Playing through Alan Wake and finding useless coffee thermoses got me wondering: what are the best and worst collectables in video games? Off hand, thermoses, pigeons in Spider-Man and shards in Infamous stand out as bad, where orbs in crackdown were well worth the struggle of finding them all
Best and Worst Collectables
Control was the only game where I've ever felt outright compelled to find all the collectibles. The various documents and items throughout the world did a great job of fleshing out the lore and contributing to the game's weird mood...a big improvement over Alan Wake's coffee thermoses!
The Riddler trophies and, more specifically, the Riddler puzzles in Arkham Asylum were also great. Hearing the Riddler get increasingly agitated over the radio as you close in on solving them all was great fun.
The trophies and puzzles in the Arkham sequels, however, I would argue are some of the worst collectibles in gaming. By the time we got to Arkham Knight, there were far too many of them to be any fun, and for some stupid reason the True Ending was locked behind finding every single one. Extremely disappointing and annoying. Any game that demands you collect useless tchotchkes outside of the main gameplay loop to unlock significant story content is a strong candidate for having the worst collectibles.
Almost all collectibles are bad.
I've been playing Horizon Zero Dawn on PC and I absolutely love the game, loved it in 2017 and love it now. But the collectibles really add nothing to the game except an excuse to spend a bit more time in the world doing something mindless. And don't get me wrong, I've been collecting metal flowers and finding the Banuk figurines, because I do enjoy spending time in the world. But at least Horizon sells you maps that show you where they are, so you don't have to put much effort in to get your relatively meagre in-game rewards.
Control, Spec Ops the Line or Bioshock are examples of good collectables. Those are items that help flesh out the setting and the characters, items that have their own story. Of those, Control has the best collectibles in recent memory... they have no quest or gameplay effect, but they are so well written and add so much to the setting and the tone, the game would be seriously hurt for their absence.
An example of bad collectible are feathers in Assassin's Creed. They are all the same asset, add nothing to the setting and there is not even a gameplay incentive to found them. At least shards in infamous were tied to the skill tree...
I think the number one thing that makes a collectable good is that it's fun to get or serves some other purpose. Someone said Riddler Trophies are bad, and many of them do kind of suck because they're just sitting out in the open, but the ones that are hidden behind clever puzzles are actually really good. If they just trimmed down the open world fat and focused on making good puzzles those would actually be great because they're an incentive to do side stuff in the game that's different from the other stuff.
Musical notes in Banjo Kazooie serve to show you where to go and where you've been so despite not really serving much gameplay purpose they are also good.
Then they got screwed up in Donkey Kong 64, where the collectables mostly serve as annoying busy work, which is the worst kind of collectable. Switching characters to go back down a hallway you've already been through is bad, especially because it's not like they use the color of banana to cue you on what monkey you should be using for a given section. They just use it for padding. Blech.
As for the collectables themselves (as opposed to how they are used in the game) the best ones are the ones that really flesh out the world in some way. Great audio logs, interesting notes or background on characters, etc... Those are always welcome, so long as there aren't too many and they're actually well done and not just boring. Following that are collectables that are useful for upgrading your character, like Infamous blast shards. Blast shards are really good because they both do the Banjo Kazooie thing of guiding you as to where to go and where you've been and they make you stronger, which makes them fun to get.
The worst are obviously just random things that do nothing. Assassin's Creed feathers are a good example. Either make the collectables mechanically useful or give me some significant reward for gathering them (story or character based) or just don't bother. I would say the same thing about random open world map clutter.
Most GTA collectibles are awful because they do offer tangible, fun rewards (at least, if you're a teen with nothing to do in the summer) but there's absolutely no logic to their placement which means you just have to mindlessly scour the map and somehow remember that you already scoured one section or another while also being filled with anxiety that if you just looked around that corner one more time you'd notice a nook you hadn't seen before hiding a horseshoe or whatever.
By comparison I thought the RDR 2 collectibles were a lot better since they were almost all wrapped around world building and didn't necessarily make you feel like you were missing out if you didn't get them since so much of that game's design was diagetic in nature. I'm still seeing dialogue trees and open world events from that game on Youtube that I've never seen before. In a more...ahem, controlled version of this, Control made sure to always make its collectibles feel like rewards, and they weren't all that cute about placement in the world, either. You probably didn't find 100% of the items, but you probably didn't find less than 90% of them, either.
