SOMA is a standout game, and one of the many ways it distinguishes itself is through its restrained use of achievements. There are 10 on Steam (or 10 trophies on PlayStation), and each is nothing more than a progress marker. They come infrequently and unexpectedly. I wasn’t sure when one would pop up or why. They weren’t typically bestowed after especially dramatic moments in the game. Their main purpose, as far as I can tell, is to let players know how close they are to the ending.
The result of this restraint is a game that feels like its own reward. Because there are no gold stars or letter grades for scouring rooms for pictures and documents, or for listening to audio messages on computer terminals, the player — or, at least, this player — feels freer to explore and discover for, well, the sake of exploration and discovery.
The flushable toilet in the game’s opening sequence is a quiet (and, when flushed, noisy) example of this approach to game design. The game does not reward you for flushing it, although it is pleasing to do so. The reward for flushing the toilet in SOMA is hearing and watching the toilet flush. The game is its own pleasure.
Nor does SOMA introduce a metagame that awards you a special badge for flushing 20 toilets throughout the game. If an activity is dull — and flushing 20 toilets seems pretty dull — then you shouldn’t encourage players to do it. If an activity is rewarding — and flushing this one particular toilet is, I concede, quite rewarding — then there is no need to give the player a ribbon or trophy for doing something that was worth it for its own sake.
A few years ago, Chris Hecker, a game designer who worked on Spore and is now indefinitely designing Spy Party, gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference about his fear that achievements were hurting video games. Hecker worried that achievements — then a relatively recent phenomenon — were rotting the medium from the inside, replacing the intrinsic pleasures of play with the hollowness of extrinsic rewards.
Psychological research suggests, after all, that giving people extrinsic rewards — gold stars, money, letter grades, and the like — for interesting tasks tends to backfire. People will stop doing the activities — whether hobbies, or schoolwork, or flushing virtual toilets — for their own sake once the gold stars are taken away. Worse, the research indicates that people will willingly perform dull tasks for the very same extrinsic rewards: They’re now motivated by the blue ribbons and trophies, not the work (or play) itself.
Game designers, like pop behaviorists entranced by B.F. Skinner, think they can introduce achievements and other extrinsic rewards to motivate their players. “Do this and you’ll get that,” is how Hecker put it. Then, quoting the writer Alfie Kohn, Hecker warned that designers didn’t understand the inevitable outcome for players: “You end up hating the this and liking the that.”
Five years later, with a video game landscape dominated by Achievement-heavy checklists of wearying, make-work tasks (undoubtedly motivated by data showing that players are grimly working for the smiley-face stickers that designers hand out for completing them), Hecker’s doomsday scenario seems to have arrived on schedule.
Achievements aren’t inherently evil, mind you. Like collectibles, they have their place, and it’s possible for designers to use them thoughtfully and creatively. They’re very rarely used that way, though. SOMA has me considering whether I should turn off the notifications for achievements and trophies on all my systems.
By using achievements so judiciously — so judiciously that they might as well have been eliminated — SOMA allowed me to play through it at my own pace, and for my own enjoyment. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t have any regrets about it, because no one even pointed it out to me. I wouldn’t even know if it was there. SOMA does not present itself to the player like a set of annual goals for a corporate employee to accomplish.
I want to play games because I like the interactions in them, because I like the jumping or the shooting or the reading or the listening or the deciding or the watching or the exploring or the hiding in a corner, hoping desperately that the monster will leave the room. I don’t want to play them for the empty feeling that comes when a total stranger congratulates you with a condescending pat on the head.