. Becoming aware of my compulsion and reaction to such loot grinds—well, it was a key reason why I decided to avoid playing Fallout 4.

    The emptiness of the space and its collectible reminds me of a snide observation I made (one of a series) about the contradictions inherent in many conventional game design elements: https://twitter.com/adurdin/status/604404682086289411 — like the space, the achievement only has meaning because of the collectibles, and the collectibles only have meaning because of the achievement.

    Can the time spent in finding collectibles give some worth to the achievement, like the proverbial “hard work is its own reward” sophistry? I doubt it.

    Even when games try to make their collectibles intrinsically interesting, I find the compulsion to collect is still the driving force for me; for example, Uncharted and Shadows of Mordor each have collectibles that are unique artifacts that you can examine, and in Mordor these also have a small story snippet that fleshes out the setting. Yet in both games, after the first few I simply skipped the examining, and the text. Contrariwise, I found searching for new species to take photos of in Beyond Good and Evil kept my interest well, and I would often stop to watch each animal before or after the photo.

    Collectibles become particularly odd as a design element when in-game maps reveal their locations, as Beyond Good and Evil, Shadows of Mordor, and many Assassin’s Creeds do. That feeling of a shared secret between me and the developers is gone; there is no surprise or excitement in collecting it (even when it has an extrinsic reward), and unless the item is intrinsically interesting, it becomes just another fetch quest.

    Perhaps the sheer number of collectible objects is the primary cause of collectible fatigue? I don’t remember getting tired of hunting for Anachronox’s T.A.C.O.s—Totally Arbitrary Collectible Objects—but then there were only twenty of them, well hidden throughout the game (which is not short). They felt like rewards for all the exploring I was doing, not the sole point of the exploring. But then Anachronox had a rich world with lots of entertaining detail—and every five T.A.C.O.s would get you a small additional reward from a quest giver, so they had extrinsic value too.

  4. Joel: interesting thoughts. I like the idea that collectibles are a crutch. I like the idea that developers should try to avoid collectibles, not simply because collectibles are bad but because the “solution” to the problem may actually be far more interesting in its own right, and is worth pursuing regardless.

    CHYRZA also has this “here are 6 structures, go explore them” thing that Actias has, but it’s woven into the story. Actias is a game about cities and civilisation and sacrifice, and it feels like the structures here are meant to constitute a city but… they don’t really make one.

    I’d like to point out, though, that the whole point of Actias is that you, the player, are reconstituting this strange mythic being (which may be a really bad idea), so you do definitely need to interact with the world SOMEHOW otherwise there’s no sense that you’re doing anything. If you just walked around the world and the green goddess flew off at the end you’d feel like “welp, I guess that’s bad but what does that have to do with me?” At least by giving you things to touch, and an explicit instruction (“RESTORE ME”) there’s some sense of imperative on the player’s side.

    Thinking about well-placed triggers now, and structured space. Hmmmm.

    Andy Durdin: I feel you about that tweet. It saddens me that a “good player” will routinely pick up all the stuff in a level, but that part of becoming a wise player is knowing when to just not give a hoot and go do something else – to prioritise your time over what the game wants you to do. Kind of like part of becoming a well-balanced film-watching adult is knowing when to say “You know, this movie sucks. I’m going to go do something else.” It’s a skill we never hear about.

    I also agree that hard work is seldom its own reward – but I have heard some people talk about how grind is a part of the aesthetics of longer games, and that it gives meaning to the non-grindy bits, which sounds like it sort of dovetails? Even with grind, though, there is an implicit goal (more XP or loot). With Horrorshow’s games, we at least have some story to look forward to as a result of collecting things. There’s at least *something* to hold onto beyond the pure naked “pick up this thing because it’s there” command. I really, really don’t understand people who get all the achievements and collect all the pointless items for the sake of it.

    I also wonder, with your TACO example: perhaps you’d think differently about the TACO collectibles if the game had come out today? Maybe all of the bad collectibles practices right now have tainted collectibles more generally. I mean, I’m willing to forgive System Shock 1 and 2 their audiologs even though they’re a really hackneyed decide nowadays (and, I hasten to add, a collectible dressed in story’s clothing).

  5. Okay, time to revisit these comments which I have cruelly ignored.

    Andy,

    Yeah, my problem is that collectibles have this kind of power over us – like all the other psychological tricks that are played on us every day, such as £9.99 instead of £10.00 – that is difficult to resist. While we can always say “just play your game” it’s difficult to achieve that. If you’re susceptible to these kind of compulsions, it’s like asking a smoker to quit.

    I’m not sure hard work in games, without a tangible reason for that hard work, has any point in games. When it comes to achievements, there is social value. But if you don’t compare achievements then there isn’t really any point.

    I also enjoyed collecting the pictures in BG&E! I thought a lot about that at the time. You know, I think it was because it felt like the development team CARED: every collectible was unique and usually not too difficult to find (although you had to be on your toes sometimes!). I never got the feeling they were about pushing the player around. There was an in-game benefit to do so, but I really enjoyed tracking down all of the different animals. God there was such care and love in that game.

    I think there’s a dimension to this that needs acknowledging – how hard it is to get the collectibles. I remember smacking every grub in HL2 Ep2 only to discover I must have missed one somewhere. It was galling. I didn’t want to play through that bloody section again. Similarly, Kairo: it was a right pain in the ass searching around every wall and pillar again and again just in case I missed something.

