Back to the Old Grind


I went through my Dungeons and Dragons phase at such an early age that I was out of it before most young people start theirs. (This meant that I got to experience the tail end of the “devil worship” moral panic surrounding D&D in the eighties, which probably did more than a little to shape me into the person I’ve become today.) Before I could really understand how to use role-playing games as storytelling devices, though, I got burnt out on them, mostly because everyone I played with was just interested in playing super-strong characters who could beat the toughest monsters in the game without breaking a sweat, and playing with people who did that just wasn’t interesting to me.

This should be the start of an elegant blog about how this was an early sign of how I became so interested in the power of well-designed fiction and led to my eventual writing career, but I can’t lie: I was playing exactly the same way as all the other people around me when it came to wanting the Most Powerful Characters Ever Created on a Character Sheet. Being around other people who played that way was boring and tedious, but I still craved that style of play for myself. Looking back, I can see now that I was hooked on the power trip of having a super-powerful character who could kick ass in the fabricated worlds of pen-and-paper games, since I was so powerless and constantly being bullied in my home and school lives; given the social stigma of playing those kinds of games in the eighties, I assume that everyone else I played with was doing the same thing.

I was pretty much out of that whole scene for a couple of years, but then I got a Nintendo Entertainment System, and the games for that which approximated Dungeons and Dragons the most closely — the original Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and so on — quickly became some of my favourites. The mechanics might have been somewhat different, and they were certainly more challenging than the facile games I played in my pen-and-paper days, but even the rudimentary stories that those console video games told were far more complex than what Mario and Sonic games were doing back in the day, and as video game consoles got more powerful as the years went on, some of the stories in those later games were so good that I’d still put them up against most of the “classic” literature I’ve read.

In those early games of the late eighties, though, the stories were still kind of minimal. More than that, in order to get to the next lines of the story, players would often have to spend minutes or hours at a time just wandering around the fictional world fighting random monsters, which in turn made the player’s character/s stronger as they leveled up. In modern gaming parlance, this is what’s called “grinding,” and although it’s not nearly as prevalent in modern console RPGs as it was in the past, it’s still a necessity in some games (and an option in nearly all the others). Even some of the games of my early years that I look back on so fondly were well over 90% grinding, but keep in mind that since there really weren’t alternatives to that out there (at least for computers and video game consoles), we didn’t know any better.

To some extent, I think the grinding parts of early console RPGs were an opportunity for players to let their imaginations run wild; I’m sure I’m not the only person who watched a battle unfold on the television screen in front of me, and imagined the dialogue between my characters as they killed monsters or missed shots or got wounded or what have you. Those parts of the games were also a kind of cooling-down period for players, though, an opportunity to unwind a little and get ready for whatever twists and turns were about to be inflicted on them as they resumed the story. In a way, the repetitive nature of grinding in console RPGs is almost like knitting or other similar crafts, with the player “building” their characters in the world of the game through the game’s mechanics, and as such, grinding can have a strangely meditative quality to it.

It’s been over twenty-two years since Final Fantasy VII was first released in the United States, and I’ll still argue that it’s the greatest video game ever created, thanks in large part to how well-written it is. I bought a PlayStation 4 last month, and even though I wanted the system for a lot of reasons, maybe the biggest reason was so I could play Final Fantasy VII on it; I’m looking forward to playing the first installment of the remake when it comes out next March (I’ve pre-ordered my copy, of course), but I also wanted to play the adaptation of the 1998 PC release, which I hadn’t actually played before. I have a boatload of personal reasons for wanting to play my favourite video game again, but I also need to play it to help me with responding to a call for papers about the game’s upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary. (Being an English geek and a video game geek has its advantages sometimes.)

Final Fantasy VII is definitely one of those RPGs that doesn’t require much in the way of grinding, and it probably doesn’t require any grinding at all if players really know what they’re doing. (I just said that I like video games; I didn’t say I was good at them.) The way I play Final Fantasy VII results in a lot of grinding, though, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of that grinding since the semester ended this past Friday. As I’ve been doing that grinding, it’s given my mind a chance to unwind after the end-of-semester craziness I just went through (and to prepare for all the grading I need to finish before Friday morning), and it’s led me to wonder just what I enjoy about grinding in Final Fantasy VII.

At first, I just thought that I was taking time to appreciate the game at a more leisurely pace, especially since this is the first time I’ve had a chance to play it since Mom’s passing three years ago. When I thought about the meditative quality of grinding, though, I wondered if that was what I was craving the most, to help my brain “cool off” in the interregnum between semester’s end and the final grading process. As I watched the battles unfolding on my television, though, I realized that I’d gone back to what I used to do when I was younger: Imagining what my characters were saying to each other as they fought monsters. Maybe I was just mentally returning to a simpler time in my life when I did that, or maybe it’s just a testament to how much time I want to spend with the game’s characters, but whatever the reason for it, I’ve been eager to get back to the game here to keep grinding.

With the holidays about to peak, maybe it’s no surprise that I’m yearning for things that remind me of when I was younger, and I wasn’t so bombarded by all the things going on in the world (and in my own life). One of the students here recently asked me if I’d like to join her D&D game, but I know that I won’t have the time to devote to that, so I had to turn her down, and that just reminds me all the more of all the things I need to do here. At least I can still carve out a few minutes here and there to get back to Final Fantasy VII.

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