Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gimme the Loot

Lock thine windows, close thine doors.

I think it's high time we retire the term "loot whore." The concept is innocent enough, I suppose: A player who can't get enough of the in-game acquisition of progressively more powerful and valuable equipment. The kind of player for whom every new dungeon-crawler becomes a compulsory purchase, for whom the thrill of leveling up is secondary only to the thrill of acquiring more and better gear. The kind of player, um, hooked by click-fests like Titan Quest, Torchlight, and their forerunner Diablo. The label "loot whore" is worn by some as a badge of pride, by some as a badge of shame, by some as both, but the meaning is clear: This is a player who loves killing monsters and grabbing the shit they drop.

Of course, any time you add the word "whore" to a phrase, you open up a host of weird implications. Does a being a loot whore involve "selling yourself" in some way? Does it imply having resigned yourself to habitual abuse, addiction, or degradation? Does the game become your pimp, your provider and abuser, your drip-feed of pleasure and punishment? Or is it, like most terms invented by and for gamers, just kinda stupid?

As it happens, Titan Quest was a favorite. I loved the setting and the art, the fast pace of combat, the relentless focus on finding new and improved gear. There was something almost shamefully compelling about progressing from one area to the next, holding out hope for a matching set of rare armor. It's the same feeling that more recent titles like Borderlands and Torchlight (and, presumably, the upcoming Diablo III) try to capture. If you could just find that Archmage's Mantle, you'd gain all the bonuses of the full set. You'd be unstoppable. You could stop searching for new stuff and focus on kicking ass.

Of course, there is no stopping the search in games like Titan Quest. The search is the game. Inevitably there is a more powerful weapon, a stronger shield, a more potent rune to discover. Inventory space is limited—slotting all your crap into the allotted space even becomes a sort of puzzle mini-game in Titan Quest—so you're forced to sell or discard items as you progress; there's little room for sentimentality. That's not much of an issue, though, since whatever loose plot or quest structure exists in the game is secondary to the allure of grabbing new stuff. Only those players with inhuman levels of patience and thoroughness, the obsessive collectors and explorers, will ever feel remotely close to satisfied. If they do their job well, designers will keep you right in that sweet spot between satisfaction with your current gear and lust for shiny new gear.

Titan Quest's inventory screen, a game in itself.

I've been thinking about acquisition lately, about the idea of collecting stuff. Maybe it's just because I'm getting older more experienced or have less time, but my patience for loot-grabs has worn thin. While I like Torchlight—it's cute, it's easy to learn, it hits all the right genre notes—I just can't bring myself to finish it. I'm not invested in boosting my stats with specialized gear or delving into sidequest dungeons in search of new trinkets. None of it seems to matter.

And that's in a game that's explicitly focused on collection, where new gear actually has a tangible, if often modest, impact on gameplay. The fact that collectibles are increasingly being shoehorned into games like Alan Wake and L.A. Noire, where they clearly make no narrative or environmental sense and offer no reward aside from the Pavlovian bloop of the Achievement, has soured me on the entire endeavor of acquisition. Funny that it took collectibles as transparently silly as coffee thermoses to illuminate just how wasteful the practice of obsessing over loot can be. Is the never-ending quest for better armor in Titan Quest substantially different from the Herculean challenge of smashing every EDF crate in Red Faction: Guerrilla? Do slightly improved stats justify the hours spent? What does it say about me as a player if I think they do—or if I just enjoy mindlessly collecting stuff?

The problem with an acquisition-obsessed culture like our own is that it obscures notions of value. The ability to amass a collection of stuff is in itself perceived as a virtue, without much thought as to the meaning(s) being conveyed—either by the stuff being collected or by the act of collection itself.

Increasingly, I'm finding that what I find valuable in games is not the massive amount of stuff to collect or tasks to complete or square mileage to explore, but the ability of the experience to make me think. Vague notions of "choice," "openness," and "variety" are often touted as indicators of value; in this sense many games become digital theme parks, playgrounds crammed full of Things To Do/See/Get. That can be fun, sure. But it's probably not a sustainable design ethic in the long run.

Torchlight's inventory screen. Now with more pets!

The ultimate irony here is that even as I tire of collecting things in games, I'm not tiring of collecting games themselves. I find myself tracking price drops and weekend sales on at least three different sites. I ask friends on forums for recommendations. I sign up for email alerts from publishers and retailers. I trawl the AppStore on my iPad for the latest free time-wasters, games I'm certain I will only play once, if at all. The hunt for cheap or free new games to add to my increasingly untenable collection is often more engaging than the games themselves. I'm running out of room on my shelves, both physical and digital, yet I still feel compelled to seek out new prey. The search is the game. And I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that.


  1. "Loot-whore" is indeed a weird phrase, though perhaps it's more just that people are using "whore" where they mean "addict?" I duno. "Loot-addict" seems to make a lot more sense, and be more accurate. Though the idea of whoring ones time to the game in exchange for loot is a compelling one.

    Have you played inFamous or inFamous 2? I'm finding that in that game, I have become totally hooked on tracking down these glowing things called Blast Shards that, when collected in certain large numbers, increase your max ammo.

    It's similar to the orbs in Crackdown, except that by clicking the thumbstick in inFamous, you can see blue circles on the map where the nearest blast shards are. So, collecting them gets much easier than in Crackdown.

    It is shockingly compulsive. I'm not sure why.

    Also, that is the second time I have referred to an aspect of inFamous as "Shocking." This time I'll resist pointing out my accidental cleverness.

    I like writing that game's title accurately, with the one capital "F."



  2. No PS3, so I haven't played inFamous or inFAMOUS or whatever the proper capitalization is.

    Also may I humbly submit: 1nF4mOu$

    It sounds like your experience with it might be similar to mine with Just Cause 2, though: You know it's only marginally helpful to spend hours and hours collecting stuff, but the world or the mechanics are so mindlessly pretty/fun you kinda don't care.

    I feel about this kind of game kinda the same way I feel about the burgers at my local tavern: Comfortable, enjoyable, satisfying, and totally uninspiring.