If I see one more tech orb, I'm going to choke something.
Yet I can't stop looking for the damn things. Never mind that Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is an allegory to an ancient Chinese fable. Far be it for survival to be at the forefront of my mind as I steered Monkey and his ward Trip among the wreckage of civilization. No, my entire attention span is helplessly hijacked by those innocuously floating orbs of light that are currency for purchasing increased armor and health pools. And they were everywhere.
I get suckered into it nearly every time. No matter how attractive a game might look, or how compelling its gameplay might be, I somehow find myself snooping around every nook and cranny for yet another derivation of upgrade component, map fragment, or symbolic memento.
In case you haven't noticed by now, I don't harbor much love for collecting items in a game. Sure, it can be argued that item collection is an integral element of game design, but that doesn't mean it has the go-ahead to be hackneyed into every genre imaginable.
Still, even though collecting items is as pervasive as needless tutorials or tedious quick-time events, it has the potential to be done right.
At first glance, item collection seems to be an entirely optional affair. Humanity wouldn't wink out from existence if I didn't hunt down every COG Tag and piece of Locust jewelry in Gears of War 2. Grand Theft Auto 4, a game that steeps itself in its sandbox-style flexibility, becomes awkwardly narrow when combing Liberty City for all 200 pigeons to kill. I don't think Niko Bellic has a deep-seated vendetta against pigeons; they're simply there for the taking.
And that's the crux of the issue. Both of these games don't bother to mask their collectibles behind a modicum of importance. All too often, going out of my way to search for collectible items simply for the sake of collecting them shifts the focus away from a game's otherwise excellent narrative or setting into a nearly manic drive to accumulate. If I remember the minutes from my “Good Game, Bad Game” motivational tapes correctly, intangible incentives to collect random items don't jive well when the gameplay suffers as a consequence.
Perhaps item collection would be worth it if your life depended on it.
In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, players learn to covet lantern oil. Frictional Games' first-person horror adventure is perpetually plunged in a choking darkness, forcing one to scrabble around the dank and deserted rooms of Brennenburg Castle for spare jugs. Tinderboxes – wedged inside musty bookshelves and hidden inside alcoves – are used to light candles and torches found throughout the castle. The added illumination is just enough to read the extensive exposition found in the game's myriad journal pages…and also provide much-needed sanity after eyeballing one of the gruesome creatures that wander around.
That synergy of collection and gameplay mechanics makes a world of difference. Amnesia's impetus of “light is might” translates well into collecting items, but more importantly, it comprises a blueprint for how item collection could be restructured to become more engaging and important for the player to pursue. Because in the end, no one wants to pick up one more glowing ball if it doesn't mean anything.