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What's better: programmable party members, or optional grinding?

Vote now as we continue deciding the single best thing in games

Morrigan the witch in Dragon Age: Origins, casting flaming hands and shooting a load of fire at an enemy mage
Image credit: BioWare

Last time, you narrowly decided—52% against 48%—that giant swords are better than calling found phone numbers. I might often agree with you, but today I find myself a little salty. Think of the immersive sims, reader dear! But fine, let's mark the result down and move on. This week, it's a choice between cleverness and emptyheadedness. What's better: programmable party members, or optional grinding?

Programmable party members

Mastering chokepoints, positioning, and synergies is a fun enough combat puzzle in the Dragon Age games, but what gave me the most satisfaction was mastering Tactics. Tactics lets you program the behaviour of your party members, giving them a flowchart of "if X, then do Y" conditions and reactions. Pop these buffs at the start of combat, cast this spell or pull out a knife if an enemy gets close, heal friends when they get low... you can get pretty intricate, laying out a long line of instructions covering most likely scenarios.

I cannot overstate the satisfaction of party members doing what I want, when I want, how I want. In many RPGs, it's beyond frustrating to have a particular build in mine for a party member but if you're not directly ordering them about, the game might do baffling things. How wonderful to make it understand the weird blood mage build I spent ages perfecting for my elven gal pal, Merrill.

Programming this behaviour is a fun puzzle in itself, at least as someone with little capacity for logic. I enjoyed the trial-and-error as I would think I had something nailed, only to watch my wizards behave in the daftest way because I made a daft mistake. Scripting is rarely life-or-death but I did enjoy bungling through fight after fight, having made adjusments between each then discovering mid-fight that I need to wrestle back control to save my wizards from my wonky orders.

I understand Final Fantasy XII has a similar system, there named Gambits. Surely more RPGs do this (and other genres?), but this is not particularly my genre so go on, reader dear, tell us more.

Optional grinding

This is a dangerous path. This is a slippery slope. Evil lies this way. This feeling has been corrupted into monstrous game design and exploitative monetisation. But: I quite like it when a game lets me mindlessly grind away at something for marginal gains. Turn my brain off, pop on a podcast, and just watch colours move as some number or other goes up a bit.

Maybe I'll grind enough XP on minor fights to juuust reach the next level before I save and stop playing. Maybe I'll grind out farming herbs to craft some potions that I know I will save forever, just in case, and never use. Maybe it's grinding a gold to get a marginally better weapon. Maybe I'm farming gems for a slightly better bonus. If I'm not required to do it, and I can do it pretty easily, ah go on, sure, thanks.

This minor satisfaction has led to many loathsome games. Many games learned entirely the wrong lessons from this simple pleasure and thought tedious, loathsome, boring, worthless, hateful grind is what really creates #engagement. Many twisted it to wring players' wallets with boosters and resources and reagents to skip grind. It feels risky to celebrate any grind. But also, I'm an idiot, and I sometimes I do like when there are colours and a number goes up while I listen to Bonanas For Bonanza.

But which is better?

This is a rare win for my cleverness over my idiocy here, and I must pick programmable party members. But what do you think?

Pick your winner, vote in the poll below, and make your case in the comments to convince others. We'll reconvene next week to see which thing stands triumphant—and continue the great contest.

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