Created By: Stratadrake on January 15, 2013 Last Edited By: Stratadrake on December 24, 2013
Troped

Unknown Item Identification

Part of a game's challenge is collecting, identifying, and using unknown items

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Trope
This was initially proposed as a "dueling YKTTW" to Scroll of Identify. Since an item identification mechanic necessarily requires unidentified items, some have suggested a single trope to cover both concepts, which is what this proposal is being rewritten to be.

Formerly "Unidentified Item"

Rolling Updates — Open to editing by all users.


In many Role Playing Games (particularly of the Roguelike genre), a Dungeon Crawling party finds items whose exact identities and purposes are a mystery — the characters don't recognize what these items are supposed to be, so the game labels them as "unknown" or "unidentified", or sometimes with extremely generic descriptors like "a red potion" (as opposed to "Healing Potion" or "Elixir of Life") or "a scroll labelled 'FOOBIE BLETCH'". This can be Justified for certain kinds of items, like potion bottles whose labels may be the only way to know for sure what's inside (assuming the label is accurate), or items that are stored/hidden inside a container.

Before the player can (safely) use or equip the item, they need to divine exactly what the heck they're looking at, which commonly requires another specific item, a special skill, or an NPC specializing in identification/appraisal/whatever-they-call-it. Until then, the only thing the item really does is occupy space in the player's Inventory Management Puzzle, which (depending on the size of that inventory) may require the player to decide whether it's really worth lugging around twenty extra pounds of useless junk until they can get it identified later (which could be a long time, depending on the method(s) available), or if it's something they can safely toss out and/or come back for later (without it getting Lost Forever).

Whether or not the player can use an item before getting it identified varies by game — do you really want to take the chance that a random glass bottle filled with purple goop is a Healing Potion and not poison, or that a shiny-looking sword is actually a useful weapon as opposed to everyday Vendor Trash (or worse, harboring a nasty — and usually clingyCurse?) Some systems won't even let you use or equip the item at all until its true nature has been discovered; others will let you do so at your own peril (but will usually disclose the item's true nature after the fact if you do).

Sometimes the way an unidentified item is generated or listed in the player's inventory gives hints as to the item's true nature. For example, in some games, whatever description (in-game icon, Flavor Text, etc.) a game assigns to a certain type of unidentified item remains consistent for all items of the same type, so if one unidentified 'blue potion' refills your Mana Meter, there's a good chance that any future 'blue potions' will do the same. Likewise, if a game collates the player's inventory by item type and quantity, then any "Blue Potion x2" (as opposed to "Blue Potion" A and "Blue Potion" B) is most likely to be two of the same item. But this is not guaranteed — it depends on whether the game decides the item's true properties when it's acquired or when it's actually used; and since unidentified items go hand in hand with Randomly Generated Loot and Randomly Generated Levels, these properties may be assigned at random to begin with, so knowledge from one play session may have only limited use in the next: e.g. drinking a blue potion from one dungeon may heal you, but a similar-looking blue potion in another dungeon might make you breathe fire instead.

This is Older Than the NES, with roots in Tabletop RPGs where items may have hidden properties known only to the Game Master unless/until discovered by the players.

Note that this does not necessarily apply to items whose unidentified nature is a plot point — Video Games generally keep plot-relevant items (identified or otherwise) in a category separate from regular inventory items.


Examples:

    Action Adventure Games 
  • In Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams, whenever you find a treasure box and you can't solve the puzzle, you have the option of simply smashing it open, though the item inside will be labelled as "Unknown". Once you reach the merchant, he can identify it for you... for a small fee, of course.
  • In ToeJam and Earl, presents are initially unidentified. Though, since all presents of the same design contain the same item or effect, using one automatically identifies any identical ones, whether in the player's inventory or on the ground. The "man in the carrot suit" is a randomly-appearing NPC who can identify a present for a few dollars. This is important because one of the effects is the Randomizer, which unidentifies all presents and scrambles the design-effect relationships!

    Action RPGs 
  • Brave Fencer Musashi has treasure chest items that need to be appraised in town by Conner. Several such items turn out to be pieces of legendary equipment, but in general it's Played for Laughs with a lot of the items seeming more valuable when unappraised — an "Old Crown" turns out to be a "Cakepan", for instance.
  • Dragon's Crown has loot acquired throughout stages that can be identified for a fee at the end of the stage.

    Eastern RPGs 
  • The Nintendo DS version of Glory of Heracles has rusty items which need to be taken to a polisher to make them proper weapons.
  • In The Last Story, enemies may occasionally drop rare items labelled "? SWORD". The player can't equip these as-is, but may take them to specific NPCs for appraisal. The items may turn out to be actual weapons (often strong ones at the time, though sometimes cursed) or useless ornamental ones.
  • In the Suikoden games you can pick up ?Pots, ?Paintings and ?Statues which you can take to an art appraiser to have valued and identified, and then either sell or use to decorate your home base. Alternatively, you can sell the items unidentified for a small amount. Anything useful never needs identifying, however.

