War Stories

In his essay on gamic action, Alexander Galloway notes that many turn-based role-playing games (RPGs) and strategy games are essentially games of menu navigation, wherein most or all gameplay takes place within menus (14). This is certainly the case for Square Enix’s 1992 RPG classic for the SNES, Dragon Quest V: The Hand of the Heavenly Bride (henceforth abbreviated to DQV). Much like early entries in its sister series Final Fantasy, players coordinate and complete battles in DQV by issuing commands to their party members. Players choose from “Fight”, “Tactics”, or “Flee” at the start of each turn; once the party’s actions are locked in, the protagonists and enemies trade blows until one side falls.

Dragon Quest V's battle screen

Dragon Quest V’s battle screen

Interestingly, DQV (and most other games in the Dragon Quest series) renders battles from a first-person perspective. High-quality pixel portraits of demon foes confront the player, and enemy attack animations gradually grow in size to create an illusion of moving through the screen and toward the player. Similarly, the protagonists’ own attack animations emanate not from sprites of the heroes (which are never shown during battle) but from thin air, as if the player himself/herself is wielding the whip, staff, or axe.  This setup stands in marked contrast to the battle scenes of early Final Fantasy games, which display both the player’s party and any enemies meeting on the battlefield.

Final Fantasy's battle screen

Final Fantasy’s battle screen

I could certainly write an entire game log entry on the effects of having DQV’s enemies face and attack the player directly, and of the heightened identification this induces with the game’s protagonists. However, I’d actually like to zero in on a particular scene, where DQV exploits its first-person battle perspective to heighten the tragedy of an early plot twist.

DQV’s story spans the entire lifetime of the game’s silent Hero (capitalized here because the player does get to choose the protagonist’s first name), so at least a little exposition is necessary for me to explain the scene I have in mind. The game’s first few hours depict the Hero’s childhood as he embarks on incrementally more exciting adventures, from freeing a helpless villager trapped under a boulder, to saving a tortured wildcat kitten, to ridding a haunted castle of its ghosts.

This first act concludes with the biggest adventure yet: the Hero has traveled to the royal capital with his father, and within minutes are tasked with retrieving a kidnapped prince. The Hero and father track the kidnappers to their hideout, where the father rescues Harry and tasks his son with guiding the prince out of the cave and back to safety. They are inches away from freedom when a demon lord appears and swiftly defeats the Hero and prince.

The father arrives moments too late and engages in battle with the demon lord. At this point, the game transitions unexpectedly from exposition to gameplay, and the player is for the first time handed control of the Hero’s father. Battle proceeds as expected for a few turns, but is then interrupted by a sudden twist: the demon lord scoops up the unconscious Hero and holds a scythe to his neck, daring the father to continue attacking risk his son’s life.

The moments following the Hero's death in DQV

The moments following the Hero’s father’s death in DQV

Naturally, the selfless father refuses. The game transitions back into the battle screen, but now, the player is robbed of any autonomy. He/she must simply watch as the Hero’s father stands resolute and accepts the demon lord’s attacks. It takes over a minute for the father’s massive health bar to reach zero, at which point the battle concludes and the father dies (permanently and canonically, unlike typical in-battle deaths).

It would have been wounding enough to simply show the Hero’s father, up to this point invincible and infallible, suddenly slain in a cinematic interlude. But by transporting the tragic event into the battle screen, the player becomes acutely aware of a number of factors, all of which heighten the scene’s emotional resonance. First, we experience the true resolve of the father’s love for his son as he withstands a barrage of attacks from the villain. Second, our surprise at this narrative twist is compounded by a shift in gameplay, as the typically free battle menu is suddenly converted from a gameplay interface to a mere set piece. Finally, we are aligned with the father and placed in a scenario painfully similar to his own: desperate to act, but forced to endure.

Cited

Galloway, Alexander. “Gamic Action, Four Moments.” Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.