The Understated Joy of a Podcast Grind

There’s this bizarre notion that if a game isn’t capturing every single solitary iota of your attention at all times — it’s a failure. That somewhere along the way, the developers fucked up. Oh, you glanced at your phone for a tick in-between suplexes in No More Heroes? It must be too easy. Take a minute to fold clothes while crafting in Valheim? Clearly, it mustn’t be engaging! Have the absolute audacity to tab out between rounds in Overwatch? Well, what the shit, who does that?!

Everyone, that’s who.

So, why is this idea that games should swallow a player’s attention whole so prevalent? In all likelihood, it’s a game design philosophy that my blissfully-ignorant ass is oblivious to. Or maybe all the YouTube essayists putting out eight-hour-long commentaries about how bad weapon durability in Breath Of The Wild is have passively drilled it into our skulls, one overwrought critique at a time. Who knows, definitely not me! What I can tell you, however, is it’s kinda bullshit.

I say this while toiling-away at Brilliance, the bard relic weapon in Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV). Relic weapons are among the most powerful items in FFXIV, letting you dish-out mad damage and big healing numbers in endgame fights. Thing is, getting these suped-up battle axes, swords, and (in my case) bows means you’ll have to grind. And boy, is it ever a grind — one that will occupy my downtime for months to come. It’s a time sync for only the most devout (or bored) of players, those who never let their subscription lapse. 

First, there’s a long, tedious questline to get just the shell of a relic weapon. The sort that involves hearing every NPC’s life story before they hand over the Whatnots that plug into your MagicalThingers. “Shut up and hand over goods,” I mutter while alt-tabbing to play the latest podcast episode of Waypoint Radio. “I just want my god-damn WhateverTheFucks.” Then you gotta trudge all over the globe collecting 60 ‘memories’ — trinkets that seemingly only exist to arbitrarily stick inside relics. No big deal, I’ve got guides for days. Sure, it’ll still take several hours to gather up every misbegotten memory, but whatever. Not like I’ve got better things to do while a once-in-a-century global pandemic rages on outside. 

I whine about memory-collecting like it’s a drag, and yet, the next relic step takes ten times as long. And this one involves the Bozjan Front, a place where dreams go to die. Players have to run around a closed-off, pseudo-old-school MMORPG landscape rife with massive community events like ‘fates’ and ‘critical engagements’ to get more MagicalDoohickies for the relic. Dead World Content, as I like to call it, where 90 percent of the activities are totally mindless.

And yet, I kinda like it.

Grinding in RPGs has, in recent years, become an icky word. Synonymous with dullard, lifeless gameplay that just ups experience bars. Maybe that’s true, to a degree. Fate farming in FFXIV doesn’t grab you by the scruff of the neck like a duel with Father Gascoigne in Bloodborne. But hey, I had to farm blood vials for that fight too, so… very few games, especially RPGs, are totally free of monotony. 

But why would you want to be that engaged at all times? It’s straight-up antithetical to our modern-day world, where constant pings and vibrations from a phone cause us to drop everything at random intervals. I like working on my relic weapon because it’s relaxing. Meditative, even. A constant shower of damage numbers and gorgeous particle effects light up the screen as Austin Walker tells me about whatever is happening in the games industry this week. I can mentally cycle through whatever chores or side projects (like this blog) occupy the back of my mind on the weekend. It’s a reprieve from every task throughout the week that I must dedicate 100 percent of my attention to.

I get it. This kind of gameplay won’t stick with you like a final showdown with Ganondorf in Ocarina Of Time. No shit. But even the tightest, most brilliantly designed games of all time have these chill, tedious tasks in them. Does anyone think gathering all the materials and role-playing as a FedEx delivery man to get the Big Gordon Sword is as memorable as fighting Ganondorf? I certainly hope not.

In FFXIV’s case, I can even group-up with friends, and a menial task becomes an excuse to reach out, chew the fat, or share whatever is bothering us. Shit sucks now, and dedicating all of my attention to a video game is more challenging than ever. Frankly, I rarely do it nowadays. It’s easy to be swallowed up by despair lately if you let it. But sometimes, collecting magical WhatTheFucks is more than enough to keep the melancholy at bay.

So I’ll continue to alt-tab, listen to podcasts, and chill with friends while scouring Bozja for relic upgrades because comfort is one thing I am willing to focus on when it’s possible.