How ‘Nobody Saves the World’ Turns Grinding into Pure Joy

The core of the game is, in essence, a grind. But crucially, it's not one that wants to waste your time; it's about creativity.

Jan 26 2022, 2:00pm

Grinding, described by Wikipedia as “the act of performing repetitive tasks to achieve a desired outcome,” sounds grim. But grinding is also present in so many video games that we take it for granted. And because frequently the point of a game is to master a set of tasks over time, it becomes more important to understand the context that grind exists in.

In Nobody Saves the World, you’re exactly that: a nobody. The player is a nondescript white outline of a personthing who stumbles into a wand that allows them to transform into—well, a lot. In the handful of hours I’ve played so far, I can become a rat, horse, guard, ranger, slug, and mermaid. Each “form” is distinct, and frequently play much different from the last. There are many more forms and attacks for me to unlock, but the only way to do so is by completing form-specific quests, like using the archer to send an arrow through three enemies 50 times, or having the slug leave a trail of slime that slows down 30 bad guys.

The core of the game is, in essence, a grind.

“To me, the connotation of ‘grind’ is mostly negative,” said Nobody Saves the World lead designer Ian Campbell in a recent interview with Waypoint. “It makes me think of standing in one spot for hours farming mobs, or otherwise repeating the same actions and content for extended periods, waiting for a number increase or for something good to happen by chance. I’ve come to understand that this is pleasurable to some players, especially as a background activity—but that version of grind is what we expressly tried to avoid having.”

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How else to explain the continued popularity of clicker and idle games?

But one of the most consistent drums I’ve been beating about video games is that I find it tremendously annoying when they waste my time. A video game can be as long as it wants, but the moment I start checking out is when it becomes obvious it’s length without purpose. This is a stark contrast to a younger version of myself who could not play a JRPG that was long enough, and frequently stayed up late into the night grinding characters to max level.

(If I don’t draw 99 copies of every spell in Final Fantasy VIII, what’s the point of playing?)

“When creating our systems, we were focused purely on keeping players engaged and rewarding their time,” said Campbell. “It’s why you can’t simply kill monsters for XP [experience points], and have to complete mini-challenges (called ‘quests’) for XP instead.”

A screen shot from the video game 'Nobody Saves the World'

The quests in Nobody Saves the World get more complex over time. At first, players do, in fact, only have to kill “X” amount of enemies with a certain attack, but pretty quickly, the game requires new and often absurd circumstances for credit. The powerful guard form, the game’s version of a soldier, has an upgrade path that requires the player to have less than 40% health for the attacks to fill the quest meter. Over and over, the game asks the player to approach combat in new, unexpected, and often uncomfortable ways. If you want to watch The Meter Fill Up, you can’t just smack the attack button over and over. Creativity is key.

Campbell pointed to two examples of grinds that’d worked on him in the past. One was more obvious: the several Symphony of the Night-inspired Castlevania games released on the Nintendo DS, which added the allure of loot and upgrades to an already stellar action game. 

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“It adds a pleasant background hum to the already-fun act of killing monsters,” he said.

Less obvious was the infamous “genocide” run for the RPG Undertale, where players can unlock one of the game’s main endings by unepectedly killing everything in their path. 

“It’s definitely not a treadmill of any kind,” said Campbell, “but it’s absolutely an instance where I feel excited and rewarded by the idea of killing tons of monsters in a repetitive fashion. I really appreciate how it’s treated as a conscious choice on behalf of the player.”

“It [grinding] makes me think of standing in one spot for hours farming mobs, or otherwise repeating the same actions and content for extended periods, waiting for a number increase or for something good to happen by chance.”

Most of the time in Nobody Saves the World, the player only has to accomplish a unique task a couple dozen times to get their dopamine hit. Earlier in development, Campbell noted these quests could take much longer, potentially racking up progress over many hours. The thing was, this ran up against the team’s “anti-grinding” goal in a game about grinding, because it often meant that players were forced to grind in order to ultimately achieve it.

“We had a detailed system of tracking how long every quest took to complete, and we were constantly looking for outliers during playtesting,” said Campbell.

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In games with level up progression systems, ideally players are not spending a ton of time grinding, and instead are naturally becoming more powerful over time. But grind systems are open to manipulation, if players are patient enough. It’s why you’ll get people spending 500 hours leveling up characters in Final Fantasy VII before the first boss only because they can.

In Nobody Saves the World, attacking mobs of enemies can drop items but it does not level the player up. Only completing quests provide experience points that move the game along.

“For a long time we were very hands-off in this regard,” said Campbell. “and players could (if they wanted to) sit in the starting area and unlock every form and ability in the game. This only lasted until we had a few testers actually do it, though. On speaking to them after they finished the game, we realized we had essentially let them ruin the experience for themselves.”

The goal, then, became trying to use the alluring concepts of grinds, of watching meters go up, to encourage players into trying new things. Based on how much I, the person who doesn’t like games wasting my time, am enjoying Nobody Saves the World, I’d say it worked.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

JRPG, Nobody Saves the World

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