Angry Robot

Etrian Odyssey II and the Grind of Fantasy Work

I tend to prefer some narrative in my games, and this provides very little. I’m not a big fan of difficulty, and this has it by the dungeonload. I hate grinding, and this… well, you just read that.

I do love exploration, and this game – with its requirement that you make your own map – transmits perhaps the rawest delight in exploration I’ve experienced in some time. But then again, there are other games to try that would provide whole new worlds to explore, without the repetitive grinding.

There’s one instance at the end of the fifth floor where you face your first boss monster, Chimaera. I was about level 14-15 when I first tried to beat him, and he decimated my party. The online wisdom is that you should be level 18 to have a chance of beating him. That means you must grind up four levels, which is to say wander about the labyrinth repeatedly battling random monster encounters. This is more or less the same turn-based menu choice battle each time, against many instances of the same limited pallette of monsters. It could be a half hour, maybe an hour, of sheer repetitive time-wasting. Why? Dear Crom, Why?

Take a look at this article. Steven Poole argues that nearly all videogames present models of work, not play:

Possibly it is inevitable that, as products of decadent late capitalism, most videogames will, consciously or not, reflect the same values. You go through a period of training, and then it’s all about success and shopping, keeping your head down, doing what the system expects. Make-believe jobs, as Adorno and Horkheimer might have concluded, are the opiate of the people.

Understandably, Mr. Poole criticizes this play-is-work paradox and calls for a new model of gaming. Indeed, some of my favourite gaming memories from the last couple years are sandboxey, goal-free and open-ended (Crackdown and Halo 3’s Forge come to mind).

But ludologists would chime in that play and games are different things. Despite the phrase “play a game,” play is open-ended, whereas games must have rules, which means they will have similarities to work.

Over the past few years, I’ve come around to believing that we tend to use fiction as a form of practice for real life. When we watch a movie, say, we are evaluating characters and situations and imagining what we might do when presented with that situation in our lives. Would you do the things McNulty does in the final season of The Wire? If you knew a serial killer was afoot, would you really go into that dark basement alone? So it may not be the worst thing in the world for a game to be like work, if it is in fact training us cognitively to work better – work being an important aspect of real life, for good or for ill.

Poole quotes Mark Twain:

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and […] Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

So is “go to the store to buy a new video game” a type of work? I am obliged to do it if I wish to play that game. I don’t enjoy suiting up and venturing out in sub-zero weather, but I certainly will enjoy playing the game once I bring it back. So I’m willing to put up with the boring part because it will bring me the happy part. So it may not be a surprise that games like Etrian Odyssey contain ostensibly boring content that we enter into willingly. Indeed, the boring parts throw the fun parts into relief, making them more fun, as does the difficulty. If I had succeeded in defeating the Chimaera the first time around, it would have meant little to me, but since he had beaten me, and then I was required to work at improving myself, my ultimate victory meant much more.

Now to Outliers for a moment – not because I think it’s an awesome book but because it has a succinct definition of what makes work meaningful: “autonomy, complexity, and a link between effort and reward”. I don’t know if this is Gladwell’s own definition or someone else’s, but it makes sense. And it also makes sense of my Etrian Odyssey habit. I put in the half hour grinding because the satisfaction of defeating the monster will make the hard times worth it – “link between effort and reward”. Any RPG with multiple character classes, skills, and inventory management certainly has no problem with “complexity”.

But it is the “autonomy” that this game affords which most appeals. It does the minimum amount of hand-holding, rather expecting you to learn some of its inner workings. You have no pre-defined characters; you must evaluate and select from a list of possible classes, with a maximum party size of five. You could go into the game with one alchemist, or five troubadors – the game lets you decide how you want to rock it. You have your overarching main quest, which is map the labryinth, but it is handed out in sub-missions and supplemented with a great number of optional side quests. You can choose to take on the missions, or not. When it comes to leveling up your characters, and unlocking new skills, this is again left up to the player.

Choose a small team, choose your jobs, face adversity, choose how best to develop your team’s skills in order to overcome it – in the words of Jeffrey Lebowski, “challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome.” This is a fantasy not about dungeons and monsters but about small business. It’s pretty much my idealized way of making my way in the workplace, and as a salaryman it is indeed a fantasy to me at the moment – no wonder I’m willing to indugle in it in my free time.