Save Point: Galaxy Force II

I was going to write, this month, about grinding: the slow, repetitive process of leveling up and earning money in games. I was going to focus in particular on Final Fantasy VII and Legend of Legaia, two games my dad and I played when I was young.

To get where I want to go, I need to dwell on these a little. So consider this a grind if you want.

My parents divorced when I was five. I split my time between their places, eventually spending weekdays at my mom’s and weekends at my dad’s from about grade 5 through high school. On those weekends, Dad and I would play video games—mostly RPGs. To be honest, a lot of the time, he played and I watched. I was a timid kid, afraid of making a wrong turn in a dungeon or, God forbid, killing the characters in battle. I still get a knot in my stomach when I remember the time Dad left the room for ten minutes, handing off the Final Fantasy V party to me, and I somehow let everyone die. Not even in a boss fight—I put on some HP-draining armor or something and like that, they all KO’d. My palms grew clammy, my heart raced, and I had to stammer, eyes on the rug, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I killed them.” Dad wasn’t mad. These kinds of things just freaked me out. So, better to let him drive.

When we were together, we’d advance the games, him flopped on a bright yellow beanbag chair and me curled on our clashing antique sofa, wrapped in a plaid blanket, our calico cat perched on my lap. We spent hours like this, eating pancakes, drinking Mountain Dew. Him guiding hero after hero through quest after quest, scrolling through dialogue, and me urging like a backseat driver, “Heal them! You never heal them!” “You can’t win if you don’t attack,” Dad would say. And usually, he’d be right. This was my anxious-kid introduction to video games. It all felt very high-stakes.

When we weren’t together—when Dad had the rental house to himself for the week—he’d grind. He didn’t want to advance the story without me. So he’d grind and grind to the envy of my gamer friends. I’d come over on a Saturday and the party would be ten, sometimes fifteen levels higher than when I’d left on Monday. In my absence, he’d run in circles on world maps and grind.

When I watched him in dungeons that actually progressed the storyline, and when, even there, the same programmed monsters popped over and over again, Dad had a saying for that too. Borrowed from Han Solo, muttered under his breath: “Didn’t we just leave this party?” The monsters would pop up in identical formation for as long as the dungeon lasted. Two bear-looking things, say, and a serpent-like creature. Bears on the left, snake on the right. Their pixelated spells and attacks predictable. Our tactics for defeating them equally preset. The random encounters held some variation—maybe the bears would show up alone, or a bird-like thing would appear in the mix—but each dungeon only held so many species, so indeed, the party approaching very much resembled the party just left. Still, I watched with an attentiveness that would be almost impossible now, given the phones ever-ready at our fingertips. I watched every battle, each repetitive battle, mentally engaged if not steering the action. I wanted to provide that moral support: We were in the dungeon together.

And at the ends of the dungeons came the rewards: a boss fight, a plot twist, a treasure chest of rare items. Something that made all the common fights worth it, a light at the end of the hour-long tunnel. I’d sit up on the couch, take a bite of pancake. We’d watch the story move on, feeling gratified. Knowing how much pleasure this brought made it all the more dispiriting to think about my dad sitting there, grinding, murmuring to himself, “Didn’t we just leave this party?” during the five-day workweek. There is so little freshness in a grind.

Recently I was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a sort of repetitive stress injury. Since I type a lot for work, and since that’s one motion that can aggravate the nerves in my damaged shoulder, one friend suggested a software that fills in frequently-typed phrases for users based on shortcuts they program. Thinking about this was a comfort. It also made me realize how many times I will need to type certain phrases over the course of a week, a career, or a lifetime. Small, recurring actions: we call this “the grind.” “Back to the daily grind,” we say. And we hope it adds up, accumulates to something, instead of just wearing us down.

