One of the biggest innovations of the 7th generation of video game consoles was the persistent metagame of achievement and trophy hunting. Though there were a few limited precursors (Activision in 1982!), Gamerscores originated with Xbox 360 achievements in 2005, but Valve and Sony quickly realized what a smart idea it was and added achievement and trophy systems to Steam and the PS3 in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Nintendo failed to get in on the act, and still hasn’t with the Wii U. I love achievements/trophies, and I hate them. They add variety to my gaming and also an occasional stubborn, obsessive focus on point scoring that can make gaming less fun. Here’s what achievements and trophies have done to my experience as a gamer.
Let’s start with why I love achievements and trophies (which from here on out I’ll just call trophies or achievements rather than both for the sake of brevity). When I start playing a game, I check the trophy list relatively early on because it provides a useful overview of the possibility space of a game and suggests things I may not have thought of trying on my own but that the game is obviously built to encourage. Mid-game or post-game I will sometimes replay a section or level aiming for a particular trophy, often switching my playstyle in order to pull it off, which adds replay value and helps me expand my playstyle comfort zone and maybe find styles or weapons or routes I’d otherwise overlook. Long after I’ve finished a game, trophies are a helpful and convenient way to quickly look back over some of the stuff I did in a game. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t kind of like comparing myself to other gamers to see who has the higher Gamerscore (Trophy level, etc.), in general or in a specific game or even trophy by trophy (sure, you may have a higher overall score on this game than me, but you didn’t get THIS trophy!)
The 8th console generation has upped its trophy game. The PS4 adds a brilliant twist to Sony’s trophy system by showing you what percentage of other gamers playing a game have achieved each trophy, adding prestige to the hunt for the rarest/toughest trophies. It’s also fascinating to watch as the percentages change over time after the game’s release. I picked up Bloodborne the day after release, for example, and it was interesting to see how many gamers had beaten the first boss, then the second, the third, etc. It was cool to beat an optional boss and realize only 8% or 19% of the buy-at-release crowd had gotten there before me. And it’s been fun to see as the numbers swell and then ebb again as the buy-at-release crowd achieve milestones and then the more casual later players don’t always reach them. I got into trophies in the 7th gen, but PS4’s success percentages has added yet another layer of interest to this metagame. Xbox One’s revamped achievements also innovate on the older model (but in more mixed ways…more on that in the negatives section), including by unlocking artwork, characters, and even stat boosts, showing progression toward achievements, and by creating community through group challenges. In these various ways, trophies add to my enjoyment of games.
Then there’s the dark side of trophy hunting. Too often, I find myself sidetracked from a game I’d been enjoying on a repetitive, joyless pursuit of the status symbol of a trophy. I know this, yet still do it more often than I care to admit. There’s actually a whole series of games about how metagaming can encourage pointless achievement hunting rather than simply pursuing what’s enjoyable in games. Last summer I was playing one of the Halo games co-op with my brother (I forget which one because we were going through several of them) and he popped some ‘kill 3 in this weird way’ achievement’ and I was like ‘hey, I want to try that,’ so we switched roles/tactics and reloaded the checkpoint…and reloaded the checkpoint…and reloaded the checkpoint. It turns out this particular approach was either much more suited for his playstyle (or skill level) or it had been a fortunate combination of circumstances on that first run, because it took me several tries to pop the achievement. By the end, we were having considerably less fun than we had been before we stopped to achievement hunt. Yet we stopped, and once we had done so, we (or at least I) didn’t want to give up and have all that time be wasted by not even getting the achievement. In retrospect, I need to be better at saying “screw it, let’s move on” a lot sooner. Achievements too often lure me away from this sensible focus on just having fun.
I’m pretty sure the only game I’ve ever ‘platinumed’ (though it was on the 360) is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. On it’s face, this sounds insane, because Oblivion is the kind of game that takes, oh, say, 125 hours to platinum. On the other hand, it’s a game you can platinum in one playthrough and without re-running several parts of the game over and over to pop achievements. It basically just requires you to pursue all the major side quests (not the thousands of minor ones, though) as well as the main quest…in a really, really long game. More often I’ve been just a few achievements away from platinum—often, as in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (an underrated game with decent gameplay and a really good narrative) or Assassin’s Creed II, I’m basically one ‘collect all the things’ achievement away but have been able to draw the line and not spend several more non-fun hours finding little orbs or feathers or whatever just so I can say I platinumed a game. Not that this would inherently be bad—it could well be fun for someone—but it wouldn’t be for me…the only reason I’d do it would be for the achievement.
RPGs like Oblivion are where trophies get darkest for me, though, because achieving them usually doesn’t require endless repetition of the same checkpoint or scouring every corner of the map for collectibles, things which I’m better at recognizing as not that fun for me and therefore only achievement bait (to be fair, I do often enjoy keeping an eye out for collectibles…I just don’t want to spend those last several hours hunting for the handful I missed after I’ve already beat the game). I’m playing Fallout: New Vegas right now and finding myself in an all-too-familiar battle against the completionist compulsion that is accentuated by the lure of achievements. I’ve hit the point, mid-game, where the side quests are starting to get mind-numbingly repetitive but I worry that if I skip them I’ll miss something good or something important to getting the best ending or a major side quest with it’s own achievement. I’m better at avoiding this temptation and sticking to what sounds like fun than I was in, say, 2008, but it still gets me sometimes, and that’s when I hate achievements. Oblivion was the game where I turned the corner on this (in 2011). It’s the only game I platinumed, but it was one of the less enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had with a game that I beat. By the end, I just wanted it to be over. When I moved on to Skyrim in 2012, I just played the parts I wanted and had a much better time. And some of my favorite game experiences of recent years, like The Last of Us, have been some of my biggest “failures” in terms of trophies—I only got 6% of the game’s trophies in my relatively thorough playthrough on hard, because the game’s trophy system is set up to encourage multiple playthroughs (which I haven’t done yet and which I won’t get trophy “credit” for because when I replay it will be with the deluxe version that came with my PS4 system). But every now and then I find myself not having fun in a game and I realize that trophy hunting has taken me too far afield and away from the main reasons I play games to begin with—having fun and enjoying well-designed worlds, stories, and experiences. It’s a tension that didn’t begin with achievements, but has been accentuated by it.
Has trophy hunting ever ruined a game for you, temporarily or permanently? Do you, like me, wage an ongoing battle against the siren call of not-that-fun trophy hunting? How have you managed it? What games or genres have the worst achievements in this regard? What game(s) finally caused you to take a stand against your own trophy-hunting habits?