• Member Since 27th Dec, 2011
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You'll find, my friend, that in the gutters of this floating world, much of the trash consists of fallen flowers.

More Blog Posts135

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  • 202 weeks

    This is a good video (hopefully it works in all browsers, GDC's site is weird) about fairness in games. And by extension, stories.


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Videogame Storytelling #3: Dragon Quest IV · 12:40am Nov 3rd, 2017

This is gonna be a shorter one. And for once, I won't spoil (most) of this story, since many people still play this today.

Ever read a story where the main character doesn't even show up until halfway through? :raritywink:

Dragon Quest games have been kind of like 2nd person stories. You create your main character, give him/her a name, and then explore the world as this mostly blank slate silent protagonist. The game won't force any dialogue on the main character, so you can project whatever you want. You'll meet allies who will join your party along the way, but they get personalities, backstories, and individual quirks beyond "the hero".

I contrast this with Final Fantasy's approach, which perfected its own kind of cinematic 1st person storytelling (or 3rd person in FF6's case). It practically wrote the rules on what the JRPG genre meant, with its worldwide popularity. To use FF7 as its most famous example, you control Cloud for nearly the entire game, but you never become him. He is his own character, with his own personality and past. You meet allies who join the team, they're introduced with a hook, and along the way each one of them gets a complete arc. Usually when you travel to their hometown or something.

FF6 follows this too, except for the "main character" part. It's a good way to make the world feel huge and epic, and every party character significant. And when they're significant, you get a connection to the mundane towns and NPCs they're involved with, and they're worth saving too. By contrast, FF8 doesn't do this at all, and all of the supporting characters are given a literally identical backstory that leads nowhere. That whole story is hyper-focused on Squall's arc (along with Rinoa and Seifer) with little else going on. If you dislike Squall, you might be out of luck, there's not much else going on besides his romantic arc. Even if you do like Squall, the world he lives in is kinda forgettable. The climactic ending cutscene is entirely about Squall surviving or dying, not the question of the world being saved or not.

Meet characters, learn their melodramatic problems, resolve problems later on. It's a formula, but a really effective one. It's not too different from what most writers end up doing in a book series or movie, actually. It's okay to take a detour for an interesting supporting character. We'll eventually get back to Cloud's character arc, because that's directly tied to the villain and the fate of the planet and all.

Is this the only way to do it?

Dragon Quest IV figured out a different story structure, four years before FF6 was released.

You begin the game like usual, creating a save file, naming your heroic main character, and selecting male or female. Chapter 1 begins. But then you don't play as your character. Instead, you're given someone else, a knight on a mission to save his kingdom from evil. You play him as a silent protagonist, until his quest is over. Then in chapter 2, you're given a runaway princess who seeks adventure. Chapter 3, a lowly merchant with ambitions of becoming the richest man in the world.

Finally, in Chapter 5, «you» appear for the first time. And you go through a typical Hero's Journey type of plot, becoming the legendary hero of prophecy and all that. And of course, you encounter all seven of the characters you played in the previous chapters along the way. Yet all their story arcs have already been resolved, before «you» ever met them. You fully know these characters, because you played as them and lived out their adventures. Each one permanently changed a bit of the world you're currently journeying through, and each joins your party for different reasons. They don't need introductions and hooks, they don't need to tell melodramatic backstories, and they don't have some vital quest that you'll have to take a detour for later.

The content of the story isn't very experimental, except the merchant's unique chapter (which inspired Recettear, 20 years later). It's a pretty standard fantasy, almost generic in some of its tropes. But the unusual structure makes it all work in a way that feels fresh, and grander in the way it connects the past to the present. Not just a mere gimmick, I think it's a structure that only works in the form of a videogame. The whole ritual of naming and creating your avatar, only to have it taken away, has already personally invested the player. "Where's my character, when do I show up?" Try this in a novel, and the effect will be completely lost; the reader will assume you got drunk and changed your mind halfway through.

The "2nd person" interpretation of this is harder for me to analyze, but I find it fascinating. You can play the role of multiple strangers, and be familiar with the context of the world you're saving before «you» are called to action. I think it's something very specific to this type of game, that even the Final Fantasy forumla can't pull off. It's quite attached to the way it tells you character's stories while you observe, rather than letting you live as them. I dunno, this might explain my odd fascination with 2nd person experimenting in fanfic writing, despite the huge stigma against it.

Anyway, Dragon Quest IV is a fascinating game. For a series with this unshakeable reputation of conservative game mechanics and being "nostalgic comfort food" for adult gamers, it actually stretched how far it could take its happy storybook tradition and make something artistic out of it. Not by twisting and subverting its own themes as an act of rebellion, but by finding new ways to connect with its audience's hearts and minds.

Report hazeyhooves · 418 views · #dragon quest
Comments ( 2 )

That sounds fascinating! I never got to play any of the Dragon Quest games, though I invested weeks of my life in JRPGS like the Final Fantasy series and Chrono Trigger. You've got my interest piqued. Thanks for this blog.

Ever read a story where the main character doesn't even show up until halfway through?

Les Miserables does this! Not half way through, but it's like over seventy pages before the main protagonist appears. Glad I read the abridged version in school!

I just started Final Fantasy 6 for the first time this weekend. Before that I played Chrono Trigger for the first time. I really liked it.

This is very interesting approach. I like it, it's creative. I think I agree, you couldn't do it with a book, probably. Though who knows, maybe if you tweaked it a bit.

I like these different structures you dissect in your blogs. Structure is so important, and you don't hear it talked of much in fanfic circles (not that I would be the best judge, the hermit that I am). It gives me new ways to approach my story structures.

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