Note: Because my thoughts on this game are too long to fit a single article, I am choosing to split them up into two parts.
When discussing video games from a historical perspective, it’s both easy and tempting to envision previous aesthetic styles as merely a prelude to what we know today. Although there’s value to be had in making these connections, it’s important be aware of one’s self and be careful as they approach these matters. Left to its own devices, this kind of historical determinism can not only be nihilistic, but also inaccurately represent the very eras it wishes to discuss. These games didn’t need some later historical trend to give them essence. They defined themselves through themselves, always exploring the subject matter/perspectives that interested them and growing along paths of their own choosing. Indeed, the idea of history as the march toward some singular end breaks down when one accounts for the variety of schools of thought present at any given time. To describe historical games as anything less is to deny them the autonomy they exercised and overlook the connections between contemporary styles.
This is in large part what makes Dragon Quest II (more specifically the MSX version released in 1988) such a fascinating game to discuss. It may only be capable of representing a single aspect of this era (more specifically, a single line of thought), but it’s a line of thought that intersects with many others and affords a wide breadth of thought. On the one hand, it invites comparison to similar projects of the time whose philosophies subtly contrast against one another. On the other hand, the ways in which it resists the historical moment (albeit unwittingly) illuminates the relationship between aesthetic and theme. In either case, Dragon Quest II puts that historical moment in relief and puts us in a position to appreciate where that moment could lead without reducing it to its eventual effects.
The irony, however, is that while the game is very much of a historical moment, that moment is not entirely its own. Since at least the early 1980s, commercial video games in general had been slowly moving toward representational visual styles. Dragon Quest II is part of this trend, especially when compared to its predecessor, but here, the transformation is incomplete. The result is a visual style between the game’s contemporaries and the symbolic minimalism that typified Atari 2600 games. The world is composed of rigid tiles, and the game backdrops characters against black squares, as though one is looking at game pieces on a map. Two white squares constitute a bed. Actions in battle are conveyed purely through flashes, sounds, and shaking.
While technical limitations are a factor to consider in all of this, they are far from the only cause. Compare Dragon Quest II to Final Fantasy or even Aleste. If anything, the game’s visual style is more reflective of the series’ conservatism than anything else. Still, it suits the game’s needs well enough, and it’s worthwhile to reflect on how symbolic minimalism affects and situates Dragon Quest II.
Our most obvious starting is in how Dragon Quest II’s minimalism compares to Atari’s. We would do well to remember just how much distance there is between this game and the Atari era and what it is that creates that distance. While the art style leaves us with only the bare facts of a given scenario, it can represent those facts with more precision than the average Atari game. The link between the symbol and what it signifies is strong enough that the player needn’t fill in the gaps with their imagination; at least not for individual objects.
Where things get interesting is when the game tries to construct a visual language out of these symbols, IE to relate them to each other. Such efforts will inevitably be strained. The grid-like presentation of the world results in an ontological flattening where all of its facts (still as bare as ever) are represented in equal terms. A human occupies as much space as a dog, and both creatures are the same size as a bridge. Clearly, Dragon Quest II struggles to represent space as it would actually exists. Sometimes the grid refuses to let objects cluster together as they appear to, making groups (forests, crowds, etc.) an odd impossibility. Elsewhere that grid will abbreviate spaces so heavily that one loses their sense of existing within that space. At best, Dragon Quest II can only suggest the idea of space.
Yet we needn’t regard this limitation as a weakness. We could instead treat is as a core feature of the game’s artistic approach and argue that Dragon Quest II depicts the world not as it objectively exists, but as it is perceived subjectively by those who inhabit it. More specifically, the game models how the perspectives of its three youthful protagonists converge into a single group perspective. This explanation resolves most of the game’s previous tensions. For as inconsistent as the world may appear in the objective sense, these shifts make sense when one considers the moods a given environment is likely to evoke.
