Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Achievements: a gamer's crutch

It's 10am on a Saturday and my fiancé wanders into the living room, wrapped in a blanket, she still looks tired but, more than that, she is furious. I've been up since roughly 4am, maybe a touch earlier, in order to meet up with some like minded people and play Call of Duty 3 on the Xbox 360. We aren't playing for fun, or even because we know each other that well, instead we are playing to rack up enough points to unlock the gnarly online achievements that so few people have attained. It's a waste of time, but also a bit of a compulsion.

My gaming "career", not that it's earned me any money of course, began way back in the day with a Spectrum 128k. This was the updated and improved version of the tired Spectrum 48k and actually had a tape player BUILT INTO the system, such was the lofty state of advancement at the time. Early games included Manic Miner, Treasure Island and Firelord to name but a few.

At the time my interest with games was only slight. My parents controlled when we could play and the games themselves didn't really lend themselves to multiple attempts, seeing as they were so small and linear to begin with. A few games certainly piqued my interest, like the collection heavy Dizzy series that relied on you finding and locating key items in order to solve puzzles. The series grew in size and scope, relative to the era, until things became pretty demanding. So much so that Spellbound Dizzy had a helpline set up in order to assist people in finding the last few items they may be missing.

In an era before online guides and with monthly magazines only having so much room for tips, you can imagine that I ran up a pretty big bill. Or would have. Luckily my mother had the clever idea of recording those guides and then typing them out for me while she was on her lunch at work. Bless her heart.

From there we had the obvious leap to games on the NES and SNES, with a brief sojourn into the Amiga in order to sample puzzle classics like Monkey Island. Probably the first game that I remember just HAVING to spend a lot of time with was Super Mario World. If you found and completed every single level, and some of them were devilishly hard, then you got a little star next to your game save. That was it. A star. Yet I poured hour upon hour into doing just that, finding and unlocked each level in turn until I could bask in my triumph. For a few seconds anyway.....

There was no time to enjoy it, as I had to move onto something else; Zelda: A Link to the Past, Shadowrun, Metal Marines and I especially remember getting up early before I had to go to school in order to spend even more time on Secret of Mana. I never played games and got bored, or played them for five minutes and moved on, I played them until they were done, finished, and beaten in every conceivable way. Probably the best example would be Striker, a SNES football (soccer) game that was pretty easy to beat. Only you could never save your triumphs, or the two uber tough teams you unlocked from winning the bigger cups. So I made it my goal to beat every single cup, league and tournament I could in one epic session. With Guatemala by the way - as one of the decent teams would have been too easy. I did it happily, knowing that once I powered off the console my achievement would be instantly erased.

Again though, this was relatively small fry, as games were still fairly constrained in terms of their size and scope. Plus, operating on a budget that consisted mainly of pocket money and Xmas/Birthday gifts I was bound to play games to death as I only had a few games to go at regardless. So it never caused me too much grief in terms of friends or family.

The next step up was the Playstation and games like Final Fantasy VII - my first real introduction into JRPG titles. This was a game which was chock full of hidden nooks and crannies, one that was designed from the ground up to have surprises around every turn. I beat it the first time in roughly thirty seven hours, and remember feeling disappointed as I had been led to believe that it was impossible to complete in any less than eighty. I felt let down by the game, as if the rug had been pulled out from under me. Then I spotted a guide and saw all the bits I'd missed: the Gold Chocobo, the hidden material, the ultimate summons. Time for a second attempt, and this one lasted a good 90 hours and saw me beat the last boss in one attack: such was the strength of my ultra buffed characters.

Here at last was a console with games that matched my ambitions. Titles that demanded on repeat viewings and had rewards for alternate playthroughs. Did I unlock Hunk on Resident Evil 2? You know I did, and that bloody useless Tofu as well. I then went to my friends house and did the same for him, only on the Dreamcast version. Took me a couple of hours without a guide. I remember feeling pretty proud of myself, even though I had literally just done the very same thing that I'd already accomplished myself weeks ago. It felt like an achievement. The irony isn't lost on me.

By this point I had a part time job and was going through college and then university. So by the time the PS2 and Xbox turned up I had free reign to pretty much pick up and play every game I wanted to. I'd run through games in as fast a time as I could, often failing to savour them properly, just so that I could move onto something else. I still put the time into unlocking as much content as I could, but it often meant that I'd choose quick games over lengthy ones or get bogged down on bigger games as I couldn't bring myself to skip certain tasks.

The clearest example, and the one that almost broke the cycle, was Final Fantasy X. I spent hours making sure I would be able to unlock and find every single item, ultimate weapon and ability. From hopping past 200 lightning strikes to using a key combination of abilities to turn massive damage into skill building points, nothing was beyond my remit. Only I found myself growing tired of the nitty gritty, was it all worth while? I could have spent that time moving on with the game, but instead I was grinding against specific enemies and using guides to make sure I hadn't missed anything. It felt more like a chore than a game, and it's a lesson that somehow failed to stick with me.

