The art of losing isn’t hard to master
So many things seemed filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster
—Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
The immediate impulse of most gamers is to play Shiren the Wanderer like a JRPG. Kill everything so you level up, collect cash to buy upgrades, and save the best weapons to use for fighting. It’s the usual way that you master an empowerment system, and you can play like this all the way to the final boss. This is the opposite of how you play Shiren the Wanderer. When you die, you lose everything. All accumulated experience, wealth, and equipment vanishes, and you go back to the start of a thirty level quest to climb a mountain. The beauty of the game’s design is how much it plays on the preconceptions of the player to develop a unique moral message. Beating the main quest is not particularly difficult so long as you can accept that at any moment you might lose everything.
The basic way that you play is learning what sorts of monsters are going to be on each floor of the dungeon and how to handle them. All items are random and do not spawn infinitely. When you backtrack, a floor is empty except for the monsters. So when you march up the stairs to Level 12 of a dungeon, that’s all the gear that you’re going to find, backtracking does not generate new items. You can’t really depend on obtaining a specific item while playing, including weapons and armor. You have to be able to work with what you’ve got. The closest analogy to this experience would be gambling. The better you are at knowing when to bet and when to fold does not translate into instant victory but rather more victories in the long term.
This is the argument that Greg Costikyan made in a lecture on randomness in games. He explains, “The point at which strategy begins to dominate over randomness depends on how much effect strategy has—in a game where random elements are small and strategy vital, strategy dominates with even a handful of random tests, while if strategy is a relatively modest dictator of outcomes, then many random tests are required before strategy dominates” (“Randomness: Blight or Bane?”, Play This thing!, 9 September 2009). To beat Shiren the Wanderer, you have to understand that strategy is subservient to adaptability. Losing is thus an intrinsic part of how you win. A professional poker or blackjack player works under similar conditions. There’s no way to ever claim with certainty that you’ll win every hand, but if you play long enough, you’ll realize that you don’t have to. You just need to win more than you lose.
By contrast, your average JRPG like Final Fantasy operates with a group planning design. You put your team together, max out their equipment, pick which magic you’re going to slam monsters with, and then stomp your way through the game. If you get killed, you go back and put together another broad plan. My personal test for when a JRPG should be considered bad is when I never have to change my plan of attack. Persona 4 was a great JRPG because it forced me to change tactics at each dungeon and to experiment until I figured out the best approach. Many of those levels were a genuine struggle, and it made the validation of finally rescuing each victim a lot more fulfilling since my struggle reflected the plot.
A broad attack strategy doesn’t work in Shiren the Wanderer because there are no guarantees in this game. If you try to only use only one plan of attack, you might last for several floors, but you’ll never make it to the top. Even if you’re having a perfect run and you found all the ultimate items, the game can and will drop you into lethal situations. Several times when I started on the first floor, I was beaten to death by a pack of bunny creatures within ten turns. You might find enough food to get to the next town; you might not. Weapons are equally random. I found one of the best weapons in the game on the second floor, and it’s just as likely to appear on the last floor.
The charm of this design is that it offers a valid alternative to single player grinding. The Pickford Bros Blog points out that back in the primordial days of video games, grinding was something an RPG included to help players who liked the story but found the game too challenging (Ste Pickford, “Difficult Games and Narrative”, The Pickford Bros Blog, 7 May 2008). It’s a band-aid solution for fixing complex problems like difficulty balance and level pacing. You can’t arbitrarily assign difficulty to enemies in a game like Fallout 3 because the player could wander up to a band of monsters at any time. Once the player is too strong, the game is broken. If they’re too weak, they can get stuck in a hostile area. A JRPG, on the other hand, is very linear, so the designer can have a rough idea of how strong the player will be and what monsters to throw at them. Grinding thus becomes a way for insecure players to keep playing but never worry about death because they can always reach the next level if they grind for a few hours.
