Some achievements are too easy, at times only requiring players to do mundane things like pressing start. Some achievements pose an actual challenge to players, requiring people to earn their digital trophies. And some achievements? Some achievements just aren't possible, no matter what a game might say.
Such was the case with Christine Love's Hate Plus, a visual novel with an achievement that, according to Steam, 0% of players have attained. (Update: full disclosure...Love and I are friends.) She told me more about this impossible achievement throughout the last month, and it's a hell of a story. But before we get to why, you have to know the history behind an entirely different game, Final Fantasy VII. Spoilers follow.
You've probably heard about this before, at least a little bit. If there's one thing everyone knows about Final Fantasy VII, it's that Aeris dies. Even if you've never played the game before, you've probably had this plot point 'spoiled' already: Aeris dies. The reason everyone knows about this is because Aeris is well-loved by Final Fantasy players, sometimes to the point of obsession.
Nowhere is this more evident than when looking at the late 90s, when players infamously banded together to try to undo Aeris's death. Countless numbers of rumors spread among Final Fantasy devotees, each detailing the many theories about the obscure ways in which Aeris could supposedly be revived if you did this exact thing at this exact place. Surely, the thinking went, the death couldn't be final? Surely you could do something about it?
As game critic Brian Taylor reports in an excellent article about Aeris, the reason things got so out of hand was because a forum troll got online and claimed to be "temporary translator" for the game. The exact details aren't important here, but, according to this forum poster, you needed a special item that allowed you to breathe underwater in order to bring Aeris back. From here, there are dozens of variations on the rumor that spread over the internet. The rumor I've heard most frequently involves something called called Revive Materia, an item which allowed players to resurrect characters. The specifics of this theory vary depending on who is recounting it, but the basic idea was that if you leveled this item enough, it would become powerful enough to revive Aeris in some way.
Looking back now the entire scenario may seem ridiculous, but it was a different time. This was back when everyone could bullshit each other about how your uncle totally worked at Nintendo, or how there's totally a Mew under that one truck in Pokemon. Nowadays you can't read something something online without initially wondering if it's a hoax. Sure, there were plenty of websites that debated the veracity of Final Fantasy resurrection rumors but, personally, I hold that the internet has become a more cynical, more skeptical place. Maybe that's just me.
Regardless, in his article about Aeris, Brian Taylor suggests that the reason people tried to revive Aeris was a mixture of a few things, like players trying to figure out how to deal with grief/sentimentality, and the false hope that maybe the game's true artistic vision was derailed thanks to corporate interests.
Let's fast-forward to 2013, a year where Aeris' legacy lived on in a different way. Christine Love, a game developer that's most well-known for visual novels, releases a Steam game called Hate Plus. It's the follow-up to Analogue: A Hate Story, a game that asked players to solve a mystery aboard an abandoned ship populated by two AI personalities. One of these characters is called Mute, and she's the head of security on the ship (the first image in this post is of Mute). Hate Plus continues the story in Analogue, except players have a chance to get to know Mute better. The entire story is a devastating one, as it tells the tale of a ship where women no longer had basic rights—and both of the AI aboard the ship were the victims of numerous tragedies thanks to this regressive society. But the one thing some players got fixated on when it came to Hate Plus was an achievement called "Level Four Revive Materia."
Fair warning: there's no way to talk about this achievement without "spoiling" Hate Plus—but the game came out in 2013, so hopefully that's not that big of a deal to y'all. Basically, the achievement asked players to finish the game with Mute still alive. Here's the thing: there is literally no way to get this achievement. Trust me, I've talked to the developer about it. Mute will always commit suicide in Hate Plus, because she determined that, as an AI who learned the values of a regressive society so unlike the rest of the world, leaving the abandoned ship she swore to protect would be too much. Nevermind all the heartbreak and hardship Mute endured. So Mute took what little power she has, and "killed" herself at the end of the game. Christine Love included the achievement tied to Mute living at the end of the game as a joke, as I'm sure the name of the achievement lets on.
On August 20th, 2013—one day after Hate Plus was released on Steam—a thread popped up titled "Level Four Revive Materia achievement *spoiler warning*." It reads:
Alright peeps, time to put our heads together and think the way to get this achievement,
If anyone here has it, please do tell how to get it, I've been hitting my head to a wall over this as on each save I have on Mute's side of the story, ends up her *MAJOR SPOILER* killing herself and giving us the new mute instead, and the achievement "Have you tried doing a factory reset?"
and locking us from the achievement "Level Four Revive Materia" if we power down the systems.
The first reply to the thread came from someone who recognized that the achievement was a reference to Final Fantasy 7 and Aeris. But instead of thinking, hey, maybe this means you can't actually revive Mute, they proposed a potential (but ultimately unsuccessful) workaround for the achievement. The thread went on to be sixty eight pages long, with many people suggesting that maybe it was just a troll achievement—but this suggestion was typically followed by new ideas about how players might be able to earn the achievement anyway. Some people who popped in seemed to genuinely believe Aeris could be revived in Final Fantasy, which I'm sure made absurd Hate Plus theories seem all the more plausible.
