Article by Jeremy Parish | March 25, 2010
Dragon Quest V
Developer: Armor Project/Arte Piazza
The first five minutes of Up, Pixar's charming summer film for 2009, are the most emotionally harrowing moments ever rendered for a CG cartoon. In less time than it takes to stand in line for a latte on a weekday morning, Up presents the whole of a lifelong love: The first encounter between a shy, gawky, dreamy-eyed kid named Carl and a spunky tomboy named Ellie; their courtship; their marriage; their failed attempts to start a family; their struggles to realize their dreams while making ends meet; and eventually their growing old together. Beyond that first encounter, their story plays out in a compressed, dialogue-free tableau -- life in pantomime -- so that when Ellie finally succumbs to old age, Carl's grief is fresh to the viewer, and vividly clear.
In the hands of less capable creators, the whole sequence probably would have come off clumsily, or tritely, or needlessly mawkish. Under Pixar's expert guidance, it's powerful, and it efficiently sets the stage for the rest of the movie (which mercifully pulls its emotional punches, comparatively speaking). It's an amazing narrative trick, the way Up makes its audience grieve with a man they barely know. It's not precisely exclusive to the medium of film, though. Just a few months before Up debuted, Square Enix accomplished precisely the same thing -- and with a DS RPG, of all things: Dragon Quest V.
Actually, Dragon Quest V predates Up by a good decade and a half, but in some respects it may as well be a 2009 creation; not only had it never been published (officially) in English prior to last year, its simple, emotional story still remains almost completely unique within the medium. Those opening minutes of Up are nothing that can't be matched by videogames, but the problem is that no one's really trying -- or, alternately, they're all trying too hard. DQV is a real rarity in that it strikes a perfect balance in terms of tone and content, elegantly integrating its tale of a young man's life experiences into what is, by all appearances, a typical turn-based RPG.
In many ways, DQV's seeming mundanity adds to the impact of its narrative. At first glance, it's simply another Dragon Quest game: A turn-based role-playing game with the same set of skills, the same set of enemies, and the same set of equipment as every other entry in the series. At the time of its original debut, its most unique feature was its emphasis on its monstrous allies, something that wouldn't become widely popular until Pokémon hit Japan several years later. And while the ability to team up with the whole of the Dragon Quest bestiary is certainly an appealing feature, it's more a nod to fans of the franchise than the sort of thing that would draw in the disinterested. It adds to the substance of the game rather than reinventing it whole-cloth.
As a result, those who experience DQV fresh -- which I'm sorry to say you won't be able to do for yourself if you continue reading this article, so if you've somehow missed the game over the past year, I recommend you skip ahead a few pages until you've tracked down and played a copy of 2009's (and 1992's) finest RPG -- are invariably caught off-guard by how its predictable, understated format hides some of the most powerful storytelling ever to grace this budding young medium. Generally speaking, DQV isn't really any different than any other game in the series. The combat's the same, the overarching plot is the same, and the narrative structure is the same. The hero never says a word, being a cipher for the player; instead, it's the hero's companions and the other people he meets who define both the shape of the world and of the protagonist's personality.
Or perhaps more accurately, the protagonist is the brush with which the creators depicted both a world and a story; he's less an avatar for the player than he is the fulcrum around which a powerful tale spins. His laconic nature gave the game's creators, Yuji Horii and Chun Soft, the freedom to employ the same narrative techniques seen years later in Up -- and, arguably, in a far more affecting manner. At several points in the game, the player watches helplessly as the hero is subjected to abject tragedy. Each time, your heart bleeds for this tiny, speechless figure. Where Up employs its heartrending tableau as an introduction to establish the premise of the film, DQV's emotional gut-punches are woven throughout the fabric of the story, often where you least expect them. In order to save the world, the game's hero must witness his father's sacrificial death, spend a decade in prison, fail to fulfill his apparent destiny, be turned to living stone on the eve of his children's birth, and serve as witness to the life he's denied.
After spending so many hour traveling with this man -- sharing his battles, partaking of his life's work, and watching his relationships bloom -- these brief montages are absolutely devastating.
Granted, they're not entirely wordless, unlike that sequence from Up. Only the hero himself is mute, and even then his silence is strictly a conceit to enhance the sense of player agency. Everyone else in the world is perfectly chatty, and it's clear you simply don't see the hero's side of the dialogue. Conversation is literally everywhere. DQV's ace in the hole is a feature called Party Talk, which allows players to receive feedback from everyone in the active party at the press of a button. Each character has unique dialogue for nearly every single room in every single town or dungeon of the game. This doesn't seem so impressive in the early going, when the hero rarely has even a single human companion, and his monstrous allies have little more to say than, "Gloop," but by the end of the game it's an invaluable asset. It helps nudge players toward the path to progress when they get sidetracked, which is nice, but more importantly it paints a lively image of the hero's companions -- and of the hero himself, given that so much of what the party members have to say is a reflection of their leader's actions.
