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The RPG Grind - Are you having fun yet?


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As someone raised simultaneously on computer and video games, my earliest RPG memories are from playing Pool of Radiance on the PC and Dragon Warrior on the NES.  While unfair to directly compare the two due to the difference in their ages (Dragon Warrior was released in 1989, but was originally released in Japan in 1986, while Pool of Radiance wasn't released until 1988), both were extremely influential in creating templates of a sort by which many future games were created.  Pool of Radiance launched the "gold box" series of RPGs which all operated under the same mechanics, and Dragon Quest/Warrior created the basic JRPG formula which is still adhered to today to a degree.

If one were to look at these two games as prototypical examples of computer and console RPGs, the biggest thing that sets them apart in my mind is combat.  POR had turn-based, party-based tactical combat.  The player controlled the movement and actions of 6 characters on a large overhead playing field.  Their positions relative to the enemy influenced the outcomes of their attacks and defenses.  For example, a character attacked from one direction would subsequently be more vulnerable to attack from behind, as their attention was directed towards the first attacker to their front.  The equipment carried by a character not only affected their stats, but their movement as well (characters weighed down with too much equipment or money had very limited movement during combat.)  Strategic spellcasting was not simply an option, it was often the difference between victory and party death.  Spells took various lengths of time to cast, and each had varying range of effect (such as how far away from the caster they could affect something, and how large the spell's effect radius was.)  Player characters were just as easily affected as enemies by spells, so it was entirely possible to accidentally wipe out your entire party with a poorly placed/timed spell.  Combat was strategic and engaging.  Depending on the composition and formation of the enemy force (as well as the physical layout of the combat area), the player was forced to use different tactics in order to survive combat. 

Every battle was different, and every battle demanded the player's attention.  Many of the battles were scripted to occur in set locations, and sometimes the way the player dealt with them (sometimes parlaying/bribing/avoiding the fight altogether) would affect later aspects of the game.  Random battles, too, existed, but usually in limited numbers.  Clear a certain number of random battles in an area, and that area could be reclaimed by the forces of good, thus eliminating the need to wade through endlessly re-spawning groups of enemies in areas that have been thoroughly cleared.

Meanwhile, on consoles, combat usually consisted of mashing the attack button with the thumb of one hand while using your other hand to turn the pages of the book you were reading at the same time.  The only strategy involved was choosing whether to attack or cast a spell, and spells were rarely necessary outside of boss battles.  Fighting endlessly respawning enemies wasn't just something the player was forced to do, it was something they needed to do in order to advance.  Lacking sufficient roleplaying options and quests to give the player something to DO while their characters advanced, the player spent most of their playtime purposefully engaging in repetitive combat in order to obtain money or experience that would allow them to become strong enough to engage in repetitive combat with a slightly tougher set of endlessly respawning enemies a few squares to the north/south/east/west of where they're currently spending hours at a time walking back and forth in a straight line in their quest to grind their life away.


I understand that Dragon Quest is sort of the granddaddy of all console RPGs, so I'm not judging it so much as I am all of the games that came years and years later and continued to emulate some of its more unenviable features.  Why was THE GRIND determined to be something that should be copied and emulated for decades?  Do people actually enjoy it?  If so, have those people simply never experienced an alternative?  Why can I still play a JRPG in 2018 and still pass through most combats by repeatedly pressing a single button?


I'm currently editing a Computer Gaming World from 1991 where they reviewed a couple of RPGs for the Genesis.  In addition to being more in-depth than a typical Genesis review in any video game magazine I can think of (if anyone knows of a video game mag from the 16-bit era NOT explicitly targeted at children, I'd be happy to know about it), it had this particular passage that sort of prompted this post.  (The games being discussed were console ports of computer RPGs, btw, so I'm definitely not suggesting that all PC RPGs are good and all console RPGs are bad.)


So how's the gameplay?  Sad to say, most of what one ends up doing is fighting, preparing for fighting or repairing after fighting. While this places M&M squarely in the console RPG mainstream, it also imparts a workmanlike quality to the game - that airless feeling that one is plugging ever larger numbers into an equation until its results exceed a hidden sum. 

Now, a persuasive argument could be made that this rather depressing perspective is the nuts and bolts of most any RPG.  However, the designer's task is to clothe the equation in story, puzzle, and character interaction, and the camouflage here seems more than usually transparent - for, however grand the scale, this is very much the same old sort of thing.  M&M is populated with the usual crew of monsters who have nothing better to do with their Sunday afternoons than squat at this one particular dead end in an underground maze waiting to beat the tar out of the player's band of widowmakers.  It is impossible to negotiate with them and it is impractical to try to run away from them consistently enough to make it a worthwhile tactic.  To add insult to injury, there is no auto-combat.  Players have to sit there and watch the combat results go by while the monster animations cycle tirelessly.


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I did not play PC games until much later, so "the grind" for me was acceptable because I did not know any better. What did piss me off though was random encounters, so even if I was strong enough to progress through the game, I was still stuck having to go through meaningless combat events which popped up as I was trying to walk casually.

When Chrono Trigger came out and gave you the ability to maneuver around enemies to avoid combat, that was a godsend. Every modern JRPG I can think of now employs this system.

A few years later I finally started to get into PC RPG's and one of my first was Baldur's Gate, which is still one of my favorites of all time. Here too you could avoid enemy encounters by running away, or more interestingly there were cases where you could talk your way out of a fight (and still gain experience points). Also to note that in this game if you were strong enough you could just select your entire party, hit attack and sit back and watch them melee enemies which is almost the equivalent of pressing attack over and over without thought in a JRPG.

Now days I actually do not see as much grinding in JRPG's (at least not to obtain arbitrary levels to get strong enough). Final Fantasy 15 for example, by just playing through the main plotline and having a little bit of physical skill with maneuvering on your gamepad, you could complete the game without resorting to killing random enemies which pop up on the screen for hours. However the series has kind of moved to a more "on rails" experience and is less open.

As a side note, one of the more interesting RPG's I have played recently is Torment: Tides of Numenara. Every encounter (that I can recall) in the game can be solved through non-combat options. However since I enjoy combat and it was less of a focus in the game (you almost have to try hurt something), I didn't give it high marks.

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Yeah, thankfully the "walk back and forth for hours in order to level up/afford a new item" gameplay is largely a thing of the past.  But I would still fault most JRPGs with having simplistic combat that doesn't require much input from the player in order for them to succeed (for the record, I'm talking about games with turn-based combat.)   So to me, any type of random combat that doesn't demand my focused attention is essentially grinding.  This is why (when speaking of JRPGs) I much prefer tactical RPGs, as their combats can't be won without some degree of planning and careful party management.

The whole "on rails" aspect is endemic of JRPGs in general, but from what I understand from a number of interviews and articles I've read, Japanese gamers tend to prefer the "on rails" experience to that of non-linear games with an open world.

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