The most memorable line in Dragon Quest 1 is also the shortest.

stop telling me what to do old man

You know the setup, even if you don’t. Our blue-top-blue-leggings hero arrives at Tantagel Castle to learn that the world is in questionable shape: monsters roam the land, an evil villain named the Dragon Lord controls the world, and that the King’s daughter has been kidnapped by a dragon. Taxes aren’t getting collected, is what we’re saying. The king tosses him some couch change to buy a stick and some clothes, and hustles him out into the slime-infested plains, to grow into a man and save the girl and the day. 

Dragon Quest promises high adventure and heroism, but there’s one thing it undeniably delivers: words. In an era where most game narrative is confined to opening crawls and the whims of American translators crafting instruction booklets, you spend a significant amount of your time reading about your accomplishments in battle, and the rest of it in castles and towns talking to people.

Well, that’s not true. You have a talk command, and you’ll be facing people and selecting it. But it’s really better described as a listening command. Castles and towns are filled with villagers who impart their single font of wisdom on command: some offering advice to RPG neophytes, some giving directions, some just adding slivers of exposition, all there to make the world feel lived in. These snippets of dialogue are fine — the talk command is infinitely preferable to the unskippable cutscene, especially for repeat playthroughs — but they offer no characterization, no insight to our nameless protagonist. The game lacks even wordless methods of providing personality for the player, no foils, no evidence of change or salvation. The world is ruined, until the moment you win, your save still locked in place just before the climax. 

***

Since the first cutscene in Pac-Man, video games have wanted two things:

  • To feel like a movie.
  • To be an extension of the player’s will.

This would appear to be a paradox, because movies are the opposite of free will, despite the instincts of theatergoers yelling warnings at the screens of horror films. Movies are a passive medium. Games have gotten around these restrictions in two ways, one mechanical and one narrative. The former guides the player into doing what they’re supposed to by presenting a verb and rule set that provides a clear framework. Dragon Quest, for example, offers four commands in battle: Fight, Spell, Item, Run. The explicit choice between these options handwaves the choices not presented: you cannot sing to slimes, if you were to even think to do so. 

command

The narrative strategy is to make use of the rails, and build the story into a minecart. A story with momentum prevents the player from stopping to wonder why it is he or she is doing what they’re doing; the level has to be beaten in order to proceed. The only solution for a game with only one choice to feel like an extension of the player’s will is to make them feel like the story they’re presented is the one they wanted anyway, that the other doors all lead to other rooms, and not closets. The momentum of the game — for most games, the enjoyment of the gameplay, for Dragon Quest the tactics of battle and the pleasure of riding the power curve — makes it impossible to focus too much on the scenery as it rolls by. 

In Dragon Quest, in 1986, it’s very simple: you have to save the world. To do so, you have to get stronger. It’s fun to get stronger, right? There’s no impediment between ourselves and the fairy tale we feel like we are telling (but are really just being told). Mechanically, the game presents a surprisingly open world, allowing the player to break sequence, wander into deadly territories and complete tasks out of order. But this has no impact on the story, which is just a handful of flags before unlocking the ending. Even the mechanical obstacles of the game, primarily character death, don’t interfere narratively; the king can revive you, nothing is lost, no time travel or substantiation necessary. It’s all part of the story, and it was a successful one, spawning an entire series that’s lived for more than thirty years. 

So it’s strange, as we return to the opening of the essay, that of all the thousands of words in Dragon Quest, we remember the three that nearly ruin the whole thing.

***

The silent protagonist of Dragon Quest isn’t always silent. He can speak two words: yes and no.

“Have you heard of the princess?” questions one early guard, allowing two equally extraneous responses depending on the player’s choice. If you say no, he describes her. If you say yes, he doesn’t bother. It’s a false choice; the world is unchanged either way.

So later on, when the hero defeats the dragon and saves the princess, she asks him to take her back to the castle. Again, a false choice is presented: say no, and she utters the infamous rejoinder: “But thou must!” And she is, of course, correct. Other than to defy her by ripping out the cord and ending the story, there is only one way forward. But the dead end is so clumsy, so forceful — she will repeat the line infinitely, rather than allow the game to prescribe the hero’s answer, mercy-kill the conversation and move forward — that it feels intentional. 

we have a title

Whether the designers did intend this ridiculous exchange is immaterial. The strange choice-but-no-choice could also be seen as a gamble, an illusion of choice that the designers assumed the players wouldn’t bother to dispel. And perhaps many did, and had their experiences enriched by their voluntary involuntary participation. It is, narratively speaking, a massive risk, because if the player does veer off course and smack into that wall, they’ll knock it down as the cardboard cutout it is.

The princess is safe, and the path forward is clear. Most games would just head toward the endgame, throw the boss in front of the player, and call it a day. But the player finds his voice one more time, in what might be the game’s most unusual element, both narratively and mechanically, of all.

The final chapter of Dragon Quest is a slog through the villain’s castle, moving through a confusing labyrinth of stairs, traps, and musical key changes. In true 8-bit fashion, there are no save points, so the player has twenty to thirty minutes of gameplay on the line as he or she lurches into the final subterranean lair, where the protagonist and antagonist finally square off for the fate of the world. But in true Dragon Quest fashion, they talk first. 

For once, the silence of the protagonist is unnoticeable, because we’re in standard Bad Guy Monologue territory. But then the game jumps off its own rails. Instead of attacking he asks the hero if he’d perhaps rather consider joining onto EvilCo in a vice presidential role. The salary: half the world. The benefits: well, the hero probably should have asked about the benefits during the interview.

shot
chaser
resulting arsenic poisoning

Rejecting the offer triggers the fight and, if won, the happy ending. Accepting results in the villain killing the hero and softlocking the game, freezing it in the moment of shame. This is the real message of the game, underneath the surface-level fairy tale, the game’s coat of paint. It’s a punishment not so much of the protagonist, who hasn’t shown enough character to be flawed, has no desires to be tempted by. Dragon Quest instead disciplines the player for violating the single narrative rule the game has taught: That there are no choices. You can’t be yourself, you can only be the hero. You can’t fight fate.

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