The problem with this exchange is that most JRPGs take a long time to beat. Grinding is something that you do because the player doesn’t want to watch the same cutscene twice, wander through the same dungeon twice, or solve the same puzzles. Since the player is already looking at an enormous time investment, grinding seems like a way to shave time off. While the irony of engaging in one repetitive activity so that you can avoid another may be lost on some gamers, grinding has the added benefit of making you feel more powerful and secure. So long as you work hard, you won’t have to worry about losing. While I don’t think it should ever be as simple as claiming that all games should be super difficult and punishing, to allow grinding to totally remove that element of a game takes away one of their key strengths. Aspects of the story, new locations, items, and characters all have far more emotional resonance if we have to struggle for them. The issue is that one has to strike a balance somewhere between being challenging yet not driving people away.
Shiren the Wanderer solves this problem because, like gambling, instead of fumbling with the futile goal of “I will win every time”, you instead start figuring out the different ways to stack the odds in your favor. After a dozen or so deaths, you’ll start to notice that time does not restart after you die. Changes that you make to the world remain. In that sense, you aren’t grinding so much as accomplishing small goals. A sidequest to save a little girl lost in the dungeon opens up a storehouse in one of the game’s midway points. You’ll still be trudging up the mountain when you do this mission and it’s very likely you’ll die, but that tiny goal has still been accomplished. A quest to help a struggling restaurant gets you a free meal and stat boost once per life. The NPC characters who will join your party all take time to recruit and involve investing a lot of scarce resources in doing so. The effort pays off because having one around increases your odds of progressing to the next floor.
The storehouse system works in the same way by getting you to make small investments towards achieving the larger goal. The first three towns that you pass through while climbing the mountain include places that you can store items even after you die. Throughout the game, blacksmiths and magic scrolls will enhance the damage or defense stats of your equipment. So you start boosting up a sword’s stats, and then you store it away. If you die while carrying it, the item is lost. Most trips, you’ll have enough money for a blacksmith or a scroll, and you’ll upgrade the sword a little bit more each time. You can also store food, health herbs, and other essentials that you might be running low on. The effect is that the player begins to set small, self imposed goals in order to reach the larger one of climbing the mountain. The first dozen deaths for me were very frustrating because I felt helpless. Once I started storing goods, the game began to make sense. When I died I would think, “Well, I got the sword upgraded and a few more herbs stored. That was a good run.”
The reason that this is a solution to grinding is that the game very slowly pushes you into letting go of all these safety measures. The game’s quasi-tutorial begins this process by offering 50 puzzles that each plop you in a room at level one, drops a few items, and then several lethal monsters. You’ll figure out how to dodge a horde of angry crab monsters with just a Knockback staff. You’ll learn how to use traps to kill enemies around you. Just the simple act of moving in a zigzag can mean life or death in certain situations. You’re doing all of this at level one with the bare minimum of gear. After you beat the main quest, the game features several dungeons that take away all your items when you start. You can still level up and stack the odds, but it doesn’t make that big of a difference. The final dungeon forces you to start from level one with no items and maneuver your way through the game’s most difficult monsters right from the start. Progressing through Shiren the Wanderer is the slow process of realizing that you can still beat the game without grinding or storing up items. You just learn when to spot the right moment and go for it.
In this way, Shiren the Wanderer is a distinctly moral game when contrasted with other titles. A traditional roguelike such as Nethack or the original Rogue never really indulges the player’s vanity. You’re going to keep losing until you master the system. A JRPG, with its heavy reliance on story and content, can excessively cater to the player by always letting them just grind away the challenge. One can be difficult to the point of driving people away, the other can be forgiving to the point of vapid. Shiren the Wanderer recognizes that both perspectives are valid. Not every death is a total loss thanks to the storehouse and sidequests. At the same time, you’re still going to lose if you don’t learn from your mistakes.
The first impulse that I had while playing was to try and beat the entire game in one pass. I failed. Then I tried to make the strongest sword and shield. That got me a bit farther but was still a failure. I started storing up herbs and magic scrolls. I died dozens of times while experimenting with different spells and items. I eventually had three separate storehouses filled with items to make the perfect trek up the mountain. And one day, while dropping off another jar full of herbs, I decided to try again. The funny thing was that when I finally made it to the top, I hardly used any of the items that I’d been saving. The moral of Shiren the Wanderer is one of the few that only a game can truly teach. The road to victory is paved with mistakes, losses, and lessons learned.