With the Xbox One and the PS4 coming out in merely a few months, I thought I’d start this little hobby of mine by looking back at some of the best (and possibly even the worst, depending on your point of view) innovations and ideas which were introduced to the gaming audience over this last generation of consoles, whether it be the effects of Franchises on gaming as a whole, the emotional attachment to characters in recent games, whether they be real or forced upon the player as a narrative device. I wondered which aspect to start but, for me, the greatest addition has certainly been that of Achievements for the Xbox 360 and, to a lesser extent, that of Trophies for the PlayStation.
Achievements completely changed gaming for me, even before I moved over to Xbox Live from my previous offline account. For those first two years it was a race between my siblings and I which, of course, I completely dominated (relatively anyway, I still burn with embarrassment whenever I remember proudly showing off my 12,000 Gamerscore to a friend of mine who, unbeknownst to me, had almost 48,000, even back then). They changed the way I play games but, most of all, they changed the way I count a game as finished.
Now, it used to be, unless the game was one I was madly, madly in love with (games like Freedom Fighters, Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars Battlefront, Half-Life amongst the hundreds of others I fervently remember, along with anyone lucky enough to play said games back then), I would beat the campaign mode and call the game finished. But now, you can tear through a campaign or the story and end the game with only, say, a third of all the possible achievements. I do love achievements, but recently they are starting to make me feel as though I have to carry on playing games that I have long since ceased to enjoy, not that I choose to name any names here (Dynasty Warriors 7). It seems to me that, for as enjoyable as achievement hunting is, it has made playing certain games less of a hobby and more of an ordeal.
I have tried to fight my own overwhelming sense of nostalgia when discussing this aspect of achievements but I know that when I was younger, and video games did not have achievements (a time period that even gamers I know whom are as little as two years younger don’t remember), it was the gameplay, the narrative and the feel of the game which drew you into finishing the game. I still feel it is a similar way with certain PC games, particularly on Steam, where I don’t really feel the achievements mean anything.
Realistically, in the grand scheme of things, a non-gamer could say that Achievements and Trophies in any iteration barely mean anything, but that isn’t the way that I feel, and I’m sure it isn’t the way you feel either. They seem to act as markers for, well, almost the last few years of my ‘career’ as a Gamer, if you’ll accept the term. I feel that they would mean more to me had they been there right from the start, that if suddenly achievements from the games I played when I was barely able to climb the stairs, games like Final Fantasy III, Dizzy the Egg and Rune: Viking Warlord were marked on my Gamer profile, then I’d definitely feel that my profile was a bigger part of me than it is already is.
The first achievement I ever got, that I can call mine anyway, was for escaping from the sewers in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Though I try not to write too, well, too over-emotionally, it was the perfect achievement for an Achievement Hunting virgin. After half an hour of creeping through dark dungeons and stinking sewers, looting Akaviri Katanas from the hands of dead Blades (the guards of the Emperor, a character briefly played by Patrick Stewart), I emerged into the sunlight, blinded for the briefest of moments until all I could see was the small, then unfamiliar icon, appear at the bottom of the screen.
Since then, I have seen the thing pop up hundreds of times. At the exact time of writing I have 3761 achievements, so if we round that down to, say, 3600 (for every achievement I have got at the same time as another, for example when I finish a Halo on Legendary, thereby unlocking every other difficulty achievement and the one for completing the final level), the fact that I can still remember my first is, at least to me, quite astonishing. Mostly because I’ll admit to having a memory like a sieve with all the metal removed, but also because I did not like the idea of achievements when I first heard about them, all those years ago. I didn’t like the idea that someone could virtually see everything I had done on a console, or in any specific game, and judge me for it. Normally, I wouldn’t care but, seeing as one of the most important aspects of Achievements is to show off to other gamers, it would be kind of hypocritical to proclaim I don’t care what other gamers think of me.
The trouble with Achievements recently, is that they are one of the few reasons I am playing some games, particularly those I would have little interest in playing otherwise, RAGE for example. I couldn’t force myself to get more than two hours in before I gave up on it, not because it was too hard, but because the entire game felt, at least to me, as though I was playing a Borderlands without the joy of online play. Now I have nine achievements on the game and that will stay on my profile forever, because I certainly don’t see myself buying the game again anytime soon, no matter how dirt cheap it may go. Though I barely have any 100% games, at least compared to the amount of games I’ve played, (I think I’ve only achieved 100% on fifteen games at the moment, and few are games to be proud of) I like to think that I finish games with an acceptable level of their achievements and the fact that this low percentage is forever hanging from my profile, like a desiccated limb, angers me a great deal.
However, I could overlook these annoyances if it wasn’t for one achievement in one game, the ‘You Blew It Up’ achievement in Halo: Reach, which you, well, achieved when ‘Your team blew up the research facility in a matchmade Invasion game on Breakpoint’. We stopped playing Reach soon after I got this achievement, which was worth 13G, meaning my Gamerscore is eternally a number which is not a multiple of 5. It’s a small and, to be honest, quite a pathetic complaint compared to all the travesties in the world today (not least the fact that someone, somewhere, thought that adding Quick-Time-Events, Escort Missions or Turret-Sections to every other game developed over the past few years was a good idea), I know, but it still pisses me off to no end.
One of the single scariest things about the next generation of consoles is the idea that players may be able to gain achievements by watching TV series’ on the Xbox One. This, to me, just seems proof that the next generation is much less a series of consoles, but rather a multimedia box. I don’t want to provoke any kind of console warfare, I think the internet has seen enough of that already and the damn things aren’t even out yet, but I feel that achievements will start to mean much less to the Gaming community if you can gain them just for watching The Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad. Although, I have to say, if you’re brave enough to force yourself through every episode of, say, Falling Skies, Glee, Sex in the City or that goddamned Honey-Boo-Boo thing, you probably do deserve an achievement.
Looking back (you see how I tied it all together with the title in the end? That’s what two years of doing essays for English and Creative Writing does for you!) and despite the ever-growing concerns I have for the future of gaming, as they become more and more like interactive narratives (which, of course, I have no problem with, especially if we take Telltale’s The Walking Dead as a forerunner of the idea that games are little more than interactive story-telling). All I do worry about with the recent changes in the ways that games are being viewed, and developed, is they often contain little to no challenge, which is almost a polar opposite from earlier games, where you would guide a little metaphorical drug addict around a darkened maze collecting pills and being chased by ghosts, with absolutely no narrative accompaniment. I still feel that achievements have been a greatly positive addition to gaming in general, making it a more competitive hobby, harkening back to the days of Arcades where you would struggle to top the leader board filled with the creatively formulated initials of future royalty, leaders of industry and the free world, like ASS, BUM and POO, and breathing life into games that players may otherwise stop playing much sooner but, in some circumstance (hate to mention Dynast Warriors 7 again but, it is the best example I can think of) it is not necessarily a good thing.