I learned about the game Achievement Unlocked from Ludus Novus, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It’s a game that looks like a single-screen platformer, but is in fact all about unlocking achievements: rather than traditional platformer goals, your only goal is to unlock the 100 achievements in the game. And these are not grand achievements: you earn three or so just for starting the game, followed quickly by several more for doing stuff like jump for the first time.

I’d expected it to be funny in a sort of postmodern and superior way, but while there’s certainly some of the former, there’s none of the latter: the game is taking the concept of achievements to a ridiculous extreme, but I never got the feeling that the author was particularly looking down at us for enjoying earning them. The game certainly acknowledges how ridiculous the quest for achievements can be, but acknowledges it in a “the things we like are a bit silly if we look at it from a certain angle” way rather than a “you poor sap who is so foolish as to strive for achievements” way. (I particularly liked the achievements you got for earning 10, 20, 30, etc. other achievements.)

Beyond the humor, though, it’s surprising how much plain fun the game is, how it managed to keep me entertained through the end of the game while making 100 achievements less of a slog than a single achievement in a lot of other games. My gameplay went through three phases: at first, I was just exploring the screen, going to all the areas, seeing what popped up, and seeing if I could think of more ways to get achievements. (What if I died by doing X?) Then I went through the list of achievement names on the right, and tried to figure out what I needed to do to unlock each of the ones that remained. There were a few that I couldn’t figure out, so I went to the hint list for those. And all of that kept me moving to the end, kept me feeling challenged and entertained without getting frustrated.

But the reason why I’m blogging about this, instead of just twittering a link, is that this was fun for two unexpected reasons. One is that it’s fun in a meta-game way: rather than being fun because you’re accomplishing something directly, it’s fun because you’re figuring out the rules of the game. (And I want to emphasize: when I say fun, I don’t mean witty or clever, I mean that I enjoyed the puzzle of trying to figure that out.)

And the other is that it’s unexpectedly fun in a traditional gameplay sense, in a way that other games could learn from more. The game world consists of a rather mundane platformerish level; if it were a traditional platformer, I would have had a single goal, to collect some objects or make it to a spot or jump on some people’s heads or something. As it is, you have to do some of that, but there are a lot of other goals that are quite a bit more arbitrary than that, or at least quite a bit less common when viewed through a traditional platformer lens.

But, it turns out, those other goals are still fun: I wouldn’t have expected a game to cram 100 goals into a single screenful and have me still enjoy them, but I did. So, to me, the lesson is: rather than spend their time crafting many levels with one well-thought-out goal/path through them, game designers should spend more time thinking about how to reuse the same levels in different ways, by providing a well-thought-out set of different tasks to carry out in that level.

This isn’t a new idea, of course: for example, one of my favorite parts of Perfect Dark was its collections of set-piece challenges to work through in the multiplayer levels. And many Xbox achievements do this to some extent, though far too often in the vein of “do this extremely difficult thing” instead of “do this thing that you wouldn’t normally try but that is fun to attempt”. Still, I think it’s an idea that could be mined a lot more than it has been so far. If nothing else, game designers should think twice before adding yet another fetch quest: surely there’s some other sort of task that they can set within their game world that hasn’t been trodden so deeply into the ground?

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