    MMO Games 
  • Using the Plus sign in Kingdom of Loathing identifies all items associated with the Enormous Greater-Than Sign, aka The Dungeons of Doom. It's all a reference to the roguelike NetHack.
  • In Phantasy Star Online, all rare weapons dropped by monsters appear as "?SPECIAL WEAPON". They can still be equipped in this state (which lets the player identify the weapon type, assuming their character can equip it), but its special abilities won't be available until taken to a Tekker for proper identification.
  • RuneScape:
    • The game used to have unidentified herbs which could only be identified with the proper Herblore level. This feature was patched away in 2007 because some players were abusing it in scams, offering the herbs in trades and claiming them to be more valuable than they really were.
    • Nitroglycerin, a quest item, is labeled "Unidentified liquid" until you bring it to an archaeologist who can tell you what it is (and scream at you not to drop it).

    Roguelikes 
  • Ancient Domains of Mystery has Wands and Scrolls of Identify, which serve their expected function. However, whether these tools are cursed or blessed makes a world of difference. A normal scroll of identify will only identify an item. A blessed scroll of identify will identify your entire inventory and show what items are blessed or cursed. A cursed scroll of identify will give the player amnesia, removing knowledge of every inventory item instead.
  • Angband and its variants have items start out unidentified: potions, scrolls, wands, staves, jewelry, armor, and weapons.
  • Castle of the Winds has the Identify spell as a scroll (single use), staff (multiple uses), or spellbook (permanently learn). Each town also has a sage that can identify items for a fee. Equipment may be enchanted or cursed, and magic items like potions, scrolls, and wands are completely unknown until you dare to use them or use one of the identification methods.
  • The Diablo games have unknown items. You can also take your items into town and have Cain identify them, or buy a scroll to do it for the same price of 100 gold. Starting with Diablo III, the player has a Great Big Book of Everything; simply right-click on an unknown item and wait a few seconds to identify it.
  • Dungeon Crawl has 'em. They are rather costly to buy from a shop (80 gp if it's identified), but luckily they are one of the most common scrolls in the game. If the save isn't "jinxed" to lack in the SoI department, it's a rather safe bet that if you have 4 or more of the same scroll in the early stages of the game, it's either Scroll of Identify, Scroll of Noise, or Scroll of Random Uselessness.
  • Elona has 'em. Similar to Diablo, scholars in towns can identify items for you.
  • FATE has 'em, and also has books of identify, which can be used more times.
  • Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon has talons and saddles (read: weapons and armor) that may harbor curses or stat bonuses, while collars, food, and flasks have generic descriptors until identified. Appraisal Glasses and Scholar's Glasses are consumable items for identifying one or all unknown items Chocobo is carrying, respectively. The Scholar job has the Appraise ability to analyze all items as well. Finally, wearing the Appraiser's Collar lets Chocobo automatically identify items as he picks them up.
  • NetHack is the Trope Codifier. It also has a high-level spell for the purpose of identifying unknown items.
  • Shiren the Wanderer has scrolls of identify (which have a small chance to identify every item in your inventory) as well as jars of identify which can identify any item you put into them.
  • Scrolls of Identification double as Practical Currency in Path of Exile.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons has a number of options depending on the item to be identified:
    • Read magic is one of the most basic spells available to any caster, and can be used to identify the spells contained in scrolls. The catch is that only an arcane spellcaster (bard, sorcerer, wizard) can use arcane scrolls; same goes for divine casters (cleric, druid, paladin, ranger) and divine scrolls.
    • Detect magic is another common, low-level spell, and combined with the Spellcraft skill a player can analyze the aura of a magic item to infer some of its properties.
    • Identify is a 1st-level spell usable by wizards, sorcerers, bards, and clerics with the Magic domain. It identifies all properties of a single magic item. And yes, you can scribe a scroll of the spell with the proper item creation feat. Another option is to use a Knowledge skill check to deduce the item's properties.
    • For more mundane treasures like gemstones and art objects, the Appraise skill lets a player estimate monetary values.
    • The rulebooks suggest that a character who frequently uses potions can learn to identify them by sampling the contents; just enough to taste but not enough to activate the magic.
  • In Lejendary Adventure, the Loviatskya's Infallible Energy Analysis and Read Power powers let the user see the energy inside an Extraordinary (magical) item to understand what it is and what it does.

