Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Eulogy for JUSTIN BAILEY - How Achievements Killed The Cheat Code

This is Part Four of a four-part series of posts on the ways Achievements have changed modern gaming. Click here for parts one, two, and three.

The Code. You remember it, I'm sure. It was the only way to get through Contra - that merciless destroyer of tiny 8-bit men. It's been immortalized in song. Hell, it was part of the company's brand identity, back in the day. One suspects it was intentionally designed to lodge in the human brain, given how easy the memory is to summon up even now, with its series of pleasing symmetries. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, (Select if you've got a friend), and Start. The Konami Code. The holy grail of Cheats.

Or maybe you were a PC gamer. You've got your own set of holy words burnt into your brain, then, pulled from the early Internet, maybe even copied down from an old BBS. Fire up your shareware copy of Doom, let 'iddqd' and 'idkfa' fly, and breeze your way through the legions of hell, invincible and loaded for bear. Sure, it was cheating, but who were you hurting? Demons. And who gives a damn about them?

But, honestly, cheat codes weren't really about 'cheating'. Sure, sometimes you wanted to see that impossible-to-reach final boss or skip past your least-favorite level. But more often than not, you put them in because you could. Because they did something weird to the game, something interesting or funny or just different. Every gaming magazine of the era knew to address that impulse with their own Cheat Codes section. There was freedom in 'breaking' the game, in playing it in a way outside the proscribed instructions. And that's not even taking into account hacking or modding the game files, or sticking a Game Genie on the end of the cartridge to directly mess with the game's code in unpredictable, weird, awesome ways.

Because 'cheating' implies someone being cheated. You could, if you had a particularly moralistic view on gaming, say you were cheating yourself, I guess, by turning your fragile character into an indestructible juggernaut of death. Fie upon those who ruin the sanctity of Kirby's Pinball Land, right? But really: who was being hurt?

Fast forward to today, and I ask you: When was the last time you used a cheat code? It's been a while, right?

The most obvious reason for the fall of the Cheat Code is the rise of online gaming. If you're competing with someone and he or she cheats, you've been screwed - and the designers who put the cheat in the game helped do the screwing. You can even stretch this justification to cover cooperative or open-world online games... There's an assumption in those games that all players are operating from the same playing field (with cheats, despite being part of the game code, being clearly outside that).

But what about single player games? Or the single-player components of games with multiplayer? Cheats have seemed to vanish here, as well. Vanished, or been replaced with Downloadable Content.

The answer is, almost none of our games are truly 'single-player' any more. Diablo 3 courted controversy last year when it required an always-on Internet connection to be played, even in its nominal single-player mode, but the trend has been developing for years. The meta-game of Achievement hunting has turned even the most private and introspective of Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 games into pseudo-multiplayer affairs, with the games themselves reporting your movements to the Great Scoreboard in the Sky. And if you cheat in your games, if you alter the parameters of the world to give yourself an advantage, or skip annoying content, or just to do something silly, now you're cheating EVERYBODY. And we can't have that.

We don't control our games the way we used to. Digital distribution and online multiplayer have raised a lot of questions about what it is, exactly, we're buying when we drop $20 or $40 or $60 on the game. Do we own the rights to all the content on the disc? What about locked DLC, on the DVD but out of our reach without publisher permission? Do we have the right to alter our games as we see fit, or do we have to worry that 'cheating' will get our licenses revoked, our purchase taken away from us*? If we cheat in our single-player game and earn an Achievement, are we breaking the rules of a larger meta-game, and can we expect to be punished for that violation by having our accounts banned, our access to online features blocked? Meta-game elements have been a huge boon to game design and game marketing, but they've leached some of the beautiful freedom out of the past-time.

And, perhaps most worryingly, we have publishers selling what once would have been free. Cheat codes being sold as DLC. Microtransactions to speed up tedious content. In the old days, the only "price" for this content would have been the knowledge that you were a 'cheater'. (Maybe the game would even mockingly call you one). Now, it's two or three dollars, and a little bit of our control over the games we play.