Towns, for example, offer the heroes material aid in the form of arms, supplies, rest etc. And in addition to providing emotional comfort, the people walking the streets ground the heroes’ journey in something they can immediately perceive and value. So it is that the towns’ abbreviated spaces come to signify the warm, reassuring intimacy that interpersonal relations can provide. (This is clearest when entering a room. The outside world vanishes away as the heroes focus on their isolated surroundings.) By contrast, caves and dungeons code for vulnerability and the dread born from uncertain relationships. Whether in the claustrophobically tight halls of some far-off cave (made all the more claustrophobically tight by controlling the player’s vision) or in the wide open spaces of a tower floor, these areas impose their being onto those inhabiting them. One’s mind is always on the possible threats these spaces harbor for the heroes and constantly aware of how little control they actually have. We needn’t limit ourselves to the visuals, either. In fact, we see this attention to detail all throughout the game. The levelling system, for example, is designed in such a way that it can communicate a wide range of character dynamics, like the big brother relationship between the Hero and the Prince.
The language that Dragon Quest II employs is admittedly very simple. A given symbol will never possess any deeper meaning that might complicate or contradict what we see at the surface. Yet it’s for these reasons that the game possesses the clarity that it does and can exercise artistic control to the extent that we see. Its symbolic minimalism directs focus toward those parts of the world it doesn’t leave to the player’s imagination. Constraining itself to surface appearances allows the game to achieve a wide variety of effects through a single technique simply by changing the context that technique appears in. Far from straining against the technological limitations imposed upon it, Dragon Quest II is a game that openly embraces them, allowing them to inform its own project. The result is a deeply expressive game.
But what is the game expressing? What project does it allow its historical circumstances to inform? The easiest way to answer the question is to summarize the game’s narrative. The evil priest Hargon has thrown the realm into chaos and has lain siege to the kingdom of Moonbrooke. It is up to the Hero to gather allies, arms, and artifacts to put an end to Hargon’s ambitions. Like so much else in Dragon Quest II, we can also read this story as a product of the game’s era. On the one hand, its simplicity slots neatly into the short form pulp fiction narrative styles that proliferated at the time; especially in Japan. This would indicate the game as (on some level) trivial and meant only to entertain. On the other hand, Dragon Quest II derives much of its effect formally from the folkloric hero myths that also dominated the contemporary video game landscape.
However, analysis like this misses the point entirely. For as useful as some of its conclusions are, it overlooks what we immediately perceive within the narrative. Indeed, what we find here is an interest far more powerful than whatever interest Dragon Quest II may have in aesthetic effect; an interest that precedes aesthetics – precedes every other possible force – and structures all that follows after it. I refer to the fascination with heroic virtue. In the game’s lexicon, this is a wide term; perhaps to the point of being self-referential. After all, the hero himself is already the embodiment of human goodness. And like so much else in the game, that fascination is characterized by an almost childishly naive belief that things are as they appear at the surface. If Dragon Quest II is naive, then it is a naivete born of optimism, and of faith in the inherent worth of moral goodness. And if that naivete reflects a purity in the game’s beliefs, then it also reflects a purity of interest. Dragon Quest II’s interests lie not in the characters who possess or relate to that virtue, but in the virtue itself.
This isn’t to say the game’s interest in virtue is a unique trait. In fact, Ultima IV, released several years prior to Dragon Quest II, shares a similar kind of faith. The difference lies in how the two games inflect that interest. The former game focuses on the process of becoming. Its protagonist begins his journey an ordinary person and must work his way up to becoming the Avatar; the human embodiment of goodness. By contrast, there is no becoming within Dragon Quest II. Not only do the protagonists possess heroic virtue from the start, but it is because they possess this virtue that they can pose a threat to Hargon in the first place. Moreover, they are all of noble birth: the Hero (Prince) of Midenhall, the Prince of Cannock, the Princess of Moonbrooke. It’s tempting, then, to contrast Dragon Quest II against Ultima IV and argue that it conflates both meanings of the word “noble” to say that only the ruling class is truly capable of possessing virtue.
