[This post is part of the Completionist series. Check out the other entries here.]
I’ve never met anyone who played Harm’s Way for more than an hour or two, and even that’s pushing it. In a way this is hardly surprising; the game’s an arcade racer that only has four drivable vehicles, three very similar post-apocalyptic tracks, and a single three-race event to compete in. But it is surprising for a couple of reasons. The first is that Harm’s Way is a completely free release on Xbox Live’s marketplace, which is a combination of words I’ve very rarely been able to use. And secondly, Harm’s Way is quite a lot of fun.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a game that’s going to change your life. It’s just a simple arcade title that feels fresher than it has any right to by conjoining two well-worn concepts (off-road racing and emplaced turret sequences) into a surprisingly complementary whole. Players can either barrel around the desert courses in buggies and buses or hop into a roadside turret to blast their rival drivers with high-powered weaponry. Written down (and, indeed, in action) it feels like an idea dreamt up by a crazy kid, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. In a sense, Harm’s Way gets to something fundamental about games; that a lot of the very best are as silly as they are fun, and better for it. This brings me back to my original point, though. What is it, outside of the scarce options, which stops people coming back to this game?
Is this yet again related to achievements? It could well be. Harm’s Way has an exceedingly simple list which even an average player can blow through in under an hour. And when you combine that with the lack of in-game progression, it stops mattering how enjoyable the core loop of gameplay is. There’s a common myth that playing video games is a waste of time because it accomplishes nothing tangible, which is obviously nonsense in and of itself, but games like Harm’s Way are a fairly succinct example of how and why. Players, contrary to popular belief, don’t want to waste their time. They won’t do something that offers them no sense of progression or reward, whether or not those rewards have any application in real life or are simply meaningless digital trinkets. Were Harm’s Way’s achievements more complicated, if they required a greater investment of time or skill, I can almost guarantee people would have played (and enjoyed) Harm’s Way for a lot longer than they did. There has to be something to strive for, and when there is people will overlook all kinds of deficiencies in the game itself.
Harm’s Way has a reputation of being an exceedingly simple affair that offers 200 Gamerpoints for free. But it should be considered a missed opportunity; an example of what achievements could potentially do for games that are silly and fun without being much else. So maybe one of our problems as gamers isn’t that we strive for too much depth and complexity. Maybe it’s that we don’t place enough value in just messing around.