I’d love to know the game that specifically started the trend of open-world ‘checklists’ of filler content to complete, just so I could fire said game into a molten-hot ball of fire 1.3 million times the size of Earth. I have my suspicion it's blame that should be laid at the feet of Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft’s series certainly popularised the idea, although the idea of filler content wasn’t exactly new at the time.
However it happened, it happened all the same. In the here and now, practically every single AAA open-world game features a series of ‘zones’ with a number of copy+paste activities to be completed in exchange for some meagre rewards and watching the completion percentage creep up. It’s a terrible practice precisely because it’s so compulsive. These activities seldom seem to be designed for fun, but rather to pad a game’s length and satisfy some unknown urge in the backs of our brains to tidily finish something.
Such activities include hunting down tiny objects, lining up QR codes, beating up a bunch of people, taking over an outpost, hunting a specific creature, opening chests, discovering pages of tedious lore, or climbing towers to spot a further 5.8 billion tiny activities to do. In and of themselves, these activities are fundamentally boring and repetitious, saved only by the core mechanics of the game itself. A game that feels great to play can paper over the cracks of these activities far longer than a game that, well, doesn’t. Look at Spider-Man, for example, which packs some fantastic combat and movement toolsets to try to keep things fresh. Even Spider-Man becomes boring long before that completion percentage ticks up to 100% though; all that swinging and swooping eventually giving way to restless fatigue.
It can often end up a welcome relief to reward ourselves for collecting some pointless trinkets by heading into an actual handcrafted mission; a timely reminder the game we’re playing is actually great when it isn’t burying itself under its own vapid collectibles.
Sometimes though, just sometimes, a game can elevate itself with open-world collectibles and goodies. The essence of good collectibles hinges on having playful, versatile mechanics that reward creative thinking. Mad Max, as an example, is the total absence of this way of thinking. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Shrines? Ingenious little puzzles with multiple solutions that can feel as if you’re breaking the very fabric of the game’s rules. We know from this example that it can be done, but precious few do. Just the idea of an open-world Portal should have your head brimming with the potential. The titular portals are a deep mechanical system that would naturally aid collectible design.
But, aside from Zelda, another prime example of an open-world eschewing the collectibles checklist is Red Dead Redemption 2. There is one buried deep in there, sure, but it’s never presented front and centre. It never asks the player to clear out entire zones, effectively leaving them dead and empty. Players are instead invited to play in this world; to test out its systems and discover its secrets. In fact, if, after clearing out a zone of all collectibles, you feel no urge to go back there, that’s strong evidence that the game isn’t actually all that fun in the first place. The only driving force in that situation is the tick, tick, tick, as you gather each item.
Which all leaves me in a bit of a conundrum. Why are developers even putting this filler in games isn’t even inherently enjoyable? It can only be one of two reasons, both of which are kind of interconnected: a lot of players enjoy it, and it helps to bump up the playtime, thereby seeming greater value for money.
So I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. Are you a lover of open-world collectibles, checklists, and hunting down every item for 100% completion? Or do you believe this is all needless filler designed to make a game seem larger in scale than it is? And which games do you think feature collectibles done right? Let us know your thoughts below!