Today we’re going to talk about a scene from early in Dragon Quest XI. Warning, there will be spoilers for this game! There’s a good chance you’ll predict this scene well in advance, but I think the execution is good enough that it’s worth witnessing cold.
Here’s some context: you are a young man from the small town of Cobblestone. On the day you and your childhood friend Gemma become honorary adults, you discover that you are the Luminary, a prophesied figure who is wanted in the kingdom of Heliodor. Leaving behind your adopted mother and your childhood friend (who is bereft) you make the long trip to visit the king. In the throne room, he asks you where you hail from, then sends agents to confirm your story before throwing you in the dungeon–because surprise, the rulers of Heliodor are convinced the Luminary is not a savior but a monstrous, cursed figure.
You escape from jail with Erik, a new friend who sees it as his fate to accompany you. Erik is looking for an orb, buried in a graveyard some ways away. As it happens, your hometown of Cobblestone is on the road. Before making the trip to the graveyard, you and Erik take a moment to stop by and check in on your loved ones.
Remembering that the agents of the kingdom are on their way to Cobblestone, you are initially anxious. But upon your arrival, everything seems fine–the sun is out, and people are happy. It isn’t until you start asking around town that something seems wrong. Nobody remembers you. Your adopted mother reacts explosively when you claim to be her son, who she claims is only a few years old. You check the Party Chat function to see what Erik has to say about this situation, but Erik has disappeared. Where is he? Barriers of light block your exit from the town. In the square, you find a young girl who looks just like Gemma, your childhood friend. You climb into the branches of your favorite tree and retrieve her bandanna for her, just as you did as a child. She runs down to the river, where you meet your adopted father. And yourself, as a young boy.
Neither of the children believe you when you say who you are, but your adopted father does. He blames himself for ever having trusted the king of Heliodor, and tells you of a secret stash under a rock in town he always meant for you to have. Your television screen flickers, and he disappears. You walk back to town, and everything flickers again. You are back in the world. The forces that empower the Luminary have sent you a dream. One last chance to be with those you love. The town that surrounds you was destroyed days ago. Nobody remains.
“The hero’s town is destroyed” is a fantasy cliche that is as old as dirt. Then again, Dragon Quest XI is an anniversary entry in the series, a buffet of fan-favorite characters and concepts. To pay homage to earlier entries (such as Dragon Quest V, where the hero returns from years toiling as a slave to discover his hometown has become a poisonous ruin; or Dragon Quest VII, with its multiple heartrending short stories of time travel and injustice) would only be fitting. I was really impressed by how Dragon Quest XI executed this well-worn plot device. The player is thrown from feelings of relief that your town was spared, to confusion at what is happening, to elation at your hypothesis being proved right, to sudden and crushing despair. Even better, the game gives you a glimpse into a communal past that the beginning of the game implied rather than told–only to snatch it away. Not only can you never return to that early Cobblestone, but Dragon Quest XI insists that early Cobblestone no longer belongs to you. Your last memories of the place are of being frozen out by past family and friends who you can never rejoin.
There are countless other details that make this setpiece, countless choices you have to imagine the team who made this game thought long and hard about. The tragedy that it is the hero’s own words (passed to him by his biological mother and adopted father) that doom his hometown. That there are no corpses to be found in what remains of Cobblestone, forcing you to reckon with an empty, ruined space. That there is now a chest in town where you can obtain the crafting recipe to recreate the uniforms of the soldiers who slaughtered your friends and family. That Gemma fails to remember in the present that it was adult you, not child you, who retrieved her bandanna from the tree. That the vision flickers like a television screen because you are playing the game on a television. That your past self speaks to you in his own voice, while you (as the silent protagonist) does not have a voice. What does that make you?
When people talk about Dragon Quest, they often say the story is “classical” or “nothing special.” I would say that it is scenes like this that, for me, define the series at its best. A potent brew of narrative economy, unexpected nuance and simple tragedy. Dragon Quest games are power fantasies in which you get to play the role of the strongest, smartest and most stylish person in the world. But once in a while, you are reminded that some things will always be beyond your grasp. Your father will die. The lovers of Greenthumb Gardens will never be reunited. Cobblestone is gone.