Friday, January 26, 2018

Dragon Quest 7: The High-Quantity Narrative

It’s said video games have low standards for writing. On average, this is true. What most neglect is why this is the case. The obvious answer is “bad writers”, but there’s more to it than that. Video games are a different medium than books or movies, and writing them requires a new approach we haven’t collectively figured out yet. I’m not just talking about interactive narratives or branching paths, but how the introduction of gameplay completely changes the pacing and tone of plain ol’ linear stories.

This video outlines some of the problems with writing game dialogue. Not only do games have far less words per minute due to all that pesky gameplay, many of those words are spent on where to go, what to do, and reminding you of current events. It might’ve been an hour since the last conversation, let alone major plot point. Game writers, on top of sharing their story with a team of dozens of people with changing agendas and budgets, have to be economical with dialogue to keep pacing tight and stories interesting in between your lazy afternoons killing a thousand rats.

RPGs are often heralded for their stories, but in truth, they’re not much better. A lot of what makes RPG stories enjoyable isn’t their quality, but their quantity. They’re just as wasteful with their words, but bring enough along to make up the difference. 40+ hours is a long time to properly explain yourself. Dragon Quest 7 has 100, and it’s not shy about packing them with words. The key question is does it use those words well?

Weeeeeeell…there are some parts of the writing I like! And we’ll get to those. Eventually. But first, let’s talk about characters.

The Cardboard Cast

These main characters are boring to me. Let’s go through why. Fair warning, proper discussion here requires MAJOR SPOILERS. Hang on, this deserves its own paragraph:


The Hero – Your friendly neighborhood avatar has come down with a terminal case of mute protagonist disease. Like many modern variants of the virus, he’s given miniscule morsels of character through descriptive dialogue. For example, someone might mention him blushing or making a face in response to certain things. It’s a wonderful fusion of not defined enough to form his own character yet too defined to imagine yourself as him. You’re given many opportunities to respond to events with binary yes or no answers. These never have any consequences beyond a conversation or, as far as I could tell, a single line of dialogue.

Dialogue choices would interfere with all his well-defined character traits! Like for example, uh…he has a hat?

It’s revealed partway through the game that there’s something special about the hero. He was chosen to help save the world for a reason, and has a strange seal that appears on his hand to aid him at a key moment. This is one of the only parts of the game where a question is brought up and not resolved by the end of the current arc. I liked that! It’s enjoyable to have something to speculate on, something to wonder about that isn’t instantly and neatly resolved. The reveal isn’t bad either: It turns out you’re the heir of a legendary pirate king!

So what does the story do with this incredible revelation? Abso-LUTEly nothing!

The only purpose of this amazing familial connection is so you two can combine your mystic symbols to move the plot along. There’s very little emotion or personality behind it. The Pirate King is fairly bland and I’ve met bricks more memorable than the Hero. The two don’t have a single moment of bonding or mutual character development. Neither does the pirate and your parents. DQ7 rarely gives the main characters a personal connection to the plot, so it really stings when they squander it like this.

Keifer – Keifer is the prince of the kingdom of Estard, and also the hero’s best friend. Sounds tough maintaining a relationship with a lump of clay shaped like Akiraya Toriyama’s margin doodles, so I appreciate the effort. As your friend and first speaking party member, Keifer does a lot to humanize the narrative. He doesn’t care for his royal upbringing, yearning instead to do as he pleases and seek adventure in the wide world beyond your tiny island. So he’s essentially a Disney princess. But even if he’s a bit bland and cliché, he has the beginnings of a character. He even has something approaching a character arc, where he finds a purpose in life.

About 15 hours in, when he leaves the party forever.

"Can I stay for the next 80 hours? Er no, I can't uh because I'm…in love! Yes, that's it, I'm in love and I have to leave and not see the rest of the game. Such a shame!"

And here we have the problem with Keifer. He has some personality and it’s actually related to the plot, something rarer than it should be. Yet he exits the narrative too abruptly to really develop as a person, and the rest of the party don’t have the drive that he does. I figured since he was left in the past and this is a time travel story, we’d see him or he’d factor in later. Nope! After his early departure, occasionally NPCs in the present talk about missing him. Beyond that, his only appearance is leaving a letter to the main character at the end of the friggin game*. 80 hours is a long time people, my emotional investment faded just a bit.

*The letter isn’t especially poignant either. Basically: “Hey hero, I got married to that girl I abandoned you, my family, and entire time period for. Who’da guessed? Also we’re still friends wooooo.”

