Maybe you've heard of this game, Darkest Dungeon? You probably have. You've probably heard about how great it is, and how it's trying its absolute best to murder you. It’s been in Early Access for quite some time now, gathering quite the following of people dedicated and willing to suffer through madness and heroic sacrifices to help clear the deepest corridors.
I just recently joined this group in the last week, and I can safely say that the game already lives up to its promises of hardship and fun.
That’s not what this article is about though; this article is about a particular game feature that’s missing from Darkest Dungeon, a game feature that has crept into gaming over the last decade. A feature that, at first glance, looks entirely superfluous to the game itself, but has influenced game design and structure heavily. For some, this feature gives a game an extra layer of challenge and triumph, egging them on to try for bizarre or difficult feats. For others, this feature is an eyesore, an un-needed distraction that takes away from playing the game itself.
Achievements: Would Darkest Dungeon be better with or without them?
Darkest Dungeon is a Pain-Game
Darkest Dungeon is a game where permadeath to your favorite characters can happen…oftentimes right when you think a particular delve into the depths is going well. Your healer takes a critical hit to the face, and suddenly your team falls apart as your key damage dealer starts using your bandages instead of attacking. My first attempt to play this game fell apart as I simply ran out of money to finance missions, and my best characters were either dead, or too mentally insane to be of any use without spending time in the asylum in town.
Normally, I enjoy seeing my co-writers take embarrassing hits...but not when I'm trying to win a game with them.
I did my first play-through on a weekend, with several friends watching. We named all the characters after ourselves and friends, and as poor Reid died by fish monsters, we laughed. As Nella became insane and started only healing herself, we groaned. There was energy in the attempt to figure out how the game worked, and as things stalled out, we accepted our fate of failure. We took a breath, deleted our save, and started again.
The best game to attribute this mentality to is the award winning X-COM: Enemy Unknown, while you’re playing on Iron-Man mode. You are forced to accept the cards you are dealt, and if that means you pushed for one fight too many, there’s no going back. There’s a severity here that is exciting and challenging, but can also turn into something demoralizing if failure and bad luck start making repeat visits. Anyone who's played a game like Diablo on hardcore mode also understands this particular blend of satisfaction and misery.
In a game like this, you are expected to fail sometimes. Why is that fun for some, and not for others? Are Achievements a way to let even those that don't win still feel accomplished?
This is a game where, let’s face it, not everyone is going to win. There are going to be many people who leap in for the thrill of challenge, and find themselves blindsided by an unexpected downward spiral. It’s a game that’s meant to fight you at every turn - which is part of the allure - but that means many aren’t going to get to see the credits roll, that main hope of most people playing single-player games.
Darkest Dungeon is in early access still, with a true release date slated for mid-January. In their list of content to add to the game, they have been promising to put in achievements for quite some time. The question is, will this be an addition that adds or subtracts from the game itself?
Why Achievements Would Make Darkest Dungeon Better
Let me be honest, I’ve been conditioned to have a small rush of pleasure when I hear that ‘ding!’ while playing any Xbox system. I let out a small hissed ‘yesssss’ when I see a new Steam Achievement scroll up on the bottom of my screen. I’m not alone in this phenomenon, as I’m sure many have seen the ‘Achievement Unlocked’ on various articles of clothing. It’s big enough a deal that my wife – who doesn’t play video games – understood the joke enough to surprise me with an inside joke for our wedding.
I still smile whenever I see the image. Being reminded of your accomplishments isn't bad, right?
There’s an obvious enjoyment to feeling that you achieved something, and this is still probably the biggest reason why achievements are something that are loved by many who play games. It’s something to achieve, to strive for; this is especially true in games that might not have a linear storyline, or perhaps are just simply very difficult, like Darkest Dungeon or X-COM: Enemy Unknown. It's a way to catalog your progress and see how much of the game you've explored by some rough measure. It's a reminder, and I have several games where I still haven’t beaten them after a year or two of owning them, but I still feel accomplished in my efforts. If I managed to work through enough of a game, I know I still got my money’s worth …even if I didn’t quite manage to defeat that cursed final boss in The Banner Saga after starving for several months. Having a nice set of achievements unlocked on steam let me put down the game after having its grip on me for a week, so I could focus on other things.
