(Disclaimer: Not all of this is about Freedom, but a lot of it neatly ties in to the Monday Musing. This is more focused on how achievements ruin the gaming experience.)
Recently I've been playing Condemned: Criminal Origins, a launch title for the Xbox 360 that combines a dark and gritty detective-thriller atmosphere with community service where you must reduce unemployment levels through casually bumping off the local homeless population, preferably in the most grotesque manner possible. I unashamedly love the game, and have spent several evenings gleefully lobotomising the poor homeless, but there's something irritating me here. Dark thoughts, niggling in the back of the head, poisoning my enjoyment of the game, actively forcing me to do things I don't want to...
No, I'm not about to grab my steel pipe and murder hobos in real life. I'm spending hours looking for bloody birds so I can get achievements.
It's a truly horrible feeling; one that makes me wonder whether I might be addicted to getting pointless collection achievements. Here I am trying to enjoy this amazing game, but I'm spending completely unneccessary amounts of time hunting around corners for tiny bird skeletons. What the fuck is wrong with me?
I don't know if other people have the same problem, but Achievements are starting to ruin my games in that they alter the way I play. If you want to follow your morals when tackling situations in games, you might end up distracted by a 30g Achievement that requires you to always be bad/good. You might end up investing ridiculous amounts of time in a game you don't even enjoy particularly to get Achievements. For weak-minded individuals like myself, it's a massive threat.
So, here are a few examples of the types of Achievements that prove utterly detrimental to games, the lame ducks that are stagnating the industry and used as excessive padding in games.
The Collect-em-up (well, duh)
In Condemned, many of the achievements consist of pointless collection romps where you hunt around in the dark for things. After clearing out a room, I'll often go around scavenging in corners for my precious bird skeletons, taking twice as long as I should do. My mind is often so preoccupied with looking for bloody skeletons that I start to lose focus on the game. The experience isn't ruined, but certainly dented.
And it happens to me all the time. When playing Alan Wake, possibly the most miserable example of a collect-em-up, my mind was in agony as I scoured acres of dark forest looking for some of the many, many collectibles scattered throughout. To put the amount of shit you can pick up into perspective, there's Coffee Flasks (100), Manuscripts (91), Bonus Manuscripts which you can only get on the highest difficulty (15), Secret Chests (30),Can Pyramids (12), Signs (25), TV Shows (14), Radio Shows (11), Hidden Alarm Clocks (10), Cardboard Cut-outs (6), and lastly, Video Games (10).
All in all, that's 11 different sets of collectibles, totalling 324 items that you can collect throughout this 15 hour long, linear game. Every item has its own set of achievements attached. This is an absolutely miserable idea of how to flesh out the experience and add replayability. For the entirity of the game, I was scrabbling around trying to find piles and piles of this shit. In the end, I only managed to get the achievement for collecting all of the TV shows, despite wasting several hours hunting around the levels. While one could argue that Alan expands on collectibles by giving you various extras such as shows to watch and radio broadcats to listen to, I couldn't give less of a fuck about them. I'm only it in for the gamerpoints.
I left Alan Wake cold and bitter. While Condemned is still fun and playable, Alan ended up a dire, dragged-out experience for me.
Dishonourable Mentions: Mirror's Edge, The Orange Box, Call of Duty 4, Assassin's Creed, GTA IV
The "Be A Good Boy" Achievement
HNNNNNNNNNNNNNNGHHHH SAY GOODBYE TO THAT 100G ACHIEVEMENT ASSHOLE
Morality Achievements are fucking pointless. What's the point of giving a player freedom to make their own choices, then offering them a prize for going down a certain path? Such as is the case with Bioshock, where saving every little sister gets you a meaty 100g for your troubles. Harvesting even a single one will leave you with nothing. The achievement isn't even secret, so you're left with the giant proverbial carrot dangling in front of your dribbling face. Thankfully, I didn't know much about achievements at the time I played Bioshock, so I got it completely by chance. However, I can see it preventing many gamers from taking the evil path.
Bioshock 2 has an even worse morality achievement (Note: Spoilers Ahead). While the carrot is question isn't quite as big or dangly, it's possibly one of the worst moral quandries I've ever seen in a video game. The achievement in question is called "Saviour" and you recieve it for saving every little sister and 3 other specific characters that you meet during the game. The 3 characters are what particularly bother me.
Sparing Grace will make you feel good, no question. She spends so much time scorning and hating you, that refusing to kill her, doing the opposite to what she expects, leaves you with a warm feeling inside. She's humbled, and realises that you aren't the monster you're made out to be. It's a particularly touching moment to see her swallow her pride and begin to treat you as a person, probably one of my favourite moments in the game.
No, the real problem is Gil Alexander. He's gone mad unfortunately, and has been transformed into something that resembles a giant fetus. The glaring fault with this achievement is that saving him is absolutely not what I'd consider the "good" moral choice. Gil has left diaries lying around that contain recordings of him with a sane mind, begging for you to kill him when he's lost his marbles. He lives a pathetic and upsetting existance with very little freedom. Surely killing him is the right option? His insane self thinks otherwise. This is an incredibly complex moral issue, and Bioshock 2 has to be lauded for giving players moral dilemnas such as this. The achievement ruins everything however, removing the freedom to make your own choice and throwing in a choice that the game deems "correct". Suddenly, the problem that was obtuse and complex, isn't. You save him and get your 25g. The premise of a moral grey area is ruined.
