The Magus by John Fowles follows an entitled, selfish English graduate as he escapes his failed ambitions and relationships to a Greek island. There he meets Maurice Conchis, a billionaire intellectual who may be (but probably isn’t) connected to a supernatural force. The novel, set just after the Second World War, explores post-war masculine anxiety, psychological determinism, storytelling and social identity. My opinion of it is that it is a good novel stuffed inside a bad one. The protagonist is a knob but when he’s at his knobbiest he’s most sympathetic and human; at his most decent (which seems only ever to be kinda) he’s boring and it isn’t until he starts to collapse that his self-reflection ever means anything. Conchis is not half as interesting as the book says he is but he provides some of the most acute and pleasant passages in the book.
The action in The Magus takes place in conversations, stories or lies shared between two characters about a third. Most of the time in between those spaces are slow, dawdling moments of reflection seemingly for its own sake that builds suspense or gives insight into the main character and his feelings about others. Something mysterious will happen and the protagonist will contemplate about how mysterious everything is. It’s a long novel and most character development happens for its own sake, independent of the plot just to colour its deeper themes. Most of The Magus is grinding.
At time of writing I’ve read just over half of it and I’ll probably need the rest of the month to finish the rest. I’m a slow reader even when I’m hooked but I’m decidedly unhooked by The Magus. There are books that I’d rather read while the dog days of summer float by but I’ve decided to stick with The Magus in the hope that once I see the forest all that time spent staring at trees will mean something. I’m not convinced one way or another now, but I’m a sucker for grinding. If The Magus were a game the back of it would boast the sheer volume of hours needed to work through it. Like I said, time will have to tell but that might ultimately be one of its strengths. Maybe. I’m leading with this because grinding is often considered one of the ways that videogames become bloated with empty content. Which I believe is true, but it’s due more to the mechanic’s implementation, not its nature.
First of all, by grinding I refer to the player deliberately taking time away from progressing in the story to build up their character’s in-game abilities, either through levelling up or collecting items or resources or by providing some other in-game benefit. Secondly, I’m not trying to write a wholesale defence of grinding because it’s too often used as a Skinner Box and it’s an easy way to fill a game with dead hours (Chen, Kenneth. “Game Design: Internet Gaming Disorder.” Omegathorion. Aug 24 2013.). Experience point and levelling systems often pad out a game’s length by compelling the player into rote, unsatisfying and empty behaviours.
Grinding, then, seems like unnecessary baggage weighing the experience down; spinning gears attached to nothing that just overcomplicate the machine. Pacing in-game development with plot developments eliminates most bloated content along with a lot of grinding. Satchell Drakes uses Chrono Cross to illustrate the strength of minimal grinding (“Chrono Trigger to Chrono Cross: The Inventive Carpenter.” Normal Boots. Mar 22 2014.). Drakes argues that, because fighting minions is not mandatory to grow in power, the game focuses more sharply on narrative elements like exploration, set design, music and plot. Unlike regular “RPG grindfests,” Chrono Cross does not compel the player to stray from story content. Rather, it provides level and equipment growth exactly at the pace of exploring plot development.
Appropriately, as Drakes explains in his discussion, growth does not occur in a predefined system that the player must grind to fulfill, rather the system subtly reinforces the stats the player chooses to use. The player stamps their own identity onto the system rather than adapting around it. Chrono Cross is About, in the big picture sense, a large cast of characters discovering their small, irreplaceable importance in the world and statistical development mirrors this. Grinding doesn’t make sense in Chrono Cross because whipping a few besties into heroic shape doesn’t fit with a story of several dozen barely connected oddballs making a small but discernible difference in the world. In Chrono Cross, progress in systems and narration happen as close to simultaneously as possible. However, I’m hesitant to dismiss grinding entirely.
