An Introduction, Fragmented

~ intro ~ I ~ II ~ III ~ IV ~
~ return ~

The only one fully completed, the only one left (mostly) untouched. Probably should've realized this was all a fool's errand when the draft clocked in at 9,000 words...

The world is stories.
—N.K. Jemisin

To restrict yourself to the game’s text and text alone, to refuse to interact with the world that it was molded, formed, and consumed in, that is what limits us.
—Jacob Geller, “The Future of Writing About Games”

All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.
—E.B. White

Nothing is ever created in a vacuum.

Think about the act of creating fanworks. You find a story. You experience the story, whether part or all of it. Something happens in the process of experiencing the story, something profound.

Your singular collection of perspectives and life experiences color the implications of the story—the dazed stupors of high and low emotions, implied words behind words that were said, a veiled throughline connecting character(s)’ actions together, fractured scenes arranging a reflection of your life unfolding before your very eyes—and no matter how trivial or unintentional the aims of both creator and viewer, they bleed together and alchemize into an unseen, ineffable need. A need that carves out an emptiness, a dissatisfaction, a possibility space that the original, paradoxically, cannot fill.

You have to feel the magic again. You have to know what those words really mean. You have to see the reflection in full. You have to find the full picture within yourself, for yourself.

And so, you create. You grasp for the magic again, try to capture it in an artful container. You expand the implications of those words into the relationships of the speaker—friendship, desire, romance, or the common complexities lying between. You arrange the shattered pieces into order, to see how well the picture staring back matches yours. You tell your own version of the story.

The art, which originally existed outside of bubble you were in, quietly crept or blithely walked or loudly barged into your being and affected you, compelled you to bring something into the world. And this longing was never just limited to original and fanwork. You’ve probably heard the well-worn examples. A painter witnesses a beautiful landscape in nature and commits it to canvas, a writer chronicles the struggles from the outside world and/or inside themselves, and so on and so forth. Life begets art, or art imitates life, as they always say.

Now, think about the world you currently live in. Not the establishment’s steadily-progressing regression back to open pre-20th century discrimination (though while tangential here, is more than distantly relevant to the topic at hand). Think about how you interact with the world, drenched with enough digital interfaces to create an endless deluge of media overflowing our attention. Swept along by the swallowing sea as we all are, a virtually endless amount of games, TV, movies, books, and more flows within the grasps of our keyboard and/or smartphone-sore fingertips every single microsecond.

Some flows are bigger than others, though. Much, much, much bigger. Thanks to the nigh-endless reservoirs of resources a handful of corporate entities have coerced to possess, they can pump out enough “content” to crowd out vast swaths of smaller streams. They can make themselves seem like nothing else exists, that their island is all anyone can find out in the vast ocean.

And each of these companies’ fountaining islands? Depending on your engagement, they can seep into your bubble, too. They can color your view of the world in specific ways. It colors the views of the millions who consume their streams of “content,” and the streams those consumers release from their bubble might color or distort the views of those who encounter their “content,” and so on and so forth. The splashiest scapegoat anyone can point to is Disney, with its Marvels and Star Wars and what-billion-dollar-productions-have-you cinematic universes collapsing awareness of the history of entire visual mediums into an endlessly recycled present. Yet this crowding out has always been foundational to the videogame business as most know it long before nerd culture began spreading like spice across the seas.

Just look at Nintendo, the company that curates itself as the Disney of videogames. While they found their fame with the age-old practice of modifying existing games (Donkey Kong was originally a licensed Popeye the Sailor arcade game, and Super Mario Bros. was essentially a finely-tuned improvement of a Pac-Man spinoff), they solidified it by strictly limiting what games were released on their flagship consoles and viciously sinking anything that might challenge them as sole stewards of their properties. (A practice that still continues to this day, leading to many people who like their games manifesting their love with fangames or archivists preserving games the company won’t even bother to keep having their work taken down and facing legal consequences—which has literally put someone in prison!)

As far as I can tell, Square Enix—a result of a merger between Squaresoft and Enix—isn’t nearly as cutthroat when it comes to fans riffing and modding their properties. And why would they? They’ve got too big and diverse a library in the seas of RPGs alone to care. An entire ocean’s worth of classics in their own right, left adrift in time: Parasite Eve, Vargrant Story, Valkyrie Profile, Xenogears, Front Mission, and more. LIVE A LIVE and Chrono Cross, cult classics fortunate enough to be retrieved and revamped for a new audience. Seminal series like SaGa, Mana, and Star Ocean, each defining how the genre “should” be for all their devotees. Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy, all grasping for imagined ideals of their past library (to varying degrees of success) while pushing the mechanics underlying them to ever-spectacular heights.

by @XenoTrivia on twitter

Then there’s the big three. We all know them. We’ve all probably made or consumed fanworks for more than one of them. The debatably incomprehensible but definitely listless mashup Tetsuya Nomura continues to convolute at the mouse’s behest in Kingdom Hearts (saying this as someone who upholds 358/2 Days as one of their favorite videogames ever), juxtaposing childish lightheartedness with existential-grade melodrama and vehement speeches about light and friendship and darkness and despair turned up to eleven. The ever-shifting aesthetics and and ever-shifting systems ever-shifting prestige of the paradoxically fitting Final Fantasy—which, not at all coincidentally, has began writing the extended universe around Final Fantasy VII even drier than it was with its Compilation for two decades now (saying this as someone who likes the original and Remake).

And, of course, they one you’re even reading this for—Dragon Quest. The one that made the framework, yet the one who could not rule them all outside its homeland. While the rest of its contemporaries rooted themselves up and branched out, Dragon Quest alone remained faithful to what it planted, a homestyle stew of swords and sorcery storylines packaged in a cutely zany fairytale aesthetic. Until now, it seems, since the next main entry is supposed to uproot many elements of its identity, entirely predictably given the new AAA space the series is still trying its best to penetrate—and likely for a worse, “gritter” dissonance. Nonetheless, these are the holy trinity of Square Enix’s role playing games. The holy spirit, the son, and the father.

