Let Me Show You Where to Stick Your Trophy

I used to be fairly positive about achievements and trophies. I saw a lot of great possibilities for them, because I saw how people like Valve were using them. Some of my best Team Fortress 2 memories are of those moments when I would do something I couldn’t believe, and then achievements would start falling into my lap.

But it has all gone to hell. The entire concept has been diluted into complete meaninglessness, as developers pile pointless trophies into every game that are not so much achievements as inevitabilities. As I played through Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune last week, I received “trophies” for getting 10 headshots, or for killing 50 enemies with my pistol, and so on. It’s like Naughty Dog were surprised they made a shooter.

“Whoa, look at that! He just killed a bunch of people with that machine gun. Dude has mad skills.”

It happened in the middle of a tense firefight in a church. I was running out of ammo, snipers were drawing a bead on my position, grenades were falling like hail, and I was desperately diving from cover to cover, killing as quickly as I could. I was completely into the moment, hanging on the edge of my seat as Drake slid his last clip into the M4 carbine. Then, just as I killed a sniper and a stream of gunfire doused my position, a window popped into the screen congratulating me on my 50th kill with the M4. The tension that had been building since the encounter began was broken by the intrusion. The reward that mattered was the thrill of riding out this desperate firefight. But the game forced a lesser prize into my hands, and took away the real one.

Worse by far, however, is the narrative mutilation that achievements perform on games. No plot point, no crucial character development escapes its requisite asinine and self-consciously clever achievement. The work of the writers, animators, and artists who create important moments is crippled by the attitude that unless it comes with an achievement, it doesn’t matter.

A few weeks ago I was playing through Grand Theft Auto IV on PC, and the end of the first act is marked by the destruction of everything Niko and his cousin have accomplished since arriving in America. The Russian mob has turned against Niko, his apartment and his cousin’s taxi service have been firebombed, and now Niko and Roman must flee Broker and go into hiding in Bohan.

It’s a great sequence. The player and Niko realize that they’ve been betrayed and have made their worst enemy a very powerful man, and now Niko and Roman race around Broker trying to salvage the pieces of their lives. But it is too late, and Roman begins wailing as he watches first his apartment and then his hard-won taxi garage burning to the ground. The pair race out of Broker with nothing but their lives, and Roman is yelling at Niko for ruining everything and lamenting the lost status and possessions he worked years to acquire. Niko tries to defend himself, but is also clearly racked by guilt over his colossal fuck-up. When you finally get to the safe-house in Bohan, Niko can’t even stay in the apartment. He walks back onto the street for some much-needed air and privacy. Outside, a street-preacher’s sermon is in full swing, telling you that you’re mired in so much sin that you’re already in hell.

I watched him from across the street as he stared back, and oblivious pedestrians brush past both of us. It was a crowning moment after a powerful bit of storytelling. Several hours into the game, Niko had only managed to ruin things for himself and his best friend.

Then a message box appeared on the screen: “Achievement Unlocked! – Lowest Point.” And that was the end of that.

Or how about this punishing moment from Heavy Rain, when the Origami Killer forces Ethan to amputate a finger in order to get another clue about where his son is being kept? It’s an unbelievable sequence. A prerecorded message gives you five minutes to chop off your finger in front of a camera. You go around a fire-damaged apartment, finding useful things like a knife, a cleaver, and some alcohol. Then, once you’ve set the place, you take a few shots of liquor, chop off a finger, and then pour alcohol over the wound. Ethan is screaming and crying from pain. I felt sick.

A few seconds later we get a loading screen, and the game announces that we’d won the “Goldfinger” trophy. Haha, how clever! Because, you see, we just chopped off a finger. Actually, I don’t even know what the fuck “Goldfinger” has to do with what just happened, but at least we can all agree that we really accomplished something here. We got a trophy!

Most games have trouble sustaining my interest in the plot and my emotional involvement with the characters. When a game manages the trick of pulling me into the gameworld, of making the room and the controls disappear, it has managed one of the most difficult and important tasks in telling a story within a game. That’s the achievement. That’s what creates the possibility that a game might actually mean something to you long after you’ve stopped playing.

Trophies and achievements destroy that. They piss on the narrative importance of anything you’ve seen or done, and they increasingly mock the concept of skilled play. They break in at every turn, rushing to reassure you that you’re doing well, that you’re not wasting your time, and that what you’re doing actually means something. And they only succeed in making it seem meaningless.

    • Spades
    • June 15th, 2010 3:03pm

    The reason why achievements are so easy to earn nowadays is because games themselves are becoming easier. Back in 2005 when the 360 first came out achievements had to actually be earned! I remember having a go at CoD2 on Veteran difficulty and at first I actually enjoyed it. In the early levels of the game I could no longer run and gun all over the place (like I had often done in easier difficulties) I had to slowly move up, using cover and smoke grenades along with timing my excursions from cover to cover. Since I was already used to shooters such as OFP:CWC or BiA the early levels of CoD2 didn’t give me too much trouble.

