196: A Break in Immersion

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A Break in Immersion

The common wisdom is that achievements give players more value for their gaming dollar. But there may be a hidden cost to this constant competition. Christian Ward describes how achievements aren't as revolutionary as they may first appear, and how they could in fact be holding the medium back.

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Totally agree. Great article. I was once sucked into this whole must get 1000/1000, but then through some silly moves by me (not having internet at house, downloading previous card to friends Xbox, then overriding my non internet one) I lost 7000 points. Looking back at it was the most liberating thing that could have happened. Now I play games to just experience the story, kill bad guys, see new features etc. Plus it made me realize how much time I had sunk into stuff that was unimportant in the long run.

My only experience with achievements is on PC, with Team Fortress 2. It adds another tasty layer of positive reinforcement to a game that is already completely addicting.

But when I try to compare my achievements with other players, I see people who have all thirty new scout achieves unlocked a day after release, because they went to an 'achievement farm' server and worked through them all in order to unlock the new weapons. Like Christian said, it's more about who has the time to spend playing through it than who is a more proficient player. Great article!

Perhaps it would be better to have a more subtle means of viewing your achievement than this glaring hack into ones immersion. A new message in the journal perhaps, something you see when you log on to Live instead of in the game itself.

Microsoft has, to some degree, shot itself in the foot by demanding this. Some games would just be ill-suited to it. Silent Hill is likely one, as is Deus Ex. It's more in the realm of outwardly competitive games and perhaps even casual ones. Not all games need them, and not all games should have them. Furthering this onto the PC is just an exercise in cynical marketing. Another shiny diamond in the new game case.

When the fourth wall is broken well, it works. It can add humour to the game or increase the tension by extending an in-game illusionary threat to the outside viewer if only for a few seconds. The same is true of film and books. Alex (A Clockwork Orange) creates direct empathy by breaking the fourth wall and referring to the reader as his "only friends". It's a creepy way to go when the sheer psychotic nature of the character is revealed. The same kind of thing could work really well in first-person games but as ever, it'd need to be honed to perfection. Achievements are too blunt an instrument for that.

I dont mind every game having them so much, just more to the extent that certain games have it. Games like the simpsons games, super smash bros brawl or warior land:shake dimension, are all games that almost any achievement will work with. Fun games, which poke fun at everything really, and dont try and immerse you into the storyline really do well with them. Games like final fantasy, or the example used here, shadow of the colossus, really dont need the little frivilous ones. Though i still think they should have ones for completing the game for example, or unlocking everything.

So i think every game should have achievements to some degree, but it shouldnt be forced, and the number should vary game by game. Interface should also be altered so that the way of announcing achivements can differ game by game. Fun casual games can have big obvious announcements, and serious immersive games can use for example journal entries like labyrinth suggested above.

heres my take achievements/trophys are great yes i do agree with the 4th wall scenario, maybe an option to turn them off on your 1st play trough would in fact be the cause of action

I suppose I'm going to be alone in saying that the controller in your hand is far more immersion-breaking than a notification popping up on screen. When it comes down to it, if you want to move forward in Gears of War, then you have to push the analog stick forward. I'm not sure how that could actually translate into actually being immersed in the game when you have to push buttons or move an analog stick to accomplish anything. Its not like a movie where you can just sit and watch, you actually have to interact with the game in a way that is not at all symbolic of what your character is actually doing. The minute you want to press a button to fire a gun you HAVE to acknowledge that you're actually playing the game and NOT firing an actual gun.

Also, if the achievement notification is immersion-breaking, wouldn't a game invite from a friend or some other notification be equally immersion-breaking? So why not have them all turned off if the illusion of being immersed in a game is that important to you? Maybe Microsoft SHOULD have a way to turn off achievement notifications specifically, but personally I feel immersion-breaking is a particularly silly reason for wanting that.

Also, the high score isn't an outdated concept. It was simply a pointless concept. In the games that had high scores, you had no real reason to go for one anyway. It was a concept leftover from arcade games, where you could get your high score and put your name into the machine so everyone could see you got that high score. On the home consoles, there was no one to even care except the player. In other words, scores died off because they didn't have much of a place on the home consoles at all. Now, consoles are online, so it makes sense to bring back score systems because once again you can show off these scores.

