Docked at the Pirate Bay

My first experience with Dragon Quest V was a little embarrassing. In high school, I tried my hand at the game for over an hour but couldn’t even make it past the first area. After talking to every NPC, searching every bookshelf and chest – all to no avail – I finally resorted to an online guide (purists forgive me).

Pirate players of DQV don't get to see or explore anything beyond this initial area.

Pirate players of DQV don’t get to see or explore anything beyond this initial area.

Considering the notorious difficulty of “old-school” JRPGs, my troubles would have actually been par for the course for games of this genre. DQV and many titles like it extend their already epic playtimes by refusing to guide the player any more than necessary. And when these games do offer direction, it’s often in the form of a cryptic or easy-to-miss piece of advice: a villager hints that a ghost only appears at night, or an in-game tome reveals the secret weak point of a boss enemy.

Alas, my inability to progress past the first scene had nothing to do with my Dragon Quest V’s difficulty nor my own inability to hurdle it. This was, though, still a case of JRPG developers withholding information from a clueless player.

I learned from the online walkthrough that when dev team ArtePiazza ported DQV from its home on the SNES to the Nintendo DS handheld, they inserted an intentional glitch to impede the progress of players who pirated the game. Essentially, DQV‘s code contains a series of authenticity tests, and if the game fails these, the game blocks the player from moving beyond the first area. In legitimate copies, the first chapter closes via a cutscene where the boat docks and the player ventures forth; in illicit copies like my own, that event simply isn’t triggered, so us pirates are fittingly stuck at sea for the duration of our playtime.

This time-travel animation loops endlessly in pirated copies of Chrono Trigger DS

This time-travel animation loops endlessly in pirated copies of Chrono Trigger DS

Anti-piracy measures in video games like DQV’s endless boat ride are not uncommon. In pirated copies of Chrono Trigger DS – another SNES-to-DS port of a classic JRPG – a typically 5-second long animation of a wormhole instead loops forever. Some games punish pirates by ratcheting up the difficulty (see: Earthbound), while others opt for a more whimsical approach (see: Alan Wake, which slaps a fun pirate patch on the main character’s face). Game-publishing simulator Game Dev Tycoon goes meta by blocking thieving players from turning an in-game profit.

Anti-piracy patch (pun intended) in Alan Wake

Anti-piracy patch (pun intended) in Alan Wake

These mechanisms are, in my opinion, a purer example of video games pulling pranks than the ones Ian Bogost describes in his chapter on the same topic. Here, Bogost cites Easter eggs and parody games as the videogame equivalent of pranks (38-39). I agree that these mechanisms do replicate the joking or mocking attitude found in most real-world pranks, but they ultimately fail to capture something that I consider an essential element: the uneven power dynamic between the prankster and the victim.

In most pranks, the prankster enjoys a moment – however brief – of complete control and total knowledge over the situation. Meanwhile, the victim of the prank is helpless and clueless, stuck pondering why the doorknobs are so slippery, why the mouse won’t work, or why this damned game can’t seem to load. The victim is saved only by a sudden “a-ha!” understanding of the situation, or by the prankster revealing his/her work – whichever comes first. I certainly had that shameful epiphany when I learned about DQV’s infinite boat ride glitch, and while I couldn’t spin around to find the game’s developers giggling at my struggle (or just grinning vindictively, more likely), I’d like to imagine they had a similar, preemptive satisfaction when they added the glitch to the game’s code.

This time around, I’m playing DQV on a legitimate DS cartridge, not a downloaded ROM file. I can’t honestly claim that the developers’ prank swayed me from my pirating ways entirely, but their effort did alert me to the human developers behind the game, and to the human pranksters chuckling in the next cubicle over. For consumers like myself, who try to justify ‘casual’ piracy by claiming that an already wealthy company/record label/developer surely won’t miss a few extra bucks, that reminder is sometimes enough.

 

Cited

Bogost, Ian. “Pranks.” How to Do Things with Videogames. U of Minnesota P, 2011, 37-44. Print.