The Meaning of Treasure

(886 words, 5 minute read)

The notion that we should seek treasure for the sake of treasure appears time and time again in video games. The player, venturing forth, uncovers a treasure chest. This is, invariably, for the player. Players could ask themselves “why do I want this treasure” or “why does my character deserve this treasure”, or “what does this treasure mean”. Do they?

For most games, the world exists for the player; it is inert without the player. The player’s presence brings it to life. Reality is different. Reality is largely indifferent to your existence. The relationship between the player character and the game world is often obscured; the player character’s motivation is, simply, the act that is most fun for the player to perform.

Consider this game design prompt: the player adventures through a trap-laden tomb, solving puzzles and fighting monsters on a quest to obtain treasure. Do any games come to mind when you hear this prompt? Who is the character? What is the treasure they are after? What relationship does the player have to the treasure?

Treasure-hunting has existed as a dominant thematic element since the halcyon days of video games. Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) tempts the player with the promise of treasure, rewarding the player for collecting treasure scattered throughout the game. Rogue (1980) asks the player to seek the Amulet of Yendor, slaying that which would stand in their path. These themes have continued to resonate throughout the years; Tomb Raider (1996) and Uncharted (2007) continue these traditions, albeit in new formats and for new audiences.

It’s easy to take for granted that the game ends when the player finds the treasure. That was, after all, the player’s goal. The degree to which the relationship between the player character and the treasure object are investigated varies considerably, but the general format is the same from game to game: adventure forth, find the treasure, and you win.

Why is the treasure hidden far back in a dungeon? Why does the environment want to keep the player out? What right does the player have to that treasure? Although some games attempt to answer these questions, treasure-hunting games overwhelmingly centralize the player’s right or the player’s destiny to obtain the treasure. Most treasure-hunting games involve some manner of enemy; the terrain to be traversed is inhabited, but strictly by hostile forces. The hostility, is of course, relative: the player is a hostile invader, whose presence threatens the safety of the locals. This invader murders those in their path, and then steals an object of value. The object is by definition an object of value: if it were not of value, why would the player character risk such danger to obtain it?

We are left with a recurring theme: the justification of colonization and theft.

What would happen, then, if we were to invert or alter some elements of this theme? In particular, we may invert the notion of taking an object of value and instead have the player giving an object of value. We wind up with an altogether different game prompt: “the player carries a treasure through a trap-laden tomb, solving puzzles and fighting monsters on a quest to leave the treasure at the end of the dungeon”.

This inversion of the sequence of events causes us to re-examine and re-frame out initial adventuring theme. My hypothesis is that players are likely to ask questions such as “why am I leaving the treasure behind?”, “how did I come to acquire this treasure?” and “what does the treasure represent?”.

Treasure-hunting games often do not prompt the player to ask “why do I want the treasure?”. “It’s valuable and I want it” is often all the framing necessary. The treasure is, of course, not real. Although the player character acquires an object of wealth, that object has no material value to the player in real life. What is earned by the player is completion of some narrative; the satisfaction of having overcome some obstacle.

The relationship between the player and the player character is often framed from the standpoint that the player character gaining something of value is of value to the player. There is no reason to assume this is the case. A player can be sufficiently motivated to traverse a game environment for no “purpose” at all, but merely for the joy of attempting to overcome the obstacle represented by the game itself. It should, in theory, be possible for the player to feel that they have gained something even if the player character has lost something.

In playing and beating a treasure-seeking game, the player does not receive a anything that can function as legal object of wealth; what they earn instead is largely a symbolic treasure. That is, the player earns nothing tangible, but they do earn some signifier of having completed the game. In some cases the player receives a record of their achievement; this becomes the signifier of their having overcome the challenge. What is signified is the fact that the player has beaten the game. Even if the player receives no signifier, no achievement in an achievement-tracking system visible to other players, the fact that they have played through the game confers onto the player some form of social capital in the form of the knowledge required to complete the game.