Monday, May 18, 2020

The Modern Nostalgia of Dragon Quest XI: A Conversation

I've been mulling over the idea of writing *something* about Dragon Quest XI for several weeks / months now without having a firm plan of attack. Should this be a formal review, an essay, something else? I've appreciated and enjoyed Aidan Moher's video game writing, in particular, his focus on the nostalgia and legacy of older and classic RPGs and that's what had me almost inspired to write about Dragon Quest.

Adain and I go way back to the ye olde days of blogs, to a time when single author blogs were on the rise and starting to make a splash in genre conversation, long before we could even dream one of our blogs could actually win a Hugo Award (first SF Signal, and then Aidan's A Dribble of Ink in 2014 - has it already been six years).

I'm not sure how this conversation started, but I can only imagine that I made the mistake of mentioning that I wanted to write about the nostalgic of Dragon Quest XI where Aidan could see it and he thought it would be a great thing to talk about. How could I resist? Aidan's perspective and writing about the same video games I loved growing up has been top notch and it was time we had a proper chat like we did oh so many years ago. This may not be dueling essays in conversation with each other, but we each have some thoughts about Dragon Quest XI, a 2017 release from SquareEnix on the Playstation 4 and last year released on the Nintendo Switch.

Joe: At the moment I’m some 70-75 hours into Dragon Quest 11 and it’s a nostalgic delight. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve really sat down and played a classic JRPG on a console and it is everything I didn’t know that I was missing. I believe you said that you were right around the same point, just about ready to finish up the game.

Aidan: Yeah. I've just finished up the majority of the post-game content (which, really, is the game's third act and adds a ton of necessary context and story) and will face off against the final boss soon. About 95 hours for me.

"Nostalgic delight" is an understatement. I'm flip side of the coin because I've been playing a TON of classic console JRPGs over the past 2-3 years--from Chrono Trigger to Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete to Final Fantasy VII--and Dragon Quest XI feels like the natural evolution of those 16- and 32-bit JRPGs. It's like it just ignored everything that happened in the space during the past decade or two, which is totally up my alley. I'm fascinated by the way I can feel nostalgia for something brand new.

Joe: Recently (and by recently I mean over the last few years) I’ve played through Dragon Quests 1-3 on my iphone and that’s really rekindled my interest in JRPGs. I used to LOVE that style of game, but as my family has grown and the amount of gaming time I have has decreased, I’m really not up on today’s JRPGs. I’ve followed the genre, but the move to games like Fallout and Skyrim (let alone Dark Souls) has passed me by.

Until Dragon Quest XI, I would have told you that I don’t have the time nor the inclination to sink 100+ hours into a video game anymore. Give me a nice 15 hour story, preferably action packed and not excessively difficult and I’m there. And then Dragon Quest XI came along and hit every button I didn’t know I still had.

The thing, I *like* turn based and menu driven combat. Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing video games for 30+ years and as such don’t play at the same level I did 15-20 years ago, but it’s reassuring and it is comforting and for how I am playing Dragon Quest right now - it’s the right speed for me.

Does the silent protagonist bother you? I love so much about Dragon Quest XI, but with every other character with voice acting and having the hero just nod and wave his hand is not my favorite thing.

This is about as much personality as the hero gets, though sometimes he also looks determined.
Aidan: Silent protagonists come under a lot of heat, but they've never really bothered me in older games. As the level of fidelity and detail grow, however, they make less and less sense, and it feels particularly odd in Dragon Quest XI. With so much voice acting in the game, every time the protagonist (who I'll call Eleven) responds by awkwardly staring into space or making a weird little gasp feels uncanny. The characters all behave as though he's this magnetic hero type, but so much of that is personality and charisma—and Eleven has none of that.

I recently replayed Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (and a bit of Grandia before that) and one of the things that really stood out to me in those games was the personalities of the protagonists really shining through. By emphasizing their personalities, they felt like much more engage and proactive heroes, compared to, say, Crono from Chrono Trigger or Eleven from Dragon Quest XI. Those silent types require others to push the story forward and they act as sort of a… defining element for the protagonist's actions and motivations. It's almost like they're the splash of paint revealing the invisible protagonist.

So as we're talking about nostalgia, I think there are some elements that work in older games, where the player is already doing a lot of heavy lifting to visualize the game world thanks to less detailed pixel art graphics, but falls apart in a modern game like Dragon Quest XI.

It's interesting to me that you brought up Fallout and Skyrim, though, as those aren't JRPGs, but are western-made. There was a major dearth of JRPGs during PS3/Xbox 360 era outside of the handhelds, and though I spent a lot of time playing games like Skyrim, it was also the console generation that I spent the least amount of time gaming during. Even now, with kids, a full time job, etc., I squeak out the time to play long JRPGs, even if it takes me months.

