On Grinding in Video Games

Grinding as mechanic is most prevalent in the role-playing genre, though in recent years, and as the industry as grown, the mechanics of grinding have spread, tinging titles which had heretofore spurned them. Still, the trope largely originated from, and was made popular by, role-playing games. In certain of these titles – many entries of the Final Fantasy series come to mind – grinding is a central component of gameplay, oftentimes forced upon the player if eventual success is ever to be achieved; grinding must be engaged with early and often – advance into a wrong portion of the map while under leveled or not possessive of the correct combat or support abilities and death is sure to follow. Something inherently divisive characterizes these systems. Certain players will embrace this design decision, deriving enjoyment from grinding; other players are repulsed. Some derive boredom from grinding; others derive pleasure, catharsis in the occasional monotony. Whether enjoyment or disdain is evoked, though, is determined by the nature of the grinding systems, how engrossing they are, or how banal.     

A somewhat irregular approach to grinding is illustrated in the Elder Scrolls series, with rather unconventional design and progression systems, which would seemingly discourage grinding. The design is novel – and wonderfully logical. Fire repeated arrows at the opposition and a marksman skill levels up. Cast repeated fireballs, and the destruction skill similarly advances. Clever decisions, though the burdensome yoke of grinding is not totally cast aside – opportunities for grinding are immense, the systems highly exploitable. As a personal anecdote relating to this, I recall completing the Mages Guild questline, stopping Manamarco and his army of necromancers, my reputation with the guild gradually escalating during that fateful conflict. Upon completion of those threads, the Guild Leader’s quarters are made accessible. From here, I engaged in a protracted, totally boring grinding session, pacing about the room, casting repeated conjuration spells, summoning forth a skeleton, only to call forth another to take his place. Over that span of time, my conjuration skill skyrocketed. But here, the act of grinding was completely unsatisfying, as the precise nature of the gameplay was characterized solely by monotony – here, no skill was required, the only requirement being an investment of time. True, I gained access to ever greater spells, but the power of those abilities does not offset the wasted time. 

The Elder Scrolls games may be irregular in their progression systems, encouraging an odd sort of grinding. But highly regular in these systems are the Pokémon titles, largely being traditional turn-based affairs, which place even greater emphasis upon grinding, though even here mindlessness remains a plague, dampening the enjoyment of the process. This mindlessness stems most strongly from the unengaging nature of the gameplay – relatively little focus is ever demanded of the player, grinding becoming a dull, automated process; so unengaging are these systems, it is possible to multi-task, to watch television or a film while exploring patches of grass or sailing the wide seas looking for powerful opposing Pokémon, seeing in their destruction new moves, stat bonuses, and, eventually, evolutions. This division of attention only cheapens all experiences engaged in – the gameplay is perhaps not as satisfying, while the precise minutia of a film may go unrecognized – multi-tasking, it could be said, is a bad thing. But many gamers no doubt thrive on that mindlessness – here arises the catharsis.

But when further regarding grinding as manifest in Pokémon, some clever complexities certainly are present, many options available to expedite the grinding process. Take a flying type Pokémon, for instance. In many generations, flying types can be of a stronger sort, especially those which have multiple evolutions. Consequently, their power is desired – and, thusly, grinding is encouraged. But with these systems, an efficiency arises. Bug-types are inherently weak to flying types, so the logical decision arises to grind in a location people mostly by bugs, like the forest areas which are present in almost every title. It is clever, and really hastens the process of grinding, permitting a swifter return to the gameplay and narrative proper – grinding is encouraged, but it is of a more accessible sort. Held items like the “lucky egg” also serve the passive role of increasing experience gains for whatever creature wields the item, again bolstering accessibility. Mindlessness does set in, as little thought is required by nature of the gameplay – spam the same attack over and over until the opposition dies – but something compelling exists around grinding in Pokémon; it is highly exciting to advance upon the rival, wielding a Grovyle while he still possesses a Torchic. Here, grinding has paid off, though some adverse effects are also present – what could be difficult is almost made trivialized; the divisive nature of player empowerment is here present.    

