Tuesday 14 June 2011

Freedom is an internal achievement

I’ve always had a strong (though not exclusive) achiever streak in computer games (by both Jon Radoff and Richard Bartle‘s classifications). Course many early games were all about racking up the points in a bid to ascend to the glory of the High Score Table (and the resulting dilemma of whether to enter your actual initials to proclaim your great skill to the world, or a hilarious three-letter profanity. BUM, tee hee!) and you didn’t have much of a choice over being a completionist. You had to shoot all the titular Space Invaders, gobble all the pills in Pac-Man and knock out every brick to get Thro’ The Wall to progress to the next level (of more Invaders, pills or bricks).

Wolfenstein 3D is one of the first examples that springs to mind of a game that gave an end-of-level report of percentage of enemies killed, treasure collected and secret doors discovered, and I’d really try and get 100% for each. The search for secret doors would start with likely looking nooks, tapestries or bits of walls with different textures, but if that didn’t work then there was always the inelegant but generally effective brute force approach of gliding sideways around an entire level, following the left wall and mashing the “open door” button every couple of steps (this was before I had access to the internet, so no GameFAQs). Secret doors often revealed bonus weapons, ammunition and health, which was a fairly strong incentive to seek them out, but it was matched by the satisfaction of getting those percentages ticking up… Kill Ratio: 100%, Secret Ratio: 100%, Treasure Ratio: 100%. Another avenue of achievement was speed, the end-of-level screen would show your time and the par for the level, but that never bothered me so much, especially as it was usually mutually exclusive with a careful search for secret doors.

Skipping on ten years or so, by the time of Grand Theft Auto 3 “100%” was on its way to being cemented as a verb (“You hundred percented that game? No way!”), and GTA3 presented a vast array of statistics and activities to the player. I never got obsessed enough to try and complete absolutely everything in any of the series, but I did collect all the hidden packages in each one, the weapon and item rewards probably being more of a factor than the achievement itself. I guess the hidden packages, tucked away all over the city as the name suggests, are quite a good way of telling the Explorer from the Achiever; the former stumbles across them while wandering around off the beaten track, the latter downloads a list and a map and crosses them off one by one. After finding a few in the general course of the game, it was off to GameFAQs for me.

With achievements in games often boiling down to making a number go up, RPGs have always offered abundant opportunities, especially MMORPGs; levels, stats, skills, crafting progress, reputation, virtual currency, photocopiers per square metre, I do have a weakness for making bars get bigger. Not to the exclusion of all else such that I might as well be in Progress Quest, “Making Numbers Go Up should only be consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet of game components”, but it’s a strong part of the appeal. That, and hats. A while back Syp wrote about how MMOs have ruined single-player games for him, a position I have some empathy with, though I’ve far from forsworn single player games. The persistence of a virtual world and population of other users can somehow imbue numbers in a MMOG with more significance than their equivalents in a single player offline game. I can’t exactly explain why, maybe a psychologist could produce a hefty paper on it, but I don’t think I’d bother going out of my way to kill 500 of a certain type of Darkspawn in Dragon Age even if there was an achievement for it, whereas I did countless laps of Perez Park in City of Heroes wiping out hordes of low level mobs just to get a badge to show I could Kill Skuls.

Persistence, or the perception of it, is a double-edged sword though. City of Heroes and Age of Conan reactivated accounts for a couple of weeks recently, and mooching back around Atlas Park and Tortage respectively was fun in a nostalgic way, but knowing the reactivations were limited and that I was unlikely to be resubscribing to either game made the experience somewhat transitory, a hotel room you’re crashing in for one night rather than a home you’re settling into, and it hardly seemed worth pursuing anything vaguely long term. The foundations of achievement-based appeal can be shaky, and once you call their bluff then the rest of the dominoes fall like a marble in KerPlunk. Checkmate.

No comments: