When games get collectibles right
Ping when you're winning.
I can't remember the point at which I received the new crystal-tracking device in Grow Up, but I can remember what I thought when I did. I thought: Well, I won't be using that. Tracking down the glowing chunks of crystal scattered around the landscape had been one of the great joys of Grow Home, a game which is hardly short on greatness or joy in the first place. You'd rove about the compact 3D playground, and you'd see something glinting. You'd move in close and a tingling sound would rise up over the soundtrack. There it is! Swooping in, or clambering up over rocks to reach the glowing trinket, you'd then have to grab it and yank it out of the earth. It was a bit like pulling a tooth, except it felt brilliant. The crystals unlocked stuff as you collected them, but that wasn't the point. The point was that there were a certain number of them and you were going to find them all!
So a tracking device to make that easier? I wasn't on board with that. And then I played Grow Up, loved every minute, and moved onto other things. Only yesterday did I remember that I had left several crystals unfound. So today I went back in.
And it turns out I love the crystal tracker. It's a brilliant piece of design, in fact, implemented with the kind of care and intelligence that you see everywhere else in this oddball game world. Grow Up is pretty much a straight sequel to Grow Home, in that you do the same kinds of thing, but there's just more of it all. You're still a robot climbing over low-poly rocks and scaling creepers that reach high into the sky, but the world is so much bigger, a huge sphere filled with different continents and mountain ranges, and there are new power ups and new traversal options as you head for the moon.
And there are more crystals - far more widely scattered over the vast terrain. All of this can make tracking them down a bit of a nightmare. Or rather, there's so much ground to cover it's hard to build up a sense of rhythm to your crystal hunting, as you may be exploring a huge swathe of earth that is already picked clean, so there may be a half hour or so between one find and the next.
This is where the crystal tracker comes in. It doesn't so much point to the crystals you're after; instead, it gives you a nudge. It lets you wander, and it tells you whether you're getting warmer or cooler, and it does it all with these little bars that look like the bars of a mobile phone telling you how much signal you have. One tiny bar? There's a crystal somewhere around here, but it's some way off. Three bars turning to two as you start to scale a cliff? Stop scaling the cliff: that crystal is clearly somewhere below you.
I've had an amazing time with it this afternoon. I feel like I'm still in charge - still picking the destination for my wandering - but I'm just having a little help, a little course-correction, a little guiding hand on my elbow. It's brought the game back to life for me, and probably guaranteed me another dozen hours or so sniffing around in there until I have collected everything that Grow Up has to offer.
And it's made me think. Collectibles and treasure hunts so often get a bad rap in games. They seem like such empty-headed padding. We talk about all the inane things you have to track down to reach 100 percent completion in an open-world game, we talk about all the ways that cheap imitators have curdled memories of the strange, unrepeatable brilliance of those Agility Orbs in Crackdown. But then, when you see it done well - like in Grow Up, which balances the increased size of its world with a nuanced way of guiding you through it, half-directed, half-undirected - you see what it can give to a game. You see what the treasure hunt can really provide to the player.
For me, it's a reason to slow down and properly engage with the surroundings. That's what's happened in Grow Up, once I broke free from the powerful spell of the game's main objective, an intoxicating urge to get higher and higher into the sky, and I was suddenly able to look at all the terrain below me, its nooks and crannies and secret caves and hidden waterfalls. All of this has been given back to me by those crystals scattered all about.
I've seen similar things played out in GTA 5, which offers players who have seen pretty much everything a chance to scour the few last unchecked spaces of San Andreas for parts of a UFO, many of which lurk in forgotten barns, or in neglected alleyways. Then there's Treasure Hunt from Gravity Rush 2, an aside that manages to break a huge, vibrant game world up into tiny neighborhoods again as you compare the landscape around you to the photograph in your hand. Once more, it doesn't really matter what you're hunting for. It just matters that you're hunting, looking about you rather than off into the distance.
And what was Pokémon Go last year if not a weird procedural treasure hunt scattered across the face of the real world? Even then there was something to be gained from just heading out, face in your phone, to explore parts of the environment that are usually passed without thinking. There's a monument outside our office that I had never really looked at until it briefly became the spot where everybody was chucking lures. Turns out it's a war memorial in the shape of an obelisk - I wouldn't have been able to tell you that if it wasn't for a smartphone gaming craze, and yet I'd passed it almost every day for a number of years.
As gaming worlds get bigger and more detailed, the size and the details can both converge and work against the player, cowing them into simply following the quest marker around, playing the GPS rather than the road itself due to simple cognitive overload. Treasure hunts can counter all that. You listening, Crackdown 3?