I'm having the same, recurring nightmare of late. It's one of those stupid ones where something that's normally inane and innocuous becomes unreasonably horrible. Here's what happens: I'm on Pandora, out on a mission—to kill someone, probably—when I notice something. Maybe it's a a box or a locker. And the second that I notice that, everything else fades away: there is only the lootable object.
Here's the problem: Borderlands 2 has a ridiculous number of lootable things. Like, they're just everywhere. And even if I loot them, next time I boot the game up, there they are again. Full. Waiting to be opened. So I do it again, and again, and again. It never ends.
Picture this: a frenzy with badasses flanking me left and right, friends down and needing reviving, and what is my dumb butt doing? Getting shot in the face while elbow deep in shit: bullymong scat is also lootable.
It didn't used to be like that. But then I took a look at Borderlands' challenges, which award you badass tokens that you can redeem for stat upgrades. One of those challenges is called "Open Pandora's Boxes," and it involves opening any and all lootable objects.
It's so simple, and I can get perks for doing it—so of course I indulge. Under normal circumstances, Borderland's challenges, like those in many games, are okay: they encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and try new things, or they reward you for something you already do. I can get behind the well-crafted challenges.
"Hurly Burly," for instance, requires me to shoot bullymong projectiles out of midair—it's not something I would seek to do on my own, and it's a difficult thing to do, so I appreciate its inclusion. Games like Left 4 Dead 2 in particular have countless number of amazing achievements and challenges: CL0WND has you honk the noses of 10 clowns, which you do by meleeing, (silly but amusing!) and Chaos Generator requires you to have all of the generators running at once in "The Sacrifice" (extra challenge, because each generator gives you a wave of zombies!)
But why give me incentive to do something that's not fun or meaningful? It's one thing to open a chest with guns in it—who doesn't get a little wide-eyed and single-minded when they see a chest? Chests are great. I want to open chests. There might be awesome guns in there.
But why give me incentive to do something that's not fun or meaningful?
The only reason I open the toilets scattered around the game is because I need ammo: a necessity, but not something I enjoy doing necessarily. But the second you introduce an achievement or a challenge, everything changes—regardless of how enjoyable it actually is to do. I'll do it anyway—and I think game designers sometimes abuse this compulsion.
For example, there are countless games with achievements like "kill x number of enemies with y gun." The issue is that the reason I don't use the gun in the first place is because it was awful or because there's a better gun. But instead of giving me a gun that's fun to use, I get a challenge to use the gun instead. So I'll use it, but I'm not going to be happy about it.
Stop that, game designers. It's a shortcut. You get me to do what you want, but it's not because you designed something worthwhile. You know you've got something on your hands when the player gravitates to do something, to experiment, without being explicitly told to do so. Not that I'm saying that's easy to design or anything—if it was, I'm guessing that more games would achieve it!
It's not all mechanical stumbles—sometimes, the problems rewards pose are more ideological. Bulletstorm has a special system called "skillshots", which give you extra points depending on how creatively you kill your enemies. The points flash up on the screen, and the whole idea is to try to one-up yourself with more elaborate kills as you go along. It turns out that the love of points above all else can be betraying. Brendan Keogh puts the experience of playing Bulletstorm best when he says:
It's all good fun. It's all satisfying and violent and everything you want from a shooter. But then my partner walks into the room while I am playing and sees what I am doing. Or I write it out in an essay like I just did, and it feels kind of… wrong. Whereas most shooters attempt to justify the endless violence with some kind of framing narrative or an unredeemably evil enemy, Bulletstorm is more honest. It is a murder simulator, and it doesn't try to be anything else.
Similarly, I get uncomfortable thinking not so much about what the game has me do, but the way in which it has me do it: points. Points change things, give me incentive, yes—but more alarmingly, in this case, points help dehumanize what's happening on the screen all the more. In Brendan's case, being rewarded for killing creatively turns out to be revealing inasmuch as it is betraying: it forces him to wonder if he enjoys the murder and the mayhem after all.
Bulletstorm doesn't tell me that I should feel bad for what I do in violent videogames. On the contrary, it tells me without a flicker of irony or doubt that this is and should be enjoyable. Actually, that isn't quite accurate. Bulletstorm doesn't tell me anything; it forces me to admit that I enjoy this. It's a strange, non-judging passive-aggression. Oh, you like murdering people in gory ways just for more meaningless points? That's nice. Here is a guy you could decapitate for twenty-five points. You don't have to, but I think we both know you want to.
The game acknowledges that we like what it has us do, doesn't it? Maybe points have nothing to do with it. Or maybe points just end the charade and make it all blatant. Where does the sadism begin, organically with the player, or via the encouragement that the reward brings? Are we just kidding ourselves by trying to draw a distinction?
Reward with caution, game designers: challenges, achievements and the like change everything, but not always for the better.