Favorite Achievements

Russell Brock linked to me and, by tradition or by obsessive compulsion, I always read the sites that link to me. I really enjoyed his post on his favorite achievements. This is because I, like Brock, think achievements are one of the best features of the Xbox 360. The snooty scoff off achievements derisively as “nerd points” and the greedy claim “you don’t get free stuff for getting points, so why bother?” Both clearly miss the point. Achievements are like Cub Scout merit badges. They don’t do anything, but you think kids would learn how to tie knots if they didn’t have something to point to to say “Hey, I did something different”? I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some achievements that have actually made me play a game in a different way or explore areas that I would have missed the first time around. This, to me, is the primary value of achievements – to extend or enhance the enjoyment of gameplay.

Here is my short list of favorite achievements that I have earned:

“The One Free Bullet” from Half Life 2: Episode One
So here is an achievement that would have been frustratingly stupid in most other games. This one falls under the category of “Hamstrung” achievements where you ask the player to play the game without the aid of some crucial element. In this case, they want you to play through without using any bullet-firing guns. But you can use the gravity gun and that’s where this Achievement really adds fun. The first time I played through Episode One, I did the normal run and gun through, ignoring most of the interactive objects. When I was trying for this achievement, my eyes were open for every cinder block, radiator and saw blade. I made great pains to retrieve the precious saw blades. The game took on a challenge that was missing in playing normally. I had a lot more fun playing through the second time for this achievement than I did on my first playthrough. By the end, using only the gravity gun was second nature and I was seeing the levels as I imagine the designers intended – being mindful of the items strewn about City 17 and surrounding areas. If I had the “Little Rocket Man” achievement, I imagine it would be on the list as well, but for a different reason.
“Skater of the Year” from skate.
I wrote off skate before it came out as another one of those “extreme” sports games where I’d have to fight with the controls and do repetitive tasks until my eyes bled. When the demo hit, I found myself lost in the game until the timer expired. When I got a hold of the retail game, I found it to be both captivating and frustrating. When I finally (after months) unlocked the Skater of the Year achievement, I felt like I had really earned it. Some of those challenges were damn near impossible, yet I persevered and had some genuine jump-off-the-couch-in-celebration moments. If this achievement was a merit badge, I’d be sure to sew it onto the most visible part of my uniform.
“Irony” from Bioshock
I find secret achievements interesting. On one hand, they aren’t revealed in the normal achievement list, so you don’t have any incentive to do them. But on the other hand, they can provide pleasant surprises that would be defused if they were on the normal achievement list. Such is the case of the “Irony” achievement from Bioshock. In one stage, you do a psychopath’s bidding by eliminating his enemies and then taking pictures of said enemies corpses to adorn a macabre art piece. When you complete it, you get to confront the psychopath. As a gamer, I instantly shot him in the face a hundred times before he could draw on me (leaving the other secret achievement regarding entering his secret room unachievable until the second playthrough). When he was dead, I thought it would be poetic to take his picture, like I did for his foes that I had offed. When I did, I got the satisfying “Achievement Unlocked” popup noise and smiled in satisfaction.
“Costume Party” from Dead Rising
Dead Rising combined two of my favorite things in video games: sandboxes with plenty to do and zombies. There were dozens of ways to interact with your foes in the game and most were ridiculous. Yet I never would have thought that I could put masks on the zombies if not for this achievement. Thus, it serves its purpose of letting you know about a feature that you may not have discovered on your own. I kind of wish there had been a few more because I know I must have missed some clever features (Frying a zombie’s face with a hot skillet was a fun discovery), but this achievement made me think about each item I picked up and what its purpose was.
“Worst Cliché Ever” from The Simpsons
The Simpsons game was quite funny. I was tempted to put the “Press START to Play” achievement here as it gave me a good laugh, but since it was essentially automatically given, it really wasn’t a good achievement besides providing said laugh. This one, however, prompted me to find all of the clichés in the game, some of which were quite hilarious including the “Collecting Every Collectible” cliché, which is personally one of my most notoriously hated game design decisions.
“Don of NYC” from The Godfather
There really isn’t much of a story behind this one as it is your standard transcompletion achievement. However, when I was done with it, I really felt like the city was mine and that I controlled every mobster in my reach. I suppose that is more of the game itself succeeding than the achievement, but it was a nice stopping point when the achievement was awarded.

9 Comments

  1. Wow, thanks for the acknowledgment! I came back to see if anyone replied to my comment in your sports game post but I did not expect to see my name at the top of the page. Achievements are great, and looking back, I have recently acquired a couple more that I like. (1) “Heartbreak” in Portal, mostly because every minute spent playing that game was pure gaming joy and (2) MVP in Halo3, because I never thought I would get it. The “Irony” Achievement in Bioshock is a great one as well. I didn’t think to take a picture of him. I was too concerned killing to find out what was in the case. Dead Rising’s Achievements are also great for getting the player to try different things, like the parasol and bowling achievements. I especially like the Zombie Genocide because, if the player is paying attention, you’ll realize that the required number of zombie kills matches the town’s population. That’s gold!

  2. As a designer I think achievements in single player games actually hurt the game.

    Achievements in Half Life 2 actively hurt my game play experience and detracted from the over all game. Half Life 2 handles things a bit differently from other single player achievements in that if your objective is to say “light 15 zombies on fire with a flare” it will pop up a reminder after you have reached 5 and 10 reminding you how close you are. The problem in this is that lighting zombies on fire with a flare, is not fun, yet they are dangling this carrot in front of the players face. Half Life 2 for me was a deeply engrossing and personal single player experience; it felt like a world I was dropped into and asked to make my way through on my terms. This achievement meta-game within the game not only had me doing things that weren’t fun, but also pulled me out of the experience and really hammered home, “hey this is just a game.”

