Friday, February 2, 2018

Dragon Quest 7: The 100 Hour RPG

In Dragon Quest 7, most of the story comes from the sub-plots on each island. This means that some NPCs on these islands have as much development as the main characters. It also means that the game can tackle a bunch of different stories with varied themes and presentation. The main problem with these is the same as other aspects of the game: Quantity over quality. Trying to fit over 20(!) stories into one game means none of the characters you meet get enough time to make an impact, even if This Game is 100 Hours Long.

As much as I disliked the wait for classes and completely eviscerated the Rashers and Stripes fight, that segment was one of the game's best points, writing-wise. It’s an interesting set-up with some twists along the way and a satisfying conclusion. Though the focus is as always on NPCs, we get some with visible personalities and drama that comes from how their characters interact. Apart from the dull dungeons and awful boss fight, I was fairly engaged.

But even this high point in the narrative still serves the argument I’m making. One of the reasons it’s a better part of the story is because it lasts longer, giving the characters time to grow. And then once this quest is over? Those interesting side characters limply trail off into oblivion, never to be heard from again. You never go back. Never hear what became of them afterwards. They’re from the past, so they don’t even get a late-game cameo. For all intents and purposes, they had zero effect on the world, the plot, or the main characters.

They had an ENRAGING effect, but only out-of-character.

These islands introduce neat concepts but never do anything worthwhile with them. As an example of this, I would like to take a moment* to talk about the capital city of wasted potential: El Ciclo.

*Or a Rashers and Stripes sized rant.

(Warning: SPOILERS for El Ciclo.)

Stopped Clock, Rushed Story

El Ciclo is the most interesting chapter in the game, which is also why it’s the most frustrating. Midway through our seventh quest containing dragons, we come across a rather peculiar town…

DQ7: Welcome to El Ciclo! This town features strange statues and buildings, built by an eccentric genius architect whose creations may bend the fabric of reality itself!

Me: Wow, that’s a pretty cool hook. I can’t wait to see how –

DQ7: But wait, there’s more! It’s hinted through interactions with the town doctor that the famous architect had an illegitimate child, and that it’s none other than the bumbling, unassuming maid working at the town inn!

Me: Ooh, that’s neat. Brings a nice human element to the story. So I guess she’ll –

DQ7: But WAIT, there’s MORE!  When you stay at the inn you wake up to the events of yesterday repeating themselves, as the town is caught in a Groundhog Day style time loop!

Me: Sheesh, that’s pretty crazy. Things are getting a little cluttered, but I’m excited about the time loop! Other games have proven you can do interesting stuff with that mechanically so –

DQ7: BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! The clock tower in the middle of town was built by the eccentric architect, and when you go inside and turn it off time stops for everyone outside!

Me: So we’re travelling back in time, to a town caught in a stable time loop, where we use a magical clock to stop time? This is cool and all, but it’s getting a little overwhe –

DQ7: BUTWAITTHERESMORE! The mad architect also made a magical painting and when time stops it becomes a portal into another dimension where space is warped and twisted in an endless void and there are time-manipulating monsters and –

Me: STOP! Stop it Dragon Quest 7, this is too much, just slow down for a moment!

DQ7: You know, it’s very rude to interrupt people.

Me: Oh, um, sorry.

DQ7: Anyway, that was the last part. I’m done.

Me: Oh good. Wow, so many questions to ask. Alright, let’s start off with gameplay. What kind of new mechanics do you use for all this stuff?

DQ7: New mechanics?

Me: Yeah, you know. Like new ways of interacting with the game. I’m guessing you can go to bed to start the day over, and have to use foreknowledge of events to do something?

DQ7: No, why would you start the day over? You already know about the repeating thing, no need to do it a second time.

Me: Wait, you’re saying we don’t loop time again? But isn’t the whole point of time loops to come back to previous events knowing what happens?

DQ7: Oh yeah, we have that. So there’s this guy.

Me: Uh-huh.

