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.