It’s important to note that Chrono Cross is not structurally conducive to grinding. Chrono Cross follows the adventure of Serge, a young man who stumbles into an alternate reality where he doesn’t exist. In this context, growth does not make sense: the game explores the importance of every individual and the subtle changes each person makes in the world, not the bonding of a close group of friends on an adventure. The emphasis isn’t on Serge growing, it’s in his existing. Chrono Cross is interested in how the ripples of one person’s existence reaches the rest of the world. In a game like Chrono Trigger, the predecessor to Chrono Cross, grinding makes some amount of sense as it follows the journey of a team of close friends bonding and overcoming an existential nightmare. These characters want to spend time with one another, their growth and empowerment is significant because it takes so long and their incremental improvements line up neatly with the cast’s slow but steady adventure to save the world.
Grinding is most raw in a role-playing game’s system and even non-RPGs that borrow RPG elements can’t help but also borrow the genre’s investment in character development. Role-playing requires gradually investing more in characters’ systematic and personal growth. Player’s represent and justify their dice rolls, speak with other players at the table, select dialogue from a menu, follow the cast through a predetermined plot, or whatever. As characters develop as entities within a system their relationship to the plot grows deeper. In any case, characterization always matters. It simply doesn’t fit, though, when a character’s place in the world doesn’t change. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West features an orb collecting mechanic similar to that in Devil May Cry, in which the player spends glowing orbs to improve abilities. In this case, though, the protagonist Monkey, does not change his objectives to justify the grind. His goal is to odyssey west, and even though he changes, his place in the world does not. Even in Devil May Cry, the orb system is explained as offering slain demons to a god who hones the hero’s powers. As the protagonist becomes more powerful his existence takes on different significance throughout the plot. Grinding means something because it changes who the player-character is and those changes impact each moment. Grinding levels to turn an idyllic villager into a demigod of justice chronicles the inching changes in a character. It’s the ludic equivilent of The Magus‘s main character spending most of his time ponderously reflecting on the stories and events the reader just encountered not long ago. Sometimes it’s tedious and sometimes it pays off. Sometimes not.
Mechanics and story are ultimately so enmeshed in one another that analysis of one means nothing without the context of the other. So there can’t ever be a player performance without narrative meaning (Filipowich, Mark. “Tighten Up the Narrative in Level 3: The grammar of videogames.” Medium Difficulty. Sep 21 2013.). Even grinding has an effect. In keeping with ideas I’ve written about before, the expression of mechanics as storytelling devices happens through abstraction (Filipowich, Mark. “The Narration and Abstraction of Bodies / The Camera in Games.” Mar 5 2014; Jul 25 2014.). All that time spent tracking eagle’s eye view points in Assassin’s Creed to fill out the radar—all that grinding—is an abstraction of the hero’s memory and attention to detail; that they are able to commit a cursory view to knowledge sophisticated enough to be represented by an accurate radar speaks to their qualifications as an assassin. Just as their assessment of a threat is abstracted as a glowing red Bad Guy signifier, grinding vision of the map is an abstraction of the character and the world the player is participating in. This kind of knowledge and insight can only be gleaned by grinding. However, unlike collecting flags spread across the worlds of Assassin’s Creed, it serves a purpose and reflects something useful to the player.
Similarly, the characters of Fire Emblem: Awakening are shallow before grinding through their relationship subplots. Each character actually has a rich history but only fragments are revealed as throwaway comments in each of their subplots with other characters. As each pair bonds over whatever micro-drama brings them closer together, they casually mention their history, aspirations, fears and hobbies. After Miriel has made friends with two or three other characters she incidentally reveals that her stoic dedication to the scientific method comes from her mother, also a scientist but one who never achieved her daughter’s fame; Vaike reveals his upbringing in a slum; Panne shows her love of carrots; Olivia shows her shyness; Cordelia shows her intellectual gifts. As each relationship “levels up” each individual fleshes out further, adding one dimension of their personality at a time.
To connect this back to literature, grinding is a symptom of what often gets cited as bad writing. Writers Earnest Hemingway and William Faulkner had a semi-famous pissing contest over their styles; a pissing contest that—at this point in history—Hemingway seems to have won (Allen, Michael. “Faulkner v Hemingway.” Grumpy Old Bookman. Jul 26 2004.). Hemingway wrote terse, declarative sentences bereft of descriptors while Faulkner wrote long, meandering sentences from the perspective of a corpse, an autistic adult, a town’s collective consciousness or another source that makes his writing even more difficult to parse. I prefer Faulkner and writers like him but Hemingway’s shadow lingers over writing of all stripes. “Show don’t tell” is the mantra of the age and “unnecessary” description is almost universally discouraged. Every sentence must move the plot.