    However I reached two missions that I hate with all my heart when I play them on Veteran. One mission was in the Russian campaign and the other in the American campaign. The Russian mission had me taking out tanks and at first I thought that I would breeze through that level like I had with the others. Oh Lord was I wrong! About 2 hours later I was stuck at a very grueling part in the mission. Me and my Russian squad of faceless Soviets with generic accents had to take a building that was heavily guarded by Germans. Unfortunately this is CoD so that meant EVERYTHING was scripted so my squad leader never bothered with leading an assault. The player had to pass a magical tripwire that trigged him into action. So I had to basically assault the building all on my own while getting shot at just to start this scripted sequence. I died about 12 times just attempting this and even then I still had to take out the remaining tanks in the area. I eventually completed that mission after 4 hours! I managed to get an achievement after FINALLY completeting that mission. The American mission was pretty much the same except my attempts of completeing it on Veteran were thwarted by grenade spam and VERY accurate Germans that only shot at me. My point is that achievements are both good and bad. Earning that achievement in CoD2 made me think that it was really worth all the the effort. That is the good part.

    The bad part is when you get achievements for stupid things such as in BiA:HH when i got an achievement for just picking up an MG42. Hell’s Highway in general was very achievement happy. It handed out the damn things like they were candy and when it comes down to that the player generally doesn’t care when they get one. It especially doesn’t help when getting said achievement seems like a daunting task but it turns out that it was piss easy. For instance after beating GTA IV I was actually intimidated by the amount of side missions I could complete. It turns out that the only remotely challenging one was car thefts that I had to complete via text message. the other side missions I breezed past in a matter of hours and within those hours I got about 6 or so achievements. I think that games in general (whether it be trophies or achievements) ahould make the player work for those awards. They shouldn’t over work you (like CoD2) but they shouldn’t hand them out to you like cookies (like BiA:HH or GTA IV). there needs to be a balance. BTW, Niko and Roman are cousins not brothers. (lol plotfail) :)

    [Edited to add paragraph breaks - Rob]

    • I went through really similar stuff with Veteran difficulty in the first Call of Duty, and the “magical tripwire” approach to scripting is one of the things that really turns me off about that series. But reading your experience, and thinking back to my own, I really have to wonder if an achievement really makes it worth it. When I think about the German super-soldiers who could toss a grenade at your feet no matter where you were hiding, or who always had a bead on your head the moment you stepped out of cover, I think that is total bullshit in a shooter. And I didn’t enjoy any of the big battles on Veteran, because it was just non-stop dying and reloading. I basically memorized the levels, the scripting, and the locations of enemies. Then I could beat it.

      But is that actually fun? Does getting an achievement retroactively make it worth it? I used to take more pride in beating games on the highest difficulty, but now I’m not so sure. I can say I did it and feel like a hardcore gamer, but what if I didn’t really enjoy the journey? But really, I guess that’s more a discussion about “challenge” versus “difficulty” than it is about achievements.

      I don’t remember most of the achievements in Hell’s Highway but I do remember those stupid “Kilroys” that you’d find tucked around levels. Another thing that pulled me out of the game a lot (in addition to the unnecessary “cover system”).

        • Spades
        • June 16th, 2010 4:21pm

        Well after the many hours I spent on that level I felt that it was worth it. It frustrated the hell out of me and Veteran difficulty is way too overwhelming but in the end it was worth it. Veteran difficulty in general had potential to make the game better but Infinity Ward simply made the enemy A.I. more accurate and grenade happy. CoD always had shit A.I. though so I can’t expect much. As for Hell’s Highway, of course you wouldn’t remember all of the achievements. You got the damn things every three seconds so they really didn’t matter. After completing the game I was suprised that there wasn’t an achievement for shooting a gun….wait actually there was….my God. To be honest achievements should be earned because of the difficulty. When I replayed Hell’s Highway on Authentic difficulty, halfway through the game I just stopped and wondered “Why? Why am I wasting my time? I can already get all of the singleplayer achievements on the easiest difficulty. Besides I don’t get any achievements for beating this game on Authentic anyway”. With CoD2, even though Veteran was as controller breaking as playing a racing game with your eyes closed, at least I had some insentive to complete the game on the highest difficulty.

        • For my money, no achievement on earth could have made Hell’s Highway worth it on authentic, because authentic was completely broken. Clearly, nobody had thought it through. In authentic you can only aim with iron sights, right? Except the game forces you to use cover all the time, which kicks you out to a third-person camera. When you aim from cover, you get a slightly offset, zoomed-in third person view. So basically, unless you know exactly where the cross-hairs would be on your monitor, you can’t aim from cover where you spend 85% of combat. Even though Baker is clearly using iron-sights.

