Time is Mastery

Playing video games, along with my other major past times of reading and writing, is something I try to spend a little time doing each day. Regardless of my schedule, I try to fit in some time in from a screen where my only goal of that set time period, no matter how small it may be, is to sit and play a game. As I spoke about yesterday, I have been playing Final Fantasy X-2. Having gotten stuck at a point where I kept dying, I went back to an earlier area to grind up my characters, an action many people deride role-playing games for having at all.

I disagree with those that say that having to grind characters, fighting battles over and over to get rewards and improve their statistics, is necessarily a bad thing. I like it. For the couple hours that I played Final Fantasy X-2 last night, I was walking in the same areas and fighting the same enemies over and over again. It was some of the most monotonous and repetitive gameplay I had seen to date, yet I found it the most rewarding. The micro-sessions of play lasted only about a minute at most and then they were over. I was making small but forward steps in the greater area I was walking in (which I then erased by turning around and walking back). It was a reduced, minimalist approach to the overall story of every role-playing game I have ever played. For those couple hours, I realized, I was in a microcosm of why I many role-playing games: time is mastery.

Each random encounter, all those small times the game “story” was interrupted, were, in fact, the greater story. In the simple but repetitive battles, the characters see more growth than in the whole game’s narrative. It is with the picking of what to have each character learn, what role to fill and what to master  that the story actually moves. Regardless of what the story may say, the characters are changed not by the narrative bits but their own statistics. They may face boss battles at the end of sections, basically chapters, but they had to face hundreds if not thousands of enemies and monsters to get there. The challenge to the characters is not the Great Evil but is always in the very nature of their worlds. If they must fight and struggle for each few steps, what does it matter if they defeated the Evil Emperor, one man or woman? By the end of a forty-plus hour game, they have killed millions of others. The key to all that fighting, all those little micro-stories and mini-decisions, is in what it costs the player: time.

The more you play the game, the better you will get. That is the driving factor for nearly every gamer who has spent time with a game. If I play this more, I will achieve some form of mastery over it. If I keep paying attention to these patterns, I will finally “get it”. Gamers — I am speaking as a member of this club — keep at the same problems, keep trying different solutions in a video game until they have finally beaten it, mastered it. It is maybe more than interesting then that the mastery that comes from playing role-playing games, in the sense of primarily Japanese role-playing games, is that while the player is getting better at the game, learning to control and interact with the systems, the characters themselves are getting better at taking on the various monsters and enemies in the game, improving their own statistics. As the player becomes more fluent in the language of the game, the character’s abilities also increase in number, thus allowing a greater ability of expression. Basically, the more time spent in the games, the greater the number of possible verb-noun combinations. In order to achieve the mastery of the game, via the expression of the player using the language of the mechanics, then the player must invest more and more time.

This is something I like about role-playing games: the more I play, the more ways I get to explore the powers that each character has. Even if it is more like Final Fantasy IX and the characters are basically their roles, the more time spent with them mean they get more access to stronger magic and abilities. For most role-playing games, certain effects are only unlocked at certain story points, after certain actions. The more time spent getting to these milestones, the more access is allowed. But there is a threshold where the game’s difficulty no longer matches that of the character’s growth. That is the point where the strength of the abilities, magic or otherwise, exceed their need. It is then that, I feel, the game is the most interesting. Once the time threshold has been past, any part of the story can be explored, side-quests can be taken on and completed. This is the point, I feel, of mastery. Once the mechanics have been overwhelmed, the narrative can be addressed.