Plot, however, is just a small part of storytelling. Setting, sound and technique communicate theme and argument much more powerfully than plot does; plot just brings the audience from one experience to the next. Plot doesn’t have to be surprising or predictable, it just needs to change a moment into a new moment. Grinding changes characters in a way detached from plot and the overall influence of grinding isn’t felt until a game is over. The Crono who wears a karate gi and smacks a carnival robot with a wooden stick is different from the Crono who casts Luminiare on an existential terror parasite from space. The player recognizes the difference because they participated in creating it over time.
Consider “Triangle,” the eleventh episode from season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, wherein Xander’s best friend Willow and fiancé Anya bicker over their prominent roles in Xander’s life. The episode doesn’t do much for the plot—Spike attempts and fails to flirt with Buffy, again, and Giles leaves to find information from the Watcher’s Council, again—but it barely resolves any of the season’s drama. In the grand scheme of the season—much less the series—it doesn’t actually do much. Outside of a few comments it barely involves the central conflict between Buffy and Glory or Dawn’s identity as the MacGuffin. It exists because primetime network TV seasons consist of 22 episodes and “Triangle” spins the season’s wheels to fill out the dead space between story-episodes. A TV series, like a roleplaying game, is a marathon, not a sprint, and “Triangle” fills the same role as grinding does in a videogame.
The episode’s monster of the week drops loot that Buffy equips in the season finale. The conflict in “Triangle” just gives Buffy and company a villain to fight. Independently, it’s empty entertainment, but taken with the rest of the season the small characterization and the emphasis of who the cast is at that time are more important because they provide a measuring post for their development and better establish the overarching themes. The episode’s focus on Willow and Anya is treated much like a subplot in Fire Emblem: Awakening. Tangentially related conversations hint at Willow’s power with and addiction to magic while also more deeply establishing Anya’s frankness, jealousy and doomed comfort with Xander and the other scoobies. On its own the episode doesn’t do much, and it’s easily skippable, but taken as a part of the series as a whole it’s a particle of the cast and world’s development; a diversionary sidequest that only means something in the context of everything else.
Grinding in videogames isn’t excusable because sometimes TV and books do something similar but the effect of grinding is not always negative. I’m not satisfied with any argument that seeks to universally accept or condemn levelling systems or grinding. Nor, honestly, am I entirely satisfied with my attempted compromise here. When it comes to grinding, though, even though I enjoy reading attempts to comprehensively theorize its function, I’m more interested in its effects as an element of design because it so resembles the artistic decisions of other time-consuming media. Sometimes what seems tedious and/or boring actually works to build toward something. Often it can be hard to work through the classics because they’re designed to suit a bygone aesthetic, or they’re densely composed or the small annoyances like grinding that go into the text are only impactful over time and in a distant way (McCarter, Reid. “Eating Your Hay: Playing the Classics Isn’t Always Easy.” Digital Love Child. Aug 27 2013.).
So I’m going to finish The Magus because I know what it’s like to get stuck in an exhausting and seemingly rote repetition in storytelling and still come out appreciating the experience. It might not happen again. The Magus might not justify its plodding pace and easily distracted narration. Maybe it does justify it but I just won’t get it. But if it turns out to be well designed than the effect of grinding will mean more than its presence.
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Further reading: Walker, Austin. “Min-Maxing Criticism: On Capitalism and Levelling Up.” Clockwork Worlds. Jun 5 2014.
Allen, Samantha. “In Medias Res.” The Border House. May 13 2013.
Hernandez, Patricia. “I’m Sick of the Disturbingly Neat Lives Video Games Expect Us to Enjoy.” Kotaku. Apr 16 2012.
Keogh, Brendan. “Dark Souls: A Time to Grind.” Paste. Nov 8 2011.
Lawrence, Dan. “Behaviourist Game Design.” Robotic Shed. Feb 24 2010.