I have a terrible condition that I think many of us might have. It's called completionism. I play a game and there's a percentage attached to it? Chances are I'm going to want to complete it. Now, I'll be honest and say that calling one's self a completionist can sound like a "humble brag." Let me assure you I am not proud of my condition. I desperately wish I could just play games and not care about their percent completion. Plus, I'm not even that accomplished of a completionist. For starters, I have my limits. I only briefly had access to a Playstation, never had an Xbox, and the games I play on PC tend not to be Steam games. I'm a Nintendo guy mainly, so "Platinum"ing a game has never been a problem possibility for me. I'm also not a fan of things requiring speed runs or near-perfect runs of things. So I'm OK with a less than perfect record in games like Crash Bandicoot or Celeste, for example.
Ok, so what then do I mean when I call myself a completionist? Really I just mean I can't stop collecting things, particularly in adventure games or open world games (and 2D platfomers to some extent). But mostly fuck open world games. Why these in particular? Because half the time the effort it takes to get to 100% is never that much: it's just a matter of finding some shit somewhere. It's mindless, it's not fun, but it feels good? Like in Super Mario Odyssey... I didn't enjoy following a dog around until they dug at an area for me to ground pound. That wasn't fun nor was it skillful. But it wasn't hard and when I got them all I got a gold balloon!
Yup.... worth it.
I think what started me down this road to ruin was Super Mario 64 DS. As a kid, I had loads of time on my hands! 100 coins on Tall, Tall Mountain? Sure, what the hell else am I gonna do? Talk to friends? No! And that was a game where the completion aspect felt satisfying. It was hard to get all those coins, let alone all the stars. But it's those 100 coins challenges that stick out to me as the crux upon which you find out if you're gonna 100% the game, or just beat it. Because, at least for me, I had to plan out my coin routes, decide which mission would be best suited for the challenge, and be careful about how to kill each enemy. I came to know each of those maps like the back of my hand, and I was proud as hell when I got that coin #100 and all of a sudden a star sprouted up from nowhere. Then, with it all said and done, and 150 stars collected, I could fly around Peach's Castle Courtyard which was a true joy. It's how completionists should be rewarded. Something silly but fun to do... not merely a trophy.
Compare that experience to all the time I wasted getting to star 121 in Super Mario Galaxy. Look, I love SMG. Re-playing it in spurts alongside Super Mario 64 and Sunshine in the 3D-All Stars Collection only reminds me how wonderful this game is. Getting to 120 stars in this game is pretty tough with some really challenging galaxies and mini-games thrown in there. Really anyone should be proud to get there. But then the game throws a curveball at you. Once you get to 120, you unlock the ability to play as Luigi! Wow! Experience the joys of slippery controls and super jumps that have been Luigi's trademark since 1986! Honestly, if that's where the game ended, this would have been the greatest reward for completionism in history. But they go and fuck it up. No, it's not enough that you beat the game and got all the stars... because there's actually ANOTHER star you can get BUT you can only get access to it by replaying the WHOLE GAME AS LUIGI! When Nintendo is taking design cues from Ghost N' Goblins you know you're in trouble. So... yeah. Of course I replayed the game as soon as I finished it back in 2008. I NEEDED to get that one hundred twenty-first star. Now in fairness, the reward for doing this is actually fairly similar to Super Mario 64. The galaxy for star 121 allows you to again wander around Peach's Castle Courtyard however much you want... but honestly this environment wasn't important at all to the game so there's not the same "wow" factor as there was in SM64.
In the interest of time, we'll skip some parts of my past pathologic completionist history. There was a whole Rockstar phase like when I spent more time going bowling with my "cah-zin" or trying to get the high score in that Tetris rip-off in GTAIV than I spent doing the actual missions.
And this... so much this
But fast forward to today and the reason I'm writing this blog post. My family decided to go on vacation this past weekend, and given the pandemic going on, I decided to opt out. That means I am left alone the week before Christmas. So what do I do? I went to motherfucking Renaissance Italy! I've never played an Assassin's Creed game before or any of the notorious Ubisoft open-world extravaganzas. I got Assassin's Creed II for free some time in the past year as part of some promotion for Uplay (or is it now just Ubisoft Connect?) so that you wouldn't go outside at the beginning of the lockdowns. I never thought I'd touch it but it was just nice to have one of the biggest games in gaming history from one of the biggest franchises in gaming. "I never thought I'd touch it"... but two 13-hour video game sessions later and we're somewhere around the halfway point. This isn't a review of Assassin's Creed II, but I just want to say I keep debating with myself whether this is one of the best games I've ever played or just one of the worst. As a platformer, it's not very goood. As a stealth game, it's downright awful. But somehow the sum of its parts turns out to be a damn good experience?
But why... WHY am I so attached to finding every little doo-dad this game says, "maybe you can collect this"? As soon as something is made available to me I do it. Races are unlocked? I'll do it. The pigeon coop offers not-so-great optional missions? Sounds like an OK time to me! The store lets you buy maps that put dots on your main map so that you can go track down those dots in order to make them disappear? Yes. MAKE ALL THE DOTS DISAPPEAR! In fairness, those "dots" are treasure chests and initially I relied on those for much-needed money... but since I managed to max out the in-game villa providing me with a steady income less than a third of the way into the game... I have no need for money. Yet here I am in Venice... tracking down every last God damn treasure box.
