Not having grown up on video games, I missed out on a lot of Japanese role-playing games — games like the Final Fantasy series that involve loads of grinding. In games like this, it’s pretty typical to get to a boss that you just cannot beat unless you have some extra leveling. This means that if you’ve only completed the main quests, you’ll be under-leveled; you need to explore the world to take on some random enemies so you can level your character more.
JRPGs often make this task easy to tackle, because they scatter enemies all over the place and give you random encounters with them. As you’re traveling from one town to the next, your protagonist is bound to run into a dozen (or more) minor enemies who attack on sight, and you must defeat them to move forward. There’s no running away; a lot of JRPGs have a separate “battle arena” that you enter whenever you encounter an enemy, and you can’t leave the arena until you’ve beaten your opponent or used some special skill or potion that allows you to run away — if you’re lucky.
These parts of games are extremely repetitive. A recent example of a JRPG that has lots of these random encounters is Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a fun game with a great story that nevertheless manages to feel tedious at times. And that all comes down to the grinding.
But some people love the grinding. They love the separate battle arenas and the random enemies popping up and the extra chances to level. They grind their way through game series like Etrian Odyssey, Tales of, and Final Fantasy. Though I haven’t played a ton of MMOs, I’ve heard they can be similar, and some people love the repetitive calm or the realistic adventure involved in “happening” upon enemies all over the wilderness. Grinding can be fun, but even more fun is the reward of leveling your character.
However, when I know a game could involve lots of grinding, I purposely keep the difficulty low so I don’t have to do much of it. On lower difficulty settings, games usually let you get away with characters who could be considered under-leveled — so there’s no need to whittle away hours and hours of your life replaying what feels like the same battle over and over again.
At first, I thought Fire Emblem: Awakening had the right idea about the whole leveling/grinding issue, because it has lots of optional side quests that act as the “grinding” part of the game. However, the further you get in the game, the more you need to drop Reeking Boxes around the map to conjure enemies. It’s more traditional grinding, and even on the easiest difficulty setting, I’m learning that grinding is an absolute requirement to get through the game. The plus for Awakening is that you can at least choose where you want to battle, which gives you control over the scenery and the difficulty of each fight.
I got started on Western RPGs that don’t involve as much grinding. Games like Dragon Age: Origins are usually forgiving to players who don’t run around leveling; in fact, they’re not even set up for that sort of grind. There’s no place to run in Dragon Age; you just click on where you want to go on the map, and you’ll either appear there magically or get “stuck” for a single random battle before arriving there.
Instead, Western RPGs often have side quests that let you level if you want. But the main appeal of these quests is not the leveling; it’s the extra immersion in the world, the character conversations, the story deepening, and the special loot you get that act as rewards. There’s no meaningless grinding if that valuable leveling takes place while enjoying well-constructed side stories.
Open-world games like Batman: Arkham City and Elder Scrolls: Skyrim have several actual quest lines that you can pursue, either with multiple objectives for the quests or with one quest rolling out after another. This gives you the power of choice in how you develop your characters.
I would love to see this become more involved in future games. I’ve always liked the idea of avoiding combat through other means, such as stealth or hacking into systems. Whenever I can bring a squad along in a game, I’m happy when they can take a lot of the fire while I do other things. I also enjoy strategizing my way through levels (though I get pretty impatient with stealth in the long run).
An example of what I’d like to see is a quest line that’s very specific to the type of character you want to create. Already, Skyrim levels your character based partly on how much your character uses each skill type — so do lots of blacksmithing, and you’ll get extra smithing points to spend in the skill tree if you so choose. I would love to see this type of specialization expand to quest lines. For instance, in a science fiction game, your character could pursue a certain type of training depending on how you want to level your character. You might choose weapon-based combat to jump into fire fights, or systems engineering if you prefer to act as a hacker who spits turret fire on enemies while finding secret shortcuts.
This is just one potential alternative to grinding that could give a video game much more depth. As we see games becoming much larger in scale, I hope the addition of side quest lines can be rewarding not only with extra story, but also in granting the player better control over how they take on the gameplay.