Loot of a Different Color

Greetings fellow virtual treasure hunters. While it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that almost every video game attempts to scratch that itch of pursuing material gain, if only peripherally, it seems the past few games I've played have really emphasized the whole "find and collect" central tenet of loot, looting and other miscellaneous forms of grand lootery. However, what I've discovered is that many games have different ideas on what constitutes a truly desirable commodity for a player to want to hunt down and accrue. As with female protagonists last time, I'm going to detail some distinctive ways that video games I've recently played have compelled me to run around and collect shiny things. I'll readily concede that it doesn't take much to get me and my kleptomaniac tendencies invested in that sort of affair, but it's a curious disparity of design philosophies all the same.


Fuck you, Diana!

Primitive games, or games attempting to deliberately evoke a primitive era, would have loot lying around that simply added to a point total, with the idea being that you would seek the highest score possible before eventually dying. Occasionally the entire point of the game is to collect every item on the screen: Pac-Man, for instance, would happily wakka around that maze forever unless all the pellets were consumed. But for many others, it was largely there to tempt you into getting yourself killed.

However, the "random jewels and bullion as score" was a ubiquitous fixture during the 70s-80s era of Arcade games and the Atari 2600 et al, where absolute victory was often unattainable (games rarely had a "game complete" state that far back) but your mark could be chiseled into virtual rock for all to see after a particularly legendary run. Some holdover of this archaic reward system still exists in online leaderboards and score-based achievements, but it endures largely because of the power of such a notion. You could laud it as an elementary realization of that oft vital "risk vs reward" paradigm of game design, but ultimately it's not really about the gold bars or the diamonds or the Yashichi: It's about risking one's life over and over for a shot at immortality.

Mega House of Dead Ninjas was better. Here I am in my cool Sega treehouse.

Showcase: Super House of Dead Ninjas! I'm once again bringing up the remastered edition of that Adult Swim flash game because it's the purest form of this idea, at least among the games I've recently played. While bags of cash lie everywhere in the tower there is no actual currency in the game - rather, items unlock based on a merit system. You might acquire a new weapon after a decent run, but it'll be because you killed a tough boss or survived for a long period of time or pulled off a particularly sweet bit of ninja mastery. Rather, the score was simply there to demonstrate your prowess to others. Sure, there are a few unlockables linked to one's final score, but it's largely there for show. Once you've beaten every boss, seen every story cutscene (there aren't many) and unlocked every item, what else is there to strive for besides the highest score among your friends?


Gold! Thanks random stock photo source!

The earliest loot-driven games broke down the whole loot idea to its most common denominator as an exercise in wealth acquisition. Most items are simply there to add to one's bank account, regardless of how dissimilar to actual currency they might appear. Gold can then be put towards upgrades (equipment, skills) from traders, effectively removing the extra step of having to sell all that junk to them in the first place.

Games like the Bard's Tale reboot and Smash TV - both of which have somewhat of a subversive satirical streak in general - will actually even instantly convert items into their cash value upon pick-up in a semi-cynical plea for convenience, because who really cares about valuable relics of an ancient native people or fifty state-of-the-art toasters? Cold hard cash is all that really matters. Most games that focus entirely on cash, though, usually do so to keep the player's interest focused elsewhere, such as the deeper gameplay mechanics or an elaborate narrative. In a sense, it's not all that different from earning points like the above category, though being allowed to actually spend them on boons you need does increase the drive to seek them out at whatever risk.

Rogue's legacy is to always get typoed as "rouge".

Showcase: Rogue Legacy! I still don't own Cellar Door Games' "Rogue-lite", but I did play the demo some time before it came out (I liked it before it was cool! Just... not enough to pre-order it?) and meant to write about it before it kind of took off as yet another widely-beloved Indie game success story. Rogue Legacy isn't particularly interested in acquiring loot - the focus is simply on gold, and to gain as much of it as possible to give one's offspring a better chance than you did. While that is sort of a universal imperative for parents, I'm not sure sending your children to conquer the same malevolent shape-shifting fortress that took your own life doesn't considerably undermine the otherwise compassionate parenting trait of providing for their future.