    James,

    No, I get that Actias has you “resurrect” this being but, not wishing to be too blunt about it, all you do is walk up to five switches. It lacks the mythic quality of performing some form of arcane, dangerous rite. It just feels like a abstract crutch which is too primitive to support the story’s weight.

    Oh and I am one of these people who says grind can be important (I think it was Stop Crying About Choice was where I first whittered on about it). The problem being that the emptiness of collectibles usually deliver nothing at the end of the day apart from an achievement; the grind is for nothing, as opposed to say Cart Life, where the grind is everything.

    I’m also more forgiving of audio logs in older games, because they were an inexpensive way to impart story rather than a collection system that needed to be filled up. Plus they were usually found as part of your normal search routines – developers didn’t want you to miss out on story. I’d hope nowadays we’d be a bit more sophisticated, but it’s not like I have the answers here :) Anyway, old games – audio logs = story telling.

    The one thing I find strikingly odd about Gone Home is that the monologues sort of break the whole point of the game, that you’re searching the house for clues. In the end, you’re looking for trigger points, and the environment of the house supports the monologues, rather than the monologues supporting the environment (YMMV). Anyway, new games – audio logs = story telling crutch? And there’s a danger that the crutch transforms into a collectible, especially if it’s painful *looking* for the story.

    There are a lot of axes here and in the end it depends which gaming “lens” you look down. What do you see?

  6. @Joel: I see what you mean about Actias. Her use of magic in games is very important – I think the best example is Daymare: a ritual but Hornets is also a good example. In those works magic is something intimate, restless and potentially deadly. Actias could have used a bit more of that mysticism – after all, you are resurrecting an ageless god.

    Also interested by the idea of “collectibles the devs care about” versus “collectibles they throw in to fill time/space”. I remember loving Ratchet and Clank’s skill shots (basically secrets presented as achievements) because they showed me something I didn’t think was possible (maybe shooting an enemy in a particular way, or getting through a level really creatively). It was like the devs were saying “Hey hey, there’s this *cool thing* we discovered/put in here! Wanna see?” Rather than “Um, yeah, we’re going to make you carry a gnome for a week just because.”

    Also, I like old games: audio logs = storytelling, because those devs didn’t have the tech or resources to be more creative. What do you think about starving indie devs: audio logs = cheap storytelling alternative? Maybe there are some devs out there who want to tell a rich story but don’t have the budget, so turn to audio logs, but feel put off because everyone is like “uhhhhh, not MORE audio logs, it’s not 1998!”

  7. Let’s mix metaphors small we? Axes and lens, that’s grand.

    I think your point about audio logs is fair – it’s all helpful to refine my opinion! I guess the problem isn’t so much the audio log but whether it has a collectible nature. It’s collecting aspect is almost invisible because like Dear Esther, the path through the game walks you through most of them. (I’m right in saying a few you have to explore out?) The Swapper’s lore is largely rewards for puzzle solving – but there are a few deeply hidden passages which I have up looking for. They practically hide in game glitches.

    My thing about Gone Home is that it seemed at odds with the purported design. It works but I think it’s a difficult balancing act – you don’t want the player to think the answers all come from invisible audio spots thus undermining the environment. (I think Home Is Where One Starts is an example of how it can fail.)

    I was fine with CHYRZA’s radio play, I loved how surreal that story was. But I had to give the format a pass. As I said I don’t really have solutions but I think some of the walking simulator trends are going to turn out to be dead ends. The collectibles are so damaging to the player experience of the environment. (always exceptions though!)

    This very thread makes it clear that not all collecting is bad but I think the standard “collectible template” is not good design. And it’s too easily churned out.

  8. I would be happy with a two-stream story; one stream attached to the ‘collectibles’, which if they are not just ‘no-brainers’ are then secrets/rewards for spending more time in the story-world. In my ideal game (world) it works like that: the main story is driven by whatever, and then there are these secrets, hidden maybe, with slight puzzles to their uncovering, which result in a fleshing-out/broadening of the story world, via possibly a second story stream associated with them.

    Bonus points if there are hidden secrets early on in the game which you miss initially- but by playing the game you realise are secrets- so that you can trek back and feel like you are gaining actual knowledge about the gaming systems, which is a real reward.

  9. Hi Zholistic, sorry for the delay in replying!

    Definitely I would not rule out collectibles in all cases and there is something to be said for having narrative collectibles. But in titles where exploration seems to be the primary motivation, using this kind of bait is a fatal trap for “walking simulators”. Gone Home can get away with it because you literally can’t move for bumping into narrative data and you’re not really searching for monologue hotspots. But when the game environment is sparse then the conflict becomes more evident.

    What you’ve discussed is what you might see in a typical AAA title – lore. Lore is effectively a collectible and not usually enumerated. Some titles do, though! In Spec Ops: The Line, you were told how much “intelligence” you had to gather in each chapter. If you’re a post-collectible human like myself, I get agitated that I’m not allowed to appreciate the story unless I explore every nook and cranny, that is I am forced to “grind” the environment.

    However Dishonored and Thief are richer takes on collectibles as parallel story streams; exploring space was a challenge, and lore was sometimes a bonus prize for undertaking apparently unnecessary challenges.

    In the absence of challenge, I’d like to **discover story by exploring story** – but this is expensive to implement with any efficacy. Instead, games teeter on the edge of grind when they offer the cheaper **discovering story by exploring space** (thus replacing “discovering space by exploring space”).

    But in the end, I don’t think there are hard and fast rules to decide what’s good and bad; we’re deep in the realms of nuance. It depends on many qualities of the implementation and also the type of player being engaged.


Leave a comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

No trackbacks yet.