No dragon your heels

Last week, a friend posed a difficult question to me: What exactly is it that makes Dragon Quest (and specifically DQIX) different from Final Fantasy? It kind of threw me for a loop, and I spent some time thinking about it before responding. I don’t remember my exact answer, but it was probably overthought and needlessly convoluted and generally not much help. Something about the difference between a Hollywood action “blockbuster” versus a heartfelt Pixar film. Whatever.

Tonight, playing back through the opening chapters of the game (yes, a third time through the game, shut up) I realized the real difference is perfectly summed up within the first two hours of DQIX. The premise of the game, as you really should know by now, is that the player controls a fallen angel — Celestrian, I mean — whose goal is to find a way back to the Heaven-esque Observatory and help reunite his/her people with the estranged Almighty. I could easily see this essential premise being translated into a Final Fantasy game (albeit with some tweaks to give the Celstrians strappy vinyl outfits and heavily teased hair, and a sci-fi facelift for the Observatory), but its presentation would be totally different.

I’m not talking about the cinematic aspect of it, which of course would be radically different in a Final Fantasy game. I’m talking about the structure of the story. In a Final Fantasy game — or, really, any RPG — the player’s basic nature would be the game’s big twist. Your hero would be an amnesiac, gifted with special powers but not quite fully empowered the way a proper Celestrian would be, and it would all be a big mystery to be revealed in a heart-stopping plot event 30 hours later. There would be much angst, maybe a tantrum or crisis of faith that would remove the hero from the party, temporarily, until the power of friendship could return his moral compass to its proper orientation.

DQIX is refreshing in its directness. It skips all of that angst and contrived mystery by kicking off the entire quest with tour through a day in the hero’s life. You see the accident that robs him of his powers and his unfortunate fall from the Observatory, and there’s no hand-wringing about it. The story picks up shortly thereafter and you simply get about the business of trying to return to the heavens, which you accomplish by doing nice things for people and generally making the world a better place. It’s earnest, and it’s pleasantly free of pretense. The story has its twists, but the straightforward presentation of the tale gives real purpose to the hero’s actions — a reason to do good deeds — and makes the ultimate resolution to the story (which involves the hero’s nature) much more potent.

Hmm, come to think of it, this answer isn’t much better. Dragon Quest: It’s ineffably good! Yeah.

39 thoughts on “No dragon your heels

  1. I like this answer a lot actually. The premise of the game is all laid out for you, and it compels you to complete both the story at large and the smaller vignettes by showing you a world worth saving. Final Fantasy usually dangles the carrot of more plot twists and cutscenes, whereas Dragon Quest is all about experiencing the world and the journey itself.

  2. I’d say presentation-wise the main difference is that DQ is more second-person while FF is third-person. DQ is always about ‘you’ while FF focuses on what the ‘Warriors of Light’ or ‘members of SeeD’ must do despite the player controlling their actions. Both are good, but one is friendlier to the player and one is friendlier to the writer.

  3. That’s a good argument. And what SonicPanda said also makes sense. It’s the idea of second vs. third person, passive vs. interactive, cinematic vs. actually role-playing. Which are all just the same thing, really. Most people like to think of FF as being more ‘Western’, but really, DQ is much more Western in that its presentation is more ‘second-person’, as SonicPanda put it.

    To me, though, the biggest difference is simply progression vs. tradition. Both have pros and cons, and it’s simply a matter of personal taste.

  4. Dragon Quest is plot-driven, Final Fantasy is character-driven. I think, in that way, Dragon Quest games always end up being about saving the world and Final Fantasy games save the world merely as a by-product of characters fulfilling their destiny.

  5. For me, it’s that Dragon Quest games are more about the world and the people you encounter than any “plot.” I love the towns and the world/town design of DQ games even if they’re mostly the same structure of “go to town, help people, move on” structure of many RPGs.

    There’s also something incredibly charming and memorable about the scenario writing/design of DQ games, something that I also find brilliant in the Mother series. There is…genuine personality to Dragon Quest games, a kind of whimsy, warmth, and sense of fun. They’re like used cars handed down from old siblings that have a few problems to give them character versus the brand new, top of the line, gleaming chrome and polymers of Final Fantasy games.

  6. Dragon Quest is for kids and adults alike. Final Fantasy, the modern kind, anyway, is for adolescents. Think Pixar and Dreamworks.

  7. I shudder to think what a Final Fantasy game would do with the sassy fairy who’s constantly screaming at you to do the thing you were just about to do anyway.

  8. I think the key difference is that Final Fantasy tries too hard to reinvent itself with each game while Dragon Quest focuses on making Dragon Quest even better. Rather than doing a new wild battle system or strange character progression chart the Dragon Quest series adds small little changes that are meant to compliment the system that they started with way back in the first game. And slimes are cooler than moogles.

