Dragon Quest V: The Pitfalls of a Silent Protagonist
For my money Dragon Quest V is both the most unusual game in the series and the best game in the series. More than any other DQ game it walks the well-worn path of the series just a little bit crooked, never straying too far but steadfastly refusing to actually set foot on what came before for more than a moment.
DQV is divided into three distinct arcs, so for this one I’m going to discuss the game in those terms, in part because it provides a nice flow to discuss how the game works on its own terms before branching out into why it doesn’t quite get there and the broader trend in the genre I’m using it to touch on.
Our hero is a small child, around 6, and takes on the silent protagonist mold the series has stuck to all this time. He travels the land under the guidance of his father Pankraz, a noted hero of some sort. Hey, you’re six, you just know he’s super strong and people ask him to help him with all sorts of things! Between your own adventures it’s noted he’s searching for the Legendary Hero, with some implication here and there that this has something to do with finding your mother. Otherwise you bond during a haunted mansion adventure with local innkeeper’s daughter Bianca and try to save the fairy realm from some maladies.
And then you meet Prince Henry. The young troublemaker manages to be captured by the rising monster cult you’ve seen gaining power here and there through your travels. Pankraz leads a rescue effort, effortlessly breaks Henry out and dispatches his jailers… until one of them puts a scythe to your throat. And so you watch as your father lets himself be beaten to death, his final words telling you for certain your mother still lives, the only comfort as the narration informs you ten long years of slavery pass.
The strengths and weaknesses of the game are pretty apparent even in this first arc. The content itself builds some room for the sort of modular quests the series is known for, but also differentiates itself immediately by having a strong overarching goal and progressing steadily towards it. And brilliantly, the player’s lack of agency in deciding these goals or having impact on the world around him (as necessarily happens with a silent protagonist) is built into the narrative: you’re six. What does anyone want from you? But at the same time, you’re a six year old and this arc ends with your watching your father be beaten to death. This happens in the battle engine, which hides the issue marginally, but… yeah. This is traumatic as all get out, but due to the nature of the storytelling the player character can’t react to it, creating a fairly extreme dissonance to the whole proceedings.
The time jump has you play through a few days of the slave life before your inevitable escape. Mostly this is setting the table for events later in the game, seeing the foundations of places you visit in the endgame and such. In this time the bratty Prince Henry has grown up and become a fast friend, and you escape together. Eventually you make way to his homeland, depose his wicked step mother and Henry remains to govern his kingdom. You, armed with the knowledge that your mother is alive and the Legendary Hero is somehow key to finding her, take up Pankraz’s quest, and travel the world seeking the hero’s gear so they can properly, uh, get to the business of heroing when you find them I suppose. Whatever, you gotta have some sort of quest structure. At this point the main gameplay gimmick of DQV comes into play: for this stretch of the game, with Henry on his throne and you a penniless ex-slave, having human party members to quest with would be weird. But you have an innate ability to earn the trust of monsters, and thus can recruit them as party members.
While this is fun to play around with and gives the game a unique feel (although later DQ games would adapt this concept in various ways, and of course the Dragon Quest Monsters side series probably has its roots in this mechanic), it also highlights the weakness of the silent protagonist for this particular story again. Your quest at this point is to find the legendary hero, rescue your mother from perils unknown, and in so doing avenge your father. Part of the conceit of the silent protagonist as something the player is meant to project on is that by continuing to play the game, you accept the player character’s quests and goals. So far so good, but we’ve also been informed of character traits and a specific character history the hero possesses: he’s kind and has an innocent heart. And those are mechanically reinforced traits (it’s the story justification for the monster recruitment mechanic remember)… but they have no real relation to the quest you’re on or the events so far in the game. Seeking revenge against people who killed your father then enslaved you for 10 years is a good quest with a lot of story potential even as a self-insert protagonist, but is at odds with the assigned character traits.
In other words, possessing a kind and innocent disposition in spite of extreme trauma and years of enslavement is a complex characterization, and not one you can rely on a given player to infer from interacting with the game or to adequately create their own justification for. By creating a complex story, you create a greater need for good writing to explore and ground that story, which isn’t possible when the character at the center of it does not react to the world around them in a visible or meaningful way. This has a lot of story potential, but by characterizing the main character this way you run a greater risk of creating a break between the player and their cypher rather than giving them space to insert their own flavor into the narrative.
Fast forwarding a bit, eventually you discover that the Legendary Shield is held by a rich man whose family has passed it down for generations. The helm is thus dowry for his unmarried daughter. You thus resolve to pass a trial to earn his favor, and along the way are aided by a grown up Bianca. She bonds with you during the adventure, clearly remembering your youthful escapades with fondness and showing a clear attraction to you.
The obvious conclusion you drew from that information is correct, but Dragon Quest V actually goes all in on this. You’re asked to choose between marrying Bianca, a girl who represents the last days of your childhood not marked by trauma and terror, or Flora, whose dowry you require to continue on your quest. And the game respects your choice. Oh, to be sure, the rich man is moved by your devotion if you choose Bianca and you get the shield anyway, but you legitimately get to pick who you marry and which woman joins you on the remainder of your quest.
I’m not sure if this is the first such occurrence in the genre, but it’s certainly one of the most famous. It’s safe to say DQV is the probably the most influential single Dragon Quest game on the broader Japanese culture, and it’s entirely down to this event. http://www.geekgamer.it/2016/01/intervista-a-matsuzo-machida-e-miyako-kato-il-duo-creativo-dietro-alla-serie-shadow-hearts/ Indeed when I was plotting out what games to talk about en route to the end of this little series, running across this tidbit solidified my decision on using DQV as the springboard for silent mains and the limits thereof. Heck, was this the first waifu war? Surely not, but if someone dug into the ancient internet and found evidence to the contrary I couldn’t be entirely surprised.
