I don’t know where achievements started. I know they achieved mass popularity with the XBox 360 and its GamerScore system, which has become ingrained enough in the identity of that console that it is now impossible to release a game that doesn’t feature achievements through any channel besides the largely unregulated XBox Live Indie Games section. Certainly, the existence and usage of achievements has been the center of much controversy since their inception. Detractors decry them as cheapening the experience of video games, while supporters counter that players obviously get something from them since they have been such a successful (and lucrative) experiment.
I think, at this point, that it’s worth exploring exactly what players get from achievements. Before I do, though, I’d like to take a little bit of time to talk about the world before achievements.
So. Let’s take a look at Metroid. In this game, you explore a vast and strange alien world, and slowly gather new abilities which supplement your ability to explore this world. There’s a lot to say about this game and how it treats exploration, both spatial and otherwise, but in this case I’d like to talk about the ending. I don’t think I’m surprising anyone reading this (IT WAS HIS SLED) by telling you that at the end of Metroid, depending on how quickly you complete the game, you can see the protagonist of the game, Samus, in various states of undress. Leaving aside the possible salacious implications as well as the shock, at the time, of having the anonymous androgynous badass protagonist turn out to be a woman, I would like to call your attention to the qualification in the previous sentence: “depending on how quickly you complete the game.”
Of course, long before Metroid burst onto the scene and delivered this proto-achievement, we had something even closer to what achievements are now: The high score board. Oh yes, if you were the top Space Invaderer at your laundromat by god the world would know, your initials would be right there at the top. Or, just as likely, the best swear you could think to fit in the three-character space. You could proudly point to the screen and say “I did that.”
The salient point here, though, is that it feels good when games acknowledge what you’ve accomplished. The more they acknowledge you, the realer that world feels. If you walk into the women’s restroom, and your superior dresses you down for it later, it’s rewarding because it makes the world seem that much more concrete. Your actions have more relevance since they’re happening in a space where they have consequences, even if those consequences may be trivial.
One of the best games at this sort of acknowledgement I’ve played recently is Bastion. In Bastion, your every move is narrated by another character within the game world. It’s surprising how much he notices; not just dramatic actions like running or fighting or falling, but even commenting on your weapon selection and how well it works for the purpose you’ve set yourself to. He’ll even notice if you seem to have a favorite weapon, and comment that you’re going with your trusty rifle or machete.
It feels good.
My mother likes to say that all writing is fundamentally saying: ‘This is me. This is who I am.’* Which is true, but we say it in so many other ways than just writing. Every action we take is invested so much with bits of our personality, and just having someone else notice can be a powerful experience. Even if the person noticing doesn’t know they’ve noticed, even if they anticipated and programmed a response to the basic type of decision you made, it’s still powerful and affirming.
Art gives us a kind of artificial intimacy. We feel that we know and love our favorite artists, even though we’ve never met them, and maybe we do know them, because so much of great art is in really exposing yourself to your audience. You there, in the back, stop snickering, you know what I mean. But feeling like the artist knows us is… unusual. Is it an experience unique to the video game medium? Perhaps.
So it’s obvious why achievements are so popular. This kind of acknowledgement can be an incredibly powerful experience. But now, with this in mind, isn’t it also obvious what a clumsy solution they are? The practice of tying them to an arbitrary score seems particularly troubling; dismissing the intrinsic value of the game, and even the achievements of the game, in order to bulk up a score that has no actual meaning. When you hunt for achievements, the game itself becomes an incidental chore on the way to your true goal of collecting points in some joyless meta-game.
Achieving for the sake of achievements is poisonous to the game experience. However, what achievements are telling us about what games weren’t providing before may be extremely valuable. In fact, the addition of achievement systems may have pushed game designers to make better games, to anticipate more edge cases, to provide more joyful little easter eggs to uncover. And achievements may also have made us better gamers. They may have inspired us to play games in new ways, to delve deeper into their systems, to try new and unconventional approaches towards the goals that are set for us. The digital distribution platform Steam has, during its regular holiday sales, harnessed achievement systems in order to nudge people into trying games they might otherwise not have played. I had games languishing in my Steam library, untouched for years, when some stupid Christmas sale gave me that little push into trying them out. Some were amazing.Would any of this be possible if acknowledgement was limited to the game world itself?
I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about achievements. I certainly feel that they could be executed better. Unavoidable pop-ups can demean the game experience. Harsh achievement requirements for games that have little use for achievements are probably nothing but a headache for developers. People who come to the games for the purpose of achievements are also often predisposed to think of the game as a chore that must be endured, rather than a valuable experience in itself.
But it is nice, sometimes, to have other people know the things we love. We all have so much to share with each other.
*I wasn’t sure about this so I’ve contacted my mother to confirm. She says she doesn’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something she’d say. I’ve informed her that this is now something that she says.