Achievements are meant to be … achieved

In which a lifelong gamer decries the non-achievey nature of new games’ achievements and asks them to get off his lawn

In gaming land, a relatively recent development has been that of in-game Achievements: specific feats that, while unnecessary for game progress, can nonetheless enhance your experience by unlocking bonus levels or special equipment, earning you extra points or simply awarding you a badge and bragging rights. Once a rarity, achievements are now common in most genres including sports, fighting, shooting, simulators, RPGs and everything in between (like “hentai tentacle zombie survival horror dating simulators – yes, only available in Japan. You had to ask?). An achievement can be anything from “kill two baddies with one bullet”, “collect all nine million dropped contact lenses”, “win the cup final with score of more than ten goals” to “finish a chapter using only zombie intestines harvested with a rusted chainsaw as tentacle prophylactics”.

“Unlocking” achievements is a side-quest of sorts (to appropriate RPG terminology); a way to extend a game’s longevity and player engagement by encouraging the replay of certain parts (or the whole game) and deeper exploration of levels in order to find artifacts or kill people in new and interesting ways (or simply to get tooled up like Ripley and hunt down and smash into revenge-paste any enemy that was particularly irritating the first time around). When seeking achievements a gamer has to purposely play a game with a focus other than mere survival/completion of the primary story and often has to put their character at increased risk to do so – for example, Left 4 Dead’s “A Confederacy Of Crunches” achievement requires the player to smash or hack their way through hordes of hundreds of zombies (okay, “infected” – but you know they’re freaking zombies) using only whatever melee weapons are lying around, instead of firing a single shot.

RPG players are used to such things; few and far between are the RPGs which offer only one storyline and one path to completion; in fact, many RPGs (and their cousins, “sandbox” games like Grand Theft Auto) are literally endless, offering vast worlds to explore at your own pace, even if you complete every available primary mission and side quest (plus, as any RPG player will tell you, levelling up is its own reward).

Lately, though, an increasing number of games of all genres include lists of achievements to unlock during gameplay (popular social game hubs like XBox Live and Steam offer their own as well, adding a social dimension to badge-hunting). This is not a bad thing: many a time I’ve wanted to replay a game I’ve had a great time with but had little motivation to go back and replay the entire thing, or even bits of it. Achievements are in general a great addition to the world of gaming and offer many games an extended lifespan (which I’ve taken advantage of more than once – in fact, the new indie hit Mark of The Ninja has me obsessed like never before with achieving 100% Achievement achievement). So, what’s the problem?

Call of Duty. It’s not the worst or only perpetrator, either in the FPS genre or in general, but the most recent CoD (Modern Warfare 3) highlighted the trouble with achievements in a way I’d not particularly noticed before. Don’t get me wrong: CoD’s gameplay is great (infinite streams of AI forcing you into checkpoint bottlenecks notwithstanding), and CoD’s graphics, sound, production and even acting and storylines are the equal if not the better of many equivalent gung-ho Hollywood shooter films (having played every single one more than once bar Black Ops II, I should know). But the achievements? Well, many are devaluing the experience. Worthless. Not even achievements. Not worth having. A condescending exercise in hand-holding.

What do I mean?  Well, “Finish The Tutorial!” isn’t an achievement – particularly if the game makes you play the tutorial before you can start the game itself. “Choose A Different Weapon!” isn’t an achievement either; it’s what you fracking well do in FPS games (often accidentally, flicking the mouse-wheel when you’re actually reaching to right-click for a down-the-sight shot). Ditto “Kill A Badguy!” or “Throw A Grenade Through A Window!”

Now I’ll tell you why this is a problem: I don’t want to be rewarded for doing something that I need to do to complete a level, or for utilising a skill that’s vital to playing it in the first place.

Obviously, not every achievement in Cod-Mow 3 is like the above representative lampoons, but it does kind of grate to be awarded a badge just for completing a chapter – that’s not an achievement, it’s what you’re meant to do. I want my achievements to be actual achievements; I want my rewards to be for extra effort or great skill (or, more often, ridiculous luck) within the game. Whether it’s extra content like a bonus level, a new badge for my profile or just a sailor-girl costume for my character, I want to feel like I earned it, much as a conspicuously valourous soldier is rewarded with a Victoria Cross. Now, you might feel compelled to mention that, in real wars, people actually are awarded medals simply for serving in particular campaigns – just for finishing the level, if you like – without going above and beyond the call of … *sigh* …. duty. However, the analogy rather easily crumbles when you point out a single obvious difference between CoD and real wars: it is in fact a very real achievement to get through a real military campaign intact and those who do so should be rewarded and recognised (even though many would likely consider still being alive sufficient reward). Also, noone gets a medal at boot camp just for waking up when that noisy bastard next door starts up with the damn trumpet again.

TL;DR? What I’m saying is this: don’t pat me on the head and say “Good job, son!” when all I’ve done is “Choose A Username Without COCK In It!”

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