Maribel – Maribel is a young girl who grew up in the same tiny fishing village as you. Maribel is, in one word, a brat. She’s opinionated about everything, but knows very little. She’s loud and obnoxious, but claims to be delicate and sensitive. She finds a reason to look down on everyone you meet. She will never give you a compliment, to the point where she poses yes or no questions and complains no matter which you pick. She’s rude. She’s annoying.

She’s the best character in the game.

In a better written RPG, I’d probably bench Maribel. Her schtick is only occasionally funny, usually it’s just exasperating. But the fact of the matter is: She has a character! Maribel is more clear and defined than anyone else in the game. We understand what kind of person she is, and it even makes some sense given her upbringing as the mayor’s daughter. Sometimes her over-the-top disdain is pretty amusing. But she isn’t perfect.

"I object to that!"

Like most characters in DQ7, Maribel isn’t connected to the plot. Antagonists and NPCs outside the first island have no relationship with her, and she has no real motivation beyond a fondness for adventure. This lack of connection to the plot means her character is sadly static. She can’t develop as a person and has less interesting situations to play off of since she’s witnessing every quest from the outside, emotionally speaking. So less than she could be, but Maribel gets points for being distinct and memorable.

Ruff – Several chapters into the game, you encounter a town full of mute people and suspiciously aware animals. It’s revealed that a demon has turned the people into beasts and the beasts into people. You find a young wolf-boy who, along with the wolf who raised him*, helps you defeat the demon. The curse is lifted for everyone except the boy, and through magical shenanigans this wolf-in-a-boy’s body is given the ability to speak. That wolf-boy is Ruff, who joins your adventures and rides around on his wolf companion.

*This wasn’t well explained in-game, but the wolf Ruff travels with isn’t a human, or even a wolf related to him. It just found and raised him after his real mother died in childbirth.

Ruff speaks to a reason many people love RPGs. Most games would consider this too oddball to be the player character, and as a side character they wouldn’t get much screen time. RPGs have better track records with diverse casts, and the running time to really explore their personalities and struggles. A wolf stuck in a boy’s body lays the foundation for all kinds of interesting stories, and I was excited to see what they would do with it.

They don’t realize that potential. You may be noticing a trend.

And the trend isn't "all our characters are perfectly executed".

There are two personality traits Ruff exhibits. The first is that he likes food, and the second is that he’s naïve. There’s not much to say about the first. It’s an overused and uninteresting character cliché and they don’t add to the trope in any meaningful way. The second fares better. There were several optional dialogues* where Ruff was charmingly immature in his view of something and it made me smile. Problem is, him being a wolf was completely irrelevant. His innocent outlook is indistinguishable from that of a normal child, and that’s disappointing given his unique origin.

*The fact that most character moments are disconnected from the plot is an issue I’ll get into later.

They don’t use Ruff’s point of view for wolf-based comedy. He doesn’t wake people up howling at night, drag dead animals into meetings with kings, or anything like that. Neither does Ruff regret being stuck as a human. He never has any ennui regarding the challenges of bipedal life. He doesn’t bring a wolf’s view to the problem of the day. He doesn’t have many opinions at all, which is a problem with DQ7 across the board. He’s mostly just…along for the ride. So despite some rare moments of fun, his character never truly shines.

Sir Mervyn – Sir Mervyn is the chosen soldier of God himself, who was the sole witness to his epic battle with Satan in the distant past. He was sealed away in a mystical stone so that he might reawaken in the future, tasked with setting in motion God’s planned resurrection and destroying the ultimate evil himself. With a backstory like that, how could he possibly be dull?

Certainly not due to his facial hair.

Quite easily. Holy warrior, old veteran, chosen one, all tropes so thoroughly explored you probably already have a similar character in mind. These archetypes are so well-traveled there’s a lemonade stand midway through their heroic speech and a gift shop at the end of their character arcs. They’re milquetoast even when executed well, so I can understand why Sir Mervyn doesn’t make a splash.

There are a couple of things that made me think, perhaps foolishly*, that he could rise above the norm. He’s a man out of time for one, and also very old. Not in the sense that he’s from the past, we’re talking about a dude covered in wrinkles with a fluffy white moustache. They do try to form something of a character out of these traits. But the from-the-past aspect is underplayed and the old man aspect…hm…

*Definitely foolishly

…can we talk about the Dirty Old Man trope?

