It's Time to Kill Collectibles

Congrats, you've collected 13 of 4,563 pieces!

I think it’s time for the game industry to rethink collectibles. They’re breaking games, specifically games with a heavy focus on narrative. There are three types of collectibles from what I can tell, and I don’t think we need any of them.

Superfluous Trinkets

Take a game like Uncharted (2 or 3, it doesn’t matter), a game that marries story and gameplay so seamlessly it’s almost like a playable action movie. Why are there collectible trinkets in Uncharted? What’s the point? When the camera swoops in behind Drake, clearly urging me to press forward, but then I break away from the main path to check that dark corner over there (which is almost always empty), it breaks the flow of the game. Make up your minds developers! Do you want me to barrel through this bombastic story, or do you want me to inch forward as I scour the level geometry for shiny things?

I know, I know, you don’t have to collect things in Uncharted. And I don’t. The older I get, the less time I have to play games. I’ve all but given up on achievements, and I never cared about trophies. I want to experience what a game has to offer, not go on a scavenger hunt. I don’t have time for that. So I skip these things in Uncharted, save them for that third of fourth play through I know deep down I’ll never do. Uncharted is a good, and recent, example of superfluous collectibles—they’re annoying, and can mess with the pace, but not necessary. What really glazes my donuts is the required collectibles.

Required Collectibles

They’re what drove my wife away from Enslaved. Sometimes she likes to watch me play games, and she was really digging the story and characters in Enslaved. But the little red orbs ended her interest. As Monkey, you have to collect red orbs to upgrade your abilities. Now you don’t need to get every orb (though there is an achievement for that), but the more the merrier. Who doesn’t want a fully upgraded cyber staff thingy? The need for the best equipment to handle the increasingly stronger enemies pushed me to deviate from the main path to pick up orbs.

"Ugh, can't you just upgrade stuff without the orbs?"

After a particularly emotional and well-animated cut scene, instead of moving forward, I back tracked across a section of the level to grab some orbs I saw in the distance. Brooke threw her arms up in disgust. “Ugh! I just want to see what happens next! Why do video games put those things there? Do you have to get those? It’s so stupid,” she said. Leave it to my non-gaming wife to point out the absurdity of some of gaming’s classic trappings; she usually does this just by saying, “Oh, video games.”

From that moment on I decided to skip the red orbs that were out of the way, and I found that I still had more than enough points to power up my character and complete the game. So what was the point? If they were going to give me enough in the main path, why put hidden ones out of view of the limited camera angles? Why make me chase after stuff that breaks the flow of the story I’m sure they worked hard to create?

Story Collectibles

The final type of collectible borders on cliché these days. The whole, “Dear Diary, I’m dying!” thing is getting old. Who, in their last moments of life, would decide to make an audio recording? I don’t even know how to access the audio recording app on my phone. But apparently, in the worlds our games take place in, everyone always has a dedicated voice record on them. They must not be expensive though, because people seem to leave the everywhere. While audio recordings are ridiculous, they’re not as bad as the hidden documents that flesh out crucial bits of the story. I’m fine with ancillary details being squirreled away in some hard to find collectible, but come on developers, don’t hide relevant and important story information.

Gears 3 uses collectibles to share agricultural information...cool?

Resistance 3 is guilty of this, so is Gears of War 3. I don’t want to scan the environment for shiny things because it destroys the pace of the moody story, but one of those collectibles I happened upon revealed an important story tidbit, so now I want to find them all… but looking for them ruins the greater story progression. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. At least in Uncharted I can skip the collectibles and still know everything I need to know about the world, characters and plot.

I think some of this is a result of being too close to the fiction. There’s often a huge amount of back story created during the development process for narrative-focused games. Everything needs a reason for being the way it is, and so the developers create a series bible, or master document with all the world details. Some of the information is relevant, some of it isn’t. The relevant stuff, the things we need to understand and enjoy the main story, should be put in front of the player on the main path. Reward players that go looking with neat background tidbits, don’t punish players with an incomplete story because they don’t feel like pixel hunting through your levels.

Doing It Right

There are some games where collectibles are okay. Crack Down, for example, makes collecting orbs a crucial part of game progression. It also makes grabbing them fun, thanks to the crazy super powers your character possesses. But Crack Down doesn’t focus on story; in fact its story is paper thin, almost non-existent. Infamous 2, on the other hand, has a decent story, and there are collectibles all over the place in that game. Like Crack Down, going after them is actually fun, and they have an impact on the gameplay. Also, because they are literally everywhere, you never feel like you’re going out of your way to pick them up. In other words, they aren’t disruptive to the story or pace. It’s probably worth noting that both of those games are open world games. Collectibles are a little more tolerable in that genre (Rockstar pushed the limit by asking you to pick flowers in Red Dead Redemption though).