DQ7: And he’s standing near a statue.

Me: Mm-hm.

DQ7: And when he touches the statue the arm breaks off.

Me: …and?

DQ7: And the same thing happens again the next day.

Me: How does that affect the rest of the game?

DQ7: Huh?

Me: Never mind…Okay well, what about the time stop? Maybe you can thwart a villain by stopping time, setting a trap and starting it again?

DQ7: No, nothing like that.

Me: Oh. Well then do you need to stop time to, I dunno, sneak past someone to get hidden info or –

DQ7: You can’t do anything while time is stopped. That would be silly, no one can talk while frozen!

When I think of what magnificent stories could be told about a magical tower that stops time, my first thought is definitely "opening a dungeon entrance and nothing else".

Me: That’s not what I meant, I was asking if…ugh, forget it. What about the painting?

DQ7: You can go inside when time stops.

Me: Why?

DQ7: I'unno. Quest triggers.

Me: Yeah, that's…par for the course. What’s it like inside?

DQ7: It’s a dungeon.

Me: Yeah?

DQ7: Yeah, y’know. Dungeon, noun: Big maze of thin passages with enemies in em.

Me: How is it different from other dungeons?

DQ7: ‘sgot a big swirly purple background with floatin junk in it.

Me: That’s, uh, a start. I meant the gameplay.

DQ7: Oh! Yeah, we did something for that. We made a teleport maze!

Me: …a teleport maze.

DQ7: It’s like, a maze, only you walk onto these spots that tele –

Me: I know what a teleport maze is! That’s your big puzzle for the magical painting area? You could’ve done anything you wanted! Why a teleport maze?!

DQ7: You don’t like teleport mazes?

Me: NOBODY likes teleport mazes!

DQ7: Well then why are there so many, wise guy?

Me: Because they’re the easiest thing in the world to make yet not quite annoying enough that people will complain!

DQ7: Actually yeah, that checks out.

Me: What about story? What happens with that illegitimate daughter plot?

DQ7: Well after you beat the monster in the painting and stop the time loop, the town has a festival to celebrate the new bridge they’ve built.

Me: Okay.

DQ7: Off to the side, the architect and the doctor talk about the daughter.

Me: Alright.

DQ7: He decides not to tell her.

Me: …that’s it? What’s the rest of that conversation like?

DQ7: That’s more or less it.

Me: Huh. Can you tell her?

DQ7: Of course not.

Me: Does that affect anything in the future?

DQ7: Not really.

Me: But then what’s the point of the sub-plot? It’s not a sad conclusion, there’s just no conclusion!

DQ7: Sure there is! The conclusion is that you came to a town, went through a dungeon and beat a monster, and now the town is saved.

Me: But how does it all fit together? Where’s the consequences? The character development? The pathos?! Stories aren’t just a series of events, and games aren’t just the same inputs in different backgrounds! Things need to change. You start up all these crazy ideas, but you never expand on them. You never FINISH ANY!

DQ7: Well yeah, we don’t have time for that! This is just one island after all. Do you have any clue how long this game is?

Me: I’ve got an idea.

So El Ciclo is a disappointing waste of potential, a common theme in Dragon Quest 7. But by now you’re so sick of me spewing bile that you’re following along at home. Before we move on from writing and into the final chapter of this wyvern adventure saga, let me talk about something in the narrative I genuinely enjoy.

The Pun is Mightier than the Sword

Dragon Quest 7 is charming.

There’s a lot I didn’t like about this story. It’s frequently cliché, flat and predictable. It moves slower than a crippled turtle in a pit of syrup and glue. Its emotional moments are subdued, and always concern characters you just met who will vanish forever in half an hour. But for all its flaws, I never had the heart to grow angry with it. Well okay, you’ve read the last twelve thousand words, I grew angry in retrospect. But not in the moment. Because Dragon Quest 7 may be a lot of things, but it’s also refreshingly genuine and endearing.

