The aspiration to achieve is something that is embedded into most of us from an incredibly early age: we go to school in order that we may learn in order to achieve highly in exams; we go to work in order to achieve such that we be considered for promotion and any benefits that may come with it. Achievement is rewarding both intrinsically and instrumentally: our achievements make us feel good about ourselves and the highlight to us the virtue in overcoming any adversity, and achievements often involve some external benefit coming our way. Celebrating such achievement, then, is only natural. All platforms have, this generation, deigned to enable developers to reward players for their virtual achievements. Steam and Xbox Live have their simply named “Achievements”, with Sony choosing a slightly more grandiose “Trophies.” While these mechanisms have opened up the gates of games to recognise the mastery of mechanics by the player, and rewarding clever thinking around the game’s design, many of these rewards offered by games descend into recognising merely the act of progressing through the game. Achievement has been downgraded from something exceptional to the commonplace; the every day.
Yakuza 3 is a particularly egregious offender in this regard: the player is rewarded in terms of PlayStation Trophies merely for managing to defeat a boss. A Trophy with the name “Defeated x“, where x is any of the game’s key enemies, is awarded upon completion of the relevant battle. This seems somewhat surreal in that some of the most rewarding aspects of the gameplay of the Yakuza series come from the character development that precedes and follows these encounters with key antagonists: if we are to be rewarded with the high-quality exposition typical of the series, is it truly necessary to reward us with a digital status symbol of, if any, dubious value to reiterate our progress? It seems a little superfluous, particularly contrasted with the other types of achievement reward that the game offers. Trophies are also awarded for varying levels of completion of the game’s many substories, missions that are optional and usually have to be actively sought out by the most discerning of players: rewarding a thorough approach to tackling the game is far more worthy than rewarding what may be a mechanistic playthrough on the part of a player merely keen to see the minimum of the sights of the game’s fictionalised Japan and reach the ending of the game’s core narrative. Equally, rewards available for playing the game in a certain way, such as Yakuza 3‘s Trophy for finishing 50 battles with HEAT actions, are far more rewarding, and potentially surprising, to a player who goes out of their way to use the game’s mechanics to their maximum potential.
The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 implementations of these reward systems, however, may have something to do with the loose application of the noun “achievement”: both incorporate a running total of the achievements of the player, through Xbox Live’s Gamerscore, and the levelling implementation on PlayStation Network. These both represent a perversely meta gameification of playing games at the expense of the playing of games in the first place: players are drawn away from playing games in order to see the worlds that have been created by developers for the consumption and delectation of players, heading towards a phallification of “how many games have you played?” and “how good are you at those games, by virtue of their implementation of achievement-tracking?” Any metric of game competency from competitive play is replaced by a competition of “whose is bigger?” by virtue of a score based upon calculations of achievements earned.
Recognition of the player’s ability to utilise the tools given to them by the developers within a game world is a laudable aim: there is a gulf of difference, however, between a playthrough of a game designed merely for story completion and that for exploration of the possibilities of a virtual world. The former is its own reward, and perhaps the intended use case of the game in development. The latter, however, takes far more initiative on the part of a player and could add to immersion in the hunt for further Easter eggs that may lead to in-game reward. Achievements should recognise achievement, not mere spectatorship.