DING! Achievement unlocked: agitated cat rescue. DING! You have earned a trophy: inappropriate salami use. Many behavioural psychologists would wring their hands in glee at the potential fees just waiting to be garnered from a generation of gamers driven almost to the heights of obsessive-compulsive mania by a digitised recognition for an in-game activity that, in the wider scale of the cosmos, is essentially meaningless. Before I get a little too existentialist, let me ask: are achievements and trophies a complete waste of time and energy? DING! Achievement unlocked: pretentious introduction 10G.
Straight away, we have the problem of human psychology, and the curious trait that we have as a species for individuality. Even if teenagers today think that constitutes dressing from Hot Topic and listening to My Chemical Romance. We all play our games in different ways. We purchase the final product, and, as Sid Meier brilliantly said of Civilization IV: ‘It’s your experience.’ Personally, I’m an explorer, motivated by narrative and environment, seeking out the nuances of the game world. I have friends who are the opposite: accelerated glory fiends, looking to be the first to complete the game, or rule the online leaderboards, to hell with the finer details. Neither of us is ‘right’, nor wrong. Trophies and achievements, however, look like regimenting the way we play and experience our games. Do we want ‘the man’ controlling our controllers? Is this even an issue? Can I justify a third question in succession?
For the sake of convenience, when I refer to ‘achievements’, I mean both 360 achievements AND PS3 trophies. I have no bias, but the term ‘achievement’ is perhaps a little more synonymous. I considered the acronym T&A, and abandoned it rapidly, for obvious reasons. If it’s not obvious, go and ask mummy or daddy about ‘lady parts’. I will make reference to both versions uniquely, but will use the console name when I do so. Disclaimer in place, let us proceed…
Achievements for nothing. Chips for free.
Where is the sense of achievement in most achievements? Consider the game you are currently engaged with on the PS3 or 360. I’ll wager a shiny new penny that a greater or lesser number of the achievements involve completing levels or stages, or finishing the game/campaign. It’s a reasonable assertion that, as the player bothered to purchase the game, they are going to play it through. Why reward it? Have attention spans plummeted to such a degree that the average gamer needs the Pavlovian reward of an achievement for just completing a level? My auntie’s half-blind cat could complete the first level of most games. With the appropriate Whiskas motivation.
It’s like some absurd new coalition government policy gone mad: achievements for nothing! Vote for us! Give BP a platinum trophy for finally stopping their oil leak, but why give players a reward for an action they would have achieved anyway? It devalues the very point and the concept of an achievement. Even the common names for those who value them — ‘achievement whores’ or ‘trophy sluts’ — are pejorative, and far from complimentary. When I were a lad, a ‘trophy slut’ had a far more lascivious, and exciting, meaning. DING! You have earned a trophy: poked a slapper.
Easy achievements are manipulative, marketing genius. A condemnation as much as a reluctant admission of praise. I’ve read numerous figures, but, on average, a game with such effortless achievements can expect to sell an additional 40,000 units.
It’s a subtle system of calculated reward, assuming that we place value in that reward. Start the game? Achievement! Beat the first, easy, boss? Trophy! Collect 50 Pointless Shiny Moolicks? Achievement! Most achievements are as tedious and predictable as an episode of Last of the Summer Wine, and a gamerscore or a trophy level is just a weary roadmap of the games you have played, and the levels you completed. Surely, the most pleasing achievements are the ones you discover through experimentation, or exploring, or the ones with the acidic sense of dark humour behind them.
Consider the Irony achievement in Bioshock (in which you take a photo of the corpse of Sander Cohen, who previously tasked you to slay his foes and take photos of their corpses), or the Crowd Pleaser in LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga (kill Jar Jar Binks a set number of times). Gratifying as they are hilarious, and wholly unexpected. When I unlocked the Irony achievement, I laughed with a Sid James growl. Games rarely do that for me. How about more achievements that reward unconventional play? Cross-dressing in Oblivion? Achievement! Made Lara Croft plummet gracefully to her crumpled death hundreds of feet below? Trophy!
Trophy, or atrophy?
Of course, ‘discovery’ is a currency of little value to some contemporary gamers, either lacking the patience or the time to see what unexpected actions might unlock. Whether the FAQ, or the ‘strategy guide’ (a colossal misnomer: no strategy left when the guide tells you every single thing within the game), is a benefit or a detriment to gaming is a topic for another time. However, they can be said to thaw the achievement experience.
Whilst many achievements condescend the player by telling them exactly what to do to earn it, even those ‘hidden’ enticingly-clandestine achievements have little mystery remaining. Lacking the motivation or the imagination to see if you can unlock a hidden achievement? Perhaps sir would like to head directly to gamefaqs.com, or YouTube, and see explicitly how to ‘earn’ it. On the back of somebody else’s work. Why think for yourself? It begins to tread the thin ice of achievements not being any real index of skill, just an indicator of your compulsion to acquire them.
Easy as it is for me to deride and textually teabag achievements, and their grand lack of inspiration, there is a definite benefit to be found, a diamond in the digital rough. For one, it motivates players to replay a game, try a new tactic or character class, and experience it from a new context. Also, for those truly dedicated, and placing (misplaced?) value in a Gamerscore, or a trophy count, the quest for achievements is a positive one, as it forces players from a gaming comfort zone, and ekes the hermit crab from its shell. The devout ‘score whore’ will already have netted the full compliment of points for the games he/she is inclined to, or gained the platinum trophy. The only way to keep that score climbing is for those players to — perish the thought — try something new.
It may be a revelation to some purblind players, but, yes, there is more to engage yourself with beyond Modern Warfare 2 or FIFA 10. Whilst the motivation might be undermining the result, people attempting a new genre, and finding they enjoy it, is perhaps the true reward of sniffing out those achievements, like a pig seeking truffles. It’s not the score. It’s the experience. Repeat one thousand times daily.
I personally know of players who have rented a title that they have detested, played it with contempt through the entire weekend, and not enjoyed a second of the experience — just to add another 1000 points to their Gamerscore. I already endure something with contempt for a pointless goal, it’s called a full time job. Games used to be about escapism, fantasy, imagination, stories and action.
It sounds thus far like my opinion of the achievement system is unappreciative, the kind of sharp scorn that should only be reserved for daytime television hosts. Far from it. Achievements are one of the most significant, and potentially positive, changes in the way we play our games, but the ethos of the thing has somewhat got lost in the fog of desire for a score. Is it even an issue? Same fixation, different manifestation, like Madonna reinventing herself with tired regularity each year. The golden age of the arcade was an era of games without the technology to render complicated worlds and environments, sprites and narrative. It was a flickering world of simplicity, but what was the lure that kept a generation thrusting their money into those slots like a Soho peep-show cubicle punter. The quest for the high score. No different from the achievement mania of the current generation…
In part two, Surface_Lizard ventures into the heart of darkness of obsession. Or something probably far less dramatic.