When Collectibles Go Wrong: Why Spider-Man: Miles Morales feels faster than Sonic Forces

A screenshot of Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Spider-Man is in the air. An “Underground Cache” collectible item is in the bottom-right corner of the screen.

With the acquisition of a PS5 and a copy of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, I’ve been spending a lot of my time swinging through the crime-filled streets of New York City. Both Miles Morales and the original games’ campaigns are structured as a list of missions, each one guiding the player through puzzles, combat, and traversal sections. What I found most engaging about these missions is that I could complete them as fast as possible. I didn’t understand why I was doing them quickly until I realized that I was going faster because I wasn’t searching for collectibles. Discarding popular design standards, Spider-Man rejects hidden collectibles to deliver a far more exciting experience.

Collectibles are ubiquitous in every modern game, but why? At the risk of simplifying too far, collectibles serve two primary purposes:

  1. To teach the player new skills. A collectible can act as a secondary task to get the player to use a mechanic in a new way. If I put a gold star at the end of a seesaw, and you go out of your way to grab it, I can get you to learn more about the seesaw without explicitly telling you how it works.
  2. To add a sense of achievement from discoveries. The promise of finding a collectible can get a player to search and discover new things, a gameplay loop that can add an extra dimension to a game. If I hide a gold star under a cave, and you find it, you both feel good because you found something and become curious as to what else I’ve hidden.

Spider-Man is all about speed in traversal, strategy in stealth, and tempo in combat. Nothing about it deals with exploration. While the game has collectibles spread throughout the city, they are marked on a map and can be shown on screen with direction and distance if need be. They are easier to follow than even a game guide. The antithesis to this is the linear Mario games. Playing through a Mario level, the player is forced to look through every nook and cranny to find hidden coins or items. That’s fine, but it requires going through each level multiple times to “complete” the game. It emphasizes search, not speed. Spider-Man has no collectibles in its missions (Spider-Man’s missions are equivalent to the structured Mario level). No search is required. Collectibles of type 2 are nonexistent.

That means that in Spider-Man, the player’s goal is to finish missions as fast as possible, not to look for hidden doo-dads. This aligns more closely with Spider-Man’s speed-oriented moveset. However, the game still needs to encourage the player to interact with new mechanics, which is where extra objectives come in. Each fight, crime, and stealth mission gives the player two additional objectives to complete. These objectives incentivize the player to use or find out how to use new moves or gadgets. These goals are the game’s alternative for type 1 collectibles.

Sonic Forces is a perfect example of what can happen when collectibles go wrong: when a game like Spider-man, which collectibles could ruin, has them nevertheless, either because the designers either don’t understand or care. Each level contains five red rings spread throughout the level. The game forces the player (no pun intended) to move slowly through each level and search for red rings. The player of a sonic game is forced to move slowly. Because of Sonic’s movement, precise platforming in searching feels inelegant and abhorrent. Sonic Mania, however, has no collectibles. Its bonus objectives are giant rings, usually hidden in plain sight, encouraging the player to stop and grab them rather than search through a level slowly.

So far, I’ve discussed two options: encouraging speed without collectibles (Spider-Man / Sonic Mania) and encouraging search with collectibles (Mario / Sonic Forces). What I haven’t said is that you can do both. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze offers Kong collectibles, which encourage the player to interact with new mechanics (type 1), and Puzzle Pieces, which encourage the player to search through each level (type 2). These collectibles put Donkey Kong’s gameplay in the latter category, with Mario. However, Donkey Kong also offers a Time Attack mode, getting the player to speed through each level. This mode puts the game in the former category. The game optimizes both gameplay types, as both Donkey Kong’s moveset and its level designs are made for both speed and precision.

The lesson to learn here is that the new Donkey Kong Country games are categorically better than every other game and that you should play them.

The other lesson to learn here is that designers need to consider where and when they place collectibles in their games more carefully. They can either drastically improve or impair a game. In Spider-Man’s case, the lack of collectibles allows the player to focus more on speed, enhancing their experience. In Mario’s case, collectibles get the player to throw themselves into a search and discovery loop, also improving their experience. Ultimately, the type of game should always inform whether it adopts popular parts of the genre, whether it be skill trees, open worlds, or of course, collectibles.

(And because I won’t have a chance to share my full thoughts on the game anywhere else, Spider-Man: Miles Morales fixes or gets close to fixing every problem with the original game, but doesn’t add anything new to make it different from the first game. It also fails to take full advantage of the next-gen controller but does take full advantage of the next-gen processor, with the most realistic graphics I’ve ever seen in a video game.)

boy meets game

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