I Can't Stop Collecting Stuff In Video Games

I Can't Stop Collecting Stuff in Video Games

Here's something I wish more game designers understood: If you put an interaction in your game, I am going to interact with it. Anytime a game responds to its players, the rats — or at least this rat — are going to press the lever for more cocaine pellets. Jenova Chen, during a talk about the design of Journey a couple years ago at the Game Developers Conference, put it this way: "If you give me a gun, and you lock me up with another guy in a room, I think I'm going to use it someday."

If you give me scrap to pick up, I will pick it up. If you ask me to destroy insignias, I will destroy them. If you reward me for knocking over poles with my car, I will knock them over. Don't fool yourself that I will have the willpower to resist engaging with the parts of your game that I don't like. I am not that strong.

For example, I've heard designers say that players who don't like collectibles can just ignore them, but here's the thing: I hate them and I cannot resist them. Gathering items off the ground must provide a shot of serotonin into the reptilian hunter-gatherer core of my brain, because I won't stop doing it even though it provides me very little conscious pleasure. I call interactions like this — a game mechanic that you keep engaging with, even though you despise it — "thumbworms," after the term "earworm," for that summer song or commercial jingle you can't get out of your head even when it drives you mad.

Mad Max thumbwormed its way into my brain, despite itself. When my Max was infiltrating a base, he couldn't help but stop to pick up some scrap lying on the ground or to hammer at an enemy insignia. It's true that you don't have to do these things. It's also true that the game rewards you for doing them. It's as if Grand Theft Auto V were a game about driving around San Andreas to knock down telephone poles and then pick up loose change off the ground.

I Can't Stop Collecting Stuff in Video Games

There are games with collectibles that I've forgiven: The thermoses in Alan Wake broke my engagement with the game's fiction, but the rest of the game's B-movie pleasures made up for their presence. There are even games with collectibles that I've been able to resist: The character and storytelling is so strong in Red Dead Redemption that, with time, it became easy for me to think, "John Marston doesn't pick flowers." There was so much to do in Assassin's Creed II that I was never really tempted by the feathers. I think each of those strong games would be stronger, though, if they dispensed with the collecting entirely.

Sure, a sprinkling of alluring items can help guide players to interesting parts of the map or serve as currency to spend on upgrades — which is what scrap does in Mad Max. Except gathering scrap is not that game's sauce or a side dish. It's perilously close to the main course.

While playtesting Journey, Chen noticed that players kept pushing other players off hills and mountains. Even the game's designers, who knew that the game was supposed to be about cooperation rather than conflict, couldn't stop doing it. "For quite a while, I was disappointed by humanity," Chen said at GDC. Then he decided to remove the physics in the game that allowed players to collide. If your game has pushing in it, it's unreasonable to expect that players won't push one another.

And if you put tedium in your game, tedium is what players are going to get out of it. I am the George Mallory of collecting. Why does Mad Max pick up scrap? Because it's there.

Chris Suellentrop is the critic at large for Kotaku and a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game? Contact him by writing [email protected] or find him on Twitter at@suellentrop.


    I collected all the shards in Dragon Age: Inquisition for the same reasons.

    It's a common thread here, but Far Cry 4's collectibles are so distracting I just stopped playing it altogether.
    Ubisoft already had my money though so mission accomplished, I guess.

      I think the Ubi games are the worst offenders for filler and I'm with you when you say you stopped playing. My OCD compels me to try and do everything, and normally I do, but I still need a good story/environment to keep me going. I had no dramas with the fallout games, because I freaking loved that world - but my enthusiasm died in skyrim (even though I clocked 200hrs).

      I've been trying to get through The Witcher 3 as well, but all those question marks!! It might just be open world fatigue. In Mad Max I'm jumping out of the car and collecting all the scraps from killed vehicles. The game is fun though, so I hope it lasts. Maybe I just like post-apocalyptic worlds or something.

      I would prefer smaller 'open' worlds with quality things to discover, over a quantity of things (and repeat shit) - I'll just play an MMO if I want that madness.

    I'm really bad for this with bioshock games. I just have to open EVERY single openable crate. Even if i already have full everything.

    Some games put waay too many collectables in games. If your collectible list is in the tripple digits (total), you have too many collectables in your game and the average player will eventually feel like they are wasting their time collecting (looking real hard at you AC). Its even worse when there are important items or cutscenes locked behind the collectable wall (No batman! Not on the coutch! Bad batman!).

    Lets face it collectables are possibly the laziest approach to filling a game with .. well .. stuff to do. They are at their best as audio logs, because at least their existence provides some small piecemeal of background lore or information a la bioshock (ok batman I enjoyed arkham asylum's audio logs. You can comeback inside.)

    Best to think of it like an optional mini quest: it should never obstruct either the core gameplay or story.

    The Lego games. Every time I see my kids run past the collectables I get pissed off. Probably stems from Super Mario and having to collect every coin and secret. Damn kids.

    I am like this with dark souls, I have finished those games countless times, know whats in each chest but yet have to loot all of them still and loot every enemy that drops something.

    Last edited 05/09/15 8:45 pm

    Yeah, i'm in this boat, realy badly. Doesn't what game it is, or how bad it is, I'll hunt for every collectible, search every room/trashcan/toilet to find every little thing I can. Currently working my way through GTA V (which I started late). Flew under all the bridges last night, and am working on knife flights now. Then its on to stunt jumps, letter scraps, hidden packages, etc etc etc. Even the shit that doesn't coutn for anything... i still can't help but get it! I don't know what it is, but I just can't help it! lol

    I collected all the hats on Team Fortress 2...

    I collected all 700 comic book pages in The Amazing Spider-Man...


    ... and I know I'm going to do it again.

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