I feel like I should tell you all something. It’s been a secret I’ve been hiding for the longest time, fearing that it would ruin my integrity as a start-up games journalist. But I feel like after all this time, I can finally say with confidence: I seriously don’t get achievements. I know, I know, you’re all ashamed of me. But if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me for this crime of crimes, I think we can all move on and become better people for it; myself as a writer and you as my single adoring fan.

Good on you, Steve!

But seriously, I know that’s not exactly a “stop the presses” statement to make. I mean I totally understand why they’re in games. They extend the playtime of a game and give the player something extra to do without having to add in additional content. But I guess I just don’t get why they’re such a big deal to some people. I see people doing Gamerscore races, in which two or more people trying to hit a certain Gamerscore and I just think of how annoying that would get. Even YouTube channels like Achievement Hunter and The Completionist, both of which I love to watch, confuse me with just how much effort and how much enthusiasm they put into unlocking every achievement in a game. I guess I can see the appeal in seeing the achievements/trophies list filled out completely, but when applying it to my own style of gameplay it just feels like it turns games I enjoy into work for a gold star.

But just because I feel that way about them doesn’t mean I can’t talk about them for you guys. And I suppose this thought is shared somewhat by this week’s question from one of our readers who asked us “Why do games contain easy achievements such as ones that are given to the player for doing the story?”

When it comes to achievement systems in modern games, no matter if they’re found on Steam, Playstation, Xbox or Google Play, a game’s achievements can be split into three different types: The Unavoidable, The Optional and The Inspiring.

The Unavoidable achievements are the ones we’re looking at today. These are the kinds of achievements that the player is given for basically playing the game as it’s meant to be played. Just reached a certain part of the story? You got an achievement! Pressed the start button? Hey, you got an achievement. Did you just die for the first time in Bloodborne? Welcome to hell, and “Bleep Bloop”, look at that achievement!

dark souls
Yup, totally doesn’t rub it in…

Optional achievements are basically what they say on the tin, involving completely optional tasks for the player to complete. At their most basic, these are given to the player for completing a game’s side-quests. But they can also be given for doing things like finding hidden items like the Riddler Trophies in the Batman: Arkham series, reaching maximum companionship with a NPC character in Fallout 4, or, using an example from last week’s reviewed game, unlocking all of the story endings in Stories: The Path of Destinies. They can, at times, be just as arbitrary as Unavoidable achievements, but the important factor is that they can be completely ignored if the player wishes to ignore them entirely. They are there for people who love the game and can have an excuse to spend a little more time with it.

And finally, you have the Inspiring type of achievements. These are achievements that essentially offer an alternative way to play the game than its designers didn’t want to make the main focus of the gameplay. The most common example of this type of achievement are ones that involve doing no-kill, pacifist runs of games. These include the Pacifist achievement found in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, given to the player for not killing any enemies besides bosses, and the Peace Walker achievement given in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater HD, given to the player for the impressive feat of not killing any enemies, including bosses. But other interesting examples include the Unchanging Armor achievement found in the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, which is given to players for finishing the game without changing your starting equipment unless the game forces you to.

The battle-wear of a true bad-ass

You’re probably wondering why you’re being given a quick three-paragraph lecture on achievement types at this point, but there’s good reason for why I wanted to explain them. That’s because that unlike Optional and Inspirational achievements, at least for the most part in the case of Optional ones, Unavoidable achievements exist as the result of lazy design. Hell, it’s so lazy that any modern game trying to make fun of achievements like this uses the concept as a lazy joke for a few quick chuckles.

And I think the reason they still exist in just about every game these days is because it’s been beaten into achievement design for over a decade now, to the point that game designers consider them as a standard without realising the negative implications of doing so at fairly regular intervals. What negative implications are these? At its simplest, achievements like these are the participation awards of video gaming. They’re arbitrary, meaningless and give the player and empty sense of accomplishment, despite the fact they’re found in a medium that generally thrives on inherently rewarding experiences.

In a more complicated sense, achievements like these work very similarly to the Skinner Box style of meritless reward systems. They are there to give the player an illusion of engagement in order to extend their playtime past the point they would rationally stop playing, simply being led further through the game by a sense of compulsion that will eventually wear thin. But compulsion and engagement are wildly different from each other.

It’s a like a teacher giving chocolates to students for turning up to a class. At first it can feel like a reward to the students that show up, but if the class isn’t engaging enough for students to attend in the first place, then eventually the only reason students turn up is to get the chocolate. A game should be able to stand on its own merits to keep the player engaged, not give them empty incentives to keep playing.

The only real value I can think of that these kind of achievements bring to games is giving people who care about Gamerscore an easy and quick boost for just playing the game how it was meant to be played, and letting a player’s online friends know what games they’re currently playing. But this can just as easily be done with Optional and Inspirational type achievements, not to mention in a much more engaging way.

When they aren’t lazily designed, Optional achievements can create unique questing experiences for the player without the developer having to create more content for the game. A good example of this can be seen in the Zombie Chopper achievement found in Half Life 2, in which the player can only use the Gravity Gun to complete a specific level. As a result, this offers the player a chance to not only get a grasp on the various ways the weapon can be used in combat, but it also can become a tense, challenging but rewarding experience as the player takes on enemies while searching for and using unconventional items as weapons. Even Inspirational achievements make the player reconsider how they play the game and also re-evaluate how important certain game mechanics really are to the experience of the game once they are, more often than not, removed from the game completely in order to unlock the achievement.

While these better alternatives to the easy implementation of Unavoidable achievements are appearing more predominately, there are still a lot of games that use them as an empty rewards system, whether they mean to or not. But as long as more and more gamers recognise them for what they are, then perhaps they’ll soon be cut down to a good minimum. After all, who needs a dumb chocolate for showing up when you can enjoy what you came for in the first place?


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