As for the theories themselves for Hate Plus, they varied widely in their methods. Some suggested making specific choices at certain points in the game, re-checking old logs for new information, perusing updates to the game for clues, waiting until certain real-life holidays to play through certain portions of the game, over-analyzing Christine Love's Twitter profile, re-playing through the first game, if not straight up messing with the game's files, among other things. One person even wrote fanfic to support the ending where Mute is actually alive.
At a certain point in the thread, posters started to finally wonder if maybe the achievement is not actually possible...but even then, the idea was met with some disbelief:
Achievements are meant to be obtainable. It would make no sense to code in an achievement that cannot be obtained — even the "Bubonic Plague" style Achievements are obtainable in their own fashion. So there must be something we're overlooking, either in the factory reset or in the lunar new year clues. Any bones the developer would be willing to throw us would be ~awesome,~ since I think the tone of this thread is generally "holy ♥♥♥♥ we're stuck as chumps." Cheers!
The thread ends with some vets realizing it's not possible—but there are always new players playing Hate Plus for the first time. Players who don't want to read through a thousand replies on a forum. The most recent posts in the thread happened earlier this month, nearly a year after Hate Plus's release. Older posters set the record straight on the achievement but, realistically, so long as people keep playing the game, there will always be a batch of players who will have the small hope that maybe they can nab the achievement. And as the Aeris debacle shows us, not even a huge playerbase who knows the rumor isn't true will help with squashing everyone's hope.
Now, to be fair, Christine Love's previous games have done curious things that require players to get creative about unlocking certain content in her games. In Analogue: A Hate Story, there's no way to romance both of the available characters at once...unless you play through the game multiple times and use information you learn on earlier runs to break the fourth wall in a new run. Doing so nets you the 2 Girls, 1 Core achievement, which about 24% of all players have attained.
There will always be a batch of players who will have the small hope that maybe they can nab the achievement.
In an earlier game by Christine Love named Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story, players take on the role of a professor who has access to everything students say online on a special social networking site hosted by the school the kids attend. For the most part, despite knowing that they're being watched, students are open about what they say to one another—their sense of privacy is flexible. Still, there are some moments moments where these students still want privacy with one another. At one point in the game, two of the characters send each other revealing pictures, and the player can actually unlock said files, but only if they insert a password. The password is a student's middle name. Having played the game, though, my guess is that most players don't pay enough attention while initially going through the game to be able to remember the middle name.
Still, some players got so obsessed with unlocking this content, that Christine Love straight up made a post on her blog telling people what the password was, presumably to stop people from asking her about it. It didn't matter that unlocking this content meant, essentially, wanting to look at a compromising picture of a virtual underage girl. People still wanted to see the picture, and the fact that it was locked away in a game that let you spy on kids probably only made the act more enticing to some players.
What I'm saying is, Hate Plus isn't the first time Christine Love has messed around with what players can do in her games. Examples like the locked-away pictures in DTIPBIJNYS and the achievement in Analogue: A Hate Story might have made some players legitimately believe they could actually get the Revive Materia achievement in Hate Plus. It also probably didn't help that Christine Love herself had the Revive Materia achievement.
But, despite the fact players seemed to realize the Hate Plus achievement wasn't possible, a second thread appeared—a thread which Christine Love described to me as "desperate." The thread is forty-four pages long, with over six hundred replies. The first post says:
THE ACHIEVEMENT ISN'T CODED INTO THE GAME, AND CHRISTINE LOVE HAS ALREADY STATED SHE WILL NOT BE MAKING FURTHER CHANGES TO IT. HOWEVER, WE ARE OFFERING A THOUSAND HUG REWARD TO ANYONE WILLING TO BRUTE FORCE UNLOCK EVERY CONCEIVABLE NAME FOR THE ACHIEVMENT IN THE HOPES OF 100%ING THIS GAME.
Prior to learning that, we tried:
-Reading particular logs in a certain order.
-Messing with the clock to change the date.
-Setting the clock back to when *Mute supposedly offs herself.
-Leaving the game running for 12 hours instead of powering down.
-Digging through the game's code (the achievement isn't coded in).
-Using tools like SAM to manually unlock the achievement.
-Patching in the achievement manually.
-♥♥♥♥ing off Christine Love.
-Clicking "Enable AI" before "Emergency Diagnostic."
-Running a debug after "The Death of *Mute," but before shutting down.
-Ignoring the inbox.
-Trying to do anything with the 70 files needing to be "fixed" after the game runs. (Just an engine issue.)
-Sending photos of grilled cheese sandwiches to firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Getting New *Mute into the hanbok.
-"Hm, I wonder~"
-Looking for clues in Christine Love's achievement progress on her own game.
