Collectibles, there's a right way, and then there's Alan Wake.

Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -

Even though it's been a few months since I finished up Alan Wake, I've still been trying to understand why I didn't particularly love the game. After all, I'm an avowed survival horror nut, and I always prefer story-driven, atmospheric games. This is why I'm always going to prefer Bioshock over something like Call of Duty, even if I still enjoy both types of game. In retrospect, I do think Alan Wake did story and atmosphere quite well, but every time I've thought about playing it again (maybe to get the elusive S-rank) I just can't bring myself to go another run. In fact, the more I've thought about Alan wake in recent weeks, the more I've come to the conclusion that I didn't like it at all. Even at precisely zero dollars, I have no interest in the DLC. Why? I can point to only one reason: collectibles.  
 
While many games have not offered good collectible systems, in my opinion, Alan Wake comprises THE textbook example of how an overabundance of in-game collectibles can ruin the total experience. Allow me to explain: although I'm not nearly as bad as some, I tend to be a completionist with games. Yet I feel that playing through Alan Wake while trying to get everything utterly ruined the experience. So in retrospect, I have to wonder that why a game that seemed to pander to the completionists out there, made being one such a burden.  And while I know that collectibles are optional, some gamers , like myself, can't ignore all the shiny objects out there and still have fun. I know I'm not alone there.
 

Having brainstormed a bit, here's where I think Alan Wake went wrong in its collectibles. 

 
  • 1) Too many things to collect: It's not unusual for a game to have a couple types of collectibles. Bioshock, for example, has its audio logs and Power to the People upgrade stations. But Alan Wake took this number and went for a sprint. Going from the top of my head: there were Manuscript pages, (100) coffee thermoses, radio broadcasts, tv programs, stacks of cups to knock over, secret ammo stashes, and local artifacts to examine. Judging from the DLC (which adds three new collectibles), I think the folks at remedy went with quantity at all costs. And while the game lets you know that it's counting the thermoses, it remains silent on the other stats, unless you routinely examine the stats screens. It was about halfway through the game before I realized that the cup stacks counted for something.  With achievements tied to each of these, this gets a little ridiculous. I performed a lot of thorough searching during my playthrough, and only found all the radios.

  • 2) Poor tracking and notification: as I mentioned, the game does let you know how far along you are with the thermoses. You can also see which manuscript pages - which were the one good collectible in the game - you've collected, which you needed, and which were only available on the hardest difficulty. Yet apart from the pages, there's no way to determine which items you've gotten, or which episodes they may be in. This means that if you want to get the achievement for say, collecting all 100 thermoses. You had better grab a FAQ and go through it step by step from a new playthrough. This is not a good design decision. Alan Wake is certainly not the only game to do this (in fact, tracking systems are rare), but it's more evident in a game with so many items to grab.  

  • 3) Punishing the Player for Looking: If you want to find all the collectibles in a game like Alan Wake, then you need to traipse over ever inch of terrain. While Wake is mostly linear, you can move quite a bit to the right and left in the environment. In some cases, thermoses end up way off the beaten path. There's nothing wrong with this, but in Alan Wake, the more you ramble around, the more enemy mobs that spawn to go after you. This makes the searching a bigger chore than it might be otherwise. After awhile, I just got tired of moving 10 more yards to have to fight three more guys that I'd have skipped if I stayed on the well-lit path.  

  • 4) Poor Incentives for Gathering: Alan Wake's manuscript pages were the only items that really added anything significant to the game, in that case, by elaborating on the story. To be fair, the TV and radio broadcasts were interesting, but there were no weapons, powerups, or bonuses that made finding everything seem terribly worthwhile. Even the benefit of finding weapon stashes was obliterated by the fact that Wake gets stripped of all gear at the end of every episode. For most games, in contrast, finding everything can net the player some nice perks. For example, in Darksiders, finding all ten abyssal armor fragments earns the player the game's best suit. While Alan Wake didn't exactly need some "super author" armor or anything like that, some kind of significant unlockable could go a long way. Hell, even Deadly Premonition had bonuses for its many gathered items.  
  