The overwhelming reason is probably that I was just as much into books, films and attempting to seem attractive to the opposite sex (no mean feat when you list books, films and games amongst your hobbies) as I was in games. So I had other diversions to stop the frustrations from totally putting me off my gaming hangups for good. In hindsight it's probably a shame that I didn't persist with just the games, grow annoyed and pack them in entirely or at least to a more moderate level, but sometimes these things work out. Or not.

By the time the Xbox 360 came out I was a convert to the Microsoft cause. I'd ridiculed the original Xbox at first but had gradually shifted my perception, mainly thanks to my friends persistence and a large number of late night Halo LAN sessions that were often raucous, ridiculous and hilarious affairs. So my new console of choice was the 360, also helped by the fact the PS3 was ludicrously expensive to begin with.

At first it seemed like I'd bought a dud. The new releases were non-existent and I barely touched the thing for the first six months I owned it. After a while I started to play a few games that other people had lent me, the first being Call of Duty 2. I figured I'd tackle the game on the hardest difficulty just to spin it out for a while and, along the way, happened to unlock all of the achievements. At the time it didn't really mean a lot. Sure it was nice to see them popping up along the way but what, if anything, did they matter?

Then of course, my gaming nature to bleed every last drop out of a game took over and achievements, naturally, were a good way to measure my progress. I'd play through games on multiple difficulties, track down hidden items and even play specific matches and modes online in order to get things done. A buddy of mine felt the same way and that was how my first achievement boosting session occurred.

It sounds a little sordid really, "boosting". Like we were trying to score drugs, only the fix was actually a virtual number that had no real meaning outside of our heads. We set up games on Top Spin 2 together and proceeded to take turns losing. Though we did also duke it out a few times on the game for real, this was the first example of me basically taking the shortest possible route to achievement success. Is it the legitimate way to get things done? Of course not, but it was the best way for me to get the game done and move onto something else. The real surprise was just how many people felt the same way.

Eventually of course that led me to specific sites set up to assist people in acquiring achievements, with guides and hints. Not to mention a plethora of like minded fools to team up with to make seemingly impossible tasks that much easier. In a way though it also changed the way I played games, often for the worse. I used to only pick up games that appealed to me, ones that had good word of mouth or looked like they would interest me or provide a unique experience in some way.

Once achievements kicked in, that all changed. Instead of avoiding crappy games I would go out of my way to track them down and blitz through them. Titles like Avatar: The Burning Earth (notorious for giving up the full 1,000 Gamerscore in roughly 30 seconds), Hannah Montana and My Horse and Me 2 were just the tip of the iceberg and pretty much anything and everything became fair game. I was aided (and abetted) in this endeavour by the fact I worked at Blockbuster and could rent games for free, when I moved on from that job I took out a Lovefilm subscription to maintain the same perks. It wasn't wasting money, I reasoned, if it was a monthly subscription and I didn't actually own the games. Though at the same time I would still buy brand new games and leave them sat on shelves for years as I didn't have time to play them - too busy playing crap. Games like Assassins Creed 2, all the Mass Effect titles etc went to waste while I played movie tie in after movie tie in.

Around the time I was approaching over 100,000 Gamerscore I was made redundant. My old company had over expanded and, as I was one of the newest hires, the writing was on the wall. Tragically it happened about a month after I'd just bought a new house but I'd at least shown a bit of foresight and planned ahead. I was renting two rooms to a couple of friends (who also had an Xbox 360 each - which I would mercilessly borrow to boost games against a non-responsive opponent) and so the mortgage was covered until I got a new job.

Around this time I also met my other half. We met through a mutual friend, just chatted online to start with and then I would pop in and see her at work when I could. We shared a lot in common, with interests in reading, films plus the clincher being that she was a bit of a gamer herself. Eventually I plucked up the nerve to ask her out and she miraculously said yes. Shortly thereafter I got a new full time job and a few months after that she moved in.

Of course, in the background there was always the gaming. I would stay up late at night to finish off crappy games or boost with other people. I stopped reading, pretty much entirely, and I'd no longer go to the cinema and watch other films. That's not to say those hobbies were exactly rivaling healthy equivalents like running, football or carrying watermelons, but at least they were something. Instead I dedicated my spare time to playing games, bad games, ANY games. Though at least I spent the majority of time with my girlfriend. Or so I thought.

Over time she began to point out that I spent more time gaming than anything else, even spending time with her. I lost track of the amount of times that she fell asleep on my lap while I was trying to complete Ben 10, or track down that last item in Looney Toons. It was good natured at first, a little joke and smile. I'd inevitably laugh and be set straight for a few days, maybe a week, and then eventually I'd creep back into gaming mode when some new piece of tat with easy achievements turned up.