But then, I guess it's not really so different. The player seeks a desired outcome, and so they input a special series of keystrokes, and, voila, it's delivered. In the old days, it was a cheat code.

Today, it's your credit card number.

*It's worth pointing out that Blizzard, despite my picking on them here, have always been fans of in-game cheats for single-player content, usually with amusingly tongue-in-cheek codes like WhoIsJohnGalt or AllYourBaseAreBelongToUs from Warcraft III. Their Real-Time Strategy games are almost certainly the most prominent examples of games with old-school cheat codes on the market today.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Elephant and The Princess - Games that talk about Achievements

This is Part Three of a four-part series of posts on the ways Achievements have changed modern gaming. Click here for parts one, two, and four.
We've talked about Achievements as player motivators. We've discussed the use of Achievements as commentary on the player's actions. Now, I'd like to look at games where that relationship is flipped, where gaming culture's reliance on Achievements is investigated, satirized, parodied.

Flash games are the perfect place for this kind of discussion to occur, since they're simultaneously a world where Achievements have vastly expanded both playtime and player interest (since they allow a framework of progression/accomplishment to be layered over almost any kind of gameplay), and where the glut of games employing the Achievement mechanic has flooded the market. Beyond that, they're easy to make, nearly budgetless, and almost completely unregulated, meaning that a talented Flash programmer has the freedom to make a 10-minute satire or joke game that a AAA game publisher doesn't.

Although many, many Flash games have at least a few joke achievements, the most prominent parody of the phenomenon occurs in a game named, fittingly, Achievement Unlocked (along with its two sequels). From the game's description:
 Who needs gameplay when you have ACHIEVEMENTS? Don't worry about beating levels, finding ways to kill enemies, or beating the final boss... there are none. Focus solely on your ultimate destiny... doing random tasks that have nothing to do with anything. Metagame yourself with ease! Self-satisfaction never felt so... artificial!
In these games you control an (initially) blue elephant, moving through a single, backgroundless room full of spikes and not much else. The twist is that every single element of the game has at least one associated Achievement - moving, not moving, jumping, dying, interacting with the game's UI, earning Achievements themselves... There are (in the first game) 100 Achievements (even more in the sequels, which increase both the game's size and the intensity of the parody), sometimes so similar to each other that you'll unlock five or six of them with a simple movement. The message is clear: since we're all only playing games to GET Achievements, here, have a big ol' heap of them.

And yet... Some of the Achievements aren't automatic. Some of them require exploration, puzzle-solving. Others take thought, dexterity, planning to acquire. Some of them, especially in the much-more-elaborate sequels, are actually really fun to find and, well... Achieve. The gigantic, jokey scrollbar of Achievements at the side of the game window stops being a joke, and becomes more of a To-Do list. As such, the game is as much loving homage to Achievements as it is pointed mockery. While many of the Achievements are silly and automatic, the others give the game structure - in fact, in so far as Achievement Unlocked IS a game and not a joke, it's because of its embrace of the system it's simultaneously skewering. 

The message here is clear - meta-gaming, when done thoughtlessly or excessively, is a deserving target or ridicule. But when done correctly, when crafted with thought, they can add flavor and excitement to an otherwise drab game.

One place where Achievement Unlocked's commentary breaks down, though, is in addressing the compulsive nature of Achievement collection for some players. The games create a mental loop similar to what you see in many of the games it parodies, with the drive to finish the list, get the last Achievement, creating the same urge-for-completion that haunts many modern games. It's hard, I think, for games to comment on that aspect of the play experience, since creating that compulsive desire to play and finish is elemental to so many games. It can feel like biting the hand that feeds to mock the player for excessive play. But I can think of one that accomplishes it*.