There’s something very…sensible about it all. There aren’t many bizarre plot points. There’s only one real twist and it’s pretty well-telegraphed. Most people act reasonably and have clear motivations. There’s not a lot of compelling drama, true, but there’s also a complete absence of melodrama. You’ll never see anyone in DQ7 make a pointless sacrifice. You won’t shout “This guy is acting so stupid!”, or “This plan makes no sense!” There were a couple places I found exasperating*, but it never frustrated me like many other JRPGs have. Being more emotionally stable means less love, but also less hate.

*Like that time where a robot shoveling soup into a skeleton for all eternity is seen as a happy ending. C’mon guys, even if we accept that this machine suddenly has human emotions, a human in this situation would IMMEDIATELY see a psychiatrist.

The characters of DQ7 are also very pleasant. The main party is innocent and altruistic down to the core. The absolute worst among them is a good person who whines a lot. NPCs are almost all friendly and polite, and when they're malicious it’s fairly tame*. Villains are goofy-looking monsters out of Saturday morning cartoons, evil for the sake of it and quickly defeated. Everyone and everywhere is named after a pun, most of which are terrible. All this keeps the game from offering much moral complexity, but also makes for an easygoing adventure free of angst.

*Okay, thinking back there was one NPC who stole people’s souls to save himself. That guy was kind of a dick. But even then, there's a lack of suffering or gray morality in the prose that makes it hard to take things personally, for better or worse.

Any writer who can survive the shame of putting this to the page is clearly not concerned with serious drama.

Though they can be wonderful experiences when they draw you in, sometimes you wish JRPGs would take themselves a little less seriously. This game begins with kids who just want to go out into the world and have adventures. In any other story, this would lead to some grand coming-of-age arc where the characters come back changed from the experience. Here they…don’t. And though the lack of drama disappoints, there’s a certain satisfaction that the end points of the story are “Let’s go on an adventure!” and “That adventure was fun and we helped a bunch of people!”

I wouldn't call the writing in Dragon Quest 7 good. But I would call it likeable. And sometimes, that might be enough.

This is normally where we'd transition into the final Big Problem with DQ7. However, there was something that bothered me that I couldn't find a spot for anywhere else in these articles. So like all great* writers I decided to cram it in at a random point near the end and then lampshade that I was doing so.


Let's talk about Monster Meadows.

Meadon’t Bother

Catching monsters is a popular feature in RPGs, and it’s easy to see why. Collection quests are simple to make and inherently satisfying. What better place to create that collection than the digitized dragons themselves? That way the quest is connected to the combat you spend so much time on and it makes you pay more attention to your assembly of adversaries. Some games handle monster catching so well the entire game is based around it. So how does Dragon Quest 7 handle it? Well, let me put it this way.

Fill in the blank:
1, 2, 3. A, B, C. Beginning, middle, end. DQ7 sucks, DQ7 sucks again, DQ7 ________.

Monster Meadows is one of the major side quests in Dragon Quest 7, the only side quest in the original pre-credits. So stands to reason that it’s introduced early, at a mere 60 HOURS IN. It’s only about a dozen hours before you acquire the item that lets you catch monsters. But you can’t actually see the results for 60 hours, and the whole thing is terribly explained. Some of this could be forgiven if catching monsters was fun. But…

Here’s how catching monsters works: When you hold the right item and defeat a monster, there is a tiny chance that the monster becomes friendly and dashes off to the meadows. There is a single skill for a single class, Animal Magnetism, which increases the chance monsters become friendly. You’re never told this skill exists and it doesn’t explain how it affects your chances (sources online say +20%). What we have is just another drop rate, which you can manipulate in a single poorly explained way. But the method of making monsters move to the meadow isn’t even the problem. The long wait for the feature is…definitely a problem. But it’s not the worst problem.

