Here is something that happened to me recently: Having completed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow not too long ago (an excellent title with a lot going for it, I recommend you give it a look), I went back to complete some of the game’s “trials.” This process involved playing through levels I had already beaten in an attempt to accomplish some arbitrary goals: kill a certain number of enemies with counter-attacks, complete a level without healing, beat a boss within a short time limit.
I was sort of having fun. It felt a little bit like a chore. I felt a little obliged to continue. The game’s combat system was enjoyable enough to keep me engaged, for the most part.
My wife plunked herself down next to me on the couch. “Didn’t you beat this?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “but I’m not really finished with it.” I explained the trials.
“Why are you going back and doing these?” she asked.
It was at that point, once the question had been voiced, that I had to admit the truth to myself: I was doing it for the achievements because I felt like I wasn’t “done” with the game.
As a young gamer, I was not much of a completionist. There were only a handful of games in which I felt the urge to do absolutely everything–these were the games in which I found the mechanics so compelling, so alluring, that I absolutely had to seek out everything there was to do (and in many cases, manufacture some additional challenges for myself). As an example, take Final Fantasy Tactics: not only did I beat the game multiple times, recruit every additional character, acquire all of the rare equipment, and explore every corner of the optional dungeon, but I began to play the game using regulations that were entirely of my own making. I played it only allowing myself to use story characters. I played it without committing violence against any human beings (I invited them all into my party instead). I played it with a team of five male characters, all of whom were bards (my “boy band” playthrough).
So entranced was I with this game that I came up with patently absurd “themes” for additional trips through it, independent of any outside influence.
I don’t tend to pour that much time into a single game anymore. Mostly this has to do with my shift in self-perception as a gamer; I have aspirations of being “well-played” (a fact to which this budding blog is testament) and I play games in many more genres than I did when I was a teen. Partly this has to do with the fact that no game has come out which can compete with Final Fantasy Tactics. But I have been conscious of a palpable shift in my perception of what it means to be “done” with a game since the advent of achievements and trophies, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to pinpoint exactly what that shift entails.
First let me say that I am no true “achievement hound.” My gamerscore is modest, and the string of numbers next to my gamertag is entirely divorced from any sort of meaning in my mind. The “points” that are connected to achievements carry no weight. My problem is that I cannot help but think of the achievements for a given game as being a list of accomplishments suggested by the game’s developers–a kind of “to-do list”–and this is where I get stuck.
Extra Credits did an episode on achievements a little while back, and they do an excellent job of dividing them into a couple of categories: story achievements, sidequest achievements, and achievements that require you to think of the game’s mechanics in new and interesting ways. Anybody who takes a look at the list of achievements for a game nowadays can see the distribution of these achievement types pretty easily.
I run into a fairly major difficulty here, however, because in the achievement system as it stands, there’s no formal distinction between these types of accomplishments. In my mind, that means that all of these achievement types have parity. This is extremely problematic for my concept of what it means to be “finished” with a game. If you were to ask me ten years ago when I’d “finished” Final Fantasy Tactics, I would have told you without hesitation that it was when I’d beaten the final boss and the end credits had rolled. I might have conceded that you couldn’t really claim to have done it all until you’d picked up Cloud, Beowulf, Worker 8, and the rest. But nowhere in my wildest dreams would I have suggested that you hadn’t done everything the game could offer unless you’d played through with a team of cadets using only the classes from the original Final Fantasy–
(ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED — OLD SCHOOL (5G))
Boom! Suddenly the whimsy and the devotion isn’t earnest and intrinsic, it’s manufactured. It’s not that I mind developers having a venue for suggesting different ways of approaching their work. On the contrary, I appreciate it. The problem is that I finish a game like Lords of Shadow and I’ve earned 16 out of 40 achievements. Congratulations! You won’t be “done” with this game for a year. Because the story achievements are on the same “to-do” list as all of the extras, there’s an implied equality created here–where before I could have dismissed the sidequests, trials, and extras as material for the fervently devoted (and perhaps I might have counted myself among that number), I now feel an obligation… after all, only half of the to-do list is done!
I get achievement guilt. There are so many worthy games out there that I feel as though I’m doing a disservice to their developers if I don’t take all of the various paths that they lay at my feet. In a world where there are more good games to play than there are hours in which to play them, I have enough guilt about the games I don’t get around to (I’m sorry, Alan Wake! Forgive me, Human Revolution!) without having to worry about playing the games I do finish in the ways in which they could be played.
There are certain achievements which it’s easy to resign myself not to collecting. Playing the Endless Setlist in Rock Band? No, I’m never going to do that. Beating all of The Gunstringer on hard mode in one sitting without dying? Yeah, right. Getting to the highest level in multiplayer in Gears of War? No thank you.
And still I am nagged by my newly-grown sense of completionism. The handful of achievements left uncollected in each game taunts me. I’ve played Dead Space (and loved it!), but I never went back and played it on hard, or played through it using only the plasma cutter. I’ve played Bioshock 2, but I definitely missed the opportunity to smack the Andrew Ryan mannequin in the head with a telekinetically-wielded golf club (IRONY! — 5G). After briefly considering hooking up with Garrus in Mass Effect 2, I eventually decided that my Shepard wouldn’t betray the trust of her former partner Liara… and I missed an achievement for it! (The darn game didn’t even give it to me when I reconnected with her in the DLC!)
All of these achievements goad me because they’re out of my reach not because of my capabilities as a gamer, but because of my available time. I’m almost certain that I could beat all of those trials in Lords of Shadow if I invested a little bit of time. It wouldn’t be time wasted, exactly… the game is fun! But at some point one has to tear oneself away from a game one has beaten, even if one doesn’t feel that one is “done” with it.
Are there others out there like me, who are constantly called to by all of the tasks left undone in a game? Are there others who could have dismissed a sidequest or an optional boss in bygone times, but now feel as though they’re not being thorough? Are there players who pick up a game on the DS or PSP and think “Phew! No pressure here!”?
Maybe we can form some kind of support group.