There’s nothing like the vast open, untraveled world shown to a player at the outset of a video game. Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch does this incredibly well. You stumble from a simple cave only to realize your insignificance in the face of such massive scale. Some video game set pieces require heavy effects and fast pace, not unlike a summer blockbuster movie, but Breath of the Wild uses stillness and a gentle pan. All paths ahead of you appear endless, unfolding as far as your imagination will allow. What follows is a carefully measured dance between narrative and gameplay—achieving a balance that other developers should be in pant-shitting awe of.
Limited in scope of width but not height, Journey, by Thatgamecompany, might have created my other favourite such experience. Like with Link, you enter the world as a voiceless character. You slide down sparkling dunes and head back up others. In the sky you spy a peak obscured by distance, and without being informed through dialogue, you know that this unfathomable spire is your destination. The rest is a seamlessly woven tale of loneliness and dogged persistence. I could add Ico and Shadow of the Colossus to this list. Surely we have each played a game at some point that built it’s lasting impression with a gestalt of deep feelings.
For comparison, take a series that, aside from the infamy of its glitches, remains quite popular today: Assassin’s Creed. Like our first two examples, the world is built rich with details. Scaling a tall tower, you can see a thick carpet of shingled rooftops ready for parkour. But you might also glimpse something else. If you’re like me, it makes you pause and lose focus on the work that’s gone into the Byzantine city you should be cruising through like a vengeful Batman. Instead you’re stopping every few feet to catch a shimmering feather. You’re heading for an objective but a dozen markers surround you, and if you don’t stop to pick them up, you might never come back. Finding one leads you to an area slightly off your path, and then there are yet more. Like a roadside prison crew picking up garbage, you feel compelled to continue trekking in whatever direction these things are littered.
Sometimes they’re simply polygonal packets, like in the old open world Spider-Man games on Playstation 2. In games like the recent reboot of Tomb Raider, there are dozens of different collectibles scattered and hidden throughout the game, changing with each level. Open up your mini-map and try reading the terrain through all of those collectibles. And if you missed some, you have only to sit down at a campfire and warp back to an older area, exhausting hours more in the great search for digital doodads that you surely don’t actually need. Even in very story-driven games that rely on realism (Uncharted 4), your protagonist must feel a little silly after swinging into a mossy ruin and snuffing out a dozen armed rebels—with the next big reveal a door away—only to spend the next half hour peeking through every nook and cranny to be sure he’d stuffed his pockets with hidden relics.
What fuels this developer desire to sprinkle the landscape with so much useless filler? Did we ask for it as gamers? Do we require something like this to pad the amount of time it takes to finish a game and validate the price our our purchase?
Bringing us back to a well that has been slurped from a bit too often in reference, there is an element of Inception here—a layering. We collect useless items in games in order to reach trophies or achievements, in order to collect those. The larger game outside the video game we’re playing is just as trivial. Do people look at our trophies or achievements and feel envy? When you have reached a trophy in-game and hear that little jingle, do you get an endorphin kick that replaces one the game should have provided through storytelling or gameplay?
Trophies, achievements, and abject completionism are some of the worst things to happen to video games, undermining their actual evolution to a new medium. They yank the player out of meaningful progression in search of pocket-filler, both in-game and in-system. There is one developer, at times maligned for it, that never added trophies or achievements. I have owned every system at one time or another, so I wouldn’t place myself in the category of a drooling fan for anyone, but Nintendo did not bow to the pressure coming from fans that had learned to love picking up trash on Sony and Microsoft’s systems. They instead chose to focus on their games. Sure, in Breath of the Wild there are things to collect, but they can each be turned in for something that moves the game forward. And a balance is maintained. You hoard items for food, but consume them quickly in recipes. You also will pick up dozens, if not hundreds of weapons over a game, but break them regularly and don’t fret over maintaining a top-notch arsenal.
Nintendo is only half a good example, because some of their other platformers do have heaps of collectibles to locate—though you can skip them. They generally won’t unlock anything special, and don’t attach any social cred to your online persona. Likewise, you could skip them in Assassin’s Creed, but then you’d risk not scratching the growing scab on your arm that identifies an unhealthy addiction to achievements. If you did want to take Nintendo to task and collect every item from one of their games, they’re often cleverly hidden—yet still obtainable in a speed run, as runners that set records for Super Mario 64 prove. Gratification doesn’t need to be a little ding and a notice for your friends to scroll past, but an internal pride that you reached something the Nintendo designers had hidden so cleverly that many other players hadn’t seen it.
Regardless of the game or console, we can identify the ultimate culprit in ruining otherwise powerful experiences. As I said earlier, there was for a long time a momentum moving games steadfastly forward. Stories were becoming deeper. We met and fell in love with characters built out of polygon, lined with pixel and voiced by text box. Then something was slipped into our games, at first seeming innocuous, but then proving devastating. You have only to play a game without trophies and achievements to feel what it was like—almost like returning to a childhood home you’d nearly forgotten. Playstation VR has an element of this, because you can’t see your trophies in-game (though they do pop up later, and still have a chime). Trophies and achievements are set up as tools for lazy developers to flesh out their software and have you hit different notes. They want to have reviewers mention that a game, though bad, was still at least a 40 to 50 hour experience. They want us to think: Well, then it must be worth my money! A night out at the cinema can cost nearly that much and I’m only entertained for 2 hours. We need to see this phenomenon for what it is: The air at the top of a bag of chips. The bag isn’t full. We’ve been eating this air and pretending it’s still chips.
Is this really art imitating life? Are we like this in our own lives, requiring validation for doing mundane things that fill out time? Surely, if I scattered a handful of coins on the street they’d eventually be picked up, but I don’t walk around the world with my head down, looking for coins. We are naturally collectors of many things, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we play video games for something else. We play them to escape that part of our world, to be challenged, to be entertained, and sometimes just to have fun.
Header image credit: Wccftech