Achievements and Non-Core Gameplay

Touching a bit more on the “achievements can direct player attention” bit - directing player attention toward optional content with different gameplay requires an even gentler touch than usual.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is a 2D action RPG with Metroidvania elements and a fairly deep combo-based combat system. It has very little emphasis on platforming, but does have a handful of optional challenge arenas that present timed obstacle courses and score you based on your speed and precision.

To me, the challenge arenas feel bolted on. They test you on a different set of skills than the entire rest of the game - nothing else has a scoring system or a strict timer or requires so much platforming precision (in a game that doesn’t really give you the necessary tools for it) or memorizing and practicing a specific path through an area like it’s a Sonic level or something. They don’t add to the worldbuilding, the story doesn’t reference them, and you never need to enter any of them to finish the game. The only way they tie in to any other system is that each arena awards a not-very-valuable item the first time you complete it. You could lift the arenas right out of the game and it wouldn’t feel like anything was missing.

I don’t know that this is true, but what it feels like to me is that the game’s creator was playing with the tools he’d built and realized he could make some interesting obstacle courses and put them in as a side thing. And, like… that’s awesome! I love when creators have fun with their games and put in weird little side modes for players to enjoy.

But it’s important to recognize that because they are side modes that don’t engage with the game’s core mechanics in the same way, they have a different audience than the main game. Someone who picked up Dust for its storytelling and combat may or may not be interested in the story-free platforming drills of its challenge arenas, and that’s okay. Such a player should not be punished for not caring about something that’s very different from the game’s core and advertised experience.

And indeed, the challenge arenas aren’t required for beating Dust and it’s easy to clear them with poor scores if you just want the items. So players who enjoy them get a nice bonus and players who don’t can safely ignore them. The problem, of course, is that there are achievements attached. One for getting a good score on any challenge arena, and another for doing that on all six of them. This feels really bizarre for something so non-core and non-integrated, especially given there are no achievements for some things that are much more core to the game, like filling out the map or finding all the secrets or collecting all the crafting materials.

And to me it feels like an especially bad case of insecure design. A trophy for completing any challenge arena with any score would have been enough to ensure players were aware of the arenas and how they worked. Players who found them fun could then practice them and get good scores as their own reward (or to climb the online leaderboards - this is the only part of the game that has them). That seems like enough of an incentive to me. Attaching achievements punishes players who care about achievements but don’t find the arenas fun - and given how different the arenas' gameplay is from the main game, I’d expect a lot of players not to enjoy them. I sure didn’t, and I would have liked Dust less if I had made myself master them. As it is, the challenge arena achievements are the only ones I’m missing, and it bothers me a little that the game considers my playthrough (in which I did fill the map, find all secrets, and collect all crafting materials) incomplete.