Friday, June 19, 2009

Bridging the Gap: Achievements and Game Aesthetics

Chuck Norris is currently suing NBC, claiming Law and Order are trademarked names for his left and right legs. Sure, they can interrupt immersion or drive OCD completionists to insomnia but, like it or not, Achievements are here to stay. 

In an April issue of The Escapist, Destructoid’s Anthony Burch argued for more achievements “that are creative, attainable without much repetition and intrinsically gratifying.”  To paraphrase, the best Achievements often encourage you to approach a game unconventionally, coaxing you into exploring mechanics or areas you might have otherwise neglected.  Unfortunately, this is easier said than done; Achievements regularly require repetitive tactics and boring exploration.  But there is hope, and it comes not from simply choosing better off-beat goals for the players.

Achievements can serve as a framing device for the type of experience the developers intend their game to provide.  Is it a tongue-in-cheek title?  Is it a “serious” experience?  By injecting their Achievement lists with a little personality and/or wit, developers can expand the boundaries of their game world to include that familiar Bloop! noise as well as the requisite “What’d I just unlock?” trip to the dashboard.  I’d like to look at some Achievement implementations that not only provide extra fun for the player but support and enhance their game’s aesthetic.

Braid’s austere achievement list reinforces how Jonathon Blow wants gamers to approach his title.  He wants your full commitment; he doesn’t want you worrying about your gamerscore or your friend Exploring the Wasteland in Fallout 3.  It’s no surprise then that (Speed Run being the only exception) all of Braid’s achievements relate directly to your progress through the game.  Blow wants you to discover how to play the game whilst doing so – so much so that the “Controls” section of the Pause menu makes no mention of the game’s time-bending mechanics.  This makes sense, of course, since each world possesses its own unique time-space rules whose discovery by the player ties in to the game’s thematic concerns – to disclose them in a Pause menu would be, in effect, to spoil the game.  Check out his Official Walkthrough and tell me he doesn’t place immense value on your beating this game on your own terms.  To include more descriptive Achievements would tip Blow’s hand and compromise his vision.

Valve, on the other hand, has no problem fleshing out its Achievement lists.  The Orange Box alone sports a whopping 99 Achievements, which range from the standard “Complete X section of the game” to the tongue-in-cheek Zombie-que (use flares to light 15 Half-Life zombies on fire).  Valve’s success stories all demonstrate this penchant for humor, which has crept into their Achievement lists.  Even the straight-faced Half-Life games get in on the fun with HotPotat0wned and the aforementioned Zombie-que awards.  Then there’s Left 4 Dead.  Look at the names:  Towering Inferno, Zombie Genocidistl4D’s Achievements channel the same campy B-movie vibe that pervades the game.

But Valve’s Achievements offer more than humor.  They highlight intrinsic elements of each title’s gameplay.  L4D, a Game of the Year title lauded for its New Millennium take on Gauntlet’s teamwork formula, doles out Achievements for healing or otherwise assisting your teammates.  Team Fortress 2 encourages you to delve into each class with its Head of the Class achievement, as well as rewards you for playing a match with at least seven of your Live friends.  These aren’t Easter Eggs by any means.  But they are indicative of what the developers value about their game – be it teamwork, diversity, etc.

It’s the implementation of Achievements in Mass Effect that impresses me the most.  There’s little irony to be found in the Achievement list.  All of the lingo supports the game’s sci-fi (not SyFy) military vibe.  Many of the plot-related achievements are called Badges or Medals, making you feel like a decorated veteran even when scrolling through your accomplishments in the Xbox HUD.  Also, BioWare poured considerable resources into fleshing out the Mass Effect universe.  To encourage you to come back for more, a good number of the Achievements were made unattainable in only one play-through.  Because Shepard’s skills are specialized, it’s simply impossible to rack up all of the weapon or skill Achievements the first time through (I found myself wielding an untrained assault rifle in hopes of getting Assault Rifle Expert – couldn’t rack up enough kills).  Upon completing the game, I instantly felt the pull to start all over again.  Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many of  Mass Effect’s achievements give you in-game bonuses.  Amassing one million credits not only awards you the Rich Achievement, it grants you access to special weapons and equipment.  BioWare’s integration of gamerscore, aesthetic, and gameplay stands above the rest as an example of superior Achievement design.

Achievements aren’t unique to Xbox Live, though they’ve become representative of the brand in the console wars.  Steam Achievements and PS3 trophies follow the same model, and Blizzard implemented World of Warcraft Achievements last year (they obviously believe that it’s possible for people to get more addicted to something).  For better or worse, they’ve become a mandatory part of game design (thanks to Microsoft’s decree).  More developers should look at Achievements as a form of expression, a post-modern means to expand upon the themes and aesthetic of their titles.  Otherwise, our Gamerscores will remain soulless measures of time spent with controllers in our hands.