Hiding Secrets in 3D Open World Games

For anyone reading solely due to IF Reviews, I’m taking a short break from that in this post to go back to my usual type of topic, though, I do think that writing IF reviews has done wonders for my productivity in this blog. I’m still not quite out of things to talk about in that regard and now I’m more motivated than ever to try to write one myself.

But one thing I’ve been wanting to discuss for a little while is something I noticed in playing Batman: Arkham Asylum in contrast with the game Fable 2, which I will attempt to relate in terms of The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time.

…Does that seem interesting yet?  If so, then read on:

In Ocarina, there is a subquest involving the Gold Skulltula, a type of monster that spawns in certain hidden locations throughout the world.  There are a hundred Skulltula in total, and killing them and collecting the skull token that they leave behind gives the player access to a variety of interesting prizes.  Some prizes are near-mandatory for finishing the game, but, if you find even a few Gold Skulltulas, you will get them, whereas other prizes are less important but require a larger amount of the hidden creatures.  Finding all hundred is fairly difficult and probably won’t be done one’s first time through the game.

As Ocarina is one of the oldest 3D open-world games on a console, it’s actually surprising how well this is executed.  The Gold Skulltulas make a sound – an awful, skin-crawling sound that’s unmistakable. When you hear that awful sound, you’re compelled to look around to find the familiar creature that’s causing it.  Is it above your head? Maybe behind the nearby rock, which you need to blow up to reach it.  Sometimes you’ll be able to kill the Skulltula easy but unable to retrieve its token… in the pre-Hookshot game, though later you can grab the tokens you missed, and, if you don’t retrieve the token, the Skulltula itself will respawn.

Fable 2 made an attempt to do something like this with its Gargoyle system.  Like the Skulltulas, there are 50 gargoyles scattered throughout the world.  Killing certain amounts of them gives one access to different treasures in the Gargoyle’s Cove, and, eventually, an Achievement if you collect them all.  And Batman: Arkham Asylum also has a system like this, where the Riddler asks you a variety of questions and urges you to find secrets in the environment.  I could focus solely on the Riddler Trophies for this, but there’s a small variety of different Riddler-related objects to collect that are all hidden in the world.

From a standpoint of how well the secrets are integrated in the environment, how fun they are to find, and how well they work within the rest of the game, Batman did a bang-up job.  In Batman, the secrets don’t usually make a sound, with a couple prominent exceptions: one, when Riddler is first introducing to you the concept of finding his secrets, and, two, when you go back in to an area specifically to find more of the secrets. The latter must have required pretty smart programming.  The Riddler taunts me over my headset, but only if I go back in to an area with one of his secrets unsolved, and, if that is my only other business in that area. If I happen to be perusing a plot-related event in that region, the Riddler doesn’t distract me from that.  But if there’s no story to chase in my current area, the Riddler knows the reason I came back to that place was to track down his missing stuff.  Finding different secrets can unlock game modes, character art, or more information about some characters.  Secrets also give me some of the game’s experience points and can restore health, making it valuable to find them even if I’m doing something else.  But the most crucial thing is that the Riddler feels integrated in to the game, rather than a distraction from the game.

Here is something I didn’t think Fable 2 did very well.  The gargoyles (like Skulltulas) make an unpleasant noise.  In this case that unpleasant noise is the gargoyle taunting you in a Scottish brogue.  The gargoyles have a limited amount of voice drops and their prattle can get kind of repetitive.  They only start to spawn when you have the ability to aim your ranged weapon to destroy them, and the first time I heard someone taunting me I was pretty confused  (as were several people on the Fable 2 forums who believed this to be a bug in one of the bug-related threads that I read.).  After shooting them and destroying them, you get a quest in your log for shooting gargoyles, but initially the purpose isn’t clear.  I could live with that, but the main problem with the gargoyles is that they break the mood.  I might be traveling through uncharted countryside with a companion following behind me, lost in the feeling of exploration or the foreboding atmosphere, and suddenly I hear Scottish taunting.  Damn, it’s another gargoyle. Let me drop everything I’m doing, and turn around to find it.  Shit: don’t see it. Maybe it’s above me?  Not there either – god won’t it shut up?  I have to find it right now, because traveling all over this world can be sometimes tedious and enemies constantly respawn and if I don’t find it now I’m never going to come back this way again.