Furthermore, the tale that Party Talk fleshes out is only conventional on the surface. True, you're out to gather a party and find the legendary weapons that will allow you to put an end to an ancient, rising evil that threatens the world, but the details of this bigger picture are what define it and set it apart from other RPGs. DQV is very much the saga of a single man, beginning with his childhood. The game's most powerful scenes owe much of their impact to the fact that they're pivotal moments of a life that DQV explicates in full from the moment of birth.
As a boy, the game's unnamed hero spends his time wandering from town to town in the care of his father, Papas, as Papas embarks on some mysterious business. Adventuring is clearly a family trait, as the hero gets into a fair amount of mischief even as a child, wandering into a haunted house with his friend Bianca. Still, the hero is just a boy at this point, and on the rare occasion he travels with Papas, the player has no control over his course and rarely even lands a killing blow against foes -- he's just a child tagging along behind his father, after all.
Slowly, though, the hero begins to come into his own as a young adventurer and soon finds himself in well over his head as he tries to protect an obnoxious prince, Harry, from a mob of kidnappers. Papas swoops in for the rescue, naturally. Yet Papas doesn't save the day, and the hero watches, stricken, as his father is murdered. Rather than make a clean escape, both he and the prince end up captured.
And you're startled, because this isn't how videogames work. The rules of adventure yarns are rigid and reliable: Nothing truly bad ever happens to children, and tough scrapes in the early portions of the story always end in hairsbreadth escapes. Yet here ten years pass in an instant, and it's immediately clear that they haven't made for a very nice decade. Both the hero and Harry have been forced into a life of brutal labor, enslaved by the creatures who killed Papas. Though the boys -- now young men -- eventually escape, this turn of events has changed the nature of the game's quest. Prince Harry (now thoughtful and mature, a far cry from the spoiled brat whose childishness led to the dark events of ten years ago) has an obvious home to return to, the hero has been left with nothing. Without his father, he has no family, no home, and no idea what it was his father was so determined to accomplish in the first place. The game takes on its true shape here as the hero sets out to learn more about Papas and, eventually, to take up his father's cause: To find the legendary Hero who can save the world from a rising evil.
Of course, the litmus test for legendary heroes in this particular Dragon Quest trilogy is the Zenithia equipment, which was used countless years before to defeat Psaro and restore balance to evolution. And, in time, the hero at last locates the first piece of gear his father sought for so long, the Zenithia Sword. You can't help but feel a sense of satisfaction as the hero discovers the sword, fulfilling his father's life work. Taking the sword in hand, he accepts his destiny....
...and you realize that the hero isn't the Hero. His destiny is to find the Zenithia gear, but not to wield it; the ability literally isn't in his blood. DQV casts you not as the champion of Good, but rather as his herald -- John the Baptist to the Hero's Christ, as it were.
It's worth noting here that this plot twist is a brilliant but logical evolution for the series. The first five Dragon Quest games were all developed by Chun Soft, and each one was, in essence, a reaction to its predecessor. Dragon Quest III placed gamers in the role of the legendary Hero spoken about with such reverence in the first two games. Dragon Quest IV featured a new Hero, but spent half of its running time defining her companion characters, who in previous games had been little more than combat assistants. Then, finally, Dragon Quest V takes the player out of the Hero's shoes altogether, offering an outsider's perspective on destiny. Metal Gear Solid 2's Raiden would do the same thing a decade later, but with more angst; here, the hero-not-Hero simply accepts his unworthiness and sets off to find the rest of the Zenithia equipment, along with the warrior who actually is capable of wielding it properly.
In time, the hero learns a great deal about himself and, prompted in part by Harry's transformation into a family man, decides to take a bride. The game's abstract simplicity comes into play here, because it's never clearly stated how much time passes between the escape and the wedding; clearly, though, the main quest happens over the span of years. This in turn lends further gravity to the hero's desire to settle down, because he's spent those years wandering the wastes with a host of babbling creatures as his only companions. And even though fate somewhat forces his hand into getting married, you get the impression that he welcomes marriage: The first true stability he's known since Papas' death.