Some glowy golden gewgaw, yesterday.

A pursuit of collectibles can be a divisive focus to build a game around. Many of the first 3D platformers would have you scouring each of the well-realized open-world stages in search of some glowy knick-knacks, with the secret hope that you stop and take a good, hard glance at the aforementioned well-realization of these virtual playsets before deciding there was nothing shiny in the area that deserved your attention and it was time to move on. 3D platformers have more or less moved away from that idea since that era, instead focusing on the adventure first and foremost once again. More frequently these days, 3D games are built like their 2D ancestors were, with a semi-linear run to the goal and a lot of carefully designed incidence between you and that destination. There are still golden whoosits to collect at the end of them, with a certain total being necessary to unlock the next part of the game, but there's less of a drive to run around and search them out. 3D platformers have very much moved on from 500 multi-colored bananas per level, though collectibles still remain a presence in open-world games in general.

While I sort of miss that era, I can understand a desire to give players a little more reason to care about achieving objectives than having another glittery tchotchke to throw on an equally radiant pile that becomes harder to care about as it continues to grow larger. Collectibles are thus relegated to optional side-content in most modern games, but designers still occasionally find a way to give you a reason to seek them out despite their inherent worthlessness. Take for instance Katamari Damacy's item checklists: Every item you can ever roll up is stored here and the King of All Cosmos lends his infallible wisdom to help the Prince identify what these items are and their purpose in the human world. For me, the goal of a Katamari Damacy game inevitably switches from building the best Katamaris to finding objects that I have yet to roll up - with that endorphin-releasing rainbow text to signify its newness - in order to fill out that catalog and see what our sagacious King has to say about them.

Fittingly, The Lonely Island's "I'm on a Train" didn't do as well as its predecessor either.

Showcase: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks! Recent Zelda games include collectible "treasures" which are often required for upgrades, or can be sold for a bit of useful spending money. Most Zelda games treat these random treasures as optional, and the items you can earn from cashing them in are completely inessential for beating the game, but it does provide a little incentive to seek out challenges and mini-games for which only simple rewards like Heart Container pieces and large rupee payouts had been previously given. Spirit Tracks' in particular can only be spent on one thing other than a mass of rupees: customizable train parts for Link's chief form of conveyance. While a full set confers a useful durability bonus to the train, it's not exactly vital to deck your ride out with dragon decals or a Halloween theme. Xzibit has yet to grace Hyrule with his unerring sense for the practical and the aesthetically pleasing in the field of vehicle customization, and it's unlikely he'd accept Stalfos skulls and bee larvae as payment for his services regardless.

Colored Equipment

"The green thing confers more bonuses, but clashes with my orange thing."

Perhaps the first thing most gamers think of when loot is brought up, the various technicolor pauldrons and greaves of Diablo and its many imitators are the result of years of tweaking the formula of how we are able to judge one piece of medieval haberdashery from another. That we've managed to narrow these vital comparatives down to the color of its text is something of a coup and a disappointment both. I don't suppose I need to explain how these color-coded systems tend to work, given you've all probably played far more World of Warcraft and other MMOs than I have (I can't stand the things), but with the recent Diablo III the color scheme seems to go: white (non-magical vendor trash); blue (mildly magical, like a medium rare steak dinner); yellow (moderately magical, like watching a sunset on a tropical island); orange (extremely magical, like a Harry Potter Blu-Ray boxset that someone sprinkled glitter all over); and some mythical color that I'll never see because it only drops 0.001% of the time (absurdly magical, like the inter-dimensional pocket into which David Copperfield stuck the Statue of Liberty for a few minutes. It's why it sometimes talks in tongues during Walpurgis Night. True story).