Another side effect of some achievements are causing gamers to strive for greatness, or for thinking outside the box. We all know there’s been a lot of psychology behind goal-setting, and also for the idea of setting mini-goals: small little achievements along your way to the actual end result you are looking for. Education theorists like James Paul Gee talk about how video games are one of the best learning tools in the world, thanks to how well they inspire their players to learn how to beat the challenges set before them; clear goals, enough support to help the 'student' learn how to overcome the obstacles, and then the feeling of reward that also inspires more progress.
Let's take it from one of the best books written about how games can be inspiring: Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken. One of the main points of the book was how games were a great learning device...but also how they inspired enjoyment in the process of learning and self-betterment. Sure, me beating the latest Starcraft 2 campaign might not directly translate into a larger paycheck, but it could be a way to mentally engage with myself, to stay fresh, and to feel accomplished. There have been times where I would come home from work after a 10 hour shift, crash on the couch, and then feel entirely invigorated an hour later as I finally unlocked that final co-op achievement with a friend. I could then get up, turn off the TV, and get to the next big project in my life that I hadn't had energy for just a little while ago.
Seize the Day! Carpe Diem!
In Jane's own words, "games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work."
Darkest Dungeon feels like good, hard work. When you finally make it, when you finally succeed after repeated failures through the crypts to find the heirlooms you were looking for, you can't help but lean back and grin. Surely, having a record of achievements on Steam showing your victories over various bosses...or how you beat the game with a full set of just Highwaymen would add to the experience of a good game.
Why Achievements Would Make Darkest Dungeon Worse
...But what if achievements aren't good, hard work?
You all have probably had an experience like this one: you're playing a game, a good game, a well designed, interesting, fun game. There's plenty to see and do, to experience besides the main plot. There's concept art and soundtracks to unlock, side characters to talk to, cut-scenes to see...and wait, what's this? There's a coffee thermos over there, and it says you can pick it up! Surely, nothing bad can happen.
This is perhaps one of the most infamous collectible quests found in gaming. I love you anyway, Alan Wake.
And nothing does, at first. Nothing bad happens in the game at all, except the little pop up that informs you that you have now proudly collected one out of one hundred of these items, scattered throughout the game. You realize, in horror, that you are already on the third level, and this is the first one that you have found...surely, that means you must have missed some. Now, with a final sinking sense of dread, you check the records on your Xbox to find out that there are, in fact, achievement points to earn by finding all of them.
Collectibles in games were something found long before achievements ever became popular, but they became even more insidious after. Already seen as a way to often prolong a game past its normal length of fun, the addition of achievements transformed these quests into a particularly mean purgatory: many completionists found themselves stuck playing a game long after they had stopped enjoying themselves, determined to get that last 25, 50, 100 achievement points. The work they had originally approached as a game, as something fun, turned into something to slog through.
Another example that comes to mind are the achievements which ask you to do entirely unnecessary things in order to earn that little sticker on your ego. There are good examples yet again in X-COM: Enemy Unknown of these sort of above-and-beyond events. One of my favorites - which I haven't been able to accomplish - is the "An Army of Four" goal, where you have to beat the game on its hard mode or above with only squads of four soldiers at a time, even though the game specifically is built around having more soldiers later on. Even though I've tried, believe me, I can't win this one...but that's okay. It was a goal, I strove for it, and I realized in very cut and dry terms that I wasn't up for that adventure. I enjoyed the journey, even if I didn't get to the end.
Compare and contrast to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It was a fun, solid game, that was known for having a wonderful stealth component; a game that you could attempt to beat without ever using lethal force. Achievements were there plain as day, betting you, goading you into trying. It would be difficult, sure, but you had tranquilizers...you had the abilities to navigate through without being detected...surely, this would be a challenge worth going through.
A little more detail work could have gone a long way.
Except, the game sabotaged your efforts. I found out early on that shooting people with the tranquilizer could sometimes be considered a kill, if you hit them in the head. I got concerned when the lovely little 'zzzz' didn't appear from a figure as they went down, so I looked up that information online to find out that yes, I had accidentally applied too much force somehow. Nowhere in the game is this possibility brought to your attention. Neither did the game tell me how in the tutorial, where the game characters tell you to shoot your way through a particular section, that those shots would count against my efforts.