            • Spades
            • June 16th, 2010 11:56pm

            Playing through the game on Authentic was a crappy experience in general. In the early levels (in my opinion) were excellent on Authentic! Sure there were some really shite bits here and there but over all things were good. Then you got to “that level”. You know the one I’m talking about. The level that is so difficult you want smash someone’s face in and ruins the momentum of the game all because of that one level. Hell’s Highway had its own “that level” or in this case two “that levels”. Rememeber that level when Baker ends up at that stream outside of the hospital and is only armed with a pistol? Playing that on ANY difficulty was horrid, so playing it on Authentic was just murder (for that level in particular you needed a crosshair because of the camping Germans). Thankfully I never attempted it, especially since that hospital level was already giving me trouble on Veteran difficulty. Then there was that level at the train station where you are faced with a squad of tanks and have to destroy every single one that comes your way. The only way to destroy them all is to run up to them and place satchel charges on them, while getting shot at by Waffen SS or Panzergrenadier troops (I’m not entirely sure). I hated those two levels soooooo much. Completing that level on Authentic was impossible. Destroying those tanks was one of those “you’re fucked either way” tasks that CoD often has. If you try running up to the tanks to plant the satchel charges you get shot at with their machine guns and AP rounds (which is stupid, what kind of professional tank crew especially a Waffen SS or Panzergrenadier tank crew wastes their AP rounds on infantry?!). If your not getting shot at by the tank machine gunners then you’ll probably be getting the shit shot out of you by those Germans (who seem to respawn in droves as SOON as you take out a tank or two). In short those two levels are shit, plain and simple.

    • Rez
    • June 15th, 2010 9:19pm

    My pet peeve is getting achievements for doing things I would have done anyway, like passing level 1, or beating boss 1. Worse still is when you can look at the list of achievements before playing and in it you find “Beat Boss 1: The Bad Guy” and “Beat Boss 3: Your Friend who Betrays You”. What is the point of a story when all the big plot points are laid bare in the achievement titles or descriptions?

    • Yeah, that’s terrible. Especially now that achievements are part of marketing, and a bunch of gaming sites will run “news” detailing what achievements a game will have. But it just goes to show how achievements are completely at-odds with story.

    • Ruberton
    • June 16th, 2010 3:17am

    Sure, there are dumb achievements/trophies out there, but I’m not sure I agree that they wreck the moment. In Heavy Rain, for instance, they always (for me, anyway) ding on the load screens, so it’s not as though I’m wired to the moment anyway. I actually thought they added to the experience since they either tipped me off that I did something especially well, or that I had had other options that I overlooked; if a trophy didn’t drop, I had an inkling that there might be something worth examining on another playthrough. Plus, they provide an incentive to do things in an unorthodox way: I might never think it wise to steel-fist ten guys in a row on Uncharted, but it’s fun to try.

    I heartily agree, though, that they’re a bit silly when you get them just for beating a level; Mass Effect 2 and, I must confess, Modern Warfare are pretty terrible about that. Where they are actual *trophies* as in badges of skill, they’re worthwhile, but too often they’re just so much filler. Oh, and they make for nifty easter eggs. Try pulling a Snidely Whiplash on Red Dead Redemption, for instance, and get a nice chuckle.

    P.S. Please to friend Στραταρχις on PSN. Typed in English of course (I just like playing with character map).

    • You’re right about the trophies appearing on the load screens, but I still say that’s too intrusive. We’ll go back to the “finger” scene. You get the “Goldfinger” trophy in the loading screen after you’ve left Ethan writhing around that apartment with an amputated digit. But the scene isn’t really over because Madison is about to show up and help carry Ethan out of that building and away from the police. So really, we’re still in the moment. The tension level does not let up from a narrative point of view. However, the trophy removes some of that tension despite what is happening in the story.

      I do like it when achievements offer cool skill-challenges. A year or so back I wrote a piece cheering-on the achievement movement for that exact reason. It can be fun to try those feats of skill and get the achievement, or to find out that there’s a different way of tackling a problem. But I do feel like the quality of achievements is on the decline. The example I used in my article was Team Fortress 2 and how Valve use them to teach and train players in their classes. But I’m seeing far less creativity with achievements in most new games, and a lot more of the rubbish “kill 10 guys” variety.

    • Prof. Loewy-Brueller
    • June 17th, 2010 10:19pm

    The described drawback of bad »trophies« and »achievements« is their main function: they remind you and others that y, the player, is playing x, the game.

    This seems a cheapjack finding, but look at it this way: without the pop-ups (and their careful chronicle), you’d have endured a firefight, experienced a loss of hope. Solitary things. Salesmen want something else, an officiously visible link between vendee and product. Visible not only to the vendee herself.

    Identification is key. And not the easy kind. No one cares whether you identify yourself with a product as in »I’m glad I bought game x« or not. The only important observation is »y, whoever I am, and game x« — you don’t even need the copula. A conjunction is all we need in Capitalism.

    Industries have to make sure people make this observation often enough. This is one of the few sources of power that don’t take the indirect route over money.

    Who’d let go of that in favor of the individual experience?

  1. I’m pretty much with you on this one. I really don’t give a shit about achievements, mostly because they don’t actually earn you anything other than meaningless status.

    Back in the N64 days I used to beat games 100% all the time because they actually put cool features behind the gate. My 12-year-old self would probably have platinum’d most of the PS3 games I own.

    Game developers however have already started to notice the effect achievements have on narrative. That’s why Heavy Rain pushes them back to loading screens – it’s the best they could do under Sony’s requirements.

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