Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hidden collectibles cont.

In my previous post I discussed how the 2010 game Limbo incorporated a clever game within the game involving the search for hidden items. By using the Xbox achievement system the developers at Playdead gave the player descriptive hints for locating each item. I argued this particular hint system transformed what might otherwise have been an exhaustive time sink of an activity into an enjoyable and intuitive scavenger hunt.

One thing I didn’t come around to discussing in my earlier review of Alan Wake was the game’s obsession with hidden collectibles. Here’s a game that invites the player to locate hidden manuscript pages, hidden weapons caches, hidden beverage can pyramids, hidden readable signs, hidden radio shows, hidden TV shows, and—my personal favorite—hidden coffee thermoses. Finding these items is not a requirement for completing the main game, but as with Limbo it's an activity that can earn achievement points. The player can consult an in-game “statistics” screen to observe their progress toward locating each of these items.

While most of the items end up being pretty easy to spot through the regular course of play, there remain some proverbial needles in the haystack. This game presents a lot of virtual ground to cover.

The TV and radio shows are relatively easy to locate and worthwhile to find because they lend interest and a sense of authenticity to the game world. The manuscript pages basically do the same, adding narrative subtext, although these items are more scattered and much more numerous. The signs offer a little bit of subtext but it seems pointless to make a collectible game out of them.

The inclusion of weapons caches make the most sense from an actual game-playing perspective, as they contain useful items that bolster the player’s inventory and ability to combat enemies. The game also employs a helpful marker system for spotting and guiding the player toward these nearby caches. The player character’s flashlight will reveal painted golden splotches and arrows—previously unseen—leading to treasure. Even better, this aspect of the game is tied fittingly into the overarching storyline of the game (there's a character in the game who the player later discovers has actually gone around and supposedly set up these hidden caches for a reason). I like that. But, again, does the game need to turn these caches into part of a collect-a-thon?

The Alan Wake collectibles that make the least amount of sense would be the can pyramids and coffee thermoses. The can pyramids serve as a kind of quirky Easter egg. Find them and knock them over to unlock the item. Why include it? Well, why not?

The thermoses don’t seem to add anything to the game either. And yet there are 100 of them spread throughout the six episodes. That’s a lot! Their presence is never explained, let alone acknowledged. They serve no mechanical purpose. And while most can be located with minimal exploration, by their very inclusion it creates a situation in which the obsessive player will wander off the beaten trail time and time again simply because there might be a stray thermos just around the corner.

This type of feature throws the entire pacing of Alan Wake completely out of whack. From a narrative role-playing perspective, why would a protagonist who is in complete mortal peril—not to mention a time crunch—go off on a wild goose chase every other minute to look for coffee thermoses? I’m not saying everything in a game has to add up to neat narrative logic (although that wouldn’t be so bad), but it all comes back to the point that looking for a needle in a haystack is, most of the time, decidedly not enjoyable.

Another game that went heavy on the collectibles was 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum from Rocksteady Studios. Similar to Limbo, one could reasonably argue the existence of multiple play-through modes in Arkham Asylum. There’s the main storyline with its clear chain of events, objectives, boss fights and other combat encounters leading to eventual narrative conclusion. There’s also a wealth of hidden collectibles associated with various Riddler challenges, and finding these can be a mode of game playing seemingly all its own.

On the one hand, there was some satisfaction to be had in seeking out these sundry secrets. Here's another game that employed a clever hint system—or in this case, appropriately, a riddle system—that involved thinking and analysis rather than mindless wandering around (although there was plenty of that too). It nevertheless bothered me thinking I could have otherwise charged through the game in a nice, action-packed eight-hour-or-so push.

When I played through the game I found it somewhat annoying how these two basic modes—the so-called “main game” and the Riddler treasure hunt—were operating at odds with one another. The entire course of the game is supposed to occur in one epic night (although there is no actual time limit or consequence for taking too long to complete objectives). Everything in the main storyline of the game communicated urgency. Why then was the game simultaneously encouraging me to spend precious hours retracing my steps and exploring every corner of the island to find statues, tape recordings, hidden painted question marks and more?

