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).

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