Dragon’s Dogma can, in many ways, be criticised for removing a vital element of character from the standard party-based role playing it offers. In focusing so heavily on user-generated characters the game hampers its ability to weave a tight narrative, and outright condemns the chance for a character-driven plot. Your fellow party members are hired from a pool of user-generated minions (or ‘pawns’ as Dragon’s Dogma affectionately dubs them), and can offer nothing more to the proceedings than glib observations with pre-canned dialogue on agonising repeat. No back story can be scripted, no relationships developed. But here’s the thing, the pawn-system for recruiting a ceaseless supply of new recruits in Dragon’s Dogma may just hold a key ingredient missing from many single player RPGs.
Firstly, there is one thing that must be made clear: Mass Effect this is not. Along with eschewing the ability to effectively tell a meaningful story, Dragon’s Dogma cannot (and never aspires to) create characters that you want to listen to. There is no relationship-forming here, no conversation that can peel back layers; Dragon’s Dogma is utterly flat in that regard. Your protagonist is user generated – disallowing the game the chance to impose anything beyond the most simplistic narrative motivation – as are your band of three fellow party members. Interestingly, your three companions are on constant rotation too, given that these characters will not level as you do, creating the need to switch them out as they become statistically redundant.
This may sound as though there is little to recommend. Why play an RPG that cannot offer you a decent story? Similarly, the pawns that comprise your party, while being user-generated, are just AI-controlled drones when you really get down to it. Why play with the digital semblance of others online when you can, just as easily, play with others online?
Yet, there is something to recommend here. And to commend.
That something comes, for me at least, in the form of knowledge – or recognition. Knowledge that, while being a wholly solo affair, you are in fact playing alongside the digital labour of other, very-much real people; people who are similarly engaged in their own adventures, perhaps with your own pawn character in their party. For all that you are alone, a pleasing sense of interconnectivity can develop.
It is the realisation of this that can give the world of Dragon’s Dogma a much needed edge. Actions become more meaningful in the knowledge that you toil alongside characters that will, once you release them, travel back to their parent game enriched. You can’t help but view the pawns as extensions of real players, as more than the modest sum of their parts. As they mill about, playing out the pre-set ‘personalities’ tokenly granted by their creator, in turn they generate an odd sense of character. This is largely projected (for your part), but I would argue it is undeniable all the same.
It starts with the user name. Selecting a pawn based on its name and appearance gives insight into the player who created it. And, when they are in your game, they are liable to both please and annoy you. Some of the game’s greatest moments are to be found in the latter. For example, while causally running errands in the game’s central city, one of my party took it upon himself to loot the room of an NPC we happened to be visiting. Now, the act of theft is not something I’d condemn in an RPG, far from it. But my indignation that he had taken it upon himself to be the one to find and relieve the room of its bounty was not to be understated. In an instant I’d opened his character inventory and snatched back what he had taken like some enraged parent. Were this purely an off-line game with a pre-formed, scripted party, I am not sure I would have even cared. But the fact that it was Bob, the 8ft hulking warrior whose soft (and ill chosen) voice belied the heart of a ruthless sneak-thief why, that was intolerable! The knowledge that he was someone’s ‘creation’ lent his action credence. He became more than just the-guy-who-follows-me-around and took on a dimension that many RPG characters lack. I felt something towards him and thus, he’d earned his place in my party.
Forming even the remotest bond can be dire as combat encounters in Dragon’s Dogma can be brutal. Battles raging against your favour take on a genuine dramatic quality as you realise that your fellow travellers are likely to fall. While this translates as little more than an inconvenience to you – past summoned characters can always be re-found and re-recruited at the nearest town after all – there nevertheless exists a sense of loss that seems more genuine than if these were just standard characters chosen by the game rather than you.
In some small way, what Dragon’s Dogma achieves is something that can be found in the superlative player experience of Thatgamecompany’s Journey. It is not that they are alike, or even that they can be compared, but rather the player experience that arises from both has a sliver of overlap. I must stress that this is not to be taken too much to heart; Dragon’s Dogma, for all that it is an entirely different game, cannot come close to the experience Journey has to offer – but they are venn-diagrammatically linked (to my mind at least).
Journey possess and harnesses the same understanding that the player knows they are interacting with something more than just a part of the game, even if they are not explicitly shown it; that they stand alongside someone who actually exists. In deliberately removing player IDs and voice or text communication, Journey draws you into an amazing experience whereby the simple act of knowing that you are gaming with a living, breathing somebody (rather than an AI controlled partner), compounds the whole gameplay experience, intensifying every low and positively ballooning the many highs.
In Journey, the actions of your silent companion generate character. Mini stories emerge from the way they chose to acknowledge you, the speed and direction they walk in, and the help they provide. In Journey’s case, obviously, these are genuine players in your game, acting in real time. Dragon’s Dogma can never achieve that. But it taps into this same pool of experience to some degree.
The knowledge that elements of your game are more than just pre-planned, scripted segments of code means you can’t help but look at your party members differently. They may not be co-op allies, but neither are they fully prescribed. They inhabit a curious half-way house, wholly of the game’s design while appearing to exist beyond it. This appearance comes from you – it isn’t real – but Dragon’s Dogma entertains and facilitates it all the same. There is the ghost of something ‘social’ hanging over the entire campaign that lends something to the gameplay. Your companions may not be as fully-formed as the cast of Mass Effect or exact any kind of worth on the game world. But they can be worth something to you, and in ways that go beyond the standard NPC.