A Grinding Pain

I don’t like grinding.  Controversial statement there, I know.  Not exactly a whole lot of outlets out there being all like “This game has tons of beautiful grinding therefore 11/10!”.  Once upon a time, I actually rather enjoyed grinding.  Because I was a weird kid.  But particularly on handheld games, there was just something satisfying about having the GBA in my hands and the TV on and being able to pummel goons mindlessly as background noise while watching all my numbers go satisfying up.  I ground my way to a full 150 in my Pokedex way back in the day which is a hugely time consuming feat and don’t let anyone tell you different.  Of course, that was back in an era in which I had few games but copious amounts of free time.  Now, the situation has reversed.  And so too has my opinion on grinding.

The act of doing repetitive activities over and over past the point of enjoyment with minimal new content introduced in order to incrementally make your numbers bigger or gain desired resources.  Looking back, I realize I’ve done it a lot over the years.  The aforementioned full Pokedex.  Getting the Sword of Kings in Earthbound.  Building myself up to be able to take on the post game superdungeon in later versions of Final Fantasy VI.  Running back and forth in the sewers to level my party up until they have the skills I wanted to take down Matador in SMT: Nocturne.  Going through huge long ordeals to get the materials needed to craft better equipment in Dragon Quest VIII, which ultimately killed my interest and led me to quit the game just before it allegedly ‘gets good’.  Spending over an hour dodging lightning bolts in Final Fantasy X.  And I can go on.  Actually, it’s amazing how many distinct memories I have of grinding in games.  Like, all my gaming experiences, and that’s what I devote mental real estate to?  Weird.  Anyways, Red Metal had a game review a while back, I don’t remember which one but will probably update this with the link if he’s kind enough to remind me in the comments, where he talks about grinding as resonating with the Japanese cultural values of seeing results from hard work, and something that’s been frequent in JRPGs because of it.  And that makes a lot of sense to me.  At one point, I shared in it.  A lot of those memories above I look back on fondly.  But it’s not anything I want much to do with now.  

And my recent experiences show this is a practice that’s far from dying out.  Two games I’m currently playing, one from last year, one from a decade ago, both hit a point where grinding was necessary, for very similar reasons and for very similar results.

So, RPGs, right?  Some have more room for strategy and skill and alternate approaches than others, but at some level with all of them, you’ve got a set of numbers and you’re mashing it up against another set of numbers until you get the result you want.  But usually you’ve got plots going up alongside them too.  And when you’ve got gameplay and you’ve got plot, you want them to kind of sort of go along with each other.  Plot climaxes should follow or be followed by gameplay climaxes, generally.  So when you’ve got a game about numbers, that means big important characters should have big important numbers.  Now, your numbers are the most important, of course.  But they might not be the biggest.  So you have to grind to make them bigger.  

I’ve talked about Yakuza: Like a Dragon in this space before.  For the most part, my opinion is unchanged on it; I love most of it, but dislike the combat.  But I’ve also spent 55 hours in the game to this point, so you can take that for what you will.  Anyways, the game is divided into chapters.  I’m currently midway through Chapter 12, which so far, seems like the biggest chapter as far as the plot goes.  The game spends all of its early and mid acts setting up a complex and somewhat nonsensical set of dominoes, some of which it inherits from previous games from idly, and Chapter 12 is where it feels like it starts giving you all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to get the full picture and put together your gameplan for moving into the endzone.  I mix my metaphors like a boss.  Anyways, it’s a big momentous chapter.  And it starts by saying “HEY WE NEED 3 MILLION YEN FOR REASONS AND ALL THE CRIME LORDS ARE BROKE HOW ABOUT YOU GO GRIND FOR IT?”  Well, I didn’t grind for it.  Because as I said, I hate grinding.  Instead, I just spent 20 minutes running my bomber businesses, and got that 3 mil much easier.  So then, after that, it takes you some place.  And you’re like, “Oh man, I wasn’t expecting the game to go here, this is awesome!”  And then it’s like “OH HEY HOW ABOUT I TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO INTRODUCE YOU TO THE PERFECT PLACE TO GRIND.”  And you’re like, “No, thank you, grinding totally sucks.” And then your party members start encouraging you to GRIND but you ignore them because you’ve had no problem with any story encounter up to this point.  So you get back into the plot, which is really moving, and you’re heading to resolve a plot point that’s been hanging over things literally all game, so you move through the dungeon to do that, but then you run into some guys I don’t want to name because of spoilers but you’re like “Oh these guys are here? Things just got like 10 times more awesome now.  And I get to fight them?  That’s sweet!”  But then you realize those awesome guys who absolutely should be a challenging fight are ten levels above where you’re expected to be by this point and have some absolute bullhonky numbers that you can’t do anything about so they wipe the floor with you.  Like, not even trying. If you follow the game path as intended, even doing almost all the side content available to you up to that point, you’ve got no chance of beating them without grinding.  Your numbers just aren’t high enough to match theirs.  And Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t a game where strategy and prep work make a huge impact on the momentum of combat.  So you can’t smart your way out of it.  No, you have to take all that story momentum and all those awesome feelings at seeing those two badasses, for whom you’d be honestly disappointed if the boss fight was easy, and put them on hold while you go back and grind.  

