That Sense Of Achievement

It would be quite easy to forget that before this generation, we simply did not have Achievements or Trophies tied into our games arbitrarily. Nintendo have taken the choice to not force achievements into its new online service, and all in all, I think that might be a very intelligent decision. That everyone will hate.

“Achievement: Level One – You have completed the first level! Congratulations!”

Oh do sod off. You see, I have nothing against achievements but stuff like that is so utterly patronising that it makes me want to physically punch one of the developers. Any one of them, I don’t mind, you can draw straws or have a raffle to see who gets the lucky honour of having an intimate meeting with my fist. “Congratulations, you have finished the first level!”, or “Congratulations! You have died 100 times!”, or “Congratulations! You have found the magical hoodie of Cornholio!”. I mean seriously, what the hell gives with this? Is it THAT hard to flesh out 1000 Achievement points in an X-Box 360 game that you have to come up with the most inane and frankly boring achievements you can think of? Or the 1230 ‘Points’ overall in a PS3 game from its Trophies? Is there really no other alternative than to throw in patronising milestones to otherwise intelligent gamers?

Achievements are something we have come to live with since the X-Box 360 and PS3 added them as a default requirement to releases on their consoles. Indeed, there’s even been a growing trend on trying to reward those with high scores, those for whom have a startling collection of points in their profile from the various games they have played over the years. Do they denote anything important? Probably not, but like any good nerdwank the higher the score, the bigger the e-peen and the more grand the person looks. Well, from my perspective the more the guy looks like an arse, especially when you often take a closer look at how they amassed those scores. Because truth is, for those whom require a quick extension to their bulging trouser-wielding monsters, there are plenty of titles that not only offer easy points, but can offer the whole 1000 points in an hour or two. If you have the likes of Avatar: The Burning Earth, Fallout 3 and NHL 2K6 in your list, I have something very troubling to report; not only does your taste in games suck, but you are not that talented. These games are known and even reviled in circles for the ease of which they can be maxed out. You are not demonstrating any actual skill. Report to me when you have 1000 points in Dark Souls. Then we’ll discuss if you have any actual gaming talent.

You might think I’m against achievements, especially since I agree with the Nintendo stance of not having them be a system requirement. Of course, the developers can add in their own achievements systems that reward appropriately and can be tied to the Nintendo Account on which the profile is saved. But it’s not a forced, arbitrary system like the X-Box 360 and PS3 have been pushing. You don’t have to have 1000 achievement points available. But you see, I agree with achievement. Achievement is good. Achievement is necessary, why would we play anything that didn’t make us feel like we were achieving something whilst playing it? I’m just not wholly convinced that is done with a number.

It’s true I’ve been gaming for a very long time and I of course remember the days when we didn’t actually need a game telling us we had achieved something. Because the whole mark of quality in game design is to give us, the player, a sense of achievement for our troubles. Be it the payoff of a big CG video, a plot revelation or a catchy tune to get us smiling, we played games for the enjoyment and they paid us back in kind. We enjoyed them. We didn’t pick games purely on the basis that they could give us a quick, simple bonus to our points tally. Games like this generally don’t tend to have a lot of depth or technical sophistication (Sorry, Fallout 3 – as much as I love it – does fall into this category for consoles!). And if you are playing a game chasing an achievement, you might want to ask yourself if you’d chase that achievement if it wasn’t going to increase your score by 10 points. A lot of achievements are patronising, and a lot more are just tedious affairs relying on chance or grinding. There’s nothing remarkable about them; less so when you’re being effectively told to do them to max out the full potential of a games achievement points.

But of course we must also remember that in the past six years or so, Achievements have become a part and parcel of gaming life. Indeed, there are some who couldn’t live without chasing some imaginary and totally pointless score, because the truth remains that such things were what we did in the olden days. In the arcades, on our friends machines, wherever we got the chance. The drive was to get a score that would put us on the top ten list, where we could be naughty and type out “ASS” in the three-letter name slot. Sure, it was an expensive cheap shot gag – especially in the arcades – but we were young, and reckless, and the idea of spelling the word “ASS” out in a game was sort of naively naughty and had us giggling like naughty little children. We chased those scores for the pun at the end. We weren’t constantly hit over the head whilst doing it with stop-gap achievements. It wasn’t necessary. The likes of House of the Dead 2, Virtua Fighter, Time Crisis and Crazy Taxi were rewarding enough. They were pure joy, fun all the way, and in the arcades we had the added incentive of doing our damnedest to reach the point where we could input “ASS”, so the next people to walk buy and see the high scores list would have to scroll down through a sea of ASS. It was silly. I must admit I’m not entirely proud of it. But no-one told me I had to. No-one was scoring me. It was for the sheer hell of it. The option was there. We took it.