    Western RPGs 
  • Arcanum has unidentified magick items which must be identified to unlock their potential; this can be done by either learning "Divine Magick", a fifth-level divination spell, or paying 100 gold to a wise woman. Since character points are finite and gold isn't in short supply, sensible players opt for the latter.
  • Many video games based on Dungeons & Dragons will copy its mechanics:
    • The first Eye of the Beholder game has the detect magic spell to determine whether an item is magical, but doesn't reveal what powers a magic item has.
    • The Neverwinter Nights series has the identify spell. You can also make a Lore check or pay a fee to a shopkeeper to identify magic items acquired as dungeon loot.
  • In The Elder Scrolls series, a low Alchemy skill prevents the player from determining the properties of alchemical ingredients. In some games, such as Skyrim, ingredients that the player has not used in experiments always have unknown properties. However, tasting the ingredients exposes the player to diluted version of their powers — as opposed to the stronger powers of potions brewed from these ingredients — so it's almost always safe to taste them.
Community Feedback Replies: 31
  • January 15, 2013
    StarSword
    Not completely convinced we need this since we already have Scroll Of Identify in the works, but what the hey.

    This is Older Than The NES, since like many RPG tropes it got its start in Dungeons And Dragons where magic items typically started out with their functions known only to the DM. Figuring out their functions required use of Knowledge skills or an "identify" spell.
  • January 16, 2013
    Stratadrake
    On the other hand, I think this is the one we need because it's the reason you typically have identifying skills in the first place. And depending on the system, sometimes you don't have portable versions of the identifying skill at all.
  • January 16, 2013
    Larkmarn
    • In Phantasy Star Online, all rare weapons dropped by monsters appear as ?SPECIAL WEAPON. However, they can still be equipped in this state (which allowed the player to identify it, assuming their character can equip it), but its special abilities won't be available until taken to a Tekker to identify it.
  • January 16, 2013
    KZN02
    Didn't the original Metroid and Zero Mission have something like this with upgrades?
  • January 16, 2013
    Larkmarn
    Zero Mission had upgrades that "were incompatible with current suit." Once you got the Gravity Suit, they came into effect.

  • January 16, 2013
    StarSword
    Spelling fix to trope title.

    Western RPG:
  • January 16, 2013
    Stratadrake
    *checks YKTTW history*

    *spots typo*

    *dies laughing*

    Okay, that was a good one.
  • January 16, 2013
    Rognik
    • Glory Of Heracles had rusty items in the DS version. Essentially the same thing as unidentified items, except they need to be taken to a polisher to make them proper weapons. Apparently, the same rusted item has the same abilities when polished.
  • January 17, 2013
    randomsurfer
    The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy: That Thing Your Aunt Gave You That You Don't Know What It Is. (It works as A Bag of Holding.)
  • February 18, 2013
    troacctid
    • RuneScape:
      • There used to be unidentified herbs, which could only be identified with the proper Herblore level. This feature was patched away in 2007 because some players were abusing it in scams, claiming that the unidentified herbs they were offering in trades were more valuable than they really were.
      • Nitroglycerin, a quest item, is labeled "Unidentified liquid" until you bring it to an archaeologist who can tell you what it is (and scream at you not to drop it).
  • February 18, 2013
    NESBoy
    Metroid: Zero Mission has three of these, and they're incompatible until after the Zero Suit sequence. They're the Plasma Beam, the Space Jump, and the Gravity Suit.
  • March 15, 2013
    Stratadrake
    I'm going to bump this. I'm ... not sure whether to count Metroid Zero Mission as an example, mainly because there are only a few of those things; it's not a recurring mechanic.
  • March 15, 2013
    DennisDunjinman
    Metroid Prime 2 has this. Upon defeating the Dark Alpha Splinter, this Wake Up Call Boss drops a glowing sphere. If you scan it, it's called "Unknown Technology". Samus takes it anyway, and when it bonds to her suit it automatically runs a virus scan to check if its harmful or not. A couple minutes later it's revealed by U-Mos that she's taken the Energy Transfer Device, which she'll need to transfer the Light of Aether from each Energy Controller, and as a bonus gives an immunity from possession from the Ing.
  • March 15, 2013
    Stratadrake
    But that's a one-shot thing, not a recurring gameplay element, a la Roguelikes.
  • March 16, 2013
    henke37
    • Nethack has a lot of things start out as unidentified.
      • Potions
      • Scrolls
  • March 16, 2013
    moriwen
    Similarly to Nethack, Angband and its variants have items start out unidentified: potions, scrolls, wands, staves, jewelry, armor, and weapons.
  • March 16, 2013
    Irrisia
    An odd variant in the Suikoden games - you can pick up ?Pots, ?Paintings and ?Statues, which you can take to an art appraiser to have valued and identified, to then either sell on or decorate your home base with. Alternatively, you can sell them unidentified for a small amount. Anything useful, however, never needs identifying.
  • March 17, 2013
    Arivne
    • Eye Of The Beholder. In the first game you could use Detect Magic to determine whether an item was magical or not, but if it was a magic item you couldn't determine what powers it had.
  • March 17, 2013
    DracMonster
    In World Of Warcraft (and probably other MMORP Gs,) if the game client is having trouble loading descriptions of items from lag, it puts something like "Unknown Item ID" instead. Could that be shoehorned in?
  • March 17, 2013
    Koveras
    Can't we just merge Unidentified Item and Scroll of Identify YKTT Ws into a single trope like Item Identification Mechanic or just Item Identification?
  • June 3, 2013
    UltramarineAlizarin
    Definitely seems like the proposed tropes could be merged into one. I think this one would be the "primary" trope since having an ID mechanic requires having unknown items, while there are already a couple of examples here of unknown items that don't have a regular ID mechanic.