"These things are everywhere, it's so convenient!"

Of course, we could always just do away with collectibles. The developers at Valve are masters of the age old good storytelling practice of “show, don’t tell.” The Portal games and the Half-Life series don’t have story collectibles, because they don’t need them. Every environment oozes atmosphere. You don’t need a secret hidden email to tell you about the back story or characters, you just pick up on it naturally from the excellent writing and design. That is, of course, much harder to do than it looks. Need proof? Play through one of those games with the developer commentary on. They made very deliberate design and story decisions so that the player understands the world, their objective, and how to progress. It’s inspiring stuff.

So why can’t we have more of that? Why are we still picking up stuff in our story-focused games? What are all those macho gun-toting bald video game protagonists doing with the trinkets they pick up? I find it hard to believe that Marcus Fenix has a little shelf at home with neat things he’s found on the battlefield.

"Look at all this cool stuff I found."

15 Comments
16 Comments
Posted by yeah_write

Congrats, you've collected 13 of 4,563 pieces!

I think it’s time for the game industry to rethink collectibles. They’re breaking games, specifically games with a heavy focus on narrative. There are three types of collectibles from what I can tell, and I don’t think we need any of them.

Superfluous Trinkets

Take a game like Uncharted (2 or 3, it doesn’t matter), a game that marries story and gameplay so seamlessly it’s almost like a playable action movie. Why are there collectible trinkets in Uncharted? What’s the point? When the camera swoops in behind Drake, clearly urging me to press forward, but then I break away from the main path to check that dark corner over there (which is almost always empty), it breaks the flow of the game. Make up your minds developers! Do you want me to barrel through this bombastic story, or do you want me to inch forward as I scour the level geometry for shiny things?

I know, I know, you don’t have to collect things in Uncharted. And I don’t. The older I get, the less time I have to play games. I’ve all but given up on achievements, and I never cared about trophies. I want to experience what a game has to offer, not go on a scavenger hunt. I don’t have time for that. So I skip these things in Uncharted, save them for that third of fourth play through I know deep down I’ll never do. Uncharted is a good, and recent, example of superfluous collectibles—they’re annoying, and can mess with the pace, but not necessary. What really glazes my donuts is the required collectibles.

Required Collectibles

They’re what drove my wife away from Enslaved. Sometimes she likes to watch me play games, and she was really digging the story and characters in Enslaved. But the little red orbs ended her interest. As Monkey, you have to collect red orbs to upgrade your abilities. Now you don’t need to get every orb (though there is an achievement for that), but the more the merrier. Who doesn’t want a fully upgraded cyber staff thingy? The need for the best equipment to handle the increasingly stronger enemies pushed me to deviate from the main path to pick up orbs.

"Ugh, can't you just upgrade stuff without the orbs?"

After a particularly emotional and well-animated cut scene, instead of moving forward, I back tracked across a section of the level to grab some orbs I saw in the distance. Brooke threw her arms up in disgust. “Ugh! I just want to see what happens next! Why do video games put those things there? Do you have to get those? It’s so stupid,” she said. Leave it to my non-gaming wife to point out the absurdity of some of gaming’s classic trappings; she usually does this just by saying, “Oh, video games.”

From that moment on I decided to skip the red orbs that were out of the way, and I found that I still had more than enough points to power up my character and complete the game. So what was the point? If they were going to give me enough in the main path, why put hidden ones out of view of the limited camera angles? Why make me chase after stuff that breaks the flow of the story I’m sure they worked hard to create?

Story Collectibles

The final type of collectible borders on cliché these days. The whole, “Dear Diary, I’m dying!” thing is getting old. Who, in their last moments of life, would decide to make an audio recording? I don’t even know how to access the audio recording app on my phone. But apparently, in the worlds our games take place in, everyone always has a dedicated voice record on them. They must not be expensive though, because people seem to leave the everywhere. While audio recordings are ridiculous, they’re not as bad as the hidden documents that flesh out crucial bits of the story. I’m fine with ancillary details being squirreled away in some hard to find collectible, but come on developers, don’t hide relevant and important story information.

Gears 3 uses collectibles to share agricultural information...cool?

