Dragon Quest XI: Tradition, Mythology, and JRPG Worldbuilding

"The master teaches that man is the world, and the world is man.

To devote oneself to good deeds is to serve the world.

To bring goodness into the world is to protect it.

The master teaches that through suffering, we learn of ease.

That through sadness, we learn of joy.

To love mankind and thereby the world—this is our duty."

                                                                         The Sutra of Angri-La

The enduring success of the Dragon Quest franchise firmly cements the timelessness of its game design. While the turn-based JRPG is no longer a trendy genre in the gaming industry, its refined presentation in the latest entry, Dragon Quest XI, is a testament to its unique potential for storytelling and worldbuilding. By working out the tedium that has made the JRPG fall out of favor with gamers in the last two decades, while sticking firmly to design principles that built its reputation as an effective genre for storytelling, Dragon Quest XI emerged in 2017 as a AAA title that feels out of its time, while also showcasing that minute refinements to supposedly outdated design can be just as innovative as games that harness new technology to create brand new experiences.

Dragon Quest XI, similar to the first eight entries of the series, is functionally as ‘generic’ of a JRPG as you can find on the market. This isn’t a knock against it – the series did establish the conventions of the genre after all. In my discussion of “philosophically indie” game design I mentioned the series as exemplary for its dedication to steadily refining its design principles without depending on the allure of technologically facilitated novelty that drive the development of so many other popular franchises. To begin philosophically parsing DQXI, then, I’d like to first break down the conventions it follows from prior entries. Dragon Quest XI applies modern systemic conveniences and aesthetic flair to its traditional JRPG design. In doing so, it has made itself palatable to contemporary players by removing mechanics that might frustrate modern sensibilities, yet were not fundamental to the appeal of the genre (such as oft dreaded random battles). If you’ve played any of the series’ first eight installments the gameplay loop will be recognizable:

  1. Enter a new town, chat up the residents for tips, worldbuilding, and narrative progression, and purchase new equipment to make your party more capable in battle.
  2. Journey to your next destination in the overworld while battling random monsters.
  3. Enter a dungeon that tests the endurance and capability of your team, often culminating with a challenging and narratively significant boss battle.

This loop is not only iterated throughout the Dragon Quest series but can be observed across the majority of classic JRPGs from the genre’s “golden age” in the 90s. It’s a loop that steadily alternates between leisurely socializing, grandiose exploration, and dungeon crawling, yet all three of these components separately contribute to the genre’s bottom line: character growth. The growth of our avatar (and our avatar’s comrades) is dependant on the player’s social and spatial curiosity in addition to the necessary investment in gaining levels through battle. Levels and the stats they increase give players a legible numerical system through which they can tangibly experience the growth of their character(s). Each part of this loop also contributes to the original Dragon Quest’s subtle yet revolutionary narrative design. Since acquiring gameplay tips and story information from NPCs is built into the gameplay loop, rather than being relegated to tutorials and cutscenes, narrative and gameplay function as a seamless whole.

                                                                     Love these guys.

Dragon Quest XI does not deviate from this loop in any severe manner, but it does flesh it out through applying narrative design elements gathered from previous entries in the series. Each town is presented with a distinct aesthetic and culture. A “party talk” system colours exploration and character development by featuring commentary from the supporting cast that adapts to the current setting or situation. Character stats and abilities are earned not only directly from gaining levels but through investing points in skill trees that reflect the defining personality traits of each character. As simple as the gameplay and systems may be, the game’s designers have ensured that they continually feed back into how the player understands the world and characters. The more a player interacts with their allies and NPCs, the more details they will be able to piece together about Erdrea’s history, politics, economics, and cultures, and the more fully the world can be conceived as an interconnected whole – that is, a world in its most harmonious sense.  

For the remainder of this post I will focus on articulating the connection that Dragon Quest XI forges between player and world. I will approach this in two parts: first, we will examine how the player’s mythological role as the Hero/Luminary informs how they are able to interact in the narrative; afterwards, we will explore further how the game establishes Erdrea as a dynamic and fully realized world. These two elements strike me as the series’ defining characteristics in relation to the rest of its genre and Dragon Quest XI actualizes them more fully than any prior entry.

Playing the Hero

The unnamed, unspeaking Heroes that serve as the protagonists of all the Dragon Quest games are particularly minimalist characters. The Hero is an archetypal characterization that eludes qualities usually considered to be interesting or compelling in a character. Modern tastes in videogame storytelling usually gravitate towards flawed, deep, individualistic personalities (think Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston or The Last of Us’ Joel), and consider complex characterizations to equal good character development. We can appreciate issues with such a character’s ideals and actions as constituting something imperfectly human.

