-- 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: 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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
- 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.