Achievements are a huge part of video game culture. Almost everyone who owns a console or Steam has earned at least one, and many gamers stake their gaming reputation on how many achievements they’ve gotten or how hard the ones they’ve completed are to get. There are multiple websites and videos designed to help gamers complete their achievement list for the games they’re trying to complete, and there’s even an entire YouTube channel called The Completionist geared around, among a few other things, collecting every achievement in whatever game they’re covering that week. There’s no question that achievements help give gamers a goal to work forwards when playing games, especially for open-ended games or match-based games where there might not be that much drive to continue playing the game without them. However, are achievements really helpful to gamers, or do they merely distract players from the important parts of gaming?
Oftentimes, focusing just on achievements might make players focus purely on gaming skill and distract them from other elements of a game, like story, teamwork or even simple enjoyment. A good example of this can be found in a game we played earlier in the semester, Braid. Pictured below is a partial list of Steam achievements that can be earned for Braid.
Now, Braid isn’t too bad about super-hard achievement that lead to artificial replayability through retrying certain segments of the game over and over. And, except for the Speed Run achievement trying to hide at the very end of the list, all of these are achievements you would naturally get through playing the game. However, having these achievements there impacts the message of the game, and not in a good way. Braid is a game where the journey is just as, if not more important than, the destination. You only learn the main character’s story by experiencing his ruminations, which are shown in the very mechanics of the game-reversing time over and over again, poring over the same scene or “level” until a neat answer can be found. Having these achievements here shift the focus back on the completion of the levels instead of their contents. If someone played this game just for the achievements list (something that, sadly, does happen sometimes), they would be unable to truly grasp what the game was trying to say.
I think this same problem exists for a lot of more story-driven or artistically-focused games today. While this achievement system works perfectly for FPS games or games that are focused simply on gameplay, it can distract players from really thinking about what other games are trying to say. I’m not totally against the achievement system, but I think it’s so widespread (an achievement list is required for any game released on the Xbox) that it can cause real problems for games that, at their hearts, are not about achieving a goal. But who knows? Maybe I’m just upset that I don’t have hardly any of the achievements for Braid.