Have Video Game Achievements Lost Their Purpose?

Achievements, or trophies as we know them can be traced back to 1983 when Activision released their Dragsters racing game. These accomplishments looked completely different from what we know now, they were actual physical achievements that came in the form of patches. Challenges were printed on the back of the game manual and required extensive work for completion, players had to accomplish said challenges, take a picture of the TV screen, send them to Activision, and once confirmed they would send you a physical patch - as a badge of honor.

Proposed challenges were complex, and while challenging at times, they were less overwhelming and anxiety-inducing than what we have now. The basic premise of displaying your accomplishments would carry over to current-gen gaming, but social integration features and new ways to display your gaming prowess were added with technology’s advancement.

We will use the term Achievements to encompass Xbox Achievements, Playstation Trophies, Steam Achievement, or any similar format. Nonetheless, achievements, as we know them, would not become an industry staple, and something constantly expected until Microsoft ushered the concept on their wildly successful Xbox 360 console, with the Gamerscore in 2003. This new system would serve as a base for subsequent models, and created a fun way for players to engage and explore console or steam games.

It seems insane to imagine a world where the gaming community doesn’t know about achievements, particularly the younger demographic - yes, I am aware saying eighteen-year-olds are “young” denounce my age, however, gaming dinosaurs such as myself will easily remember an achievement-less world. Anyone who grew up playing Super Nintendo, SEGA, Nintendo 64, Playstation 1 & 2, will remember that experience, and the carefree sensation of exploring a world without the looming presence of guided gameplay (i.e Achievements).

Of course, the anxiety-inducing process of playing a game in search of achievements isn’t something shared by every gamer out there, but with anxiety disorders being the most common mental illness in the world it’s fair to assume a good part of the community probably shares my feelings. From obsessing over incomplete games sitting at 97% completion, to not even starting a game I know I can’t collect all achievements, to running my gaming experiences with guides filled with spoilers as to not miss any achievements, I can easily state this system has brought me more anxiety than joy in the last couple of years.

I have recently reminisced on my gaming experiences as a very young gamer in addition to my first experiences with achievements, and I can genuinely state that, while my anxiety plays a big part in my critic, I believe achievements have detached from their purpose. Achievements were used to direct players into exploring games in different manners while offering interesting challenges.

Nowadays achievement lists feel forced, uncreative, and bloated. Albeit similarities can be found in early adopters of the system and current-gen games, older achievements made sure they were relevant to the game. Games became such huge endeavors, and forcefully expected to provide hundreds of hours of fun, that some achievements are put in place simply to force players to be there - no fun, no relevance, no creativity, just mindless grinding.

One clear example is Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Good Catch achievement, which forces players to fish every available species of fish in the game with a rod. Honestly, how is this aligned with the game’s theme? How does this direct the player in new directions? How does it encourage players to alter their gameplay style? In a game with over one hundred hours of content, pillaging, invasions, war, betrayal, Gods, Norse Folklore, and Viking Culture, you are encouraged to fish. While this is one example among many, I believe my point is clear.

The matter became so popular that other articles and studies looked into achievements and the best ways to develop them. For instance, achievements can be segmented in: Measured vs Completion, Boring vs Interest, Expected vs Unexpected, Goal Orientation, Difficulty Achievements, and Negative Achievements. This should help in creating better achievements, but it hasn’t.

Developers and publishers have become less creative, more repetitive, and more inclined to transform titles into a mindless, incoherent, senseless, and pointless grind. The industry has created its share of unique and creative achievements such as rewarding failure, not playing a game for five years, paying tribute to Stan Lee, and other activities that stray away from the classic achievements.

There are gamers and completionists who enjoy the thrill of the hunt, but a quick tour into Reddit or the internet will show that even they find some achievements mind-numbingly boring. The question that remains is how do we use achievements in an intelligent manner. For starters, we can stop bloating games with achievements that strive so far from the main features and mechanics that we have to question whether we are still playing the same game.

Companies like Insomniac Games, understand that completing a game shouldn’t overshadow the actual enjoyment of the title. This stems from the fact that their achievements are aligned with the type of game they design, granted we shouldn’t ban strenuous achievements or complex ones, but we should add a “Run One-Hundred Thousand Miles in One Session” to Insomniac’s Spider-Man. Companies should shorten their achievement list if they are not authentic, just look at FIFA’s achievements they are always the same, why not draw inspiration from real matches, and season results to create unique challenges and achievements instead of putting their loyal fan base through the same (or nearly) trials every year.

Finally, achievements should push the boundaries of a game and complement the proposed vision from developers. A recent example is the Where The Water Tastes Like Wine self-titled achievement which is a controversial one, but it complements the story-telling of the title, which tells stories from the American folklore and pursuit of the “American Dream”. The achievement is purposefully unattainable to reflect the unfulfilled promises of the “American Dream”, this type of meta-achievement is creative and pushes the boundaries of the game’s vision.

Not every game is able to do this, but the industry needs to pursue more creative approaches towards achievement development. Achievements can do a great job in helping players explore, problem solve, and completely exhaust every possibility in the game. A list of achievements shouldn’t artificially inflate a title, creating unnecessary grinds and holding players hostage to senseless quests. An achievement list should direct players into experiencing the deliberate design choices developers made, expand a game’s story-telling, complement the narrative, and teach mechanics while encouraging creativity and exploration.
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