DuckTales Remastered managed to make me angry not once but twice—first while I was playing and then again while I was filling out a survey about it at Club Nintendo. The very last section of the questionnaire added that delectable layer of injury on top of the game’s insult. “Why did you purchase DuckTales Remastered on Wii U?” asks Nintendo. “To explore the game’s world,” was my multiple-choice answer. Scrooge McDuck’s an adventurer, and I want to quest alongside him. What’s so galling about Remastered, though, is that exploration isn’t an option. Seeing every inch of the game is a directive, not a reward for explorers. Who cares if I don’t want to miss a thing? I don’t have a say in the matter anyway.
The original DuckTales game was unusual by 1989 standards. Capcom’s NES action games were brilliant, but almost all of them were about pairing great art with killer reflex tests. Mega Man 2, Ghosts & Goblins, and the rest of their ilk weren’t about deep exploration. Scrooge’s globe-hopping treasure hunt on the NES is different, though. The route to the game’s bosses and their riches aren’t always direct. In Transylvania, an invisible passage leads straight to the throne room of the witch-duck Magica, but you have to find it first. Plumbing beneath the surface of the Moon and its sweet secret cheese involves first finding a remote control for Scrooge’s friend Gizmoduck so he can knock down a wall.
On your first run through the game, DuckTales invites you to explore, while repeat plays let you alternately perfect your fastest route to the end or look around for all the things you may have missed. Secret rooms full of treasure and extra lives and inessential but lovely corners of the tiny stages are hidden all over the place, and they make the world feel alive and strange. DuckTales is full of things that are easy to accidentally skip but worth seeking out when you revisit the game.
DuckTales Remastered, meanwhile, insists you search through every nook and cranny. The paths to the bosses are each blocked by some kind of barrier. Rather than just a remote, you have to find all of Gizmoduck’s components. The invisible passage is still there in Transylvania, but now you have to visit every part of the castle for pieces of spell to get to Magica. The alluring striptease of DuckTales’ world is reduced to a bare-all anatomical study. By the end, you’ve seen everything. The illusion of a living place is broken.
I can see where game makers are coming from. Crafting a game is difficult and time consuming, so if you’re going to put the time, effort, and cash into making something, the audience damn well better take advantage of it. That’s the impulse, at least. But by forcing the completionist impulse on players, developers betray a lack of confidence in the game’s design and allure. Shouldn’t I want to play DuckTales Remastered a second time? Shouldn’t I be trusted to suss out where to go and what to do in the game without it constantly nagging me with tips and littering the levels with knickknacks that are just pieces of a key?
That mixture of designer insecurity and distrust in the player isn’t unique to Remastered. The Legend Of Zelda has transformed from an explorer’s delight to a rigidly controlled theme-park ride over the past 25 years. Fire up 2011’s Skyward Sword and you can play through a Hyrule that hides some treats, to be sure, but the story will drag you over every sand dune and forest glade first before letting you snoop around. Meanwhile, go to the southwest-most corner of the first Legend Of Zelda, and you’ll find nothing but an empty copse of trees. And you never have to visit the ghost-infested graveyard at all unless you choose to pick up the game’s most powerful sword. These skippable, sometimes useless places add a layer of color and mystery to Hyrule.
Released the same week as DuckTales Remastered, the Fullbright Company’s Gone Home demonstrates just how powerful a game can be if it’s rich with things players may never see. It’s possible to work your way through the story of Samantha Greenbriar’s disappearance without even going through the entire house. While you’ll still get most of Sam’s story if you miss the game’s kitchen and greenhouse, you’ll miss portions of her parents’ arc. Hidden notes, receipts, and letters detail Terry and Jan Greenbriar’s 20-year marriage, and they paint either a depressing portrait or a sweetly optimistic one depending on how many of them you see. Both takes make for a beautifully told story. The Fullbright Company trusts its game to be fulfilling no matter how it’s played while also giving players beautiful reasons to come back.
DuckTales and Gone Home aren’t outwardly similar games. Bipedal fowl in waistcoats and haunting tales of adolescence don’t have a whole lot in common. (Not yet at least. Someone get a Kickstarter going for a game about Webbigail Vanderquack’s Peace Corps experience!) As different as they are, both demonstrate how a game thrives based on how it cultivates a sense of place. I may not have seen everything Gone Home has to offer on my first time through, but I felt like an explorer in the Greenbriar’s lives because it was practically impossible to see them in totality. In DuckTales, a game about an explorer, I walked away disappointed because “discovery” was inevitable. Guess which one I’ll play a second time.