-Entering the Konami Code.
If I missed anything, let me know and I'll edit it in.
Things got really intense in this thread. Some players even considered raising $10,000 for charity, with the hopes that Christine Love would notice this noble effort and would finally give them a definite answer as to whether or not the achievement is possible. "Half Life 3 confirmed," one poster joked in this new thread.
Eventually, most posters seem to accept once more that the achievement is impossible... but yet another effort rises. This time, players took matters into their own hands and started looking for ways to mod the game. They figured that, while they may not be able to give themselves the achievement that started this whole mess, at the very least they'll write the ending that would have come with it.
Another thread pops up, titled "Level Four Revive Materia Project." The mod had its own development blog, which explains the project:
In light of Hate Plus' release and the ending to *Mute's route, a group of us decided to get together and create the ending that Love didn't want to include in the game. An ending where Mute doesn't die.
I'm writing, and the rest of the team is helping out with coding and beta-reading.
Simply put, we are going to extract the Renpy files from Hate Plus, put in our ending, do all the coding we have to do, repack, and publish it as a mod for Hate Plus.
Instead of sitting on our thumbs for some false hope of a secret update, we are taking action. The namesake of the achievement is the rumor of the ability to bring back Aerith in Final Fantasy 7. Eventually the fans hacked her into the game.
It's only natural that we do the same.
If you're interested in the project follow this blog, and make sure to keep an eye on our Steam group, which will be linked in the dedicated thread on the Steam community forums for Hate Plus.
Let's save *Mute together.
The first post on the Steam thread, however, isn't so hyped on the project—the player can't help but ask whether or not the project is disrespectful to Christine Love, and whether or not players actually have permission to do something like this. Kyonko802, one of folks working on the mod, responds as follows:
Disrespectful to the creator? No, I wouldn't say so. We're adding content to her game because we care so much about her character that we're willing to go the extra mile. Love has even stated that she's happy about people tearing the code to pieces to try and save Mute because it means they care about her.
Another poster chimed in with a rationale as to why the project is okay:
Now Hate Plus is a great game, don't get me wrong, but there are some (not me) that feel their money was wasted becuase of the innability of helping *Mute. With this mod, people who felt that way can completly enjoy the game again, which already had two other great endings.
One poster even suggests adding additional logs to the game, only these would describe Mute's sexual relationship with a different character. The modders seemed somewhat hesitant about the idea, but nonetheless say they are open to such changes. The thread goes on to track the mod's progress, with the developers completely rewriting some parts of the story so that their new ending can make sense. And on September 20th, 2013—a month after Hate Plus launched on Steam— the mod was actually released. Many players express difficulty actually getting the new ending to the game, but still: the fact it exists is kind of amazing.
What does the entire effort amount to? Well, it depends on how you look at it. For me, the fact players would go through the trouble of trying to revive Aeris or Mute reflects the degree to which players can become control freaks. And why wouldn't we be? The central idea at the heart of most video games is that, once you figure out the system that governs any given game, you're in control. You can win, you can become powerful, you can will a game to give you anything you want. It's a tendency I empathize with, but it's also one that can get totally out of control.
I also don't know what to make of the fact that both these cases involve, essentially, " waifus" that people can't let go of, characters that players become so emotionally invested in, they're almost like significant others. Still, in the case of Hate Plus, so many horrible things happen to its protagonists that I guess I can't blame players for wishing the game had a nicer ending...but it's hard to stick to this interpretation too closely, considering that some of what drove players to such extreme lengths was the desire to earn an achievement, of all things. Would the mod still have happened if there was no achievement tied to it? I'm skeptical.
"I'm deeply flattered that people care so much, obviously," Christine Love said to me in an email. "As a writer, I realize that the moment I create something, it's up for the audience to interpret as they will; I don't get any say in the matter. And of course, suicide is a very complicated matter. Still, it's... hard not to feel uncomfortable about it?
"A consistent thread between Analogue and Hate Plus is that over the course of the two games, *Mute never has a shred of agency of her own, leaving every decision that affects her life in the player's hands... then players make a mod to rob her of the single piece of agency she has, to stop her during the one time she does get to act on her own beliefs.
"I'm happy people care about *Mute so much, but it just feels like the point was missed entirely? I don't know. I'm incredibly conflicted on the matter," Love said.
Perhaps the fact players would go through such lengths shouldn't be surprising: players also defied Final Fantasy VII by making mods where Aeris was still alive. Hell, players couldn't help but make that connection themselves during discussion about Hate Plus's mod. "We saved Aeris and we'll save you too *Mute!!!," one poster joked in one of the threads about the elusive achievement.
Of course, the thing about many of the Aeris mods was that players still had to play through a game that assumed she was dead, and in some cases had to sacrifice another character in order to retain Aeris in the party. As for Hate Plus, for all the work these modders did, they still don't actually have the achievement they wanted. Nothing comes without a price.