Video games have changed dramatically over the past couple of console generations. They’ve gone from better-looking versions of 8 and 16-bit stories to near-photo-realistic, choreographed adventures that rival cinema in their immersiveness. Gone are the days of dropping the player in a static level and waiting for them to “beat” it — games actively shepherd the player along and treat them as active participants in a living world. So much has changed, yet we’re still collecting doodads like it’s 1985.
The absurdity of this antiquated hold-over hit me a few months ago while playing through a story mission in Mass Effect 3. I was on a rescue mission, and things had gone very bad. A squad member was escorting the rescuee though adjacent rooms that needed to be unlocked on my end (which, I’ll add, is also a tired trope). There was a real sense of urgency — communicated effectively by a decreasing life bar, radio transmissions, and the narrative context — but something was competing for my attention: the upgrade collectibles strewn around the corners and dead-ends of the level.
Of course, Commander Shepard wouldn’t give a passing thought to picking up materials while one of the most important beings in the universe’s life was at risk, and that’s at the heart of what’s so stupid about collectibles: they ask the player to do things the character they’re controlling wouldn’t, and they encourage the player to look at the environment as something that needs to be completed.
I was reminded of this as I started playing Uncharted 2 today. I had a blissful few minutes in which I thought “wait, does this game not have collectibles?”, but my hopes were quickly dashed when I walked up to a shiny light and hit the triangle button. I was no longer just a charming, fast-talking treasure hunter sneaking through a beautiful Turkish museum — I was a charming, fast-talking treasure hunter checking every corner of a level for collectibles.
I want the freedom to move through an environment and not worry that I’m missing something. In games that strive to be immersive, environments should be settings, not challenges in and of themselves. Players shouldn’t be encouraged to create dissonance. There’s certainly a place for collectibles, but not in games that strive to link player and character motivations.