The art of grinding

(Do not Google image search “grinding”. It is very weird)

I know the southeastern region of the Final Fantasy VII universe well. There’s a small, uninhabited island in the archipelago that harbors Mideel–a primitive, wood-structure town that is built around a hot spring–that became my exclusive location for dozens of hours of play, leaving only to pick up supplies at Mideel when absolutely necessary.

This forested island is unexceptional. Patches of tees freckle the otherwise flat grasslands. But what makes this island such an integral part of the journey centers on its inhabitants: a large, praying mantis-like creature affectionately referred to as Head Hunters.

Head Hunters do not appear to be particularly high in protein or nutrients, or so you would assume from their scaly exterior. They aren’t a delicacy to be bartered for at markets around the globe. They’re not friendly, either, as you might assume from their name. But what they lack in charisma, they make up for in quantity. This island, despite all laws of nature, harbors an endless supply of Head Hunters who either eat sparingly–resources on the island are scarce–or cannibalize their own and reproduce at a extraordinary rate. And like most animals in resource-strapped environments, they travel in packs.

Maybe because of this fearsome pack mentality or because of how rare Head Hunters are in the Final Fantasy VII ecosystem, the one thing they do offer is experience points. Loads of them. With an endless supply of Head Hunters comes an endless supply of experience, the ideal setting for the least ideal aspect of RPGs: grinding.

You don’t travel to the outlying island of the Mideel territory for nothing. Whether you’re leveling up to battle the Ultimate Weapon or sharpening up for your final encounter with Sephiroth, there’s usually a reason to trot around the island in search of roving packs of flesh-eating, man-sized insects. The exercise itself, however, is tiresome.

Grinding in Final Fantasy VII, like in most RPGs, is a tedious droll of button mashing. Hours upon hours are spent fighting the same monsters, performing the same attacks, and trying to find ways to end the battles as quickly as possible (Is the use of a summon–and its subsequent animation–faster than manually attacking all of the enemies?). But you have to do it.

The one thing that makes grinding tolerable is the anticipation and eventual trials and error. There’s an end game that you’re grinding toward and eventually, you get so sick of fighting Head Hunters that you try (and usually fail) to take on whatever bad guy is patiently waiting for you.

***

The ending of the iOS release Infinity Blade is never in doubt. From the very beginning of the game, you know who the bad guy is, ostensibly where to find him, and what your objective is. Like any good “RPG” (about those scare quotes later), there’s a twist ending, or three or four twist endings, depending on your perspective, but you’re always fighting toward a clear goal. This, like your imminent encounter with Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, is at least a motivating factor for you to continue grinding.

What makes Infinity Blade so structurally interesting is that the designers have taken the worst part about RPGs and created an entire game around it. Despite all the fancy touchscreen swordplay and impressive environments, Infinity Blade is nothing more than endless grinding. Even after killing what appears to be the game’s antagonist, you’re sent back into the endless cycle of repetitive baddies and gold hoarding.

But Infinity Blade is brilliant and addicting in a way that making a game solely about the uninhabited islands of the Mideel archipelago could never be, and it accomplishes this through two features: muscle memory and item collection.

The first is simple enough; it’s why people like iPhone games in the first place and why Wii Sports was supposed to revolutionize gaming but ended up being a tech demo. People love one-to-one anything, and when you’re slashing your way through a forgotten castle of oversized, headless ogres and knighted henchmen, the fun only escalates. Learning the intricacies of attack patterns and when to mount an offensive becomes the primary goal for the first few hours of play.

The latter caters to the guilty pleasure of most all video gamers: getting new shit. In Zelda games, all you want is the Master Sword. The Call of Duty/Battlefield online multiplayer model captivates players largely because of the unlock system. Working toward and collecting all the weapons in games like Final Fantasy VII is a goal in and of itself. Gamers love new things, even if they’re ostensibly the same as their old things but just look a little different. There’s always a feeling-out period where you watch the cool new animations and marvel at how much more powerful your character is. Infinity Blade has that in spades with dozens and dozens of new swords, helmets, suits of armor, and magical rings. Equipping any of these weapons or pieces of armor tweaks your character’s attributes and feigns “role playing” when in reality there’s a very clear delineation of best and worst weapons/armor/etc. Regardless, gamers love new unlocks, and Infinity Blade’s endless grinding offers both random item drops from defeated enemies and gold-hoarding to visit the “shop”, which is really just a menu that can be accessed at any time. I assume item requests and exchange of goods is handled via carrier pigeon.

It’s a testament to the design team or perhaps an indictment of gamers’ tendencies and habits that Infinity Blade is so successful. But the game also tweaks the grinding model in one subtle way that is missing from games like Final Fantasy VII: it gets harder. Enemies start attacking more quickly and doing more damage, just as you’re memorizing their skillset and wiping them out with ease. The game becomes a blend of traditional RPG grinding and old-school platforming that’s based on memorization and tactile abilities.

When you’ve finally taken out the last enemy, there’s a sense of accomplishment, and the anticipation for that feeling is what drives the game forward. Despite its clear limitations (both environmentally and with the repetitive attack sequences of enemies) Infinity Blade continues to refresh itself and mask its true beginnings.

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