The completionist conundrum: trophies, achievements, and tasks unfinished

After planning my route to the target, I’m finally ready to make my move…and it’s brilliant. My inputs and execution are flawless as my character dances on screen in macabre ballet of blood and bullets. All of my failings and experiments in the game have given me the skills to become the best supernatural assassin Dishonored has ever seen. Heads roll on cue, and with guards dying all around him, my target cowers while I slide my knife through his throat. As I’m reveling in the thrill of the kill, though, a curious thing pulls me out of the world: an out of place chime rings as a small box in the corner screen pops up, telling me that I earned a trophy titled “Regicide.” At that moment, I was pulled out of the game  and back to my couch.

Every time this happens, I get slightly peeved. I could be in the middle of firefight, skulking in the shadows, or discovering a new dungeon, and it never freaking fails. The little chime, the pop-up box, and that damn trophy symbol all come together to garishly remind me that I’m playing a game and that I’ve made some progress. It kills my immersion, shattering my interaction with a believable digital world to let me know I’ve unlocked some hollow, vulgar item that exists only in the cloud.

Some people love trophies and achievements, which is perfectly understandable. The reasoning behind them is sound. They reward players for interacting with game in ways that don’t seem so obvious, anticipating the multiple ways to play the game and encouraging players to fulfill a few tasks to get special marks by their avatar names on the PSN or XBL. Far be it from me to dictate how a person enjoys a game, and I can see why people like to have their toil rewarded – even if the reward is as superficial as my complaints above.

I don’t like trophies. They annoy me more than they provide me with a satisfying reward for playing the game a certain way. Sure, they offer incentive to replay games in different ways, but they do so by baiting the player with an imaginary carrot. If someone plays a game only to unlock a trophy, the gameplay becomes a vehicle to fulfill certain criteria, instead of an end in itself. I don’t pay much attention to my trophy list. Though it’s hard to ignore something that constantly reminds you of its existence, no one is forcing me to follow the trophy system. But the concept of trophies has larger implications when we think of the game as a text. Trophies and achievements exist to entice people to perform tasks that render the game “completed.” Here, I find my greatest issues with the trophy/achievement system. I just don’t buy into the concept of completing a game.

It seems a simple hangup of mine to fixate on something so seemingly simple. But the word “complete” carries significant weight. It implies mastery, finality, fulfillment. To claim 100% completion of any text implies not only consumption, but also processing. I’ve read countless books in their entirety. I’ve seen numerous movies from beginning to end. Yet I would in no way assert that I have “completed” Joyce’s Ulysses, no matter how many times I read and re-read it. I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey more times than any sane person should, and it still confounds and baffles me. No one should read Ulysses or watch 2001 simply to have done so (though I am sure there are those who pick up copies of each for that singular purpose). These works find longevity not because people can “complete” them but because they provide the viewer/reader with experiences that are enriched through repeated viewings/readings.

Games, of course, operate much differently. We come to them to interact with new environments, puzzles, items, and characters; consequently, modern video games always have some sort of goal as specific as fighting a final boss or as vague as moving toward distant light emanating from a mountain. These trials are contextual, arising naturally from the gameplay, and once they are overcome, the player feels a sense of accomplishment (however simple or complex that feeling may be). Yet I see a distinct difference between “accomplishment” and “completion” that the trophy system does not. Beating a boss may yield a trophy, but the battle may not be nearly as satisfying as finding a way to manipulate the environment to make the encounter work in your favor. Achievements so often incentivize linear, focused play that they pull focus from the more inventive, exploratory side of gaming that makes an interactive text so rich and engaging. Even more problematic is the idea that gamers need to be told how to find complex ways to play in order to experience the game in its entirety. And therein lies my real problem with the 100% completion lie. I cannot “complete” a game anymore than I can “master” Ulysses. I can engage with it more, I can become more knowledgeable about its contents and mechanics, but that hardly means I have experienced all it has to offer.

While my examples above function, admittedly, much differently than video games in terms of media interactivity, the statement still stands in term of gaming as a tradition. A complex zero-sum game like chess, though it has no narrative to speak of, still is impossible to completely master because of the multiple outcomes based on player decision and manipulation of the game board. Sure, there are numerous strategies employed by professional players, but there is no single strategy that cannot be countered–at least not yet. A video game like Fallout 3, while not as mathematically or strategically complex as a game like chess, hardly functions on a completely closed circuit because it has multiple modes of play: combat, exploration, looting, mercantile systems, etc. If we view a game in its entirety, ludological completion is absolutely impossible if a game can always be replayed with different outcomes, be it through constructing a different character and finding new secrets in a large game like Skyrim or through something as simple as changing up the jump pattern in a platformer.

I know it seems like I’m coming down pretty hard on an aspect of current-gen gaming that can be largely ignored. It nevertheless bothers me that a set list of tasks can dictate how a player can “complete” a game. The completionist model of gaming fixates not on the gameplay but on the reward at the end. The player, then, focuses on how to fulfill a requirement instead of how to play, taking focus away from the player-generated experience that makes each individual playthrough of a game significant.

Because games are shoveled out into the player market like coal on the Titanic, developers understandably want to keep players engaged in any way they can. But when a game’s replay value surfaces only in the player’s love for trophies, the developers lose sight of the product they create. I should want to try an kill-free run of Dishonored because it appeals to me, not because I can unlock an ethereal achievement. Littering a game with trophies and achievements that interrupt regular gameplay imposes an inescapable meta-game that speaks down to the product itself almost as if to say that the game is not absorbing enough. They mark a false sense of accomplishment that can take away from the player’s interaction and search for meaning in a digital environment. The greatest games, much like the great films and works of literature, forgo the promise of completion in favor of letting the player get lost in the alleys of the text, leaving him/her to decide when (if at all) a game is truly finished.

David Chandler

About David Chandler

A teacher, a scholar, an editor, and a vigilante -- sometimes all at once. He likes to read about writing and write about reading. When he's doing neither of these things at the University of Tulsa where he's working on his PhD in English, he's playing video games or biking all in the name of freedom and pancakes.

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