Anyway, games like Diablo III and Borderlands and Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest and Darkstone and Revenant and Torchlight and Nox and yes, I believe I've made my point that there are a lot of these and Sacred and Dawn of Magic and Darkspore and Hellgate: London are all built around this mindless lootlust with the action RPG gameplay often a distant second in the list of design concerns. If story is also on that list, it's probably hiding in the margin somewhere as a hastily scrawled "plot?!". There's nothing inherently wrong with this either: the dungeon crawler genre has long been known as a safe haven in which to indulge in one's inner-avariciousness. However, it is possible to build a game around finding things in dungeons that will get players to become even more invested in these junk spelunks. How? Keep reading. (Please?)

Quickly, we must stop the dread lord before he can... wait, did you check that corner back there? I thought I saw a chest. Yes, check it anyway. I'm sure I'm sure!

Showcase: Diablo III! I've been playing a lot of Blizzard's latest non-MOBA of late, but I don't see myself sticking with it forever. It's easy to get addicted to the rat race of ever-better treasure, and it's not like the game has much of a draw with its story (with every last twist cleverly telegraphed by the vast amount of in-game challenges and achievements) or randomized tileset level design (who designed Bastion's Keep? Clooster'fakk, the heretofore unknown demonic Lord of Obfuscation?). It's bashing things and bashing things good and hoping it drops half the armory of the mystical elven city of Rivendell when it collapses. And, again, there's nothing wrong with that format. For 20-30 hours anyway. After a while I just want my virtual axe swings against polygonal monsters for imaginary lucre to actually mean something, dammit.

Story Morsels

"Dear journal: AGHH! THE TEETH! Over."

Most people kind of dismiss audio logs, journals, books, memory spheres and whenever they come across them in games. Often it's because they're focused on the adventure at hand and don't want to waste time standing around listening to some unfortunate dolt write about how they're in the excruciating but somehow explainable process of turning into a zombie robot demon. I'd end that statement with "delete as appropriate", but I think I'm good.

Honestly, if it's well-written a nice piece of narrative context is always appreciated. I can even overlook the incongruity of leaving one's journals in a hundred different places, and occasionally in other people's houses. The key issue is with that "if it's well-written" condition and how infrequently it's addressed. This is in part due to how players rarely bother to stick around and listen to them, thus not exactly justifying spending a whole of resources in order to write them with any degree of quality, which then leads us to this vicious cycle of apathetic "man, so today sucked" diary entries listened to by equally apathetic players who would rather be stabbing the hideous monster our erstwhile Pepys turned into shortly after retiring his quill for the last time.

It's entirely possible to build a game around hunting for gaps in a narrative. Beyond documents which simply explain what's going on, a game can be packed with seemingly irrelevant texts that include subtextual clues, hints to passwords and code numbers or even the extraneous short stories that can be found in books all across the world of The Elder Scrolls' Tamriel. It's good world-building, it can be entertaining in the overwrought or sardonic way genre fiction can often be and it's helping you better understand characters which either play a significant part in the story or are just minor NPCs with their own novel perspective on the events unfolding. It's unfortunate that very few games really bother to do this outside of the prerequisite "itchy, tasty", "yo, maybe we shouldn't have opened that portal to hell, whoops" and "oh hey, this underwater city full of greedy jerks wasn't such a hot place to raise a family" commentary.

I won't argue that it might send the wrong message with a title screen like this...

Showcase: Gone Home! The latest Indie darling, from Steve Gaynor's The Fullbright Company, is absolutely all about searching for narrative clues and little else. The game lets you explore the Greenbriar manse: an immense home paid for by writing blurbs about VCRs and looking after trees. The player, as the concerned and intensely vapid Kaitlin, is searching for the reason why her family has apparently vanished leaving their mostly furnished palace intact. Rather than basing the game around fighting monsters or escaping same, the mystery of how the humble Oregonian chateau came to be deserted and the location of her family members takes center stage and the goal is to simply piece together what happened. It's a heartfelt and well-narrated story and the game is packed with all sorts of curious items worth exploring for the sake of getting a sense of the place and time, even if most of them do not aid towards filling in more pieces of the puzzle. I still think the inclusion of Elebits could've really made it "pop" though. Just me?