Resistance 3 is guilty of this, so is Gears of War 3. I don’t want to scan the environment for shiny things because it destroys the pace of the moody story, but one of those collectibles I happened upon revealed an important story tidbit, so now I want to find them all… but looking for them ruins the greater story progression. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. At least in Uncharted I can skip the collectibles and still know everything I need to know about the world, characters and plot.

I think some of this is a result of being too close to the fiction. There’s often a huge amount of back story created during the development process for narrative-focused games. Everything needs a reason for being the way it is, and so the developers create a series bible, or master document with all the world details. Some of the information is relevant, some of it isn’t. The relevant stuff, the things we need to understand and enjoy the main story, should be put in front of the player on the main path. Reward players that go looking with neat background tidbits, don’t punish players with an incomplete story because they don’t feel like pixel hunting through your levels.

Doing It Right

There are some games where collectibles are okay. Crack Down, for example, makes collecting orbs a crucial part of game progression. It also makes grabbing them fun, thanks to the crazy super powers your character possesses. But Crack Down doesn’t focus on story; in fact its story is paper thin, almost non-existent. Infamous 2, on the other hand, has a decent story, and there are collectibles all over the place in that game. Like Crack Down, going after them is actually fun, and they have an impact on the gameplay. Also, because they are literally everywhere, you never feel like you’re going out of your way to pick them up. In other words, they aren’t disruptive to the story or pace. It’s probably worth noting that both of those games are open world games. Collectibles are a little more tolerable in that genre (Rockstar pushed the limit by asking you to pick flowers in Red Dead Redemption though).

"These things are everywhere, it's so convenient!"

Of course, we could always just do away with collectibles. The developers at Valve are masters of the age old good storytelling practice of “show, don’t tell.” The Portal games and the Half-Life series don’t have story collectibles, because they don’t need them. Every environment oozes atmosphere. You don’t need a secret hidden email to tell you about the back story or characters, you just pick up on it naturally from the excellent writing and design. That is, of course, much harder to do than it looks. Need proof? Play through one of those games with the developer commentary on. They made very deliberate design and story decisions so that the player understands the world, their objective, and how to progress. It’s inspiring stuff.

So why can’t we have more of that? Why are we still picking up stuff in our story-focused games? What are all those macho gun-toting bald video game protagonists doing with the trinkets they pick up? I find it hard to believe that Marcus Fenix has a little shelf at home with neat things he’s found on the battlefield.

"Look at all this cool stuff I found."

Posted by AyKay_47

Definitely with you on the superfluous ones. Really bugs me when there is zero benefit to collecting things besides a number and/or trophy.

The required collectibles, I think, aren't so bad. I'd say they're pretty similar to Crackdown's orbs, in that if you go out of your way to collect them asap, you'll make yourself more powerful a lot quicker. However, as you pointed out, when it's done like it was in Enslaved, where if you just follow the main path you still unlock everything, it kinda breaks it.

Perfectly fine with story collectibles. If I really want to know more about what's been happening in this world, I'm more than fine with exploring. Even in Gears, where I didn't really care wtf was going on, I still read the 4 or 5 story tidbits I found.

Oh, and I'm 100% with you on Crackdown doing it right. At least the first one. Chasing orbs is the opposite of fun.

Posted by el_tajij

@yeah_write: Great read, dude! I agree with you on most points - collectibles always make me feel like I've left a game unfinished, but never seems worth the trek on going to grab them all. One thing I will disagree on though, is I love 'Dear diary, I'm being murdered' audio recordings. Despite how stupid they are in design, I think System Shock 2 just made me fall in love with those.

Posted by bibamatt

Alan Wake had the worst example of collectibles that I can remember this generation. Those flasks were SO out of place. Totally took you out of the game whenever you'd go out of your way to pick one up.

Crackdown, Arkham Asylum/City, Infamous all have GREAT collectibles. They really improved the games for me.

Posted by huntad

The superfluous collectibles aren't a big deal because, like you said, they're just there to be a video game. I usually ignore them until the second playthrough as well. The required collectibles are something that seem specific to Enslaved. I don't have an answer for that because I can't think of any examples.

The story collectibles are usually in games with poor stories. They seem to be put in after the fact for story moments that the devs weren't smart enough to put in the actual game. It's just bad, but if they took them out, that part of the story just wouldn't exist.

The bottom line is that collectibles are always going to be around. Some of them are just there to be there and they aren't hurting anything. The ones that do it wrong most likely have some kind of core problem that caused them to fill the game with stupid collectibles. Collectibles should stay, and bad game design should die.

Posted by MooseyMcMan

I disagree.