For those unwilling to toss themselves into the yawning temporal chasm that is TV Tropes, it’s a fairly simple formula. I’ve made a flow chart to explain:

A subtle and nuanced system.

There are certainly worse examples. Mervyn only fell prey to it a few times over the journey. But in a way, that just makes it worse. It’s so…perfunctory? Obligatory? It shows up in optional dialogues with the late-game female party member. Before that, I wasn’t even aware it was part of his character. You wouldn’t expect it to be, given that he’s normally wholesome and chivalrous. Is there some kind of rule that if an overworked anime/JRPG writer wants to get home for dinner, he can stamp “OLD MAN IS PERVERT” on the script and grab his coat? Why? Why is this the default trope for anyone with wrinkles? Even ignoring the skeevy factor, even in better written works, I’ve never found it funny. Ever. Even slightly.

Anyway, Mervyn is boring. Moving on!

AisheHey kidz! Genericide Entertainment has a funtacular™ new activity for you to follow along at home! Just read through the next section and add your own whacky phrases or JRPG protagonists in the spaces provided!

[CHARACTER] Aishe is a [BASIC DESCRIPTION] female fighter and dancer who joins late in the game. Like most characters in [JRPG] Dragon Quest 7, s/he follows the familiar trope of [ARCHETYPE] headstrong young woman who wants to reject her chosen role. However, that’s not to say there’s no potential in the character. For you see, the interesting thing is that [VARIATION] Aishe is actually the ancestor of your old friend Keifer. S/he even shares some of his character traits. Knowing this, the game could’ve [NAÏVE OPTIMISIM] really explored that connection. For example, telling stories about Keifer’s adventures after you parted, or discussing how it feels to meet your best friend’s (older than you) granddaughter.

[LITERARY RECORD SCRATCH] They didn’t do that.

What?! I thought the character introduced 60 hours in would suddenly solve all this story's problems!

The reality of [CHARACTER] Aishe is that s/he’s [NEGATIVE TRAITS] boring and undeveloped. Instead of [OPTIMISM SUMMARY] exploring her heritage, all the game does is [DISAPPOINTING REALITY] have her feel some strange connection to Keifer’s family. S/he doesn’t even realize why, let alone use that connection for character development. Done correctly, s/he could’ve [STORY IMPLICATIONS] enhanced Keifer’s character along with her own, and let the time travel in this time travel story actually affect main characters. But the unfortunate truth is s/he’s just [MORE NEGATIVE TRAITS] the blandest member of an already bland cast. And frankly? [THAT SUCKS] That sucks.

Orgodemir, The Demon King – You’ll be shocked to learn that this one isn’t a protagonist.

I know, his cuddly appearance is deceiving.

As you might guess from his name, Orgodemir the Demon King is not a morally complex villain. He’s the ultimate evil just because, and has zero goals beyond everyone’s favorite standby: Destroy/take over the world. Yes, he’s one of those either/or types who are so ill-defined you can’t tell what their endgame is. Evil for evil’s sake isn’t very interesting, but can still be fun to watch. Unfortunately, Orgodemir spends the first two-thirds of the game out of the limelight. Then, after a few lines of generic dialogue and a fight, he disappears again until the end of the game. His plans involve a decent twist in the final act, but that’s all he has going for him.

I’m guessing what the writers were attempting was to make Orgodemir a greater scope villain, a kind of ominous force of nature that doesn’t directly intervene with events. That’s fine, but there are two problems here. The first is that the many, many problems you encounter in the first 60+ hours feel totally unrelated. Every sub-plot has its own boss monster behind it. A rare few mention working for the Demon King, but the game never really sells that they’re connected. It feels like a bunch of monster-of-the-week stories with an incredibly weak connecting thread thrown in after the fact.

This is related to the second problem: Orgodemir has no memorable minions. When a more intimidating threat is in the background, stories usually present a second-in-command or squad of subordinates to put a human(ish) face on things. Without it these villains feel passive and unthreatening, the problems don’t feel connected, and everything feels less important. Since This Game is 100 Hours Long, it’s all the easier for that lack of connective tissue to hurt the story. Adding consistent villains would not only inject some needed personality to the cast, it would help the head honcho feel more significant.

But who needs reoccurring villains when you've got such fantastic antagonists as Palette Swapped Enemy Model #44?

