Achievements and the Whore of Bablyon

Super Meat Boy Replay

Patrick Gann, in discussing my article The Japanese Style (Part 1), had this to say about my claims regarding Super Meat Boy:

Super Meat Boy has achievements where you have to go through all 20 levels of a world with no deaths.

I have attempted this in world 1. For 8 hours. I gave up.

So I disagree with your statement on Super Meat Boy. The level of mastery to achieve there is insane.

The original part in question below, referencing a characteristic of Japanese games:

They are not willing to prevent your failure. The ubiqitous GAME OVER screen may, in fact, rear its ugly head! Gasp! Even the games that we herald as “difficult”  (Super Hexagon, VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy) don’t make the failure anything of a task. Levels are far too short and games remain far too forgiving with checkpoints. Real difficulty comes from understanding the game’s mechanics to a degree where you can proceed through a whole level without a single death. It’s a long, sustained endurance match with the game. The previous “indie” games aren’t so much difficulty as they present one difficult situation you can try over and over again. The masocore sub-genre removes the feat of progressing to a point in the level you can’t beat and THEN defeating said task with your knowledge learned from failure. Those games hold your hand more than you think. Super Hexagon has a bit of this, but it still doesn’t sustain itself that well. I still can’t beat a CAVE shooter on one credit, even though I’ve spent hundreds of hours; I can beat Super Hexagon, given enough time and concentration. Most of my failures come from randomness rather than any particular failure on my part.

This stuff’s maddening to me, because I can see they perceive what is difficult in games, yet remove them as outdated contrivances. They were there for a reason, and not just to annoy the living crap out of you. They added new obstacles and difficulties; they added resources management and understanding. They let you learn from your own mistakes, rather than glossing over them with one magnificent run (hence, my dislike of random level designs and randomization – learning such things can be difficult, but also unfair at times) of a particular segment. Surprise, there’s a checkpoint waiting for you, because you deserve it! That tends to be the indie perspective in a nutshell – removing frustrations – that results in subpar gaming design with horrible risk/reward structures.

So, who is right here? I may have a larger explanation, but it does not take into account the fact that Super Meat Boy’s achievement require an extraordinary level of control and mastery to live that long. Correct! Yet, there’s a slight problem here. Can you think of what it is?

Think about it for a second. I will wait.

The task in question isn’t a genuine part of the game. Rather, the task remains an achievement. As far as that goes, achievements do not exist as part of the designer’s game. Rather, developers add achievements after the fact. “Hey, someone’s bound to get bored with Super Meat Boy; why not mess with their heads and make them think they’re doing something worthwhile? Yeah! We’ll put a achievement for making it through twenty levels without dying! That’ll show ’em that our game is really, truly hardcore.”

The whole system of achievements, trophies, whatever you can all it, strikes me as a giant farce. Games used to tell us what to do, but we could create our own objectives if we wanted. Just take a good look at any one credit clear of a shmup or fighting games, and you’ll see that victory comes as a natural part of the core mechanics. I won; I do not need anyone else telling me I won because the proof exists right before your eyes.

But, in the weird tradition of grinding, we now have this ranking system that awards us points, relative to our friends/enemies, based on some arbitrary number or accumulation of digital rewards that don’t even translate to usable currency. Why else do they exist other than to “show off” one’s accomplishments? Not that many games with 1000 easy GamerScore or trophies maxed don’t exist; if you’ve ever heard the term “achievement whore”, you know what I mean.

achievementWhore

Um. Yeah.

Most video games cannot rank on a scale like this; for one, I find it highly nonsensical. Does 1000/1000 count for as much when the game literally gives it to you for beating the game? What about relative to the challenge of the individual achievements? The self-aggrandizing nature of the enterprise makes fools of gamers everywhere. No longer do they play the game as intended, or how they want to play; instead, achievements give them an arbitrary goal, one the developers know some crazy person will attempt in a venture for self-justification.

If there was ever a game with a perfect (and certainly incomplete) list of achievements, Bayonetta remains the only tangible one I encountered. Sure, it has goals that remain stupid, busy time wasters (the one involving the tentacles; go look it up. That isn’t innuendo.). At least the largest point score comes from beating the game’s highest difficulty level – and you deserve it after displaying that level of mastery (now that I think about it, I should go back and finish this up). Still, you don’t get an achievement for beating the game on the highest difficulty level with Jeanne, do you? Or King of Little Devils Zero (two-three hits and you die – EVERY LEVEL). Clearly, something’s off here.

In most cases, achievements equal that accumulation of useless items in a JRPG – you keep them for later, but who knows when you’ll use them or what purpose they’ll have. By the time you finish the game…well, you probably should use them now, when they’re not even useful anymore!

I hate achievements, not only for their comparisons to disparate genres, differing objectives and difficulty placed on the same scale. Worst of all, the token labeled “achievement” means the very opposite of the word used to describe a perfunctory task that, in any seriousness, should exist as a challenge in the game rather than an afterthought for people with too much free time on their hands. They no more contribute to mastery of the game than anything else.