Now, let’s get less metaphorical, more specific. Let’s think about how a series’ popularity plays out in the compulsive, attention-corroding unreality of commercial social media platforms. Arcane workings of their algorithms are inevitably devised for the designs of their corporate overlords, and if you want to experience its heady hits of rising validation numbers, you must tailor your “content” to play their identity-collapsing game. (I am not going to explain how or why a series gets more popular than others, it’s a complex confluence of circumstances but at this point ultimately boils down do how much money is willing to spend to make itself popular—see the original FFVII or whatever AAA game is in vogue for prime examples.) If you’re one who likes to post both fanworks and original creations, you’ve no doubt noticed the gulf between receptions to the former and latter can be thousands of points long.

Twitter user @batshaped explains this phenomenon with a comic from the viewer’s perspective, describing three principals of how a so-called algorithm in the human brain values what art they encounter on social media: reflectiveness, inhabitability, and comprehensiveness. A work’s reflectiveness measures, well, how much a given work represents what already resonates with the viewer, what they already know. That resonance can be guessed by how inhabitable it is—if a character(s) is already well into the collective cultural consciousness or simply undefined enough, then those characters are more inhabitable. Put together, they can measure a work’s comprehensiveness, or how much new, specialized information the viewer will need to understand a work’s import. The more comprehensive a work is, the more its tropes or characters have been internalized in the culture, the more likely human algorithms will lock on to it during idle scrolling.

So, going by all this, which of each duo do you think is more likely to be popular, the one to garner more money, more internet points? An illustration of original characters in an evocative scene that took hours to render in meticulous detail, or a 10 minute doodle depicting widely-known characters in a memey, “relatable” scenario? Fanart for, say, a Persona game versus any Dragon Quest game before XI? A distinctive narrative that takes all the expectations of a specific genre and/or medium and bends them towards new, uncharted territory—or a glitzed up, well-promoted story following a trodden path, checking all the accompanying trope boxings and hitting all the expected narrative beats on the way to a predictable ending? (The latter isn’t inherently bad, and obviously contestable when you look at the stories du jour of any given moment—but also consider the five act “hero’s journey” is the de facto structure preached as gospel in a lot of Western storytelling.)

If you’re guessing that my implication is that outsized corporate backing heavily determines the “content” fandom makes, then you’re absolutely correct! And you really didn’t need to read all this to understand this phenomenon—simply go to, mouseover “Fandoms” on the navbar and click “All Fandoms,” and see how the fandoms with the highest volume of works more-or-less corresponds to how much money was behind the property! Dragon Quest doesn’t have a big fandom outside of Japan because Square Enix hasn’t lavished it with nearly enough glamor as it does other games until recently, among other reasons!

This is, however, only one piece needed to understand the puzzle of Dragon Quest XI as a game, as a cultural object, its fandom. Because again—nothing is ever created or consumed in a vacuum. When someone writes a fic where they insert themselves, or one inspired by their own experiences, or retreats to a comforting fic or anything in response to the turbulence of life, that is literally responding to something that happened in the world.

So, let’s think about transformative fandom, an environment commonly touted as a wonderful and inclusive and subversive and entirely progressive space insular enough to escape from the world’s problems. Let’s chart the winds pushing along the waves and all the bubbles floating upon them. Let’s get political, which is always personal.

Think about the shoddy base of patriarchy providing the foundation of the world we’re in. Think about how women can sometimes be the pillars upholding it, despite being constantly battered and broken by the misogyny central to its arrangement. Think about how the demographics of transformative fandom skews towards women and AFAB folks.

Think about how stories value kinds of power coded on the gender spectrum, and how feminine power is constantly devalued or ignored or erased. Think about how female characters are constantly devalued or ignored or erased. Think about the oceans of M/M fanworks dominating what transformative fandom produces, year after year. (I am not implying causality between this or any of the examples I raise here, but there are absolutely connections that more people need to be aware of.)

Think about how genres are essentially sets of expectations—or tropes, as they’re known in some parlances. Think about how the usage of certain tropes in certain genres lead to them becoming more popular than others—a formula for success, you can say. Think about the concept of “fandom ghosts,” a collection of traits drifting around from fic to fic on the sea winds, possessing their leading love interests—and how regardless of the genders or sexualities of said hosts, many of them eerily echo the roles provided by patriarchy.

Think about the western fascination with chosen ones. Kings, messiahs, rulers, individualists. Men with the power to make or break the rules. Men with agency. Men given the divine or bloodright to unite a group of people behind them and guide them towards salvation and prosperity. Then stare at the sheer immensity of problems facing the world today, and consider how a single man could possibly rally everyone together to solve any of it by their will all on their own.

I imagine this might be where some readers would draw the line on these criticisms. “Dragon Quest is just a videogame! It’s supposed to be dumb and silly and cozy! It’s not endorsing any (plainly) problematic stuff! Dragon Quest doesn’t have one of those oversized fandoms where folks constantly pump out content and launder abuse through hyperbolic discourse every two seconds, it doesn’t need any haters! Let people enjoy things!” And so on, and so forth.

It’s not worth acknowledging any of this. Explaining how “escapism” and “comfort” and all the other cozy labels are constructed and contextual along with who has the privilege of enjoying them is waaaay outside of the scope of this series. But really, all of those notions imply that those concepts don’t exist in relation to the real life they differentiate from. Which, if you’ve been following my argument here, simply is not, and has never been true.

And really, there’s an insidious aspect to today’s constant compulsions for comfort. If you’re too busy trying to fill your bubble with mirrors, you might miss the incoming breaker as its builds right in front of you.