Part of me wonders what would happen if in some games you stripped out the achievements system and judged them on their own technical merits as games, without the idea of forcing people into set achievement challenges to prolong their life and depth. Would you feel as inspired to continue onwards to the end in most of these cases? Or would you discard them earlier? I’m sure games like Dark Souls and Silent Hill HD Collection would cope perfectly well without them because the latter didn’t have them at the start, and the former rewards you in spades without a set marker for every single accomplishment you achieve. Likewise, I wonder if games like Avatar and Lollipop Chainsaw would survive without them. The achievements, and the sense of getting the most out of the game, is what keeps and theoretically prolongs the shelf life of the average game. You want to get more points from them. So rather than toss them aside because they’re not that good really, you continue to press on and try and get as many points from it before you physically want to gouge your eyes out with a melon baller.

This is where I sort of have to side with Nintendo in keeping it ‘optional’ (at least for now). Because I’m sure most developers are kind of bored having to set up arbitrary achievement milestones within their games. There’s not much you can do in some cases, when an old-style platformer turns up with 10 levels – where do you go with that? Just stick an achievement to the end of each stage? Some games aren’t that set up for achievements. Some games simply don’t need them, and some couldn’t survive without them. People will be able to show off the games they have maxed their “achievements” in on their profile but there is no real set competition or rivalry. Just the choice. Something they can do, not something they HAVE to do.

Personally, given the choice I would perhaps suggest that achievements be ditched for a year. One whole year without achievements, just to see what happens. To see if the gaming world collapses, to see which games have been relying to desperately on their status as Easy Achievement Tallies to have any real status in the market. Most of all, to see if developers and designers actually begin to replace the visual click of an achievement with the satisfaction of an in-game sense of achievement. For that isn’t always easy to do; to make the player feel happy they did something, perhaps not hard or that obtuse but just to leave someone with that quiet sense of fulfilment that comes from a perfectly pitched piece of game design. Or from a sharply-written script, with a line that completely blows your mind. Or from finding a hidden secret or Easter Egg.

I don’t need to be told I have achieved something. I am told enough things in my life and not all of them I want to hear. I want to FEEL that I have achieved something, and that is not something that you can do by telling someone they have done it. You can come across in entirely the wrong way in just telling someone they have achieved something, belittling and somewhat undermining their actual sense of achievement and accomplishment in the process. In another sense, you can simply come across as bored when these in-game achievements aren’t well spaced or tailored. “You have finished this level, take these points, they have no monetary value but what the hell, just take them and try and do the next level we did. Go on.” You don’t get the sense of accomplishment.

Thing is, I haven’t felt that sense in gaming for a while. That achievements are really rewarding me for anything special. I haven’t felt that sort of love from them for a considerable while. They are a checklist of things to do in more and more cases and it’s not enabling me to play a game; it’s telling me how to play a game. Often spoiling the good stuff in the process when you go through the list.

Nintendo may not be taking the popular standpoint by making achievements optional and up to the developers to include themselves. One day they may even have to set up a unified system. But for now, just making it an optional extra is fine. There’s no point forcing in a system that might not work yet, or one that the majority of its customers neither want nor care for. And it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a checklist of things to do in the game, because Nintendo games are more often than not designed around achievement without actively hitting you over the head. You feel it. And it feels good.

Achievements need to give you a sense of… well… achievement, really. So many of them… well… don’t. And it defeats the very object of the exercise. Is it our fault as consumers for thriving on this imaginary number as a measure of our worth as gamers? Or Microsoft and Sony for forcing it into the games, ensuring that is how people feel about their score? Couldn’t they feel special without those numbers? Are those numbers perhaps distracting them from the idea that most of the games they’ve maxed out… aren’t really that good? And are simply making more money for Microsoft and other companies than really encouraging a proper sense of design and reward for their customers? Whose fault is it that I am bored of being congratulated every hour or so in my games? Mine for not thriving on my scores, or the developers for cramming them into their games in ways that simply don’t come across as that much of an achievement at all?

I do want a sense of achievement in the games I play. I want a payoff. That’s why most games have endings after all, right? That is the ultimate payoff. The culmination of your efforts. Some games may offer me more endings for doing different things. You just enjoy the sense of going through it. Feeling rewarded. Feeling you achieved something. Feeling you did something with your time.

I simply don’t need someone telling me I’ve done it. Because it can’t compare to the warm, fuzzy glow from actually achieving something.

I will know. I don’t need to be told.

I do miss the days when I could get away with inputting ASS into a system. Yes, I am still that childish.

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