Thinking about Alan Wake, here's how I think collectibles should be done: 

 
  • 1) Make some kind of tracking system - If you are going to build a game where collectibles form a big part, then make maps, guides, or area-specific counters that allow a player to track their progress. Batman: Arkham Asylum did this well by using Riddler maps, and even Fable II allowed the player to see how many statues were left in each area. The bottom line is that the player shouldn't have to keep word documents and spreadsheets handy. If the developers love their collectibles, they should want the player to as well. Poorly placed collectibles don't represent a challenge, they represent annoyance. 

  • 2) Make collectibles unlock something - even if they're tied to achievements, there should be some kind of in-game incentive to go object hunting. Bonuses can be in-game powerups, rare or interesting loot, or even bonus footage. 

  • 3) Collectibles should be interesting - Alan Wake runs at about 50% here. The manuscript pages, tv programs, and radio broadcasts added something interesting. The rest of the items, not so much. Collectibles should be fun to collect, not just some bad plot contrivance (ex: Assassin's Creed) or worse, nothing at all (GTAIV's pigeons). 

  • 4) Collectibles should stack for all playthroughs - Once you nab a collectible, an autosave should ensure you never have to grab it again, ever. Period. A good example of this is the Call of Duty Series, where intel and other pickups get immediately counted and removed from the single player experience. 
  

These are some of the things that can make collecting a bunch of in-game trinkets seem like a worthwhile diversion. I know some are going to just ignore what I'm writing here and say "your opinion is invalid, because collectibles in Alan Wake are optional." But I know I'm not alone in saying that it's not fun to ignore collectibles, and its not fun to search for them if doing so mars the experience. Its really a shame, at least to me.
#1 Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -

Even though it's been a few months since I finished up Alan Wake, I've still been trying to understand why I didn't particularly love the game. After all, I'm an avowed survival horror nut, and I always prefer story-driven, atmospheric games. This is why I'm always going to prefer Bioshock over something like Call of Duty, even if I still enjoy both types of game. In retrospect, I do think Alan Wake did story and atmosphere quite well, but every time I've thought about playing it again (maybe to get the elusive S-rank) I just can't bring myself to go another run. In fact, the more I've thought about Alan wake in recent weeks, the more I've come to the conclusion that I didn't like it at all. Even at precisely zero dollars, I have no interest in the DLC. Why? I can point to only one reason: collectibles.  
 
While many games have not offered good collectible systems, in my opinion, Alan Wake comprises THE textbook example of how an overabundance of in-game collectibles can ruin the total experience. Allow me to explain: although I'm not nearly as bad as some, I tend to be a completionist with games. Yet I feel that playing through Alan Wake while trying to get everything utterly ruined the experience. So in retrospect, I have to wonder that why a game that seemed to pander to the completionists out there, made being one such a burden.  And while I know that collectibles are optional, some gamers , like myself, can't ignore all the shiny objects out there and still have fun. I know I'm not alone there.
 

Having brainstormed a bit, here's where I think Alan Wake went wrong in its collectibles. 

 
  • 1) Too many things to collect: It's not unusual for a game to have a couple types of collectibles. Bioshock, for example, has its audio logs and Power to the People upgrade stations. But Alan Wake took this number and went for a sprint. Going from the top of my head: there were Manuscript pages, (100) coffee thermoses, radio broadcasts, tv programs, stacks of cups to knock over, secret ammo stashes, and local artifacts to examine. Judging from the DLC (which adds three new collectibles), I think the folks at remedy went with quantity at all costs. And while the game lets you know that it's counting the thermoses, it remains silent on the other stats, unless you routinely examine the stats screens. It was about halfway through the game before I realized that the cup stacks counted for something.  With achievements tied to each of these, this gets a little ridiculous. I performed a lot of thorough searching during my playthrough, and only found all the radios.