The world that was built for us (but not for us) is literally crumbling, bit by bit, before our very eyes. And we’re supposed to just cycle from one interchangeable piece of content to the other, consume them dry, overdose ourselves on digital painkillers until it finally collapses.

Fuck that.

I want the fics I write to be dumb, and silly, and funny, and cool, and uplifting, and affirming—and yes, “escapist,” to a degree. I promise you, while the turns Vivify might take will force you to reevaluate your notions about Dragon Quest and fantasy RPGs in general, it isn’t going to go very far off the rails for some puritanical exposé of the original game.

But I will not—can not—pretend the stories I tell somehow exist on a continuum separate from the world they were written in.

I can’t put this much effort into a story and not try to engage with the world, fictional or otherwise. I can’t take up readers’ attentions for this long and not try spurring them to think about their place in it. (This was probably true long before I started putting together what would become The Healer and the Vagabond.) I can't.

Stories shape the world we live in. And as someone with a gaze that ultimately lies beyond fandom’s horizons, I am intensely aware of the magical, if not spiritual power stories have on people. It doesn’t matter if it’s a ten second TikTok, a minutes long “objective” news article, a hour and a half long movie, a days-worth-of-playtime videogame, or a thousands-of-words piece of fiction.

As much as its thrown around as a joke, with the shrinking margins of time everyone but a select few people have to truly live, and the endless amounts of commodified “content” devouring what’s left, it’s not a stretch to say life does imitate art, nowadays.

There are three major contexts coloring the bubble my DQXI fics are written in. The first is that sometime back in 2016, while lazing around in a bathroom closet at the dreary European-inspired amusement park I was working at, I had the idea for an RPG Maker game.

Not a particularly unique RPG Maker game, mind you. Like a lot of folks who stumble across the program, I had absolutely no idea how to make my own audiovisual assets—and given the seemingly endless masses of original or commercial or ripped resources of varying legality one could dig up, not much desire to learn.

For the unaware, RPG Maker or RPGツクール (Tsukūru, a play on "tool" and the Japanese word for make, つくる), is a series of game development software that’s tailor made for exactly what it says on the tin: creating Japanese-style—or, if you know the history of the genre, in the same vein of Dragon Quest—role-playing games. Mapmaking, battle systems, scene scripting, text display, character stats; all the nitty gritty number punching and UI rendering all pre-coded and ready to run. Many a budding childhood-JRPG-liker would try molding those templates into the 50-hour epic of their own, no doubt emboldened by the prepackaged mapping and animation and audio assets most editions of the software come with, allowing them to swiftly manifest their vision before them.

I had already messed with the VX Ace version for quite some time until then, aimlessly hopping from one half-formed idea to the next yet never developing any or messing around with pre-made scripts from the internet. It would take the idle freedom of college to actually turn those disparate efforts into sustained focus on a single project. And even then, what I initially set out to make didn’t have a goal in the first place, since it wasn’t until encountering Dragon Quest VIII for the first time in 2017 that really pushed it into a discernible direction.

Alas! Like all who immediately endeavor to create the double-digit-hour RPG of their dreams, when faced with the immense number of tasks it would take to get even the basic functions and workflow set up—character and item and variable databases, wrapping one’s head around scripts modifying the engine’s default settings, a sideview battle system with custom animations, gathering resources for enough locales and scenarios to fit a globetrotting narrative, writing the aforementioned narrative—I didn’t get particularly far in the process.

Common notions surrounding creativity would probably mark all those efforts a failure, especially since I didn’t have much to show except for a couple diminutive demos (one of which can still be downloaded if one wishes). The insight I got into game development and the creative process was more than worth it, though—including the revelation that I motivated as much by the specific possibilities of videogames as much as I was the story that plays out within them. And so, invigorated by my newly-regained penchant for fantasy novels around the time, I took the broad strokes of the game’s story, RPG mechanics and all, and retrofitted them into written fiction.

Of course, this was also sometime early in 2018. I had finished DQVIII and was working my way through earlier DQ titles by then. In March, news broke that Dragon Quest XI’s international release was happening that year—and when I heard the colorful ranges of the English localization’s British voice acting, I knew I was going to devour that game. Over the entire September the game was released, just about every waking hour in my college apartment that wasn’t spent eating or doing coursework was consumed by Dragon Quest XI.

(click here to listen to the exact line that sold me on this game. Listen to that faceless guard's dopey emphasis in the way he delivers "come and get it." absolutely exquisite. If there is one thing about this series that's almost impossible to harp on, it's the localization and voice work. Even the Japanese voices are fucking amazing, god)

Needless to say, it had a lot of influence on what the final version of said RPG-turned-novel would become—though how it reached that point is a little hazy, since DQXI was just one of many sources. The world was an amalgamation of JRPG tropes, since the elevator pitch was “what would it be like if a ‘generic JRPG’ had airtight worldbuilding?” There were a quartet of magical McGuffins that needed to be gathered lest the antagonist use them to bring about the end of the world, naturally. The creator gods were still hanging or sleeping around, and rather petty despite the oncoming disaster. A locale inspired by Arboria was going to play a pretty important role in things. Most importantly, the main cast was the standard knight-thief-healer-mage party—and the thief and mage were supposed to have the obligatory romance subplot. That is the one influence I’m pretty sure was directly colored by my outside interactions with DQXI—and more specifically, the more artful spaces of DQXI’s fandom. I wouldn’t get too heavy into that or DQ fandom in general until shortly before the Nintendo-made vortex of the XI S release in 2019, though.

meet Remy Ramilus and Beatrice Glaswell, aka “what if Erik but he grew up in Arboria and had daddy issues” and “what if basically both sisters but she was banished from another Arboria of assholes.” This is a screenshot of a screenshot of a screenshot.

