Created By: TexasDex on November 16, 2011 Last Edited By: TexasDex on December 12, 2011

Might as well be a key

Some items are like a good utility knife: they have many uses. Other items are like keys: only useful when the game designer intends.

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(This was originally written as a Sliding Scale article, but was renamed to be just about key items. This could use some rewriting to move all the Zelda examples out of the description.)

Some items in video games have all sorts of uses. A standard sword in most fantasy/adventure games is useful for killing enemies, perhaps breaking pots or activating switches. There are things it can do that can also be accomplished by other means: it's possible to beat some enemies without it. Most importantly, the uses for it are widely varied and scattered throughout the game world in a way that doesn't seem at all contrived or awkward. Maybe it's even possible to use it for things that the game designer didn't necessarily anticipate, like herding animals.

And then there are items that might as well be a key to a locked door: The game designer wants you to use them in a few specific places, there's no way to pass those places without it, and outside of those places the item is completely useless. A good example would be the Dominion Rod from Twilight Princess: It's only useful when there are statues specially meant to be controlled by it, and there's no way (barring glitches) to pass this obstacle without it.

This isn't just about items that you are required to get to beat the game. The hookshot for example does have it's 'key' moments, where it's plainly obvious that you need to use it to advance, but those moments are a logical extension of the gameplay, rather than being a blatant 'must have this item to pass' obstacle.

It's also not about Plot Coupons that magically open the way to the final dungeon when you've collected them all--This is about items you can actually use during player-controlled gameplay, and you can try using them whenever if you want--they just won't do anything, or will be practically useless.

Weapons don't usually fall under this, but if you need an item to beat a specific enemy (especially a boss or mini-boss) and the item doesn't work on other kinds of enemies, it can effectively be more on the key side, especially if it turns the fight from impossible to extremely easy.


  • All of the Zelda games have this in spades:
  • Twilight Princess has the Dominion Rod, which has the ability to remote control statues, but those statues are only ever found in the Temple of Time, except for a Plot Coupon quest involving owl statues. There's also the Spinner, which fits into grooves designed specially for it, which are found in exactly one dungeon and two minor spots on the overworld map.
  • Also in Twilight Princess, the coral earring, which you have to use to catch a certain type of fish in a certain spot at a certain time. You need it to get past that part, but there's really no other reason to have it, and you'll never have to use it again.

Community Feedback Replies: 14
  • November 16, 2011
  • November 16, 2011
    Might be worth having, maybe in Just For Fun.

    Non Video Game examples:

  • November 16, 2011
    The Legend of Zelda has this in spades. Some games require a huge amount of use of certain items, even to the point of needing them to fully explore the world. Other games only have the item as a way to kill the dungeon boss, and after that, it is never used again.
  • November 17, 2011
    I think the trope should focus on items that are borderline keys rather then trying to group items by usefulness.

    There are a few key like items in the new Arkham City game. Although Your Mileage May Vary.

    Virtually every item in batman's arsenal at one point has to act like a key in the sense that you have to use it to overcome some physical obstacle (eg hitting an out of reach switch with a batarang to open a door). Most of them however have practical uses in combat. The remote electrical charge can stun enemies and cause them to hit one another. The freeze blast can render a single enemy immobile for a long period of time. The batclaw can be used to seize weapons from thugs or pull them over railings.

    Two in particular stand out to me as having no practical purpose in combat that isn't thoroughly covered by another item.

    The reverse batarang is largely useless. Its only purpose that isn't dictated by in game moments and achievements is to hit an enemy and make them think it came from another direction. Not a big deal considering you could easily throw a regular batarang and grapple to the other side of the room before the thugs move to investigate.

    The remote control batarang is similarly useless for anything besides hitting out of reach switches since the regular batarang auto targets your enemies.

    The cryptographic sequencer interestingly enough became more useful in Arkham City. In Arkham asylum you could literally only use it for opening doors. In Arkham City they added the ability to listen on radio broadcasts, unfortunately this added benefit is usually only offered when the plot dictates.
  • November 18, 2011
    Perhaps rewrite it to focus on the key aspect and use an alternate title: Might As Well Be a Key?
  • November 18, 2011
    Pokemon actually calls them "Key Items".
  • November 18, 2011
    It shows up in some Point And Click games when trying to solve puzzles (e.g. You need to break a hole in a wall. You have a wrench and a hammer, but the game will only let you use the hammer to make a hole).
  • November 19, 2011
    Just Key Item perhaps? Many games do refer to them as "key" or "rare" items, and most Plot Coupons fall into this territory as a rule.
  • November 22, 2011
    Because I loves me some Batman game action, I have to argue a bit. I've used the remote batarang quite a bit. If you aim it right and speed it up (you can control its speed now), you can launch thugs off of platforms, knocking them out.
  • November 22, 2011
    wouldn't this one be pretty closely related to Cardboard Obstacle
  • November 23, 2011
    Lore is right, there's a pretty close correlation. Any suggestions as to how we could combine the two?
  • November 23, 2011
  • November 23, 2011
    The easiest solution would be to make them sister tropes. Cardboard Obstacle is the door this one is would be the key for (Carboard Key? Cardboard Clearance?), though we could go the hard way and rewrite one to include the other.
  • December 12, 2011