The jokes gave way to arguments, and the arguments gave way to promises (not kept) that I'd do better. To my shame I'd also be that engrossed in playing games in a morning that I was occasionally late for work, it was only by five or ten minutes, but as someone that gets annoyed by people being one minute late it was decidedly out of character. Not to mention stupid. Imagine risking your job for 10 more gamerscore?

Which leads us back to where we started on that fateful Saturday morning. Call of Duty 3 was a game I'd despaired of ever finishing off, mainly due to the ludicrous need to get 40,000 points online. However, a method emerged which saw teams throw flags at each other and rack up thousands of points per game. I approached my girlfriend to ask for her permission to play, at 4am (as most of the people involved were in the U.S.) and she said that would be fine. Though asked that I stop playing by 9am and make her breakfast.

I didn't stop at 9am.

By 10am she was downstairs, practically in tears, and rightfully at her wits end with my antics. I'd once again chosen to inflate some meaningless score over being with her and felt like a class A moron. She had had enough, she packed up a few things and went to stay with her parents for the weekend. I asked when she'd be back, and her reply was "I don't know". I genuinely thought that was it. End of the road. No one deserved to get dumped more than me, and what had I actually achieved?

For the next couple of days I mooched around the house not doing very much. I was on my own and felt like throwing my 360 off a cliff in some kind of ceremonial act of contrition (kind of like Say Anything but with less boombox and more violence towards consoles). I didn't touch my console again and really have hazy memories about what I did with myself during that time other than having a sense of self pity (entirely unjustified) and hoping things could turn around.

She called me on the Sunday night and asked me to go over and see her. I did so and we talked for a couple of hours, just about where we were at, how we felt about each other and what I could do to stop being such an ass.

Did I completely mend my ways? I'd be lying if I said I had never played a game purely for achievements since then, but I no longer let it overwhelm me. I've played plenty of games since, some of them crappy, but they mainly come through my review work. I now only purchase games that I know I'll enjoy and steer clear of games that need a lot of online play, for fear that they will drag me back down into the pit. We still occasionally argue about me spending time on the console, but it's a rare event and certainly not as ongoing as the grand "whose turn is it to wash up?" melodrama. In fact I can't remember the last time it was brought up (my lady probably can, she dates and files all grievances against her - possibly for some end game life strategy I am unaware of).

There will always be that bit of compulsion about the way I approach games, and my girlfriend (now wife) understands that. Part of my wedding speech even mentioned her tolerance of all the crappy games I used to play, and the ludicrous boosting I did, it got a good laugh. Mainly from her - which was the most important thing. But while it's easy to brush it away as a joke now, some shared memory that is rosier in hindsight, it was certainly a shitty time and highlighted just how easy it is to become a neglectful, crappy person over something as trivial as games.

Of course, having said all that, I still have 427k worth of Gamerscore and a 95% achievement completion ratio. Despite myself, I still try to complete every game I play 100% but it no longer bothers me if I can't. Certainly a milestone moment for me was when a bunch of friends asked me to join in a boost for the two prestige achievements on Call of Duty: World at War. 200+ hours of boosting for two zero point achievements. We had a brief practice session and, for the first time, I said to them that I was out, it wasn't for me and I'd rather spend all that time doing something else. I expected them to rag on me, but they instantly understood and I felt like a weight had been lifted. It seems like nothing, like OBVIOUSLY I shouldn't be playing a game I hate for 200 hours for no real reason, but there was a point when I would boost ANY game no matter how long it took. Since then my boosting has been kept to a minimum and I just play games I want to play, like in the good old days.

In fact I decided to finally go back and play all the great games I'd missed (while playing crap for points) and sell off all of the crappy games I had sat around, still untouched. In the last couple of years I've played through three Assassins Creed games, Dark Souls (and its sequels), Portal 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, all the Splinter Cell games and a bunch of other stuff and it's been great. I can enjoy the story rather than skipping it to complete the game faster and revel in superb games that I should have been playing all along. I've sold off 30+ games that I'd had sat around to pimp for points and I doubt I'll miss any of them. I even bought, and played on DAY ONE, a bunch of newer stuff too which is amazingly unlike me and I could actually talk about new games with other people that had played them AT THE SAME TIME. It was a liberating experience.

The best thing in life (as opposed to what Conan might think) is that I spend time together with my wife every day, I do some cooking before she lands and she tells me about her day and who she wants to kill at work. We hang out for a few hours, watching TV, moaning about work and telling each other random "nuggets" (stupid facts we have discovered during our day) and it's great. It's the way it should be and it boggles my mind, looking back, that I put that sense of having someone, someone to share life with, behind the tick tock of a virtual number.

Achievements are a fun addition to games, and they changed how I play games forever (and not always for the better), but don't let them BECOME the game.