The idea of incorporating hidden and/or collectible items within a video game world goes way back. I don't need to bother trying to identify the earliest examples, because the type of game element I'm talking about isn't easily defined. Super Mario Bros. incorporated all manner of hidden coins, power ups and extra lives. What's interesting to me, however, are the types of hidden collectibles that are in place to add another layer of player motivation, secondary to the main objective of simply finishing the game.

It think there was a time—particularly during the transitional years when game worlds became predominantly three-dimensional—when this notion of finding hidden or scattered items really had its heyday. I'm thinking of the Nintendo 64 era and the cutesy platformer games wherein this sort of activity served as a placeholder for keeping players occupied and goal-oriented. Forward progress in Super Mario 64 was tied to finding hidden or sometimes hard-to-reach stars within game levels to unlock new levels. Similar to Limbo, the game gave players helpful hints to finding these stars. This collecting business seemed to do the trick for a number of years until games like Donkey Kong 64 came along and turned us all insane (for brevity's sake, let it simply be said there was too much collecting, and it wasn't fun). And the cutesy-platformer genre went the way of the buffalo.

Nevertheless, the concept of hidden collectibles remained and persists—mostly as an afterthought. It's long seemed to me that scattering hidden items has to do with giving players an excuse to explore and interact with a large game world. In other words, the space is there. The developers went through a lot of trouble making it big and pretty. Incorporating combat only goes so far. Why let all that pretty space go to waste?

My point is there are good methods and bad methods for addressing this problem. If a game developer is going to include an activity into their game, hidden collectibles included, it should be deliberate and with purpose. I'm tired of these pointless hidden items being plopped down or tucked behind random corners with little reason or consideration for the player's sense of logic or intuition. I'm tired of wandering aimlessly without a clue. And I'm tired of doing this for no other reason than to get that 100%-unlocked statistic or achievement point.

If I'm going to be looking for something, I want it to be a game and not a random, time-wasting task. But I also want to play games that maintain their tension-heavy forward progress. Backtracking for the sake of collecting breaks the overall experience.

Does any of this rambling make sense? If anyone has any thoughts on this subject feel free to leave a comment.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The three play-through modes of Limbo and a lesson on hidden collectibles

Sometimes it's the simple things that matter. It really is. Take Limbo for example.

Have you played Limbo? Oh, man, you've got to play Limbo.

Don't watch any trailers. Don't YouTube any walkthrough videos. Just download it and play it. Turn the volume up. Keep the screen brightness relatively dark. And just go in cold. Experience it. I don't think you'll regret it.

Limbo, of course, is pretty much old news by now. It had its moment in the spotlight, but it's basically one of those relatively short games that you go through once and that's pretty much it.

Or is it?

I found myself going back to the puzzle-platformer this past weekend. It had been about a year since I'd played through. I had thought at the time that the puzzles were clever. They were logical, but not too obvious at first glance. Challenge increased with progress. And while the game relied on plenty of trial and error, the learning curve proved more intuitive than skull-bashing. Limbo also avoided repetition. Each successive puzzle, even if it contained elements from previous puzzles, threw clever new tricks into the mix.

Aesthetically, Limbo also was a beautiful game that offered no narrative explanations and instead welcomed any and all interpretations. And when it was over it was over. Fin.

So why return?

It comes back to those stupid Xbox achievement points. They're just points, I know. They don't do anything. And yet playing a game doesn't necessarily do anything either. The games are what we make of them. And so the best achievement points, as I see it, are the ones that steer the player toward approaching the game in a new kind of way. It could be like writing a new, completely optional set of rules to a pre-established game.

On the one hand, these optional points can be an irritating thorn in the side of players who happen to be obsessive “completionists,” sort of like those insane folks addicted to maintaining as many Guinness world records as possible, but on a smaller scale. On the other hand, it bears repeating these points are optional. Pursue the most challenging and time-consuming achievements at your own risk.

In Limbo there is one major achievement that nets 100 points for simply completing the game. And while neither the name nor description of the achievement (“Where Credit is due — Persistence has its own reward”) makes this explicitly clear, that’s what it is. Anyone who makes it through to the end—whether they look up the puzzle solutions online or rely on their own brainpower all the way through—will earn this achievement.

Then there is a series of ten rather cryptic achievements, two offering 5 points each and the other eight each worth 10—making for a combined total of 90 points. During my first time through the game I had assumed these referred to progress-based mileposts that would automatically unlock for solving the main puzzles. That’s not the case, but I'll talk about these more in a second.