Jonathan Blow's Braid is a game that defies easy analysis, with its distant, often contradictory narrative interludes commenting only vaguely on the actual gameplay. But one of the themes that runs throughout the work is the danger of obsession, of the inability to walk away or let go. The main character's need for perfection, his need to find his 'princess,' become so powerful that they warp the nature of time itself. And, in the same way that the game's time-manipulation mechanics reflect on and inform the themes of regret and obsession, the game also contains a series of secrets that comment on the player's need for that same completion.

Braid does technically have Achievements, but they're very simple - two per level, with one for making it through a level and the other for perfectly completing it, and a final Achievement for completing a difficult time trial mode with sufficient speed. But there are also, hidden deep within the game, a set of secret stars. These are alluded to NOWHERE in the game's meta-structure - there's no hint of them in the Achievements, nothing about them in the manual. The only clue that they exist at all is a constellation of stars in the sky over the game's opening area. But the stars are there, spread throughout the levels, buried off-screen or behind seemingly insurmountable walls. And they will require a gamer's deep obsession to obtain.

One involves having the patience to wait two and a half hours for an almost-immobile background element to move across the screen. One requires, if you've already completed the game, for you to delete your save and start over. Almost all of them require intense feats of dexterity and skill in non-obvious locations. These stars, these secret Achievements, require you to sweat, strain, hurt yourself, ruin your good time to get. They are not Fun, but they are Necessary For 100% Completion, that perfect, compulsive gamer ideal. And when you have all 7 of them, you can return to the game's final level. A subtly altered version of it, anyway, in which it is possible, with another Herculean effort of planning and dexterity, to ignore every message the game has been trying to tell you, and grab The Princess who is fleeing from your obsessive need. And your reward? She explodes (an allusion to one of the game's other themes, the development of the atomic bomb), and one last star is yours to grab. And then, after going through the normal epilogue, you are returned to the game's title, and now the constellation is filled in. It's a woman, trapped in chains by the stars you achieved through your joyless, obsessive perseverance. Congratulations.

There are other ways to interpret this, of course, but to me it's always been clear - we were never meant to catch The Princess. The game builds itself, moment by moment, to that realization. By violating that directive, by moving heaven and hell to capture her, the player has overcome the game in its goal of teaching that message. You can see that as a triumph, if you want - the player dominant over the played. But you can also see it as Blow's commentary on the sometimes unpleasantly obsessive mindset that dominates much of gaming... Especially in the era of the Achievement.

*There are other, less vitriolic examples than the one I focus on here. There's Monkey Island 2's charming List of Things To Do Now That The Game Is Over. And, of course, Earthbound, one of the only games of its era to comment on and parody aspects of the medium, has your character's unseen father periodically calling to remind players to take a break from the game.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bioshock and the Irony of Good Achievements

This is Part Two of a four-part series of posts on the ways Achievements have changed modern gaming. Click here for parts one, three, and four.

Yesterday I talked a bit about how Achievements give designers a new level of control over player behavior by exploiting the built-in gamer desire for completion/fulfillment/seeing the little bars fill up. If you want players to explore your entire gameworld, or try a different tactic, or just (in the worst case scenario) play your game for longer than they otherwise would, you attach an achievement to it. BAM, instantly your audience is incentivized to produce the desired behavior. In all these scenarios, the Achievements are a control system sitting metaphorically 'over' the game. There is the game itself, designed with a particular aesthetic, and then there are the Achievements, telling you from outside the game how it should be played (many games don't even include their Achievements list within them, instead shunting you to the Dashboard/Steam Overlay/Etc if you want to peruse them).* This is fine, I guess, but it can be distracting and harmful to the experience - turning a medium that is fundamentally about choice into an exercise in checklist-filling.**

I had an experience, though, in one of the first Achievement-enabled games I ever played, that makes me think that they don't have to stay that way. That instead of simply dictating player behavior, Achievements can instead comment on, interact with it - become part of the dialogue between player and designer.


Bioshock is, despite the way it's presented, a game with very few actual choices. In fact, if the game has a thesis, it's something like 'The vast majority of choices, especially those presented in video games, are an illusion.' But there IS one choice that always stuck with me, because unlike the binary Save/Kill Little Sisters mechanic, this one felt real, and meaningful.