In retrospect, the series of events leading to The Healer and the Vagabond and subsequently Vivify’s creation are fairly unremarkable. Started filling all my free hours during the October of XI S’s release with the game, again. Looked at some カミュセニヤ art on twitter. Took a creative writing class, wrote backstories for a bunch of the aforementioned RPG characters. A friendship I thought was going to last turned into a crush that made things incredibly awkward. Looked at a lot more カミュセニヤ art on twitter. (Remember what I said about responding to your own life experiences?) About two weeks and 80 hours into my first playthrough of XI S, thought “maybe you should practice this romance thing with Erik and Serena so you know what you’re doing”—aaaaand all of my ideas for the novel gradually got metamorphosed into the fics you may or may not have read now. So. Y’know. Maybe just a tad bit interesting.

The second context is one that I imagine at least a few of the twenty or so people who read this know of by way of a YouTube algorithm recommendation: Tim Rogers.

Before anything else, let me just say: I love Tim Rogers. Half of the reason I write the way I do is because of his work. More than a few people call his ridiculously elaborate video reviews of videogames “too long” and “unfunny” on account of his emotionally deadpan speaking style and painfully idiosyncratic takes. The first is a bit of a fair criticism—many of his videos’ lengthy runtimes are thanks to the anecdotal episodes he so commonly indulges in, where he’ll talk about the subject game for a few minutes before suddenly diving into an extended spiel about his best friend from college’s uncle said about some band fifteen years ago and how that relates to another anecdote from a developer of whatever game he’s reviewing, or something of the sort for a myriad of non-videogame topics. (See what I did there?)

Personally, I think that simply adds to the unabashed hilarity of his videos—especially situated in a space that incentivizes contrarian takes delivered in patronizing fashion! If you have six hours to spare over the next few days, I recommend watching his turn-of-last-year review of Tokimeki Memorial to understand how aspects of the dating sim genre have filtered into a diverse array of videogames, including the very one you’re here to read about.

Anyway. Like you’ve probably guessed, the first video Rogers made in this format was for Dragon Quest XI, while he was employed with a bunch of other cool writers at a games journalism site called a fake Japanese word. Fortunately, despite being a self-professed Dragon Quest superfan, this first one is about 40 minutes long. I’ve embedded the video above for convenient viewing (though you’ll probably want to watch it on the site/app itself), but if you’re like me and find it hard to engage with videos, there’s also a text version of the review you can read here.

Now, in a lot of ways, Dragon Quest is not a very deep series. I do not mean this as a negative. I think this is absolutely intentional, if not foundational to the series’ identity. To quote other writers whose sentiments were osmosed into these essays, Dragon Quest games are the equivalent of a McDonalds hamburger or dollar slice of pizza: decent, familiar, filling, and beautifully common. And yet Tim Rogers’ adoration for the series will absolutely have you believe that Dragon Quest games are the most sublime meals to ever grace the menu of videogames (…if not say pretty much exactly what I said in a more extravagant fashion?). Every word he has for these games drips with infectious enthusiasm, and I think that’s admirable.

His video is also, to my knowledge, one of, if not the only piece of honest criticism the series has ever gotten—and unless you somehow managed to miss the quotes at the very top of the page, you know I mean criticism in a specific way. I don’t remember when I first watched it, but it was almost certainly not long after I finished the game in 2018. And like all good criticism does, it gives the reader a lens to better understand how they feel about the object of critique.

There is one excerpt in particular that has done that for me and then some, lodged in my head these past six years as its been. It’s really important. Reeeaaaallly important. Seriously. I cannot overstate how incredibly important it is to understanding my view of this game. I’ve copied it below, and put the important excerpts of this important excerpt very big and obvious formatting, because basically everything I have ever written or will ever write related to Dragon Quest XI is responding to it.

Dragon Quest XI’s story is about loyalty—these six people of various walks of life, compelled by some reason or fate to adhere themselves to the prophesied legendary hero (“The Luminary”) and to never let him go, nor ever let him down. Subtly, a commentary on the nature of true loyalty—and thus, love—bubbles into even the most mundane grind sessions: each of these characters forms a subtly different mechanical bond with the hero, and with each other character, while simultaneously possessing a stronger bond with just one other character.

Gently, the overarching theme of self-sacrifice exerts itself even in the coldest mechanical moments. For example, Sylvando has excellent attack strength and speed, and is thus a more-than-capable fighter on his own. However, he is also the only character to start out equipped with both attack and speed buff spells. In other words, Sylvando can attack, or he can use his turn to elevate a weaker party member up to his physical level. In plainer terms: a strong fighter is the one with the strength buff. In other RPGs, a strength buff would be for a support-class character. Here the “hangoutitude” comes back into focus: when considering which of the 35 possible constructions of your party to use, what you’re really doing is thinking about what you and buds are gonna do when you hang out later.

The hero is less bombastically remarkable than any of his companions. He can use one-handed or two-handed swords. He can use various healing and attack magics.

Thematically, he is a man surrounded by loyalty, and by love. One of the first spells he learns is heal. Your first companion can only perform physical attacks. You play as a man surrounded by love right from the beginning of the experience, and the most useful thing you can do is nurture that love by healing it while it attacks stinky monsters with its pointy daggers.

As the plot progresses and your companions proclaim and prove their loyalty again and again, the hero’s physical strength ascends incredibly, yet you’ll often find yourself commanding the hero to support his allies rather than attack on his own. The entire point of the story sleeps somewhere in here.

To start: I do not think Dragon Quest XI is about loyalty. Because this game is so devoted to stoking the player’s ego—which is not a unique “sin” of Dragon Quest or modern mainstream videogames at all—and so much of the game’s advertising features the party having a good time together, the emotional stakes around anyone actually having loyalty to anything else are tepid enough to be nonexistent. It’d help if there were more than two sides for anyone could be on, too. Da basically screams part of what the game is about at players during the resolution of Phnom Nonh in Act II; but again, since this is a game that isn’t particularly deep and therefore demands little attention from the player, it probably goes in one ear/eye and out the other.