I can only really speak to the first game, but I would say that the shards in the first InFamous are a good collectible. I found the traversal mechanics enjoyable enough that it's fun to just have an excuse to zoom around the city, finding them. The way that they broke down the city into smaller sections with their own visible collection counts and totals as well as giving you the little radar pulse ability also avoids the needle in a haystack issue of having absolutely zero clue to where the remaining items are.
Do pokemon count as a collectible?
Life is Strange: Before the Storm had very cleverly done collectables in the form of graffiti. What made this implementation cool is that they had actual consequences in various scenes throughout the story. In the first Life is Strange, the collectables were photos which, outside of a couple that are directly in story scenes, have no material impact on the game. Same with Life is Strange 2. There's stuff to find that gets you achievements but it means little in terms of the actual game and story. The collectables in those two games solely exist as a way of getting you to explore the environments.
In Before the Storm though, both if you choose to graffiti something and what you choose to draw as graffiti can impact the story. For a very early (in the demo for the game) example, if you choose to write "FREE CANDY" on the side of a drug dealer's motorhome, you find out later that he got a warning from the police for it. The other motorhome graffiti option doesn't result in anything happening.
For a way cooler but slightly spoilery example (I minimized actual story context as much as possible):
In the first episode Chloe has the opportunity to graffiti David Madsen's toolbox.
If she doesn't graffiti the toolbox, he doesn't feel the need to put a lock on it. This means later on when Chloe is trying to fix her trademark shitty truck, she can steal his engine repair manual and it makes the puzzle associated with engine repair easy since all the engine parts are labeled correctly and the manual tells what to do.
If she does graffiti the toolbox, then he padlocks it and she can't get the manual, which turns the engine repair puzzle into a tedious thing because only a couple parts are labeled right and you basically have to trial and error your way through with the tools.
I generally prefer it when there are maybe two kinds of collectibles in a game. There can be one that is more story focused and then one that is actually used character progression/gameplay wise.
The worst is when there are a bunch of types of collectibles that aren't really differentiated in any way beyond aesthetics. I remember AC: Unity being a big offender in this regard (Actually, Assassin's Creed in general. Actually actually Ubisoft games in general). You had cockades. You had animus glitches. You had a different kind of animus glitch. You had about 3 or 4 different kinds of chests. It was all too much, and very little of it did anything beyond checking something off an arbitrary list.
GTAIV's pigeons were the best and worst for me. I loved finding them. But I had one pesky one I couldn't find for about 3-4 tries of re-checking each fricken one. I had a blast doing it. But goddamn what was I doing with my life lol.
RDR2's collectibles were crap though. The cigarettes....do we really need over 200+ different collectibles in one game. Naw thanks.
Burnout paradise super jumps and billboards were pretty fun and were also clearly marked (though some were definitely hidden). The shortcuts though... They were pretty annoying, as there were a whole lot of them, they weren't as obvious as the billboards and while they were sectioned into regions, those regions could be very large, so I spent a long time just going in circles, driving slowly through every road to get that platinum paint. Gosh... That game was so good. Maybe I should buy the remaster.
I liked the collectables in Uncharted games. They were typically ancient artifacts that would be expected to be found in tombs and ruins. And, sometimes there would be a collectable that was an 'easter egg' from earlier Naughty Dog games.
Some games have too many collectables, some might have too few, but I have always found the Uncharted did a decent job of sprinkling them into levels to entice exploration.
They've been mentioned already, but Agility Orbs are really just the platonic ideal of a collectable. They reward you for something you already want to do (jumping on tall stuff), the reward is fantastic (better Agility in Crackdown feels amazing), they double as an indicator of what parts of the map you've already been to, the A/V component of getting one feels great, and they also introduce this interesting thing to the pacing of the game, where you as the player can venture into areas of the map you're not ready for in an attempt to collect some high-rank Agility Orbs and supercharge your Agility stat early. Dodging heat-seeking rockets while slowly scaling a skyscraper in the hopes of a 5-star Agility Orb is so much fun.
To pick on a game series I like a lot, fuck the paintings in the Dishonored series. You're meant to collect various paintings from each map, they're a great source of money, except the problem is that every goddamn building in that game is damn near wallpapered in paintings, except only, like, 3 of them per map are actually collectable, so your options are either to
- Try and keep an encyclopedic knowledge of the Doskvol/Serkonos art world in your head so you can recognize which paintings are unique (collectable) and which are repeats (art assets)
- Try and pick up every goddamn painting on the map
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