And a blast from a decade earlier, at about the same time I hit that point in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I also hit something similar in Devil Survivor.  Day 3, for which anyone who’s played the game instantly know what I’m talking about, but there’s a boss there that’s already been well established as one hard beefcake, who has shown up in gameplay before and left you no choice but to flee for your lives before him, and who is already prophecized to straight up murder your party at exactly that time.  This fight has to be tough.  And it delivers.  The general monsters around you are a step above the ones you have been facing up to this point and could potentially overwhelm you on their own, but the boss himself goes well beyond that.  Offensively powerful, can hit every member of your group on the map, and invincible to absolutely everything except for a single attack your protagonist has just for this battle.  Now, Devil Survivor is an SMT game, which usually has a heavy emphasis on the mental work over just raw numbers, so there’s still plenty of room to strategize your way past challenges without having to do a huge amount of grinding, but the only attack you have that can damage him?  It’s a physical attack, which means if you sacrificed physical might to make your protag an arcane powerhouse like I did, you still need to back off for a while to go hammer out a few levels you can put in your strength to do some decent damage.  Once again, at a big climactic plot point, but I had to run it back to go spend time doing something of minimal value only to go at it again feeling much more irritated.  

So, I’m not going to say there’s no value to mandatory grinding in a game.  I absolutely hated Dark Souls stupid checkpoint placements, but I do remember feeling early on in the game that there was an odd benefit there in needing to practice with the jobbers and slowly build up resources over the course of replaying familiar sections of the game again and again every time you lost.  But I am going to say I hate grinding, and if it has to happen, it needs to be well placed.  Both these examples landed their difficult spikes, and thus the necessity of grinding, right when their story momentum was reaching a height, and the necessity to take a break from the plot in order to get what I needed to move through it robbed the big moments of a lot of their impact and emotional gravitas.  It was horrible for plot pacing, in short.  And both of these have big story moves following those spiked battles, but it lost a bit of narrative continuity because I needed to stop and grind.  I don’t have a good solution to that.  Both of those fights needed to be hard, and needed to be harder than anything else you’ve faced.  But I do know that grinding is not the solution there.  Both of those imposed grinding at absolutely the worst place, and the stories suffered for it.  

7 responses to “A Grinding Pain

  1. I feel you on how abrupt and frustrating forced grind can be. I generally avoid grinding, especially now when my backlog is saturated and it’s far too easy to pick up and put down stuff. I especially dislike when games encourage flexible ways to overcome challenges only to suddenly pigeonhole you into grinding in a specific way. Sudden bullet sponge difficulty spikes suck, because it doesn’t usually require a greater challenge tactically or skill wise but just a greater investment of time.

    I’ve also played Devil Survivor, albeit a long time ago so I forgot about that part, but I also agree that grinding can ruin narrative pace while also being an important part of reflecting plot development. Ideally, new or expanded mechanics could be used instead but these could appear equally tacked on/frustrating. At any rate, I think I’d rather accept that difficulty won’t always follow plot congruity.

    • Yes! Absolutely agree with that dislike of games being flexible than forcing one specific playstyle on you. Makes the difficulty spikes feel a lot more artificial. Like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, what with the game being built around having a variety of approaches to everything and letting you level up your character never needing combat stats and skills at all, only to pop you into mandatory combat sections and make you restart them over and over again because you’re essentially going through them with a level one character if you specialize in something other than combat. Wasn’t a fun time.

      Ideally, you’d have an elegant difficulty curve so you can have hard challenges without them being stopping points at the plot climaxes, but that’s a really complicated thing to ask for. Lots of games do pull it off. For those that don’t, as I said in the post, I don’t really have a solution, but I’m pretty sure mandating a break from the fun isn’t a good option.

  2. Whoa, you have a really good memory. I didn’t even remember having written that until you mentioned it. That was in the introduction to my Breath of the Wild review. Breath of the Wild was a game with Western sensibilities made from an outsider’s perspective, which is why I mentioned grinding in that context. And personally, I wish that kind of game design would occur more often; the reason it turned out so well is because Hidemaro Fujibayashi and his team were able to inject ideas that Western developers had long given up on (e.g.: boss fights, environmental storytelling, actual puzzles, etc.), proving that, yes, those concepts absolutely work in a Western game as long as you apply the right context. It’s the reason why, despite a majority of the open-world games I’ve played having been products of Western developers, Breath of the Wild towers above them all. I don’t think it’s recency bias that it is currently in my top ten, either; it really is one of the best games I’ve ever played.

    Anyway, grinding. I don’t mind grinding so much if it’s straightforward enough. It can even be nice to do some grinding while listening to a podcast or something similar. That said, I tend to like it better whenever games do what they can to keep the grinding to a minimum; I especially like how Earthbound and Bravely Default allow you to automatically win fights against opponents whose levels are utterly dwarfed by your own and you still get money/EXP for your troubles. And as time has gone on, I think more developers realized that it hasn’t aged well as a design choice. It’s especially bad in game such as Final Fantasy III or Pokémon Gold/Silver wherein it places a mandatory grinding wall just before your well-earned ending.

    • Yes! That was it! Thanks for looking back and bringing that up. For whatever reason, I thought it was in your Bokosuka Wars review when I first drafted it, and was kind of surprised to go looking for it and not finding it there.

      And yeah, I totally agree with you on wishing there were more mix of sensibilities there in the medium. That often seems to be when creatives best hit their moments, when they’ve got one foot in something familiar to them and another in something that’s stretching them quite a bit. It takes some boldness and a lot of foundational skill to do really well, but it can be beautiful when you do.

      The best grinding is in games that either make it unnoticable or make it fun, somehow. At which point, I probably wouldn’t call it grinding. But yeah, I remember spending a fair amount of time in Earthbound just chasing down the weak enemies and crushing them on the overworld. It was quick, fun, and honestly had a great thrill to it and a real feeling of empowerment. Now that’s something I wish a bunch of other games would bring back.

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