Let’s get more specific with the latter part in particular:

The hero is less bombastically remarkable than any of his companions. He can use one-handed or two-handed swords. He can use various healing and attack magics.

Thematically, he is a man surrounded by loyalty, and by love. One of the first spells he learns is heal. Your first companion can only perform physical attacks. You play as a man surrounded by love right from the beginning of the experience, and the most useful thing you can do is nurture that love by healing it while it attacks stinky monsters with its pointy daggers.

As the plot progresses and your companions proclaim and prove their loyalty again and again, the hero’s physical strength ascends incredibly, yet you’ll often find yourself commanding the hero to support his allies rather than attack on his own.

For the average player first starting out, with limited options and little to no idea of their adversaries’ capabilities, this notion holds up—and for a first playthrough, the one that matters the most, this is good. But with the more experience and abilities they unlock, and the more times they play through the game, the more this paradigm is likely to break down. I’ll explain why by responding to each paragraph out of order:

Thematically, he is a man surrounded by loyalty, and by love. One of the first spells he learns is heal. Your first companion can only perform physical attacks. You play as a man surrounded by love right from the beginning of the experience, and the most useful thing you can do is nurture that love by healing it while it attacks stinky monsters with its pointy daggers.

Taking this a little further, lets assume going forward that healing and remedial spells are the in-game representation of a character’s love. Healing spells, along with the success rate and health restored of Zing and Kazing, respectively, are powered by the magical mending stat—hereafter referred to as m-mending. Five of the game’s eight party members have m-mending stats that naturally grow as they level up: the Hero, Serena, Sylvando, Rab, and Hendrik. (For you less-statistically-inclined RPG players out there, base statistics are what a character’s stats are when you take away all their equipment and bonuses and what have you.) However, of all these characters, the Hero has the fourth lowest base m-mending overall—and for most of the game, he’ll have the lowest m-mending of the entire party. Hendrik is the one with the lowest m-mending overall, and assuming him and the Hero are at the same level, the Hero’s base m-mending will be lower than Hendrik’s until around level 50. Unless deliberate overleveling is involved (you do not need to do this at all in this game, including Timewyrm, or pretty much every DQ game since II), most players won’t hit level 50 until the final dungeon of Act II. So for the majority of the main game, the part of the game you are most supposed to play through, you are statistically rewarded less for healing with the Hero.

...yet you’ll often find yourself commanding the hero to support his allies rather than attack on his own.

The definition of support here is a little indefinite, but for our purposes, lets keep it rather open. Is support simply healing an ally when they’re not a full health? Sure. Are they buff spells like Oomph, functioning in the self-turn-sacrificing scenarios Rogers described? Definitely. Could ailing an enemy so that they’re less of a threat fit too? Why not. There’s also pep powers, offering more potent effects that the Hero is required to use in most cases.

But, there’s a certain adverb modifying this statement: “often.” I think we can assume this is talking about support given in every battle, pep or no pep. Since it’s not hard to go numerous battles without pep, it’s best to assume you won’t be purposely factoring them into your average encounter strategy.

As for more reliable support, the Hero’s lackluster healing was just discussed—yet shortcomings abound for him in other areas, too. The Hero is one of two characters who can disable enemies with Snooze spells, yet runs into the same problem as healing. Ailment spells are governed by magical might, and while his place in the party is slightly better than m-mending (3rd out of 5 in base m-might growth, right in the middle of the pack), there is almost always a better character or item available at any point you’d want to use Snooze.

And last, but certainly the most: the Hero has no practical options for in his basic toolkit for increasing a friend’s capability (Oomph, Acceleratle, etc.) or reducing damage done to them (Buff, Magic Barrier, etc.). Yes, he has one option in Kaclang—but you are filling a party slot with immovable weight and wasting their buffs for three to four turn cycles on a gamble that an enemy might attack that invincible character. Bosses even use this ability against you, if it wasn’t clear how unintuitive it is.

The hero is less bombastically remarkable than any of his companions. He can use one-handed or two-handed swords. He can use various healing and attack magics.

If you’ve played lots of videogames, then you know that the most effective strategies usually end up being the least bombastic. And as the least bombastically remarkable character, the Hero has the easiest access to dealing high damage over the majority of the game. (I said “easiest,” not “highest,” so you can put your clips of Divided Erik dealing illegal damage away—I’ve already got plenty.)

Admittedly, this is something that varies a lot and is pretty hard to back up without serious number punching—each individual player is going to build characters differently from other players with different combos of skill trees at any given point, and this section doesn’t need to be longer than it is already with a bunch of interconnected statistical comparisons. Still, you’ve only got to look at what you stand to gain from the Hero’s choice between sword + shield or greatswords. Sword and shield adds more survivability to his already pretty high survivability, but he won’t get an option to deal respectable damage—not good damage—in Falcon Slash until at least the low 20s. Despite losing out on significant defense without a shield, his higher overall HP and resilience growth and access to heavy armors means he’ll still have more survivability then the other two major physical damage dealers—Erik and Jade—than without using greatswords. (Hendrik certainly can be a physical damage dealer, but he’s so much better of a character when used defensively.)

And while his greatsword damage might be lower or comparable with both when they each join, the Hero quickly comes to overtake their strength regardless. Erik has higher stats across the board than the Hero initially, and gets a much higher initial attack panel for swords—but once the Hero hits level 11 and has those 17 points to pick up Cutting Edge, with its 1.75 to 2.25 multiplier for weapons with the highest attack power in the game, you’re gonna start wondering how much better Erik is with knives real quick. When Jade joins after Octagonia with a higher base strength stat than anyone else, literally the next town over (Lonalulu) sells a greatsword with a massive bump up in power, with anywhere from 14 to 39 attack points higher than what spears the player conventionally has access to (no casino or rare drops/steals) around then.