Ugh, more puns and pointless dialogue. Well, at least it'll be worth putting up with for this side quest's reward…

Do you know what your reward is for painstakingly recruiting an army of hundreds? When you visit the meadow, one of each type of monster you’ve caught is standing around. You can talk to them, at which point they will give you a line of flavor text. That. Is. It*. Absolutely zero practical benefit. No monster battling, no monster summons, no monster hearts, no monster buffs, no monster items, no monster money, no monster anything! It would have been so incredibly trivial to give something for the work put into this.

*In the remake, you can get tablets to optional dungeons through tamed monsters. Tablet dungeons are randomly generated mishmashes of existing dungeon rooms populated only by the corresponding monsters, so it's a pretty crummy reward. But it has SOME effect on gameplay, which is more than you can say for the original.

Let me remind you that prior to the remake, this was the only real side quest. For some reason. It’s a wonder it was the only one in a game this size, but…you know, it’s time we talk about that. It’s time we faced that shadow lurking at the edge of vision. It’s time we talk about the through-line connecting every miserable issue and mismanaged feature. It’s time to get to the point. What, at the end of the day, was my single greatest problem with Dragon Quest 7?

This Game Is 100 Hours Long

Since the olden days of the medium, games have been praised on how much time you can wring out of them. They would proudly proclaim on their box how many slices of life you could shave away in front of their comfortable glow, and no genre was prouder of these numbers than RPGs. But in recent years, there’s been a growing backlash over this once revered metric. Gaming’s audience is expanding, the types of games are ballooning, the number of titles is exploding, and the cost of entry is plummeting. The result is gamers taking up a new mantra: Games should never be longer than they need to be.

RPGs are feeling this backlash. In an era where you can buy games for less than a fast food meal and have them delivered at the speed of your internet connection, why should you care if a game is short? It’s more important that it’s fun. Promising hours of content not only lacks the weight it used to, but sometimes actively harms a games reputation. People look upon these staggering numbers and react not with joy, but suspicion. “Why are they bragging?” they think. “What are they hiding? What are they really stuffing all those hours with?” Then they’ll decide it’s not worth the time investment and move on to greener pastures. I know this process. I’ve experienced it firsthand.

I don't know about these days, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s I'm pretty sure it was RPG law to list your run-time as a bullet point. These were all just haphazardly grabbed from the results of a single google image search.

And yet…I like long games. I think that there are certain things you can only accomplish with a longer, slower-burning experience. Things like exploring complex character arcs, delving into detailed settings, experiencing long term gameplay progression, or showing domino chains of cause and effect that let a player feel true ownership of a world and what happens in it. I want to establish this up top, these articles aren’t an indictment of long games. There are advantages to long games. But by this point, it’s probably clear what I’ll say next:

Dragon Quest 7 is terrible at all these things.

Character arcs are nonexistent, the closest thing we get are miniature ones with certain NPCs. These NPCs are restricted to their own couple-hour stories, and thus don’t require a long game. The setting barely exists. Each island has its own disconnected culture, most of which come down to accents or plot-relevant ceremonies. There’s no detailed creation myth or warring dynasties. No explanation where magic or monsters come from. The game doesn’t do lore unless it’s specifically relevant to the subplot happening right this second.

Gameplay progression exists, but takes forever. I ended this 100 hour RPG at level 40 and most of that leveling felt pretty uneven, with some levels hours apart. Getting satisfaction from leveling is like trying to quench your thirst with a dripping faucet. The classes take less time, but you have no idea what you’re getting each rank so you rarely feel like you’re working towards a specific purpose. Equipment is also spread thin, and when it is upgraded it’s in a very standard, numbers-go-up sort of way with few interesting choices. In short, the progression system is average at best and would only improve if everything took half the time.

Dragon Quest has these enemies called Metal Slimes that give insane experience if they don't run away in time. So when I was in a dungeon with those, leveling felt like it happened pretty fast. Everywhere else, it was unbearably slow.

