I’ll never forget the satisfaction of finally dragging that ugly gnome all the way through the antlion caverns, at the start of Half-Life 2: Episode 2. At that point, the journey has only just begun. Every gunfight runs the risk of it being blown away, leaving you scrambling around on the floor like Velma as she tries to find her glasses if her glasses had been hurled into the void beyond the map boundaries. Then you have to bring it with you in the jeep as helicopters shoot at you, all while it refuses to stay put. It’s worth it, though, because it’s a game-long challenge that fundamentally changes how you play, keeping everything fresh with a task as simple as carrying an inanimate object.
So many achievements push you to do things you normally wouldn’t, but they’re often arbitrary checklist markers. Take Borderlands 2, where you have to let a Goliath level up four times before killing them, or Metro: Last Light, where you have to kill five shrimps with grenades. These don’t change the way you play or make your run unique – they tack on annoying chores you have to clear to reach 100 percent completion.
That’s what makes the gnome achievement so fun. You know what the goal is – pick it up, keep it with you, and reach the end of the game. How you go about doing that is entirely up to you, rather than having to complete preset goals that add little to how you play. This was better than ever with Half-Life: Alyx, as now you had to carry a gnome in VR, actually holding down the trigger as you explored a virtual space. It felt more tangible, but it also made it slightly more manageable as you could hold your gun and the gnome at the same time.
If you want to aim better in Alyx, you can position your left hand under your right, steadying your fire as both hands snap to the gun. Holding the gnome means you can’t do that, or at least, not the intended way. I placed my hand over my arm in real-life, meaning that every gunfight saw me steadying my fire with a garden gnome.
It looked a little silly, but I managed to pull it off, and once again, it was incredibly satisfying. I remember the playthrough with the gnome far more than my first, leaping behind cars as I threw the gnome to safety, watching as it got blown out of reach by an explosive barrel, and placing it neatly on tables as I explored rooms, patting it on the head before we took off again.
It’s a challenge that isn’t based so explicitly on difficulty. It’s not about beating the game without dying or only using a starter weapon, but modifying your normal playstyle and experience around what is essentially a lengthy fetch quest. The difficulty is all down to you, and how you handle completing it. If you rush into things and try to get it over and done with, you’ll probably lose the gnome a lot and find it tedious, but if you take it slow and learn the best ways to keep it safe while you go off to fight enemies, it won’t be so bad.
Imagine Dark Souls but you have to carry an unusable bucket with you the entire time, Skyrim but you have to drag a stone carving of Balgruuf to Sovngarde, and Dying Light but you need to lug a pink flamingo out of the city – it’s a simple concept, but it never took off outside of Valve, and yet it might be the most rewarding challenge run achievement out there.
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