Achievements and the like, are they a tool for padding out the gameplay best left in the days of yore, or are they a meaningful way of adding substance to a game, and a level of meta-gameplay to the affair?
While achievements and collectibles are older than we think, it seems the older games gave us things for playing through, whether they be cheats, behind the scenes files and footage, Easter eggs, unlockable costumes, or the rare screen that triumphantly declared that “YOU HAVE WON GAME!”
Now days, it seems all achievements are is, at best, a layer of meta-gameplay, and at worst, a cheap and antiquated way to keep players playing rather than giving the game rich, substantial additions for the money. Instead of playing through a game for its own sake, we chase ephemeral levels of prestige, catching medals for completing some absolutely mind-boggling objectives. Assassin’s Creed often comes to mind, with its insistence on stocking up on flags, feathers, treasure chests, and other childish side-quests. Ubisoft, your games are long enough, okay? How about you use that budget to stop ripping chunks out of your games and selling it as DLC?
In repitition so common it has lost anything which made it bold, we see terrible missions shoehorned into games to pad out the gameplay, giving gamers more of that elusive ‘game-time’, and putting in an achievement for that, too. There are games with some truly obsessive achievements wrapped through their warped code; Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry asks for players to total 15 minutes of playtime swimming.
In a game where the player is a ship captain.
Or how about following Michael in GTAV, eating dust for half an hour in the pursuit of nigh-worthless game money? How the hell is anyone supposed to take this medium seriously when games boast of their length to justify the dollars players fork out to buy them, when that gameplay amounts to skinner-box button-pushing, and brain dead busywork?
But do we blame the creators of these collectibles, or ourselves?
It’s the old media question: do people’s wants make the media, or does the media generate people/’s wants?
Before games had achievements, there were all sorts of collectibles: games like Mario, Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Abe’s Odyssey – among thousands – emphasised combing through levels to find every objective, or point that a player could. The fun was in collecting as much as a player could. Maybe it’s the hunter-gatherer in us that makes gamers like that element in their games.
But some games take it further, fulfilling these vestigial desires while simultaneously frustrating them, and by keeping our attention on their games, they stop the money going to the competition, and keep the money coming in with sequels, map-packs, and generally dull dlc. Games like Candy Crush are made to keep players playing so to preserve their mountainous money piles they’ve amassed from all the players who’ve sold their souls (metaphorically speaking) for the Faustian taste of temporary victory.
But it isn’t all bad.
Now, more than ever, we can see how continued gameplay can be seeded with hints and clues towards future titles, or just used to get players to explore otherwise unseen areas, and try divergent methods of gameplay. Who would change their playstyle if there weren’t achievements?
These devices can also be used to highlight the numbing nature of games, rewarding us for things of banal impotence, or giving us a ready injection of guilt when we realise we acted absolutely sadistically for something as unimportant as an achievement.
As a player, I can see the importance for these hunter-gatherer tasks; there’s a kind of single mindedness that comes to clearing a section of land in Assassin’s Creed of all its mini-missions, collectibles, and hidden items. It’s damn cool to get new weapons, sea-shanties, information, and what not. What isn’t cool is having this be the main method of filling an otherwise anaemic world.
It really comes to a head these days, where even the largest games have a vibrancy their forbearers lacked. Something like Red Dead, where achievement hunting often fell by the wayside in the face of gentle exploration takes the cake over Assassin Creed’s focus on thrusting its optional objectives through our eyes. I can only wonder, wouldn’t these resources be better spent on crafting more meaningful gameplay, richer story-based missions, and a tighter, more lively world – something which the games generally are not lacking for, but something which these annoying missions, chests and sidequests, often detract from.
Or maybe they’re the bread and butter for so many gamers out there, the gravy that goes over the meat of the game, a way to keep you in, keep players guessing as they run through virtual dreams and immerse themselves in digital artworks.
Yet for so many gamers, this bragging right so much more; it is part of their meta-game – the real world prestige, and the hunt for every unfound token and unfulfilled objective – a device, fulfilled in minigames and trophies, collectibles and hidden areas which may seem ancillary to gamers like us, but for those who love the chase, the thrill of the hunt, the satisfaction of completion: it is absolutely necessary.
As for me, I’ll just sit here quietly in the corner and play Lee Cavallaro’s putting challenge.