I’m not in my wife’s good books this morning. For quite some time past her bedtime I was sat in front of the television in what I thought was silence, headphones on and aiming for the epic Endure achievement on Halo 3: ODST. Rather than silence, however, this two-hour Firefight caused me to sit in a darkened room barking out orders at intervals, each stirring Ali from her sleep in the room above. When asked why had caused her a restless couple of hours it seemed that my reply based around the word “achievements” was not wholly understood nor appreciated.
Achievements are strange beasts. A generation ago the concept of in-game rewards may have existed but there was never such a fervour about them. Then again, there was never a unified system that would go from game to game and that you could compare with your friends. Give a group of competitive people something they can amass, preferably with large numbers associated with them, and you are pretty much guaranteed that once one person starts showing off their fine collection of virtual medals then the rest will follow.
For me, however, there are four types of achievements – two good, two bad: those that promote trying out game modes or features; those that extend the lifespan of a game by suggesting you play it in a different way; those that are a grind; and those that actually hamper your experience.
Whilst the first batch may seem like cheap points to some, they are now a legitimate tool for designers to push players into different parts of a game that they may not have otherwise give the time of day. You can put up as many dialogue boxes up as you want suggesting that someone may like to go there or look here but it’s fair to say we’re all guilty of either skipping through tutorials or just blatantly ignoring them. Many, however, are all to eager to pull up and pay full attention to the list of remaining achievements and if they can be gained by entering a particular portion of a game then it is that particular portion of the game they will head to next.
Whether they stay in that game mode once the chime has rung out and the points are credited to their score is hard to say, although unlikely. Even if only a fraction play through this newly discovered area and enjoy it however, then the achievement has done its job. Recent examples for me have been watching Project Gotham TV in PGR3, uploading replays to community sites through FIFA and checking out ghost runs of high scores on several different Arcade games. Each time they attempt to introduce the user to an aspect of the game that is in the periphery of the main event.
The second flavour of achievements are my favourite. These are the ones that take a game and make you play it in new or different ways, or even just make you play the modes you know and love more often. They can be silly things, like completing levels without shooting in shooters, more socially focused marathon co-op efforts or ones that force you to become a little bit creative. Banjo Kazooie: Nut and Bolts and World of Goo are prime examples where the list of achievements are almost a suggested build list, nudging you into attempting to create something which you possibly haven’t so far. At a different extent you have games like Dead Rising where the achievements promoted the replayability of the game, rewarding the player for meeting all those that were trapped in the mall and in the exploring every inch of it on a look out for swag to help you on the way.
The final pair of achievements make me groan whenever I see them on a game’s list. The grind is pretty self explanatory; tell me to kill 10 grunts in a certain but specific way and I’m happy, but tell me to kill 10,000 grunts in any manner I chose and I just don’t give a monkey’s. Whereas achievements based around exploration, discovery or playing the game in new ways are creative ways of extending the life of a title, asking me to commit genocide on an epic level is lazy. It shows a distinct lack of thought in my mind and an even greater lack of imagination.
Worse of all, however, are achievements that actually ruin a game, and primarily I find that these are usually found in a multiplayer context. I’m not talking about co-op play or social scrums where achievements can be earned whilst japes are being had but the ones that are only available in competitive matches. Many times during the early Halo 3 multiplayer days, games were brought down to the level of utter farce as people begged others in the lobby to help them get a certain award. I honestly don’t mind helping out friends or acquaintances but when it starts to interfere with my gaming and derail what I want to do then I really get agitated by it. I’ve heard the same is true in Gears of War 2 and countless other games where designers have foolishly placed these trinkets in a realm that can have a detrimental affect on others whilst you try and strive for it.
With that chip off my shoulder I can reflect very happily on last night’s achievement. Falling into category number two, co-op achievements are among my favourite to work towards. I may be in trouble with the other half, I may be slightly sleep deprived and mocked by my work colleagues but we got it, damn it, and the communal sense of relief and accomplishment when it blipped up on screen will keep me smiling all morning.