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Editor’s note: Daniel takes a look at how the best aspects of role-playing games have made the jump over to other genres, but the mindless grind remains an RPG-only phenomenon. Now if you’ll excuse me, Borderlands is calling my name. -Demian
Watching Sessler’s Soapbox this past week, I was forced to confront my own feelings about role-playing games (RPGs for you brevity fans). I used to love them, playing both the pen & paper and electronic varieties throughout my childhood. Then something changed and I turned on the genre, but Sessler’s comments have given me a lot to think about. Do I hate RPGs, or do I simply hate RPGs that waste my time?
I played RPGs for years and I adored them all, but sometime around the turn of the millennium I simply threw up my hands and declared myself done with the genre. This coincided with a period of frustration I had with video games as a whole (something I seriously need to write about one of these days). I have completely reversed course on that and embraced video games once again, but I have never returned to what used to be the staple of my gaming appetite.
Nevertheless, RPG elements have somehow permeated my favorite games over the course of the past year; it’s a growing trend, and one that I can get behind.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is the most obvious example, and the closest thing to a traditional RPG I played during that time. Like Symphony of the Night, it smoothly mixes leveling up with 2D action, but adds a world map and a town full of villagers to interact with. If anything, it’s more RPG-like than the previous SotN derivatives on the Nintendo DS, yet I had no complaints.
Resistance 2’s co-op mode also owes a debt to RPGs. While the setting and first-person shooter controls are radically different, every bullet in your clip is a potential experience point-earner. In a rather brilliant move, the game uses dynamic visual cues to combine XP and shooting — numbers pop up with each successful hit or kill. Looking at movies of Borderlands (the inspiration for Sessler’s video, above), I see that game uses a similar system. To an RPG veteran such as myself, flying numbers are the new gore.
Even when you strip away signature tropes such as levels, RPG fingerprints are all over recent blockbusters. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, beating up mental patients and finding Riddler trophies contributes to an (optional) upgrade system that gradually makes Batman stronger, because who wants to play a level 1 Batman anyway? Likewise, Resident Evil 5 players buy new weapons and enhancements via gold and loot, and can replay lucrative stages to stock up on cash. 2007 hit BioShock, a shooter devoid of any XP or player stats, offered periodic upgrades through tonics, the research camera, and Power to the People stations.
The point is, I can’t keep complaining about RPGs as a genre when their distinguishing characteristics are infused into nearly everything about games that I enjoy. Games have trained me to seek small, incremental rewards and draw satisfaction from purely arbitrary numerical checkpoints. RPGs are simply the most transparent examples of the practice. The longer you play a game, the higher the numbers go and the better you feel. In the original Super Mario Bros., neither Mario nor the Mushroom Kingdom changed much as you advanced through the game, but the World numbers alone signified your progress. The Warp Zone was so exciting because 4>3>2.
That brings us back to the unpleasantness of “grinding,” the topic that Adam Sessler specifically addressed in his Soapbox video. He defended it as a desirable escape from everyday life, a simple way to relieve stress by simulating progress and accomplishments. I don’t disagree with him on these points, but I think he is talking about video games as a whole rather than just RPGs.
All games offer the feedback and rewards that he describes, and like it or not, every game has enough repetition so that players go through the same set of actions over and over again. When it comes to grinding, however, a few key factors come to mind: tapping a single button to rush things along, moving my character in circles, and an overall sense that I’m waiting for something rather than doing something. Grinding is not an escape for me, it’s work, and one of the reasons I don’t enjoy RPGs anymore.
RPGs still differ from most other games in that simply playing makes your character improve. XP as a tangible resource that can be stockpiled and hoarded incentivizes players to grind in order to proceed. It’s not like a skilled Final Fantasy 7 player can beat Emerald Weapon with bold strategy alone. If your characters are not experienced enough or you lack certain materials (which can only be acquired through hours of gameplay), the battle cannot be won.
By contrast, a game like Super Mario Bros. or Batman can be completed without any upgrades at all. Mario can warp to the final castle in less than five minutes, and whether he’s big or small he’s capable of defeating Bowser. Aside from some necessary equipment found along the way, nothing’s stopping Batman as he exists at the start of the game from fighting the Joker at the end. The difference is, the player has to learn how to win the fight by battling lesser henchman.
I’m not going to condemn RPGs for making it easier for players to strengthen their characters, I’m just fed up with the ones that don’t offer a fun way to do it. The hours I spent grinding for the Emerald Weapon encounter involved walking back and forth, fighting random battles just so I could build up stats and duplicate certain rare items. I didn’t learn anything, I was just pressing the X button as fast as I could. It was like playing a slot machine, only instead of a random jackpot you won one penny at a time.
That’s the essence of grinding to me: spinning my wheels, wasting my time, learning nothing while accomplishing almost nothing. Lots of games let me stock up on resources through repetition, but the good ones hone my skills as I go, keeping me entertained. For example, I didn’t need to rid Arkham of all those killer plants, but I enjoyed the challenge of sneaking up on them and bursting them without getting hit. I didn’t consider it grinding, I just felt like I was playing the game my own way.
Adam Sessler defended grinding while discussing Borderlands, which seems like an odd choice. I haven’t played the game yet, but it doesn’t strike me as the grinding type. Even if I must build up experience points by killing weaker foes, that’s still a task that requires quick thinking and aiming skills. The game could turn out to be poorly paced, but so long as combat remains a mental exercise instead of rapid button presses I don’t see it becoming a chore. At the very least, the promise of killing wild boars with a friend by my side should erase any tedium that might set in.
I used to think I hated RPGs, but recent gaming trends have shown me that I couldn’t have been further from the truth. As experience points and periodic upgrades become standard across all genres of gaming, it seems like everybody loves most RPG conventions. Grinding, on the other hand, remains on my list of things to avoid.
[UPDATE: Please check out this alternate opinion on what makes “grinding” a grind]
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