Achievements, trophies, and digital memories

Despite not being an avid achievement- or trophy-hunter, a recent replay of one of my favourite games made me realise they can serve as a record of digital memories.
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I’ve never been one for collecting achievements or trophies with great intent. As someone who enjoys immersing themselves in a game world, I’ve turned off system notifications since the option was first added to consoles and PC clients. That’s not to say I won’t check the list once I’ve completed a game, but the preplanning and busywork required for achievement and trophy hunting are at odds with the reasons I enjoy gaming sessions.

The rare award for completing a chunk of the game, finding a well-hidden secret, or solving an encounter in a novel way make a lot of sense. Role-playing games that have different awards for taking different paths bug me – I struggle to play out of character – but they serve to highlight diverse gameplay options and encourage replays. Awards for tasks meant to simply increase playtime, such as “collect X of Y” or “kill X number of Y with weapon Z”, come across as simply lazy and offensive (does anyone believe that makes for compelling gameplay?).

However, I recently discovered another potential benefit to achievements and trophies while going back to replay Deus Ex: Human Revolution, backwards-compatible on my Xbox Series S – an excellent prequel to the iconic IP that never got the sales it deserved (followed up by Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a solid sequel blighted by publisher interference and even weaker sales).

For a brief moment, I understood the thrill of achievement-hunting when these popped up at the end of my run (and simultaneously discovered you have to manually disable notifications in the emulated menu for each back-compat Xbox 360 game!).

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – both at launch, after several patches, and even after the release of the “Director’s Cut” in 2013 – remains a pain in the backside if you’re hunting for achievements/trophies that are based on your actions across the entire game. As someone who loves both stealth and pacifist gameplay mechanics, the “Foxiest of the Hounds” and “Pacifist” achievements (no alarms and no kills respectively) were two that I assumed I’d pick up on my first run.

Unfortunately, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is fond of surprise alarms. The game enjoys spawning new enemies in locations you thought were safe to hide unconscious victims. It also provides innumerable ways to kill NPCs you had rendered unconscious. Players quickly discovered tranquilising certain NPCs would outright kill them, while dragging unconscious bodies down ramps – of any height or angle – could be inexplicably lethal. Most guides suggest a zero-contact playthrough to be safe.

As such, I went into my long-overdue replay with no expectations I’d unlock any of the rare achievements that caught my interest all those years ago. Quickly deciding I wasn’t going to cramp my playthrough, I ditched the idea of ghosting everything but still chose the non-lethal approach (even if some set pieces meant I’d be charging at enemies flinging stockpiled gas grenades), and I scoured each area to disable every alarm before progressing.

The “Unforeseen Consequence” achievement reminded me of trying to describe to friends just how amazing the dialogue challenge system felt in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Fluid, flowing, and surprisingly consistent despite each conversation having multiple options that could play during each line of the encounter.

When the credits finally rolled, I found myself less interested in having finally achieved a no-kill, no-alarm playthrough than I was in the timestamp – 29/03/2021! Just short of a decade since I first played the game on the Xbox 360 back in a much, much simpler time! Disappointingly, my earliest achievements seem bugged – with several out of order and missing timestamps – but the earliest date recorded was still early 2013! Stable employment, no parenting responsibilities, no lingering PhD! 

This sent me on a multi-hour search through my achievement list, finding the earliest games I played on each console and trying to correlate them with what I was doing in my life at the time. I’ve always been terrible at taking photos and documenting things, but just as cloud services on mobile devices have slowly built up a photo archive for me, so too have achievements and trophies created a record of my gaming history – a digital memory of sorts. 

Assuming Microsoft, Sony and other platforms continue to transfer digital profiles from generation to generation – or at least preserve some elements of that profile – achievements and trophies will serve as an important record-keeping tool. Reminiscing over these achievements will be the gaming equivalent of looking back at old photos, allowing me to share some of my fondest digital memories with other gamers. Who knows, maybe even with my daughter if she ever picks up a controller – whatever that looks like – in the near future?

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