Collecting Riddler Trophies is one giant puzzle game within an action game, and those puzzle aspects bleed into all other areas of Batman: Arkham City.
I like collectibles, but I understand why most people do not. When used poorly, they can intrude on a game in frustrating ways, encouraging behavior that contradicts the gameplay, ruining the game's pace, or just getting in the way in general.
There are some excellent collectibles: the audio logs in Bioshock flesh out the fascinating history of Rapture, the manuscript pages in Alan Wake serve as exposition and foreshadowing, the badges in L.A. Noire demand a kind of meta-detective work that perfectly supplements the game proper. But in my opinion, the best collectible that I’ve ever had to collect has to be the Riddler Trophies in Batman: Arkham City.
While the story of Arkham City left me disappointed, I kept playing long after the credits rolled in order to collect 400 Riddler Trophies. I didn’t intend to do this at first, I just wanted to collect the one or two trophies that were right next to me before I quit the game for good. But once I got those two trophies I just kept going.
The Riddler Trophies are fun to collect because getting them isn’t just a matter of simple, mundane, mindless collection. Each trophy is a puzzle, which turns the entire collection process into one giant puzzle game within an action game. What’s most impressive, however, is the way in which the puzzle aspects bleed into all other areas of the game.
You’ll have to use every gadget in Batman’s arsenal to find all the trophies. This can lead to some frustrating moments in the beginning and middle of the game when you see a Riddler Trophy mere feet away but can’t get it because you don’t have the proper gadget. But by the end of the game, this variety of solutions results in the best kind of confusion. You’re presented with a problem and you know -- absolutely know -- that the solution is within your grasp, you just have to figure it out.
Other trophies test your reflexes and navigational skills. You might have to hit three or four buttons without touching the ground, so the puzzle becomes a matter of figuring out how to best approach each button while remaining close to a tower that you can grapple to. These solutions require you to understand how Batman moves through the world: how fast he can turn while flying, what surfaces are best for grappling, etc.
Even combat becomes a bit of a puzzle when you find a Riddler informant. These men are usually located in groups, and if you manage to knock out everyone else without hurting the informant, he’ll spill the beans and reveal the locations of several trophies. This can be very difficult depending on who the informant is and what weapon he has. If he has a gun, you must disarm him by using the Batclaw. If he attacks with a knife, you must be careful not to dodge too effectively because you might have the upgrade that automatically knocks out a guy if you dodge his knife attacks. If he’s using a riot shield, you can’t dodge over him because then Batman will crush him beneath the shield -- and so on. Keeping the informant alive for later interrogation requires a deep understanding of combat, and the skill to actually execute all those moves when the situation calls for it.
Other characters can see the trophies as well. Throughout the game, you’ll likely hear henchmen remark, “What’s with all the green question marks around the city?” These collectibles, unlike most, are not items that exist solely for the player. Unlike collectibles in other game, these trophies have an obvious presence in the world of Arkham City, and the fact that other people can see them makes that world feel more cohesive.
Adding to that cohesiveness is the fact that there’s a logical narrative justification for why all the trophies exist in Arkham City and why Batman might want to collect them all. The Riddler has several hostages, and he’ll kill them if Batman doesn’t solve the riddles. This means that you’re not just collecting collectibles for the sake of collecting collectibles, you’re collecting them because Batman wants to save everyone. It wouldn’t make sense for this character to take the time to work out these puzzles just to humor the Riddler, especially with all the other stuff going on in Arkham City, but because there are lives at stake it makes sense for Batman to take a break from hunting the Joker to solve a few puzzles. In fact, this is the only game that I can think of in which the personality of the main character practically demands that you collect the collectibles. Not doing so breaks character.
Getting the Riddler Trophies also unlocks more back story on villains and Arkham City. These bits of back story aren’t as cleverly woven into story as there were in, say, Bioshock or Arkham Asylum. There are no interview tapes this time; rather, collecting X number of trophies just unlocks a new page on a menu. It’s a very game-like way of presenting back story, but the result is the same: the universe gets fleshed out, why villains look the way they look, why they chose a certain building for their headquarters, what happened to them between Arkham Asylum and now. Everything fits. Everything makes sense. It’s impressive just how consistent this universe is, and you have to collect the Riddler Trophies to see this for yourself.
Arkham City shows how collectibles should be handled. Instead of just forcing the player to hunt down an object, you turn that hunt into a puzzle game and find a way to incorporate that puzzle into other aspects of the game. The Riddler Trophies are an integral part of this universe, removing them would mean removing some of the most fun parts of combat and traversal in Arkham city.
These are best kind of collectible -- the kind that make a game better.