But for all its historical import, within DQV itself? Ehhh? To be sure, none of the writing or characterization in Dragon Quest V is particularly impressive or deep, but the non-reactive protagonist makes things all the worse. How does he feel about either woman? Or the concept of marriage generally? Why does Flora agree to marry him, what qualities draw her to him? They’re unanswerable questions, and while I guess projection can help it’s a pretty poor substitute.
But let’s press on because the prime example is just a bit further ahead. At long last you have a lead on your father; your original homeland. It lies in a remote mountain kingdom, and so you and your new wife make a long trek home. Along the way she collapses of exhaustion. Or, as you eventually figure out, physical strain due to pregnancy! It’s twins! So I guess you were into at least one aspect of marriage. And so you return home to find not only are you to be a father, but your own father was indeed the king of this land, and your uncle is more than happy to relinquish the throne to the rightful heir. You are crowned, your wife gives birth, you name your children… but alas! It turns out your wife is a descendant of the Legendary Hero (yes either of them), and so the monster cult kidnaps her to prevent the rise of any new Legendary Heroes. And so you fight your way through whatever, smite a mighty foe, but are ambushed by an evil spell and turned to stone. Years pass, your cursed body sold at auction, placed in the garden of a rich man, recently blessed with a child as well. And so day after day you watch the child grow, embraced by loving parents, until by and by the child too is captured by the monsters, sent into slavery. The distraught father rages at your stone form futiley. Until one day two small children, a boy and girl of the same age, led by an aging traveler, approach, staff in the girl’s hand. She holds the staff aloft, and chants a spell that breaks your stone slumber: your children and father’s loyal retainer have come for you.
Your son is indeed the Legendary Hero, and you travel to claim all the relics you found. You climb a tower to Heaven and enlist the aid of the Almighty. You storm the temple fortress of the Cult, plumb it to the very foundations you were forced to lay as a child, and defeat its High Priest, at last freeing your wife. Between these adventures you found your mother’s homeland, and learned there it concealed a portal to the Demon Realm. You open the portal using three rings, one from your mother and the other two the very ones you and your wife exchanged vows with, and there at last the original quest comes to a close: your mother has been holding the king of demons at bay. She tries to complete her spell, inspired by your presence, but is struck short and breathes her last, joining your father in the beyond. You continue on, a family joining the blood of many heroic lines, and defeat the demon outright, at last bringing peace to the world and letting those who fell along the way rest at last.
That’s a whole game right there isn’t it? Three touching reunions, a macguffin hunt for the relics of a hero, literally meeting God? And it’s really quite good, given the time the game was released and how technically outdated it was even then, some of those moments shine very well even still. In particularly after rescuing your wife, the entire family INSISTS on continuing on to find your mother, despite all three of them trusting she will succeed and prevent the demon king from leaving his realm. But even as the game does a credible job of making these scenes work around you, it still weakens the game as a whole. The emotional throughline, your personal journey from adventurous youth to mentoring the Legendary Hero, through slavery, marriage, fatherhood, powerful curses, and fighting through demon strongholds to save your wife and, at last, fulfill your father’s last wish and find your mother again? That lifetime goes from perhaps the most profound and impacting story the genre had ever seen to a framework to hang setpieces, combat, and touching scenes for other characters on. Even as a vehicle for projection, this is such a diverse and intense set of experiences I can’t… imagine being able to well and truly find the hero’s headspace and creating your own story within it.
Games in the western traditions, your Bioware RPGs or the like, they usually don’t have stories with so much going on, and they’re frameworks for players to project stories into and more stories the player can pick how they react to. Using Knights of the Old Republic for familiarity, we don’t see all of Revan’s story. While we do start in a powerless position that might be hard to relate to, and have a definitive backstory that might upset whatever sort of person we made our incarnation of Revan, we’re not asked to fill in the details of an entire lifetime. We merely sway the new Revan’s moral response, we pick whether to walk the dark, the light, or the space in between, and way each of those choices manifest are built into the story. Despite having a less linear and more fleshed out scenario, where player agency determines the outcomes of quests and ultimately whether Revan reforms or returns to the Sith ways, KotOR is asking the player for far less personal investment in their character’s journey and how to fashion its narrative. You’re picking options, each with a distinct personality attached, from a list not presented a handful of dialog and asked to craft an elaborate story to fit it together into a coherent character.
Of course that sorta ignores the larger difference: KotOR is a game crafted entirely around Revan’s character and the players agency in influencing it. Every quest and the entire narrative hinge on the singular question of who Revan is NOW, and what the player will make of him. Sure, that question has further repercussions on the Galaxy, but they’re just outgrowths of answering that question. The scope of the narrative is very limited specifically so that the morality system would work in a believable way (and that’s setting aside that there’s absolutely a vocal segment of gamers who find Bioware’s moralilty systems simplistic, limited, and dumb). In telling a grand, sweeping narrative encompassing some of the most extreme emotional ranges a human can go through, DQV ends up making itself too big for the silent protagonist conceit to really hold the whole thing together. It’s a good Dragon Quest game, and the themes of family and loyalty do come through, but the three generational shifts feel almost like entirely separate games; your character’s non-reactive state means the weight of past actions have little bearing on the present at any given time.
In the end I, speaking only for myself, find either approach lacks the same punch as a well-written protagonist. However, a game with a better grasp of the strengths of such a system can still use it in a way that enhances its thematic heft, even as it leaves some weaknesses in the narrative. But that’s a subject for another time.