The Dragon Quest Hero, on the other hand, is decidedly perfect: a silent, courageous and fundamentally benevolent non-ego. His will to save the world from evil is unfaltering, yet he never expresses hatred (or much else for that matter) even when confronting pure evil. Most questlines in Dragon Quest XI involve the player in the tribulations of imperfect humans that commit evil actions for understandable reasons (depending on the player’s proclivity towards sympathy). Usually by the end of these quest lines, after the Hero has explored and resolved the issue, the corrupted human is revealed to be a sympathetic individual who, while acting out of self-interest, is not inherently malicious. The thematic resonance of these quest cycles is meant to show the player that humans do not commit evil acts out of pure malevolence, but that evil inclinations emerge out of contact with true evil: the darkness that underlies existence and emerges when people are at their most vulnerable and desperate. Each of these storylines encourage empathy with the flawed characters while still holding them accountable for any harm they have caused to others. The morality they reflect is forgiving yet not forgetful.

                                                                     You’re welcome.

Unlike with most Western RPGs, these storylines almost exclusively allow for only one potential resolution. The lack of player choice is crucial to the Hero’s representation. At times Dragon Quest XI will flirt with ‘role-playing’ by presenting a Yes/No option in response to a character’s plight for assistance. If the player selects No their response is not heeded; instead, the choice merely prompts the character to express their concern again, providing the player the same Yes/No option. The player can proceed to select No an infinite number of times if they wish, only to be confronted with the same plight over and over until they respond affirmatively. This is a clever subversion of standard D&D role-playing that inspired the branching conversation systems seen in WRPGs, which allow the player to shape the ego of their avatar either through imposing their own inclinations or imaginatively constructing a personality. On the other hand, the false Yes/No ‘choices’ in DQXI allow the player to pause for a moment and perhaps consider what their honest response to the character would be before the narrative design strongholds them into succumbing to the unmovable compassion of the game’s impersonal Hero. The game is being very direct with the player in these moments: you are not the Hero – at least not if you don’t answer affirmatively to any call for heroic servitude.

                                 Maybe if I select “No” for the tenth time she’ll leave me alone.

Throughout the series, the main villain is never represented as human but, rather, a manifestation of pure evil. The player is therefore encouraged to see the human sub-villains as mere victims of pure evil: those corrupted by the influence of sinful emotion (e.g. Mia = Greed, Jasper = Jealousy). If the Hero is an emptied personification of a God-like perfection, the villain is an emptied personification of a nihilistic evil that balances out that perfection. Neither Hero nor Villain are characteristically human; and, yet, they are together so symbolically human that they can serve as the basis for countless stories about the battle between light (hope in the face of nihilism) and darkness (self-manifested nihilism) at the core of the human condition. As we defeat Calasmos, the true harbinger of darkness, at the end of the game’s third act he tells us prophetically:

“BUT KNOW THIS 
THE DARK CANNOT BE ERASED 
FOR WITHOUT IT LIGHT CANNOT EXIST…
MY BODY SHALL DIE 
BUT MY SPIRIT SHALL LIVE ON
I SHALL ENDURE”

[spaces added for legibility]

Even as the game’s story resolves neatly with the Luminary’s fulfillment of his true destiny by banishing this manifestation of pure darkness from Erdrea, it also promises a cyclical continuity of this very struggle. Just as our Luminary continued the historical responsibility originating with his ancestor, Erdwin, many more Heroes will have to take up the same mantel in eras to come. Although the chronology of the Dragon Quest series has been deliberately loose, Dragon Quest XI provides an origin for the eternal conflict that determines all existence and purpose in the series’ universe. According to Erdrea’s books of legend, “the world was [first] a cold, desolate wasteland, and then light dawned.” Because Light emerged out of a world of pure Darkness, its being depends on sustaining itself against said darkness. Hope is the preservation of light and suffering is its dark counterpart. Action taken up in service of the former works to combat the lingering peril of the latter. Each of the game’s lesser conflicts are a subset of this eternal conflict that gives every inch of the world its humanity and us, as players, purpose. If we only remove the fundamental archetypal presences of the Luminary and The Dark One from the picture, we would see a world with people that (fantasy tropes notwithstanding) is not so different from our own. With these archetypes at the forefront, however, we are cast as the lead of an interactive myth.