Yet an overly cynical reading like this doesn’t hold up to further scrutiny. Both games believe that anybody is capable of goodness so long as they make the effort, and both believe in this message so firmly as to espouse it wherever possible. For Ultima IV, that espousal requires a direct participation from the player in the process of moral instruction. Becoming the Avatar is not an inevitability, but instead the result of lived experiences within the world. Virtue is all the more valuable when one chooses it free of outside influence, Ultima IV reasons, so the game is structured in such a way that players must not only reason their way toward the core virtues, but make them directly relevant to their own being.
By contrast, Dragon Quest II is more directly interested in the virtues themselves. It values them too highly to let its players potentially wander away from them, or worse, interpret heroic virtue as a carte blanche justification to do as they please with the world. Rather than allow players a space in which to explore moral values, it instead provides the player direct moral instruction through a storybook/fairy tale framework. This is why the game’s roots in hero myth and the hero’s journey are so important: they facilitate its moral instruction. We are presented moral exemplars both so we have a clear idea of what the game’s virtues look like in practical terms and so we might model ourselves after these paragons of virtue.
This doesn’t mean the player can just passively receive that instruction. Dragon Quest II still expects its players to participate in its demonstration of virtue. But it’s a participation the game rigidly enforces. In fact, the game gives its players little choice but to participate in its instruction. While they are necessary to how the game functions, that necessity does not exist on the narrative level. Here, the player’s only option is to advance or fill in the gaps in the game’s moral vision, which takes precedence above all else.
Specifying our analysis only makes these points that much more relevant. First, it’s important to note that Dragon Quest II’s understanding of heroism is rooted not only in virtue, but in youth. Each of the three protagonists is a teen or young adult, and with the exception of the Princess (for obvious reasons), they each embark on their journey at the behest of their royal parents. Consider how this fact changes the nature of that journey and the heroes’ relationship with the world. If they were older (as in the cases of The Witcher and Nier), then they could pass as authority figures in that world. They would have no need to prove their virtue, but could instead define it for themselves and thus embody it. Being young, this option is not available to them. The protagonists live in a world of another’s making and must meet the standards that it imposes upon them.
Heroism, then, carries with it an expectation for growth, intersecting with ideas like lineage and maturation in the process. This much is clear from the moment one starts the game, when the King regales you about your descent about from the great hero Loto. This needn’t contradict our earlier claims about the game’s belief in people’s inherent goodness, and the game shows no interest in committing such contradictions, either. If anything, language like the symbolic act of passing one’s legacy down to their children (by opening the treasure chest the King gives you) or sending that child out to take down Hargon himself (rather than the army at that King’s disposal) emphasizes not the privileges that a heroic confers upon the individual, but the duties of fulfilling that heroic lineage in the present. It is because the blood of the hero runs through one’s veins that they must fulfill their heroic lineage to give it meaning. All the more important that one does so in their formative years so as to set a strong foundation for their adult life.
None of the characters hesitate in accepting that duty. Hesitation would threaten the moral certitude at the heart of Dragon Quest II. We don’t even see the kind of Freudian tension that supposes the only path to adulthood is to conquer their same-sex parent. The Hero and the Prince, both recognizing the absolute nature of moral law, adhere to their parents’ wishes without question. Read this way, Dragon Quest II is a game about the necessity of breathing life into ancient traditions by enacting them within our own lives.
(Before moving on, I wish to briefly cover how that theme applies to the Princess. Heroism isn’t closed off by gender in the game, but is heavily gendered nonetheless. While Dragon Quest II heavily invokes Christian imagery, she is the only character directly affected by it, being dressed as a nun and given the religiously devout name Maria in Japanese. And at least initially, her role in battle is to heal the other characters, IE provide support to the male party members on the front line. (This changes as the game progresses and she gains access to more powerful offensive magic.) Dragon Quest II suggests that the ideal girl maintains her chaste purity while the ideal boy takes the lead in various situations.)