Finally, there is one dastardly achievement for Limbo that tasks the player with completing the game in one sitting and dying no more than five times. Considering the swiftness and frequency of death in a typical player’s first run through the game, that's a pretty tall order. And frankly, for only 10 achievement points, not too many people are going to try for it. That’s okay.

So when I loaded the game over the weekend I did so in the interest of unlocking those ten cryptic achievements. Without actively trying, I actually had managed to nab one during my first run. I had been attempting to figure out a timing-based puzzle close to the end of the game (I didn’t know at the time it was close to the end) when I happened to go exploring in a particular direction at a particular moment, suddenly finding my player avatar in a particular spot of the two-dimensional playing area that I hadn’t realized was accessible a moment earlier. I thought I had found the location of the key to advancing the puzzle. Instead I found a strange egg-like item (a Limbo Easter egg?) that unlocked an achievement. It had nothing to do with solving the puzzle at hand.

It then became clear the remaining nine cryptic achievements each referred to more of these hidden items. The names and descriptions of the achievements were clues:

  • Wrong Way — That’s not right (5 points)

  • Altitude is Attitude — Exploration off the ground (5 points)

  • It’s Stuck — Prepare a dry landing (10 points)

  • Urban Exploration — Involves heavy lifting (10 points)

  • Alone in the Dark — Beneath the arthropod (10 points)

  • Climbing the Cog — Don’t pull the lever just because you can (10 points)

  • Backtracking — Ride the Crates (10 points)

  • Guided by Sparks — The crate is key (10 points)

  • Under Ground — Vertical passageway (10 points)

  • Going Up — Don’t let gravity keep you down (10 points)

By re-reading these clues, I had a pretty good idea where some of the other hidden items might be located. So that’s what I focused on for my most recent play through, finding those remaining items. Well, I found them, and I had a good time doing it.

In a sense, I would argue these Limbo achievements encourage three basic play-through modes. The first and most important play through is all about completing the basic game. It’s about figuring out how to do it and doing it. This may or may not involve finding some of the hidden eggs, but the second play-through mode is to locate either all of or the remainder of the collectibles. It’s about the player referencing their memory and knowledge from their first play through and discovering the rather elegantly hidden game within the game—little puzzles contained inside the big puzzle. The third play through is to master the game by completing with minimal deaths—no more than five for the achievement. I can’t speak too much about the latter because I haven’t made any attempts to play through according to that set of rules.

So … what’s my point in all of this?

The point is this. It’s the simple things that matter. I encourage everyone to experience Limbo’s first play-through mode. That’s a given. I was surprisingly impressed, however, with the second mode as well. Finding hidden items simply for the sake of finding hidden items can actually be quite satisfying—when done smartly!

It would be quite possible to find each of the hidden Limbo eggs without any hints. It’s also possible to go through and not stumble upon any of them at all (as I almost did). Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of exploration, or paying close attention when noticing an area of the traversable screen that seems disconnected from the more visible path of forward progress. In a game such as Limbo, where every interactive element is in its place for a specific reason, that inexplicable object or open area would be a red flag.

But anyone who has ever tried to locate hidden video game items without cheating can probably tell you what an exhausting and maddening experience it can be. Sure, the completion-obsessed player may find some or even most of the items in a given game, but more likely than not there will always be those elusive needles in the proverbial haystack. Finding needles is great, but looking for them with no hot/cold feedback or helpful navigation often frustrates. In lieu of spending more potentially wasted time and energy poking through a level or game world, the player will eventually resign to seeking the answer online. From a game-playing perspective, this defeats the entire purpose of hiding whatever item is being sought after in the first place.

For this reason, Limbo’s clues function brilliantly. For one—and I don’t mean to spoil anything by revealing this—they are listed chronologically in relation to the linear progress of the game. The first listed achievement ("Wrong Way") is obtained before the second ("Altitude is Attitude"), the second before the third and so on. Second, each achievement name and description work together to point out types of landmarks or indicators. The “It’s Stuck” achievement description implies water. “Climbing the Cog” implies both a cog and a lever. They’re great hints, and in this case developer Playdead just happened to use the Xbox achievements system for presenting them. Instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, the activity becomes a scavenger hunt. It’s still about discovery and exploration, but it’s a type of exploration—it's a type of game!—that respects your time and energy.

