Dragon Quest VII has a very unique spin on how to tell a video game story, and Nintendo brilliantly explains how its Nintendo 3DS game unfolds in a brand new trailer for newcomers.
We all know how video games progress through their plots nowadays on the consoles, and they typically boil down to two general methods. The first is the linear Hollywood-esque experience, helmed by the likes of Uncharted, The Last of Us, or BioShock Infinite, which pull players through a story of large, scripted events. Retronauts called games “story tubes,” and it’s always stuck with me.
And then there are the open-world RPGs, which drop players in a huge map, give them a handful of waypoints, and let them set off to find their own adventure. I often call these games “waypoint hoppers,” because that’s what I often end up feel like I’m doing, merely completing quests for the sake of completing quests, hopping from blue mark on the map to the next blue mark. If there is a story, I feel far removed because of pacing issues or being distracted by the excessive amounts of freedom.
Dragon Quest VII largely succeeds because it takes the best of both ideas in a way not many games do. I can maybe point to The Witcher 3 as the most comparable game in recent memory on the modern consoles, which is impressive given that this is actually a 16-year-old video game remade on a handheld.
Instead of a large, overly looming plot, Dragon Quest VII instead presents players with a series of loosely connected stories. They dive into events that happened in the world’s history, and for whatever reason, have wiped out entire civilizations and made the islands uninhabitable in the present world.
Each typically plays out in the same fashion. Our heroes stumble across a village that is in trouble in some way: Monster invasion, poisonous rain that petrifies its citizens, and even occasional less dramatic ones like love-triangles. From there, the hero will interact with a number of characters, find a solution to the problem, set about fixing the problem in a climactic fight, and then ultimately resolve the conflict.
Dragon Quest VII treats its stories more like an anime series than a Hollywood film, in which they are called upon constantly to fix smaller episodic problems. Unlike modern day action games, it gives players the chance to slow down and interact with characters and see how they progress through the events. And unlike the larger RPGs, it doesn’t provide an infinite number of paths forward, meaning you’ll really have to settle in and learn how to deal with the issues these people face if you want to move on.
There is more to each story than a Borderlands text-box giving a little exposition on why this new mission might be important. I’m sure a good many people might just start skipping these text dumps just to get the next weapon or an experience boost, and when that happens, narrative starts to lose its importance as a key player in development gaming.
Dragon Quest VII isn’t perfect in how it tells these stories. I’ll admit to burning through a few of the less interesting plotlines because there are only so many ways you can thwart a monster invasion. However, a good majority of them, I push through very slowly to take in the full effect.
I enjoy learning about how a legendary hero might actually be a monster in disguise, and how her betrayal would affect the people if they ever found out about it. I enjoy listening to an old man as he wracks his mind with the guilt of being the only survivor of a natural disaster that wiped out all of his fellow citizens. About twenty hours into the game, our heroes stumble across the mechanic to change job classes, but they’ll have to win back the Alltrades Abbey from monster domination if they want to access it, and doing so includes uniting people that really don’t get along in a huge resistance.
And not only do these stories provide enough drama on their own, there is also the joy of seeing the results of your work! Fixing stories in the past means you’ll have a brand new town available when you return to the present. Generally, this will be the first destination when the hero and his friends step out of their time warp. There, they might see a changed society, one which doesn’t remember exactly how some rumored calamity was averted in its distant past, and some will continue the drama almost exactly where it left off.
A favorite example of mine revolved around the simplest of human interactions: relationships. In the past, a young girl was being pushed to marry a mayor’s son to help settle her family’s debt, but she really loved the local gardener. It’s a classic tale, but Dragon Quest VII throws a few twists in there. The surprise ending shows that it doesn’t work out for the young lovers, and the gardener flees the town.
And the end result reflects in the present… the village doesn’t work out either. Instead, the town the gardener becomes a bustling city with a lovely church in the middle, and the people he left behind were doomed to extinction for not following their passions or their dreams.
That’s another amazing element of Dragon Quest VII: how these happy-go-lucky don’t always turn out for the best. A scientist who shuns human interaction and prefers robots never reverses his feelings. His bones around found lying on a bed in the present with his rusty servant still looking after him. A young man fails to save his sister on his own, and he becomes a warrior, forever roaming the Earth to become stronger. When looked for in the present, nobody seems to have ever even heard of him or his trials.
Does he become a warrior strong enough to defend his sister? History doesn’t say.
Lots of endings to these episodes are purposefully left unanswered. Why? Maybe there is an overarching story in which all of these will come together. If there is, I certainly haven’t found it yet, but all signs point towards a demon king using his powers to influence the world beyond the reach of God.
Yes, a huge catastrophic battle is destined to take place, and all we have are a loosely connected string of brilliant little tails that will get us there.
And if all goes wrong, well, there is always the village of furries our heroes saved from a demon. Yes, that is a real thing that happened in Dragon Quest VII, and our heroes even wear pig outfits to get the job done!
Dragon Quest VII is a brilliant game in its storytelling, and sadly, I think very few are going to look at its strong points and adapt it into something better. There really is nothing else like it nowadays, except for, well… maybe other Dragon Quest games.