[Gamasutra's Simon Parkin looks at the current state of the video game collectible -- arguing that its popular use today is hurting games in various ways, and that we need to rethink how to use trinkets in game worlds.]
Behind the third rock to the left of the fourth tree, halfway up the tallest peak in the northernmost tip of Dartmoor in the south West of England, there sits a steel box. Its bright orange paint has been chipped by wind, rain, time and the fingers of victorious explorers.
Inside the box there’s a bottle of water, a pencil and a waterproof lined notepad. Open the notepad and you’ll find, in neat rows, a list of the names of every person who has found the box, a calling card record of all the treasure hunters who made it this far.
Across Dartmoor’s picturesque miles of weathered hills and heather-filled valleys hundreds of these letterboxes sit hidden behind clumps of gorse, inside crevices in a rock-face and behind waterfalls.
Amateur game designers put them here, although of course, they would never describe themselves as such. The first one was hidden in 1854.
Letterboxing is a rambler’s meta-game, one that has been in existence for a century-and-a-half.
Originally intended as an interesting game for children out walking the moors with their families, it has, over time developed into a widespread hobby across the region, with ‘clans’ of walkers buying guides that offer clues to their locations as they try to catch ‘em all.
The first time you hear about the existence of these letterboxes, either through word of mouth or by stumbling across one by accident, the entire experience of walking on the moor is altered. Before, pleasure was derived from the physical act, from the fresh air that fills yours lungs as your face is lashed by the wind, from the birdsong that tickles your ears or the plain aesthetic wonder of the hills that roll long miles around you.
But now? Now you view your environment through a different lens. Every rock becomes a potential veil to another piece of treasure, each tree the-x-that-maybe-marks-the-spot, each tor another mountain to climb in search of a possible prize.
While letterboxes are sparsely distributed, sometimes miles apart, the thrill of discovering one drives you on to the next peak in the hope that you can outwit the hider, and write your name in the pages of the book the box conceals.
The appeal of letterboxing will be familiar to the contemporary gamer. Video games have always held secrets for the inquisitive: bonus coins hidden behind fake walls, extra lives tucked away behind remote pillars and even, in the case of Symphony of the Night, an entire extra game nestled away at its conclusion.
The benefits of collectibles are various. Doubtless, they encourage the player to explore the world the designer has created with redoubled attention, taking time out of pursuing the primary objective in order to simply explore. In the same way that letterboxing encourages curious walkers to view their environment with fresh eyes, so the premise of a hidden bonus asks the player to view the game world not as a corridor down which they must race to the finish line, but a world filled with secret trinkets.
For the designer they offer a simple way to ask the player to take their time with the world, perhaps stopping to stare at a view or piece of scenery that they might otherwise have passed by, a subtle device to demand attention.
But with the advent of Achievements and Trophies, the art of the collectible shifted. Now designers had a way to formalize the art of finding secrets and catalog the player’s success and failures in finding them. In the 16-bit era, secrets were just that: undisclosed bonuses to be shared in hushed tones in the playground, or exchanged in furtive text at the back of magazines.
Today every game pause menu lists all of the treasures in the game and how many you have found, or, perhaps more pressingly, how many you have missed. In this way, the collectible has been elevated from an interesting curio, tucked in a game as an unspoken reward for the inquisitive, to a persistent nag on the player’s attention.
Two games released in the last few weeks, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Front Mission Evolved, boast end of level results screens that taunt the player with records of how many hidden items and collectibles were missed, undermining that sense of success and progress one should feel when completing a level. ‘You did quite well’, they seem to suggest, leaving the player with that depressing feeling of unfinished business, the very same that they likely dived into a video game in order to escape.
The act of cataloging the player’s successes and failures in collectibles is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s important to state to the player how many secrets and collectibles are left to find in the game. By knowing that there exist 150-odd letterboxes scattered across Dartmoor, the letterbox hunters have a clear goal in trying to find each and every one. But the difference is that, when letterboxing, finding letterboxes is the only goal in the game.
In video games, collectibles are, almost without exception, a sideshow to the main challenge. In placing such heavy emphasis on collectibles, either through end of level records or achievements, this side goal is promoted to main attraction, one that runs concurrently to the main ‘quest’.
Likewise, by introducing systemic benefits to collectibles in recent times, such as the character upgrades in Crackdown, or bonus experience points in Enslaved, players feel as though they need to be finding collectibles in order to progress and, that sense of delight in finding something wonderful and unexpected dissipates as the treasure hunt becomes one that feels as though it’s integral to survival and success.
This introduces a tension to narrative-led games. In Uncharted 2 or Modern Warfare 2, for example, how often are you being propelled forward by the narrative, characters screaming at each other to ‘Move! Move! Move!’, only to have the nagging feeling that, if you were to ignore their orders and check behind that tree, or in that office side room you might find a bonus piece of treasure, or collectible dog tag for your efforts. In this way, game system and game story work at odds with one another, introducing yet more tension and confusion to play.
Perhaps then, there needs to be a simplification of the collectible, a return to a time when the full extent of the reward for finding some hidden object lay in its raw, joyful discovery, not in the benefits it bestowed upon your player.
This breathing space allows the simple pleasure of finding something unexpected and hidden to once again flourish. Perhaps the answer really does lie behind the third rock to the left of the fourth tree, halfway up the tallest peak in the northernmost tip of Dartmoor in the south West of England.