  • 2) Poor tracking and notification: as I mentioned, the game does let you know how far along you are with the thermoses. You can also see which manuscript pages - which were the one good collectible in the game - you've collected, which you needed, and which were only available on the hardest difficulty. Yet apart from the pages, there's no way to determine which items you've gotten, or which episodes they may be in. This means that if you want to get the achievement for say, collecting all 100 thermoses. You had better grab a FAQ and go through it step by step from a new playthrough. This is not a good design decision. Alan Wake is certainly not the only game to do this (in fact, tracking systems are rare), but it's more evident in a game with so many items to grab.  

  • 3) Punishing the Player for Looking: If you want to find all the collectibles in a game like Alan Wake, then you need to traipse over ever inch of terrain. While Wake is mostly linear, you can move quite a bit to the right and left in the environment. In some cases, thermoses end up way off the beaten path. There's nothing wrong with this, but in Alan Wake, the more you ramble around, the more enemy mobs that spawn to go after you. This makes the searching a bigger chore than it might be otherwise. After awhile, I just got tired of moving 10 more yards to have to fight three more guys that I'd have skipped if I stayed on the well-lit path.  

  • 4) Poor Incentives for Gathering: Alan Wake's manuscript pages were the only items that really added anything significant to the game, in that case, by elaborating on the story. To be fair, the TV and radio broadcasts were interesting, but there were no weapons, powerups, or bonuses that made finding everything seem terribly worthwhile. Even the benefit of finding weapon stashes was obliterated by the fact that Wake gets stripped of all gear at the end of every episode. For most games, in contrast, finding everything can net the player some nice perks. For example, in Darksiders, finding all ten abyssal armor fragments earns the player the game's best suit. While Alan Wake didn't exactly need some "super author" armor or anything like that, some kind of significant unlockable could go a long way. Hell, even Deadly Premonition had bonuses for its many gathered items.  
  

Thinking about Alan Wake, here's how I think collectibles should be done: 

 
  • 1) Make some kind of tracking system - If you are going to build a game where collectibles form a big part, then make maps, guides, or area-specific counters that allow a player to track their progress. Batman: Arkham Asylum did this well by using Riddler maps, and even Fable II allowed the player to see how many statues were left in each area. The bottom line is that the player shouldn't have to keep word documents and spreadsheets handy. If the developers love their collectibles, they should want the player to as well. Poorly placed collectibles don't represent a challenge, they represent annoyance. 

  • 2) Make collectibles unlock something - even if they're tied to achievements, there should be some kind of in-game incentive to go object hunting. Bonuses can be in-game powerups, rare or interesting loot, or even bonus footage. 

  • 3) Collectibles should be interesting - Alan Wake runs at about 50% here. The manuscript pages, tv programs, and radio broadcasts added something interesting. The rest of the items, not so much. Collectibles should be fun to collect, not just some bad plot contrivance (ex: Assassin's Creed) or worse, nothing at all (GTAIV's pigeons). 

  • 4) Collectibles should stack for all playthroughs - Once you nab a collectible, an autosave should ensure you never have to grab it again, ever. Period. A good example of this is the Call of Duty Series, where intel and other pickups get immediately counted and removed from the single player experience. 
  

These are some of the things that can make collecting a bunch of in-game trinkets seem like a worthwhile diversion. I know some are going to just ignore what I'm writing here and say "your opinion is invalid, because collectibles in Alan Wake are optional." But I know I'm not alone in saying that it's not fun to ignore collectibles, and its not fun to search for them if doing so mars the experience. Its really a shame, at least to me.
#2 Edited by Hashbrowns (645 posts) -

Why an optional and completely ignorable task can actaully ruin a game confuses me.  Could they have been done better?  Yeah, in fact collectibles always strike me as artificial and a complete waste of time in EVERY game I've ever played aside from probably Arkham Asylum due to its collectible's puzzle nature.  But I don't remember so many people claiming that pidgeons ruined the entirety of GTAIV, or flags ruined all of Assassin's Creed, or how Resident Evil 5 was ruined with emblems, even though those were all pointless and mindless tasks.  Ignoring the collectibles, particularly the non-story related items, has zero impact on how the game plays. 
 
