I really appreciate the structure of Dragon Quest IV.
The game is divided into five chapters. Each of the first four chapters is about 2-3 hours long, and they each follow an individual character through some trial or tribulation. Each chapter feels like a complete game. The character starts at a low level and levels up pretty quickly to beat the boss of their respective chapter. There are minor callbacks and references to other chapters’ events and characters, but each chapter feels relatively isolated from the rest of the game. Though the game doesn’t allow it, a player could theoretically jump into any of these four chapters cold and understand what to do; it’s just more rewarding to see the small connections.
The fifth and final chapter is a nice accumulation of everything that came before, since the earlier protagonists have to team up to fight a threat they couldn’t face alone (sort of like the Avengers). This allows for a more satisfying ending than other games, which sometimes feel like the game ended because it ran out of levels.
But the main reason I like Dragon Quest IV’s structure is that it really manages my time well, because each chapter is only 2-3 hours long.
I’m the sort of player that goes hot and heavy with a game for a weekend, and then doesn’t play the game for months. It’s how I’ve always been. I’ll play an RPG one week then want to switch to a racing game or a puzzle game or a shooter or a platformer.
I recently listened to a Retronauts podcast about Harvest Moon, and decided I should go back to my Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life save that I hadn’t touched in a decade. For some reason, I didn’t think that I would have no recollection of my earlier Harvest Moon game. Aside from not remembering the controls, I didn’t know the routines for my animals and plants; I didn’t know if I was trying to save my money for a big purchase; I didn’t know any of my plans.
This approach to gaming is also disastrous for any skill-based game, like a twitch-shooter, platformer, or combo-heavy fighter. Over the initial playthrough, I build up my skills, learn all the button combinations, and advance pretty far in the game. Most games tend to get more difficult as they progress. But it’s okay, because I have improve my abilities as the difficulty scales. But I come back months later, and I’ve advanced myself to a level where I honestly can’t progress any further because my skills have depleted.
With turn-based RPGs, like Dragon Quest, my actual physical skills matter very little. The difficulty comes from remembering what to do.
I took a couple months off from Persona 4: Golden. Coming back, I don’t know who my party members are – what their specialties are, how I was using them, and how they function in the story. I don’t remember where I was on each social link. I don’t remember which sport I signed up for and when practices are. Persona 4 is a wonderful game, but it’s an astonishingly long game. Continuing on while not understanding large parts of the story or game mechanics wouldn’t be fun. But starting over and re-doing 10-20 hours of gameplay also doesn’t seem worth it to me either.1
In Dragon Quest games, I’ve learned to stop when I get to a new town. Even outside of Dragon Quest IV, the Dragon Quest games have very episodic structures. The player character arrives in a new town, and something is immediately wrong – the King’s gone mad, something is missing, the well has been poisoned, monsters are kidnapping children and taking them to a nearby cave. Generally, the questlines in Dragon Quest stay focused in the town and surrounding areas. The quest lines don’t span several towns and evolve over the course of the game, like they do in a MMO.
When the problem is solved, the player character moves on to the next town. They rarely go back to revisit old towns. By stopping when I get to a town, when I return to the game, I can consult a guide or FAQ and start fresh. In the past, I would spend half my time talking to NPCs I’d already talked to, and pursuing quest objectives I’d already completed. I once re-did an entire dungeon in a Dragon Quest game just to get to a treasure chest I had already opened.
Dragon Quest IV takes this structure and expands it to the macro level. In so doing, it makes every chapter into a nice 2-3 hour game. I can start and finish each chapter in a weekend, and I feel a nice sense of completion. It also appears less daunting than a normal 30-hour RPG, even though that’s exactly what it is.
The fifth and final chapter is much longer, like 15-20 hours. It functions more like a traditional Japanese RPG at this point, wandering from town to town. To be perfectly honest, this is where Dragon Quest IV falls apart for me. I still get the micro-satisfaction of completing questlines, but I much prefer the sense of accomplishment from beating a whole chapter. I like knowing that the chapter’s end is a stopping point. I like knowing that I can safely stop playing a game, take several month-long breaks from the game, without missing a beat. It means that I will actually complete the game, unlike Persona 4, which will likely remain in limbo for me.
There are a number of games that are structured similarly to Dragon Quest IV. The Telltale games – from Sam & Max to Back to the Future to The Walking Dead – are all constructed as a series of short 2-4 hour episodes released every few months. I can beat an episode of Back to the Future, then forget about it for years (which I have done), and jump back in. Or I can play it all in one fell swoop.
Dragon Quest IV’s structure is a structure that works for my gaming habits, and that is why I appreciate it.