Life can often seem like a nasty, samsaric ritual. Almost every morning I wake up around 8am, take a shower, change the cat’s water, pour a cup of coffee and do the dishes before starting work. Every evening I take out my contacts, brush my teeth, wash my face and get into bed before falling asleep. These are the kind of things that we all just do and, for the most part, we do them mindlessly and automatically because they just have to be done.
Other parts of our day are usually far less predictable. Whether the spontaneity of a surprise phone call from an old friend or an email from a business client bears good or bad news, at the very least it colours our daily routines with the kind of random chance that makes life interesting (if not always enjoyable necessarily).
I play games — and I suspect a lot of people play games — because they also provide my days with that element of unpredictability. Taking part in an unfolding story or trying to win against a digital opponent makes for pretty engaging entertainment. Despite the fact that games, being constructs of cold hard programming, can only offer us a pre-set variety of outcomes (a variety that is always expanding as developers and technological engineers push the medium forward) they can give us a sense of being somewhere else, taking part in a world of chance — a world that can have more in common with the unpredictable parts of our days than the rote, habitual ones.
That isn’t always the case with Persona 3.
I found the game to be, while not really unpleasant, much like an endlessly repeating habit. At a certain point, I told myself that I would just push forward until something happened that made me understand it. I hoped that understanding would lead to enjoyment, but it didn’t. Ten hours into Persona 3 and I simply couldn’t stand the idea of plunging into Tartarus again and repeatedly fighting a limited cast of enemies using the same line-up of battle tactics as always while running through floors of identical looking levels. I told myself that I would try to minimize this part of the game because, like I mentioned in Part 1 of this thing, there was something kind of intriguing about the daily scheduling of social life, studying and work that the game requires. If I could stop using the evenings to explore Tartarus then maybe I’d be happy just to explore the city, chat with the characters and wait until the plot actually started to get going. It seemed like that approach might have worked.
Then I started to get “The RPG Fear.”
The Fear is when you begin to suspect that, by not tending to your character’s development adequately (whether through leveling up, buying and selling equipment or attending to other mundane tasks), you will eventually reach a point in the game where you are unable to progress any further. This is something that I had experienced as a kid, playing Final Fantasy VII and VIII and never being able to get to the end sequences because I hadn’t bulked up my characters well enough. I always thought it was a horrible thing to experience because, well, I just wanted to see out the conclusion of a story and the game had blocked me out — not because I wasn’t skilled enough, but because my characters’ numbers weren’t high enough to go up against a boss’. The solution to The Fear is, of course, to head into short bouts of combat, mindlessly enacting minor, effortless battles so those numbers could get bigger, making completing the game possible. The vaccine is grinding, really.
I suspect that a lot of the backlash against Japanese-developed role-playing games (JRPGs if you want to get weirdly nation-specific about your genres and pigeonhole conventions to a single country/culture rather than a set of aesthetic conventions) comes from this sort of reliance on repetition. Grind for long enough and nothing is beyond the player’s means. The idea that simply repeating a task over and over and over again will lead to a sense of empowerment is a strangely industrial ideal and one that, yeah, is certainly appealing in a robotic way. It is also dehumanizing, though, and dampens whatever part of our brains it is that gets a mini-orgasm from exercising skill and accomplishing a difficult task.
Just the same, many people like Persona 3, grinding and all.
After all, dedication is a great equalizer. The lady or lad who is very skilled at painting, but is a complete slacker should, by all rights, be outstripped by the less naturally talented, but more dedicated artist who commits all of their spare time to improving at their craft+. This may be how it should work in real life, but games aren’t real life (take that Crysis). They are, at very great moments, works of pure escapism that are capable of offering us reprieve from the less exciting parts of our daily lives.
This obviously isn’t universally agreed upon. Many, many people get a lot of pleasure out of the slow but steady, repetitive but continuous growth that JRPGs (and Massively Multiplayer RPGs also) promise. At one point, once I had learned enough to know that this was the way to get ahead in these kind of games, I liked it too. Now I don’t and Persona 3 is probably just not my cup of tea anymore — at least not at this point in my life. Maybe when I was in high school and my life was much more volatile there was a level of comfort in knowing that, yes, grinding up some numbers would always make my virtual dudes better at fighting. Maybe when I had regular homework I was more content to press a single button over and over again to get through grinding little battles while studying. Now, when so much of life is comprised of nine to five working, apartment owning, litter box emptying habit it just seems like spending time on videogames should feel less like, well, a chore.
– a plot should get some hooks into an audience within ten hours.
– the dialogue in Persona 3 is snappy and fun. More games should be willing to be this breezy and unafraid of being ridiculous, especially when they’re so bloody long.
– I am willing to try this again when Persona 4 comes out on the Vita. Maybe, then, it’ll take..
+ Going much further down this rabbit hole is not a good way to ever end this article. Suffice it to say that there’s a whole lot of talking to be done about the practice vs. natural talent argument, its place in our sociopolitical systems and (oh god I’m just going to go ahead and write this) what game design says about both creators and players.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.