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Joystiq on Grinding in RPGs

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Joystiq on Grinding in RPGs

Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Mon 6 August 2012, 20:25:19

Tags: Baldur's Gate; Grinding; Planescape: Torment; The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; Wizardry VII: Crusaders Of The Dark Savant

Joystiq's Rowan Kaiser has written an article on the activity known as "grinding" and its relationship with the role-playing genre. Have a taste:

There are a few games where we can clearly say that "grinding" exists. Wizardry VII, as much as I love it, does play much better when you walk around in circles, searching for random encounters, in front of a regeneration fountain so that you are in very little danger. That's grinding. Fighting the same enemy over and over in an MMRPG until you get a rare drop? Definitely grinding. But those are rare and it's the application of "grinding" to other RPGs that concerns me.

Take The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for example. Even the game's biggest fans won't claim that the main plot is what makes it special. No, what makes Skyrim special are the moments when you find something new and wonderful in a place where you didn't expect it. That mostly happens through exploration. If you find a cave, you can enter it, clearing out the enemies, maybe gaining some new skills and picking up some new items. Sometimes you'll find a note or a part of a quest that frames that cave with Skyrim's embedded narrative. Sometimes it's just a cave, and the excitement of exploring it can create emergent narratives – a new, stronger form of bandit can chase your character into a corner, forcing you into a new set of desperate, memorable strategies.

Describing one's actions in Skyrim sounds a lot like "grinding": you randomly fight enemies in non-essential caves, and in so doing, improve your character with experience, money, and items. How is that different from spinning in place in (increasingly rare) games with random encounters? That's where the traditional definition of grinding starts to fall apart. See, the joy of Skyrim is the exploration. One may not play for the main plot at all, so defining these actions as "not-grinding" sounds absurd. But in Wizardry VII, the joy isn't completing the main plot either. It's interacting with the skill and class system, which, of course, is accessed through the experience points gained primarily from combat. Actions which are traditionally described as "grinding" – inessential, repetitive tasks which build up the player character's abilities – are not inessential after all.

The problem of grinding becomes much less one of overall game design and more one of focus. What is the game about, and what interrupts that focus? For example, I personally dislike Infinity Engine combat in Baldur's Gate I/II and Planescape: Torment. For me, the combat gets in the way of the exploration of the world, its quests, and its characters that defines these games. In Baldur's Gate, I want to find what's on the next screen more than I want to try to defeat this powerful mage blocking me. In Torment, I want to learn more about the Nameless One's history, not slog through yet another bunch of thugs blocking my progression.​

Spotted at Gamebanshee because who the hell reads Joystiq anyway

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