In my next post I'll continue this train of thought further and discuss how Limbo's treatment of hidden collectibles informs and compares to similar features in other game titles. Stay tuned!

(Images for this post were borrowed from and

Monday, March 5, 2012

Alan Wake's American Nightmare review - a rough draft

I'll admit, this is weird. I was just wandering around my apartment today, trying to figure out what to do with my blog. All of a sudden I started picking up these random glowing pages to a video game review that I don't remember writing. The pages were everywhere. In the kitchen sink. On the bathroom mirror. Anyway, I apologize for the terrible writing, but I figured I just had to transcribe them and share...

Title Screen

I could see when I booted up the game that something was different. The nature of the series was changing. It was apparent from the word go.

The words on the opening title screen read Alan Wake's American Nightmare, and although it bore the namesake of the original game from 2010, the overall image conveyed something undoubtedly pulpier in tone.

The title character appeared to be standing on the precipice of a desert cliff, flashlight in one hand and a nail gun in the other. He stood tall and held up the makeshift weapon confidently. Gone was the dark forest motif from the first game. No longer was Alan Wake just a name, a figure in silhouette behind a white beam of light. It was as if the character from that first game had re-written himself onto the cover of a comic book.

Whereas Wake's previous adventures had left him mysteriously stranded beneath the dark waters of Cauldron Lake, fighting for survival and sanity, this Alan Wake had emerged stronger and more powerful. Like a superhero.

Exploring the Space

As I progressed further into the main adventure, I began to see more clearly the game's overall structure. The Arizona setting presented itself as a series of small open-world environments that I was free to explore. I moved the player character around these bite-size locations, using a kind of on-screen radar device that pointed as a map and compass toward various objectives.

I knew that were I a stronger man I could cut straight to the main business, probably zip through the whole game in a few short hours. I could use those spared hours to do something productive and meaningful with my life. But I also knew that scattered around that digital landscape were collectible manuscript pages, and with those pages, Xbox achievement points.

I was not a strong man.

The Giving Game

Even as the waves of enemies intensified, I never broke a sweat. I dispatched them with ease and precision. For being in a so-called “nightmare,” Alan Wake controlled like an absolute dream. His footwork was nimble. His aim was impeccable. And his ability to hold a flashlight steady on a moving target while reloading a pump-action shotgun? Effortless.

When it came to weapons and supplies, the game was more giving than Santa Claus. No matter the number of monsters that swarmed in a given moment, it simply didn't matter. A full or partial resupply of batteries, bullets and health was rarely more than a few hundred feet away.

On the one hand I could appreciate a game with a more buffed up protagonist. Easier combat meant less frustration. Less frustration meant less cursing at the television set. On the other hand, I couldn't help but feel the game lacked a certain tension because of this.

Words Words Words

Within the game world I picked up page after page after page. Each time I did so I listened as the voice actor narrated. A few pages described plot events that had yet to transpire. Some filled in bits and pieces of backstory or brief subtext involving the game's minor characters. Most pages read like a boring, sentimental memoir. Alan had a loving wife. His agent Barry was a good friend. I wanted to shout at the TV. “I get it already!”

Alan Wake’s words had the power to reshape reality, but they also had the power to induce sleep.

In my own written review I had more-or-less forgiven the first game's sub-par prose, but this was getting ridiculous.

Déjà Vu

My wife had warned me that the game was recursive, requiring the player to repeat the same basic tasks in the same three locations, only with subtle storyline shifts.

Was this laziness on behalf of the developer, a way in which to recycle the same locations? Or was there a purpose? Did the storytelling communicate something significant through the use of this Groundhog Day setup?

Did developer Remedy leave room for surprises? Or did they merely throw in new weapons and enemy types with each recursive play through? It was hard to tell.

Paging Mr. Scratch

The premise of American Nightmare held promise. Alan Wake was hot on the trail of his nemesis Mr. Scratch, a doppelganger that was released into the world like an evil reflection when Alan plunged into the waters of Cauldron Lake at the end of the first game. Alan had written himself into some kind of vaguely remembered Night Springs television story in which he finally catches up to and corners Mr. Scratch.