Super Meat Boy, then, misses the mark in requiring true mastery. As Michael J. Lowell points out in his review:

 And even when the Steam and XBox Live achievement systems for Super Meat Boy reward players for sustained levels of play, Team Meat missed the damn point. The game’s vaunted “Impossible Boy” achievement requires the player to complete the final world in its “Dark World” incarnation (best described as “Hard Mode”) on a single life. That actually sounds like a reasonable accomplishment. That is, until the player realizes he can play the twenty levels in any order and get the hardest levels out of the way before focusing on the easier levels. Even when the game demands a no-death run from its most talented players, the player can undertake it at their own convenience.

Achievements simply miss the point. If the designer wanted to reward a genuine accomplishment, they use the game to fulfill that particular function. They present challenges based on a certain level of difficulty. The success comes from the intangible feeling of victory, not some notch on your digital bedpost. On the subject of harlotry and judging one’s accomplishments, Revelation 17’s description of the Whore of Babylon entered Christian imagery for a reason:

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed acts ofimmorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality, and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly. And the angel said to me, “Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.

“The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. Andthose who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come. Here is the mind which has wisdom. Theseven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, 10 and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while. 11 The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction. 12 The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. 13 These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast. 14 These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”

15 And he *said to me, “The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues. 16 And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate andnaked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18 The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.”

Certainly, there’s a bounty of interpretations here for the whore of Babylon, but idolatry seems the common one. Humans have a tendency for it; we place something as a pedestal, whether it is our own accomplishments or how Christian we are, really! In the end, though, it’s all meaningless if it comes between you and God. Or, in this case, between you and the game. An idol of wood and stone, or an Achievement, take the same line of attack: appeal to your vanity and shrink God into a tiny shape to be controlled. Shrink the game and make its accomplishments fit to some predetermined, arbitrary standard.

In both cases, it doesn’t work. God is big and you are small. Games that require true skill to overcome do not badger you with false badges of pride. You earn that trophy, but you remain humble to the One who gave you the talents and abilities to earn it. Perhaps we need less bragging and more humble people in the game community – truly humble, not the false humility of the modern era.

So that’s a roundabout way to say I don’t think Super Meat Boy engenders a demand for true mastery – just the pedantry of a man willing to reload a save state in an emulator until he gets it JUST right.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • People who have reached true mastery in Super Meat Boy do not, at all, fit this description:
    “So that’s a roundabout way to say I don’t think Super Meat Boy engenders a demand for true mastery – just the pedantry of a man willing to reload a save state in an emulator until he gets it JUST right.”
    That’s not an option. That’s not happening. You’re thinking of tool-assisted speed runs. You can’t earn the achievement by cheating. People who do these things do it because they’ve become wildly good at the running, turning, jumping, wall-jumping, etc in the game. Plus memorization of hte levels, which is no different from the “NES hard” you love. 🙂
    Achievements can serve a great purpose. All of the “this can become idolatry” may as well apply to videogames as a whole. For people who become “achievement whores,” yes, obviously, we have a problem.
    But for anyone who really enjoys a game and wants to plumb its depths, a guided list of fun, challenging, interesting things to do is certainly warranted. And game designers, these days, ARE thinking about achievements as they’re making the game.
    Lowell’s point doesn’t hold much water either. Oh okay, I can choose the order of the levels I play. But they’re all pretty freaking hard. Probably knock the long ones out of the way I suppose, but I’ve seen vids of people going in order with no deaths.
    As valid as your arguments seem on a surface reading, I cannot get over the deep gut feeling that you simply hold a bias over new-West compared to old-East because you built up a childlike fondness for one. My kids play Braid and they’ll probably remember it the way you remember Super Mario World. Note that they’ve also played Super Mario World and they like that too. 😛

    • There’s a key difference here: Super Meat Boy, again, never requires this mastery to COMPLETE THE GAME. So, even if it does represent a level of mastery over a game, it’s not one that is ever required of the player. If it were the case, Super Meat Boy would be a fair bit better than it is just by making it a requirement of completion.

      I honestly don’t care what country or platform it comes from (Donkey Kong Country was developed in Europe, Jazz Jackrabbit in the US, etc). What I do care about is that the game teaches the player mechanics, makes them understand those mechanics, and then continues to test them with combinations of previous obstacles and then variety in challenges. At least in the latter, Super Meat Boy only has a couple concepts in the bag (oh look, saw blade; oh look, pile of things that kill you), and these get repeated ad nauseum with a slight difference in aesthetics. Furthermore, the “save state” comment seems entirely apt given the length of said levels; most never even crest over the minute-long mark. Since there’s literally no punishment for death (except for, you guessed it, an arbitrary achievement), you’re free to try one section over and over again until you nail it.

