So Here’s The Thing: The Case Against Achievements

by taylorcocke

This isn’t about my admittedly lacking Gamerscore. Nor is it about my miniscule amount of Trophies. This isn’t even about the fact that a buddy of mine caught up to me in under a year, while I have had a 360 since launch day. I’ve just been finding myself more and more against the idea of Achievements.

No, no. I don’t mean I’m against all Achievements. They serve their place. I mean, I just spent about 3 hours attempting to get 30 Gamerscore in Geometry Wars 2. And I thought those Achievements were great.

What I have problems with are Achievements in story-based games. Take this as a disclaimer: I’m pretty much only talking about story-driven titles. Arcade games, multiplayer games, and sandbox games need not apply.

As many people did, I played Alan Wake recently and adored it. I thought the storytelling was incredible, the atmosphere was… atmospheric, and the gameplay was non-intrusive (that’s a compliment right?). But there was something that deeply bothered me: The collectibles. Yes, yes, I know. I grew up in a gaming environment in which everything is a collectible. Banjo-Kazooie is in my top 5 favorite games of all time list, for fuck’s sake. But I played those games specifically for the collectibles. Alan Wake, not so much.

Yet, I grabbed every single Thermos-brand coffee container I could find (hooray capitalism!), read every sign in town, shot every stack of cans, and opened up all of the hidden chests. Why? All so I could hear that satisfying TPOK! when I finally got all of them. Sure, some could argue that these little incentives force the player to explore the game fully and thoroughly, but I disagree. For me, Alan Wake wasn’t about exploration. It was about an enormously well told story with great atmosphere and solid voice acting concluding in one of the better game experiences that I’ve ever had. I didn’t want to have to think, “Oh man, I need to go around every nook and cranny to find all of the stuff or I’ll have to go back and play it again”. I wanted to think, “I am loving this story and experience! I can’t wait to play it again!”

This is indicative of a larger problem. Achievements have become the new high score. In a medium that has progressed far beyond the days of three-letter names (mine was always ASS, very mature) at the tops of  16-bit leaderboards, we’ve simply accepted that we need some sort of new way to measure our skill in games. And it’s detrimental to our experiences.

Let me explain. I’m by no means on the Roger Ebert train of “a lack of authorial control makes it less art durfdurfdurf”, but I do believe that taking art as a competitive thing is detrimental. I’d rather explore new worlds, meet new characters, and be told a new and interesting story without having to worry about finding every last trinket. Storytelling shouldn’t be about getting your audience to explore every mundane detail about your chosen piece in a vain search for something that, in the long run, has no importance to the story.

As another example, let’s look at BioShock. Well, actually, let’s look at its sequel. The Savior Achievement asks you to save every Little Sister in the game. This changes BioShock 2 in exactly the same way that the Fallout 3 morality Achievements do; it forces you to play a certain way. The most powerful experiences in media are attained when the audience is allowed to receive the media in the way they choose. Even if the player chooses to ignore the Achievement, it can’t be said that they are being allowed to go about it in an unbiased manner. By implicitly stating that saving the little sisters is the proper way to play the game, the ability of the player to interpret the game on their own is at best inhibited and at worst destroyed.

Now, I’m not saying we should get rid of the Achievement system as a whole. What I am saying is that they should be re-focused by the writers and development teams of the world to supplement the stories and experiences that they are trying to get across, rather than diluting them.

But man, I wish I hadn’t missed so many of those Thermoses. I need that Gamerscore.