Mr. Scratch had just wreaked strange havoc on this mysterious Arizona town. He had charmed many of the townspeople before turning violent and psychotic. He'd even recorded a series of taunting video messages, sometimes murdering random victims on camera while he waxed poetic to Alan about being nothing more than an unshackled version of Alan's true self.

There were other suggestions that this evil twin represented Alan's character flaws exaggerated to the extreme. The bad drinking habits. Alan's temper. But Mr. Scratch was also a serial killer, a concept all too morbid for such a lightly treated game.

Show or Tell

Aside from those few drawn-out Mr. Scratch videos, most of the overarching story was simply implied. Alan encountered some non-player characters who briefly described the events that happened before his arrival. Events mostly disconnected from the player's rather straightforward experience of running around an empty game world and battling nameless dark creatures.

There was nothing wrong with the idea of a game bringing the player character into the aftermath of a calamity. BioShock and its spiritual predecessors were evidence enough of that. But American Nightmare violated one of the supreme rules of good narrative. Instead of showing, it mostly told.

The Taken

When Alan Wake battled through the Pacific Northwest setting in the first game, the Taken had represented individuals who had been kidnapped by the elusive and unknowable Dark Presence. Loggers had been transformed into axe-wielding, chainsaw-revving murderers. Most of the Taken served as anonymous fodder that existed for the purpose of creating an obstacle to the protagonist's forward progress. But while their precise origins and identities may have presented a logical conundrum, they made enough aesthetic sense that it didn't really matter.

Their presence in American Nightmare felt more arbitrary. The enemies looked like cartoon characters in a cartoon setting. Alan's journey through the forests, farms, mills and mines of Bright Falls, Washington, had felt deeply authentic. The settings in American Nightmare—a generic motel, a mountain-top observatory, and a drive-in movie theater—felt haphazard by comparison.

A Critical Choice

Writing a game review is no easy task. People may think it's just words on a screen or a magazine page but it's not. There are considerations to be made. Will the review be a glorified consumer's guide? A think piece? Will it have a score or rating? A reviewer must identify a game's crucial components and determine either how well or poorly those components co-function to create an engaging or otherwise meaningful experience for the player.

I pored over the words I had written. My thoughts were as scattered and divided as the pages of Alan Wake's story. I had made a bold decision. I would try to write the review in the style of the author himself. I imagined Alan reading the prose as if it was his own. I searched in my memory for the rhythm and cadence of Alan's in-game narration.

Even as I struggled with the piece, I knew I was sacrificing the opportunity to put forth coherent criticism. My precious few readers would scoff. I might never be allowed to write for a respectable game publication because of it. It might not work. But I had made my decision. I'd gone all in. My chips were on the table and there was no turning back.

That Sinking Feeling

I started in on the third and final cycle of the game's narrative. The Alan Wake character had woken up once again on the shore of a small desert lake. In front of the character was the famous cabin from the island on Cauldron Lake. Like the Kansas farmhouse from The Wizard of Oz, it had been transported to a distant world. Only now it was partially submerged, sinking slowly into the dark sludgy waters.

Perhaps it was a metaphor for the character, trapped as he was in some metaphysical limbo of his own psyche. But it was more telling than that. To me the sinking cabin was symbolic of the Alan Wake series itself. The game that had begun with such potential had suddenly stagnated. The game developers had taken their narrative in a certain direction and now they were creatively stuck.


There was a time not long ago when I believed Alan Wake was on the cutting edge of some great shift in interactive storytelling. The first game had spun a gripping supernatural narrative that rivaled the best of high-concept television. Its linear level design worked brilliantly in episodic format, as each segment brought the game's protagonist ever closer to solving the mystery of his wife's disappearance. It was exciting.

American Nightmare felt like a video game. And an average one at that. It was possible this was just a diversion. A quick stopover on the way to a true sequel in which the developers at Remedy would pick up the pieces and continue the main storyline that had culminated to such great effect with their last downloadable episode. Only time would tell.

For now there was nothing to do but fudge around with American Nightmare's arcade action mode. As I preceded to play a thought came to me. “Hey,” I told myself. “This arcade action mode will really boost the game's replay-value score in my review.”

Alan Wake's American Nightmare gets 2.5 out of 4 stars. You can download this game on Xbox LIVE Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15).

Images were borrowed from