Achievements were just a quick and easy way to implement a scoring system, now that people can actually see these scores again. I wouldn't be too surprised if future games could actually save a high score and display it in your gamer profile in a "High Scores" section. These games would probably end up having leaderboards as well, showing who achieved the highest scores in the world and individual countries, states, cities, etc, for that game.

I've always seen Achievements as a sort of meta-game. You play games individually, then you see how many achievements you can get from all the games you have played/are playing. I'm not an achievement whore mind you, but sometimes it's fun to sit down with a list of Achievements for a game and say "Okay; this session is dedicated to Achievements and nothing else." After all this is gaming we're talking about: not film or literature. The art in games is, and always should be, the game. Story comes second, and with that so does immersion.

If game developers focus too much on turning games into movies (which is what I hear when I read articles like this), then we'll lose the things that make gaming such an engaging hobby to begin with.

The best controllers though are the ones that you completely forget about, and just instincitvely used without a second thought about it. So they are less immersion breaking in that regard.

"Also, if the achievement notification is immersion-breaking, wouldn't a game invite from a friend or some other notification be equally immersion-breaking?"

The difference here is simply that you may want to play with a friend more then solo, so missing those announcements, cuts off gameplay opportunities for you just as an example. Achievement announcements provide nothing beyond simply telling you when they have been completed so you can stop working towards any you have been such as kill # ones. Anyhoo, i just agree each should have its own option to disable, you are right in that they can be equally immersion-breaking, but there are reasons for people to want particular ones on despite the fact.

Nothing to disagree with there. I've always found XBox achievements and gamerscores of questionable existance. There'd be achievements just for completing a level; that's not an achievement, that's progress along the standard path. Don't celebrate mediocraty when I'm getting in the Zone.

However, some achievements on Steam games do have some purpose. I'm talking more about achievements that encourage or enlighten the player to various choices that they may not have known about. Some of Left 4 Dead's achievements pointed out some different approaches to dealing with the special infected, stuff like killing a witch in one shot when she's unavoidable, blocking a hunter's pounce with a melee attack, or shoving a boomer to safe distance before blowing it up. The requirements for these achievements are all listed there as if to say "Hey, give this a try", and the player is awakened to good tactics they never knew about. These feats perhaps don't deserve the label "achievement", but at least they're adding something to game.

If you're worried about breaking your immersion, just remember the archievement until the next downtime (the player will probably be confused for a bit after the cutscene showing the death of the boss or wait for him to open the pause or save menu, for example and if you don't have those just save it in the file and apply it at the next load) and tell the system about it then. The player won't remain immersed the whole time the software is running anyway so you'll probably find a spot to inject the things into. If nothing else, throw it next to a QTE, having a big image of a button pop up on the screen breaks the fourth wall anyway and then you can combine everything you hate into one moment. I can't really talk about the immersion of gaming since I tend to reduce everything I see in a game into a mechanical challenge and that feeling grows as the intensity increases.

The death of the score was not driven by "better motivation methods", it was driven by different game goals. Games became about getting to the end, not getting as far as you could before finally giving out. I think this also shows itself in the way difficulty and progression is now handled, games turned from challenges to the limit of your own skills that lasted as long as you didn't get bored into experiences that unfolded in front of you until the game runs out of content and rolls the credits, nowadays most likely showing a cliffhanger beforehand so you know to cough up cash next year for the continuation of the experience you just had. To say that an experience-type game is better than a challenge-type game is just an oppinion.

However some of the examples for games without stuff to archieve don't make sense considering they are applications, not games. Nintendogs has stuff to archieve AFAIK, winning in contests, finding stuff on a walk, etc. Anything that poses a challenge to the player at some point has something to archieve, no matter how trivial it is (Braid just awarded them for completing the levels and then doing a speedrun).

That archievements are pretty much a marketing ploy is pretty obvious. However I don't think they're onerous on the developer. Sure, tracking some complex stuff can be hard but I've seen devs pull some pretty lazy stuff with archievements (EDF 2017 has five archievements for 100%ing each of the 5 difficulties and one for collecting all weapons, PSU seems to have only archievements for beating the various bosses).

I'm all about not achieving.

Rodger:
Also, if the achievement notification is immersion-breaking, wouldn't a game invite from a friend or some other notification be equally immersion-breaking? So why not have them all turned off if the illusion of being immersed in a game is that important to you? Maybe Microsoft SHOULD have a way to turn off achievement notifications specifically, but personally I feel immersion-breaking is a particularly silly reason for wanting that.

