I had come to the end. I could go no further; climb no higher. Perhaps I should have dumped more of my upgrades into the stamina wheel early on. Maybe I should have been forward-thinking enough to cook up enough meals and elixirs to properly complete my journey. Nevertheless, none of that mattered. The mountain was too high and I was too inexperienced to reach its peak, where treasures or other rewards were likely waiting.
Standing at the edge of the enormous cliff I had just climbed, I gazed off into the distance to see what I could spot. I could see a massive open field with, what appeared to be, ancient ruins scattered about. To the east of that was a heavily-forested area that I had not noticed prior to my climb, and to the south of that was the stable where I had originally encountered two treasure hunters, adamant that riches and weapons were hidden somewhere nearby. That was what originally led me to where I was now. To the south of that stable, though, directly below my vantage point, was a small body of water.
Having just spent roughly ten minutes of my time maneuvering around and climbing up this mountain, I decided that I wanted to make the most of my journey and so, without hesitation, I dove off the ledge. I soared through the air as I zipped past the various footholds used to ascend the rock face before submerging into the pond far below.
As I surfaced, I found myself back at the base of the mountain where I had first begun my quest for riches, and it was at that moment that I realized that no achievement had popped. No trophy notification had appeared on-screen. It was easy for me to imagine another game rewarding me for what I had just done – “Dive Into A Body Of Water From A Height Greater Than 50 Meters” the achievement might read – but there came nothing. It was just me and that cool-ass dive I had just completed. This is just one of many great stories/experiences I have gotten out of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild since it originally launched earlier last year, and every time I don’t get an achievement for something like this, I’m reminded more and more of just how trivial achievements and trophies really are.
The concept of achievements and trophies in games can be traced back to 1982, when video game publisher Activision would allow players the opportunity to take a photograph of their in-game high scores, which they would then send to Activision in exchange for a patch commemorating their accomplishment. According to a Game Informer article titled “Activision Badges – The Original Gaming Achievement”, every game booklet came with a list of what scores were necessary for a patch and where to send your photographic evidence. The patches were available for all Activision games, including those that released for Intellivision, Toy Bizarre, and Commodore 64. The company ceased doing this in 1983.
At their core, then, achievements and trophies have always essentially been about bragging rights, whether that means showing off your Pitfall! patch to all of your friends at school, or seeing your platinum trophy count online and comparing it to others’. In a world where developers are handing out achievements and trophies left and right just for completing a game, though, is there really much bragging to be had?
Achievements, when done well, can be a great thing. The best kind of achievement is the one that actively forces the player to play a game in new, interesting, or unconventional ways. As time has gone on, however, achievements have become less interesting; uninspired. What was once potentially a fun way to keep someone engaged with a game for longer stretches of time has essentially become a higher number simulator; just one more list of objectives to plow through. In short, earning achievements used to make the player feel like they were, well, achieving something. Why, then, do we still chase that higher number?
For the completionist in many of us, we simply cannot put a game to rest knowing that there are still achievements to unlock, lest we be forced to see anything less than a 100% every time we scroll through our list of games. For many others, chasing those platinum trophies might just serve as a fun hobby that already coincides with their love and enjoyment of video games. However, it is when these things begin to negatively impact our enjoyment of a game that we need to be most careful.
At the end of the day, achievements and trophies are secondary to the game itself. At their best, they are a fun challenge. At their worst, they are a tool to help developers track the progress of their playerbase to see how far into a game most have made it. I was shocked, then, to hear someone tell me that they likely were not going to play 2016’s phenomenal INSIDE because the game did not have a platinum trophy. Critically-acclaimed and one of my personal favorite games from that year, I could not believe that someone would actually willingly deny themselves the chance to play such a fantastic game – a game that can be beaten in about four hours – because of something as inconsequential as a platinum trophy.
To this day, one of the achievements I am most proud to have gotten is the “ENERGISER” achievement in the survival-horror game Outlast. For those who do not know, this achievement requires players to finish the game on its highest difficulty without dying and without reloading the batteries that power your camera and enable the use of night vision in-game, meaning you will likely be playing long stretches of the game in the dark. As of this writing, 0.11% of players have unlocked this achievement. When my friends and I first started trying to unlock the achievement, it seemed impossible. It required patience. One wrong move would send us all the way back to the beginning. We needed to memorize certain sections so we would know where we were going without being able to see. When we finally unlocked it, we were all ecstatic. It goes without saying, though, that we never would have played the game in such a manner had that achievement not asked us to, and I think that is a big part of the problem.
People play games differently now than when they used to. Tutorial-heavy introductions mean that players no longer have to “learn” how a game controls. During an interview in a Nintendo Life article, Rey Jimenez, the producer of Duck Tales: Remastered, had this to say about secrets in games: “Kids nowadays do not think that way. That’s why we needed to have a cutscene in there to explain you have to look in the walls for a secret.” Working towards unlocking that achievement in Outlast felt reminiscent of the no-hit runs people would attempt when playing Mega Man 2, but they were not doing that for some arbitrary number, they were doing it because they genuinely loved the game and wanted to get the most out of it by finding new and creative ways to play it.
Achievements and trophies are at their best, I think, when they strive to do more than simply reward a player for making it to the end of a game. They are at their absolute best when they manage to show someone that a game can be played in a way they never thought possible; when they get someone thinking outside the box. For me, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild has proven to be more than just a series of quests. It has reminded me of a time when someone would try to beat a Mega Man game with only the starting weapon just for the sake of it. Choosing to dive into that pond just to see if it was possible brought me back to a time when I did not need something or someone to tell me to try something unconventional in a game. Every similar story I have heard someone share with me has been a reward in itself, and is something I plan to carry with me into future games. When the Nintendo Switch launched back in March of 2017, many people were disappointed at the lack of a system-level game tracker on par with Microsoft’s achievements or Sony’s trophies, and while something like that certainly has its time and place, maybe we should get back to playing games just for the joy of it.