This isn’t hard to do. It’d be ideal if a dynamic cast of villains was constantly reappearing in different combinations, playing off each other and throwing wrenches into the normal flow of chapters. But if that’s too much work, there are alternatives. The council of shadowy chatterboxes between episodes is a well-worn trope, but it’s a cheap and easy way to develop the opposition and keep them in the player’s mind. If even that is stretching your budget, just swap out some chapter villains with at least one reoccurring boss. Change a couple lines of dialogue to say they’re back for revenge or the Demon King sent them to screw up [CURRENT LOCATION], then give em a new skill or two each fight. It won’t win awards, but it would be better than what we got.

What we got was a game where, barring some NPCs, every character on both sides was incredibly, unbearably bland.

Characters are Important

So it’s clear the main characters in Dragon Quest 7 are lacking to some degree. Yet through my mystical ball of future-sight-only-related-to-internet-comments, I can see the response: “Why do we care? So the main characters aren’t amazing, there’s plenty of other writing in the game!” And there certainly is. The game is packed with writing, some of which isn't half-bad. But it's mostly flavor text, and very little focuses on developing the cast. I’m of the opinion that characters are the single most important part of writing a narrative. If you can’t write compelling or at least vaguely relatable characters, everything falls apart.

We don’t write stories about places or concepts. We write stories about people. Places or concepts may be an interesting part of the narrative, but as human beings we need a human element to make an emotional connection. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s something that bears repeating many times over. In some games characters can be downplayed. A lengthy, linear narrative with a defined cast and lots of dialogue isn’t one of them.

The events of a story and its characters should be supporting each other whenever possible. By seeing what’s happening from the characters perspective, we get a stronger emotional connection to the world. It also gives us an excuse to further develop those characters. In DQ7, most of the main characters lines are delivered through optional dialogue. These optional conversations are a poor solution because the story needs to make sense even if you never read any. Time for examples!

Say the party comes across a strawberry orchard. The typical party dialogue for this situation would be “We are at a strawberry orchard. Strawberries are found here. We should talk to the owner of the orchard.” To be fair, DQ7 at least has the decency to flavor its exposition to the tune of each party member. So it’d be more like…

Mervyn: “Hark, we hath happened upon a grove of strawberries. Let us locate the proprietor of this fine orchard and seek his counsel on where the town proper may lie.”

Ruff: “Oooh, look at all the strawberries! C’mon [PLAYER], let’s find who owns them. If we’re lucky they’ll give us food!”

Aishe: “We are at a strawberry orchard. Strawberries are found here. We should talk to the owner of the orchard.”

Pictured: Insightful commentary.

Though not as often as I’d like, occasionally someone will actually voice an opinion. This is almost always Maribel, and usually sounds like…

Maribel: “Ugh, strawberries are disgusting! I hate the texture of the seeds and they leave awful stains. I would never respect a man who ate strawberries! [PLAYER], do you like strawberries?
                Yes: “Hmph, of course you do. Well, no accounting for taste.”
                No: “You’re only saying that to appease me. Grow some backbone!”

Though better, it’s still not the full package. The next step these optional dialogues never take is to give these opinions a purpose or history. Something along the lines of…

Mervyn: “When I was but a lad, I oft played in a strawberry orchard down the road from the monastery I was raised. All these centuries later, I suppose nothing’s left of it…”

Ruff: “These look yummy! Humans taste so many more flavors than wolves, every meal's an adventure! Think they’d mind if I took a few?”

Aishe: “I live in the castle, they still keep Keifer’s room empty, clearly someone would’ve told me about him by now. How have I not realized we’re related? Do I know and I’m just being coy about it? Why would I do that, it’s such an interesting story hook! What’s that? Strawberries? Oh er, I dunno, my parents…liked strawberries or something. Whatever.”

Though I’d prefer more of this in the main story, even optional dialogues would help. The point is to personally connect each quest to the characters. And a personal connection doesn’t mean it needs to be something serious likes parents slain by strawberries or a hidden strawberry lineage. It can just be short little tidbits like those above. Then when the dreaded Strawburly and his Seedy Scrappers come to raid the orchard, you’re not just fighting for some random NPC. You’re fighting to protect something with meaning to the party, either directly (party member and NPC bond over strawberries) or indirectly (strawberries are a symbol of party member’s happy childhood).

There's one more part of this story that retrieves my ram. Alas, I've enjoyed ranting about it so much I couldn't fit it all in one article. So next time we'll pick up with more narrative missteps and surprisingly, even something the story does well! Then we'll finally finish this tumbling tower of tirades with discussion of Dragon Quest 7's greatest issue of all: length. See ya there!

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