Roughly halfway through the game, my quest for vengeance against mad capitalist Andrew Ryan was hijacked. My mission control, Atlas, was cut off from contact, and replaced by the macabre artist Sander Cohen. Cohen had some tasks he'd like me to do, before he'd allow me to continue on my journey. And because this was Bioshock, and because I was a gamer holding a controller, I didn't have any choice in performing them.

So I wandered around Cohen's bailiwick, tracking down his former apprentices, fighting off Splicers and Big Daddys as I went. When I found one of Cohen's 'betrayers' - often trapped in some cruel torture of the artist's design, I killed them - no choice involved. And then, on Cohen's direction, I pulled out a camera and took a lurid photo of the corpse. Cohen wanted them for his 'masterpiece,' a testament to his bloodthirsty desire for revenge. Once they were all dead, I returned to Cohen's lair and placed the pictures into their waiting frames.

Suddenly, the lights went out. A booming voice rang across the room, and a figure appeared on an upper balcony. Sander Cohen, in the bunny-masked flesh. Confetti flew and music swelled as a spotlight followed him down a staircase so that he could bask in the completion of his masterpiece. The madman and torturer thanked me for my meager assistance, unlocked a case containing my reward, and then told me, pointedly, to go. And then a very curious thing happened.

He just stood there. Annoyed, but unthreatening. Not hiding behind bulletproof glass or on a TV screen or any of those other ways games hide characters from the player to save the precious NPCs from our sociopathic urges to kill. And I realized that, if I wanted to, I could kill Cohen. Kill him for his cruelty, for his madness, for using me as a pawn in his sick games. Or I could go. Walk away freely, move on with the game.*** I could spare him, if so inclined.

I wasn't.

I pulled out a shotgun and blasted him, starting a short boss fight. Cohen teleported around the room, launching fireballs at me, but he was just another Splicer, and by this time I was very good at putting down Splicers. And so, eventually, he fell. And when his corpse was lying on his grand staircase, I did something that felt both a little odd and very right. I pulled out my camera, and I took a picture of the bastard's corpse.

*beep-boop* Achievement Unlocked - Irony.

It felt like the game had read my mind. Like the designers and I had shared a quiet smile across time and space. They had, without explicitly guiding my choice, anticipated and rewarded it, and the moment felt, for lack of a better word... telepathic. That's the moment when I realized that Achievements weren't just tools for player control - they could also function as part of the tone and texture of the work in their own right.  As a dialogue with players, acknowledging interesting choices on the player's part instead of simply dictating them.

It's absolutely vital to the emotional power of this moment - I didn't know this was going to happen. The Achievement was a 'Secret' one, its name and conditions unviewable until it had been obtained. If I had looked at an Achievement list, if I had taken the photo because "That's how you get the Achievement," the entire experience would have been cheapened. I would have been a robot, following the script laid out in the "Road Map" to Achievements, instead of a player making a choice and having that choice acknowledged by the game.

And that's my point, I guess. Games are already good at telling players what to do. Their power, the one we're still discovering, comes from inviting players to do what they wish, and then supporting those decisions. If Achievements are going to become an actual, meaningful tool for game design, instead of an intrusive way to control the player, they're going to have to become reactive to player behavior, instead of demanding of it.

* There's an interesting phenomenon that's still largely confined to the realm of Flash games, although I've started seeing it in mobile/casual titles like the excellent 10,000,000 - rotating Achievements. The player is given a set of three objectives, and once one of those is completed, a new, usually harder one takes its place. This means, essentially, that the goal of 'good' play is constantly shifting, allowing an inherently static gameplay experience (like the 'Launcher' genre of games) to become more dynamic. The developer Juicy Beast is a pioneer of this technique, and if you want to see it in action (and don't mind losing a few hours of your life to gummi-squishing nonsense), I recommend their game Burrito Bison Revenge.

