Posted by: bracehare | September 25, 2011

Achievements

As far as gameplay features go, Achievements easily rank as one of the most critically detested.  The complaints are all fairly well established: they detract from immersion, encourage pointless elitism, often function as arbitrary padding, and are frequently entirely redundant.  These are fair complaints.  Imagine if, in Final Fantasy VII, the death of Aeris was immediately followed by the characteristic bleep of an Xbox gamer score increasing and some half-clever play on words.  50 gamer points!  Consider how the incentive in most of these schemes (with the possible sole exception of Steam achievements) is to play as many games as possible, essentially making them a marketing strategy designed to take advantage of the competitive instincts of players.  There are games which have literally hundreds of achievements, far in excess of the playtime they might justify otherwise, seemingly created solely to entice perfectionists to invest excessive time in them.  Finally, there are the achievements which happen simply by merit of the player progressing normally through the game; the achievements at the end of each chapter, for instance, which function almost as bookmarks or progress ticks.

The inherent absurdities of achievements have even been parodied, to an extent, in the Achievement Unlocked! series of flash games (which the author must duly note she has all played to completion).  However, in spite of all of these complaints, and their validity, I must admit to a certain fondness for achievements.  As with video game mechanics in general (particularly storytelling mechanics), I believe the issues do not arise from their inherent inferiority but from their misapplication.  A forum discussion on the subject which took place on SelectButton.net several years ago yielded a comment which made a strong case for this.  PS3 trophies had just come out, and this player was happy to note that an Achievement for the game Mirror’s Edge had increased their enjoyment of the game.  The achievement in question, called “Test of Faith”, requires the player to complete the game without shooting an enemy.  One of the common complaints about Mirror’s Edge is that the eminently enjoyable free running sections were awkwardly juxtaposed with very contrived and annoying shooting sections.  Accordingly, the player reported that being forced to find ways around these sections actually served to mitigate what had been the strongest weakness of the game.  When achievements are used in this capacity, to force players to find new ways of playing and of interacting with the game world, they can have quite a bit of utility.  However, such achievements are rare; most pertain to reaching checkpoints, performing a common action a large number of times, playing and winning on harder difficulties, and avoiding damage.  When achievement finally catch up with their potential, however, I believe that they can make novel contributions to video games, instead of simply serving as meaningless collectibles; or rather, collectibles which only take on meaning in the context of misdirected competitive inclinations and a not-so-subtly veiled “gotta catch ’em all” marketing campaign.

– Jessica Evans

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