Alan Wake's first downloadable content release, "The Signal," is bar none one of the best DLC experiences I've had, remixing elements from the main game into a fever dream that bends logic. Doors disappear as soon as you go through them, books become birds, and Wake must interact with memories of moments from the original story to progress. The geography reorients itself into impossible shapes: hardware stores lead to deep forest, old sawmills transform into Manhattan apartments. Harrowing sprints through a field of words (yes, words; Alan Wake fans will understand) and down a mountainside littered with flickering street lamps quicken the pulse more than any single scene in the primary game.
It also contains both the best and worst aspects of collectibles in recent memory — a fact that caused me to think about the very nature of collecting. Just what makes a good collectible?
Collectibles Done Right
At the most elementary level, good collectibles do one of two things: They provide a concrete benefit to play, or they augment the narrative in some way.
Think of the coins in Super Mario Bros. Every 100 you find nets you an extra life. That's a concrete benefit right there. You want to grab every coin you can so that you can play longer. It's the same with the rings of Sonic the Hedgehog: lose your rings and lose your life. Every ring, therefore, is precious. More recently, consider the Agility Orbs in Crackdown: Each glowing beacon is not only a notch on your belt but a means to increased powers that'll let you run faster and jump higher — and reach more orbs, of course.
Collectibles that augment the narrative don't provide any sort of tangible benefit to you — you won't live longer or get stronger by collecting them — but they will enrich the story and make the end experience more rewarding. Story-light games like Mario don't have much need for this type of collectible, yet in a narrative-driven game like BioShock, the audio diaries you find scattered throughout Rapture shine a light down the darkened corridors of the plot in a profound way. Try to picture a BioShock that didn't let you "discover" the story as you played. Would it still create the same emotional impact in your mind?
In order to be done well, this type of collectible must also make narrative sense. Yes, the characters in BioShock are a little chatty, but it's plausible that they could've recorded their thoughts to tape.
The good collectible in the "The Signal" resides along this part of the spectrum. Peeking out from the various corners of Bright Falls, you'll find cardboard cutouts of characters Wake has encountered. Reading them gives you descriptions of fake books "authored" by the characters — usually winking references to events from the story. Like the manuscript pages that foreshadowed events and expanded on scenes from the main game, these cutouts both flesh out the supporting cast and make narrative sense. This is a fever dream, after all, and cutouts of Wake, world-famous fiction writer, popped up in earlier in the game. I couldn't wait to discover the next cutout as I played.
Collectibles Done Wrong
Not all developers have correctly employed collectibles. These collectibles neither earn you an in-game boost nor strengthen the story in any way. Too often they feel like stopgaps to artificially extend play time, a quick-and-dirty method that takes advantage of the completist bug that gnaws at our brains. Sure, you might get a meta-reward in the form of an Achievement, but does that really justify Ubisoft staking 300 flags into the world of Assassin's Creed?
The alarm clocks in the "The Signal" sadly fall under this category. How do they fit in the context of the story? In what world would people leave alarm clocks deep in the forest or at the end of the pier? Connecting them to Wake's dream-like state is tenuous at best. At least the "bad" collectible in the primary Alan Wake story — Thermoses — had a sliver of narrative logic to them, and they doubled as an homage to the coffee-loving protagonist of one of the game's overt influences: Twin Peaks.
Sometimes, the worst offense with collectibles — and this is where Alan Wake and "The Signal" do them very, very wrong — is to include them at all. As much as I enjoyed discovering the cutouts and manuscript pages in Alan Wake, I wish developer Remedy hadn't used them — or, at least, that they hadn't hidden them so well. By hiding manuscript pages, Thermoses, cutouts, and clocks in the landscape, Remedy effectively deflated the tension in their thriller. Every moment spent looking behind rocks or exploring the dilapidated alcoves of a trailer park killed the atmosphere Remedy worked so meticulously to construct. Times I should've been running for my life — times the Alan Wake of a movie or a book would be doing exact that — I instead spent canvassing the entire forest, hoping the glint of a glowing Thermos might catch my eye.
The fact is, the need to collect is part of human nature; early humans were called hunter-gatherers, after all. Judging from the long history of collecting in games, developers are very aware of this fact. It's up to them to exploit this need in order to enhance their games — without shooting themselves in the foot in the process.