Plus, the Hero will gain much more MP than the other physical attackers the further you progress. Hardclaw and Multithrust will eat up anywhere from 10 to 20% of Jade’s base MP by the end of Act I, while Cutting Edge only uses around 5% of the Hero’s. Falcon Slash on Erik is redundant by then, since even if it eats up MP at the same rate as a greatsword Hero, it still runs into the same respectable but not good damage difficulty the Hero has. This isn’t even mentioning how neither of the others have access to cheap and reliable multi-target damage in Helichopter at that point—which again, does a a basic attack using weapons with the highest attack power in the game to a group of enemies for 4 MP. (Jade has Vacuum Smash for basically nothing at 2 MP, but it’s behind Fisticuffs’ locked panel, when she probably won’t have access to any skills that can make the most of the surrounding stat bonuses.)

note that Orcs have a slight weakness to fire (and resistance to ice) and that Veronica gets a m-might bonus when pepped up, yet the hero still nearly outdamages her here (the left Orc had slightly lowered defense ofc)

Oh, and when Hendrik joins with his even higher base strength and a greatsword equipped by default? Well, you just recently had all the points from the Luminary tree conveniently refunded, so now you can get that sweet, sweet +25 strength panel in the top right of the Hero’s skill tree—which is already equal to the greatsword skill panel increases Hendrik gets—and probably have points left over to pick up the rest of the Hero’s greatsword bonuses.

So, let’s recap. Without skill point investment, you are less incentivized to nurture the love of your party members with the Hero. You do not have consistent options for protecting your party members with the Hero. The Hero can easily deal high damage compared to everyone else. Mechanically, the Hero is one of the least self-sacrificial members in the whole game. (Going by the parameters laid out here, this would probably be Erik—but anyone using knives will probably protect the party and set up more damage at the same time with Sleeper Hit + Persecutter than the Hero does.)

And honestly? That fits just fine. It’s all meant to convey how everyone wants to help the Luminary with his noble goal, I guess. But if this is all meant to convey character relationships, the easiest way to make the entire thing seem suspect is to ask why relationships are being conveyed through the medium of battle instead of explicit narrative parts in the first place. If a bit of low-hanging fruit—again, this is also not a unique sin in videogames at all—but I think it points to a specifically crucial conundrum DQXI bears. (Have you ever heard of a little game called UNDERTALE?)

Anyway, the third context is the global COVID-19 pandemic kicking off in 2020, and the ensuing eruption of protests over the summer making it fairly clear why the world is the dumpster fire it is.

you think I'm crazy? Let me assure you, I'm fucking insane

So, what the heck is all this, you might wonder? Six thousand something words in and I still haven’t gotten to the point of all this meandering ranting. And that should gesture towards the answer: too goddamn much.

Back in July of 2020, when DQ fandom was still popping off in those Nintendo-sanctioned whoa dq11 on switch!!! hero in smash!!!! hoes mad!!! days (snarkiness aside, I do actually think the latter bit is still hilarious), chapter 22 of The Healer and the Vagabond was posted. Erik, down in the dumps about his prospects with Serena as requisite to the romance most folks wanted, finds himself regressing to his moping habits among the shelves of the Royal Library—until he stumbles across the item-hunting Eleven, perpetually silent throughout the entire fic, who in that chapter would give his erstwhile partner the encouragement to reconcile with his beloved by—*gasp*—actually speaking!

This was, in fact, something I had planned very early on, deliberately shoehorning three purposes into a few hundred words. At a glance, it’s a reluctant nod towards the player “resolving” his issues in the original story through a persona resembling a grown-up version of the cheeky bugger we see in those scattered “canon” and word-of-Horii-defying flashbacks—while also subtly pointing out how arbitrary it all may or may not be. (Were El’s words spoken solely of his own accord, or were they influenced by the stringent being who bestowed the Luminary’s power upon him? Find out in Vivify’s final fic, tentatively titled “Heir to the Luminary’s Burden,” with a projected posting date of 2026!!)

In the process of writing that chapter, I came to a sudden realization: I don’t like the Luminary! Given this essay’s main venue is Archive of Our Own, I’m sure more than a few people think there’s a gigantes in the room—and we’ll get to that eventually, I promise—but it’s a lot more nuanced than petty and pernicious shipping squabbles. At this point, I really don’t like self-insert silent protagonists in heavily authored JRPG narratives like your Dragon Quests or Personas in general! Dragon Quest XI’s just gets the most scrutiny from me for what I’m hoping are progressively clearer reasons to anyone reading this!

Back then, though, I had only the nebulous gut fog I couldn’t fully coalesce into words, and thanks to the vindictive penchants online platforms tend to foster, a big target to skirt around yet also scapegoat—and thus, manifested in unpolished excerpts like the most recent chapter. (I have both chapters’ glosses archived on tumblr for anyone who wants to read them, but be forewarned that they aren’t particularly good.) This essay, and everything that follows, is an outgrowth of those fledgling understandings, an effort to give all the words I couldn’t find back then some decent polishing.

And honestly, I’m glad it did take this long to get here, because the gulf of knowledge that was leapt over in that time was vast. This is a culmination of four years of learning about playing games, designing and developing games of all kinds, the Japanese role-playing-game genre (which kind of isn’t real), storytelling traditions, writing and the creative process, the irrelevance of “objectivity,” games criticism, cultural criticism, five years of university, online architecture and its effects on how art is valued today—and most importantly, fan culture.

