In this article, I will explain a potentially unintuitive belief that I hold about a specific style of games: that the best possible experience of playing roguelikes and derivatives of roguelikes is usually attained by pursuing 100% achievement completion as the primary end goal of the game. My test case for this purpose will be Dodge Roll’s highly polished and mechanically satisfying top-down shooter Enter the Gungeon.
Like so many of its peers in the increasingly-loosely-defined genre it at least partially shares with notables like Rogue, Spelunky, and FTL—Gungeon is a game that is played by repeatedly attempting to win difficult randomization-heavy play sessions averaging less than an hour each, where dying means a total end to that playthrough; to continue playing, a newly-randomized session must begin from the very start.
And why do I think that pursuing achievements (or trophies, or badges, or whatever you want to call them) offers the best way of engaging with Enter the Gungeon and other games in this style? Simply, because doing so offers a balanced, varied, thorough, satisfying compromise between two inferior extremes.
How to Beat Enter the Gungeon:
What does it mean for a player to ‘beat’ Enter the Gungeon?
One plausible account might say that beating Enter the Gungeon means, like playing a checkpoint-lacking console game from the late 1980s or early 1990s, simply reaching an ending without running out of health or lives. Thus the text after the credits which reads, “Thanks for playing!” A person subscribing to this account may contend that invested and skillful players have played and beaten Enter the Gungeon numerous times. And anyone who has reached any ending in Gungeon as any character has, on this paradigm, beaten the game; even abandoning the game after beating the fifth chamber for the first time is stepping away from a game completed.
In contrast, another potentially popular account may be that Enter the Gungeon can not really be beaten. Although individual runs can be won or lost, due to its randomization and repetitive structure the game can be played forever without ever reaching a truly definitive conclusion. As with most score-chasing arcade titles, no one ever has beaten or ever will beat the game. Even if they’ve completed the sixth chamber, the secret chambers, the secret bosses, and so on—the player still has not straightforwardly beaten the game as a whole. Thus the text after the credits which reads, “You killed the past. The Gungeon remains…” On this paradigm, one simply stops playing Gungeon when it eventually ceases to interest or excite them.
My stance is that both of those approaches to what it means to beat Enter the Gungeon lead to undesirable outcomes. The ‘each-win-beats-the-game solution’ is likely to leave huge amounts of worthwhile and enjoyable content in the game completely untouched and unseen by many otherwise engaged players, whereas the ‘no-one-ever-beats-the-game solution’ essentially means that everyone who leaves the game does so only once playing it has become a source of boredom. Games in the roguelike genre and games that borrow mechanics from the roguelike genre generally offer far more content than can be encountered in the lead-up to a single win, yet they also experience rapidly diminishing returns of engagement beyond a certain point; this is why I feel they are uniquely well-suited to the approach I’m about to describe.
I believe it is possible to establish a happy medium—a discrete set of accomplishments or goals in Enter the Gungeon which extend beyond the scope of a single run, without simply becoming an endless treadmill. If pursued as the main aim of playing, such a curated checklist of goals would have the potential to take a player through the vast majority of worthwhile content in the game, and yet leave them satisfied with their experience without them playing the game to exhaustion.
And how do we define such a set? Beating the game as each character? Beating every boss in the game? Finding every item at least once? What we want is a balanced mix of primary and secondary goals that bring us on a comprehensive tour of Enter the Gungeon, giving us a full experience of what it has to offer and then, while we still feel warmly toward Gungeon, providing a moment of triumphant closure at which the player may take their cue to move on to other games.
Fortunately, the work of designing such a set of goals has already been done for us by the game’s own developers. Wasn’t that nice of them? Big surprise incoming: I am referring to the game’s achievement list.
Achievements as Gameplay in Enter the Gungeon:
The set of achievements for Enter the Gungeon represents an array that covers reaching the true ending for almost all individual characters, traversing each harder path in the game at least once, unlocking each of the game’s shortcuts, and completing an assortment of minigames, secret areas, and challenge run varieties.
This, to me, is of course precisely the sort of balanced list of goals sought in the prior section, which is why I integrated the quest for those achievements into my conception of what it means to play Enter the Gungeon. On this paradigm, beating the game means earning all of the achievements. In fact, starting with the original flash version of The Binding of Isaac about a decade ago, I have willingly decided to treat chasing achievements as gameplay in this and similarly structured games, and have been gratified to find that doing that has given me a terrific experience in such titles: thorough, satisfying, finite.