Sure, ignoring part of a game isn't "fun", but does it make more sense to do something optional that actively annoys you?
 
There's one factual error in your complaint, though:  There is an instantaneous auto save when you get any collectible.  Certain pages reappear, but only those with "essential" information that supplement the story most directly.
#3 Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -

Well stated argument. You provide some nice examples too. I think the annoyance factor depends on how in-your-face the items are. It's like putting a shiny object on a line in front of you vs. storing it in the shed. Take Resident Evil's emblems. They're tiny, and most are so easy to miss that you'd never think you had a chance at them. BUT even RE's emblems are tracked by the game, so you know where you need to look. 
 
I will say that in the case of AC's flags and GTA's pigeons, I knew coming in that I probably wouldn't get them all, and that fact never stopped annoying me, because I like getting everything in games, just not enough to play through a 40-hour game (like GTAIV) another full time. So for a guy like me, it's really annoying. 
 
And yes, for Wake, it does save that you've gotten them, but the items don't disappear, at least they were back when I tried to play it again ( I did try)

#4 Posted by KingdomKey (20 posts) -
@SonicFire said:
" Well stated argument. You provide some nice examples too. I think the annoyance factor depends on how in-your-face the items are. It's like putting a shiny object on a line in front of you vs. storing it in the shed. Take Resident Evil's emblems. They're tiny, and most are so easy to miss that you'd never think you had a chance at them. BUT even RE's emblems are tracked by the game, so you know where you need to look.  I will say that in the case of AC's flags and GTA's pigeons, I knew coming in that I probably wouldn't get them all, and that fact never stopped annoying me, because I like getting everything in games, just not enough to play through a 40-hour game (like GTAIV) another full time. So for a guy like me, it's really annoying.  And yes, for Wake, it does save that you've gotten them, but the items don't disappear, at least they were back when I tried to play it again ( I did try) "
The coffee thermos do disappear.That helps alittle,I guess. I do agree it is annoying to be one coffee themos away from getting the achievement(which I was for a LONG time) After a FAQ, I finally got all the achievements. And Im the kinda gamer that HATES using FAQS.
#5 Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -
@KingdomKey:  
 
You're right, my mistake. But I do hear you. I hate using FAQs as well. I really thought the way Batman handled it was excellent (map of collectibles, with imprecise locations). I was able to find everything on my own, and it felt pretty rewarding.
#6 Edited by BaconGames (3126 posts) -

I think a tracking system only serves to benefit all who are involved.  Be it someone who doesn't care or is a completionist, the game would benefit either and possibly incentivize more to collect if the tracking was well done.  The quandry of collectibles as a game-ruiner aside, there's no excuse for a bad tracking system for collectibles if they put in the time and energy to include them in the game.
 
I think the pinnacle of collectibles has to be Batman: Arkham Asylum because there are tapes that fill in tremendous back story, pointing out homages to other villains, unlocking profiles of villains educating the player on them, the menu only telling you the collectibles that are available in a given area, and each are giving you a map of where hidden objects are.
 
Overall I was a little annoyed that in Batman I spent way more time getting to a place after my new gadget was unlocked then actually using it or figuring out a puzzle, I was greatly satisfied at how it was done and finding all them things.

#7 Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -
@Tuffgong:  
 
As always, you are precisely on-point man. I would have to agree about Batman, because have I never had so much fun with collectibles. Not only could you track them, but you could learn roughly where they were, without being told exactly where or how to get them.  This made them seem a bit more like...well, riddles.
 
