Embarking on an epic journey filled with swords, sorcery, and mythological creatures is everyone’s dream. From the rebellious kids who wish they were someone else to the hard working parents who could do with a break most days, the fantasy of another reality is in all our minds. Some cater to Netflix while others prefer actually exploring a whole new world with the help of video games.
Video games have been around for less than a century, yet they’re the fastest and most prominent form of entertainment. The history of film-making is equally rich and filled with revolutionary milestones such as the first Star Wars or the technology used in James Cameron’s Avatar, but they don’t offer a level of immersion as engaging as video games. Breathtaking natural sceneries, spaceships, cataclysmic spells, eldritch horrors–there’s enough diversity to fulfill every taste. But what are we experiencing as players? Are we living in the worlds we’ve always dreamed of, or merely witnessing someone else’s imagination taking form?
While titles such as Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater are great, they don’t fill the void left by our need to be someone else. While established games offer the advantage of an amazing story and unforgettable characters, they don’t offer freedom. Thus come sandbox titles, most of which aim to place the reins of narrative into the player’s hands. From the harsh wilderness of Minecraft and its popular building mode to the frosty peaks and political conflicts of Skyrim, the genre seems to be constantly responsible for how we interact with its medium. The latter title, in particular, changed the world of gaming back when it released in 2011 and continues to be one of the most relevant games ever created, with its remastered edition being one of the most exciting releases of 2016. Yet, the fifth entry in the iconic The Elder Scrolls franchise failed to leave a lasting impression on me.
The idea of Bethesda’s Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series is for players to make their own memories in an established world filled with side paths, alternate stories, and secrets. Alas, that never seemed to be enough for me. I always feel like the world around is swallowing me into a reality brought to life by someone else, so whatever choices I make never seem authentic. The sheer freedom supplied by Minecraft and Don’t Starve is overwhelming as I can’t find anything to cling to, so you might as well call me Jared Leto for being this picky.
Although I always have fun and take something out of the games I play, I could never say I had found the title that let me experience just the right amount of independence. That is until Dragon’s Dogma hit the blessed hallways of Steam’s storefront. The ideas of Capcom’s open-world action-RPG, first released in 2012 for PlayStation 3 and XBox 360, didn’t stick to me right off the bat. It took me countless sneers, dead goblins, and a long hiatus until its premise finally sank in and changed how I see sandbox RPGs.
Dragon’s Dogma is often deemed as one of the best games for the PlayStation 3 (for some reason I never see mention of its Xbox 360 version) but is not without its faults. The most praised aspect is its dynamic and engaging combat, with an abundance of vocations and skills providing for an even larger range of options to help tweak your character. Confronting foes is always an excitement due to the many ways one can adapt with a single class, with larger ones such as griffins and chimeras offering a fulfilling challenge. Unfortunately, most of the game’s other aspects such as its story and the world fail to achieve the same level of recognition. The diluted plot is forgettable and the characters fade as quickly as they appear, while the lackluster world is but a series of corridors and large ballrooms where beasts and bandits prowl the same corners defeat after defeat. One thing I realized after picking it up again is that these weaknesses are actually some of Dragon’s Dogma‘s strengths, the problem being what we as gamers expect of such a title.
Unlike its competitors, Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t try to impress players at every turn. The lore of Gransys doesn’t seem rich at first glance, but the simple yet fantastic event that drives the player character out of their once peaceful fishing village gives space to more freedom, a task many open-world RPGs try to accomplish. The Arisen’s title and journey come solely because of The Dragon, with the world also changing due to the beast’s coming. However, not every event between the attack in Cassardis and the epic battle atop the Tainted Mountain are a direct consequence of what happens in the first half-hour of gameplay. Quina’s search for clues that might aid her friend’s adventure is a consequence of the wyrm’s sighting, but Reynard’s pilgrimage was set in motion mainly for his particular dilemmas. The same can be said of the majority of requests made by NPCs, where the dragon is an excuse to get up and ask someone to do their bidding, but not directly related. The lack of twists in the plot helps the player feel like they are leaving a mark in the world, whereas other stories seem to affect the character, always turning him or her into what the developers want. It gives purpose instead of reason, a feat that few can brag about.
Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls before it executed this approach to lore brilliantly by affording vague notions of direction and no purpose whatsoever. Finding out what happened before and during the course of the games in the Souls series requires a massive amount of research through in-game item descriptions, character dialogue, enemy placements, environment, and the internet. And even then, making sense of the information is a task of its own. The most reliable source of information in Dragon’s Dogma is its characters, as the world tries to tell a story through its environment–much like Demon’s Souls–but fails by not even attempting to raise any questions. The dwellers of Gransys are unique in their own manner, alas it takes a while until they become memorable and once some of them do, they disappear into their own peaceful programming. That can be both good and bad because it helps players relate to the world, but also extinguishes their chances of getting to know those characters better… and maybe tricking them into wearing a certain ring. As disappointing as it is, this presentation adds replayability by suggesting a more aggressive approach in further playthroughs, encouraging players to seek the lore instead of waiting for it to fall from the sky.
Dragon’s Dogma proved it survives the test of time with its release on Steam four years after it came out on consoles. Still, the exposure to a different public didn’t seem to affect how it is perceived. That can be due to how many other games, despite how they move the industry forward, spoil players by supplying them with all the necessary tools to find themselves within the lore. Some gems succeed in stimulating the mind by arming the character with the most basic provisions and reminding them to walk in the shadows, which generally teaches a lesson or two.