A generation ago games were simpler. Since then TDM, fastest lap times and online leaderboards have hijacked the humble pleasures of the gamer. Back then you played for fun, you played for yourself. Back then you had no competition. Back then there were no trophies, no achievements to collect. You simply played. Or you didn’t. The choice was yours.
Now that choice has been snatched from us. Now not only must we play, but we must play until the bitter end, until 100%, until Platinum. Because now Jean Girard from Jarrier, Rhône-Alpes can scan our collection, Billy Sanchez from San Antonio, Texas can probe our performances, and Dave Smith from Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire can scope our successes. Anyone can view our online achievements and stalk our statistics like some horrid progression goblin.
This perpetual display instills a sense of pride in the player. The ability to externally exhibit one’s accomplishments online through Trophies and Gamerscores fuels our desire for attainment, for achievements. Completion compulsion is a cancer. A cancer to which I, and countless other gamers routinely lose the fight.
I have an intrinsic need to 100% my games. I’m personally hardwired to desire completion. If this means I must collect every feather, every flag, every coin and every orb, then so be it. Over my years of experience with a third generation console I’ve amassed more feathers than Icarus, more flags than the United Nations, more coins than the Royal Mint and more trophies than Roger Federer and Tiger Woods combined. But still it’s not enough.
Game developers have us hooked from an early age. The earliest example I can recall was the introduction of Pokémon to my life. I had ta catch ’em all. I had to fill that Pokédex. I nearly did. But that tagline still haunts me, taunts me. It might be the greatest example of video game marketing in history. Those who succumbed to this ploy are the very same who still feel the burning need to collect trophies and achievements today. Since then the tagline has evolved into a constant reminder of progress. It has morphed into sinister silhouettes that hang in the corner of our multiplayer profiles.
A cynic may suggest that game developers are preying on the minds of their audience, throwing in unnecessary collectables to keep us hooked, keep us playing. Demanding and ensuring that extra play through to mop up those few remaining items, to eliminate that certain enemy in that specific way. Many of us do it too. We can’t help it. We’re infected. We’re completists.
But not all gamers are subject to a completist nature. These are the lucky ones. They are unaffected by our collectible urge. I see them. I see them crawling, jumping and rolling around. And there, right there in plain sight is collectable item 1/100,000,001… And they run right past it.
“What the fuck man?! Get it! It’s right there!” I politely announce.
“What? Get what?”
“The bobblehead/hidden package/intel/mask/pigeon/snowglobe!”
“Because… Because… “
I can’t finish. There’s no real answer. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. In most cases collecting items is both the most time consuming and least important aspect of any gaming experience.
So why? Why bother? I envy this nonchalance, this lack of care, this laughter in face of the trophy list. The lack of compulsion, the lack of imprisonment at the hands of a percentage, a number, a meaningless statistic. After all, most collectable items offer no challenge to the player.
Collecting 100 feathers in Assassin’s Creed 2 is not a test of agility. A requirement of patience is imperative. A requirement of skill is unnecessary. It is not you scampering across the Venetian rooftops with guards in tow. It is not your steadily ascending the towers Tuscany, soaking in the spectacular scenery. It is not you speedily scaling the steeples of Florence beneath a storm of sharpened arrows.
You have acrobatic talent. You have no aerobatic talent. You are not Ezio Auditore. You are not a fifteenth century assassin. You are sat at home in your pants, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and crisp packets, slapping away at a sweaty controller with your greasy, fat hooves. Collecting 100 feathers is not a sign that you are a skilled gamer. It’s a sign that you have too much time on your hands. All that you achieve by earning that trophy is the stark realisation that you should probably get out more.
But that didn’t stop me.
Collectables can sidetrack your progress during any game. While approaching an objective you spy a collectable item in the distance. It’s only a few steps away from your objective. You figure you’ll just grab it and carry on. But once you’re there you another, again just a few feet away. You claim your item, but you see another, and another, and another. Before long you’ve been led half the world away from where you need to be and consequently you’re no closer to solving the mystery of narrative. When did gaming come to require such soaring levels of self-discipline?
Too many trophies require you to mindlessly wander the plains in search of hidden items. Thankfully some achievements and trophies are truly challenging. Achievements that have been conjured deep in the recesses of the most devious and twisted minds in game development. They’re imaginative, immersive, inventive. Collecting a trillion items is not.
So was gaming better without collectables? Without incessant distractions? Without inane tedium? While the inane tedium is in progress, yes it was. But once the inane tedium melts away into self-satisfaction and that familiar message appears, alerting us to our latest trophy/achievement it’s a different matter. It’s true it’s a satisfaction that only the completist can appreciate. But it’s a satisfaction nonetheless. Besides, we don’t have a choice anyway.