Immersion, in the sense that the author is using it, is referring to the player being emotionally invested, not just engrossed. The two are clearly related, but it's the difference between being disturbed reading by the phone ringing and being disturbed reading by a character saying "this is ficshun lol". The critical point is the breaking of the fourth wall -- the game directly acknowledging its arbitariness. Some games already wear that as a badge of honour, like Smash Brothers which people have raised already, but for other games it just doesn't work.

Rodger:
Also, the high score isn't an outdated concept. It was simply a pointless concept. In the games that had high scores, you had no real reason to go for one anyway. ... In other words, scores died off because they didn't have much of a place on the home consoles at all.

I beg to differ. It's a quantifiable record of how well you've done in the past so you can strive to do better. It's an incentive to play the game more (which works, if first-hand experience is worth anything ;) ), and that's great news for the developer.
Absolutely, achievements are pretty much a more refined high score system, and that's what's made them popular: they serve the same purpose as scores, but they're both adaptable to games which scores won't work and able to be awarded at graduated levels to ease players in and encourage them.
I think it's beyond dispute that achievements aren't appropriate for some things; the obvious, purely pragmatic cases being applications or toys like 'Nintendogs' and 'The 100 Classic Book Collection', but equally in the case of immersive 'traditional' games like 'Dead Space' and 'Shadows of the Colossus'. That said, I'm kind of irked by achievements in general, so I'm biased against them; they can be put to good use in the right contexts, though.

I think the whole "instant notification" has become a problem for the 360. Have you ever watched a romantic movie on your 360, only to have the silence broken by...

BLEEP-BLOOP! MrPixieSTIX is ONLINE

More and more, it seems like a console's presets are deliberately trying to destroy immersion. This is especially annoying nowadays, since most developers don't take into consideration the fact that the gaming experience they create will constantly be interrupted by BLEEP-BLOOP! It makes me want to slap Bill Gates until his eyes switch sockets.

Achievements harken back to the good old arcade days where everyone was obsessed with "the high score." Back in those days, seeing our three-letter names up on the top-scores roster made us men feel big, that is until we realized just how much money we'd wasted. Now it's all about achievements, a system which Microsoft cleverly devised. See, achievements make it so that if you want a high score, you HAVE TO BUY MORE GAMES. Ironically, not much has changed; they still find a way to steal our money those greedy bastards.

Sorry, what was I talking about again?

HardRockSamurai:
I think the whole "instant notification" has become a problem for the 360. Have you ever watched a romantic movie on your 360, only to have the silence broken by...

BLEEP-BLOOP! MrPixieSTIX is ONLINE

More and more, it seems like a console's presets are deliberately trying to destroy immersion. This is especially annoying nowadays, since most developers don't take into consideration the fact that the gaming experience they create will constantly be interrupted by BLEEP-BLOOP! It makes me want to slap Bill Gates until his eyes switch sockets.

Achievements harken back to the good old arcade days where everyone was obsessed with "the high score." Back in those days, seeing our three-letter names up on the top-scores roster made us men feel big, that is until we realized just how much money we'd wasted. Now it's all about achievements, a system which Microsoft cleverly devised. See, achievements make it so that if you want a high score, you HAVE TO BUY MORE GAMES. Ironically, not much has changed; they still find a way to steal our money those greedy bastards.

Sorry, what was I talking about again?

So why not just turn your notifications off?

Wow that is the general consensus of the people at my other gaming forum. We really don't like the concept of them popping up but we do like them there. Now with PSN Trophies if there was only a way to turn off the notification without turning off the message notification as well.

The colossus trembles - is it really dead? - and hangs in the air for a moment before finally crashing to the ground.

Boop.

Achievement Unlocked: Colossal!

Between the repetitive black-tendril cutscenes and teleporting you to the temple each time, the thing the game actually does at this point is already pretty bad, in my opinion.

-- Alex

I love the Kool-Aid Man reference you have in the image there. You're right, any distraction like that in SotC would have ruined about half of the beauty of that game. I remember when my buddy and I were playing through it together, we were in one of the common rooms of our residence and it was during the day so there was enough light so that we could see our reflections in the television and we said: "Oh, what the fuck!? Alright close all the blinds, we can't ruin the immersion". So we did, we closed all the blinds, making the room as dark as possible so that there was no glare, no distraction from our game. Achievements are definitely a jutting fall back into reality. For that I'm glad that Call of Cthulu: DCotE came out before the 360.

