Story vs. Strategy: Grinding Your Way to Emotional Investment

Last week I wrote about the embedded narrative in Syphon Filter for the PSP.  Chad over at Library Voice followed up my post with an excellent one of his own.  He talked about the game and related some of the games’ experiences to library services.  The four points he made are not isolated to the Syphon Filter series but can be applied as general lessons that games provide for library services.

Chad and I are both currently playing strategy role playing games (SRPG).  Here’s a quick link to define what SRPGs are.  But for me, SRPGs have always felt like a complicated version of chess

.  The player moves each character around a map (traditionally a grid) with a set movement distance and attempts to clear (or take) the opponent’s characters.  I’ve played and thoroughly enjoyed a number of games in this genre including Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1, PSP) and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA).  Last fall I wrote about how the Final Fantasy Tactics series offers players a number of ways to practice their information literacy skills.  A large part of my enjoyment of the series is the numerous layers of depth and skills applied during the preparation and execution of each battle.

In addition to the Final Fantasy Tactics series, the publisher Atlus and developer Nippon Ichi  have also pushed the genre forward with games like Disgaea, Phantom Brave, and La Pucelle: Tactics.  Chad is currently playing Disgaea on the PSP currently.  I’m playing another SRPG, Jeanne D’arc, published by Level 5, that was released for PSP last year. 

Based on my post last week about the embedded narrative, I wanted to look at the narrative of SRPGs, but realized that I couldn’t without talking about the gameplay as well.  Often in SRPGs, as in traditional RPGs, there is a degree of grinding and character building involved.  Leveling up your character is important to being statistically strong enough to defeat the opponents’ characters.  Yes, with good tactics it is very possible to defeat an opponent at a level or two higher, but often grinding is a potential solution to a challenging battle.  The difficultly with grinding is it tends to delay the narrative of the game.

When a player needs to spend time leveling up, the central story arc takes a backset.  The political fighting of Final Fantasy Tactics or the magical interpretation of the Joan of Arc story slow to a crawl as a player spends time leveling their characters.  This past weekend, I was trying to push ahead with the central story only to continually get defeated in a specific battle.  The solution was clear – grind, level up, and try again.  Doing so I made the intentional choice pull myself out of the narrative and dive into the chess-like strategy of individual battles.

Upon doing so, I instantly recalled where my emotional investment came from in previous  SRPGs.  It is not the game’s narrative that held me in the game’s world, it was my emotional connection with the individual characters.  Like many role-playing experiences, the enjoyment is derived from the expanded story and characterization created by the player.  Grinding has built up a camaraderie between the game characters and myself.  While the game’s attempt at developing relationships has slowed as I’ve continued to grind, my emotional investment with the characters has continued to grow.

As I develop a personal investment in the characters, my commitment to the game and the success of each character grows.  This isn’t a unique experience for video games.  And the debate over which is more engaging: an open ended user created narrative vs. a tightly channeled game narrative is one that fills message boards on a regular basis.  There is clearly a place for both.  And some games find a balance between the two (the 12  million playing WOW’s new Lich King expansion are an example).

Is one narrative experience more valuable than other?  

Or is it a matter of taste?  

I’m curious what Chad and others have to say.

Tomorrow I’ll come back to SRPGs and focus more on the tactics and strategies and how that can relate to our students’ searching experiences.

images via Gamespot


Q said...

And boy! was i pissed when jeanne fell into the river or what! and Liane of ALL people got the artifact; she was the only sub30... heck, she was level 19 when the armlet attached itself to her hand. But anyway, a few smart battles with our friends ans she was good as new :D

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