In all his incarnations, never did The Nameless One ever not brood.

We actually have a second Showcase of sorts in Planescape: Torment too, which I also played fairly recently. Due to the unique nature of its protagonist, any source of information about his past or about the multiverse of Planescape in general is likely to translate as a direct experience point boost, as he edges ever closer to the nigh-demigod he once was as more memories return. It is a fascinating method of developing a character, because really you aren't so much watching him grow than watching him reverse engineer himself. It's also a genius move for compelling people to become immersed in your story: Even if you're playing solely for the exploration and combat (and I really wouldn't recommend that approach), there's a strong case to be made for reading every note you find and talking to NPC you meet. It might mean a whole mess of XP or a permanent stat boost, depending on what you discover about yourself.

Characters & Buildings

How rebuild this quaint fishing village... people like that game Simon, right?

Perhaps the most intriguing example in recent years - though I believe this sub-sub-genre of dungeon crawlers began with Quintet's Soul Blazer way back in 1992 - is the idea that you're heading down a deep dark dungeon not just for gold or glory, but to revive the world. A handful of games begin with the world as you know it being utterly destroyed, but with the absence of life and architecture comes a fresh new canvas upon which to rebuild civilization. Heading into dungeons allows you to recover the people and structures that were once lost, to restore homes and families and to occasionally even bring back continents or reconstruct a future timeline.

It's a hell of a thing to find a way to get me invested in looting a dungeon for reasons beyond the materialistic. I'm not just running through dungeons for my own benefit--to line my own pockets--but rather to help others in a more direct fashion than killing some big evil apocalyptic shadow god at the end of it all. Dark Cloud, Dark Chronicle, Soul Blazer, Terranigma and to a lesser extent our showcase game all provide a more compelling reason than gold or a rare Embossed Gilt Codpiece of Ferocity to want to jump back into the fray, as homesteads populate, NPCs with personalities and hero-assisting vocations emerge and the world returns to being a bright and lively place gradually in front of our eyes due to our actions. Sometimes a game can be more powerful when it focuses as much on emotional investments as it does financial investments.

So these games are great - just as long as all these peons have monetary rewards for bringing back their homes and family members, that is. I ain't running a dungeoneering charity here.

Chibi Lego people can only look so intimidating.

Showcase: AWAY: Shuffle Dungeon! I started playing this weird DS curio due to its pedigree (though Mistwalker's pedigree is perhaps up for debate) and found a novel take on the old dungeon crawling format that re-purposes an overt action RPG into something closer to a puzzle game, in a similar fashion to what Half-Minute Hero does. All the trappings are there: the player character levels up, can buy new equipment and can hit things with a sword, but the way the dungeon shifts around quickly and in different patterns means you're concentrating on solving switch puzzles and running around like a loon before the walls close in on you and send you flying back to the start. I dunno if I'll stick with it - it's already getting quite frustrating with its shifting rules and awkward fighting controls - but I certainly appreciate it taking the Soul Blazer route of having an NPC to rescue as the final goal of each separate dungeon, and then being able to choose where they get repopulated. Something about all that just appeals to me more than gold or shiny new equipment.

The Bit at the End

"Dear Diary, this blog about looting seemed quite innocuous at first, but it's grown to a ludicrous three thousand words almost overnight! I dread to think what will happen if this were to continue any longer, as... Alas! The forum isn't happy about being tasked to read the video game blogging equivalent of War and Peace! They're advancing towards me, I can hear the drums! Those hideous dru-

*the rest of the journal appears to be covered in blood.* "

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