It reads like a typo. “Gamerscore Leaderboard. Rank One With +132,000 This Month.” Surely, there must be some mistake. 132,000 achievement points in a month? There’s no way! There’s gotta be a hidden decimal point somewhere, right? From every angle — physically, chemically, intellectually — the maths just doesn’t add up. You’d need to average about 4,000 points a day. I mean, I’m lucky if I finish a single game in a month. Not only did this gamer lap me, they shut off the stadium lights and rolled out the tarps.
The rest of the post reads: “What quarantine did to my gamerscore in March.”Sarah, who is 29, and asks for me to use a pseudonym, earned 1,800 upvotes on the r/Xbox subreddit. People in the comments were shocked: “I thought me getting 42,000 in a month was good, what the fuck is this?” “Eight years later I’m sitting at 20,000.” “HOW?”
It is, without question, one of the most bewildering feats in gaming history. Luckily, she agreed to an interview over a Discord call to explain her process.
Sarah has loved achievements since she got her first Xbox 360 in 2006, back when the gaming public was introduced to the idea of a meta to-do list attached to every game you played. I remember a brief zeitgeist during that era; there were people who were flabbergasted that studios were asking us to grind out abstruse thresholds for points that were fundamentally worthless, and there were others who internalized the idea immediately. Sarah fell into the latter camp.
“I picked up Gears of War, and I spent like three months going for 10,000 kills, hundreds of hours of multiplayer,” she says. “Pretty much since then I’ve always looked at the achievements for every game I play.”
Sarah is primarily a PlayStation Trophy person these days. The PS4 is her console of choice, and Sony has done an excellent job baiting its users into greater levels of obsession with those regal, rare Platinums. But she’s also a member of what she calls a “Gamerscore League” on the website XboxAchievements.com. In early March, that league launched a competition: Whoever ends the month with the highest net gain of points earns the victory. (Participants competed in pairs, with the sum total of their achievements added together for a final score.) These informal tourneys are fairly common — I remember them as far back as the 360 days — but Sarah felt that she had it in her to set a world record. 132,000 points would eclipse any other single-month profit in Gamerscore League history. I mean, she toiled over the first Gears of War and its paper-thin multiplayer mode for an eternity in pursuit of exactly 50 points. If anyone could do it, it was her.
Of course, the first week of March turned febrile, as a world-destabilizing pandemic took root in North America, and we all began to understand how different life was going to be. No, Sarah didn’t get any time off. She works as an accountant, and as the office shuttered and braced for impact, she was instructed to log her 40-hours-a-week from home. Her monumental achievement campaign wasn’t won due to a sudden abundance of free time. Instead, she learned to maximise the spare moments amid her usual shifts.
“I was doing my same job, but I have a gamer setup, so I had to bring in my work laptop, plug it in, and go,” she says. “What quarantine did was it eliminated a lot of time I spent getting ready for work. All of that time can be turned into gaming time, if I choose to. I wasn’t going out to social events. I was stuck at home with really only one hobby.”
Scroll through Sarah’s TrueAchievements profile, and you’ll begin to understand how she arrived here. The vast majority of her 132,000 points came from tiny, no-budget indie projects — the stuff sourced from the forlorn depths of the dashboard market. I mean, even the most well-read industry aficionados are unaware of games like Mushroom Quest, Red Bow, and Thunder Paw, but Sarah blazed through each of them with remarkable efficiency. Nobody was going to climb this mountain squeezing points from Resident Evil 2. Sarah worked smarter, not harder.
“I spent some free time at work compiling a spreadsheet of every game that can be completed really fast. It ended up being about 200 games. I hoarded them from fastest to slowest, and bought them as I went,” she says. “Indie games are usually the shortest. There’s a publisher called Ratalaika. They release a game weekly that can be completed in about an hour for 1,000 points. I played about 60 of those.”
Sarah decided to assign a loose rating to every game she played, as a way to get a brief survey of the quality of the average microscopic indie. 70 per cent of them, she says, scored a five or below. The facts are clear: It is not an especially pleasurable experience to grind through a zillion $US5 ($7) downloads.
“There was a game called Back In 1995 that was the worst game I played that month,” she laughs. “The controls are terrible. The graphics are terrible. It gave me a migraine. It was like a dollar-store Resident Evil.” (On the other hand, Sarah recommends Aer: Memories of Old as a hidden gem.)
That said, Sarah makes it clear that this grind wasn’t all cheese. For instance, she is a huge Dark Souls fan. She’s beaten the game countless times, but had never made the trip through Lordran on an Xbox platform. Many of us remember our first completion of From Software’s magnificent treatise of gloom with a blend of salt, agony, dread, and eventually, a spark of euphoria. It is not a sojourn I intend to embark on again any time soon. But that’s not the case for Sarah. Dark Souls is child’s play at this point. She tells me she blasted through the game in nine-and-a-half hours, collecting the 1,000 points for her troubles.
In total, Sarah committed about six hours a day to her Gamerscore run on weekdays, and around 12 hours on weekends. She was actually behind for most of the tournament, but made up enough ground in the final five days to enshrine her place among the gods. In the last day of the event, she says she beat her own record for most Gamerscore achieved in a 24 hour period: 29,000.
“I set a goal for myself and I was able to do it with three hours left in the event,” she says. “When I posted it to Reddit people were like, ‘That’s more Gamerscore than I’ve gotten in 12 years.’ It was cool to get all this praise that might seem pretty crazy, but is pretty normal for me.”
Sarah’s partner during the tournament kicked in an additional 84,000 during the month, for a cumulative total of 219,000 — which resulted in a 70,000 points gap between their team and the second place finisher. That alone is enough points to last a lifetime, but as a career obsessive, Sarah isn’t finished. Already, she’s back to her usual PS4. She’s still trying to get every Trophy, as she probably will be for life. At the beginning of quarantine, we all spoke about how this might be the opportunity to achieve some of the indoor ambitions that have occupied our dreams. Maybe we were finally going to read The Power Broker, or do a Spelunky Eggplant Run, or finish that long-ignored screenplay in the sediment of our Google Docs. But most of us quickly realised that it was easy to succumb to the paralysis of the moment; I’ve been woefully unproductive. So hats off to Sarah. Shakespeare might’ve written King Lear during the Plague, but her Gamerscore ought to go down as the next best lockdown accomplishment.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.