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April 17, 2012

Aesthetics: The Grind

Lately I've played a couple of JRPGs which enable the player to grind at any point in the game to improve party stats and make for easier short-term play. It was only this morning, playing a bit of a third JRPG about which I'll blog more when I finish, I came to appreciate the aesthetics behind grinding for experience.

Often, in the first hours of play of these sorts of games is an exploratory time -- the player is just learning the mechanics of combat, whether it has a real-time aspect or contains limit breaks that can be unlocked, learning the most effective attacks or spells of the various party members, exploring the experience and leveling skill trees. This is a time where no single strategy has yet been chosen, and where grinding may not even feel like grinding to the eager new player; it's a time when I'm often excited by and truly getting lots of enjoyment just from the first blush of these encounters. Any extra random encounters here are often welcomed, at least by me, and aren't seen as any kind of chore. There's value here, too, in getting a sense for how frequent one can expect random encounters and the sorts of rewards and challenge they may bring. It's a time of tentative exploration of the basic combat mechanics that the player will face.

As one approaches the mid-game, the grind is a somewhat more practical matter -- the player can modulate his own level of challenge, or develop capabilities in characters who may not have been his initial first choices as primary party members, in an attempt to deepen the bench, as it were. The game is less exploratory at this time, but deeper aspects of play may require more playtime to understand or even to acquire, as with skills that take a certain amount of experience to unlock or use. A certain amount of random encounters will still occur, as is their nature, but fundamentally they can be minimized if the player so chooses since he's more familiar with the map and the controls. Random encounters don't pose much of a threat at this stage, but the player may have unlocked areas that provide a greater challenge, so grinding really is just another tool in his toolbox.

At the end of the game, however, the player has basically exhausted the extents of the combat systems -- he has, at this point, explored every corner of the battle mechanics that has interested him or has been largely required by play. Here the grind is undertaken almost entirely tactically to raise skills to the point of being able to defeat the game's final challenges, those often multi-stage or multi-step battles of increasing difficulty that so often cap JRPGs. Here, the better the player, the better the understanding of just how much extra effort into additional power-leveling will be required to surmount these final challenges.

When the player perfectly matches that growth curve, the final challenges of the game will approach the sublime as the player has just enough power to surmount them. This is when, at its best, the player is judging exactly what the game will demand of him to its thinnest margin -- after hours and hours of play, additional random encounters feel unnecessary and only delay the final payoff of those final moments, those final victories. The truly attentive player will squeeze through these last battles by the very skin of his characters' teeth, so near to death that it seems a humongous victory.

In my recent JRPG play, I didn't quite attain that level of understanding, though in Final Fantasy VII I came close, having only to grind a little bit as I took on that final battle, failing once. Final Fantasy Tactics, though, I completely misjudged, returning out to the world's map to grind several times to meet subsequent challenges. Both grinds will stick with me for a long time.

Posted by Brett Douville at April 17, 2012 07:12 PM


One interesting counterpoint are the older BioWare RPGs like Baldur's Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, etc. where there are no random or repeatable encounters, and no chance to "grind". To get to the final boss fight in the best condition, you need to be incredibly thorough exploring each map - and if you get near the end and you've blown it, there's no way to catch up. Personally I've always found that frustrating - because I'm NOT that thorough - but it's the opposite of a grind: the game has a learning curve, and it's your responsibility to keep up with it.

The other problem with a grind is that random encounters are such timesucks. You have to stop everything, enter the battle scene, and resolve it (no matter how repetitive it gets). It's almost like a commercial break from the days before we watched television with DVRs. The Elder Scrolls games seem to avoid that problem by giving you the freedom to grind but making the fights short, active, and also avoidable.

Posted by: Chris Dahlen at May 19, 2012 08:04 PM