Look at Banjo, the obsessed twinkle in his eye, the jinjo slung under his arm.  Pity him, for he is a slave to his own hunger.  The hunger...to collect.

I love Banjo-Kazooie.  It is, in my opinion, one of Rare’s finest games, a combination of clever writing and inspired world design.  It was a colorful world, one that I willingly explored, poring over ever nook and cranny in search of jiggies, jinjos, and magic eggs.  It was the perfect encapsulation of that dominant genre in the 90s gaming sphere: the collect-athon.

Which is why today you couldn’t pay me to play Banjo-Kazooie, or Mario64 for that matter, or any other of the countless world exploration games with the goal of collecting some arbitrary number of Macguffin-like objects, be they jiggies, stars, or glowing orbs.  What has led me to utter such an inciting statement, an attack on some of gaming’s most beloved?

Hit the jump to scoop my reasoning.

The revelation actually hit me while I was playing Sly Cooper 2: Band of Thieves.  It was the first Sly Cooper I’d ever played.  I had already completed the first stage, but I was still snooping, still jumping from rooftop to rooftop.  All the treasures were already recovered, the boss was long since defeated, but here I was, still searching for the collection of 30 bottles scattered about the world.  Finding them all would allow me to unlock a special ability.  Not a necessary ability, just a bonus ability.  After an hour of searching, I finally found the last bottle, tucked in a cranny I couldn’t see because of the the camera’s natural frame behind Sly Cooper.  I used the bottles to unlock a safe containing the hidden ability (which, after a minute’s testing, turned out to be useless).

In that one moment, I realized the pointlessness of everything I’d done in the previous two hours.  Collecting bottles wasn’t fun, it was a chore, just like every other game that has ever tasked me with searching for some arbitrary number of shiny objects.  I stopped scouring the world because it was interesting, or because there might be something new.  I’d already found everything worth finding, now all that remained were the bottles.  Bottles which contributed nothing relevant to the story or even to my progression.  It was a copout.  And this is coming from someone who played the 2008 Prince of Persia game.

I was actually shocked by my reaction to this sudden revelation of the bottles.

Basically it’s design that unintentionally disrespects the player’s time and efforts, much like excessive grinding in a JRPG or MMORPG.  Not only is this insulting to the player by telling them that their time is worthless, but it also smacks of lazy design.  The designer has this world, but large swaths of it are barren and devoid of anything interesting, so they scatter random collectables around for players to gather up in exchange for a reward, usually a new ability or weapon.  I actually think this is more common than people realize, adding this sort of collect-athon or possibly complete-em’-all aspect to games.  In an interview with a designer for the now defunct Pandemic studios about their game The Saboteur, a designer mentioned how destroying the hundred Nazi guard towers scattered throughout Paris (which incidentally turned out to be one of the most fun elements of the game) was added as an afterthought after they thought the city was too empty.

In an ideal world, the player would explore the world of their own volition, either goaded on by story elements or because of simple interest.  It’s so much more satisfying to go down a conspicuous looking tunnel and be rewarded with something important in context to the game world (a bit of story, some element of the world’s history, a hidden grotto that wordlessly expresses some ancient drama that took place there), rather than crystal orb #34 out of 150, only 6 more to unlock a power-up.  As much as I love Brutal Legend, I could not be bothered to find the 150 fire serpent statues scattered across the metal landscape; I just couldn’t bring myself to care, though not for lack of trying.

I’ll say one few things for RPGs, and that is that grinding is the absolute pinnacle of wasteful gameplay. As someone who once played three Disgaea’s and an assortment of Korean MMORPGs, I can say that intensive, slow paced grinding is the surest way to kill any momentum in a game.  I recoil in horror when I remember the hundreds of hours I dumped into Disgaea, slowly bringing my characters’ levels up into the low thousands before throwing down my controller in a feeble show of revolt.  Why do games do this?  Why must a game be artificially lengthened by making me fight slimes and raccoons for 12 hours, why must there be countless tangential systems (monster raising, item farming for crafting) that literally contribute nothing to what the core game should be about?  It’s a difficult balance to strike, but if the combat is fun enough and the story is interesting, isn’t that about all you need in an JRPG?  Some would say that grinding is enjoyable, that there are plenty of places where grinding out a few battles is just what they want.  A battle on the bus, a battle while waiting in the doctor’s office, etc.  Well, that’s one of the reasons why JRPGs work best as mobile games, but that is the subject of another article.

As far as I can tell, there’s no real way to get around this in a genre as monetized as the MMORPG market.  As long as games keep trying to emulate World of Warcraft they’ll keep falling into the same rote system of killing enemies, fetching items with absurdly low drop rates and couriering notes from one end of the game world to the other to gain prestige to then earn the privilege of doing it all over again for another tier of armor.

So then, is there a balance?  Of course.  Treats scattered around a world are key concepts in video games, and they provide a tangible reward to exploration, but in excess they can make a game tiring and stifle any desire to explore the world at all.  You, as a gamer, should be able to recognize the value of your own time just as a developer should know to respect your time.  Ideally this would lead to more enjoyable, more tightly focused games (especially adventure and open world games).

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