Nevertheless, even this doesn't come easily, as he's ultimately forced to choose between Bianca, an old friend who offers a precious link to his life before slavery, and Nera, a refined woman he barely knows but whose dowry is a piece of the Zenithia equipment -- his life's work. The latter is presumably the "correct" choice, DQV being a Japanese game and all: Nera trained to be a demure, dutiful wife, whereas Bianca speaks roughly and has a definite tomboyish streak. Bianca, however, feels like the right choice. (The DS remake offers a third choice, which is pretty clearly the wrong choice by any standard: Deborah, Nera's self-centered older sister. Her personality is so rotten that you're compelled to play through with her in an alternate file just to laugh at her horribly inappropriate Party Talk dialogue.)
Whatever the player's choice, the outcome is ultimately the same. The hero acquires the legendary armor regardless, and his wife (whoever she ends up being) is ultimately revealed to be a descendent of Zenithia. The mingling of her bloodline with the hero's own unusual heritage brings his quest to its conclusion, as their son turns out to be the Hero capable of wielding the holy weapons and sealing the demon king.
Yet there's one last heartbreak in store: Shortly after the hero and his wife become parents, a disturbance provokes the couple to venture into a nearby cave, where they encounter more minions of the demon lord and are transformed into living stone. Scattered to the corners of the earth and treated as mere statuary, they're separated, and the hero is trapped (perhaps forever) in someone's yard. The march of time is depicted with the turn of seasons, and by the growth of the child who lives at the home whose yard has become the hero's unfortunate home. The boy's first words and first steps are devastating reminders of the fact that the hero is being cheated of the opportunity to experience his own twins' development. When his children at last find him and break the spell, they're already precocious youths, like the hero at the game's beginning. And their delight at finding their father at long last is muted by the mystery of their mothers' whereabouts; much of the game's subsequent Party Talk consists of the children wistfully imagining what she's like... and, once she's found, how she's even more wonderful than they'd ever dreamed.
It's curious, the way these videogame elements all work together to create such a moving story. The key, I think, is in DQV's restraint; it eschews flashy cutscenes and showy melodrama in favor of letting the player read between the lines. It doesn't hit the player over the head with the need to save the world; in fact, for much of the game, you don't know that's even your ultimate objective. All you know is that the hero's father died for a reason, and you desperately want to discover what it was that was so important that he'd devote (and sacrifice) his life in its service. The gravity of your matrimonial selection is left to inference, as is the subtext of the game's most powerful scene as the hero stands through the years as mute witness to the lives of others. A less confident storyteller might have fallen back on narrative captions or jump-cuts to show the parallel lives of the hero's own children, but instead the entire scene plays out from the hero's perspective, consistent with the rest of the game. No dialogue, no internal monologue, just the silent realization that life has once again dealt a lousy hand to the long-suffering protagonist.
It's startling to think that DQV dates from 1992. Nearly 20 years on and you'd still be hard-pressed to think of many games whose narratives have matched its power and eloquence. At the time of the RPG's debut, story in games was still a developing concept, though certainly nothing unheard of. The PC adventure was arguably at its pinnacle, and even console games had taken a turn for the dramatic. The anime-inspired cutscenes of Ninja Gaiden and Phantasy Star II had cemented themselves in the collective conscious, and Final Fantasy IV had subjugated RPG freedom in the name of overwrought melodrama the year before. In the years since DQV, the convergence of games and Hollywood has taken on many different forms, both messy (FMV games) and high-minded (anything by Hideo Kojima, for instance). Yet few manage the delicate balancing act seen here.
Maybe the key to DQV's success is that the story feels so integral to the game. Plot in RPGs is typically little more than hollow justification to have fights and gain levels, but that's not really the case in DQV. Level-ups feel far less important than simply reaching the next town and discovering more about the hero's past. The journey is an integral facet of the plot, since so much of DQV is the hero's quest for self-discovery. And monsters aside, the entire party is closely tied to the protagonist rather than a random mob of people tied together by genre conventions. Although it's hardly the most powerful possible team, there's something intensely satisfying about venturing into the final battle as a family: Hero, wife, and twin children. You're quietly thumbing your nose at the concept of fate while boldly defying the evil forces who sought to destroy your family time and again.
When people sneer at the possibility that a videogame can be as moving as the finest Hollywood films, is there to prove that it can. And when developers slavishly imitate the extravagance of Hollywood blockbusters, DQV is there to remind them that sometimes a bit of restraint makes a world of difference. DQV is an exceptional, moving game. Maybe someday the rest of the industry will take notes on all that it does right.