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Three issues into my PC Gamer career, I’ve all but adapted to the sights and sounds of being a full-time editor: Logan’s ethereal afternoon howl to summon the benchmarking gods, the larynx-hugging steel of Kristen’s DEADline 4000™ shock collars, and the three-darts-per-second click of the 15-pound belt-fed Nerf Vulcan that we affectionately call “Sasha” and use to defend our cubicles.
It feels like home, but my former life as a freelance reviewer did have its dark appeals. When there’s a steady plastic thud of new releases hitting your doorstep, life feels like a year-long birthday—one spent alone and cakeless in your basement, unwrapping Wii shovelware that erodes your wrist and associated joints in new, innovative ways. But for all the fast games and loose unlockables, one thing I won’t miss are achievements, Microsoft’s integrated metascore that spies my in-game accomplishments to reassure me that I’m a good gamer.
The concept seems reasonable enough: give devs an opportunity to build incentive-driven “tangible” records of player landmarks that gamers can share with friends, and attach a score so they can quantify their gaming cred. In practice, achievements fundamentally reshape how we frame our game experiences by publicizing what should be players’ sovereign, personal gaming moments. Players have a right to immersive, contained gameplay: when I’m creeping down a bulkhead in Dead Space, I don’t need a pop-up letting me know that I’ve dismembered 666 space-ghoul limbs. When I stumble onto one of Portal’s hidden rooms, I don’t need notification that I’ve found another secret area. When I’m staving off a man-sized cry because my favorite lieutenant met his end in Brothers In Arms, I don’t need a branded icon to remind me that I’ve completed chapter four.
Achievements and unlocks are a sneaky way of artificially extending replay
Attaching token achievements to the invested, organic moments that arise in games like BioShock, Half-Life 2, and Fallout 3 compromises immersion. To various degrees, we play to insulate ourselves from the real world, and having a reality-based system measuring your progress invites contexts that influence how you approach playing a game.
Private experiences become public. Having digital bragging rights (like making it through Ravenholm with only the Gravity Gun) auto-conveyed discourages players from fashioning their own standards for accomplishment because they’re already subscribed to a universal set. I’ve got an elaborate fantasy of beating Far Cry 2 McGuyver-style using only a knife, two grenades, and a hang glider—would a console player be as inclined to be inventive, knowing there wasn’t a handful of gamerpoints associated with that effort?
Blizzard’s plan to add achievements across its new releases sets a worrying precedent on our platform, where gamers aren’t under a unified service. The notion of separate sets of Windows Live, Steam, Impulse, and WoW achievements (all connected to different friends lists) should frighten you. Call me an underachiever, but checking off a laundry list of feats doesn’t encourage me to play a game differently—it arbitrarily confines me to someone else’s standards for completion, and it devalues the memorable personal sense of accomplishment players fashion internally.
October 31, 2008