Just turn them off them. I don't care about achievements one way or the other but if you don't like them, ignore them.

The best way to get a lot of achievement points is buy a bunch of cheap used games. Not what Microsoft had in mind.

Labyrinth:
When the fourth wall is broken well, it works. ... Achievements are too blunt an instrument for that.

Absolutely. Achievements aren't considered or even deliberate cases of 'breaking the 4th wall', it's just that they do it by their very nature: there's no comparison between achievements and the examples you give (though I could imagine giving an achievement ironically for some dramatic or comic end, in the main they're obviously not that :) ).

Pseudonym2:
Just turn them off them. I don't care about achievements one way or the other but if you don't like them, ignore them.

While I agree with you... it's not just a case of being 'irritated' by them, there's the question of authorial control as well, here. If a developer believes that achievements are unhelpful or harmful to what they're trying to do with a game, they shouldn't be forced to include them. Sure, they're relatively unobtrusive, and they can always be sidelined by giving them for things which were already inherent achievements as Jon Blow did with Braid: it's an in-principle objection more than anything else, but still an important one.

Christian Ward:
A Break in Immersion

The common wisdom is that achievements give players more value for their gaming dollar. But there may be a hidden cost to this constant competition. Christian Ward describes how achievements aren't as revolutionary as they may first appear, and how they could in fact be holding the medium back.

Read Full Article

On the Xbox 360, press the "guide" button (the silver one in the middle of the controller) and d-pad right to get to the "settings" tab. Drop down to "notifications", select that, and deselect the option to have in-game messages appear. Ta-da! No more "beep-boop"; your game experiences will go uninterrupted.

Given the size of my Friends list, and the frequence of log-in notices I get as a result, I routinely use that option when playing a new game so that I can concentrate on the game... and both have the beautiful cake of immersive single-player gameplay and eat the yummy cake of Achievements too.

I like Achievements, and I think their inclusion in games can be very good when used to encourage players to mix things up to keep the game fresh.

-- Steve

The very notion of the Gamerscore is the kind of idea the evil chairman of a toy company in a bad '80s movie would dream up. It's a competition where you duke it out with your friends to see who can buy the most Microsoft products! What does the winner get? Nothing! The only way it could be more farcical is if you added to your Gamerscore by buying a new controller or downloading a theme pack, or earned Achievements for choosing Windows over Mac OSX.

It's true.
I feel....
Happy that I don't have an XBox..
But still feel angry that this is true.

It's a stunningly Microsoft-like gesture that you can't turn off achievements without turning off all notifications (for example, when a friend sends you a message or an invitation to play a game).

If the point of not having achievements showing is so as not to break the immersion why would you want other things to break the immersion instead?

HectorTheLamerGamer:
If the point of not having achievements showing is so as not to break the immersion why would you want other things to break the immersion instead?

Exactly the point I was trying (and failing, I see) to make but in fewer words. Well done!

-- Steve

I'd like to play a game where you unlock an achivement and a character in the game goes "What was that noise?" only to be met with a confused stare from everyone else in the room.

HectorTheLamerGamer:
If the point of not having achievements showing is so as not to break the immersion why would you want other things to break the immersion instead?

"Break immersion" is too vague here.

Achievements do impose a certain tone upon the game that an IM popup doesn't. A game that gives you an achievement for finding all the flags or shooting thirty zombies in the face or having a lesbian three-way is about finding all the flags or shooting thirty zombies in the face or having a lesbian three-way on some very small level.

The rest of the articles in this issue talk about how "achievement"-style systems affect player goals and the experience of play. This article is lamenting having that element forced into games where it doesn't really fit.

-- Alex

Achievement Unlocked: Read My Mind

Sorry, couldn't help it. I proudly have a Gamerscore of 1,250. I'll find my own things to achieve in games, or goals to reach, thank you very much.

Alex_P:
The rest of the articles in this issue talk about how "achievement"-style systems affect player goals and the experience of play. This article is lamenting having that element forced into games where it doesn't really fit.

At least in the Xbox Live version, Achievements can be made to be "secret" so as to conceal plot points. If a developer is worried that Achievements will skew player behaviour in their direction (and isn't willing to use that to his/her/their advantage) then simply making their requirements secret in-game will allow regular players to play without that influence. Achievement whores will still look them up on the Internet, of course, but there are always people playing with samizdata walkthroughs and the net effect wouldn't be any different.