I think the most likely objection to this recommendation would be that an achievement list is an arbitrary set of goals established by the developers, and that arbitrariness means it is unsuited to being treated as a primary form of gameplay or even a way of completing the game itself.
To that, I would respond by pointing out that the game itself already constitutes an arbitrary set of goals established by the developers. This is just one additional layer of such goals, typically designed by the exact same creative team in the course of the exact same project. If you are already trusting the devs to offer you a compelling structure of goals and rules within the game, then I see no immediate reason for you to distrust them when they do the same through achievements. And such goals need not be external to the game as a program; there was a 7-year gap between when FTL launched on Steam and when it was hooked up to the Steam achievement system, but its achievements were present within the game from day one.
Still, I would agree that an achievement set has to be well-designed for it to adequately fulfill the role described here. And what does it mean for a set of achievements to be ‘well-designed?’ Well, you’re in luck! I’ve already covered that. My article on Spelunky 2 is a specific discussion of several ways that it is possible for the implementation of achievements to either enhance or damage the experience of some games.
It is possible to determine whether a game has a worthwhile set of achievements, using criteria like those offered in that earlier article. And it would be accurate to say that not every game’s set of achievements is deserving of this same level of honor and attention. Long-time readers are likely tired of hearing me say Crypt of the NecroDancer is an example of poorly implemented achievements, so I will add that Risk of Rain is another successful entry in this genre that sports subpar achievement design. While I have gathered all of Risk of Rain’s achievements, they are mostly tied to random in-game metrics; they do not meaningfully lead the player toward any interesting secrets or new ways of playing; and they neglect to incentivize the core gameplay across the different available characters.
But there is a long list of other games in this genre (or, as the pedants would render it, these genres) where obtaining 100% of the achievements has done exactly what I’ve described earlier: taken me on a challenging and worthwhile tour of just about everything the games have to offer, and then let me move on, sated, to new experiences. For some examples, that list includes Spelunky HD, Spelunky 2, The Binding of Isaac, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, FTL, Into the Breach, Slay the Spire, Dicey Dungeons, Rogue Legacy, and (no shock here) Enter the Gungeon. All in all, the ratio of good experiences to bad experiences that has been given to me by this policy for how to beat these kinds of games has been overwhelmingly skewed toward the good, and as a result I now accept this approach as part of my basic protocol for such games.
Perhaps you personally dislike the advice that has been offered here. Maybe you don’t enjoy pursuing some subset of common achievement types, like finishing challenge runs or finding secrets. Or maybe you have no particular interest in playing a variety of games within the genre, as you’ve already found one that you quite like and so would prefer to play your favorite roguelike or roguelike-adjacent title for eternity.
That’s fine by me! No argument here. I’m not trying to tell such players they are wrong. I’m just offering a possibly fruitful perspective as an option for players. Along those lines, I should take a moment here to finish clarifying the purpose of this article.
I do not mean that folks should feel obligated to continue playing a game after they have lost interest in it (if achievements are left incomplete). The experience of ‘beating a roguelike’ as it is described here means that a full playthrough of each of them typically lasts between 30 and 100 hours, which would mean they are fairly long games. There are many players who do not complete even relatively short linear games in other genres. That’s alright. In general, it is a good practice to stop engaging with a work, especially a work pursued primarily as a form of entertainment, when that work ceases to offer experiences that feel worthwhile.
Nor do I mean that folks should feel obligated to stop playing games they are still enjoying (if achievements are complete). Some players may set themselves extra goals that aren’t covered by the achievement list. Some people have very tight schedules, and simply want to use their limited free time to return to experiences they know will be familiar and comfortable. And still others may, for any of a variety of reasons, not have ready access to an array of worthwhile games, with many potentially enjoyable titles sitting idle in their accounts or wishlists; it took me many years to slowly accumulate such a backlog myself.
In the end, this article is not about obligation at all. It is merely meant to argue that, if construed as part of a game when offered, achievements can potentially provide a structure for thorough enjoyment of—and satisfying completion of—certain types of games. Roguelikes and their offspring are prominent examples of such types, and Enter the Gungeon is a great concrete instance. For me, this method has proven to consistently deliver the best experience of playing such games, pushing me toward seeing everything that is possible within them, and then finishing with a dramatic bow to allow other games to give me new experiences.
When considering potential applications of this advice in a broader context, I’d sum up as follows: in any game where there is ambiguity about the nature of completion, achievements may be able to provide clarity.
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