  9. “The premise of the game, as you really should know by now, is that the player controls a fallen angel — Celestrian, I mean — whose goal is to find a way back to the Heaven-esque Observatory and help reunite his/her people with the estranged Almighty.”

    doesn’t this happen in FF7? Angels are assumed to come from the sky and the main character is named after something that appears there, there’s an observatory inhabited by an ancient glo-worm, and the God you’re trying to reunite with is some evil parasitic like disease injected into your body responsible for messing up your mind really bad… oh, and there’s an annoying almost stalker like romance to boot.

    Actually this formula is one of those stories Japan likes to recycle from time to time. You can identify it if you’re keen enough. There’s an old sega game involving the exact same set pieces in an RPG setting.

    Oh, hey. There is an observatory in Persona 3 that is never formally introduced, but its vaguely hinted at that’s what you’re climbing during the dark hour. And it leads to an almighty evil you WANT to be estranged from that is trying to ‘infect’ humanity with its corrosive self destructive form of religion. :shrug:

  10. If what your saying is true, and FFXII is my favorite of the series it sounds like I’d enjoy DQ games much more than FF games. My favorite thing about Final Fantasy XII was the scope of the story and how it had more to do with the world than it did about the characters you played as. So if that’s what Dragon Quest games are actually like than it sounds like I’ll have to dig up my copy of DQVIII (which I bought solely for the FFXII demo that came with it) and give it a shot.

  11. I’ll make the answer even faster for you. Dragon Quest doesn’t have 30 hour tutorials.

  12. Another major difference is that the chapters in DQ games are for more pronounced (especially in DQIX). So, each quest is like a little story, and, taken together, the game plays like a book of fairytales. Another way of putting it is that DQ is focuses more on the world and people you are saving, while FF focuses more on the protagonists.

  13. Even as early as the first games in their respective series the differences are apparent.

    Dragon Quest: The DragonLord is being an ass. Make him cut that out.

    Not that the opposite hasn’t been true, either(hello DQVI).

    I was personally worried that DQIX’s story would suffer from the introduction of multiplayer and no unique characters aside from the hero, but I was thankfully wrong. It’s just as charming as it ever was. And thankfully there’s still some ridiculous accents about.

    It’s basically simplicity, Final Fantasy nowadays tries for complex characters with varied motivations(success is debatable, though here’s a hint FFXIII: If you have to set aside an entire summary index to explain it, you have failed.). When Dragon Quest wants to be dark, it can get REALLY dark, but ultimately it goes for one emotion at a time very strongly. Never losing that simplicity is how the DQ stories always manage to be so incredibly strong.

    tldr: DQVIII is awesome.

  14. “Most people like to think of FF as being more ‘Western’, but really, DQ is much more Western in that its presentation is more ‘second-person’, as SonicPanda put it.”

    This is such a good point that I’m going to steal it and pretend I thought of it myself.

  15. The key difference for me is DQ’s little musical ditty whenever you get a new party member (even though it one originated with the worst entry in the series!). It’s so happy and sweet, like you made a new friend, or reunited with someone who you missed terribly.

  16. in other words, traditional “western” tale of humble origins to dragon/monster slaying knight vs modern mainstream “western” vapid hollywood CGI sausage fest

  17. I wouldn’t mind an explanation about the ‘second-person’ storytelling = ‘Western’ thing.

  18. mudron- consider a game like daggerfall. You are in charge, you direct the story, you do what you want. A game like final fantasy is about cloud, or lightning, or some other character. Dragon Quest games are all about you-the second person. (first person is I, third person is he or she.) You never play an FF game thinking that you yourself are directing the action, so much as you feel like you’re along for someone else’s ride.

  19. This is why I loved Chrono Trigger so much; it had a great balance between the dramatic narrative ideas of a Final Fantasy and the earnest, straightforward nature of a Dragon Quest. It was really the best of both worlds.

    I can’t wait to play DQ9.

  20. @Talraen – Please refer to the many glowing Final Fantasy-related articles posted at this very website!

  21. Dragon Quest 9 is pretty much the perfect 1974 D&D experience i’ve played. grab a party, go hunting for loot, get quests for more loot, and keep going for as long as you want.

  22. Most, maybe all of these answers seem like subjective reasons Dragon Quest is better than Final Fantasy, not objective descriptions of their differences. Of course, I probably couldn’t manage a good description merely summing up all the diverse Final Fantasies myself. As for the other series, my meaningful experience with it is confined to three games from the NES “Warrior” days, so I hope I know better than to try this challenge, at least at the moment.

  23. It’s entirely an issue of tone. Final Fantasy games are never as light hearted or relaxed as a dragon quest game.

  24. The question wasn’t why Dragon Quest is better than Final Fantasy, which is a needless flashback to schoolyard arguments from 1990, but how the two series are different. I honestly hope no one here thinks you can draw such a simple dichotomy, because both series have their strengths and failings.

  25. There’s so much debate going on here that I feel useless since I know so little about what’s being discussed. The only games I’ve played in either franchise is Final Fantasy Tactics and Legend, one of which was much better than the other, but both are pretty atypical when concerning other FF games (or so I’ve learned from both friends and articles on this website).

