Collectibles: Subtraction by Addition

A airing of grievances about the effects of collectibles on game design and narrative.
The following is a republication of a post from my blog at


The first moments in Journey are this intangible narrative bliss (we're skipping over the first action where we're asked to turn the controller to introduce the motion camera controls (WHICH BY THE WAY! was a distracting control option for me: a slight tilt of the controller does almost nothing to the point where I would forget that there was even motion controls and then stretch my arms or shift my position on my couch and watch the camera go bonkers)). Anyway, the first moments in Journey are this intangible bliss: The camera points you at a small hill, so you climb it and the McGuffin of the game presents itself: You see the mountain in the distance and you are going to climb it.

For a good 25 minutes I was completely engrossed with the game: my mind was set and stuck on the idea of working with my companions and pressing through this journey with them. And then I realized the game had collectibles. Two sets of them, actually, one that would essentially allow me to jump higher if I collected enough; and one that exist only to unlock Trophies. Out the door went my focus and mettle on mere pilgrimage and in came the 'gamer mindset' where I would still progress through the story, but with one eye on the edges of the screen for any shiny bits. I wasn't walking through ruins and immersing myself in the world, trying to piece together a bygone culture, I was wondering if I would come across some sort of collectible. This was a problem.

I Google searched (with the quote marks) "Why does Journey have collectibles?" and returned no blog posts, no reddit threads, not even a damn tweet; only Youtube Walkthroughs and IGN Collectible Lists, telling me how to collect them all. I decided to channel my neanderthal and type "Journey Collectibles Bad" hoping that if I got right down to it I would get better results, but I only got results on The Hobbit toys (I don't know) and the IGN Collectible List with a sentence bolded "Using a guide for Journey is a bad idea." What a revelation.

(I was going to roast this guy, but his name is already "Sad_Loser" so...)

Here's the thing: Collectibles don't really help game narratives. I'd say most times they actually hurt it. The intel in Modern Warfare doesn't tell your squad where to go or enemy movements/weaknesses, it just pulls down the zip-action pace of heroic house-to-house firefights by prompting you to hold 'x' over a laptop and uploading data to some unknown source (Modern Warfare predicted "the cloud"). While orbs/data clusters in Crackdown/Saints Row IV theoretically reward you with power in exchange for your time and exploration, pretty soon you aren't really participating in the story or even creating any real meaningful interaction with the game world. You're just climbing around buildings and checking all the hidden corners of the map so you can finally get that awesome upgrade (This comes from a bitterness where I actually spent like 30 minutes in Saints Row IV just collecting clusters because I said that game was holding the good powers hostage from me). I don't even understand why the assassins would even be collecting feathers and flags in Assassin's Creed but they do. And they exist as dots filling up the mini-map: asking you to touch each one like a Sisyphean Pac-Man, all for the sake of an achievement.

It's hard to feel that the problem with collectibles isn't somewhat inherent. There are a few examples where collectibles are done well: Bioshock gives you audio logs which fill in the narrative of the world and give you nice contained stories that really make Rapture feel lived in. But there are also times when you don't just want to sit there and listen to them, when they pull you out of the tension of exploring, or even when the audio logs themselves are unsubstancial and boring. Many platformer Nintendo games use the collectibles as some sort of difficulty throttle: getting to the goal is relatively easy, but the difficulty comes in going off the beaten path and completing some slightly difficult platforming or feat. But even if Nintendo integrates collectibles into the gameplay styles of their players there are still times where I have to pixel hunt and I'm shimmying up and down every damn tree of the level and pressing against every wall in hopes of getting another star. Often times this comes at the expense of pacing the actual gameplay that the designers have asked the player to participate in.

But even with all the issues I've listed: players seem to like collectibles, or at least like games that happen to have lots of collectibles. Ubisoft has created blockbuster franchises on the back of people wanting to collect lots of things in an open-world and many other AAA publishers are following suit. It appears all the time in indie games as well (Journey, Thomas Was Alone, Inside). Players are always looking for more content and playtime for their games and collectibles are a popular way to pad out linear and open world games.  Whether or not the presence of collectibles actually helps or hinders the sales or perception of modern games, the trend seems here to stay.

From a design standpoint, it feels like an incredibly phoned-in way to add game time and "reward" players who have spent ages within a single game. Many times it manifests as little more than 3D models that the player must touch and a menu with a bar that slowly fills up over time. My gripe isn't even that it's just lazy but is this the content that we WANT to create for players? Is this running around picking up random tcotchkes really what we WANT the games to be about? What if we spent the extra time to create meaningful content or at least create collectibles that add something to the game?

Mad Max offers collectibles on both sides of the spectrum: photographs that you find with vignettes scribbled on the back that inform what has happened to the people who have passed (spoiler alert: it was the apocalypse) but then intermixes these with collectible scrap piles, the currency that is in abundance from many other sources. One of these adds some sort of value to the game's narrative, the other adds dots to the game's minimap.

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