Another thing I've noticed is that 100+ RPGs are more of a modern thing. Going back and playing a bunch of SNES JRPGs, I found that they're all generally less than 40 hours, and even something like Chrono Trigger took me less than 20 hours on a fresh, non-New Game+ playthrough. They started getting longer during the PlayStation era, but even then, I just finished FFVII, did most of the optional content outside the Weapons, and it took me 45 hours. Those were different times, though, and we didn't have resources like the Internet to help us power through something like Final Fantasy VI, causing it to take longer to beat then than now. The length came more from the unknown and having to figure out everything on your own or with the help of your pals on the schoolyard, rather than just pure content.

Joe: See, that’s why I brought up Fallout and Skyrim. They are two of the most prominent “western style” RPGs that defined that PS3 and early PS4 era. I tend to think in terms of Playstation because that was the console road I went down. I missed out on a lot of Mario and Zelda, but that’s a separate conversation.

Stylistically, I don’t enjoy playing them. I’m basing that on Fallout 3, mostly - and the whole concept of the 100hr game. I think some SNES and early playstation games felt longer because they *could* be longer. If I only get two games a year because I’m a kid with limited (at best) income, I’m going to do EVERYTHING. I’m going to level all characters to 99 and max out my Espers and find all the secrets because what else am I going to do. My impression of modern RPGs, right or wrong, is that they require 100+ hours and I don’t have time for that.

But even that is apparently wrong as I close in on 75 hours of Dragon Quest 11, a game that while long does not feel excessively padded.

I think that’s part of what is getting to the nostalgia we’re talking about. It *feels* like a game made twenty years ago but - silent protagonist aside - is far smoother in gameplay mechanics. This Dragon Quest plays like our best memories of many of those older games.

It also feels like a Dragon Quest game. That’s not something you necessarily get as Final Fantasy has evolved. Dragon Quest XI has the bones of every Dragon Quest that has come before. I’m shocked that it is ten years old at this point, but Final Fantasy XIII at best uses the wallpaper of the series.

With all of that said, and to loop back to the silent protagonist - where I completely agree with you is that Eleven seems to have none of the charisma of other silent protagonists and definitely lacks that of characters who have a defined personality. I don’t want to map myself on the hero. That’s not how I play anymore, if it ever was.

Aidan: Thanks to stuff like Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Trials of Mana, and Link's Awakening, I've been thinking a lot about remakes, reimaginings, and remasters. And how as a generation of older gamers, many of us now with kids, developers and publishers are using nostalgia as a marketing tactic. Though Dragon Quest XI is an entirely new game, in a lot of ways it utilizes nostalgia and our affection for the older games we used to play as kids in the same way as a remake.

No really, this is Dragon Quest 11
What's particularly remarkable about Dragon Quest XI is not only does it feel like someone time warped a classic Dragon Quest title into a modern wrapper, but they actually included a full-fledged 16-bit version of the game with the Switch version. It's like you get the original game and the remake in one package. It reminds me of how Square Enix finally, after over two decades, finally released a localized version of Seiken Densetsu 3 in Collection of Mana, only to release a from-the-ground up remake the following year. You get the fuzzy golden feeling of the original, and the polished modern version of the remake all wrapped up in one.

Without going too far into spoiler territory, the game's true ending, which you get after beating the option content in act three, really doubles down on the nostalgia by basically implying that, without realizing it, you've just played through a bit of series lore that stretches all the way back to the series' earliest days on the NES. The way it's split into three distinct parts also replicates the trilogy structure used by the older games in the series. Sure, it's 100 hours long, but it's also like three games in one. Or six games, if you count the 3D and 2D versions separately.

Joe: The thing about nostalgia as a marketing tactic is that it’s effective. Despite somehow never playing Secret of Mana, I’ve played the less successful sequels (not to mention similar games like Secret of Evermore and Illusion of Gaia) and I’m just about as excited for Trials of Mana as I am for any modern game - notwithstanding the new Spider-Man game calling my name. I need more Mana in my life. Hell, Kingdom Hearts 3 works solely on nostalgia for the first two games because the story makes no damn sense and the gameplay mechanics are not significantly improved in the fourteen years since the last main line game. If I had a Switch, I’d be ALL OVER Link’s Awakening.

I’m less excited about Final Fantasy VII Remake and it’s entirely because the gameplay mechanics are not a polished modern version of what we knew before, but a complete revamping. It’s an expansion of the story, but it’s not the same sort of game. Not really.

