When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.
If there is any one thing that will motivate me to put down a game never to pick it up again, it is “grinding.” For those of you nongamers out there, “grinding” refers to the practice of delaying progression in a game in order to focus on menial tasks required to make the player strong enough to advance. I rarely have to grind in games because games rarely require grinding anymore. So many people hate the idea of grinding that most games don’t require the practice. And yet lately, I have found myself willingly spending most of my time in Skyrim doing just that.
I have been crafting weapons, enchanting them, selling them for more materials to craft more weapons and enchant them again. I did all this long enough to get two perks that would make my character tremendously strong. There is nothing particularly exciting about the time I have spent in Skyrim traveling from merchant to merchant and smithy to smithy. It’s mundane and oddly enough, nothing about the game itself required me to do this.
The fact that Skyrim broke me of my anti-grinding ways is a tremendous compliment to the world that Todd Howard and his team at Bethesda have created. The world of Skyrim is so rich and vibrant that 8+ hours of smithing, enchanting, and selling seems like a cat nap.
Brendan Keogh recently wrote about how Dark Souls requires grinding but manages to do so in a way that feels productive and meaningful:
People have told me Dark Souls is about the journey, not the destination. I think this is more true than they realize. I can’t imagine Dark Souls even has an ending. Partly, this is because story-wise I wouldn’t have a clue what is actually going on or what my goal is. And, partly, because there is little hope of me ever actually finishing it. Even as I progress from one area into the next when I finally defeat a boss, the singular open-world nature of the game steals even a sense of spatial progression away from me. It still feels like I am trapped in the same place, even when I move on. Dark Souls is about the journey. One long, neverending journey.
And so grinding is okay. That is my purgatory. Not just mechanically but thematically. Some souls sells wares off rugs. Some souls drum hammers onto anvils. Some souls run the same paths ad infinitum, defeating the same enemies over and over and…
While I think Skyrim manages to give the player a much more concrete sense of progression than Dark Souls appears to, at the end of the day, I am not so sure I really care about the impact of my acts of heroism on the world of Tamriel. So why did I spend so much time grinding in Skyrim? I think it was because I found the world to be compelling and grinding these two perks served to make exploring it all the more simple.
I think this is the first time I have ever worked so hard to make a game experience less challenging. Skyrim’s dungeons are so beautifully imagined and its mountain are so majestic that I hit the grind until I could make my time there more like a vacation and less like a quest.