An Examination of Collectibles: The Good

For about as long video games have existed, the idea of collecting things has been a major part of them. Whether you’re talking about point bonuses in the early score focused arcade games, power ups and coins in console platformers, or the meticulously hidden items of today, collectibles have long been a core component in games. The current idea of collectibles, that being a specific number of hidden objects that are scattered around a game world for the player to find if they choose to, is what I would like to take a closer look at.

This type of collectible came to prominence in the last generation, in large response to the new achievement system ushered in by the Xbox 360 and later adopted by Steam and Playstation Network. It is entirely possible to implement collectibles in a way that makes the player want to seek them out and feel rewarded for doing so, but this is not always the case. The majority of people don’t even bother expending any extra effort to find collectibles, and this is due to some common pitfalls many game collectibles fall into. Before we look at the ways in which collectibles are often implemented poorly, let’s first look at the opposite, those that actually enhance the game.

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There are several different ways in which collectibles can be implemented well, but most of them come down to a simple idea; the reward for finding them should be proportional to the amount of effort it takes to do so. This seems quite obvious, but many games fail to do this. Now, what the reward entails can be different from game to game and whether it’s actually worth the effort can vary from person to person. A series that immediately comes to mind as striking a great balance in this area are the Bioshock games.

The collectibles in the Bioshock games are audio logs, with the reward to the player for finding them being some sort of narrative payoff. Sometimes it’s insight into a specific character, sometimes it’s general lore and world-building, and other times it’s more detail on plot points that weren’t fully explored in the main narrative. Whichever of these areas a specific audio log explores you can pretty much count on it being interesting, and because the main strengths of the series is in the writing and storytelling, these audio logs are always things you want to find.

The actual act of finding them is never too difficult, with the majority being scattered about areas you already want to explore because the environment design is fantastic. Whatever your feelings on audio logs as a storytelling device, as collectibles they work quite well when the world, story, and characters of the game are interesting enough to justify them. If the game in question isn’t strong in terms of narrative, audio logs can lose their appeal fast, but that is not something you’d ever have to worry about with Bioshock.

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Audio logs aren’t the only kind of collectibles that reward the player with more story, and another example can be found in Alan Wake. Alan Wake has two difference sets of collectibles, one which we’ll get to later and the other being manuscript pages. The plot of Alan Wake involves a story the titular character has written (though doesn’t remember doing so) that is coming true. Throughout the game are pages of the manuscript, written in a very pulpy sort of way, that lay events yet to come. It can sometimes be a little spoilery, but in a way that fits the story of the game quite well. Finding these pages and reading them directly enhances the core narrative in some really cool ways, and being scattered just off the beaten path in a mostly linear game means they’re never too difficult to collect.

These are just two examples, but there are tons of collectibles across gaming that offer up interesting story content. Many of them involve audio recordings, some are written journals, and others are items or locations that unlock database entries for the player to read. The games that do this best are the ones that expand on the story or lore of the game in interesting ways. One final example of giving the player story as a reward for collectibles I’d like to mention are the optional conversations in The Last of Us. These give you bits of dialogue between Joel and Ellie (or whoever is with you at the time) that pertain to your current situation or location. Nothing in these conversations is essential to the story, but they do serve to further enhance the world and characters of the game, which are already phenomenal.

Story isn’t the only way to reward the player for finding collectibles, and in fact sometimes the act of finding something is itself the reward. If the act of seeking out something that is hidden can be made a compelling gameplay experience, then the object itself is less important. The agility orbs of Crackdown or the blast shards of the first two Infamous games are some great examples of this idea. These collectibles task you with using the main strengths of these games, the traversal gameplay, in some engaging new ways. Just jumping your way up a building or gliding across rooftops is fun on its own, so just having a reason to do it, in this case collecting something, is enough. Of course, these games also reward you with points towards character building for collecting these items, but the act itself would be enough for many simply because it’s so enjoyable.

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Another example of the act itself being reward enough are the riddler trophies in the Batman games. Now, some of these don’t involve anything beyond simply finding them, but the fact that oftentimes you have to solve a puzzle in order to do so makes it much more compelling. By making these trophies sequences of actual gameplay, in this case puzzle solving rather than a pixel hunt, it makes them much rewarding to locate. Some other examples of games that use collectibles to provide engaging gameplay opportunities are the stunt jumps in the Grand Theft Auto games, Green Stars in Super Mario 3D World, skulls in the Halo games (not so much in getting them but in activating them), and the stars in Braid.

So, if a collectible doesn’t enhance the narrative and isn’t particularly interesting to collect from a gameplay standpoint, is there any redeeming value? Well, the final way in which a collectible can fall on the positive side of the effort/reward equation is simply by being of value to you from a gameplay point of view. Whether this means enhancing your character’s attributes, giving you new abilities, or giving you new gear, gameplay rewards almost always make the effort worthwhile. Some notable examples of this done right are the bobbleheads in Fallout, heart pieces in the Zelda series (and their equivalent health upgrades across a variety of games), the pills of The Last of Us, and the Daedric artifacts in The Elder Scrolls games . The act of finding bobbleheads or heart pieces isn’t interesting on its own, but the rewards for your character, being skill points and increased health in these instances, is more than worth the effort.

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While many of these example of well implemented collectibles often reward the player with an achievement or trophy for finding all of them, all the ones mentioned have tangible in-game rewards as well. It’s this distinction, and the balance between effort and reward, that really separates good collectibles from the bad. Not everyone enjoys hunting down collectibles, but the ones mentioned are among the best at incentivizing players to seek them out and rewarding them for doing so. In the second part of this examination of collectibles in modern games, I’m going to take a look at how far that balance between effort and reward can be swung in the other direction, and go over some games that get it wrong.