By: George Weidman
Steam provides a great service but preys on the gullible. I’ve always been a sucker for Steam sales and have bought an embarrassingly huge backlog of cheap games (so big, in fact, that I’ve dedicated a new column to finish them all.)
However, I’ve never been a sucker for achievements. The soap-operatic drama of Valve’s labyrinthine network of achievement-unlocking schemes have always eluded me. This winter, all of that changed. I took a dive into a realm of mercantilism that was inhospitable and brutal, and I became a worse man for it.
For those not in the know, Steam has been hosting the “Great Gift Pile” event over the past two weeks. The idea is that accomplishing certain Holiday-themed game achievements during the promotion adds more content to one’s Steam account. The basic formula is this: each day six new achievements become available that, when accomplished, add either a random gift or a lump of coal to your Steam inventory. One lump of coal equals one entry into the grand prize raffle, the first-place prize being every single game on Steam ever.
But what are the chances of winning that? A more pragmatic option is to convert lumps of coal into gifts. Seven coals can be crafted into one random gift. How that process is supposed to work, no one knows. But it’s an effective hook. The “gift” is a total mystery. It could be anything. It could your favorite game. It could be your least favorite game. It could be a game you wouldn’t pay money for but wouldn’t mind having around for free. But they’re more likely to be mere coupons for future game purchases.
“Well, it sounds simple enough. Fat chance I’ll actually win anything, but I might just have some dumb fun with it,” I thought. The achievements for Day 1 were a cakewalk. First one: “Check your inventory- you’ve got a gift!” Wow, I’ve already won! Thanks for the “50% off Valve games” coupon! I’ll be sure to keep this around for when Episode 3 comes out!
New rule: “winning” a coupon is actually losing. They’re only valid for next January to March, and don’t stack on top of existing discounts. For any savvy Steam shopper, they’re effectively useless.
When the set set of achievements were revealed on day two, I decided to get more serious. Crafting a quick entry-level brew in Dungeons of Dredmor and joining a promotional Steam group were easy. As predicted, accomplishing these earned me coal instead of gifts. “No matter,” I thought. “Five more achievements and I can turn them into another gift, and it’ll probably something more useful.”
Creating a “Candy Stripe” in Audiosurf, a game that can best be described as “a faster Bejeweled with your crappy taste in music in the background,” was satisfying. Downing a few Christmas-themed zombies in Killing Floor netted another achievement. Doing other easy in-game tasks and trying out Steam’s repertoire of online services siphoned in a regular supply of coal. After a couple days of causal play, I had seven coals. Time to craft.
What did I get? A coupon. 50% off Shadowgounds. Gee whiz, thanks. A critically-flawed game in a genre I’m not interested in, a genre filled with cheaper and more well-respected competitors.
But it was a start, right? Maybe next time the crafting magic would create something really nice, like it did with this guy or that guy. Success stories were popping up everywhere. Just after introducing a personal friend on Steam to the Great Gift Pile, he randomly won Risen, the unofficial Gothic sequel he always wanted. “If it could happen to someone I personally know, the chances of me winning must surely not be that bad.”
This whole convoluted process is bogged down under layers of digital-age marketing abstraction. The inventory itself is an aberration, filled with intangible representations of items and salient trinkets that you can’t actually play with or use without taking them out of your “inventory” and putting them in your “library,” which are separate sections of the same account. If an achievement is accomplished and a gifted game is slapped in your inventory, you can’t play it until agreeing that you’ll never gift it to someone else. How we’re supposed to visualize seven lumps of goal being “crafted” into something else is a mystery. And of course, the gifts turned out to be coupons more often than not.
After my first failure to win anything cool, I decided to keep playing and obtain seven more coals. I toured more obscure games, particularly a suite of free-to-play MMO’s that weren’t any kind of fun. Raking up 200 points in a snowball match in CrimeCraft: Gang Wars was way more frustrating than it needed to be. Slapping any opponent at all with a snowball in Spiral Knights was a maddeningly unpredictable process that lasted hours. Eventually I found myself trying to install Rusty Hearts, a free-to-play Korean MMO that I never managed to launch because the launcher crashed while patching the patcher’s two patches. Or something. I gave up the achievement for that one.
The next tier of achievements were more difficult. Rise of Immortals, a free-to-play spin-off of League of Legends, featured an indecipherable interface and the intimidating “Supporter” achievement, which requires one to get 10 kill assists in a match. Since there are no more than five players on a team per match, this achievement requires you to passive-aggressively defeat (in an “assisting” fashion) the same players 10 times in a row. As I was completely new to this game and this genre, I had no clue what I was doing. I forfeited.
Participating in the Gift Pile steadily became less about dumb fun. It became a perverse carrot-on-a-stick chase. In chasing after the coal, I no longer cared about prizes or coupons or even the one-in-a-kazillion shot at winning the raffle. I just wanted a chance to win something. I wanted to win anything comparable to the minor victories of other people, both the strangers on reddit and the personal friends in real life. I wanted something comparable to the people who just happened to have better luck than me. I felt bitter and inadequate, and the embarrassing depths I stooped to while pursuing this coal made it worse. I wasn’t having fun anymore. But I needed to win. I had already invested so many hours into winning. It would be stupid not to invest more.
The next day, I was introduced The Binding of Isaac. It’s a brutal game in every way, one where you play as a pink and naked abused boy who is locked in the nightmarish dungeons of his mother’s basement. The walls are made of excrement, your primary weapons are your tears, and the bosses are bubbling and bloated biblical metaphors. The worst part: it’s designed by Super Meat Boy people. If there was one game to defeat me, this was it. The Christmas achievement: find and kill Uncle Krampus. A few hours of gameplay later, and I gave up. Krampus is a late-game boss who you can only find via a random roll in an entirely randomly-generated game. The predicted probability of encountering Krampus over the next day roller-coasted from “he’s definitely gonna appear this time!” to “I’m more likely to find igloos in Hell.”
After looking wistfully down at Isaac’s permanently-streaming tears, I realized something. For the past two weeks, I’ve been playing the worst game ever. I’ve been jipped into a digital ponzi scheme where my worst emotions had become commodities. My raging desire to win something cool was also my desperation, my inadequacy, and my bitterness. And those were being invested back into Steam as game purchases and exposure to marketing. Even as I knew this, I didn’t want to stop.
Another day unveiled a more merciful list of achievements. Collecting dropped gifts from zombies in Left 4 Dead 2 was easy as pie. So was linking my Facebook account to Steam, though I’ll likely be regretting that decision all the way to the afterlife. But I had a raging desire to win right now, so regrets weren’t important. With my fingers crossed, I slid over to the inventory and double-checked that I had seven whole (non-existent digital representations of) coal lumps. With the three coupons I already acquired, my losing streak would surely end soon! That’s how probability works, right?
I eagerly pressed the “craft” button, hoping for the best.
Valve: I give up. You win. I lost. I’m done with this. I’m putting your coal and your achievements and your sale away. I’m just gonna go play fun games that I want to play now. Thanks for keeping me from doing that for past two weeks of my life.
Laugh it up, you gluttonous beast.
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