Mandatory Backtracking

Some games have optional backtracking - letting you return to earlier areas or content for various reasons. Others have structural backtracking - in Metroidvanias, the player often encounters impassable obstacles to which they’ll need to return later once they have the ability to get past them. (How obnoxious this is varies considerably with how good the map is and how generous the fast travel is, but that’s another post.)

But there are also games where backtracking isn’t an inherent part of the game’s structure or an opportunity to recontextualize earlier content. Instead, it’s an apparently-arbitrary requirement that the player repeat mostly-identical content, seemingly as filler or an attempt to increase replayability. This is what I call mandatory backtracking, and it’s one of my game design pet peeves.

I recently played LEGO City Undercover, which has tons of mandatory backtracking in a way that I get the impression is typical for Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO games. You gain new abilities as you progress through the story missions, and every mission has collectibles you can’t possibly get your first time through because they require an ability you don’t have yet. Most of the missions have collectibles that require an ability you get at the very end of the final story mission. So to fully complete the story missions, you have to play them all at least twice.

To me, this is annoying - whenever I see one of these collectibles in a mission, it feels like I am being taunted. And it smacks of insecure design - my instinct is that if the mission is fun enough to play twice, I’ll play it twice; if it’s not, I resent being forced to do so if I want the collectible.

LEGO City Undercover also has an open-world hub area to explore, which is chock full of goodies to find - many of which require various abilities, including the one you get at the very end of the story. At first I had a great time casually exploring the city, finding collectibles and beating challenges, and heading into a story mission for a more directed experience only when I felt like it. But I kept running into collectibles I couldn’t get yet, which made me feel like I was being discouraged from exploring before advancing the story. I felt like I had to play story missions before I was in the mood for them, and that damaged the experience.

Worse, I’d sometimes find a trail to a collectible that would take me platforming across rooftops, using a couple of abilities along the way, and suddenly dead-end in an ability I didn’t have yet. You get abilities in a set order, so I don’t know why they didn’t just make sure that trails always started with the latest needed ability to complete them. Since they didn’t do that, I often had to just back out without getting the collectible, and when I later got the ability I needed it was extremely difficult to find where I’d needed it - because the trail actually started somewhere else with basic platforming or some other earlier ability and wasn’t marked in any way as incomplete. This made me feel like I was being outright punished for exploring, which made it much less relaxing and enjoyable to do.

In some ways, I feel like LEGO City Undercover doesn’t really start until it’s over. You aren’t fully free to find and complete everything until you have all the abilities, which you won’t until you finish the entire story. At which point you’ll have to replay the entire story and re-explore the entire world if you want to find everything. I can see where that would work out for kids, but I had a hard time getting in the right headspace to enjoy that. I eventually just powered through the remaining story missions, but then found that hunting down the collectibles no longer seemed appealing. It’s an extreme case of texture outlasting structure. If getting the collectibles is fun without the story, why force me to go through the story before I can get all the collectibles? And if it’s not, then why make sure that you can’t get all the collectibles until you’re done with the story?

But all together, this is a great example of a design choice that’s enjoyable for some players and unpleasant for others rather than being inherently good or bad. There have been a lot of LEGO games over the years, and my understanding is that they basically all do these kinds of things. I think they would have stopped by now if it weren’t a positive for their target audience. These games are largely designed for children, who enjoy repetition. It’s a much safer assumption that a child is going to want to replay the content anyway, and this means they can get new rewards for doing so.