You can, through careful, aching carefulness, filled with reloads and mapping of the guards' routes, play through the entire game and be doomed because of a misunderstanding that occurred hours and hours ago. A mechanic that was meant to challenge instead has become a stumbling block, a point of frustration outside of your immediate control. I'm ashamed to say that, when I found out that my efforts towards the stealth achievements had been ruined 50 reloads before my current point, I promptly stopped playing.
Would an achievement for winning fights with only 10% or less be fun or frustrating? Would it anger you if the game wanted you to do it 100 more times?
There are many ways for achievements to become a hindrance instead of a help, but nearly all of these reasons are because the achievements pull you out of your gaming immersion and flow instead of helping you go deeper. There was an achievement in a game I've seen which asked for me to kill over a million enemies... after beating the campaign three times, I had barely crested 100,000. When does a game transform from something engaging and challenging to just a mundane chore?
I think that's the devious beauty about achievements: it's a bar that's been set by others, often without any sort of reward besides the sense of competition and completion. Many times, we play games because we enjoy them, but I've seen achievements lure people into playing them for hours past the 'fun' point for them, just to finally have that one little job done. This has happened to me too sadly, and it's not an experience I want to repeat; I play games to have fun, not feel as if I'm back in the office again.
A Right Way to do Everything
In the end, I’ve played games that have made achievements something fun and exciting. I’ve also played games where achievements have actually detracted from my experience, to the point where I simply didn’t want to play anymore. I’m a firm believer in game design that has purpose towards the building of challenges and rewards... and it's been done plenty of times before achievements ever appeared. Take a look at Nintendo, for example; there are people that still play their games that are five, ten, twenty years old just for a high score. They've never seen a reason to work achievements into their first party games, namely because they believe the games can stand well enough for themselves.
Some games add great little touches to show your advancement. Here's my estate soon after starting Darkest Dungeon...
...Yet, there is a special sort of satisfaction to see a list of accomplishments rattled out before you. In the modern era of games, where you can spend hundreds of hours exploring an open world or conquering a planet, having these small accomplishments acknowledged in some way can work as a way to drive more enjoyment out of gaming. In a game that is as tough and uncompromising as Darkest Dungeon, maybe having this additional layer of reward helps to give a sense of driving force to the player. I know that, for myself, that small rush of enjoyment that I would get with each terrible Lovecraftian boss destroyed would drive me to keep going, to see it through.
...And here it is after 15 hours of play. There is pleasure in seeing progress, and the best of games work them into the game design itself.
There’s a right way and a rushed way to work achievements into games. I've played games where the achievements pushed me to hit new game plus, and I never looked back, happy to have been given a little push towards more hours of enjoyment. I've also played games where the achievements jarred me so far out of the zone of fun that I found myself putting the game down faster, and being much less willing to pick it back up.
There are some people reading this who are achievement hunters - the pleasure of the game is in the completion, the total obsessive dominance over your game of choice; goals outside of the normal are what they crave for, and they will relish the additional challenges, even if frustrating. Darkest Dungeon, perhaps, was meant to be even tougher, and the challenge of beating the game without losing a single hero is a fight that you live for.
Some of you are staunchly against achievements, since they stand outside the game itself, an additional bit of marketing drivel. A game like Darkest Dungeon is grueling enough, and the point is the tough fights themselves. The game can reward you without that little pop up window, by showing cut-scenes, by showing you how the town grows as you return glory to your house.
Warning: court jesters might be prone to acts of murderous rampage while looking for fame and glory.
For me? I think Red Hook Studios is a company that's been dedicated to detail, to making a game that's both soul-crushing and rewarding all on it's own. Cutscenes, story, character progression, achievements - I'll trust them with making good achievements because I trust them to make a good game that stands on its own. Achievements are the icing on the cake, and who doesn't like a little extra on top of something already well made?
Are you a fan of achievements? Do you keep a tally count of the games you've 100% completed, or do you have achievements so much, you refuse to play on the Xbox? Leave us a comment and let us know what you think, or head on over to our Facebook and start the discussion there. Like what you've read? Feel free to follow our Twitter, so we can keep you informed as we unlock our next goal of being slightly more famous on the internet... we hear that's an achievement worth 30 points.