A majority of video games boil down into one single thing: grinding. We either love it or hate it and many games will try to hide what you are doing (or at least keep it to a minimum) but to get anywhere beyond the starting area of most games, you need to do a bit of grinding.
I have been on a serious building game kick for the last while and I wanted to discuss why we grind and the joy that comes from repetitive tasks on the way towards a big goal. While I was playing these games, I felt guilty that I wasn’t achieving anything, a feeling I get often when playing games that don’t offer a new story experience. I try to explain to myself (yes it sounds schizophrenic but sometimes debating can help a bit) that I grind a lot in World of Warcraft too, where the grinding is for an end
I tried to resist the feeling of not achieving anything a bit longer, continuing to hop between several games. I have been playing Factorio, Satisfactory and Outpost Zero and eventually it all clicked. I was working towards something: the grind was to build something beautiful. Not for any system-specific achievement, not to unlock more story, but to prove that I could wrestle all the various resources and moving parts into a harmonious production line, with some high-end products to show for it. Just like other games would make you fight enemies for loot to fight stronger enemies for better loot, I was fighting resource nodes for materials to make even more complex designs and materials out of those, all combining in a monstrous collection of conveyor belts, chirpy drones and heaving metals.
I finally stopped worrying so much about achieving things and when I climbed up to a high point and looked down on my sprawling metal base, I was happy with what I had achieved. But I had also learnt a few tricks along the way and immediately I wanted to both savour my industrial empire, but also to tear it down to make it more efficient. More compact. Better. I had found the magic of what it was that kept me coming back for more and it wasn’t about completing a story, or finishing the game. In a game that has no concrete finish, when do you stop? Do you ever stop?
I was getting the same kick out of building a smooth-running factory – every material in its place, every process running at 100% efficiency – as I got from taking down a tough raid boss, all the players working in concert to beat the various tricks in play. Except there weren’t other players. It was just me and my metals, my oils and plastics. My conveyor belts. Everything in its place, perfectly balanced, with the various sounds of clanking machines and laser cutters all combining to form a chorus. My story’s beginning is looking back at older save files or construction sites that lie silent and abandoned, reminders of how I built before I got all the tools and techniques I needed to make things run properly. The story’s end is seeing one factory room or screen, depending on the game, where everything works together smoothly to create a product as efficiently as possible, some holy grail that requires thousands of parts to construct or to reach this point.
I sit in my field of conveyor belts and feel satisfied. Until I decide I want to make double of that product now, in the name of efficiency and fabrication. Better improve the power infrastructure first. Also, I wonder if I can make it look prettier? Back to the grind then.