Compound this with the problem that there are a few of these you can completely irrevocably miss due to plot reasons and the treasure hunt becomes tedious, not fun.  So why does it work for me in Zelda, and Batman, but not Fable?  I have a few thoughts on this:

1. In Zelda, you’re always adventuring alone, and nobody is following around with you.  Same then goes for Batman in the context of Arkham Asylum (Oracle notwithstanding).  Of course it makes sense for Batman to want to find these things. In Fable 2 if nothing else you have the dog, and sometimes you may also be with someone else, a party member who is chatting with you, or someone you have to protect.  So even though Skulltulas make a horrible noise, and often make me drop everything I’m previously doing to try to find them, it doesn’t ever feel like I’m wasting someone else’s time, like I am with the gargoyles in Fable.

2. Someone (a cursed family) specifically asks Link to go hunt down the Skulltulas, so my motivation for finding them makes a lot of sense.  The Riddler specifically challenges Batman to find his trophies and secrets.  But in Fable 2 the reason I’m shooting gargoyles is not initially clear at all… other than, because they are very annoying.

3. Both Batman and Zelda give me pretty good rewards for finding the hidden objects. In Fable 2 rewards are always relative to my current inventory, and, really, who needs another Enchanted Crossbow +12 or whatever in that universe?  (The rewards in that game in general are sort of odd, but that’s an aside.)

4. Backtracking in Fable 2 to find hidden things isn’t generally too fun. Unless you get in to the game combat and see it as a brawler, you’ll be more likely to rely on quick travel due to the constantly respawning enemies in the game.  From there, going back to find a gargoyle you missed is made even more tedious.  On the other hand, backtracking in Batman is no problem – there’s a really good density of secrets-to-area, and it’s also possible to find a map in each section of the game showing you a location for secrets you might have missed.  Enemies don’t respawn: it’s just you versus the secrets and the occasional platforming task.  Enemies do respawn in Zelda, but they don’t level up with you and aren’t tedious to repeatedly fight; later in the game dispatching early-game enemies is trivial as you gain in power.  Fable 2 seems to always spawn enemies that are tough enough to tangle with me, which makes my personal power increase negligible.  It’s not a big deal when exploring new regions but if I can quick-travel through I resent fighting all these buff hobbes for one left-behind gargoyle (which I think maybe was down this corridor but there’s no way to remember for sure without taking notes).

5. Skulltulas and Riddler challenges pose some variety.  As I’ve said before, sometimes you can kill the Skulltula easily but not reach the token. Other times the trick is getting the Skulltula to appear (putting bugs down little holes forces them to climb out.  Or does one only spawn at night here?). As Ocarina is a much older game, some of the clues for how to find the Skulltulas aren’t always direct, but they’re always in the game somewhere.  As for Batman, you may be tasked to “photograph” a certain part of the environment, or line up a question mark with its subsequent dot and photograph that, or, you may be trying to just pick up a trophy-shaped item or a reel of tape hidden somewhere in the room. Sometimes it’s easy to see where a trophy is, just not how to get to it.   The gargoyle challenge is always the same: can you see where it is? No? Keep looking.  Shoot when found.  As a result, to make this challenging they have to be hidden in a lot of places just out of sight.

6. Sometimes just the placement is the problem. A gargoyle might be placed and poised to taunt right before I got a major plot drop, and/or right after. This works in Batman because the Riddler leaves me alone unless I’m going after him in specific. The gargoyles on the other hand care not one whit about the rest of my experience in Fable 2. I wish I could say something more concrete about why the placement didn’t work, but this seems to be the hardest part to put in to words.

The bottom line is, after comparing and contrasting these elements, if you’re making a 3D open-world style game, whether or not it has discreet areas or “dungeons,” you can’t just place secrets in the levels without a thought as to how it affects the overall experience of the user.  No, I never did find all the gargoyles and nor do I, in retrospect, care about getting that achievement, but I obsessively tracked every one of the Riddler’s secrets until he was behind bars.