I was going to write about how, when formulating ideas about grinding last month, two specific monsters came to mind. One from FFVII, long-limbed and green. One from Legaia, a Xenomorph-style creature with an abdomen like an insect that shoots shining beams. How these stand out in my memory because Dad impressed upon me how many he had to defeat to get where he wanted to go, to unlock what needed unlocking. In FFVII, it was money he was after—the green things paid more than anything else in the area where he spent the week voluntarily quarantined. In Legaia, it was a spell—if your heroes defeated certain enemies, they could acquire special powers. But to do this, they had to defeat those enemies again and again and again. Whether it’s based on luck or sheer numbers, I don’t know. But I remember Dad telling me he wandered the dungeon for hours defeating that thing. To look up their names, I turned to Google. I remembered the Legaia one vaguely—Alura? Alulu? Something like that?—and so quickly found it: Aluru. As for the FFVII one, I had no idea, and thus found myself scrolling through a gallery of every monster from the game, searching for its likeness. Clicking images to enlarge them, racking my brain, then scrolling: a small, repetitive motion, a grind. I finally found it: Head Hunter. He must have killed hundreds of those.

My dad worked in a restaurant, an arena that, based on my own work in such settings, can be saturated with repetitive actions. Maybe no job is immune to this, no life. We all have our routines. The small ways that we grind. That’s what this was going to be about—the questions, “Does it add up?” and “If so, to what?” Because despite its repetitiveness, grinding does add up, at least in games—to levels, to earnings, to new skills. This was going to be about finding meaning in the daily, the unglamorous, the Everything-But-The-Boss-Fight/Plot-Twist. Because life asks for so much of this.

But in fact, ending on the image of my father’s beanbag chair grind sessions mirroring his five-day workweek—how both supported me as a child, made life easier for me, and how unwitting I was to how cyclical his days must have felt, even as it dawned on me slowly throughout high school—isn’t what I want to do. We all have our grinds, true: some that increase our skills, some that weaken our joints. (Some, perhaps, that do both.) But maybe our grinds aren’t what define us, but how we break from them.

My childhood consisted of a lot more than sitting on the couch with the blanket and the cat, happy as those memories are. Since this is about video games, I’ll focus on a video game. But there were parks and oceans and all kinds of other things. Though life demands grinds, we get to punctuate them with our own stories and plot twists.

On the weekends, we would also go to the arcade. This was the site of a major plot twist: the two of us learning to bond. When I was very young, my dad and I didn’t know how to relate to each other. I think we were both a little scared of each other. We didn’t know how to laugh. It wasn’t until Sailor Moon hit airwaves in English that something clicked. He had raised me on Starblazers dubs recorded during his college days. Here was an anime I could call my own. He smiled. I smiled. A bridge.

And what did the Sailor Scouts love to do more than anything on their weekends (away from school and their own repeating monsters)? Go to the arcade. So, what did I want to do more than anything on the weekend? Indeed: go to the arcade. Dad smiled. I smiled. At ski ball. At go-karts. But most of all, at Galaxy Force II.

Designed as a cockpit that rotated with your steering, Galaxy Force II was unlike anything I’d played before, or since. In contrast to games I see now in arcades, where you sit on a bench and swivel a cannon but remain essentially fixed in place, Galaxy Force II required you to strap in, positioning you at the center of a gyroscope that could spin nearly upside-down. With every jolt of the wheel that controlled the spaceship-avatar, the machine spun players this way and that. My 10-year-old hair loosened from its elastic tie and scattered all over the place. It was, in a word, engrossing.

Dad would press quarters into my outstretched palm as we barrel-rolled through lava spurts and enemy fire. I say “we” because Dad would watch from the sidelines, shouting encouragement. Backseat driving. That moral support: we were in space together. And when I’d climb out, hair like a rat’s nest, we’d smile. In fact, we’d laugh.

As children, we are somewhat exempt from grinds. Every year brings a new grade, new teachers, new subjects. Looking back, as I rub my own shoulder, I know my dad must have had repetitive days. Days where he muttered, “Swear I just left this party.” However, he found ways to leaven those stretches, never letting them deplete more than they provided. Never letting them feel wearying without also bringing meaning, without adding up to something wanted. We made our own plot twists amidst the day-to-day. Wandered these terrains together.