I know not everyone is going to agree with my assessment of Alan Wake, but I bought the game on day one, beat it by day two, and probably would not give it more than three stars in retrospect, even though by all descriptions, it's in my personal wheelhouse. 
#8 Posted by BaconGames (3126 posts) -
@SonicFire said:
" @Tuffgong:   As always, you are precisely on-point man. I would have to agree about Batman, because have I never had so much fun with collectibles. Not only could you track them, but you could learn roughly where they were, without being told exactly where or how to get them.  This made them seem a bit more like...well, riddles. I know not everyone is going to agree with my assessment of Alan Wake, but I bought the game on day one, beat it by day two, and probably would not give it more than three stars in retrospect, even though by all descriptions, it's in my personal wheelhouse.  "
Thanks that's saying a lot :D
 
Alan Wake is in my wheelhouse too but I currently don't know how much the collectibles would ruin my experience because I gave up on most recent examples of the attempt in a game.  I distinctly remember not giving a crap about the flags in Assassin's Creed or the Pigeons in GTAIV.  I don't S-Rank or find everything in a game where I already know or figure out by half-way that this is too much work for what its worth.  It sucks that achievements are tied to collectibles these days meaning people who love their achievements (and who doesn't really?) are then asked to slog through bad collectibles implementation.  Luckily games with such heady demands usually go un-S-ranked.
 
It also doesn't help that Alan Wake ain't out for the PC dawg.  So no go for that although I REALLY want to play it.  Given my habits and what has been said I'd probably like it more but I guess I can't say for sure.
#9 Posted by Seroth (698 posts) -
@SonicFire said:
  • 4) Collectibles should stack for all playthroughs - Once you nab a collectible, an autosave should ensure you never have to grab it again, ever. Period. A good example of this is the Call of Duty Series, where intel and other pickups get immediately counted and removed from the single player experience. 
  These are some of the things that can make collecting a bunch of in-game trinkets seem like a worthwhile diversion. I know some are going to just ignore what I'm writing here and say "your opinion is invalid, because collectibles in Alan Wake are optional." But I know I'm not alone in saying that it's not fun to ignore collectibles, and its not fun to search for them if doing so mars the experience. Its really a shame, at least to me. "
I disagree with this. I hate it when collectibles disappear forever after you pick them up. I'll inevitably miss a few collectibles my first time through, and eventually have to resort to a guide to find them all. It's almost impossible to remember whether or not you've already picked up an item or not, so when using a guide, you could spend hours just looking for one collectible only to realize you've already collected it. Then you get to the end of the guide, and find out you missed one... I'm still missing one hidden orb in Crackdown because of this. ><
#10 Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -
@Seroth:  
 
It's definitely a good point. But i'd have to think those circumstances are a bit rare, at least in my experiences. I think in those cases, if your plan is to go through from scratch again I'd probably just delete the save and start a new one. I suppose its a moot point if there is no new game plus anyways.
#11 Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -

Actually, as an edit. I also think that collectibles can be indicated by changing the way they look in the environment. Brutal Legend did this well- all the collected items would look different once they were activated.

#12 Posted by Roomrunner (743 posts) -

The manuscript pages are an important part of the game's story and atmosphere.  They shouldn't disappear in replays because they are referenced constantly throughout the game. 
 
The Signal DLC tries to fix the thermos problem with a sound that triggers in close proximity, but it's though to hear over the environmental noise.  The cardboard cutouts on the other hand, are great little easter eggs, and I'm going to play through the DLC for a third time this week to read them all.

#13 Edited by Seroth (698 posts) -
@SonicFire: Yeah, I had to delete my save when I decided to get all the flags in Assassin's Creed. Pretty annoying since I actually had to go through the whole game again since I had to re-get all my abilities and unlock all the locations. But at least I got 'em all.
#14 Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -
@Seroth:  
 
Yeah, I still want to do that at some point, but can't bring myself to commit to it. Well done though
#15 Posted by Zidane_24 (737 posts) -

Ugh...missed 2 thermoses on my collectible run...only thing that kept me from S-Ranking that game.
#16 Posted by SonicFire (820 posts) -
@Seroth:  
 
I totally understand what you're saying, but personally I'd have to disagree. The pages are bright and shiny, and particularly if you new game + on the hardest difficulty, I'd only want to see the ones I didn't grab.  
 
However, I didn't read every page as I picked it up, because I got tired of what I considered to be spoilers. Some people have said that the information in the pages added to tension, but I really felt they spoiled a lot of interesting moments for me. As a result, I only read them all at the end of the episode.

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