I like achievements.
I like trophies.
I like the little sound they make, and the little box that pops up, and that they make my overall score go up even though that score doesn’t mean anything.
It’s like some dopamine salt for the top of my dopamine vegetables.
When I used to be a gaming completionist, achievements were one of the big things that kept me going. My standard practice was to play a game through once the “standard” way, and then play it some more earning all the achievements I thought were plausible, until I hit the wall and moved on.
I’m not a die-hard getter of virtual points…but I’ve played a lot of games. And I have a decently high total of points now. But these days, that comes more and more from the breadth of gaming I do, not the depth.
Have you seen Men In Black? There’s a scene in that movie where Tommy Lee Jones laments that no one ever just looks at the stars anymore. I’d post it here but the copyright gods would be mad at me.
Playing games to get achievements out of them can feel a little like seeing the forest for the virtual points you can shake out of the trees.
But… I like it. Unlike standard game mechanics, where you’re lucky to get one hit of dopamine… Xbox, PS4, and Steam achievements operate on a three hit system.
Notification. Noise. Number that goes up.
Further, thanks to the modern era and its ability to inject the cloud into everything, you can now give up your data soul in exchange for more granular numbers. You can see exactly how many of your friends have obtained each achievement, yes…but you can also see how rare they are.
On the Xbox, they even have two different noises depending on how rare the achievement is. What a mindblowing advancement!
It’s layers and layers of skinner box satisfaction that basic game designs only occasionally approach.
And the Nintendo Switch has none of this.
On the one hand, it’s delightfully strange to be in a pure and satisfying realm free of meaningless additional numbers. On the other hand, you’ve just taken away my salt shaker.
On the Switch, you can play a game, and you can see if your friends are playing a game…and that’s it.
After a week or so, the Switch will deign to allow you to see how many hours you’ve played an individual game for. I don’t know why it makes you wait this long before it starts updating your stats on a game-per-game basis, but it does.
There are no meta layers of dinging noises and satisfaction. There’s no points or baubles to be gained. It’s just you and the game.
No one just plays games any more.
However, after a few days of enjoyment in my newfound numbers-free existence…I can’t help but want the achievements back. Especially if I’m playing a third party game that’s festooned with them on other platforms, like last year’s Warriors Orochi 4 to name one of many.
“I could be getting achievements out of these hours, but I’m not!” — A thought that inevitably rattles around in my head whenever I’m playing a Switch game, no matter how badly I don’t want it to.
Achievements are an expected part of modern online ecosystems. They’re just a built-in feature now, and they have been ever since Microsoft shoved them into the Xbox 360 over thirteen years ago. Nintendo has made three home consoles since then, and none of them have had an achievement system…or anything beyond the most basic of online services.
I generally like Nintendo Switch Online. I think the pricing is fair. I really like the NES classics app. And the hour counting functionality still let’s me go “See, I played Diablo 3 more than you did, and no, I don’t have a problem.”
But I want to earn weird t-shirts for my Mii. I want to be able to directly message my friends again, which we haven’t been able to do on a Nintendo system since messaging was unceremoniously dumped from the 3DS. I love being able to see my friend is playing a game I like and send them a message saying “You’re playing a game I like!” I can’t do that now.
I mean, I can text them with my phone, but it isn’t the same.
I want to unlock achievements, trophies, stickers, or some other thing that contextualizes my time on the network. I’ve come to expect that as part of a “modern” gaming experience, because it’s so ingrained into all the other major platforms.
While it is initially refreshing to focus just on the experience of a game again, and writing this article is making me feel like a dopamine fiend…it doesn’t change the undeniable truth that I still want those metatextual numbers in my life.
The Switch is easily the most interesting modern console to my personal brain, in spite of its lack of achievements. In an era where the other companies went the route of “we made a PC,” Nintendo created a hybrid portable/home system with just enough power to run a wide variety of games, and a flexible control system that allows for old Wii-style experiences alongside modern ports.
But the online system, in spite of its cheap price, is woefully lacking basic functionality. Achievements/trophies/numbers aren’t vital to the experience of playing a video game, but they add a whole second layer of mini-fun that I miss whenever I’m pouring hours into a Nintendo game. And enough games have shipped without this functionality that it would be stupidly difficult to retrofit them back in.
Just ask Sony how that worked out on the PS3. Remember trophy patches? Remember how PS Home was supposed to allow you to display your trophies in a digital room?
No one probably wants to try that again. But I wish Nintendo would at least throw me an equivalent bone.