header is screenshot from Anthem
Once More Unto the Tyrant Mine, Dear Friends
Ethan Gach

I used to grind my teeth at night. It’s not clear when I started or when I eventually stopped, but the residue of those nights still marks my bones. Smoothed molars, filed down incisors, and a slightly uneven jaw that now occasionally buckles when the musculature attached to it exerts force at awkward angles. The cartilage crunches when this happens. Even though the anxiety which initially caused the grinding has dissipated, the act of grinding itself still continues, subtracting from me in small but violent bursts of entropy until maybe, eventually, the inevitable arthritis gets so bad it grinds things to a halt.

My life is full of other grinds. I lather my body in the shower to grind away the dirt, I rub steel wool against the pots to clean them after each meal. I grind out sequences of words to pay the bills and keep all the other grinds going. The grind has increasingly infected the games I play, both because publishers have discovered it to be conducive to monetization and having been progressively acclimated to it over the years it’s now become a central force propelling people through many modern blockbusters. I grind in BioWare’s new loot shooter Anthem not because I want to but because the game is intent on wanting me to want to. Most macabre/warped of all I continue to grind Anthem despite not even liking it.

In the context of a videogame, grinding implies an upwards trajectory, or an additive process. Completing activities fills up meters. We gain experience points and level up, unlock new abilities and collect new and better gear. Scaling to new heights in this manner should be exhilarating, but it often is not, hence why we call it grinding.

Reaching for each new point on the climb should require stretching, followed by growth as latent potential is transformed into material progress. But in Anthem the process squeezes, crunches, chafes. The cycle of completing the same missions over and over again is not an expressive one, or punctuated by moments of creativity. Some games mask this attrition better than others. In Dark Souls, the march of deaths and do-overs surrounding each new boss is accompanied by the slow accrual of stat-boosting “souls” alongside new knowledge about the world, internalized by observing (and ending) the unique lives of its creatures. In Anthem most of this is glossed over in the style of an indiscriminate fire bombing campaign. The fact that there are only six missions—three strongholds and three legendary contracts—to repeat by the end of the game makes Anthem’s grind feel especially toilsome.

You play as a freelancer, channeling the phrase as it was originally deployed in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a warrior free of loyalties to lord or country, bound only by individual contracts and the financial remuneration they promise. Anthem does not give you a name or let you choose one. Friends and foes alike call you “freelancer.” You are not a person, only a labor relation. The game tries to add layers to this purgatorius existence by dividing it across repeatable missions of increasingly challenging difficulties, joylessly titled Grandmaster 1, Grandmaster 2, and Grandmaster 3 respectively. The harder the difficulty the more generous Anthem is with its rewards, the most coveted of which are Legendary items—exceedingly rare guns and Javelin components which have the highest power and best randomized stat bonuses.

They materialize inside chests and from the corporses of your enemies as golden octahedrons and are so rare players often imagine seeing them where none actually exist, the result of the sun light playing tricks on them as it passes through crystals of other, lesser hues. I have played over 100 hours of Anthem and still never found one.

But the best place to hunt for them is in Tyrant Mine, the first stronghold mission Anthem presents to the player and the only one worth bothering with. Scars, the game’s race of insectoid scavengers, are using scorpion venom to make weapons and need to be stopped. Doing so requires collecting glowing orbs to silence relics, collecting glowing rocks to fix other relics, and killing every Scar you see along the way. Eventually, after swimming through underwater tunnels and flying through mine-infested caverns, you arrive at the Swarm Tyrant, the queen whose eggs the Scar have been harvesting.

“Woah,” reads the first comment on the Swarm Tyrant’s anemic wiki page, to which a second person responded, apparently hoping to further impress the first, “It has 5 or more bars of health.” On Grandmaster 1 she takes a couple minutes to kill. On Grandmaster 2 and 3, somewhat longer. She has many bars of health. Players gravitate to Tyrant Mine in part because the queen’s straightforward to take down, with three giant egg sacks which double as weak points. Nailing precision shots against her is like pouring water into a barrel. There’s little tension over whether you will defeat her. Insead, the suspense comes from whether you’ll be rewarded for it.

Almost once a night for four weeks now, I’ve gone down into Tyrant Mine searching for Legendaries. Collecting them means getting more powerful which means being able to get through the mine more quickly and potentially earning them even faster. I grind Tyrant Mine to get stronger, to make my Javelin cooler, to master the game’s most grueling challenges. But of course that formulation of the relationship presumes the game is the thing being acted upon while I remain untouched.

In reality the game is static, its code fixed. The only malleable parts are provided by me. The skin on my fingers that rubs off and is replaced by callouses as they glide back and forth across the face of the Dualshock 4. The corners of my imagination are sanded down in order to stay more focused on the rudimentary tasks at hand: prime, detonate, hover, prime, melee, unload clip, reload clip, dash behind cover, dash back out of cover, repeat, repeat. I’m being polished into a nice round ball that can roll effortlessly through the mission, my extraneous thoughts pulverized into a fine powder until the toil of Tyrant Mine no longer weighs on my soul but instead eases it to sleep so the body can continue its work unquestioned.

Anthem, like most number driven role-playing games, has perfect builds. They are it’s natural end point, the point at which the logic of optimization can unfurl itself across the Tyrant Mine with succinct elegance, making it the easiest possible, and in losing all its friction be finally retired, it’s ore mined dry.

Most will never reach this end point. The most devoted freelancers have already calculated that some of the game’s most straightforward achievements could take hundreds of additional hours to satisfy, while those who have already run Tyrant Mine a hundred times show no signs of feeling fulfilled. And the ones who have exhausted the Mine, what is their core complaint? That there are no more reasons to keep running it, at least until BioWare drops it’s next batch of DLC.

Perfect frictionlessness is the end goal of any loot game. But rather than feeling like an epiphany, it has more in common with heat death. Instead of reaching a moment of perfection, the player hastens their own obsolescence, the powerful tools they’ve acquired to increase their own efficacy ultimately making their own contributions the least valuable of all. The more they grind through the game, the more the game grinds them down, and the less the game needs them to keep that grind going. The randomized nature of Anthem‘s best loot means that even once this point has been reached there will always be something slightly better to collect, and every time it still won’t be enough. The pangs of disappointment will persist, long after Anthem‘s most difficult tasks have become mind-numbingly effortless.

Ethan Gach is a staff writer at Kotaku. Follow him on Twitter.