During my childhood gaming years, I spent an inordinate amount of time marching my poor avatar in circles. He’s just lucky he wasn’t self-aware, that stocky knight draped in plate armor, walking the same tedious circuit for hours beneath the heat of a sun that no one had programmed to set.
I didn’t have a choice. In order to progress through these role-playing adventures, I needed cool weapons and armor, which cost gold. If I was going to finish Dragon Warrior, I’d need to raise my character’s experience level so that he had a fighting chance against the dragons and wyverns and wolfmages who lurked in the woods across the next bridge. The only way to amass gold and experience was by fighting legions of enemies, and enemy encounters were randomly generated as you walked along, so I walked, and walked, and fought, then walked some more. For some reason, this tedium never grated on me. Level-grinding (or “rebuilding,” as my brothers and I called it) was part of the contract we entered into with the game.
I never stopped to question why these creatures left gold pieces behind when they died. Maybe their entire diet consisted of townspeople, whom they gobbled down whole, wallets and all, digesting everything but those pesky gold pieces.
Looking back now, it would appear that my favorite game at the time, Final Fantasy, was attempting to groom me for the 9-to-5 workday tedium of the real world. There’s a key point early in the game, after you board the ship you won in a barroom brawl and sail it south to a wooded Elfland area populated with Ogres and pink-colored baddies called Creeps. You effectively can’t progress beyond this point in the game without visiting the local elf village and buying a powerful silver sword, which costs the hefty sum of 4000 gold. I remember spending dozens of hours walking around in hopes of bumping into those deep-pocketed Ogres. If you happened to hit a group of three or four, you felt like you’d scratched a winning lottery ticket.
The lesson of this particular gameplay mechanic might as well have been delivered via parental lecture: if you want to buy something, you’ll have to work and save your money. But it’s even worse than that. You’ll need to spend days and days of your life performing the same mindless task over and over. You won’t earn very much money for performing these tasks, but if you keep with it, you just might be able to afford to buy a few nice things before you die.
The past few days I’ve been replaying Faxanadu, an adventure-RPG with platforming elements, that debuted on the NES back in the late ’80s. I hadn’t done any level-grinding in a while, but I fell back into the rhythm without missing a beat. The game makes your life easier by respawning enemies in the exact same place everytime you leave the screen and re-enter, which means I could chop down the same enemies over and over, pocketing the bouncing gold coins they left behind when they died, watching my experience-point and gold tallies inch higher with each pass.
I’m far more self-conscious when I play games these days; sometimes I feel like I'm both playing and watching myself play. During my Faxanadu level-grinding, the spectating part of me couldn't fathom how willingly I performed an identical set of actions for well over an hour just for the modest reward of a new shield or magical attack. Beyond simply abiding the exercise, I find it oddly relaxing and enjoyable—the feeling of slow-and-steady, incremental progress that culminates in someplace worth going, or something worth having.
I don't mind being a worker drone, as long as the resulting honey tastes even mildly sweet.
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can reach him online at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.