It’s Saturday night. I’m with friends at a party, but I should be playing Dragon Quest.
Not that I’d rather be playing Dragon Quest, mind you. I’d much rather be out with my friends, at a silly house party with free booze and dozens of people in zany monster costumes; hence, why I’m doing that instead. But Dragon Quest looms over my head. What should have been a tidy, few-session runthrough of a straightforward, old-school RPG somehow morphed into a piecemeal, month-long slog. It’s the first “historically significant” game I’ve played that feels like a cave painting, a work enjoyable only as a first step toward things to come. Playing it bores me. Thinking about playing it bores me. I’ve progressed far enough that I can’t turn back or begin another game instead, but booting up my emulator always gives me pause. This cheery little adventure single-handedly wrecked whatever tentative schedule I had for this blog, and I’m still not in sight of the endgame. How long would it take me to muster up the patience, put on some appropriate epic background music, and just beat the damn thing? Two weeks? Three weeks? Would I be stuck for eternity in this mildly pleasurable feedback loop (appropriately called the “grind”), a lab rat constantly pressing the same single button for his ten experience points’ worth of dopamine?
Waiting in line for the bathroom, it hits me. Dragon Quest is homework, and I’m the unruly teen out with his friends avoiding it.
Dragon Quest is one of the most influential game series of all time, and it’s known for many things: Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama’s cute and cuddly monster designs, bringing the role-playing game to home consoles, proving Japanese dweebs can dig medieval sword-and-sworcery just as much as the West’s D&D-indoctrinated indoor kids. (The series is so popular in Japan it birthed an urban legend that a new entry can only be sold on weekends, due to the inevitable student truancy and distraction it causes.) But Dragon Quest, historically and mechanically, is all about the grind. A grand majority of Dragon Quest takes place walking in circles between Point A and Point B, because the protagonist is not strong enough at Point A to survive very long at Point B. Before any true progression can take place, levels must be won, hit points must be upped, new powers and weapons must be acquired. Yuji Horii, the game’s mastermind, developed this routine in a fit of alchemy more magical than anything in Dragon Quest‘s boilerplate fantasy plot. Horii looked at hardcore, Western computer RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima and translated their sadistic number-crunching into something any novice gamer could understand within a few button presses. Horii often mentions with pride that Dragon Quest can be easily beaten without a strategy guide and played at any level of skill. And he’s right; experienced players can use their inventories and spells in much riskier, under-leveled battles, which scaredy-cats and novices can wail on slimes and other weak monsters until they feel powerful enough to comfortably progress.
On one hand, I applaud Horii’s translation of something math-heavy and intimidating into a perfectly inviting (and sometimes even addicting) play system. Dragon Quest is a game you can play in your sleep; indeed, its never-ending battle cycle will haunt your dreams through repetition. Transitioning a genre previously enjoyed almost solely by people with the tech kn0w-how to make the games themselves to the Famicom-playing masses is no small feat, and Horii’s brightly colored, controller-mapped RPG created an entirely new path for console games. The Gameological Society’s John Teti described leveling up in Dragon Quest for the first time as a revelation, a sign that games can create experiences more non-linear and introspective than Mario Bros. Grinding is work, but it’s work that leads to discernible improvement within one’s own character.
That digital self-improvement is the key to grinding’s emotional benefits, and why Horii was right in thinking he could make the process attractive to non-roleplaying geeks. Grinding unquestionably borders on busywork, but through this work and commitment, one invests in an avatar or a world. A raised level or a new power or item is a powerful embodiment of the player’s effort, a reward for spending time in this universe. Progression isn’t about an emotional arc or even skill in a game like Dragon Quest. It’s about toil and sweat, about watching an avatar grow in strength and empathizing with it through that process. It’s why fully grown adults still have favorite Pokemon: They literally watched those little dudes evolve. Grinding even makes a game’s world more memorable. I walked through every inch of Dragon Quest‘s forests so many times in search of new monsters that its map is now far more iconic to me than games I enjoy ten times as much. The average grind-heavy RPG probably has more in common thematically with a workplace sitcom like The Office than the Arthurian legends that inspired it. Spend long enough with a group of people in a certain place — even if the actual shared activities are rather drab — and binding ties will undoubtedly form.
Grinding is often portrayed as an activity enjoyed only by “serious” gamers, but nothing could be further from the truth. The grind’s results and rewards are the hooks that keep casual gamers invested in the medium. Social and mobile games especially have adopted grinding and building a stripped-down version of experience points as keys to keeping players involved. Something as decidedly arcade-y as Temple Run — a mobile game where the player marches endlessly through a series of tougher and tougher traps — allows the player to keep coins and other rewards, building an inventory not unlike a traditional RPG’s. Indeed, leveling up is the sort of incentive someone not already in love with the medium needs to continue playing a game. More unforgiving games — games that allow for more frustrating risks and setbacks — strike me as more essentially “game-like,” while games that include grinding and leveling feel more essentially understandable, a left-brained Trojan Horse for those on the fence.
So if grinding can create such powerful bonds between players and games, why did Dragon Quest leave me so indifferent? Usually, grinding is only as effective as how it’s disguised, and Horii’s early attempt at the process is about as transparent as someone actually shouting numbers at you in vaguely Elizabethan English. (In fact, one of the more tonally interesting choices in Dragon Quest — dropping the player into an open world with only the vaguest of medieval quests to guide him — actually ends up biting the game in the ass. Rewards are perhaps the most effective way to make players commit to the grind, and Dragon Quest‘s are incredibly vague at first.) Realizing I was stomping around as if I owned areas that seemed brutal and off-limits mere hours before was a cool revelation, but the process it took to get there just felt like a vacuum I slowly filled with my time. I can’t judge a noble first try too harshly, especially when its template led to such favorites as Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG. But still, my inability to connect with Dragon Quest illustrates a frustrating dilemma that faces those interested in the history of games. The time commitment and player involvement necessary to invest in a game make revisiting these older, influential titles more difficult than watching an early film or listening to an essential musical recording. Even if you’re deeply invested in this medium and its evolution, who wants to spend ten hours bored out of his wits?
Luckily, a solution to the grinding problem presented itself fairly quickly. As soon as the next Dragon Quest game (and the first Final Fantasy, released in 1987), developers realized additional party members inherently made RPG combat more nuanced and strategic. Whereas the first Dragon Quest often feels like merely filling meters, party-based RPGs force the player to balance different classes, choose from a greater variety of skills, and create valuable interplay among characters. Only recently have games re-embraced single character RPGs, incorporating elements of survival and exploration games to up the ante. However, the inherent repetitiveness of the RPG form might not be conducive to one lone figure blasting away at enemies with the same handful of spells. (There’s a reason many regard the Elder Scrolls series as more accomplished “looking at cool shit” simulators than combat simulators.) It might be dangerous to go alone in Hyrule, but in an RPG like Dragon Quest, it’s just dull.
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