**I stumbled onto that site while I was trying to remember the name of the Achievement I detail at length here. I'm not going to lie - I find the entire concept of an Achievement 'Road Map' to be pretty hideous. If games are about choice, then a document that lays out exactly how you should play to maximize a fake metric like Gamerscore is, to me, the opposite of gaming. I get that people have limited time and don't want to replay a game to get all the Achievements, but... come on, people.

*** If Cohen isn't fought, he'll show up in an optional later sequence. There is, *sigh* an 'optimal' way to handle him that gets you the most loot, but I didn't know about it at the time, allowing my choice to be made from emotion, and not calculation. (This is especially important because the game's central "Morality" system, the Little Sisters, was more-or-less ruined for me by the fact that the morally 'correct' choice was also the one that provided me with the most resources - no sacrifice required).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Addicted to Achievements

This is Part One of a four-part series of posts on the ways Achievements have changed modern gaming. Click here for parts two, three, and four.

Maybe this is a moment exclusive to me. I kind of doubt it.

I'm playing a game. The game, since it was published in the last 8 years, has Achievements. I look at the Achievement list, because I want to know what I'm playing toward (this is a game without plot or ending, so the Achievements provide the only available game structure to let me know when I'm 'done'). I see one of the Achievements, and I blanch - it's going to take forever to get, and the time I spend getting it will be stressful. I play the game for about an hour, getting Achievements as I go. Because they're there, because they're integrated into the experience, the Achievements stand as my milestones for when I've played a mode enough, for knowing when it's time for me to stop because the game is 'completed.'

Except for that last Achievement. And three hours later, when I'm bleary-eyed, physically uncomfortable, and pissed off at myself, I finally get it, and I never have to play the game, this game I really enjoyed, again. I've done all the Achievements. I'm done.

There's no doubt that the Achievement system caused me to play the game for longer, which is something we generally see as a metric of success - the longer you play, the more you like it, right? Without them, I would have played the game for half an hour, maybe an hour, racked up a high score, and then moved on. Instead, the Achievements triggered my need for completion, my need to see things 'finished,' and I got trapped by my own compulsive brain. But it's left me feeling tired, stupid, and used.

Achievements are a relatively new tool for game developers. They give designers indirect control over player behavior by taking advantage of the natural gamer desire for reward and completion. But there's a danger, here - because I doubt most game designers take into account the amount of control they have over their players - especially when they're writing out a set of achievements that are an annoying mandatory requirement for the game they've slaved over for two years to get certified.

We tell ourselves we play games to have fun, or to experience a great story. But the truth is, at least half my play-time comes from a desire to 'do something,' even if the thing I'm doing is inherently pointless. I'm playing to feel like I accomplished something. And Achievements make that sense of accomplishment way, way easier to codify. Those feelings keep me playing longer, and at those times when an Achievement becomes an obsession, my desire for 'fun' falls away and the hardwired desire to engage my brain's reward loop takes over. Fun becomes a side effect of play, not the actual goal, which is that sweet rush of Dopamine I get when the XBox goes beep-boop. I'm Pavlov's gamer, drooling at the sound of the bell.

Achievements might be the crack to the standard reward loop of playing games' cocaine. They're cheaper, easier, and stronger than forging your own sense of reward and accomplishment from the game - we've been making our own achievements for years, after all; get the high score, beat one more boss, pull off this awesome trick - but now they're being served to us on a silver platter, the fast food of rewards, and I know that at least in my case it's changed the way I play.

I'm not saying Achievements are inherently bad. Some designers use them in interesting, creative ways - as tutorials, as hilarious secrets, as ways to compare progress with your friends. But designers use them recklessly, without thinking through the negative effects they're having on players. And we're ignoring the effects, too, as we chase the next rush of emotion. I'm not saying get rid of Achievements - I'm just saying that I, at least, need to be more conscious of the effect they have on me, and disconnect from the rush of reward when it gets pathological.