After trekking for what feels like an eternity across a barren, desolate wasteland, you see the Colossus lumbering in the distance. With nothing but your bare hands, you scale its fur – and-rock-covered hide in search of a weak point. As you climb higher, the great beast thrashes violently to throw you off its back. Then you spot it – the sigil at the top of its head, the gargantuan creature’s only vulnerability. You draw back your sword, and with one mighty thrust, plunge it into the monster’s head. A fountain of inky blood sprays forth from the wound. The colossus trembles – is it really dead? – and hangs in the air for a moment before finally crashing to the ground.
Achievement Unlocked: Colossal!
Thanks to the higher powers of choice, this scenario never unfolded. Shadow of the Colossus was a masterpiece of immersion, a flawless recreation of a ruined fantasy world where ancient stone sentinels roamed the land. Its greatest achievement was to make you feel that it was more than just a game – it was a living, breathing place.
But a game like Shadow of the Colossus would never be possible on the Xbox 360.
Like a knowing wink to the camera, the 360’s mandatory achievements break the fourth wall, shatter the illusion, suck you out of the game world and place you firmly back on your sofa, pausing only to tussle your hair patronizingly before giving you another daft, mundane task to complete. In an era where games strive be more immersive than ever before, achievements come along and bash you over the head with a placard labeled “You’re Playing a Game, Dumbass!”
The fourth wall is the imaginary boundary between the viewer and a fictional world in a movie, play, TV series or any work of fiction. Breaking the fourth wall – having a character acknowledge the fact that they are in a work of fiction – can be a useful technique under the right circumstances. Think Will Smith’s knowing glances to the camera in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or Ferris Bueller’s asides to the camera in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Perhaps I’m showing my age with those two examples, or breaking the fourth wall has fallen out of favor as a comedic device).
This is what achievements do in gaming: They force you to recognize that the world you’re inhabiting is a work of fiction. It’s a tactic that works fine for some titles. But consider the example of Dead Space, which boasts some of the most atmospheric and immersive environments since Shadow of the Colossus. The creators of Dead Space deliberately stripped away those elements of the interface that could pull players out of the experience – there are no on-screen notifications of any kind and no HUD (head-up display) to give players information on their health or ammo reserves. Your life meter is built into your character’s suit, and everything else of consequence appears as a holographic projection within the game world itself. It was a brilliant design choice; there was nothing to break the illusion.
Except for those accursed achievements. For some reason, a notification that I was “A Cut Above” for killing 30 enemies with the Ripper didn’t quite mesh with the universe Dead Space had theretofore woven.
Achievement Unlocked: A Step Backward
Achievements are a return to the days when progression and reward in games were pretty much arbitrary. They’re the modern equivalent of the high score.
Scores seemed to fall out of favor around the PlayStation generation, when designers began to discover better ways to motivate players than by throwing numbers at them. You can find a good example of the evolution of the high score in the Mario games. Scores were a major component of the first four entries in the series. But by the time Yoshi’s Island came out, true “high scores” were an impossibility – each level contained a maximum number of points, and the game no longer rewarded you with points for actions like collecting mushrooms or stomping Goombas. Mario 64 ditched the idea of scores altogether, and they haven’t made a return since.
Achievements feel like a regression, a return to an arbitrary method of measuring progress and skill. They work fine in many games, but just as there is no point to keeping score in a game like Ico, there are plenty of games that are not suited to this sort of goal-based incentive structure.
The very name “achievement” implies that they are challenging, hardcore, daring you to do something difficult. But some games are not about challenges; some games are not about achieving anything, in fact. What kind of achievement list would Nintendogs have, for example? (Wash your dog 10 times!) Talkman? (Become fluent in French!) KORG DS-10? (Play like Rick Wakeman!) The 100 Classic Book Collection? (Don’t fall asleep while reading Hard Times!) By mandating that developers include these benchmarks to evaluate player progress, Microsoft is enforcing a conception of videogames that is both limiting and outdated.
Achievement Unlocked: Vista Home Premium Bought
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.
Unlike attaining a high score in a classic arcade game, your Gamerscore isn’t an indicator of proficiency. Each game is capped at a standard 1000 achievement points (with additional points possible for DLC), which means that no matter how good you are at your games, someone who can afford to buy and play through a library of 500 titles will always have a higher Gamerscore than you. Your Gamerscore is more a product of time and money spent than actual gaming ability.
Achievements aren’t just a ploy to encourage you to buy more games, however. They’re also there to discourage you from selling your game back to a retailer. Achievements give you a checklist of meaningless tasks to complete and insist that you aren’t finished with a game until you’ve checked off every single item. It may not always work, but it’s successful enough that they’ve become a mandatory edition to every 360 game – both for players and developers.
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). It demonstrates an insistence to users that you are playing by their rules, whether you like it or not. Even Clippit, the bloody MS Word Office Assistant, could be disabled.
And for developers, achievements are even more onerous. A studio must create, implement, test and confirm these achievements across multiple languages in order to get approval from Microsoft. It would be ludicrous to imagine a console manufacturer requiring that every game have scorekeeping functionality, but we’ve let this requirement that all games feature achievements slip past us. Sony’s “me too”-ism in requiring Trophies for all games submitted from 2009 onward hasn’t helped the situation. And with Steam and Games for Windows bringing the idea to the PC, it seems the concept may be here to stay.
There’s the seed of a good idea in achievements – comparing your progress in games against others is fun and, all cynicism aside, we should welcome anything that helps users get more value from their games. But in their present form, achievements only help to reinforce an image of games and gamers that we need to escape from – meaningless challenges for obsessive-compulsives, contests with no real reward and a constant testosterone-fuelled sense of competition.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and would give 1000 achievement points for pressing “start” at the title screen if he could.