In expanding beyond the role-playing genre, grinding has grown essential to a rather unexpected genre – multiplayer titles. Games in the Call of Duty series instantly come to mind. In those titles, very elaborate progression systems are in place, with a constant dangling of more and more rewards always within reach, perpetually enticing – something addicting is present here. But the nature of the rewards for grinding take on added significance. Take camouflages, for instance. While initially aesthetically mundane and relatively easy to unlock, more exotic camos are also present, while the requirements for their unlocking can be immense, one camo requiring considerable kills from range, another requiring its opposite, kills at very close range. Finally fulfilling these challenges – getting some exotic skin, like a pulsing camo or one studded with diamonds – is inherently rewarding, though when considering the public nature of such multiplayer titles, outsiders are likely to see those camos, the massive feats of grinding the original player engaged in. Flashy cosmetics serve a similar role, showing player dedication – or, in a tragic occurrence, a player’s willingness to purchase those items, rather than earn them outright. For grinding to be worthwhile, the reward need be proportionate to the effort. In multiplayer titles, the sense of reward, of player triumph through grinding, is only amplified. Grinding becomes this exciting affair, whenever a new entry in the series is released – race to acquire all camos; it makes for exciting content, and shows some players’ passions for grinding.  

Some games have an especially novel approach to grinding, blending that process with more organic means of progression, skill points and abilities unlocked automatically through narrative progression, as when some threshold is met, or some particularly challenging boss is bested. This design philosophy is manifest most strongly in the Kingdom Hearts titles. As the narrative progresses, abilities are dispersed at a generous rate, as are health and magic extensions. More radical abilities – like the various Drive Forms – are also tied to narrative progression. Theoretically, it is possible to spurn grinding entirely, though that would only make the experience needlessly difficult. In a subtle way, then, grinding is encouraged – though never thrust upon the player, as with other titles. But slaughtering heartless and nobodies is an exciting affair, especially when considering the involved nature of gameplay, certainly relative to that found in Pokémon – grinding is enjoyable, and the rewards for grinding often equal to the expenditure of time used in their unlocking. Higher jump heights, the ability to glide indefinitely, to perform very protracted combos – these things can alter the game in fundamental ways, and are largely achieved through grinding. In not deliberately engaging with the heartless or nobodies, the totality and depth of the experience are almost ruined. This clever blending of narrative progression and grinding is a stroke of brilliance, enhanced only further by the perfection of gameplay systems in that entire series. With Kingdom Hearts, no mindlessness is attached to the grinding, as each enemy traditionally requires different tactics to beat; Pokémon, with its automated nature, is here greatly surpassed, grinding made enjoyable, satisfying.    

Some titles – even those belonging to the role-playing genre – totally reject grinding, in some instances eliminating it entirely. A perfect illustration is the rather underrated Dark of Messiah of Might and Magic, which takes Kingdom Heart’s narrative progression systems and insures they are the only progression systems. Complete a chapter or best an enemy, and a finite quantity of skill points are rewarded. Certainly, the rewards here may be lackluster, but given the nature of this design – this complete rejection of grinding – the developers’ ultimate vision is preserved. Preserved, also, is a commanding sense of pacing and focus – the primary narrative can not be strayed from excessively, even as some side content is available, the rewards in these circumstances largely being weapons or armor. Similarly, it is an impossibility to ever grow over leveled, which has the secondary effect of ensuring a consistent difficulty curve – challenges will largely be the same, though some flexibilities in character construction are provided the player, altering somewhat the precise nature of that challenge, namely how it will be tackled. True, the value of combat is here reduced – fighting has no tangible rewards beyond the mere satisfaction of success, as no stats are distributed, no health gains offered – but the highly original nature of the progression systems in Messiah, mark its greatest strength, showing how focused a role-playing title can become. 

Notions of empowerment are completely wrapped up with grinding mechanics – some players will delight in overpowerment, while others may grumble at the destruction of challenge; theoretically, those desiring a maintenance of challenge could spurn grinding entirely, though again, as with the Pokémon games, certain grinding is essentially mandated – empowerment seems an inevitability. Again divisiveness arises – having a particularly powerful Pokémon, capable of one-shotting the vast majority of the opposition, will be satisfying to some – the attainment of that substantial power justified the time invested. But therein lies the greatest problem with Pokémon, a problem which is totally lacking in a Call of Duty or a Battlefield. In those multiplayer shooters, a considerable degree of skill is required, right alongside time investment. In Pokémon, no skill is ever required in the act of grinding, which somehow dampens the overall compelling nature of the process. Landing countless kills, all the while avoiding damage and death, working and working until some bombastic killstreak is obtained, to level all of the opposition – not everyone can perform such feats, no matter the diligent nature of their grinding. Accordingly, a sense of accomplishment accompanies grinding in those multiplayer titles, a sense which is totally lacking from Pokémon, or even Oblivion, with its highly exploitable design. Grinding, then, serves numerous functions, and can thusly evoke numerous responses. Some cling to the process – others spurn it. I feel a certain ambivalence – if a game’s mechanics are impeccable, grinding is enjoyable; if tedious, the experience is torturous.

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