I’m not writing this solely to out how Dragon Quest is “problematic,” or the flip side of how it could be “unproblematic.” So much of our collective discourse is hyperbolically broken because of some absurd notion that there’s a universal and immutable “correct” and/or “unproblematic” way to consume media or create art or refer to marginalized groups or basically fucking breathe. (Yes, those conversations are necessary, but the platforms and structures they commonly play out on are fundamentally not built to foster proper discussion and debate, much less anyone actually remembering anything.) I’m not asking anyone to change what kinds of fic they read or write or to find a new kink or favorite genre or whatever.

we're already living in this dystopia, ya'll

What I’d like to do is present a model of how to be a more conscious fan, using my unnecessarily complicated relationship with Dragon Quest XI as an example. Because like I described at the outset, in a media landscape where the above picture exists (this was at an actual conference real people attended) showcasing the logical endpoint of every overlarge and essentially inescapable media-assembling-corporation, including the one that makes Dragon Quest, I seriously think anyone who considers themselves “in a fandom” should consider their relationship to this stuff. Nuanced outlooks beyond a binary “good and valid” or “bad and utterly irredeemable” are very scarce in fan culture, perhaps not for want of trying—but I’d like to show that you in fact can still hold those views while still having a fine time.

Unfortunately…said model isn’t anywhere close to being finished, and will probably never be. This introduction has already taken a absurd amount of writing—there were nearly 7,700 words in the draft at this point—so Yggdrasil knows the final word count would be in the nonfiction book range. Originally, there were going to be three essays, each about separate topics but steadily building upon each other, which grew into four when the notes for one section grew too big. There is a chance that I could try and finish two of them, but one basically requires another full playthrough of DQXI which would actually be two in practice, because one playthrough would be in an entirely different language of a modern AAA JRPG with the requisite massive amount of text that I would be constantly comparing. I’ve also played the game through about six times over for an average of 115 hours each, three of which have been within the last year and half, so you’ll understand when I say I’m a little weary at the prospect of starting another.

The first is the only one where any real writing was done. Starting with a historical overview of Dragon Quest’s creation, it steadily surveys the design across the series and eventually fan responses to hone in on what Dragon Quest games are centered around. Which really shouldn’t be hard to figure out if you’ve been paying attention, or read basically any modern interview Yuji Horii has ever been in, or even the majority of developer interviews about any big budget videogame these days, or just watched Your Story—but it breaks down how this phenomenon plays out.

this isn't even every version of the game, the original 2017 PS4 release lacks features that were added in the international version like voice acting (good) and sprinting on foot (bad)

The second is the oversized one, and a bit deliberately at that. It’s an exhaustive analysis of all eight party members and how they function in battle a la Tim Rogers’ idea of mechanical bonds between them—but specifically based around the All Enemies are Super Strong restriction, which I believe DQXI’s mechanics were originally balanced around before they were loosened things for the vanilla experience. I used to tout Stronger Monsters DQXI as the “true” version of the game like some capital G “GeT gUd” Gamer, but they’re functionally the same game—the margins of error are just smaller and take noticeably more effort to widen than the unrestricted one. (I don’t even think it’s the most notable restriction anymore—No Shopping marks how one of the core aspects of the Dragon Quest’s design in every mainline game before has been made negligible.)

both the Luminary and Kris from DELTARUNE are completely silent, share the same hairstyle, and were habitual pranksters before the player showed up :thinkingemoji:

The third is the most unconventional, having shifted multiple times in my head and thus the one most likely to not get written. It would delve into ludonarrative (yes, the dissonance is involved, but not the only thing), the intricacies of localization and impossibilities of “true” translation, and sifting through more fan responses to explain how the concept of “canon” some subsets of fandom posit as orthodoxy doesn’t really exist, viewed under the infinitely interchangeable of individual interpretation—especially when paired with characters deliberately designed to entice fan response. I’d also planned on opening it with a overlong comparison of DQXI’s protagonist to Kris from DELTARUNE (a “parallel story” to UNDERTALE) to feature an inherent tension in videogames, along with some smartypants theory of what DELTARUNE was going to be about…but chapter 2’s additions kinda says what that is out loud.


The fourth and final essay brings everything together by discussing The Healer and the Vagabond, all the choices made in its retelling and the thought process behind them. You could call it a ship manifesto, but it's made to get to the heart of this entire affair with DQXI—and as much as Erik and Serena as a pairing is dear to my heart, they are ultimately a means to an end instead of a signifier of identity or fixations with an expiration date as ships tend to be. Predictably, this one is the essay most likely to be written.

For now, since all I have are a patchwork of notes, most of these pages will simply remain stripteases. Some will have just a picture or video or two, others (predictably) might have a short, half-formed excerpt. If I do ever decide to fully write these things, they're liable to change shape again. With Dragon Quest XII fully in production, and almost certain to have Nintendo's endorsement given they've been bedfellows to publish and promote VII, VIII and XI S, it's a nigh-given that the ephemeral hype vortex will spin once again. And if there's one thing that corporate art loves to do, with the culture too carried away by the ever-careening speed to look back, it's dredge things up from the past, glitz them up, and call it the future. Dragon Quest has been around for 36 years, after all.

There’s a bunch of extra stuff that didn’t neatly fit into the meat of this piece, so I’m leaving them here as a FAQ (frequently anticipated questions). Feel free to skip to the end and/or comments if you want.

Yes, I still think Dragon Quest XI is a fine videogame. I try to measure most art I encounter with a “what do I think a thing is trying to do, and does it do that well?” metric—and in this case, I think DQXI is very good at what it wants to do! What it wants to do though, greater context of videogames aside, isn’t much more than be an escapist spectacle for the sake of being an escapist spectacle—and I think that’s pitiful, in both meanings of the word. Especially considering A) if I’m not projecting, the series conventions that XI has broken could have led to some very interesting directions narratively and B) Dragon Quest has an entry (VIII) that has something to say about the world in the first place! Kinda! It’s minor enough to be incidental!

