No Time Left for You

I had a moment in my life recently where I realized I was different.

Younger me would have gone absolutely apeshit over Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. Not only is it a game in one of my favorite franchises, not only does it have brilliant art direction, but it is a subtly tactical, brilliant puzzle game, the kind of thing I would have adored.

But older me is playing it, not younger me. And older me has come to a startling realization: so much of this game, games in general, is busywork, and I cannot enjoy that anymore.

I’m grinded out on grinding.

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is one of those games I’d kept an eye on for a long time. I’d enjoy it, I knew, because it was precisely up my alley: puzzles, tactics, turn based strategy, and a heaping dose of fantasy style. I mean, look at the game. It’s gorgeous, and it’s 2-D, which means it’s something I had to play. It had been on my Amazon wish list for over a year as I waited for the DS version’s price to tick down; when a console version was announced, I knew I’d wait for that.

And I’ve played it, and I’ve enjoyed it. I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. It has some beautiful puzzle mechanics. Bloody gorgeous ones that reach a Tetris level of zen, in fact. It’s an absolutely lovely game.

There just came to be a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I can describe it in great detail. It was during the Necromancer campaign (the game is split into five different campaigns, each prescribed to a different Might and Magic race: Elves, Knights, Necromancers, Wizards, and Demons), sometime in the middle. There was a stream of absolutely meaningless encounters protecting the big bad from me, all of which took at least five minutes to clear up and all of which provided me with no noticeable benefit besides the ability to fight another encounter to grind through the story.

I’m painting a grim picture, and I want to point out it’s not them, it’s me. These aren’t even random encounters: they are visible encounters that were designed to make the journey feel more epic. They’re something every game has, and I cannot fault Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes for them. The fact of the matter is, though, eventually you get tired of the things you’ve taken for granted for all these years. You get tired of grinding without any real reward. It wears you down, and you think, Man, I wish this game were better paced. It’s well paced, of course, for its target audience, the gamer looking for an engaging, replayable time sink, but it’s not well paced for you, who has a million other games to play and doesn’t have the energy to beat a half dozen boring encounters to get to a smidgeon of generic plot.

The motivation isn’t there. The love isn’t there.

I hate to channel a Southern chef personality, but it’s absolutely true: the love isn’t there. Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is built entirely to specification, exactly how old games used to be made. The only difference is that my heart isn’t into the idea of grinding through an entirely predictable story anymore. It’s something I used to relish doing, but I can’t do it anymore. There has to be a hook to get me through the plot, be it nostalgia or a really cool leveling system or a brilliant story and Clash of Heroes doesn’t have any of those. It has a good battle mechanic, but like anything you do a hundred times, it eventually becomes boring, no matter how interesting it is. You develop a strategy, and while it’s sometimes difficult to apply this strategy due to the enemy being awfully smart, it eventually comes down to rote application of skill, which will eventually become tedium incarnate.

To make a metaphor using my other favored field of entertainment, comics, good mechanics are the art. Pretty pictures are a dime a dozen: even a good artist can be equaled by dozens more artists, more than anyone can possibly want to read in a lifetime. Good mechanics are important, and they help make the game more engaging, but there has to be something there beyond them. There has to be a complex system, or an interesting plot, or something weighty behind the mechanics.

Good mechanics and artistic flair are a foundation, but not the game. And if the game is all grinding meaningless encounters to acquire meaningless plot, then what hope does the game have of being enjoyable or memorable?

The thing is, grinding like this is a holdover from days when games were paced this way to make them longer. Encounters against forty of the same encounters was practical and a necessity during the days of the NES, but nowadays they’re just tedious reminders that we haven’t come very far as a medium. Developers still do things to pad the length of their games, except now the games are ten to twenty hours long instead of thirty to forty. Instead of the padding surrounding a fairly meaty experience, now there are games where the entire thing is fluff.

I realize, at this point I must clarify, that Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is not the best choice for this argument. It’s a quality game. If you have patience for grinding, it’s a great game. Sure, it’s got its missteps, like having protagonist Godric of the Griffin empire (who walks through quite a number of doors), but the game, in general, is very sound. It the principle of the thing that gets me: this is a game with quality gameplay and style, and it’s buried under thousands of encounters with Demon who always use similar armies and always die quickly. It’s exacerbated by the fact that the game is five campaigns, so instead of just building upward in power, you replay the same beginning five times, developing an army each time with no depth. There’s no system, there’s just mechanics. There’s no plot, there’s just style. There is no joy, there is only repetition.

Maybe I’m just a cynic, but I feel like games shouldn’t be this joyless. Maybe the kids love just throwing birds at buildings until they fall over, but I feel like we should demand more. Games should tell us stories, and they should engage us with different and important events rather than the fortieth fight against the same enemy. Kurt Vonnegut said that all writing should either advance the plot or explain character, and fights against generic cannon fodder do neither, unless the goal is to convey that the main character is a killing machine. Another major rule of writing is that everyone, down to a paper boy, should have a strong degree of character; faceless enemies, leading faceless armies, have less than no character. They are cardboard cutouts we aren’t supposed to think about.

That’s the thing, really. We aren’t supposed to think about any of this. When we were kids, we didn’t think about enemies having emotions or reasons to live besides being obstacles. Now, I am at least old enough to ask the question, Why is this enemy here? and it’s disheartening to find no answer. They are empty, soulless minions, and while it is comforting to think those sort of people exist, they don’t. And it’s in killing my fortieth vapid goon that I realize I have no heart, no stomach for it anymore.

3 Comments

  1. Cy

    You know, I seem to have run into this problem myself with Pokémon Black. I loved Red and Silver when I was a kid, but now that I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, the amount of grinding required to beat some of the gym leaders is just too much of a time sink for me. You’d think they would time all of the random encounters, plus trainers battles enough to make it so by the time you reach the next gym, you’re ready!

    Right now, I’m stuck on the last Gym leader, waiting to get my 8th badge because I need to grind about 15 levels on a freshly caught Axew to even be a suitable match for the gym leader. And no, I’m not going to use one of the ice cream cones. 😛

    It’s definitely frustrating as you get older to have to grind so much, dunno how those Koreans do it.

    • Tom

      Funnily enough, Black and White had the least grinding of any Pokemon game. Compared to Platinum, they were an absolute breeze.

      I’d object less to grinding if I had less to do. I still like it, but I need to have an eventual goal. Pokemon had that goal. Clash of Heroes didn’t. That’s the difference: I need to have objectives.

      • Callan

        Maybe so, but I stopped playing for about the same reason as Cy. Well, I didn’t have much time to begin with, but I just wanted to keep moving and the game didn’t want me to go so fast. That and there was a random encounter almost every single step. So I decided I didn’t have time. Who hasn’t noticed how time moves more and more quickly as we get older? I can’t imagine ever again having a summer that seemingly stretched on forever, with nothing to do but lie around in the basement and playing Pokemon gold and eating blueberries all day. It’s kind of sad, but also probably for the best. We’re grown-ups, we can do better things with our lives than grind with (in the grand scheme of things) zero payoff for hours!