May 11, 2010

The Allure of Trophies

I'm somewhat new to the current generation of games. For years I've always been stubbornly "last-generation" when it comes to consoles, refusing to buy the newest system until it's life cycle is basically at an end. That way, I could pick up all the games I wanted on clearance or at used shops for a fraction of the cost. (This was way back when game stores were plentiful. It was actually possible to comparison shop at different locations to find some really great deals.) I never had an urgent desire to play any of the current games, mostly because I was still busy working on the "new releases" from a few years earlier. It's not a bad way to build a collection if you don't mind waiting a few years to pick up the titles you want.

There were exceptions of course, I bought a Dreamcast pretty early in it's life, and I picked up a Neo Geo Pocket Color as soon as I could find one. Of course I latched on to these pretty hard and I still collect and play games for both systems. About a year ago I finally played through Rayman 2, and it was amazing. I had tried it in college but at the time I was really fixated on the Saturn and sprite based games. It took a while for me to overcome my polygon prejudice, but now I can go back to quite a few titles that I missed out on.

As of a few months ago, I now own a PS3. I'm still a bit late to the party, but this is the first time I've ever owned a console during the prime of its life. There are a lot of things that separate this generation of gaming from the last, but one of the biggest changes that I've noticed is the inclusion of trophies/achievements. No longer do bragging rights just come from beating a game, you have to prove yourself by completing a series of goals given to you by the programmers. It reminds me a bit of those old Nintendo Power "Super Power Club" trading cards. If you were a subscriber, they'd include a perforated sheet of cards in the back of each issue, and every card had a "challenge" on it. There were varying degrees of difficulty and they often focused on tests of endurance, such as beating multiple levels without using certain items, or completing stages within a certain time limit.

(Yes, these are from my personal collection. I still have to scan the rest...)

Of course, if you could actually perform these feats there would be no way to prove it unless your buddy sat and watched you do it. You could just complete them for you own sense of self satisfaction, but that's just not enough for most gamers. Ever since we were ten years old we've been bragging during recess about about our conquests, telling tall tales about how we can beat Mega Man 2 without dying, or speed run through the Mario 3 without using any warp whistles. It's part of our nature to want to show of the pointless tasks that we spend hours mastering, and now with Trophies/Achievements, the whole world can see how frighteningly dedicated we are to our hobby.

I've never considered myself a "hardcore" gamer. I don't often play through games for a second time, and there are plenty that I haven't even finished once. I like fighting games and shoot-em-ups, old school platformers and ridiculous puzzle games that involve colorful blobs and anime characters screaming catch phrases when you complete a chain. The idea of playing through a title for a second time on a harder difficulty always seemed like such a time consuming task with no real reward. It's one thing if there are new items or additional bits of plot, but if it's just more punishing, why not move on to a different game? I have so many piled up in my backlog, I feel like there's just not enough time to replay something.

That all changed for me after Dead Space.

I had just finished Resident Evil 4 on the Gamecube, so the transition to Dead Space was an easy one. Similar in just about every way, Dead Space does everything exactly as well as RE4, just in space, in the future. I loved every minute of the game and I have to admit it actually really creeped me out on more than a few occasions. I played it while Alicia sat by my side and watched, having just as much fun as I was. She would often bug me to play in the evenings so she could see the story unfold. As I played through I got a few trophies for simple things like finishing a chapter or collecting a certain amount of money. My first concern was to successfully finish the story, so I didn't concern myself with the extra tasks at first.

I completed the last chapter around 1am on a Saturday night, and was quite satisfied with my victory. Alicia was with me the whole time and having stayed up way past her bedtime, immediately hit the hay. I stayed up a bit longer, because now that I'd beaten the game, I wondered if I could maybe get a few of those trophies. It would be kind of neat and they seemed within reach. I decided to take on the challenge of killing 30 enemies with each weapon, since I'd already done that with the main weapons I used during my first play through.

There were 8 of these trophies, one for each weapon and one for melee combat. I started with the melee since I figured it would be easier to beat the shit out of the creatures early in the game when they were considerably less powerful. As I fought through the opening scenario, I found myself using a different strategy, paying more attention to the patterns of the monsters and thinking more about how to handle a group of them. I wasn't just going through the motions and replaying the level, I was having a lot of fun and experiencing it in a new way.