Oblivion is a strange variation on this rule. While there's nothing to shuffle you down specific moral paths, this means that you'll often end up with a character who's the most revered Hero in Cyrodill, but also happens to be the head of the Dark Brotherhood and the Gray Fox at the same time. Achievements (and a general lack of boundaries) mean that you'll often just run around doing all the quests you can find, irregardless of whether they're at a complete tangent to your character's normal behaviour or not. This might be nitpicking, but I think this is a little too much freedom. Maybe doing all of one specific guild questline should resrict you from progressing deeply into others. You can't win 'em all.
Another game that tries to bait you into following specific moral paths is Fallout 3. While there are specific achievements for reaching certain levels with each moral set (good, bad, and neutral), weak-willed people are able to cheat by getting one achievement, reloading an old save, changing their morality, then levelling up again. This isn't a huge issue, but if you're trying to take the game seriously, it's a black mark on your character. You'd become a schitzophrenic saint, a guy that helps everyone out before occasionally going on massive killing sprees and then carrying on as usual. Nobody would love Jesus if he randomly went on killing sprees every few months.
But I digress. Enjoy your 30g.
Dishonourable Mentions: Silent Hill: Homecoming, Mass Effect, Mercenaries 2
The "Hardcore" Achievement:
You've beaten the game. You've levelled up quite a bit in multiplayer. You had a fun time doing it, but it's about time to move on. You go to eject the disc from the tray, for the last time.
"Hold on a second, mate" says the game. "There's some achievements you missed out. Surely you want to show your appeciation for the game by getting 100%?"
"Um, ok" You say. "Tell me what to do to get it"
"Well, if you wouldn't mind, you might want to try killing this enemy 100000 times. It'll only take about 200 hours"
Fuck that. There's a difference between making an achievement tough and making an achievement so ludicrously difficult that you'd need to be an unemployed basement dweller with OCD to even find the time neccessary. If you are tempted to go for these, then good luck. I'll be playing something I actually want to.
These kind of achievements detract from the fun not only because you might feel stupid for having such a pathetically tiny gamerscore on a game you've completed, but because it creates a massive inbalance in the scope of achievements. Getting 1000g on a game like King Kong is a little easier than getting 1000g on something like GTA IV or Bayonetta. If the gamerscore I have on a game is indicative of how much I enjoyed it, then King Kong, Silent Hill: Homecoming, and Doritos: Dash of Destruction are fucking masterpieces.
-Become the greatest player in the entire world for a paltry 20g? Cool!
Dishonourable Mentions: Quake 4, GTA IV, Dead Rising, Bayonetta, Guitar Hero III, Gears Of War 2
Honourable Mention: Bullet Witch- For completing the game on the hardest difficulty setting, you get 1g. That's hilarious.
The "Line my Pockets" Achievement:
Achievements aimed at getting you to buy stuff are possibly the most awful bunch of the lot. Cheap, petty money grabbing comes in here; a lot of it through DLC and playing online with friends. Ironically, the company I can most associate with this trait is Valve, the Jesus Christ of the game developing world.
Portal 2 is brilliant; there's no doubt about it. It also has some of the most clever, well-designed achievements ever implemented into a game. However, there is one achievement that strikes me as particularly strange; a really shitty idea for a company as good as Valve.
-Notice the 476 comments.
It's "Professor Portal", a needlessly large achievement that doesn't make any fucking sense. While hiding under a pretence of helpfulness, the idea that you're "helping" a friend play the game, it's actually a useless way to get you to make your friends buy Portal 2. It's for doing the training level, for Christ's sake. You can't train someone to do a bloody training level. Nobody needed to teach you how to do the simplest co-op puzzles. It's inane.
The worst thing is, I bought my best friend a copy of Portal 2 for his birthday and later asked him if he wanted to do the achievement with me. What a fucking dick I am. To make it look like I bought it for him so I could get a sodding achievement is particularly nasty. Neither of us have gold, he said. Oh, don't worry, I said, I'll buy us two 48 hour trial codes.
That's when the penny dropped. I had gone completely insane. I was paying money to get an achievement, a virtual pile of nothing. It was pathetic. I picked up my Xbox and hurled it through the window. It smashed onto the concrete 50 floors below. I was free.
Ok, so not really. But I now wish that achievements didn't exist. They're a lie, a false excuse to keep you hooked for those extra little hours. When playing old games, I realise that it's always about playing for love. You're not constrained by the idea of these tiny little rewards. The real reward is the fun you're having.
I sometimes wonder what I'd make of some of my favourite games if they had achievements, and I'm very glad they don't. Imagine Silent Hill 2, where instead of getting an ending based on very subtle actions throughout the game, you see that one ending has a juicy achievement and go for that instead. You may still enjoy the game, but your freedom has been taken away from you. The ability to go through the game how you saw fit was ruined by that bloody proverbial carrot dangling in front of you.
That's why I think achievements should be outed, a futile statement seeing as they're growing more and more popular. They simply don't gel with games. They exist in their own little plane of reality, not a part of the game but a nagging voice behind it, an alien conscience that seeks to guide you.