    • In Toe Jam And Earl, presents are initially unidentified. Though, since all presents with the same icon contain the same item or effect, using a present automatically identifies any identical presents, whether in the player's inventory or on the ground. There is a randomly-appearing NPC, the man in the carrot suit, who can identify a present for a few dollars. This is important because one of the effects is the Randomizer, which automatically unidentifies all presents and scrambles the icon-effect relationships!
  • June 4, 2013
    aurora369
    In The Elder Scrolls series, low Alchemy skill results in your inability to determine the properties of alchemical ingredients. In some games, such as Skyrim, ingredients previously not experimented with always have unknown properties. However, tasting the ingredients exposes you to merely diluted version of their powers, as opposed to the stronger powers of potions brewed from these ingredients, so it's almost always safe to taste them.
  • June 4, 2013
    UltramarineAlizarin
    Brave Fencer Musashi has treasure chest items that need to be appraised in town by Conner. Several such items turn out to be pieces of legendary equipment, but in general it's Played For Laughs with a lot of the items appearing more valuable when unappraised -- an "Old Crown" turns out to be a "Cakepan", for instance.

    EDIT: Also want to add that I think the Metroid: Zero Mission examples are viable because they go into the inventory screen as if they were normal upgrades. At first, their only effect is to enable Samus to destroy blocks showing mysterious symbols, playing on Video Game Tools in a manner of "you don't know what this is but you can use it to proceed in the game... somehow."
  • July 9, 2013
    UltramarineAlizarin
    I'll take sponsorship of this one. I've copied over content from the "Scroll of Identify" YKTTW to make a trope that encompasses both concepts. I leave it open for anyone and everyone to edit, so please add details about types of unknown items and their mechanics where possible.
  • July 10, 2013
    Stratadrake
    ...just because I haven't updated this one a while doesn't mean I've disappeared :)

    To me, I don't think Metroid: Zero Mission counts as a (straight) example for a few reasons. One being that the items are limited in number and permanent (since they are ability upgrades) rather than consumable/expendable, and two, you don't have any way of identifying them individually -- for the time being you are merely told that it's incompatible with your current Power Suit, and once you acquire Power Suit 2.0 they are revealed automatically. But if you want to count it as a variation, I won't argue that....

    Note that unidentified items also tend to go hand in hand with randomly generated loot.
  • July 10, 2013
    azul120
    • Dragons Crown has loot acquired throughout stages that can be identified for a fee at the end of the stage.
  • July 13, 2013
    TrueShadow1
    • In Ragnarok Online equipments obtained from monsters are only listed as generic "Shoes", "Armor", "Sword", etc and cannot be equipped until you appraise them with the Maginifier item.
  • July 24, 2013
    TropeEater
    this space intentionally left blank
  • December 23, 2013
    Stratadrake
    Giving this a bump. Any comments at this time?
  • December 23, 2013
    Abodos
    Animal Crossing does this with the fossils. You dig the raw fossils out of the ground, mail them off to be identified, then get them back to give to the museum.
  • December 24, 2013
    Mauri
    Mmm seems there are some missing examples:

    MMORP Gs
    • Trickster Online: Averts this via showing the stats of the items once the player picks them up. Then again the game plays with a Random Drop engine which means that in Boss Encounters the stats of the weapons obtained are random but in a certain range of stats.
    • Perfect World: Averts this since it is perfect and you get to see the stats of the items (this troper doesn't remember if it changed with a patch though).

    Roguelike
    • Azure Dreams: You get three options to identify equipment, monster eggs and magic balls: equipping/using them (still won't show you the counter with the magic balls), using an identifier item and getting out of the dungeon since everyone at home can see what items are worth.
    • Recettear: Only way to appraise the items you use: Getting out of the dungeon, making sense since the merchants are running behind the adventurer therefore are unable to sit down and appraise the items before they get home.
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