I’ve spent way too much time on each of the Dragon Quest games fighting slimes and more slimes. Persona 3 and 4 sucked up hundreds of hours wandering the dungeons to level up my characters. Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls and a hundred other RPGs have vaporized time I could have spent learning the basics of a foreign language. So when Kyle Muntz, Indie author and game designer, posed the question, “Is grinding an integral aspect of RPG gaming?” it got me thinking. Muntz has been collaborating on a RPG Maker driven project called The Pale City, a cerebral fantasy RPG influenced by retro JRPGs, David Lynch, the Witcher series, and even Sam Peckinpah. Co-created with Owen Kaelin, it’s a character-driven, narrative-oriented game. The story is tied to an isolated city on a platform and a strange lore binds the world together. While it’s still early in development, what interested me was Muntz’s approach:
“I'm aiming for a structural approach to the narrative that hasn't been done (except maybe in Planescape), which appeals to me as a storyteller though I'm still trying to cater to people who, you know, want to fight. For the most part, things are written so that there are lots of boss fights (or just generally hard fights: you fight one enemy or a small group for ideally storytelling related reasons), so in my head what it does is get rid of the grinding element.”
One of the reasons I loved Persona 3 so much was that once you got stronger, weaker enemies would actually run away from you. In Earthbound, weaker foes were automatically killed upon confrontation. Both games acknowledged the tedium of grinding and found a sleek way to deal with it in a way that didn’t get overly-cumbersome. Muntz is contemplating taking this a step further and eliminating it altogether from an RPG, almost in the fashion of Shadow of the Colossus (check out Frogfro's great article about Epic Boss Fights)
“Fights are rare but hard. It's like, I figure I want to make every fight count. “Bosses” isn't even the fight word; like I'm hoping to structure it in individual fights that are challenging and rewarding and make sense.”
The conversation flipped into the question, can a RPG be a RPG without the endless grinding? Part of the reason for the integration of so many battles is the role-playing; how can you feel like you’re growing without lots of fighting (and in the process, gaining EXP)? There’s also the question of earning gold as well as the increasing challenge of facing harder enemies that gets to the core of what constitutes the essence of a RPG; is it the role-playing, or the narrative? Ideally, both are integrated seamlessly so that they feed off each other, which the best RPGs do. But there’s also the practical questions that come up when eliminating battles. For example, if there isn’t grinding, how to deal with basic elements like experience points? Muntz wants to take it in a more natural direction a la Planescape or more modern RPGs like Dragon Age. “Experience works like Planescape Torment. You can get it from fighting, or (especially) talking to people, or sometimes just from interacting with things.”
As to the plot, Muntz provided some backstory for The Pale City, talking about strange celestial beings called Singularities that roam the world:
“One of them is a sort of god figure who lives in a tower; another is this monster that's just been digging tunnels for thousands of years. People aren't "born." They sort of come out of the ground and stumble up into the city, from the immense network of tunnels on the top of the platform. The whole top of the platform is made of dead stuff; like it's thousands of years of corpses matted down.”
There’s a grotesque element to the world interspersed with philosophical musings that create a surreal, but sublime, atmosphere reminiscent of some of the older RPGs. I’m curious to see where this experiment goes and wonder if it will answer as many questions about what makes RPGs special as it does the mysteries of the world of The Pale City. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you guys think about grinding and battles in RPGs in general.
You can also learn more about The Pale City and follow their progress on their Facebook page.
Peter Tieryas blogs at tieryas.wordpress.com.