There’s a fine line in games between collectibles being fun and collectibles being a chore. I’ve been brooding on this a bit recently as I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a game (like its previous AC entries) with more collectibles than you can shake a stick at. Between the regular chests, locked chests, Initiate chests, Nomad chests, and cockades, there are almost 400 boxes and doodads to look for in the world. Actually, I shouldn’t say “look.” While some do require a little sleuthing, 90% or so are posted on your map and are just a matter of running to the icon and grabbing the item. The world is big enough that you’ll spend a lot of time just running to get chests. Like I said, some do require a little work, mostly if the chest is in a big building and you have to figure out which window to climb into, but most are pretty straightforward and when your running from chest to chest on a seemingly never ending collect-a-thon, the whole task starts to seem a little bit more like a chore than a fun game. This is a problem. So what makes a collectible okay and what makes them drive us crazy?
An example of a collectible I don’t mind is the three star coins in each level of recent Mario Games. These are well hidden, but there’s a certain logic to them that makes sussing out their locations feel like a battle of wits between the player and developers. Noticing a small indent and finding a secret path and a star coin makes you feel like a genius. Trying to figure out how the developers are tricking you is fun and when you get all of the star-coins in a world, you unlock a bonus level, a nice tangible reward. There’s also the nice fact that Nintendo usually balances the difficulty well. Some searches will have you scratching your noggin, but when you figure it out, you’ll wonder how you didn’t see it coming. Plus, with the use of collectibles in 2D games, there’s only so much real estate to explore if you’re stumped and just start checking every possible surface. Which brings me to the first of the problems with collectibles.
One of the things that annoys me most with collectibles is when they’re impossible. For example if you found every collectible treasure in the Uncharted trilogy on your own… you’re straight up lying because that is impossible. The treasures were tiny dots in huge levels, and they could be almost anywhere. Sure, some of them are pretty doable. Go down a less traveled path in the climbing sections and there was a good chance you might find one. But then they would put a tiny glimmer on the tip of a statue near the roof of a monument in a massive cavern that you have to shoot (and mind you, no in game instruction ever mentions that shooting glimmers is a thing that you should be looking to do). When you shoot the glimmer it falls to the ground and you can collect it as a treasure. Given the scale of the game’s environments and the difficulty of noticing on of these glimmers in the games’ lighting, it could take hundreds to thousands of hours of painstakingly combing the environments to find every treasure on your own. Instead, people do what I did and they use the crowdsourcing resource of the internet so they can get the platinum trophy without losing their mind. Another game that did something like this was Star Fox: Assault. There were five S-Flags hidden in each level. Not only could they be anywhere, but about half of them were INVISIBLE! You had to shoot them to make them appear. There were several huge environments in that game and I suspect if some Guide-writing service like Prima Games hadn’t collaborated with the developers (and then had readers put the info on the internet), people would still be looking for those flags; and that game came out in 2005!
Then, of course, there’s the less offensive but still not particularly enjoyable sin that Assassin’s Creed commits of simply having too many collectibles that don’t get you much for the effort (some pocket change level money and a couple color schemes for your clothes), and all without the collecting itself involving any gameplay mechanics. Part of the reason the Mario Star-coins are satisfying to get is that when one is placed tantalizing out of your reach and you execute a perfect triple jump, wall jump, or sequence of enemy stomps in order to get yourself to it, the game is making you earn it through gameplay. Most of the chests in AC require the same set of “gameplay” skills that are required to use a GPS to drive to your friends house. But at least you can do it without help from the internet if you want to.
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