Living for the Short Term Grind

Katarina from League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009)

League of Legends contains all of the basic elements of role playing, combat with foes both great and small, developing a character's skill sets on your own terms, and generating enough loot to make yourself a god, just served up really, really, really quickly.

Y'know, I was terribly amused by the parody of the long term grind (that which is necessitated by the turn-based role playing game genre in general) in Half-Minute Hero. Half-Minute Hero more or less does what it suggests by boiling the time consuming “play” of that genre into the shortest character development of a role playing hero possible.

Gone, in that game, is the necessity for spending hours just killing, killing, killing in order to get strong enough to advance the plot by beating the next big boss in a dungeon. Indeed, while I whiled away many an hour playing JRPGs as a kid and as a teenager, these were not games that required much skill or even intellectual acumen. Winning a battle required pressing a button in a menu to “Attack” and then healing once in awhile if a member of your party was in the danger zone in terms of their hit points. All the “skill” required by a boatload of turn-based RPGs is simply just persistence (and that's really a character trait, not a skill, right?).

This is partly why I tend to avoid turn-based RPGs these days -- as my own “persistence” has evolved into simple “impatience” as I have aged alongside the genre.

Which is why League of Legends is so very tantalizing and so very compelling when played in short RPG-lite bursts.

In a sense, just what Half-Minute Hero created as a joke on the system (the idea that combat in an RPG could be abbreivated to only seconds-long fights and that leveling up requires only a few seconds more) is really the quite serious mechanism of the League of Legends system.

While I have heard a number of folks refer to League of Legends matches as rather long because they require a commitment to the whole “take on the role of a warrior, slay some minions, break down your opponents' defenses, destroy their central nexus” formula (in other words, more or less, the Defense of the Ancients formula), nevertheless, the idea of leveling a character from level 1 to level 18 (probably -- unless you have an especially efficient team, which might mean ending the game around level 14 or 15) within a 20 to 40 minute time span is rather amazing to this old school turn-based RPG (and for that matter even action RPG -- say, Diablo) player.

What games like League of Legends recognize is that one of the central lures of role playing games is character development via the leveling system. Ding, level up, choose where to allocate a new skill, ding, repeat. That's it. Becoming more powerful this quickly is instant gratification “grinding,” not persistent slogging through a character's long term “development.”.

And in that sense, League of Legends isn't exactly a role playing game (or even an action role playing game) in the proper sense of the term. There is no grand narrative here: no princess to save, no dragon to slay, no evil wizard to destroy, no world to save. It is just five champions pitted against one another, ducking and dodging behind a sea of minions, looking for the “in” to to destroy the other team's power base.

However, what goals there are are merely met in the same way that goals for character improvement are met: in the shortest term possible. All the goals in League are short term in nature: take the next enemy turret, slay the champion in front of you right now, or maybe destroy an inhibitor “late” (“late being defined as “a few minutes from now”) game. Likewise, all accomplishments are of the same “fast food service” variety. Gain a level, choose a skill, keep fighting. Gain some gold, teleport home, buy something really cool, get back to killing. These are all elements of role playing, combat with foes both great and small, developing a character's skill sets on your own terms, and generating enough loot to make yourself a god, just served up really, really, really quickly.

I don't know if I should be concerned that we no longer have the patience to recognize that work and a little persistence is required to earn that “feeling of accomplishment” (which I suppose is the only real takeaway that one can have spending hours and hours getting to level 10 in the NES version of Dragon Warrior) or if I should merely be happy to be able to feel gratified so quickly that all my mad skills at grinding can be rewarded so handsomely in few fleeting minutes.

Yeah, after briefly pondering that large question, I think that I'll go ahead and take the drive thru version of role playing, please. At least in the short term.


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