Generally, when we think of “grind”, we often hear it in terms of the “daily grind,” the necessary, but not always enjoyable effort that we have to earn a paycheck, perform our responsibilities, and just get to the day. In Role Playing Games (RPGs), the word grind is used to define the process of playing your character through the game in order to level him up, or make him stronger. In many rpgs, the narrative of the game must often be placed on the backburner while the player levels his character, through repetitive grinding, in order to get strong enough to progress to the next level. Paul and I have both been playing Strategy RPGs (SRPGs), and we’ve been comparing our thoughts quite a bit. Here’s what Paul sums up in a recent post:
It is not the gameâ€™s narrative that held me in the gameâ€™s world, it was my emotional connection with the individual characters. Like many role-playing experiences, the enjoyment is derived from the expanded story and characterization created by the player. Grinding has built up a camaraderie between the game characters and myself.While the gameâ€™s attempt at developing relationships has slowed as Iâ€™ve continued to grind, my emotional investment with the characters has continued to grow.
As I develop a personal investment in the characters, my commitment to the game and the success of each character grows. This isnâ€™t a unique experience for video games. And the debate over which is more engaging: an open ended user created narrative vs. a tightly channeled game narrative is one that fills message boards on a regular basis.There is clearly a place for both. And some games find a balance between the two (the 12 million playing WOWâ€™s new Lich King expansion are an example).
Is one narrative experience more valuable than other?
On July 21, my wife gave me my first SRPG, Disagea:Afternoon of Darkness. Since then, I’ve put almost 50 hours into the game, and I’m currently about 80% finished with the game’s narrative. In the game, after the completion of each Episode (generally a collection of 4 levels), the player receives a pretty substantial piece of the continuing narrative, which is delivered via cinematic cutscenes. The player works through the levels (often playing and failing levels multiple times) in order to clear the episode and receive more of the story. The story is the carrot that keeps the player involved in the game. Up until Episode 11 (out of 13) in the game, I’ve been pretty much able to breeze through most levels on the first or second try. A a result, I have been able to receive the carrots fairly frequently. However, my progress has come to a grinding halt (pun intended) in Episode 11.
In Episode 11, I have now faced a greater challenge than I have come across in previous levels. The particular level that I am on has stronger enemies and more challenging level design. After playing and failing to beat the level many times, I finally became aware that the team of characters that I crafted over the previous eleven levels would not be sufficient to clear the level, much less finish the game. If this was any other game genre (action, adventure, shooter, etc) I would likely give up on the game at this point. However, because SRPGs allow the player to truly control his experience with character creation and customization, I realized that this was part of the game. Since I did not have the right mix of characters in my team, I would have to create new characters that would provide more balance to my party.
Unfortunately, you cannot just create new characters from scratch and throw them into battle in the 11th Episode of a game. If you do, the new characters would likely be crushed instantly in battle. In order to get your newly created characters ready, you have to return to previously finished levels with weaker enemies in order to level-up the characters. As the new characters defeat enemies, they get experience points, which contribute to their overall levels. As they get more experience, the will be able to defeat tougher enemies. In order for me to get past Episdode 11, I have created several Mages (magicians who can attack at a distance) and a few Clerics (magicians who can heal team members with magic). Prior to getting stuck in the current Episode, I did not need these characters, and saw no need to create them. However, once I got to Episode 11, I found that my Brawlers, Warriors, and Scouts (all traditional weapon wielders with swords, guns, and axes) would not cut it. As result, I’ve spent the last 5 hours in the game leveling up my new Mages and Clerics.
Now going back to the drawing board here might really frustrate some gamers, particularly after the amount of time invested in the game. Going back to a beginning level may seem pointlessly redundant, and I could easily become frustrated that I did not create the right characters in the first place. Some may find that leveling up can be a ridiculously boring process, since you simply play previous levels in order to strengthen the weaker characters. I initially thought I would feel the same, but I’m actually enjoying the process of level grinding. And believe me, it is a process.
While playing the game in the early stages, I was so wrapped up in the story narrative that I did not pay much attention to the development of my characters. Sure, I added armor and new weapons to each character as I acquired them, but my main goal was to strive for the next piece of the narrative. In the past five hours of the game, my primary goal has switched to the sole purpose of strengthening a handful of characters, not in progressing the story. This has changed how I’ve played the game. Before, when I was more concerned about the story, I would use my strongest characters the most in battle while avoiding the weaker ones. Now that strategy has flipped, as I am now trying to get the weaker characters as strong as the most powerful ones. Because I am now playing the beginning levels of the game with different characters, I have to employ different strategies than I did before, as each character plays differently. As such, I’m seeing and learning things about the game, and about myself as a player, a bit differently.
In other words, I had gotten quite comfortable with how I was playing the game. The game shocked me out of my comfort zone at Episode 11, which caused me to stop, re-evlaulate, and play the game in a different way. I’m now beginning to experience the game at a deeper level than before, and becoming stronger at different elements of the gameplay. It’s almost like the game recognized my strengths and weaknesses as a player, and in Episode 11, it required that I become stronger in my weaker areas in order to proceed to the next level. By exploring the game in a different way, I’m learning to master the game in totally different ways. In the process of grinding, I have found the game to be more therapuetic than I thought it would be. Kind of ironic, but I guess I’m escaping the “daily grind” by grinding. However, in the game, I can see immediate results of my grind, while similar results don’t easily manifest themselves in the real world.
Update: Paul discusses these concepts even deeper at Vs. Mode: Level Grinding in SRPGs as a Research Process.