    Based on what I’ve seen from DQ9, the ‘western’ conventions seem less actually influenced by western games and DnD than from Monster Hunter, especially with the big cooperative focus.

  26. If you’re a teenager or college student, Final Fantasy kicks DQ’s ass. If you’re older, DQ is the better choice. If you’re looking at them objectively, various entries in each series are better than various entries in either series.

  27. I dunno, Tomm, I never like to draw simple lines like that based solely on age. I mean, when I was in college, DQVIII was probably the best jRPG I played.

    I like a lot of what has been said here. I really do see about the second person/Western connection. I mean, in retrospect, DQVIII is closer in some aspects to, say, a BioWare game than it is Tales Of Whateveria. And Dragon Quest IX is (arguably) the closest to the series’s inspiration, Wizardry, than it has been in some time. By which I mean “making your own party”, I guess.

  28. It should be noted that it’s extremely hard to narrow down two series that have such varied histories – over 20 years worth, each. FF especially is about progression and reinvention and experimentation on a grand scale (which fails sometimes), so that anytime you narrow down what FF IS, you can probably find an exception to the rule within the series. The recent and major dichotomy between XII and XIII is a good example.

    DQ is more of a series proper, and FF is more of a string of RPGs with a few recurring motifs and elements. Most people either love or hate DQ as a series; FF fans are extreme in their likes and dislikes with each individual entry. I hated IX, but I love XII, which most people dislike. I’m not big on VII, but I’m not big on VI either. I love VIII, but find IV boring.

    I also agree that Chrono Trigger is the perfect in-between point for these two series. Which makes sense, given the makeup of the development team.

    @Mudron – By second person, we mean that in DQ you are playing a more active role – i.e. an actual -role playing- game. The mute hero, the more open-ended adventure, the emphasis on exploration, etc. Which is something that’s pretty common in Western RPGs. Whereas in an FF game, (typically) you’re just like a ghost, following the party around on their personal and epic journeys.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Japanese developers adopt the dialogue-tree format of Bioware games; it’s certainly the most innovative thing they’ve done, and it’s something Japanese developers could benefit from.

  29. This is an easy question that I’m all too willing to answer for my friends before they even ask: the game is the most peaceful gaming experience that can be had. Everything from the dialog to the graphics to the plotline are just so quaint. It doesn’t hurt that you always know exactly what to expect from a DQ game if you’ve ever played any JRPG, distilled down to the barest essence: you fight, level up, and press forward. Very simple.

    Final Fantasy is football. Dragon Quest is Golf.

  30. I see Dragon Quest as more conservative than Final Fantasy. The characters, locations, items and gameplay of DQ are traditional and the music is classical. Each game is very similar to the last (though not without creativity). Final Fantasy is more idealistic and artistic. Yoshitaka Amano’s art is stylized and dreamy, while Toriyama’s art is simple and down to earth. Men and women fit into more traditional roles in DQ, while FF challenges this and has more minority characters. FF also seems to focus more on the bad guy’s story and psychology and the earth as a whole is darker oftentimes in those games. Gameplay tends to be more unusual in that many FFs have different battle systems. FF has incorporated more high technology and science fiction elements, and its stories tend to be more melodramatic and appealing to adolescents. Also FF focuses on spectacular fights and has an overall more serious tone. The monsters in FF are more beautiful and artistic, and the ones in DQ are more comical and whimsical.

  31. Ah, the second-person = Western RPG bit makes sense now. Thanks, turkish and shivam.

  32. “…it compels you to complete both the story at large and the smaller vignettes by showing you a world worth saving.”

    Nicely put.

  33. Dragon Quest is a traditional early millenium Romance (like Yvain, Knight of the Lion, for instance). Or maybe Chaucer could have written Dragon Quest. Final Fantasy is a 20th century novel. If you’ve read and studied literature, you will immediately see why.

    Dragon Quest makes you the honest, valiant knight. There simply isn’t even a question of doing the right thing vs not doing it – you just do it because it’s right, and there isn’t the possibility of a personal agenda or ulterior motives or whatever.

    Final Fantasy makes you the morally ambiguous anti-hero. You learn the inner machinations of the mind. Sure, you turn out to do the right thing in the end, but that’s just the conservative fear of change at work, even in a “progressive” series – a few more games down the line, I expect them to dispense with that formality, but we’re still in the early years of the genre.

  34. “Final Fantasy makes you the morally ambiguous anti-hero. You learn the inner machinations of the mind. Sure, you turn out to do the right thing in the end, but that’s just the conservative fear of change at work, even in a “progressive” series – a few more games down the line, I expect them to dispense with that formality, but we’re still in the early years of the genre.”

    You give the series, like, way too much credit.

  35. Yeah, I don’t want to turn this into an anti-Final Fantasy thread, but the only thing about the mind I learned from playing those games is that the games’ creators are emotionally juvenile guys with raging daddy-issues. That’s not to the stories in DQ games are better, but at least they’re presented with less time-wasting pretense.

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