      Contrast this to Mega Man 2’s Wily 4. The Orb Turrett boss requires precisely 7 shots (possibly 6) of the Crash Bombs to defeat. You need to know the exact pattern of the room to do it. Or cheat, your preference if you want to grind weapon energy. But, and here’s the key thing, the game doesn’t bother to start you off right in front of the boss room with full energy. You’re empty, and that’s that. You live with the mistake and you can rectify it in the way you see fit. In either case, you’ll still need to go through the same obstacles again in one go to succeed – not “immediately all reprecussions dissappear and I get to try again”.

      I totally understand the impulse to see this as “fake” difficulty, but it isn’t. The game tested your accuracy and ingenuity before, and now it presents an entirely different obstacle to the player that they hadn’t reckoned with before. And this isn’t optional AT ALL; you do it, or you can’t complete the game to full mastery.

      And that is still the problem with the achievements. They’re still optional, all things considered. If the game really tested my mastery of the game (or if the developer had enough confidence in their ability to teach the player the necessary reflexes and skills by the end), then it would exist as a natural part of the game’s flow. But it doesn’t.

      • Ehhh … I get it, but then it’s like “well, it’s ALL optional.” The test is available and the guideposts are there, achievement or no.
        Now, that said, your description of Wily 4 boss is glorious, and that one moment does hold to my memory much better than virtually any SMB level. And it’s not just me being a child when I first played it. It IS the precipitous path leading up to it. The whole gauntlet of Wily’s Castle is … well, we all know. It’s insane.
        FWIW I do think SMB’s bag of tricks is varied. Almost every level pushes you to learn to apply a new aspect or combination of aspects. The “seek you out” enemies come in different varieties, some airborne, it gets wild. I concede: the levels are short. 🙂
        Related thought — have you ever watched the EGOraptor video on Mega Man X? I imagine you could’ve narrated it virtually the same way. That’s so you. And that perspective on the value of games as working through a set of rules or patterns … I dig it.

        • Oh, I have this problem even with games I like, Bayonetta, for one (even though it has different objectives – combat, not so much level design) never forces you to master the mechanics either unless you do Angel Slayer or higher difficulties (or the different characters). Maybe I just hate extra content and fluff? I would hope the designers had enough confidence in themselves to constrain me and wring me through all the challenges and difficulties in their palette, rather than relegating it off to the side.

          Perhaps Super Meat Boy’s not my thing. I did enjoy playing it when it first came out. but it wasn’t particularly memorable in either design or aesthetics. Well, the music’s pretty awesome, but not so much the kind of thing you can hum, if you get what I mean. It’s got personality in that post-modern, ironic and cynical mode that I find, more and more, that I’m not a fan. Personal preference, right here!

          Those Sequelitis videos exemplify my thoughts perfectly on that one. Not sure if Mega Man X is THE BEST GAME EVER, though. I’d have to think about that 🙂

  • The “achievement whore” achievement is the only one I didn’t get for Hotline Miami (probably because of a weird glitch). And achievements are definitely the ultimate MacGuffin/idol.

  • If we’re going to call achievements idols the only honest recourse is to call all gaming mastery idols. Being good at Megaman X matters exactly as much as completing an achievement in Super Meat boy. Trying to seperate the two is creating a purely arbitrary line that serves no purpose except to exclude certain experiences from what you feel to be acceptable.

    • All challenge is arbitrary, I grant you that. But the designer has a particular role in crafting a fulfilling climax to the mastery of the mechanics. When they don’t reinforce provide good feedback on your movements, nor good feedback on your success, it creates a disconnect for the player. It’s a tiny imperceptible thing, but it matters a lot. Super Meat Boy just doesn’t do this particularly well, and I stand by that opinion.

      When I say I don’t like achievements, I’m not lambasting the particular challenges behind them, but more their extracurricular nature. If the designer felt strongly enough about their mechanics, they don’t need to create weird challenges – it would be integrated into the game as a whole rather than being a separate entity.

      Plus, there’s the obvious accumulation of points and the whole “achievement whore” culture it propagates. Most achievements, to be quite frank, don’t really show me anything other than that people have lots of free time to gather collectibles. I’d rather they were real accomplishments of mastery, like MGR:R’s Thunder God achievement for getting S Ranks on every fight in every mission. That’s true mastery of a game, and I’d like to see more achievements promoting actual mastery of the mechanics.

      • ” If the designer felt strongly enough about their mechanics, they don’t need to create weird challenges – it would be integrated into the game as a whole rather than being a separate entity.”

        No, this is completely wrong and setting a precedent of what ought to be when none exists.

        • Why do you make statements like “absolute norm”, and then not explain them? Not trying to be picky here, but saying “this is wrong” or “this is right” doesn’t help me at all. You’re just saying the opposite.

          And it’s obvious that we’re talking about the specific KIND of game that involves challenges in this article, so I’m leaving experiential-style games out of this. Please read some of the other stuff on here; you’ll understand where I’m coming from in much more exhaustive detail than I can cram into a comment.