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So there I am, running like hell across a bridge as a dark, malevolent force devours it not far behind me, when I spot another stray page of Alan Wake’s manuscript. I’d run across them fairly regularly, so it didn’t really come as a shock. Unless, of course, you count the sharpish twinge of annoyance that this stupid game expected me to pause and scoop up a piece of paper — and possibly stop and read it as well — while certain, soul-rending death roared closer.
And that’s the moment I blew off in-game collectibles forever.
Full disclosure: I never cared too much about them to begin with. Collectibles always struck me as the laziest of content adds…a treasure hunt sans map or, more often than not, actual treasure. I've put up with them for a while, but really, I shouldn't. So I’m hereby issuing an executive order on my own authority: no more collectibles in video games. Ever. Period. At least, not until they're completely fixed.
Let's start with presentation. What bugged me most about a wayward manuscript page showing up right in the middle of a desperate run for safety? That's easy…it completely interrupted the tension, the atmosphere, and the flow of the game in one fell swoop. I'm running for my life, totally in the moment, and — surprise! — a shiny reminder shows up to gently remind me HEY, YOU'RE PLAYING A VIDEO GAME SO PICK ME UP, OK?
Picture watching a really engrossing horror movie. Right in the middle of a major confrontation, it cuts away to a behind-the-scenes short on how they made that exact scene. They peel the curtain back, and you see all the wires.
The opposite approach might be even worse. Designers scatter an indeterminate number of tiny, insignificant objects in totally random places, requiring you to thoroughly explore every empty corner of every map. Yeah, that's not a colossal waste of time, now is it?
And what exactly do you find with all this extra effort? Nothing you will ever care about. At one point, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood had you chasing after feathers, Borgia flags, "The Truth" glyphs, memory clusters, and hidden artifacts. Or, alternatively, you could play the actual game, because few (if any) of these disparate items added value to the experience. Or to your life. I swear, every time Uncharted's Nathan Drake locates a priceless item, I spend nearly five seconds wondering who the hell left an Aztec ceremonial dagger in that doorway and why nobody in the last 500 years noticed it before I came along. Possibly ancient humanity's interest in generic antiquity ranked even lower than mine.
These non-entity objects don't do anything and don't mean anything. They appeal mainly to completists, obsessive-compulsives, and Achievement/Trophy hunters…three different ways to describe one person (who may very well be a gamer). Developers throw collectibles in because they're a cheap and easy way to extend gameplay. If you finished all the interesting stuff and repeatedly stapling your hand has somehow lost its appeal, here's a few mindless tasks to busy yourself with.
Except for those rare times when the collectibles actually matter.
BioShock's audio recordings filled in interest backstory, gave vital clues, and generally opened up the story without bogging you down. Open-world supercops vs. robbers game Crackdown offered collectible tokens that gave experience-point boosts in specific categories, and they were placed accordingly. Tokens boosting jumping abilities started at a low altitude and worked up to locations that required a leveled-up super-jump to reach.
That's the sort of thing you could do with any collectible. Don't just make them randomly placed dragon statues Lara Croft's supposed to find…give each item a unique stat boost or effect. Maybe you've only got room in your pack for three collectibles, and you must choose which chotchkies to keep, dumping the rest for the remainder of the game. Bingo…tactical element created.
Hey, I understand the geek need to collect, but I also understand the highly selective nature of what we choose to collect. Time to apply that to virtual goods as well. Just because somebody left his dog tags lying around doesn't mean we're obligated to pick up after them.
So no more blind hunts. No more fill-in-the-blank trash. If a developer wants me to go looking for his stuff, he better plan to make those locations practical and the act of fetching them worth my while. Because a geek's collection means something. It's special. It's specific. And as it stands, most in-game collectibles miss on all three counts.