Parodies by their very nature give us a different perspective on things. Whether it be a plot, genre, or game mechanic, we see a different side of things when they’re viewed through the lens of humor. There are two recent flash games in particular that, while making fun of popular game mechanics, give us a unique look at the roots of those mechanics and why they’re so popular.
Upgrade Complete is a game that makes you upgrade everything. To begin the game, we have to buy a shop menu screen, but since we don’t have any money in the beginning we have to accept a loan from the developer. Then we have to buy the preloader to actually load the game and menu buttons to actually play it. The game itself is a 2-D top-down flying shooter. We can buy missiles and lasers and guns (all upgradeable of course) to help against the waves of enemies, or we can use the money we earn to buy and upgrade a logo, copyright info, the graphics, or a game over screen.
Achievement Unlocked is game that’s all about unlocking achievements. The game itself is mostly a platformer: there’s a single screen filled with blocks, jump pads, and spikes, all traditionally found in some form or another in platformers. But Achievement Unlocked is really more of a puzzle game, since our only goal is to figure out how to get all 99 achievements. It begins easily enough, giving us achievements for preloading the game, watching the sponsor screen, and pretty much rewarding every other simple action we could make: moving left, moving right, jumping, dying, etc. Everything nets us an achievement; we’re even given infinite lives so the game doesn’t end until we either give up or get every achievement.
Some time ago, Mitch Krpata from Insult Swordfighting tried to come up with new ways to describe gamers’ play styles, rather than use the inadequate “casual” and “hardcore.” One such descriptor was the Completist gamer: “A Completist may be less interested in maximizing his ability to play a game, and more interested in making sure he doesn’t miss anything…The reward is having no mountains left to climb.”
The Completist gamer is just a subset of the larger category of Skill Players according to Krpata, but given the popularity of achievements, I wonder just how “sub” that subset is. Gamers are completist by nature; we’ve been trained to be that way and are continually encouraged to keep it up. Whether it be finding all the collectibles in a game or just trying to beat it, both actions require us to complete a game to a certain degree. Especially in this day of constant hype for new releases, we’re encouraged even more to complete one game so that we can hurry to the next.
In a broader sense, Upgrade Complete and Achievement Unlocked are not just parodies of the mechanics that they’re named after but of our attitudes towards games. These are collect-a-thons in their purest form. Achievements and upgrades are just an evolution of the stars in Super Mario 64 or the puzzle pieces in Banjo-Kazooie. Achievement Unlocked is, arguably, the better parody because it portrays achievements as the old-school collectible they are, while also embracing those roots. When we play it, we’re having fun collecting even as we realize we’re the butt of the joke. Upgrade Complete on the other hand has a message at the end telling us to rate a game more on how fun it is than how complex its upgrade system is. Yet the game is fun solely because of its absurdly comprehensive upgrade system. It undermines its own message. The best parodies embrace what they make fun of, and Achievement Unlocked plays straight to our completist, collectible-loving nature. The fact that I used a FAQ to make sure that I collected all the achievements says it all.