Dragon Quest XI, to get back on topic, is exactly that. And since I haven’t finished the game yet, I will say that I’ve been suspicious for quite a while about “Erdwin” and how close that name is to Erdrick. It’s not a road we need to go down right now, but it’s one of those echoes that is similar to how Final Fantasy re-uses names except that right now Dragon Quest is using the nostalgia more effectively. Or, more accurately - Dragon Quest is using nostalgia more purposefully and with greater intent.

We’re both steeped in the traditions and the history of JRPGs, you perhaps a little more deeply than me, but we’ve grown up with these games and they’ve been formative in our lives. How do you think a game like Dragon Quest XI works for newer and younger players? My son likes watching me play, but he’s 5 and the colors are bright and the monsters are relatively cute and less frightening - so I’m not sure he is representative of anything beyond a boy who likes to spend time with his dad.

Dragon Quest's legendary hero, referenced in the first Final Fantasy
Aidan: Oh, dude, Joe. Hang onto those thoughts about Erdwin/Erdrick for a bit longer, and then maybe we do a sequel to this conversation.

My eldest is also five, and we've spent more time playing games like Pokemon Sword and Animal Crossing than we have Dragon Quest XI. That being said, gaming is interesting because it's such a new medium compared to theatre, books, music, and even film. Within our lifetime (or at least that of our parents, with Bertie the Brain in the late 50s), we've literally experienced the entirety of videogaming history. And what I take from that is that even our modern games, including remakes like Final Fantasy 7 and games that aren't quite remakes but are built of the same stuff like Dragon Quest XI, is very much built on the same foundation as the games we grew up playing 20 or 30 years ago.

Like a lot of people our age, my parents weren't into videogames as anything more than a novelty (besides my mom's GameBoy Tetris obsession), but they supported us when we wanted to rent an NES and Marble Madness from the video store for a weekend. Back then, games were like toys, something for kids, and I picked out whatever seemed cool at the video store. Nowadays, as kids are raised into families that have a long history of gaming, we, as parents, inform what they're exposed to, and that in itself starts to build bonds and nostalgia. I have fond memories of watching Star Trek with my mom, and my daughter will have fond memories of playing Pokemon with me. Nostalgia's huge right now, but it's still only a generation old, and there's so much more room for it to find its place in the market. What's going to happen when these kids who grew up playing Animal Crossing with their mom become game developers? What sort of heights of love and creativity will they reach? It's cool to think about.

I didn't actually discover the Dragon Quest series until Dragon Quest 8 on the PlayStation 2, but even that game (though it was the last non-MMORPG, home console game in the series) is already 16 years old. So I think what I'm most impressed about when it comes to Dragon Quest XI's use of nostalgia is that it makes me feel like a kid again. It doesn't look like the SNES games I used to play, but it does look like the adventures as they played out in my head. It's particularly interesting to play the Switch version because it includes the SNES-style "demake" of Dragon Quest XI right on the box. It really doubles down on nostalgia, and highlights how structurally similar the game is to 16-bit JRPGs.

Joe: My five year old also likes playing Lego Jurassic World with me, which is nice.

I do find it very interesting that you came to Dragon Quest so late in life. On one hand, you missed out on Dragon Quest (then Dragon Warrior) on the NES - which means you missed out on having your saved game erased ALL THE TIME. Though, to be fair, was the case with so many battery based games. I’m not sure there was a battery based game that didn’t have erasure issues. If there was, I don’t remember - probably because it didn’t cause my childhood eternal pain.

With that said, I also jumped from Dragon Quest 1 to Dragon Quest 7 on the PSX and never made it that far with 7, then stepped back to 4 on the Nintendo DS. It’s just that Dragon Quest has been so ever present in my life - always at least somewhere in the back of my mind or just looming as a game I want to play.

Dragon Quest XI has brought all of that together - the memories and the nostalgia, and wrapped it in a just-modern-enough package that, at least for me, it works.

You know what, though? I really like the idea of our kids having those fond memories of playing games with us - whether is Pokemon, Dragon Quest, Animal Crossing, or whatever Lego game. I remember watching Matlock and Columbo with my father, and a show that nobody remembers called Brooklyn Bridge with my mother - and those are really nice memories. Much better than the memory of watching White Men Can’t Jump with my parents when I was 13, only for everyone to be very uncomfortable with the ONE partially nude scene in the movie. That’s a different conversation, though. But the thought that Andy will look back on playing games with me as a formative part of his childhood - that’s really nice. I like that.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He continues to write about video games with his column, Insert Cartridge.