The Hero is an exemplar of what philosopher Keiji Nishitani calls the “Great Compassion” present in religious morality: “an ‘indifferent love’ that transcends the distinctions men make between good and evil, justice and injustice . . . If perfection is taken to mean a nonselective non-ego, then personality that engages in making choices can in no sense be taken as a form of perfection” (60). In terms of DQXI’s narrative design we can understand the lack of player agency as necessary to maintain the Hero’s God-like perfection in the narrative. By projecting the idea of evil into a symbolic representation via The Dark One our Hero’s care for humanity can transcend everyday judgments of flawed behaviors. Furthermore, in order to ensure the myth plays out accordingly DQXI is structurally very linear. Even though Erdrea’s map design is fairly open and can be explored nonlinearly at times, the game makes its objectives very clear and provides no benefit to deviating from the given trajectory. It tries to create the sense of an open world for aesthetic purposes without applying open world design principles that would threaten to make progress meanderingly nonlinear.

Interacting with the World

Much of the pleasure of playing Dragon Quest XI comes from observing the evolving dioramas of its many towns and, by extension, the world as a whole. As the archetypal Hero, NPC interactions hardly ever take a personal angle. Casual interactions feel less like conversations than oddly detailed one-sided confessionals. It seems Erdrea’s citizens can’t help but divulge themselves to our Hero. Yet because of the Hero’s ego-less representation, this one-sidedness feels natural compared to JRPGs that cast established characters as their leads. Although NPC residents (in classic Dragon Quest fashion) are represented through one of only a handful of townsfolk character models – initially giving the impression that their individuality is as duplicable as their appearance – returning to speak to these NPCs through multiple stages of event progression reveals the dynamic personal lives they lead in the background of the main plot. Each NPC interaction usually provides just 1-3 text boxes worth of dialogue, yet each of these text boxes are enough for the character’s dialogue to communicate a distinct personality, a glimpse of backstory, or a helpful hint – sometimes all three. It is a testament to the careful cultivation of the evolving personalities given to these nameless, seemingly disposable NPCs that a player who pays attention to their dialogues can discern their individuality despite their recycled character models.

 Watching this guy go from swindler to caregiver almost made the world going to hell seem worth it.

To interact with the citizenry of Dragon Quest XI’s many vibrant towns is to appreciate the diversity of livelihoods and attitudes that the people display, and to come to see them all as individually essential to the total constitution of Erdrea. The pleasure of these simple interactions is in how they together form a unity that makes up the personality and breadth of the game world. As a significant event unfolds in any one of the game’s towns, we can interact with its NPCs to understand how they are all differently impacted by it. Considered in totality with all these individual perspectives, the town becomes one integrated piece of information that progresses the grander narrative of the world. To understand the game’s ‘story’ as comprised primarily by the central, compulsory events following its main cast is to grossly overlook its ambitious yet unprompted approach to worldbuilding. That every seemingly insignificant NPC the player comes across has something to express if you take the time to interact with them serves as a reminder of the humanity that constantly surrounds us everyday. It is an antidote to real urban alienation. Whether depicted as selfish or caring, in crisis or content, these NPCs are all fundamentally equal. The game’s worldbuilding revels in our differences and is full of empathy for all human life.

              Playing the game in 16-bit mode is a fascinating testament to how little has changed in 
the series’ core design.

While the worldbuilding described above is prevalent just in the game’s first act (everything leading up to the fall of Yggdrasil), it unravels further following the momentous events that precede each of the next two acts. The payoff for following the world’s NPCs closely comes at the beginning of Act 2 when we reach The Last Bastion: a stronghold built over the ruins of the Hero’s hometown that has brought together stragglers from around the world following the devastation wreaked by the fall of Yggdrasil. While exploring The Last Bastion the player will encounter NPCs that they may recognize from the different townships they visited in Act 1, but whose lives have been overturned by the calamity. Characters who we before encountered in normal circumstances have now lost their families, dreams and hope for the future. Responding to the tragedies of Erdrea’s people and rekindling their sense of hope becomes the focal point of Act 2, as the Hero must now revisit the world’s locales and mend the devastation he was unable to prevent. Forcing the player to revisit places that have undergone change is one of the game’s most effective means of strengthening our connection to the world. The memories we form of these places with each return visit continually reinforce our engagement with them as not just static settings but the homes to characters and cultures that have a distinct existence in the game’s evolving history.

