Collect-a-Thons Done Right And Done Wrong


Playing through Betrayer, which I just reviewed on Steam, has reminded me of what I’ll call “GPS game design.” Specifically, it reminded me of how these types of open world games like to handle secrets and collectibles.

In my review I said Betrayer borrows the feel of its structure from games like Elder Scrolls and Far Cry 3. This plays into how you solve the game’s mysteries — by finding clues, notes, treasures, and characters dispersed throughout the world. The primary way to do this is pressing a button that brings up an audio cue which you follow. To me this feels similar to how Ubisoft’s open-world games like to simply throw every secret on a map, or how the first Infamous game has you track audio recordings through radar. I think this is potentially problematic because it feels more artificial than certain games used to.

In a classic Japanese RPG or a Zelda game, secrets are usually placed in deliberately designed areas. Each Golden spider in Ocarina of Time is placed so you have to exhibit a particular skill to retrieve it. Each missile and health upgrade in Metroid is specifically placed so you have to overcome a challenge or be unusually perceptive to reach it. Each extra secret in these games is essentially an extra objective in itself instead of a simple trinket seemingly randomly placed in the world. This is the difference between fun collect-a-thons and boring collect-a-thons.

Maybe newer open world games do this because of how their worlds are designed. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry don’t seem as deliberately planned-out as Zelda’s extremely specific pathways. Today’s sandbox games mostly feel like jumbles of trees or concrete that simply set the stage for actions. I don’t think that should get in the way of more specific and maybe more organic placing and discovery of secrets though. What if, instead of simply putting a secret object on the map in Far Cry, you got a message that told you the object was in a specific building in a specific town? It would feel more like actually tracking something down rather than moving towards an icon on a map.

This problem potentially affects Betrayer even more because its main crux is finding objects to progress the plot. Most of its notes and other clues are somewhat randomly placed in the world, and most of the time the only way to find them is with the audio cue button. I don’t bring this against the game in my review because it’s simply echoing what Far Cry and Elder Scrolls have done.

To Betrayer’s credit, it does utilize its map for the finding of things at times. Actually, the map is pretty much your main tool of exploration outside the audio cues. It displays many interesting yet unmarked places that beg to be explored, which leads to many of the game’s secrets. I only wish all the clues and other things were hinted at in such a way.

I don’t really see this style of placing secrets in open world games changing any time soon because I haven’t really seen it discussed. Some people have come out against “GPS game design” and even the soulless collect-a-thons, but I haven’t seen evidence developers are figuring out more immersive ways of placing secrets.


  • I really like GameSpot’s review of Ace Combat Infinity. It shows a real appreciation for what the older Ace Combat storylines tried to do, even if they sometimes came off as usual anime tropes.
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