Not only that, but as I’ve grown and expanded my analytical lens, DQXI only seems to shrink in comparison. (I also don’t know that much about game design, of which Dragon Quest has contributed several tentpoles, so maybe that’ll chance if I get deep into game development again.) A lot of my favorite stories, videogame or otherwise, use their narratives to raise complexities in their themes for the player/viewer/reader to ponder as they watch, consciously or otherwise. DQXI kiiiiiiiiiinda does this with most of the main cast’s “most precious things,” but there’s nothing that raises any discernible tension between anything. Let me give a couple examples:

At the end of Act II during Arboria’s celebration of the Lord of Shadows defeat, if a player floats up to the top floor of Veronica and Serena’s house before attempting to leave and triggering the cutscene, a journal written Veronica can be found on the table. It gives a glimpse into their relationship as siblings, though most folks inquisitive enough to find could probably guess it from cutscenes and party chat dialogue alone.

Now, if you’ve read far enough into any of the fics I’ve written for this game, you’ll have a good idea of how I feel about the connection between Serena’s hapless reluctance and Veronica’s prickly abrasiveness. Nonetheless, if DQXI wanted to have viewers actually think about their relationship, they could, say, introduce another pair of siblings where one’s harsh remarks causes significant difficulty—or simply have a scene where Serena reacts with something other than deference whenever Veronica prods her or someone else.

Another example: across the entire game, human enemies wielding one-handed swords use the exact same set of animations as the Luminary. This is plainly an economical choice made by the developers to save resources—but during the final battle with the Lord of Shadows wielding the Sword of Shadows—a corrupted Sword of Light—Mordegon has an arsenal of abilities that the Luminary can use with unique animations: Kaclang, Blightsplitter, and Blade of Ultimate Power.

Obviously, like basically every other Dragon Quest game, Mordegon is just the ultimate embodiment of corruption that needs to be vanquished, and having him wield the Luminary’s powers emphasizes this. But if they wanted to add tension to this, they could have the Luminary in the present do literally anything that could be considered remotely “wrongful” of his own volition and face consequences for it.

Final Fantasy IV, one of the formative titles of the SNES era, devotes its entire first half to this: in the game’s opening, main protagonist Cecil is at the head of a military force that attacks a town for its crystal, slaughtering many of its inhabitants in the process (offscreen, of course). When he finds himself back in that village later on in the game, then makes a pilgrimage to the top of a nearby sacred mountain, he comes to a sacred shrine that offers him a trial of redemption to become a holy paladin: facing down his bloodstained, dark knight self in a staged battle. In order to succeed, the player must withstand the shadow’s attacks without fighting at all, to stay the hand which had cut down so many before.

It’s short and seemingly inconsequential, especially compared to what games would use battles for dramatic effect later on, but for a budding genre that could only convey most of their narratives through out-of-battle cutscenes before, it was absolutely revolutionary. Dragon Quest XI employs this a few times, and bumps up to a handful with the XI S rerelease—yet pretty much all of them are for fights that the player is supposed to lose, to emphasize their powerlessness before they inevitably begin to progress towards overcoming it.

You might scratch your head at the prospect of there being any inkling of “wrongful” things the Luminary could have done—in explicit cutscenes, at least.

But again: if I’m not projecting (this is pretty much unavoidable, as we all do regardless of creators' intent), the series conventions that XI has broken could have led to some very interesting directions narratively.

being able to off Mordegon right at the World Tree and just have things go to shit with no explanation would've been fun, huh (go ahead and make a fic about this if you want)

On that note, is Dragon Quest XI a “problematic game?”

…sure, I guess…?

I put “problematic” in scare quotes all the time because its one of those words that get wielded so much that any exact meaning has been rusted off in the process—this goes for all the other ones too. But I'll play along: if you imagine a two sided scale in your head, one for "fine" and "problematic," it would probably be close to the middle yet lean slightly towards the “problematic” side.

I wouldn’t even call this game “problematic” myself. A better label for Dragon Quest XI, I think, would be conservative—and yes, that very much includes Sylvando. It pulls from well-worn tropes and characters and settings, does little to examine them by deviating little from their molds, and makes the motivations and stakes very clear so that nothing happens that you couldn’t guess within seconds of seeing their setups. Which is innocuous, for the most part—but I think an inherent flaw to any sort of conservatism is that the story/world/characters/etc. are only as free of issues if the world that they were drawn from.

I’ll let you think about how free of problems the world is for yourself.

As for the gigantes in the room some folks are undoubtedly projecting—no, I don’t care about Luminerik. Yes, I get a little crabby on those few occasions when I glimpse the wide disparity in validation numbers—but I also know that notion of success is limited to the platforms they’re on, and also have an idea of why folks flock to it and ships of its like in the first place. M/M’s popularity is a result of a collectively internalized notions of gender, some more “problematic” than others, some of which are relevant to my takes on Dragon Quest XI—but are ultimately very minor in the grand scheme of the things. (Do note I can’t really claim to know what I’m talking about here, just relaying what I’ve read from other people doing the work in fandom.)

For the record, I think shipping the Luminary with anyone who isn’t Gemma is a sink. It’s not about homophobia or ““morals”” or whatnot. It’s about chosen ones, and all the baggage the trope brings with it. But that’s a story for another time, in another world…

And for anyone wondering why the heck I’m still messing around with a source material I’m so conflicted about: for a story that was originally made to imitate JRPG conventions, it gains so much more playing in the series that codified those conventions in the first place. Also, I kid you not, I am cackling every single time I get the chance to make a punny name.

Some of these words have been burning in the back of my head for the better part of two years.

Though they are, for the most part, focused on the things I find frustrating about this game, I genuinely do hope you can take something of value from them.

That’s all I got for now. Like always, whether you’re intrigued or wanna out me as an “anti” or whatever the hell folks call someone who deserves a vitriol pile-on, thanks for reading.

~ intro ~ I ~ II ~ III ~ IV ~
~ return ~