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.  

Playing Against Type

Bloodborne.  Lots of people call it a good game.  And they’re right.  Some people call it a great game.  I’d agree with that.  Some people call it a masterpiece.  Those people, I start wondering if they need their heads checked.

Bloodborne has a lot going for it.  It was built on top of a great, proven engine, it has a great design, its lore is steps ahead of your average game, the combat engine pushes the player’s limits in just the right ways, and so on.  But it’s also a flawed game, and it has a lot going against it that other games I would consider true masterpieces, such as its predecessor Dark Souls, deliberately and deftly avoid.  Two big things come to mind.

The first, I’m just not very good at Bloodborne.  I don’t click with the combat style.  Which is fine.  I didn’t get to where I’d actually consider myself good at Dark Souls until Artorias kicked my face in for two hours, so I think I just need a moment like that.  And everytime I look online for help, I come across a past conversation with the type of infuriating wanker that thinks there needs to be a holy war between the haves and have-nots of Bloodborne skill.  Which, really, is not a problem with the game itself, but I get to choose what I think are masterpieces, and the skill barrier disqualifies a game until I cross it.

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The second factor, I have to blame on the game.  Bloodborne’s gameplay has several mechanisms that just work counter to each other.  Bits of the design philosophy that conflict.  The most prominent is that Bloodborne requires grinding.  Specifically, it punishes you with grinding.  Your health items and one of your key defensive tools are consumable.  You use them, and they’re gone, even if you screw up and get all your progress you had used them towards erased.  Enough failed runs, and you’ll have to spend an hour’s time just farming enemies in order to build your supplies back up for another go ‘round.

Which would be a black mark on its own.  But what makes it even worse here is that Bloodborne is built around trial and error gameplay.  You are expected, almost required, to fail.  Because that’s how you grow.  Enemies are built to be too much for you at first.  Even at second.  Maybe up to fifth or beyond.  It doesn’t matter.  They only put you down so that you can get up again.  They hurt you so you get better.  As you fail, you learn their timings, you try new strategies, you find yourself moving where they’re weak, and by the time you’ve triumphed, you have had internalized who and what they are, through your repeated trials in overcoming them.

It’s glorious.  It’s one of the things that make so much of From Software’s recent output so great.  But it’s made so, so much weaker by the fact that you are punished for it.  The game requires you to learn from failure in order to succeed, but if you fail, it will take away from your experience.  The game abuses you for playing as it intends.

Thing is, having some mechanics push in one direction and other mechanics pushing you back is totally common thing in games.  In fact, to some extent, games are built on it.  The later Persona games created their whole time management gameplay by matching their mechanics encouraging you to take as much outside-dungeon activity as possible with mechanics limiting the amount you got to do.  Resident Evil 4 was all about deftly navigating hordes of enemies as you cut them down, yet would constantly limit your ability to do so by locking you into a vehicle or situation that restricted your movement.  Fire Emblem is focused on utilizing the near complete availability of information to build completely safe and defensive strategies, yet still left the unpredictable elements of critical hits and enemy reinforcements in there.  And they’re all great games.  In fact, the counter-productive elements add to the experience.  So why is it that it works here, but not in Bloodborne?

A lot of it lies in the nature of how these counterproductive elements are used.  In all those good examples?  The interworkings were set in place to provide limits.  To place challenges to overcome.  Games require rules and boundaries, and those elements were how the designers set those in place.  They gave you something to work around.  Providing new gameplay, even if, the way I explained it, it seems they should take away.

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Bloodborne’s grinding requirements?  Along with stuff like Dark Cloud’s fragile freakin’ weapons when the game requires you to be grinding them down?  Like Skies of Arcadia promoting exploration when the game has a monstrous random encounter rate?  Like Final Fantasy 2 requiring you to enter doors, yet more often than not sticking you in a stupid monster closet whenever you did so?  Those are all mechanisms of punishment.

Failure needs to have consequence, or so goes a common set of game design knowledge.  Thing is, games don’t exist in meatspace.  They can’t reach out of the screen and slap you when you screw up.  Yet.  I call dibs on the patent.  In fact, game designers don’t have a whole lot of torque over players in the real world.  So, for punishment, they use one of the few things they do have power over.  They punish you by wasting your time.  They remove the progress or resources you’ve already bought with your time.  Or, as in Bloodborne’s case, they make you spend more time before you get to the stuff you want to play.

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It’s not a good system.  Wasting your time is one of the biggest sins a game can commit.  There’s a reason why gaming has largely been moving away from this method of punishment, or, at least, limiting its impact, as the medium has developed.  And yet, we still see it pop up.  And it’s never to the game’s favor.  The sparse placement of checkpoints and the long walks after failure was one of the few black spots on an otherwise gleaming game in Dark Souls, and that, combined with the time required to grind up to recover from your losses, is one of the biggest weights dragging Bloodborne down.

It does lead to a more old-school feel, which is what I believe the Soul series is going for, but unfortunately, it does so without adding to the experience.  It’s better than a lot of other applications, such as the Do It Again, Stupid style gameplay I’ve been running into all over the PS2 era lately.  But I do feel that this is misused.

So how would I overcome this without changing this feature of the gameplay?  Try and make more use of it to add to it.  Bloodborne’s a bit more straight-lined than Dark Souls, but mayhaps this would lead to an opportunity to expand upon the rails.  Have one area give you a certain type of resource as a common drop, another area give you another, both needed to get through.  So, if you’re having a lot of difficulty with one place, the game guides you towards the section that carries the resource you’re lacking, so you still make progress there, while taking a break so you can get back to your trouble spot with a fresh mindset.

Then again, that doesn’t really fit in with the philosophy of the souls series.  But then again, neither does making endless runs through areas you’ve already got down pat just to get yourself back to a state where you can try the area that’s giving you trouble once more.  In any case, the counter elements should be posed more as limitations or as obstacles to be overcome, rather than as punishments, in order to lead to greater gameplay.  If Bloodborne implemented a more complex system of resource management, or a better way of recovering your supplies than mindless repetition, this may be a good fit.  As is, it only hurts the game, and it’s largely because of the way it’s posed rather than anything else.