The Zen of Video Games – Run For The Border

It seems like everywhere I turn lately all I hear about is Borderlands, and I must say, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Canada is a lovely country, and the people are polite and clean, though I don’t really get what that whole “eh” thing is about.

Oh, Borderlands, the video game! I’m such an idiot sometimes. And by “sometimes” I mean “all the time.” And by “idiot” I mean “ravishing sex god.”

That’s the thing about Borderlands, the title doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The game takes place on a planet called Pandora, which doesn’t seem to border anything significant, and the areas in the game don’t seem to take place near or at a border of any sort, really. They could’ve just called the game “Lands”, and it would’ve made more sense. At least I wouldn’t be expecting a border crossing that would never come.

Having said that, the game was a thoroughly enjoyable shooter/RPG, peppered with colorful characters, fun co-op gameplay, great writing, and a wicked sense of humor. But there was something mindless about it all that never sat perfectly right with me. It’s hard for me to play that game for more than an hour or two, because I find myself bored and tired of the same old thing time and again. Go here, shoot these guys, how many? A completely arbitrary number of them. Now go here, shoot these specific guys. Now go here, press this button. Get this loot. See if it’s better than what you have. Repeat until your eyes swivel around in your skull.

I liked the game, mind you, and it was probably my favorite game of 2009, but ever since I beat it once, I can’t quite get into it anymore. Once I’d seen all the story and humor, all that was left was the interminable slog of an MMO, grinding quests to get more and more loot, working for hours just to get one more skill point that barely made you stronger, and nothing whatsoever to break up the tedium.

They couldn’t implement puzzles of some sort? They could’ve even worked it into a co-op mechanic where one player would be trying to solve the puzzle, and the others would have to guard him from an enemy rush, since getting hit would set him back a ways in solving the puzzle. Something like this could work like a charm in Left 4 Dead as well. Just something to keep up the mental stimulation, that’s all I’m asking.

So while gamers the world over worked themselves into a frenzy over Borderlands 2, even though I pre-ordered it on Steam, and it waits at this very moment for me to go home from work and pick up the controller and play it, I’m still just kind of “meh”. And this depresses me.

I have never been much for the MMO-style of grindy gameplay. The best I can claim is that I made it to level 60 or so in World of Warcraft after about three weeks of play, but shortly after I bought a flying mount, I pretty much lost all interest in playing further. “But there’s better gear you can loot, and bigger enemies you can kill,” the game seemed to say, and I replied, “Well, if I’m hearing the game talk to me, it’s definitely time to quit.”

I remember having a much higher tolerance for this sort of thing when I was younger. I remember grinding levels like crazy in some of the JRPG’s of yesteryear. I remember spending hours breaking the leveling system in Final Fantasy II in Final Fantasy Origins on the Playstation, slapping my own teammates, healing them, casting spells on them, keeping one enemy alive who must’ve been as confused as a dog whose owner’s been cloned, sitting there and occasionally trying to attack while my party persistently ignores him.

I remember hours upon hours drawing spells from enemies in Final Fantasy VIII, just so I could have a hundred of them. I remember seeking out every enemy I could find in Chrono Trigger and defeating them, not because I needed to, but because I wanted to. I remember being forced to spend hours leveling up in Star Ocean 2, thanks to the difficulty curve halfway through the game suddenly jumping like a spider crawled up its ass.

Where has my patience gone? Is it a sign of my age? I mean, I’m only 32, but that’s old enough to have a full-time job, short-and-long-term financial responsibilities, and a joke of a social life, and not having enough time to do everything I want to is a much bigger problem than it used to be. But in all honesty, I really don’t think that’s really it.

In all of my examples above, the only one in which I was tempted to stop playing was Star Ocean 2. And I think the key word in that example was “forced.” I literally had NO choice but to grind, as the enemies ahead were too difficult to face at my level. I was grinding on the game’s terms – not my own. Final Fantasy II, VIII, Chrono Trigger, none of those grinds were strictly necessary, I was grinding because I wanted to. Because I wanted to be stronger than I needed to be.

And World of Warcraft was the same way, saying that WoW is kind of grindy is like saying the Pope is kind of religious, or that I’m just kind of awesome. The game is practically BUILT on grinding, so again, the grind is necessary and not a choice.

And Borderlands suffered through the same problems on repeat plays. My first time playing, I gave it a pass for three reasons. First, first-person shooter gameplay will ALWAYS be more immersive than pointing and clicking on things, secondly, most of the time, the quests you got would involve exploring new places, and third, the Skinner box was working me over like the loot-loving whore that I am. But on repeat playthroughs, the gunplay wasn’t as fun, the exploration aspect was gone, and I’d settled into a looting routine, where the only loot that could even get my attention was orange or a unique that I hadn’t seen before.

And I worry that Borderlands 2 will still have these problems, because some people won’t see them as problems. Some people can apparently grind themselves down into a fine powder, and they’ll still tell everyone the game is incredible. I just hope that if repeat playthroughs of the game turn out to be a grind, Borderlands 2 will give me reason to WANT to grind, on my terms.

But in the end, I guess I can have faith that even if the game doesn’t have the kind of replay value I’d like, at least the first time through will be a good time. Gearbox has earned that much from me, at least, and I’m positive the environments will be fun to explore, the enemies fun and challenging to battle, and the dialogue and writing hilarious.

And a game being fun at least once is still far better than a game that’s never fun at all.