the twisted genius of the game llama

Our tale began a few months ago… Xbox Marketplace was offering 300 free Microsoft points if you bought 2000 with your Visa card.  Never one to pass up a deal, I gave Microsoft my $25.  I figured I’d need some points eventually anyway.

Then the predicament: what to buy?  I could have waited for a happenin’ Gold Deal of the Week, but I needed games then and now!  Figured I’d catch up on one of the best games of 2009: Shadow Complex.  It’s a game that I had somehow missed – be it for the (at the time) high XBLA price of $15, or the already sizeable pile of unplayed games in my backlog, or just the fact that the demo felt like just another MetroidVania clone.  Nevertheless, I gave in to all the critical praise and picked it up.

Flash forward a few months to my first chance to really play it.  WHAM.  It’s awesome.  Before I started, I browsed through the list of achievements.  (It’s just what I do; I’m sure many of you are the same way with new games.)  “Get 100%” (Completionist), “Beat the game with less than 13% of items” (Minimalist), “Reach level 50” (Serious Complex), la de daa, nothing too unattainable, I hope.  But I have to replay the game to get all the points?  I do not approve.  I wouldn’t do that with Mass Effect, I don’t want to be forced to do it with Shadow Complex.

Until I played it.

For the first playthrough (on Normal), I scoured every corner and got the 100% achievement.  I only reached the pitiful experience level of 21, but man… I had a good time, and it only took roughly eight hours to find every single item.  Not too shabby, so I instantly restart the game and crank it up to Serious difficulty (for the experience boost) with the intent of getting as few items as possible for the “Minimalist” achievement.  I’m not done with this game yet; it feels like there’s still so much more to experience.

After pimping up main character Jason on the first game, I came to realize that, without sweet armor, it is VERY easy to die.  Or maybe it was the increase in difficulty.  On second thought, it was probably that.  But whatever.

I die a lot, and the game timer keeps going every time I reload from the last checkpoint.  That doesn’t feel fair – my actual playtime is being doubled just because I can only get shot twice!  Maybe the problem is that I have to keep jumping over all the health upgrades…

Neglecting all the exploring makes the game feel much different.  It becomes a lot more straightforward and action-y, but the increased enemy damage and decreased health means that I also had to do my fair share of sneaking: utilizing ventilation shafts, hiding behind boxes and lobbing grenades, letting the baddies’ friendly fire weaken their ranks before I charge them headfirst, usually to my death.  Still, like Guitar Hero III’s “Buy a guitar already” achievement, it encouraged a different style of play, and that’s neat.

After about four hours and dozens of deaths, I manage to complete the game with the maximum 13% of items collected.  Since exploring and item collecting is tied to experience points, I didn’t get nearly as many as I would have liked.  My second playthough got me to level 42, however.  Just eight more levels to the last achievement!  This ended up taking much, much longer than it should have… yet it seemed so close, and so attainable.

Shadow Complex only has twelve achievements for a paltry 200 gamerscore, but they are a good example of what is good – and bad – about the achievement-collecting metagame as a whole.  The good: each unique achievement rewards something different, be it collecting all the loot and searching every nook and cranny of the map, or neglecting yourself to the point at which even a simple henchman battle can be your last.

Also good: the achievements are spaced out, but lead you by just far enough to encourage you to keep playing.  First, get 100%.  Second, beat it with less than 13%.  Third, reach level 50.  Each achievement builds on the last so no single achievement seems so far out of reach as to be impossible.  After one playthough, I wasn’t even halfway to the Level 50 achievement.  After my second, it seemed within grasp.  Would I have played the whole game over again (and again) just for the last ten points?  No.  But would I play it again for ten, and then one more time on top of that for ten?  Looks like it.

The thing is: Shadow Complex is really a terrific game.  There’s a sense of exploration, of wonder, of progress, of achievement (pun intended).  If it wasn’t a pure joy to play, people wouldn’t complete it once, let alone three times, no matter the lure of a pittance of achievement points.

It also made me realize, as SC sat in my Xbox Game Library with 190/200 points – just waiting to be topped off – that completing a game (something I have done so very rarely) can feel just as satisfying as beating a game.  If an arbitrary “ba-DOOP” can make you feel so warm and fuzzy inside, perhaps you really have achieved something by attaining that last ten points: finishing what you started.  The personal satisfaction of conquering and utterly decimating every challenge thrown at you gives a great feeling of power.

… even if all I did was beat a video game.

What’s next, world?  Bring it on.  I aced Shadow Complex – I can handle anything you can throw at me.

  1. Avatar Image

    Steven Shepherd

    We seem to share the same perception of achievements. I, too, check the ol’ list before all else, and I feel that they really do enrich games, by making you play them in different ways. People ask what the point of achievements is, and I say, ‘what’s the point of a medal?’ Essentially they are little digital medals and reminders for accomplishments and acts of greatness.

  2. Avatar Image

    Mark Davis

    You are not just A man, but THE man.

    /end of comment

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