Since time immemorial, people have been able to showcase their video game achievements to others indirectly. Be it through high score lists, crappy photos of end screens mailed to gaming magazines or by showing someone their memory card full of level 99 saves. But with the creation of Microsoft's aptly named Achievements, everything changed. Well, some things changed.
Suddenly, every game had a laundry list of activities to accomplish before you could claim to have done everything in it. Difficulty modes to beat, a specific amount of headshots to do, Easter Eggs to find, extra collectibles to get, those kinds of things. Now, in response to this feature (that got ripped off by everyone except Nintendo, because Nintendo), game design has changed slightly to placate completionists and the mythical Platinum Trophy, earned only by getting all the other ones.
Regular content has remained very much the same for the most part this last decade and a half, but a second class of bland completionist-content has become more and more commonplace since. I can't say that this development has ruined games for me, but I don't think it has done me any good either. It just feels like a waste of development resources that might trick some people into playing games for longer than they'll enjoy.
I know there are those that live and breathe achievement-hunting and want it to be an honor to receive the Platinum, but for me, there just comes a point in every game I play where I draw the line on what's actually meaningful content worth experiencing and what was thrown together hastily in order to pad out the trophy list so that the Platinum is harder to get.
What is and isn't good achievement-based content in a game according to me changes from game to game, but I have some examples of achievements that seem almost spiteful against the player's free time:
Online trophies are a big one, as they are predicated on your ability to play a game at launch as much as possible while outplaying others. Then there's Assassin Creed 2's collectible feathers, Dead Rising's Zombie Genocider achievement that takes hours of repetetive driving to get and lastly, Persona 5's Passionate Listener trophy, which requires you to hear every single line of dialogue available in battle.
There's also From Software's post-Demon's Souls games, which are games I absolutely love (and despise at times) that all have absolutely terrible achievements. DeS has the infamously rare Pure Bladestone ore required to max out a Sharp weapon, DS1 requires you to grind for all the rare weapons on a single character, DS2 requires you to get all spells in every school of magic (in spite of how many of them are useless), BB wants you to slog through the Chalice Dungeons, DS3 has its awful covenant rewards to grind for and Sekiro has a bunch of optional Shinobi Tool upgrades that are completely unnecessary for beating the game and require a lot of grinding.
Now, I won't argue against these achievements representing some form of content (except the Dead Rising one, because good god). What I will instead argue is that the player shouldn't be expected to care about things the game technically allows or includes just because. As I've played more and more games over the years, I've come to appreciate games that are honest with what they can bring to the table and don't try to provide menial tasks beyond the core appeal just to increase "value". I feel like there's this pretension in some games (particularly sandbox games), where quantity is conflated with quality.
Going back to the From Software examples, I'd argue that the core appeal is the exploration of the world, fine-tuning a character and then using it for combat. So having to get all the special weapons on a single character in DS1 makes no sense to me unless you are expected to play the game so far into increasing New Game Plus levels that you'll accrue enough stats to use everything. At which point, your character loses their identity and a lot of the low-tier weapons aren't viable anymore since the game has become so much harder. Personally, I consider the only worthwhile measurable achievements in those games to be beating every boss and doing every quest.
So what are some good trophies then, outside of those you can't miss getting to the credits? Well, I approve of 2 other types, namely novel trophies and trophies that act as minimalist tutorials for fringe mechanics. For the first type, there's the Marco Polo trophy in Uncharted 2, which is an optional joke meant to reward players who take the time to go swimming in the middle of a level. Then there's the 9-Irony achievement in Bioshock 2, which again, is a recognition of the player being a bit clever within the play-space.
For the second type, I only need to point to a bunch of the trophies in Devil May Cry V. There's one trophy that tells you that there's a collectible in a strange place during mission 2. This teaches you that the game is full of secrets to find by being perceptive. Then there's one that asks you to kill 5 enemies at once, which challenges you to master the mechanics enough in order to figure out what moves and missions let you accomplish that. And then there's the one that asks you to clear a mission without weapons. I mean, is there anything more stylish than non-stop parries and finger guns?
If achievements were nifty enough to merely mark your progress through the main content, helped you find fun small extras and helped you understand how the game should be played, I think games would be in a better place. As much as I love the Yakuza games for example, I can't defend their giant checklists of braindead tasks to do when they are so much worse than the proper sidequests.
Finishing off, I think it's time to reveal what games I've bothered to earn Platinums in. They're pretty similar and can be divided into two categories, namely 3 games that restrained their trophies to not include everything you can possibly do and one game that really doesn't ask much out of you due to how it's designed. The games in question are the Sly Collection (so Sly 1, 2 & 3 ported to PS3) and Ratchet & Clank: A Crack In Time.
Sly 1 is a pretty relaxed platformer, so just completing it and collecting everything really isn't that hard. But what is hard are the optional time trials available for each level. These challenges are ludicrously difficult when compared to the rest of the game, which is probably why they weren't given an associated trophy. Given the game's focus on stealth, collecting and exploration of unique levels full of fun gimmicks, getting through them super fast goes against the core appeal in my opinion.
Similarly, Sly 2's platinum excludes having to find every Clue Bottle, as doing that can seriously kill the pacing of the game unless you're already familiar with the huge levels. They're more in line with the core appeal than the time trials in 1, but with only their faint clinking to guide you to them, they can be a serious pain to aquire, so I'm glad they were excluded.
A Crack In Time foregoes requiring the player to earn any of the game's in-game achievements, as they can be very tedious if not downright glitchy to get. Just like with achievements, there are some neat and clever ones, but a lot of them are just an annoying checklist of things that are technically possible to do in a level.
Sly 3 is the game that actually requires you to reach 100% before the Platinum triggers, but with the removal of Clue Bottles, the only thing even remotely difficult about that are the Master Thief challenges. These are very cheaply made challenges based around the various missions that ask you to manage some extra restrictions, like time limits or half health. Clearing them is proof that you've mastered the mechanics to a lesser degree than the time trials in Sly 1, so it isn't a hard ask. Not to mention that the challenges are derived from taking very specific chunks of regular missions and making them harder, so you're not just replaying the whole thing except harder.
The point I'm trying to communicate here is that the only reason I have these Platinums is because the developers were respectful of my time and only asked me to do what I would be doing anyway or thought would be fun. Achievements and the like are all optional, but if they're put in the game, I should actually want to pursue them if I'm into the game. I loved playing Horizon Zero Dawn and enjoyed collecting all the stuff in it, but even though the NG+ and Ultra Hard trophies are thankfully separate from the main batch (since they were patched in post-release), I'm still missing the training dummy trophy.
That's because that's the one trophy that doesn't gel with the rest of the game in my opinion. Destroying all the dummies is a superfluous task that's not tied to the story nor the in-game economy. It's just a bunch of assets scattered around (with no treasure map available like for the actual collectables) that barely have a reason to exist outside of the game's tutorial. I could easily get it done and earn my fifth Platinum, but I have no desire to do so. It's a tiny black mark against an otherwise excellent game.
But Guerilla Games did better than most, as I'm usually never that close to a Platinum after I've finished a game. I think there's a lot to learn about a game and its developers by looking at the achievement list and see how much of it actually feels worth doing. As games grow bigger and bigger, it is important to not lose focus of what they are meant to provide the player with. There is always merit in re-evaluating the content in the game and questioning if all of it is truly necessary for a good experience. Then again, needless bloat seems work wonders for Ubisoft, so what do I know?