Claudia and her book of statistics are the foil to my sanity
What's worse is I know I do this to myself. I even said when I started playing, "Hmm... those feathers don't seem to be worth it. I'm not going to collect those." But sure enough today, day 3 of playing, I said, "Actually it seems silly to get everything else and not those feathers." What's sad is when I think of playing this game I can barely tell you what's going on in the game or what my favorite mission was. It all kinda just blends together: a tale of a hooded man jumping around roofs opening treasure chests, occasionally killing people in order that he might have the privilege to find and open more treasure chests.
Compared to Super Mario 64's 100-coin challenges to collect stars, finding these treasure chests or Assassins Creed II's other collectibles is far less satisfying. On the one hand there's the treasure chests. As I mentioned you can buy a map for cheap at an in-game store that tells you EXACTLY where to go for each chest. So it's just a matter of "go there, open box." On the other end of the spectrum, there's the feathers. However, unlike the treasure chests, there's NO in-game hints or clues to tell you where the feathers. It's a real bitch to hunt these down without a guide... so naturally I (and likely many before me) thought "fuck it, fine, I'll go look up a guide." So now the feathers too become a game of "go there, collect feather." In either case, rarely is there much skill or cleverness required... just go there and collect (cf. the upgrades in the Metroid Prime games or the Riddler trophies from the Batman: Arkham games, both of which could usually be found and gained through some clever puzzle/platforming AND rewarded completionists in a satisfying way... on a side note, when playing Assassin's Creed II I often wish I were just playing Arkham Asylum instead. They even released the same year!)
Assassins Creed: Gotham
Probably the closest the game comes to having satisfying collectibles is finding the hidden glyphs throughout each city. The glyphs strike a good balance between between the treasure chests' too-easy-to-find and the feathers' impossible-to-find. Each glyph is tied to a landmark/building and the game tells you which landmarks contain glyphs. So then your job is just to comb over a relatively small area for some glowing writing on a wall. Oh, and there's only like 3-5 per city... not 20-40 feathers per city or upwards of FIFTY or so treasure chests. PLUS, once you do find a glyph you get to do some light puzzle solving. It's a neat reward that gives you something different to do. I actively sought out glyphs and enjoyed finding glyphs.
My biggest problem, however, with games like Assassin's Creeds, Rockstar's games, etc., is that there is SO much to do optionally in-between missions that I cannot help myself from doing it all before diving into the next mission. The bloat of optional material is so large that it really disrupts the flow of the game. Now, you ask, "why don't you just pace yourself? Do a mission, then a little side stuff, and so on." That's the tricky part. I can't. Like I truly cannot. There's something in my brain that tells me I have to do everything before I can continue on. I guess there's some hope that if I do everything I can I'll unlock some more powerful armor or maybe I'll just be better at the game. But this comes with a downside. The official story missions in Assassin's Creed just taught me how to distract guards with a team of thieves... something I'd been doing for almost 12 hours at that point for various side missions.
And that's the issue. I feel like I am simultaneously getting the most out of the game and also not playing it as the developer intended. It seems like they didn't want me to use thieves til I got to Venice... so was I playing the game wrong up to that point? There's a similar dissatisfaction in Mario games, for example, when you have collected so many stars/moons that when you arrive in a new area... you've already unlocked the next area. It's like I'm somehow cheating the system... a system that they made. I guess what I'm saying is, if you're going to add fluff and bloat to the game... try actually tying it to the in-game progression. There's no reason that I should be able to have maxed out the villa before I ever left Florence or that I should have all but one of the game's weapons unlocked with still a good third of the game left. Yes, I have a problem, but Ubisoft's game design philosophy also sucks.
But you know what is the REAL kick in the nuts? The free version I got from Ubisoft wasn't the deluxe version. It was the standard version. So as a result, the game is telling me there's all these other secret locations that I cannot find in my game. Turns out that when they released the game, they knew they were going to add in DLC so in the official stats you will have less than 100% unless you buy the DLC. Kinda shitty, but it would be all fine and dandy if I could just go onto the Ubisoft store and buy said DLC... but it turns out they don't even sell standard edition Assassin's Creed II anymore, just the Deluxe edition. So the only way for me to actually complete the fucking thing is for me to buy a second copy of the game and use the DLC code from that second copy to activate the DLC content in the first copy. So guess who now owns two copies of Assassin's Creed II? Luckily there's a Steam sale going on so it wasn't too crazy... but still... real nice of Ubisoft to give away an incomplete game without giving people a legitimate way to make it complete!
Not sure there's much of a point to this blog other than saying, "I have this problem about video games that sometimes prevents me from really enjoying them." Still, I think there's an art to side quests and collectibles. I point to Metroid Prime games and Arkham games as counter-examples that not every adventure needs a thousand things to collect, and if you do make it fun. Assassin's Creed II doesn't do that and instead preys on my pathologic tendencies to collect... and collect... and collect. Maybe some of you feel this way too. All I know is... I don't think Assassin's Creed II is a very good game, but now I own two copes, and I won't sleep til I get every last goddamn feather. Now excuse me while I pray to God that the game decides to recognize my leap of faith as a leap of faith so that I'm not headed face first towards the bricks.