-- Steve

level250geek:
I've always seen Achievements as a sort of meta-game. You play games individually, then you see how many achievements you can get from all the games you have played/are playing. I'm not an achievement whore mind you, but sometimes it's fun to sit down with a list of Achievements for a game and say "Okay; this session is dedicated to Achievements and nothing else." After all this is gaming we're talking about: not film or literature. The art in games is, and always should be, the game. Story comes second, and with that so does immersion.

If game developers focus too much on turning games into movies (which is what I hear when I read articles like this), then we'll lose the things that make gaming such an engaging hobby to begin with.

I totally agree. Let's not forget that achievement activation isn't a mandatory thing to break immersion anyway. They can be easily set by a publisher to activate at the main menu; it's entirely based on when the game runs its check for the set flag. "It's a good idea to remove goals and rewards from games which aren't entirely self-imposed or ethereal" is what I'm getting from the article, and that's just stupid. He's built a castle in the sand on the cornerstone of immersion breaking, and that's not valid.

I myself don't care for achievements in games.
Mostly, the achievements seem like arbitrary and meaningless challenges...that doesn't add enjoyment when playing a game.
(It seems like a virtual sticker collecting system to me.)
However, I understand if people want to have them in games...I don't really mind.

The option to turn off notifications for achievements specifically should be made available.
Sometimes you want to know when your friends are online for multiplayer/co-op etc..

Game developers should have the option to not make achievements for games which they think
such a system would be detrimental to the gamers experience (or not fit with the type of game it is.)

This article makes a lot of sense, although, I admit, I kind of like the achievement system! I do agree with the issue of forced achievements; a dev should choose weather or not to include achievements in a game. I like them, for example, in competitive games, but find them trivial when they simply track the course of a game. When an achievement pops up after completing a level in a story based game, it not only breaks immersion with an intrusive notification, but they inform you about the inherent game structure (level 1, level 2, etc...), instead of giving the opportunity for a game to feel like a seamless experience.

What really irks me, however, is the inability to customize notifications. I for one, would love to turn notifications that 'friend is now online' off (I call my friends when I want to play online with them), and be able to disable all notifications when watching a movie.

This article makes a lot of sense, although, I admit, I kind of like the achievement system! I do agree with the issue of forced achievements; a dev should choose weather or not to include achievements in a game. I like them, for example, in competitive games, but find them trivial when they simply track the course of a game. When an achievement pops up after completing a level in a story based game, it not only breaks immersion with an intrusive notification, but they inform you about the inherent game structure (level 1, level 2, etc...), instead of giving the opportunity for a game to feel like a seamless experience.

What really irks me, however, is the inability to customize notifications. I for one, would love to turn notifications that 'friend is now online' off (I call my friends when I want to play online with them), and be able to disable all notifications when watching a movie.

ColinRobertson:
What really irks me, however, is the inability to customize notifications. I for one, would love to turn notifications that 'friend is now online' off (I call my friends when I want to play online with them), and be able to disable all notifications when watching a movie.

You can do the latter; there's the option to turn off all notifications when running a video. (See the directions in my post above.) Sadly, though, you can't customise which types of notifications come up; they're either all-on or all-off.

-- Steve

The 360 is one of the consoles I'm thinking about getting, but hearing about "Achievement this" and "Achievement that" has actually turned me away from the system slightly, although not as much as the 'red ring' possibility.

I'm just not into trophies or badges or anything that symbolizes accomplishment outside of just completing something entirely. I could always spoil the ending of a game by looking online, but I reach my personal achivement by beating the game myself, and I'd never want a trophy of that because the memorable moments of that game are what remind me of the accomplishment.

I'm happily surprised by how many responses agree with the article. I guess I'm too surrounded by achievement whores on a day-to-day basis, and it makes me feel like that's closer to the typical 360 gamer than is representative. (or The Escapist is just full of more enlightened 360 gamers than is representative. One or the other)

One aspect of achievements that really bugs me is the 'fake achievement' - where you get points for doing something that was going to happen anyway, or is redundant, like beating the first level or getting an item you need to complete the game, etc. It makes me feel like the 360 is this creepy robo-cheerleader who is WAY to excited about the fact that I'm playing a video game than it has any right to be.

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