    Similarly Bioshock with such achievements Max Out an Upgrade Path achievement dangles another bitter carrot in front of the player. Maybe I want to experiment and try a few things from each track, but as a first time player I have no idea how many upgrades I am going to come across. If I want that achievement maybe I need to sink all my upgrades into this one path that I might not enjoy.

    “Yet I never would have thought that I could put masks on the zombies if not for this achievement.” That sounds like a bad achievement going by your next point “Frying a zombie’s face with a hot skillet was a fun discovery”. Putting a mask on a zombie loses out on 90% of the fun when the game tells you to do it. The fun is the discovery as you stated yourself.

    People can counter well you don’t have to look at the achievements and they are right, I don’t. But like 90% of the population I will and if my brain does the math and calculates “hey if I just alter my play style by this much I can snag 10 gamer points” I am going to do it. Gamer points shouldn’t dictate playing style, designers should.

    I think you nailed it by saying achievements should extend the experience. That means all single player achievements should be secret until you beat the game. If you happen to do something during your first play through that satisfies the criteria for an achievement then sure you get one but otherwise all are hidden until completion.

    This would not apply to multiplayer games or arcade games.

  3. Mile High Club in Call of Duty 4. It was the last achievement I had to get in COD 4, and it requires that you clear a plane full of terrorists and rescue a VIP with a crazy pistol headshot on the hardest difficulty, all in under one minute. I tried and failed probably 200 times, but when I finally got it, I was through the roof. All that for 20 gamerscore? Yes. Pretty awesome.

  4. Blitz: The League had a viral achievement called Burning Sensation that scored 69 points. Awesome.

  5. Feelin’ ya’ on that Irony. Same situation here. =D

    When I play 360 games, I don’t really check until I’m done with the game to look at the achievements and how I get them. I don’t understand how a person can be dictated on something to get a gamerscore. Makes it sound like you can’t play the game you want to play it like, which isn’t true at all. Maybe if you’re that obsessive to try and get every achievement… but why would you if you hate it? Save that for when you have nothing else to do. In none of my games does it say “do this and you’ll get your achievement”, no. You do that by yourself, and if you torture yourself by killing the game to get said achievement, then that’s your problem, not the system itself.

  6. Nathan, I don’t understand the line of reasoning where you do achievements that you don’t find to be fun. If you don’t find them to be fun, don’t do them! I’ve given up halfway on a whole boatload of achievements that I didn’t find fun. If achievements are hurting your experience, then you really should find a way to not look at them. Are those 10 gamerpoints more important than you having a fun experience? Leave them. You have the liberty to do so. You don’t need achievements to complete a game.

    I totally agree with you about the ability of achievements to pull one out of the game but there are a lot of elements in Half Life that pull you out of the game – loading screens, UI, repeating dialogue, not being able to see your feet, etc. I’d rather have a slightly less immersive experience that lends to replayability than vice versa in this case.

    Yes, the frying pan discovery was fun, but I wouldn’t have experimented as much as I did had it not been for the achievement basically telling me: “Hey, go experiment. There’s some damn wacky stuff we let you do.” And so yes, they ruin one of those interactions, but they clue the player into the world of dozens more. We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this because it appears we have different definitions of what is fun. That’s okay. Fun is highly subjective.

  7. I am a rather OCD gamer, there are a ton of us out there. My gamer score is ridiculously small for the amount of games I play. It isn’t that I just need to get every gamer point, it’s more like if they seem relatively easy for me to do I will do them: even if they are not fun to do. I would also say 95% of gamers look at what the achievements are during the game. That’s human nature. It’s like telling a kid not to pick up and shake his Christmas presents.

    “I’d rather have a slightly less immerse experience that lends to replayability than vice versa in this case.”

    Then show achievements only on the second play through. Solves both issues.

    I never said discovery wasn’t fun. If the designers of Dead Rising need a Microsoft requirement to encourage you to experiment in their game they failed as designers.

    I think we agree that discovery is fun and replayability is good. I think we disagree on the approach a designer should take to encourage both.

  8. Nathan – I really like your comment. You articulate the argument against achievements very well. But (there had to be one), I particularly like the additional value they add to a game. I would never bother with playing through a game on the hardest difficulty level but I’ve done it with every single-player game I’ve bought on the 360. That payoff, including the immense satisfaction from beating the game, adds value to the money paid.

    You are absolutely correct that the designers should be the ones driving you to replay the game at a more challenging level. There shouldn’t need to be the carrot of meaningless geek points dangling in front of you. The sense of satisfaction is only matched by the quality of the achievements and some of them are poor. Sometimes they make it feel like a job and that’s never good.

  9. While Dead Risings’ achievements were fun, if they were mostly hidden or secret achievements they would have been even more fun. In fact, looking at the Dead Rising achievements ahead of time reveals plot points, ie the Snuff Shot achievements.

    Bioshock did it right by showing the non plot specific achievements and hiding the spoiler chapter ending ones. As I played along I was really curious to read what the chapter ending achievements would be called or titled. I was anticipating the secret achievements as a compass to try to guide myself through the morally ambiguous game — although the good and bad ending tell you which way Ken Levine leaned at the very end.

    As for my favorite achievements I like the quirkier ones, one of my favorites is the “I can’t quit you, Dom” from Gears of War. I’d like to see XBL have a place where you could put up an achievement badgethat you earned in place of your gamer tag pic. I’d love to hang a Half Life 2 “trusty weapon” achievement there.

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