In defense of boring
As games move towards noise and thunder, I’m inclined to retreat back into the eye of the storm. I’m retreating to boring games.
The action movie palette, often robbed by games, gives us bright lights, flashing pictures, and melodramatic scenes, creating a variety of experiences based on the number of explosions. If the beginning of the story has one gunshot, the ending will have five hundred. If you start your game with an exploding train, or the planet Earth being invaded by sentient robots, action movie logic tells us you must end with apocalypse, and there can be no down time in between. You’re being hunted by evil! Evil made of men jumping away from explosions!
Look, I’m all about video games not wasting my time. If I made a list of pet peeves, that would be number one on my list. But grinding doesn’t have to ruin our time in a game: properly placed, it can enhance it. It’s a meditative series of moments tucked into the heart of the game, and it gives us time to think about what comes next.
When we whittle away the grinding, I find that I miss it: there’s a paucity of quiet moments. Mass Effect 3, a game so efficient as to have removed every hint of grinding, is the equivalent of a bald, bearded man screaming at you for thirty hours. It wore me down, not unlike an actual war. And I find I miss visiting planets to collect resources and running around outside my castle fighting goblins until my army’s weakest member is its strongest.
After the explosions of Mass Effect 3, I find myself turning to Massively Multiplayer games. I’m playing Torchlight. I’m joining my significant other on a nostalgia trip through Ragnarok Online (by far the most boring game in existence that also respects your time). I even gave Harvest Moon, the Super Nintendo’s best embodiment of grinding, a poke. Each of these games is as far from the modern action flick aesthetic as possible, more in line with the prozacic image of old video games designed to provide value in length and satisfaction in glass-eyed stares.
The difference lies in variability. Harvest Moon can milk happiness from something as simple as a harvest coming in, because you planted those crops. Ragnarok Online makes you feel like a champion when you manage to, against all odds, overcome two zombies. Two of Mass Effect 3’s husks die at the same time within ten minutes of the game starting up, and so it can only end in an orgy of unprecedented violence, a half dozen of its massive Brutes and a half dozen of its terrifying Banshees. By not slowing down Mass Effect 3’s only trick is to speed up: each scene must be more intense than the last, and when it breaks from this mold—say, in its “made for multiplayer” missions against attacking Cerberus forces, or in allowing you to talk to your relatively dull crew mates—it fails to excite.
While Mass Effect 3 does not sink to the level of distension that Final Fantasy XIII reached—that being a game that could make an epic escape around the “sun” boring—it has all the same symptoms: constant intensity backed up by a lack of credible non-narrative threat. Mass Effect 3’s reaper armies waited patiently for you to finish missions, sitting in space with explosions and action ready to create, yet the game presented you with many options filled with a baseline of violence. Take a Cerberus-squashing mission, and you’ll have violence. Take an obvious plot one, and awesome things will happen. This dichotomy makes violence boring. It turns exciting scenes (the Cerberus-stomping levels being the ones used in the enjoyable multiplayer) into boring, predictable ones. It turns fun into work.
As much as its predecessor’s planet scanning mechanic was abysmal, it fulfilled a useful purpose in Mass Effect 2: it kept things slow sometimes. It made the game much less exhausting, because there were moments of idle amusement; without it, Mass Effect 3 is left with only time on the Citadel, which can often be more intense than firefights. The original Mass Effect did it even better by giving you a floaty little tank to drive around, gangs of enemies to shoot, and guns to have. By juxtaposing this idle appreciation with its violent explosions, the violence is maximized. What was a mild look of amusement becomes a huge smile, and removes the demand for every moment, every action to be more nail-bitingly intense. Something as simple as pulling in a harvest of potatoes can be thrilling if the action before it isn’t also pulling in a harvest. If it’s clearing a field, as Harvest Moon makes you do, then the harvest will be a thrilling culmination of your work.
Tension, rather than a diagonal line up the page, should look like a child trying to draw an angry clown’s expression: a toothy series of peaks and valleys. It’s why I love a good grind: happy, zen like moments exist at the bottom of those valleys. Its why old Japanese Role Playing Games exude more epic qualities than Mass Effect 3‘s ending: spending hours in the valley preparing before the roller-coaster ending provides much more dramatic tension than trying to accelerate up a steep hill.
In short: I am defending pacing. I care about the idea that we don’t need our foot on the gas all the time. Portal, for instance, wouldn’t make a fun movie: it would be GLaDOS talking for an hour and a half and, as we all learned from “that friend” who played Still Alive on repeat for twelve hours, that gets boring. What doesn’t get boring is a pithy quip followed by an interesting puzzle. We’re playing, at first, for more pithy quips, and then, as we get into it, we’re playing for more puzzles. We enjoy casual games and MMOs for the same reason: their down moments are when we’re at work, dreaming of killing another monster in an MMO or building more of our Farmville farm. And when we do, it’s satisfying stuff, because we’ve had to wait for it. We’ve had to build it.
The best games try to make all of their elements interesting, but the truly smart games make it vary which one is the work and which one is play. Portal shifts, halfway through, and you wouldn’t even know it to play it. Mass Effect 3 makes everything loud and demanding, and as a result guns and conversation scream for your attention. We want to do everything at once, and as a result anything less than spectacular becomes an inadvertent drop off of tension. Liken it to a freefall rather than a roller coaster, and you don’t have a parachute; you’re not going to be surprised when the game breaks a leg.
Of course, pure grinding isn’t interesting, either. There needs to be balance. There needs to be pacing If I’m spending an hour improving my party, I expect to go off and fight some impossibly powerful being, get heaps of narrative tidbits, and feel like I’ve made progress. If I’m doing something full of incredible violence, I need to have something afterward to change the tempo, because you can’t continuously top that excitement with more explosions; eventually the most exciting game in the world will scream itself out.
(Authorial note: Only days later did I realize that drained some brain away from Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, who wrote a similar article a week and change earlier. I came to it through different games, of course (I played Harvest Moon and Ragnarok Online, while he uses Tales of Graces F), but the thoughts are similar enough that I feel like a putz. Go read his article. It’s better!)