Moderator
Posted by yeah_write

@AyKay_47: I'm okay with reading ancillary stuff about games--I've read more than a few video game books--I just prefer my game to be a complete experience. Don't make the extra stuff (that includes collectible hunting) a necessity to understand the story, and I'm happy. That being said...I did collect every single stupid flag in the first Assassin's Creed and it did absolutely nothing for me. I am ashamed.

Posted by yeah_write

@el_tajij: I was on board with them in Bioshock, but they just got old quickly, especially when you were getting shot at at the same time. Then what do you do? Run to a corner so you can listen? Try and remember to go to the options menu and play it again after you've cleared out the enemies? I prefer the visual stuff you stumble upon, like the dude bashing his face against the wall in the first Dead Space. That was way creepier than any of the audio logs.

Edited by Stingraymond

Couldn't really care less about collectibles, I don't go out of my way to get them unless they interest me (audio recordings in Bioshock, Riddler trophies in Arkham) or I want to prolong my experience with the game (flags and templars in AC). Having recently played through Enslaved, I can say the exp orbs aren't at all 'required'--I don't think there is such a thing as a required collectible--and they're hardly even collectibles... they're just points to buy stuff, the same points you get from killing enemies and natural progression, just a few are a little out of the way.

Collectibles are fine, Valve aren't some sort of fucking god developers who 'don't need to rely on collectibles to tell a story' at all. Just like Epic and Irrational aren't trying to tell stories with their collectibles, they're just there for anyone who wants to find out more. There is no crucial piece of story information in any of the Gears collectibles, and you won't miss out on huge parts of the Bioshock or System Shock stories by not collecting audio logs, they're just a bit extra for the sort of gamer who cares enough about the world to want to know more. I love that sort of collectible, they provide longevity and replayability in some of my favorite games. I wouldn't want them to go anywhere, and they never will.

Posted by yeah_write

@bibamatt: Oh yeah, totally forgot about Alan Wake's litany of useless collectibles. Those were beyond stupid.

@huntad: Another example of the Enslaved type of collectible would be the Prince of Persia 2008 game. There were 1001 little white orbs throughout the world that helped you power up (or something like that, it's been awhile). In that instance, I didn't mind getting them because I'm a sucker for all things Prince of Persia/Assassin's Creed.

Edited by yeah_write

@Stingraymond: You made a good point about prolonging an experience. I've collected stuff in games before just because I enjoy playing around in that world. For the past several years I spend hours every November running around ancient cities in the Assassin's Creed games picking up stuff just because it's fun to run up buildings and stab dudes. The collectibles in Enslaved are required IF you want to level up your equipment. If you don't want to do that, then you're right, they aren't required at all. I still thinks it breaks the flow of the game if you go out of your way to get some.

I'm far from a Valve worshipper. I don't think they're a god developer, in fact I don't really like Half-Life and I hate the silent protagonist thing they adhere to. I'm just saying, as a guy that writes for a living, they do an excellent job of showing and not telling, which I think more games should do. That's a whole other blog topic of course, and it's really only something that games have been able to do recently. In previous generation, you couldn't use a facial expression to show an emotion. You just had a pixelated Solid Snake face shake around like a bobble head and say he was angry. Now I can look at Monkey in Enslaved or Drake in Uncharted and see if they're upset, jealous, mad or confused, and that's awesome.

Also, just to reiterate I don't think ALL collectibles are bad, just ones in games that have a heavy focus on story.

Posted by Hizang

It is acutely 13 out of 100 Jiggies...

Oh and no way, Collectables are one of my favourite things about video games, I felt a sense of achievement when I found all 100 Hidden Packages in Vice City and had that super cool helicopter!

Posted by yeah_write

@Hizang: I don't think ALL collectibles are bad, just ones in games that have a heavy focus on story. Also, as I said above, collectibles in open world games are a little more tolerable since part of the point of an open world is exploring and traversal. Also, as long as you actually get something for your hours of collecting, that's cool. Remember when almost every game had some kind of zany unlock or weird extra for completing the game. Now it's all DLC.

Edited by Chop

I'm with you. Collectibles have their place and that place is NOT fucking linear third person action games. With the invention of achievements, the collectible pandemic has just gotten worse. Now they tend to be in games for no reason other than needing to fill up achievement space; it's just so incredibly stupid and archaic.

Posted by tsiro

But how else are you gonna unlock that awesome concept art? Ugh.
In all seriousness, I agree. I generally try to avoid going down the collectables rabbit hole, especially in story driven games. I've not played much Crackdown, though, so I can't comment on it.

Posted by Ravenlight

I hated Crackdown but I loved finding orbs. Something is wrong with me.