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.

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