Once I'd earned the "Melee" trophy I bought one of the weapons from the shop that I had not used at all yet, the force gun. I was shocked when I realized that it was AWESOME. I kind of wished I'd used it the first time, because it was really effective against an enemy type that had given me a lot of trouble before. Now I had a new strategy, a new technique in my arsenal, and as I forged ahead I had a blast taking on those little bastards that had fucked with me so many times before.

I would not have done any of this if I was not motivated by the trophy system. There would have been no real reason for me to jump immediately back into the game unless I was really curious. Hour after hour went by as I went through the list, until finally I killed the 30th creature with the flamethrower, the most worthless piece of shit weapon in the entire game. What a pain in the ass it was to fully defeat even one monster with that thing, much less THIRTY. They didn't really seem to mind being on fire, so you had to run backwards while shooting bursts of flame to keep them lit up until they FINALLY collapsed. You know what though? It was challenging, it was satisfying when I actually did it and it was fun. At this point I was a little over halfway through the game already, so I figured, hell, if I just keep going, pretty soon I'll have enough money to max out all of my weapons, which would give me a GOLD trophy! So I went for it, searching extra hard for hidden items, checking every corner and defeating every monster in order to get as much money as I could.

At around 10am, I finished the last chapter for the second time. I had spent 9 straight hours on the couch replaying the game in its entirety, immediately after I beat it for the first time. It was one of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory, and later that day I loaded up that save file and began my third journey through the USS Ishimura. I'm currently a little more than halfway through my "One Gun" trophy run, which requires you to beat the game using only the plasma cutter, the equivalent of a standard pistol. Along the way I continued to hoard my cash so that I could finish upgrading each weapon, even if I couldn't use it. It's starting to get difficult, and I've ended up in a few situations where I ran out of ammo and had to retreat in panic. However I've also gotten much better at targeting enemies and disabling them with as few shots as possible in order to conserve ammo. It's great, and I wouldn't be getting this much enjoyment out of the game if I hadn't been enticed my trophies.

I also bought some of my first downloadable content. I bought two suits, purely for their aesthetic beauty. Both are slightly less powerful than the Military suit that I earned for beating the game the first time, but they just look really cool and I figured if I'm going to play through at least two more times I might as well wear something different. The all black PS3 Obsidian suit is bad ass, it looks great and was totally worth a dollar fifty. This suit used to be free when the game first launched, but it looks like they decided to start charging now that it's been out for a few years. I figured it was worth having for less than what I normally pay for an energy drink, plus it came with a slightly stronger Plasma Cutter. According to the EA forums this won't effect the "One Gun" trophy, so that's what I'm going with for this run. I also grabbed the insanely awesome Astronaut suit, which I plan on using when I attempt to beat the game on Impossible. That might have to wait until I get an HDTV though, since I'd like to revisit this game when I can finally see it in High Def.

Because I was enticed by trophies, I feel like I've learned a greater truth about gaming. I said earlier that I never saw the point in replaying a game on a harder difficulty. Now, I understand. I get it...there's a depth and a certain type of dedication that has its own rewards. Would I still do it in a different game if there were no trophies for my efforts? Maybe. Who knows, I might even take a shot at something like Monster Hunter, which requires inhuman levels of dedication but is immensely satisfying...

I should also mention that the proper term for playing through a game in a single marathon session without stopping is "Shenmue Style." This was coined when Equidist, the other contributor to this blog, bought Shenmue when it first came out for the Dreamcast and proceeded to play through the entire damn game without ever turning off the system. It took a few days, an entire weekend I think. He would occasionally fall asleep, controller in hand and Ryo left standing in the street, idling for a few hours. When he woke up he'd jump right back in, gazing at the screen like a zombie and propelling the characters in the game towards their final destinations through sheer will power. It was a legendary feat and I still use that term today, much to the confusion of anyone listening.

You earned a trophy, "Shenmue Style"

(Dead Space screencaps taken from Visual Walkthroughs.)

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