Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Classic collectibles in modern gaming

As games are pushing towards more realism and gritty edginess, do levitating, sometimes glowing and possibly rotating bits of bric-a-brac that the player has often been encouraged to collect still have a place in gaming?

Collectibles were always the main goal and aid in most games. Collect this to win, grab that to heal, touch this to spit fire, and so forth. They always stood out as what was needed to be picked up and were the visual representation of an objective for the player. It has been this way for quite some time with a few exceptions, but now it seems to be getting phased out.

The Grand Theft Auto series for example has seen quite a shocking jump in the availability, variety and uses of pickups. The first few games in the series were littered with the usually helpful pickups that often spelled madness and destruction for all of those indecent enough to go about their daily lives. I still remember getting kill frenzies in the first game and chasing down innocent people with a flamethrower, like a demented dragon wearing a yellow t-shirt. All the games right through to San Andreas had some form of floating item that was designed to draw the player’s eye and be hoarded.

This changed in Grand Theft Auto 4 very dramatically. When people were killed, their guns no longer spun in mid air, begging to be collected, but instead fell to the ground next to the crumpled sack of flesh and blood that was just wielding it. Secret packages were now replaced by pigeons that littered the city requiring a bullet lobotomy to officially be collected. The whole system was changed and it seemed to take away from the arcade like feeling that the rest of the series retained.

Resident Evil has always been a moody cow when it came to collectibles. Whenever playing through the series, it is almost instinctive to move along a wall rapidly tapping the action button in the hope that the dim witted zombie magnet you control might find a critical object to open a door/safe/window of interest. Occasionally something might twinkle at you in the distance implying that it should be in your grubby hands but it was still quite subtle. The challenge came in the way that where most games before it liked to flaunt neon red card keys as a reward for fighting through a bajillion baddies, Resi instead would hide it in a drawer in an abandoned mansion.

Off the top of my head, the only genres that still have the traditional style of collectibles are platformers and cartoon racers. Even these are taking a bit of a hit with the likes of Lara Croft and Nathan Drake starting to tread on Mario’s turf when it comes to precision jumping.

As games start pushing the graphical boundaries, collectibles seem to be getting rarer and rarer, at least in their traditional forms. Picking up something that responds to the in game physics engine or that looks casually non-descript in a pile of un-interactive scenery just does not bring with it the same sense of treasure hunt victory that a glowing, whirling star does.

Is it an argument that games are being dumbed down a bit? Is what used to require a major think about how to get the red key out from behind the glass, beyond the river of lava now being replaced with a series of intense gun fights, killing your way to victory? I will admit that the answer to most in game scenarios in our current gaming climate seems to be ‘bring more guns’.

Will this change in the foreseeable future, or are collectibles that bare little logical presence in the context of their reality doomed to the retro archives (seriously, why is there a giant pair of cherries in a maze filled with multicoloured ghosts?) I certainly hope not, but if games continue their current trend, the relevance of classic style pickups will tragically continue to fade even further.

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