Open world games are certainly not a new concept by any means, but the craft is certainly being perfected today more than ever (at least in this blogger’s opinion). They’re becoming more story-driven, bigger, bolder, more immersive, and much more complex. And with so many facets to an open world game (e.g. narrative, world exploration, side missions, easter eggs, collectibles, etc.), they can cater to many different play styles and attract a wider audience. Including completionists (people who try to complete the game 100% either by finding all collectibles, completing all challenges, and/or unlocking all achievements).
Now, I would not necessarily consider myself a completionist but I admire their dedication to the game and undeniable skill and have found myself pursuing that path in certain games (when I’ve been properly inspired). But when playing my first real open world game just last year, Horizon Zero Dawn, I realized that being a completionist (especially in the system of collectibles) in these vast and complex games seemed far too difficult and, frankly, way too tedious for my taste. But along comes Spider-Man (thanks, Boyfriend!) and I’m a born-again completionist swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper making sure I take every last photo of a mysterious toy cat I can.
So I wondered, what is the difference between the collectible systems in Horizon Zero Dawn and Spider-Man and why does the latter have me revel in being a completionist while the former has me avoiding it altogether?
For full disclosure, I have not completed the main story in either of these games at the time of writing this post. I can update it if my thoughts change later on, but since my primary focus will be on the motivation to be a completionist during play, I don’t thinking completion of the main story will detract from the argument.
Let me first start by explaining what I mean when I say collectibles. I mean the objects hidden in a game that have no real tie to or bearing on the progression of the main story, but offer narrative or factual information about the world the game takes place in. They’re fun, but they’re not essential to completing the larger quest.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s collectible system reminds a lot of its single-player, action/narrative game predecessors (think the Uncharted series, The Last of Us, or The Witcher 3). These collectibles can be found in each level/chapter and offer up some little world-building tidbit when found. They take a little dedication to find and part of the enjoyment comes from taking a break from the thrilling main action and wandering around a beautiful level trying to find a glinting ring or card in a long-forgotten tree. They can also be recordings or primary sources from a time and place that the characters may have had access to, but you, as the player, do not. Horizon’s four (official) collectibles are a mix of objects and primary sources: Ancient Vessels, Metal Flowers, and Banuk Artifacts, Power Cells, Datapoints and Vantage Points.
The first three I’d categorize as objects as they are physical things that you can locate and exist physically in the world. These collectibles function in the game as world and narrative building elements given that they often come with short descriptions/histories about them. They can also be used to aid the main quest because they can be sold to rare merchants in exchange for large amounts of in-game currency. Power Cells don’t offer much of a world/narrative building element but they can be used to unlock the best armor of the game; they act more like a rare and special currency for RPG aspects of the game (i.e. increasing your character’s abilities and strengths). The final collectibles, Datapoints and Vantage Points, are purely world and narrative building collectibles that I would consider to be primary sources. Datapoints offer information on what happened before the fall of the Metal World and the Vantage Points are areas that you can go to that project images of what the old Metal World once looked like. These collectibles cannot be traded and do not offer any benefits to the character, only to the player.
In Spider-Man, there seem to be five main collectible types: Tokens, JJJ Podcasts, Audio Recordings, Special Photo Ops, and Newspapers. The last four types (podcasts, recordings, photo ops, and newspapers) all fall into the same category of primary sources as the Datapoints and Vantage Points from Horizon. They are fun, world-building elements that offer no benefit to the character, i.e. Spider-Man, in the game, but do give the player a better understanding of the story and the place that the characters in the game occupy. The first type, Tokens, is way more complex, but way more interesting. The tokens in Spider-Man are diverse and numerous, and allow the player to customize the character in unique ways, as well as providing useful world and narrative building information to the player. Certain skills, suits, and gadgets can be unlocked and upgraded based on the number of each kind of token you’ve collected and have “in stock”.
But what’s unique about these tokens and what separates these collectibles from the primary source collectibles above as well as from all the Horizon collectibles is their interactivity and player involvement in earning them. The keyword here being “earning”. To give a couple examples, to find and earn Landmark tokens, you have travel to the Manhattan landmark it tells you to and take a picture of it with your in-game camera. To find and earn Research Tokens, you have to complete diverse mini-games that require players to practice certain skills (e.g. ground pounds, controlled swinging) while learning more about Peter’s pal, Harry Osborn, and his backstory. Essentially, the tokens are more fully tied to a system of achievements and world-building that feel very integrated in the collectible system as well as in the game as a whole.
So which collectible system is better at encouraging a completionist playstyle? Obviously, this is very subjective as I’m looking at two of my favorite open world games and giving an answer of how they’ve affected me personally, but I think (and hope) there may be similarities to other players and their experiences with completionism. Because I think the simple answer is which collectible system gives you the best reward for attempting completionism? And for me, that system is Spider-Man’s. There are similar elements to both systems, i.e. exploring the world to find unique objects and experiences that enhance both the character’s and player’s security in and understanding of the world, but I think Spider-man’s more complete integration of the collectible system into the narrative, achievements, and RPG/character customization and the way it helps to even connect those systems together is a much more satisfying and rewarding experience.
For example, I’ve found that I often for-go pursuing the main mission activity in Spider-Man to earn a new base token on the opposite end of Manhattan because I really want to unlock a new suit and a new suit power that I think will help me later on. And when I’m doing that I learn more about how this crime boss, Fisk, operates and get to hear some fun banter between Spider-Man and police chief Yuri Watanabe which has me feeling conflicted about Spider-Man’s relationship with Mary Jane. Within this one collectible, there is an emotional story involvement, a character-skill building opportunity, and a player-skill building opportunity. And this is a standard reward system for other kinds of tokens as well.
When I play Horizon, on the other hand, I may search for a collectible, say a metal flower, if it’s on my way to the main mission or near where the next main mission point is supposed to happen, but rarely will I see it out. Granted, part of this reluctance to seek it out has to do with the massive map size and slower means of travel (surprisingly, swinging through buildings is a lot faster than running over mountains…go figure). But even so, the reward I get for going out of my way, even a little bit, isn’t enough to usually justify it for me. The vantage points are really interesting and I’m always excited to stumble on them, but they don’t offer the same perks and don’t feel as wholly integrated into the gameplay as Spider-Man’s tokens.
That’s not to say that Spider-Man’s system is perfect either, the difficulty in finding tokens is not very high as they tell you exactly where they are. I will give a point to Horizon here because I definitely have felt that sense of accomplishment that can only be achieved after relentlessly searching a small ruin for 25 minutes and finally locating the site of this hidden artifact–there’s definitely a sense of pride. Spider-Man’s tokens also sometimes feel too much like achievements and walk the line between achievement and collectible. But frankly, that argument relies too much on semantics to go into in this post, maybe later who knows.
So in sum, and TL;DR, the experience playing as a completionist, at least when it comes to the collectibles, is far more enjoyable and rewarding to me in Spider-Man than it is in Horizon Zero Dawn. The way it marries many disparate systems and encourages both world-building and skill-building is something I find very inviting and well-designed. I welcome other thoughts and takes on these systems, the completionist play style, or anything else that would apply to this post.
Special thanks to the IGN Wiki Guides for both Horizon Zero Dawn and Spider-Man for helping me get the right terminology and avoiding use words such as “thingie”, “-ish”, and “I can’t really remember exactly what it’s called.”
Images courtesy of Marvel and theverge.com