Plot is Solyent Green, Chuck Wendig tells me. It’s made of people. As someone who reads and writes fanfiction fiction on a semi-regular basis, I can point out lists of books that lived (or died) based on their characters. Always, I find myself preferring a tired concept with great characters over a newer concept with dull characters.

But when I switch from the Kindle to the 3DS, I’m switching into a different format. The protagonist of a video game is often a blank slate with little direct dialogue, a vehicle designed to minimize the barrier between player and narrative. It’s hard to make a great character when it’s the player, not the game, determining what that character is. Can an RPG still make a great story when the protagonist is at the whims of the audience? One series in particular, Dragon Quest, wanted to do both: provide a great story and leave the characterization of the protagonist up to the player. It just took them nine games to get there.

Interestingly, I played almost all of the current English-language Dragon Quest games in the order they were released. I started first with the I & II bundle, and then III, which were released on Game Boy Color (back when they were called Dragon Warrior). These games are very much designed to put you in the hero’s shoes: although the protagonists’ appearances are defined, they have no default names, and III even allows you to pick and choose your own party. III also allows you to pick the gender of your hero (although the developers sometimes forgot to de-gender the English translation. Whoops. But hey, for a sort-of-girl on the internet, being constantly mistaken for a boy just makes her more relatable).

Likewise, the plots aren’t much to get excited about. Dragon Quest I is literally just kill the dragon, rescue the princess, defeat the lord of all evil. (Spoilers?) At the same time, even with the “But Thou Must!” limitations (yes, you must save the world, sorry), the lack of predefined story gives people enormous room to play around and get to the goal their own way. You can play a hero that’s afraid of Drackys and runs from every encounter with them. Your hero can ignore the clues for how to find the missing item in the swamp and just go charging in, combing the area with single-minded determination. You don’t even have to rescue the princess. II and III continue that, giving players just enough sand to play with in a deeper sandbox.

Collector card from Dragon Quest II. A female protagonist drags a coffin (attached to a rope), while a male NPC lies exhausted on the ground. Art by Akira Toriyama, developed and published by Enix, 1987. Card sourced from http://imperial-scrolls-of-honor.tumblr.com/post/149563163767/dragon-quest-2-cards

You can also play a “delicate” princess who bodily drags her friends’ coffins back to town.

(Look, I’m not saying I’ve written a 130k fanfic of Dragon Quest II based on my ridiculous headcanons for it, but I’m not not saying that, either.)

IV, the start of the second trilogy and a new canon unconnected to the first three, includes two substantial changes: a predefined party and predefined names. While the hero (or heroine!) remains a fairly blank slate, IV is the first time the Dragon Quest series really digs in to actual character development. After a brief scenario with your hero/ine, the next two thirds of the game have you playing through the much longer scenarios of all the party members your hero/ine eventually meets up with. Each of those stories digs into a particular character or small group, revealing their personality and motivations for wanting to save the world (aside from it being, you know, the place where their stuff is).

All this juicy story-meat comes at the cost of leaving the designated player character out of half the gameplay. IV was an attempt to bridge between a bare-bones sandbox and a rigid storybook. While I don’t think it fully succeeded, it was both enjoyable and a noticeable improvement over the previous games. Years later, I still remember characters like Healie, the healing slime who wanted to be a human, or Torneko, the humble merchant with a family. Even the main villain gets notes and nods to his humanity and isn’t some blank, unknowable force of all evil. It’s a big step up from kill the dragon, save the princess, defeat the lord of all evil.

Promotional art for the mobile port of Dragon Quest IV. Drawn by Akira Toriyama, developed and published by Square Enix, 2014.

So, compelling story… just not a compelling story of the hero. V, VI, and later VIII decided to go further in that direction and tip the scale from sandbox to a fully committed storybook-style narrative. Although you can still choose a name for your hero in each game, all of them suggest default names; none of your party is nameable or definable aside from their actual battle skill. This commitment to story makes it much harder to work in your own touches: for example, it’s quite difficult to headcanon VIII’s protagonist as gay when he’s having two separate women narratively flung at him. (But it’s so very funny to imagine him chasing the pretty-boy party member instead.) In place of that customization, we get story, so very much story.

V and VIII in particular are two of my top three Dragon Quest games because of their story. The narratives of both the player character and his immediate party are gut-wrenchingly personal. Saving the world almost feels like an afterthought compared to the stories of revenge, rescuing your home, or protecting your family. The way these later Dragon Quest games invite us into the narrative is not by creating a stand-in, but giving us something we can relate to like a traditional book would. Last I checked, I hadn’t gone up against literal world-destroying demons, but I know what it’s like to feel like the outcast, to be alone, or to be the only one that’s different.

In contrast, VII feels like a throwback trying to capture the formula for IV. Although you have a defined party, the story feels less about their personal journey and more about the collection of mini-stories from the NPCs you meet. VII returns to saving the world because that’s where their stuff is—the hero’s motivation (to become a fisherman like his father) has little to do with the story. Meanwhile, the NPC narrative thrust drags and goes so many different directions, it’s hard to focus on one group long enough to get attached to them.

Out of all VII’s threads, there was only one that hit me with near the emotional impact of V or VIII—Prince Kiefer’s storyline. Out of your five party members, he is the only one whose character goes through growth, from an adventure-seeking youth to someone who finds something he personally wants to protect. He’s also the only party member that abandons the original goal to save the world, choosing personal motivation over the noble but ultimately empty motivation of the rest. Nestled in amidst such stronger party-driven plotlines, VII felt weak as a game. What were they trying to accomplish as a story?

VII’s structure doesn’t make much sense compared to V or VIII, but when compared to IX, it does. IX returns to the style of III in that you can completely customize your party—name, appearance, battle skills, and even how many party members you want. It returns to the very beginning of the series’ roots by allowing for a stand-in. Because the character is completely customizable, it’s hard to write dialogue or cutscenes focused on the character.

Official art for Dragon Quest IX by Akira Toriyama. Developed and published by Square Enix, 2009.

A customized party.

IX makes up for that in part by focusing attention on NPC stories. Each region you go to while chasing the game’s plot devices involves a different story with a different cast of characters and desires—the Wight Knight searching for his missing princess, the mystery of the disappearing students of Swinedimples. (I’m so not kidding about these names.) The NPC storylines evoke the personal nature of V and VIII while keeping them small enough in number that the narrative didn’t get stretched too thin, like VII’s overly fast-paced storytelling.

Unlike the early games, though, your player character is not without a personal touch. Their narrative isn’t about saving the world, it’s just about trying to get back home. Story is also tied directly to them in the form of NPCs close to the player character, like Erinn, Stella, and Aquila. The narrative does provide some rigidity that acts as a support rather than a laid-out path: for example, your character is established as having a teacher-student relationship with Aquila, but the actual nature of that relationship is up to you. In this way, IX combines the best of both the sandbox and storybook worlds, and that’s why it’s the third of my top three Dragon Quest games.

The entire main series of Dragon Quest has been developed by the same studio, so playing the games in order is an interactive look at seeing their storytelling evolve. From the start, the Dragon Quest series put the player directly in the shoes of a hero. Sometimes they sacrificed player freedom for story, sometimes they stumbled on characterization. After eight games of trying this and that, they finally brought IX together in a balanced package. IX’s narrative success makes me quite excited to find out what XI’s going to bring to the table. Okay, so I could technically find out now by browsing the Japanese wikis, but sometimes, you just have to experience a story for yourself.

Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.