Chances are, if you’ve played video games in the past five to ten years, you’ve most likely encountered a mechanic that was, at one time, undoubtedly unique. But, due to its persistent presence in games and developers’ reliance and overuse of the mechanic, it’s probably grown stale for you, as it has for me. The mechanic in question here has many names, many faces, and varies slightly from game to game. It’s known as Detective Mode, Eagle Vision, Witcher Senses, Predator Vision, Instinct, Wraith Vision, Focus, so on and so forth. We’ve seen it time and time again. What once felt fresh, like an all-new way for players to interact with their in-game environments, has now grown tired, just as my eyes have, of looking through blue, purple, and grey filters in my games over and over again.
But let’s start with the good times.
I remember my first introduction to this mechanic, playing Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum, in 2009. (Granted, similar features have already existed in titles such as Konami’s Metal Gear series, Monolith Production’s Condemned: Criminal Origins, and many others, but this was my first go at it, and the most memorable.) The first time was the best time: After fighting off a band of Joker’s lunatics, I was trapped in a room by electric barriers as the clown laughed maniacally in the distance. From what I could tell, there was nowhere to go. I was trapped like a rat. However, the game informed me of the “Detective Mode” feature, which granted Batman supernatural eyesight, allowing him to see all interactable and hidden objects in the environment, and my understanding of how things were going to work on Arkham Island shifted. I felt like a detective with super-bat-like senses. I used my abilities to solve the puzzle, escape the trap, and over the course of the game, relied on this powerful X-ray-like sight to decode riddles, defeat bosses, and detect crime all over the island.
However, after hours of exploring, grinding, and bashing baddies’ heads in, the detective mode grew less exciting and felt more like a burden than anything else. In a way, the player was always required to view the world through the detective-mode lens, simply because if you were to not use the vision, then important in-game elements wouldn’t be obvious to the player’s eyes. Their playthrough of the game would either be slowed or stopped entirely. It became necessary, due to the sheer amount of hidden objectives or “go-and-find-it” type of quests (that gave the player no direct indication of where to go, but, instead, caused them to scan the entire playable island of Arkham Asylum with a blurry, blue filter overtop of everything, hoping to find that one, glowing, orange thing that may or may not be the objective). It wasn’t as it was in the beginning, and, unfortunately, this mechanic didn’t disappear in 2009. Not only did the rest of the Arkham series utilize the feature, but many other record-breaking, highly anticipated and highly rewarded games have used it as well. Some games even as recent as 2017.
For me, the mechanic boils down to this: a system that tells me, as the player, to “look at this,” and “not to worry about looking at anything else,” and that, to me, is unsatisfying. It’s on-the-rails to the point where I am quite literally following a set of red footprints across the map until I stumble upon the NPC that left them there, while everything else in my line of sight is colored grey, becoming unimportant to my eye and mind. Where’s the appreciation for world design? Where are the consequences? Where’s the player choice? Where’s the adventure? It feels so silly, and it baffles me as to why we are still seeing it done. The continual use of this mechanic is nothing but a red flag, with bold letters printed on it, screaming, "Sorry guys, we're fresh out of ideas."
Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games’ 2017 incredible RPG adventure featuring the brave, crafty, and determined protagonist, Aloy, was well-received, earning overwhelmingly positive reviews and taking home the Nederlands Film Festival's Golden Calf for Best Interactive. The game blew my mind in terms of world design, story, mechanics, and, overall, how fun it was to play and exist in the world. Aloy, the complicated heroine, never ceased to impress the player.
However, this title fell victim to the detective mode trend, too. The "Focus" highlighted different paths that enemy dinosaurs would frequently take so you could plan a stealthy route across the jungles. It also displayed the monsters’ weak points and vital organs, allowing you to plan and execute a perfect kill, or a string of kills, without succumbing to danger. These were fun uses, even well into the game, but, during my near-hundred hour playthrough, there were times I found myself bored, mindlessly following the bright-purple footprints outlined by my Focus, knowing that I was going somewhere but not really knowing where or why I was going there. It was a follow-the-line situation, and it wasn’t a one-time thing, either. This appeared plenty of times over, as it did in The Witcher 3, as Geralt sniffed out red footprints with his cat-like Witcher senses.
I mentioned earlier that players are nigh required to play through the game using detective mode, but there are ways to play without it. For example, in Ubisoft’s Far Cry: Primal, you have the option to turn off the special vision, "Instinct", for a more hardcore experience. Animals hit harder, you’re completely reliant on your memory and knowledge of the area, and, best of all, there’s no magical, glowing line indicating where to go and what to do. It feels a bit more immersive, maybe even a bit more fun. You may completely get rid of it in Far Cry: Primal, but this isn’t true for all games. You may always turn the vision on, get a look around, and turn it off again, but in doing this players are often hit with jarring animations and drastic color changes, disorienting them. On-off-on-off-on-off…. It’s more convenient for me, the player, to leave it on. It’s less hassle and less strain on my eyes, but far less visually appealing.
It’s worth mentioning Bungie’s Destiny 1 & 2 here because I’ve noticed that through environment, level design, and subtle hinting they do a fantastic job of guiding players through an area without providing direct guidance. Their highly calculated, specific placement of things like rocks, walls, slopes, doors, decorations, enemies, lights, shadows, and other elements help guide players through locations in a way that feels natural, almost as if one already knew the way. This is all accomplished without the use of detective mode, guardian vision, or any other overt objective markers.
All in all, I don’t have the answers. This is merely an admittance of frustration or an airing of grievances. I’ve been playing these games, and I’ve seen this same thing over and over. I want to feel the uniqueness of that first time, or the vivid memory of scanning bullet holes in a church window in Batman: Arkham City. I don’t want a glowing line to follow, and I don’t want the whole world to be grayed out. I want something new, and I believe that I am not the only player hoping for this kind of change.
There’s a chance we may be seeing this change already. Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are new, transformative titles in their respective series, and both games are designed in a manner that cater to the explorer type of gamer. BOTW and SMO are massive, open games, in which the scope of the playable area is unfathomable for the first few hours of playing, and the amount of activities and interactivity within the world seems endless. Players are encouraged to go anywhere, do anything, and to simply have fun exploring. True, each game has a main quest, but this quest doesn't interfere with the player’s choice to explore, roam, slide down escarpments on a shield, or ride Jaxis through Tostarena. In these games, there is no detective mode, and there are no red footprints on the ground. My vision is not forced grey or blue, and everything in my environment is as is, presented to me in a manner that I will explore and interact with it as I find it. I appreciate these open worlds that encourage freedom, exploration, and fun, prioritizing these things over tedious mechanics and blurry vision.
Game devs, take a note from Mario.
Detective mode isn't fun anymore.