As for cause and effect, there’s no player choice. The story is linear and outcomes are set in stone. But more damning is the fact that this game doesn’t even show cause and effect along its linear railroad. The islands and their stories are completely self-contained. I can count on my hands the number of times a plot point is introduced and not resolved in under two hours. The last third of the game involves re-visiting previous islands, but this is hardly cause and effect. It’s more like entirely new plot elements* are introduced and now oh what a coincidence we find them at locations we can recycle.

*More like plot element-als, am I right? Am I right?! I, uh…I am. I’m right. You look for elementals. *Cough*.

In short, I’m not ragging on Dragon Quest 7 just because This Game Is 100 Hours Long. It’s because This Game Is 100 Hours Long and they have no idea how to make that work for them. I’ve full-cleared plenty of RPGs, sunk many a night into repetitive open worlds, and logged more hours into World of Warcraft than I will ever be comfortable sharing with the internet. Yet DQ7, particularly the middle third, was an absolute slog for me. Rarely have I felt so fatigued at the prospect of finishing entertainment. Optional content, non-linear sandboxes, and MMOs are all things built towards sustaining long hours of play time. Dragon Quest 7…is not.

You may be thinking "Wow, what a huge world! Who knows if I'll find the time to explore it all!" Never fear! You will whether you want to or not.

Speaking of optional content, all twenty islands in DQ7 are mandatory. Why?! Every island is completely self-contained. It's the perfect set-up for making side quests! The game isn't tightly balanced in my experience, it's not like it needs your party to be leveled just so. If they took the exact same content, made half of it optional, and gave you rewards for the optional bits, it would be a massive improvement! Suddenly it's not a linear game with terrible pacing, but a game that put unusual effort into a huge amount of side stories. DQ7 would still have plenty of problems, but this fix is so seemingly designed for the game that I find its exclusion baffling.

Let's be honest here. In hours 5 through 65, how many events are important to the main story? Two introductions, a wandering tribe, a farewell, and a symbol on a hand. I don't care what your standards for writing are, that is pretty abysmal conservation of detail. And there's plenty of plot, just none that matters. A slow story is worse than a sparse story. If I had my way at least a third of these islands would be cut outright, because that's time that could be spent improving the best islands or expanding the main story. But if we absolutely need to have all twenty story arcs, the least they could do is make some optional. They didn't. The result?

Dragon Quest 7 is the single worst-paced game I've ever played.

A Long Slime Coming

This has been a strange series to write. I started playing Dragon Quest 7 on Christmas 2016, and started making these articles over six months ago. Writing this dragged on even more than the game itself. Unlike the game, I found it quite enjoyable to do. It's just that real life, procrastination and other distractions kept the project in limbo. As a result, I have a sea of rambling rants and disconnected diatribes bubbling in a word document somewhere. Enough words to form an article all their own.

But if this series has taught me one thing, it's that sometimes less is more. It's sort of a shame, but most points were the same. It's safe to say you get the idea. So if the slightest smidgeon of baby is thrown out with that bathwater, I can live with it. We already have a sufficient percentage of baby here. We might as well move on before we spoil the existing baby. My point is never ask me to babysit.

"Awww, did you miss mommy and da – OH MY GOD HE'S MISSING A TOE!"
"What?! I kept at him MOSTLY intact, like at least 88%. That's a solid B+!"

To those who read all fifteen thousand words of this, you have my thanks. I know the people who would be interested enough to read are likely already fans of the game. To keep doing so in the face of my endless walls of wailing shows some impressive fortitude. That's the kind of dedication the internet puts towards writing hatred, not reading it.

Though I'll say once more, despite all the meticulous teardowns and hyperbolic outrage, I don't hate Dragon Quest 7. I may even give another game in the series a try one day. At least, after a long, long hiatus. After all, there was potential in DQ7. If there wasn't, it wouldn't be worth all this deconstruction. What I experienced with the game wasn't hatred. It was just small amounts of boredom and frustration, amplified over a really long period of time. Who knows exactly how long. Not sure how we would measure that.

In the end, it just made me Dragon Stressed.

Yup, after all this, that's the note I'm going out on. I admit it’s not my Dragon Best.

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