Following Act 2’s battle against darkness, the rolling of the credits, and the game’s apparent resolution, the player is given free reign to wander Erdrea and see how its many townships have overcome their respective hardships following Yggdrasil’s fall and are now moving forward towards new prosperity. This peaceful parade through a restored world is a nod back to the conclusion of the original Dragon Quest, which allowed its players to savour the state of the peaceful world they helped create at their own pace. It’s a much more poetic way to take advantage of the joy of the medium’s interactivity – the joy of just being in a virtual world – then, say, a sequence of cinematic cutscenes that will inevitably neglect to conclude the more minute storylines (such as those of the many aforementioned nameless NPCs) that encompass the majority of the game’s character interactions. It’s an epilogue that gracefully lets its world simply exist as a world, and allows the player to create their own closure as they feel like a part of that world one last time.

Except even though Act 2 presents a resolution for the game’s core narrative, it is not necessarily the end of our Hero’s journey. The optional (yet thematically substantial) Act 3 can be initiated by sending our Hero alone back through time to the moments leading up to the disastrous fall of Yggdrasil and thereby undoing all of Act 2’s tragedy and perseverance. We learn that the events of Act 2 were caused by a perversion of history that denied us the opportunity to face off with The Dark One: the reincarnation of darkness that serves as the historical counterpoint to the Luminary. I won’t convolute things here by divulging all the game’s lore, but what’s crucial thematically is that the events of Act 3 are true to the world’s historical tradition and the Luminary’s true destiny. Playing through Act 3 is derivative by design and each place we visit and character we interact with, now oblivious to the happenings from Act 2, come to have an uncanny, spectral resonance. Pivotal events we experienced have been undone and no longer matter to the world, and characters who had died now obliviously continue to live. Only we and our silent Hero continue to retain memories from the game’s second act – although nothing is ever divulged.

  The transition from Act 2 to Act 3 is frankly jarring, and one of the game’s most novel experiences.

While Act 3 certainly has a lighter tone than Act 2 I couldn’t help but feel a strange melancholy seeing everything I had worked to mend become undone. Although the purpose of going back in time to prevent the fall of Yggdrasil is conceived by the main party as “doing it right this time,” and the outcomes of most townships’ storylines involve far less tragic circumstances this time around, it is also an erasure of a history we helped create as players – one that deprives many characters of self-actualization that came through being exposed to greater hardship. However, it also allows us to exist in a world where old companions stand by our side once more, including one of the main party members. To initiate Act 3 is to leave an entire world we helped create behind in order to create a ‘better’ version of that world, but the mixed feelings it might leave us make accepting the supposed improvement dubious.

After further reflection, however, this dubiousness is selfish when considered alongside the game’s lore. In a discussion of the morality based around a circular understanding of history, Nishitani explains: “history is conceivable only in terms of the repetition of something recurrent. Every deviation from this circuit is condemned as sin or defilement. Evil and sin in the ethico-religious sense mean straying from the norms of life, that is, from the mold that has been in effect since the beginnings of history” (206). I mentioned earlier that DQXI is situated chronologically as the first of the series, but this revelation does not occur until the ending of Act 3. It is therefore necessary for our Hero to go back in time and correct the circuit of history in order to put into motion the tradition that precedes the rest of the series. Although Act 2 resolved the story of our cast of characters, it’s a resolution that defied the natural course of history and therefore stemmed from evil. Considered in totality with its traditional game design and its subversive time travel plot, then, Dragon Quest XI provides a meditation on the cyclical nature of the series’ history. By adhering to and expanding on the core design principles of its predecessors, the game incorporates the series’ long-standing conventions into its narrative design while establishing itself as another unique iteration.  

Sometimes it seems the game would like nothing more than for us to stop playing to place care into our real lives. The narrative’s main thematic concerns surround the value of friendship and the importance of showing love, dedication, and gratitude to people we care for or those in need. By telling a story around a tightly knit group of friends whose only goal is to help those in need, the game appeals to real-world compassion through these virtual exemplars. The game seems to constantly addresses us (the player as the Hero) in the second person because we are given little grasp of the Hero as a character on his own and are thus encouraged to substitute ourselves into his silent interactions. While the game holds the Hero up as an impersonal and unattainable ideal, we are still immersed in his role and can therefore understand the game’s moral compass as attuned directly to us.

Herein lies the game’s philosophical resolve: to use the morally focused, mythical presentation of its world and the immovably righteous, impersonal depiction of its Hero to cultivate the moral character of its player. Speaking of the eternal value of myth, Nishitani writes: “the essential meaning of a mythical representation can only be grasped when we interpret it so as to bring the content of that representation back to the home-ground of our existence in the present” (243). As an interactive myth steeped in the simple metaphorical conflict between the light and darkness that underlies humanity, Dragon Quest XI’s worldbuilding has its players directly experience the interdependence of humankind and the world we inhabit.

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