Why Don’t Games Care About Talismans Anymore?

I grew up in the late ‘90s, and that means I think games from the late ‘90s are the best. We all have this magical window of when games were absolutely perfect, and that normally lines up with when we were somewhere between 8-14 years old. While I understand that on an objective level, games are much better now with bigger budgets and extra technology there to bring the vision to life, nothing can shake my irrational belief that, actually, they were better in 1999. It wasn’t just for me personally that video games peaked in this era however – it was also the golden age for talismans.

Going by the dictionary, talismans are ‘objects, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that are thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck’. In games that still use talismans, like lore-heavy RPGs, this definition is pretty accurate, but during their golden age, that doesn’t do them justice. Talismans were magic things, sure, but they didn’t just have vague powers or offer potential good fortune. They were the key to everything. Talismans were the Apple of Eden, the missing link, the maguffin to end all maguffins. If the bad guys got the talismans, then bad things would happen. But if you got the talismans, good things would happen. The writing in games used to be absolutely phenomenal, didn’t it?

The first game I think of when I think of talismans is Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (or Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage for the non-Europeans or Aussies out there). In this game, Spyro gets dragged into a new world when all he wants to do is go on holiday, because the people of this world need a dragon to save them. To do this, Spyro needs to find orbs – basically big green crystal balls – in order to power up some portals. This all makes sense, as much as video games ever did back then, and the orbs are certainly talisman-adjacent, but they’re not talismans themselves. That’s because as well as collecting these orbs – which serve a direct story purpose and have an explanation both for why they are hidden and why Spyro needs them – Spyro also collects talismans. Whenever he finishes a level, somebody standing by the exit portal will give him this talisman, usually as a thank you present, although sometimes they just admit it’s junk they found in their pocket.

These talismans are around half as big as Spyro’s head, and usually take the form of something important to that world. There’s a golden bone, a golden pickaxe, a golden cog, and many more things that have no business being golden. These talismans appear – and then disappear – above Spyro as if by magic, and then later appear in his scrapbook. Presumably at some point he gets out the sellotape and sticks the talisman in there, despite it being far too bulky and Spyro’s stubby claws not lending themselves to arts and crafts.

We’re told Spyro needs these to stop Ripto, but they’re only used in the first two worlds, how they differ from orbs is never really explained, and if it’s the talismans Spyro needs, why is he having to look for them? The orbs have been scattered by fairies to stop Ripto stealing them, but the townspeople still have their talismans. Why are they hoarding them while a dictator seizes control of their kingdom?

This sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m not – I love how silly the talismans are. It’s just a game telling us to go and play, don’t worry about why, we’ll throw something together later. Ty the Tasmanian Tiger merges the ideas behind Spyro’s orbs and talismans together in its own version of talisman collection, although in that game there are only five to collect versus 14 talismans and 64 orbs in Spyro. Meanwhile Crash Bandicoot – more of Spyro’s equal than Ty ever was – doesn’t include talismans but does use the similarly important and similarly vague crystals to constantly drive the plot forwards. In Crash 4, crystals have unfortunately bitten the dust, replaced by hundreds upon hundreds of boxes.

We live in a world of explanations these days, where every minor detail of a game or film or TV show is zoomed in upon and analysed in a hundred different ways. That’s fun, sometimes. To look beneath the surface, to imagine the reality and the logic of another world, and to examine media beyond the story we’re told can be a great thing. But it’s also fun to grab a load of talismans or crystals or orbs just because the game reckons we’ll have fun doing it, and it feels like gaming doesn’t have much room for talismans like that anymore.

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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey

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