Confessions of an Achievement Hunter: On Completionism and the Death of Fun
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With next-gen consoles right around the corner and with all our sparkly-graphic-loving feels ready to devour whatever new content said consoles are ready to throw at us, we’re presented with a rare opportunity to start fresh, as it were, and to take a look at how we approach this shared pastime of ours. If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself, at some point, playing a game for much longer than its quality justifies, simply to get those last tricky achievements to pop. Maybe you succeed and maybe you don’t, but down the line, you look back and think, well, that was a huge waste of time.

If the above statement doesn’t sound familiar, that’s great. Stay the course and enjoy the hell out of a game and then let it fly. Either way, allow me to drop a few examples of how this achievement-hunting, completionist approach to gaming got in my head and went sour, spoiling what would otherwise be fantastic gaming experiences, of which I would probably now have a fond memory or two. What follows is a warning to gamers of all stripes and preferences: don’t let the drive to “do it all” overshadow the fun you’re supposed to be having.

The original Deus Ex changed the way I looked at games when I was a teenager. Was it a shooter? Was it a stealth game? Was it an RPG, a morality play with far-reaching consequences? It was all of those things, and I learned then that genre–much like Captain Barbossa’s pirate code–is really more of a guideline than a rule. This was a game that other games should try their damnedest to emulate.

So you can imagine my excitement when Deus Ex: Human Revolution finally came around in 2011 and showed every sign of being the spiritual successor to the original (we don’t discuss Invisible War, the Fredo Corleone of Deus Ex series, in polite society). I was not only going to play this game, I was going to nail every achievement in one go. Why? Because I’m a die-hard fan and it deserves no less, that’s why. So I thought then.

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Anyone who’s familiar with the game will understand that this is a tedious endeavor. The game can usually be played as a full-on, guns-blazing shoot ‘em up, but the all-in-one-go approach requires that you never trip an alarm, never alert an enemy, never kill a single foe, and hit every side quest, hidden collectible, etc. I was doing fine, if not necessarily having a great time, creeping my way along, consulting a guide at every step to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Here’s something the completion-driven will be familiar with: that sense of over-the-shoulder dread that’s always asking, if I talk to this guy, will it trigger some threshold that I can’t go back from? If I leave this area, will I have missed something for good? Bah. Horrible.

Anyhow, I learned just before leaving the game’s first area that if the timer runs out while you’re hacking a terminal, that counts as an alarm being triggered and therefore voids the related achievement. No alarm sounds in-game, no warning is given; you just have to wait 30 seconds before trying again. Had I done this? There was no way to tell. The timer had definitely run out on me before, but I’d reloaded afterward… hadn’t I? No way to tell. If I finished the game in the most tedious fashion possible and popped every achievement but that one, I’d be a bit put off, to say the least. So what to do? You guessed it: I started over. Some months later I fired it up to do it all from scratch.

I got about as far as I had the first time–same meticulous approach, same obsessive guide checking–before retiring it again. I’d done everything right this time. The trouble was this: I just didn’t care anymore. The game had lost my interest, or rather I had sabotaged my own enjoyment of it with this obsessive approach. Here’s a game that should have been one of my favorites of the year, and I dissected it like a surgeon instead of playing it like a gamer, and sure enough, it died on my operating table.

Here’s another one: I love Red Dead Redemption, and not just because it came out when I was deep in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and John Marston looks exactly like Roland Deschain does in my head. Rockstar had me at hello when I picked up GTA III back in 2001, and the romance is still going strong. By the time I’d 100%ed my single-player game and was blowing through its various multiplayer modes, Red Dead had become hallowed Top Five material for me, and thus became a game for which I went stalking after those difficult achievements.

Many of these require a certain bit of luck, as they involve streaks of victories in public matches. One night, I was in the locked-in zone to finish Double Bagger, an achievement which requires a player to hoist two sacks of gold at a time–which slows movement considerably–to a capture point three times in a single match, all while playing bullet magnet to the other team’s wily gunslingers. Unless you have a squad of pals on your headset cooperating to “boost” one another on this one, this requires some serious skill and/or some serious luck, and on this occasion, I’d tuned in to the former, but the latter was about to abandon me wholesale.

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A real life buddy of mine–good kid, but not necessarily your best bet in a foxhole (as I was about to be reminded)–joined the public match. I knew he’d be gunning strictly for me if he were placed on the opposite team, but good news: He was on my team. I’d nailed the double capture twice and had just hoisted my second bag for the final go. I went monk: calm, focused, taking cover behind walls and easing my way around corners. The end was near. But then--trouble. An explosion nearby. My buddy–my teammate, comrade-in-arms–was hurling sticks of dynamite at me at the first opportunity.

I tried to get on the headset and tell him that no, this was not the time for these shenanigans. I don’t care if it’s worth a laugh; this is some serious business I’m about to accomplish here. We can throw dynamite at each other till our controllers wear out–after I take thirty seconds to nail this thing. But no–I caught an explosion in the face, and that was that. Achievement failed.

Now, here’s where my story takes a dark turn: I actually got pretty upset with the guy about this. It didn’t last–we were slinging Colt revolvers side-by-side the next day–but I’d allowed this silly thing to get in my head and stress me out. I can’t believe this jerk, I thought. He ruined it for me. But it occurred to me after the fact: There was nothing to ruin in the first place. I’d let this illusory thing–something I’d never look at again or pay a moment’s thought to later--stress me out and cause me to become angry at a true friend of mine.

This isn’t the way, folks. Before whichever marketing genius invented gaming achievements came along and injected this bit of sleight of hand into the very framework of gaming, we immersed ourselves in games for one reason and one reason only: to have fun.

Now, contrary to how this may sound, I’m not trying to tell you how to enjoy yourself; what follows is simply friendly advice from a lifetime gamer. If you like ticking off those achievements, do it up. Go sick. But pay attention to how you feel as you’re doing so; if you feel that weariness creeping in, that sense of tedium that gets its hooks in you when you decide that this is something you have to do rather than something you’re enjoying, turn it off for a few minutes, then decide if you want to go right back to it. Just remember that this is your free time to be spent doing whatever you like, and when you’re engaging in a favorite pastime, a sense of obligation should never eclipse a sense of enjoyment.

Jamie Campbell
Jamie Campbell
@0wittynamesleft

Contributing Writer
Date: 11/07/2013

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