(Note: This is the first article in a series where I discuss my experiences with video games as an autistic person. You can find out more here).
(CN: mention of death)
I’ve decided to start this series by talking about the RPG that turned me into a gamer, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies which originally released for the Nintendo DS in 2009 before getting localised for a Western release in 2010. It was developed by Level-5 whom worked on Dragon Quest VIII as well as Dark Cloud and Professor Layton. However before I discuss the game, I would like to discuss the Dragon Quest series as a whole as it ties in quite nicely.
Originally created by Enix in 1986 (now part of Square Enix), the Dragon Quest series consists of old school turn based battles with later entries featuring 3D maps and orchestral scores. Alongside other influential series such as Final Fantasy and Ys, Dragon Quest is considered one of the founding series of the RPG genre.
To add some more background info, it is Japan’s national videogame (on par with juggernauts like Super Mario) with pretty much everyone in Japan having heard of the series. Yet in the West, it is very obscure. While most of the mainline games have been translated into English, the majority of the spinoffs remain Japanese exclusive as well as the sole MMO entry in the series, Dragon Quest X. Not to mention all localised Dragon Quest games prior to DQVIII were localised under the name Dragon Warrior.
I would argue this would be a good series for autistic people to try due to how consistent and predictable the themes and mechanics are per entry. The story synopsis has the same overarching goal of saving the world while several monsters, spells and items carry over from previous games in the series. You save at churches where there is a god or goddess watching over you. In newer entries, the localised text features regional accents within the text as well as an English dub in the case of Dragon Quest VIII. There is a great sense of reliability and predictability with these games. I for one, feel so at home playing games in this series. There is a sense of routine playing an entry in this series as there is a rough idea as on what to expect. Routine is something that many autistic people prefer, or even need, to ensure essential functioning and enjoyment.
Not to mention, the cartoon aesthetic, in my experience, appeals to a lot of autistic people. Many of them are drawn to games with cartoon/anime aesthetics. This usually goes against Western cultural norms where cartoons/anime are seen as something for kids (with a few notable exceptions like South Park and The Simpsons). Whereas in Japan, anime is seen as something that appeals to all ages hence there are many mature stories told with an anime aesthetic. The artwork in all Dragon Quest games is done by Akira Toriyama whom is also known for his work on Dragon Ball Z.
Older entries feature grind walls while newer entries have a greater emphasis on accessibility. The latter gets huge praise from me as this shows how the series tries to evolve subtly while also retaining its signature hallmarks that make the series what it is. Dragon Quest is a conservative series – it affirms its routes in its tradition and heritage in order to stay relevant to the Japanese fanbase. However, it too has had to evolve over time in some ways – moving from 2D sprites to 3D worlds is on big example. Likewise reducing grind walls.
This is a double edged sword – many people love Dragon Quest for being exactly this. In an era where there are hundreds of pounds worth of DLC, day one patches, quick time events and other exclusive elements of modern gaming, having a major series actively resist this (DQXI will have no DLC) is refreshing. However this conservative ethos is partly why the series is niche outside of Japan and remains obscure despite going for over 30 years. It simply does not resonate with the average Western consumer whom largely prefer fast paced games. Not to mention Enix and then Square Enix’s inconsistent localisation and marketing of past titles (as I mentioned earlier) hindered the series’ growth worldwide. On a personal level, it is partly why I have only cleared Dragon Quest IX despite owning and playing dozens of hours of other titles in the series across Nintendo handhelds. Now it is time to focus on Dragon Quest IX.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies was the first RPG I ever played and a game that consumed years of my life when I was younger. It was the first (and only) RPG I have ever spent more than 100 hours playing due to how engrossed I was throughout my time with it. It was a game that served as a foundation for my experience with RPGs.
Dragon Quest IX has a fairly simple setup. You play the role of a Celestrian whom’s job is to protect and watch over their assigned settlement in the world, helping people out including the souls of dead people move on from the world. However, the Celestrian falls from the heavens after a powerful beam strikes their home, the Observatory. The protagonist loses their wings and halo and becomes visible to humans which isn’t what is supposed to happen. Thus, the protagonist goes on an adventure to find out what happened and save the world. The story deals with themes of death and betrayal but is otherwise fairly lighthearted in tone and execution.
Gameplay consists of turn based battles. If you have played a turn-based RPG before you know what to expect here. All battle participants take turns to defeat the opposing side. You select commands like Attack/Defend/Spells to dictate your actions. The models and movements are all 3D, accompanied by a dynamic camera. Enemies vary, from bat-like enemies to opake clouds and even trolls. Exploration is on a world map allowing for a vast, sprawling world to be brought to life. There are vast plains, an open desert and even barren wastelands. You can use the DS’s touchscreen or the D-pad to move your party around the field.
Dragon Quest IX as a whole shares the same core gameplay as previous entries due to the series’ conservative ethos. However Dragon Quest IX did try two new things different. The first is a character creator for each party member and the second thing is the multiplayer and postgame content. The character creator allows players to custom make their party members to give them their own appearance. This applied to all party members and helped add a personal touch although this was criticised by series veterans for removing a lot of life that parties had in previous games.
I really enjoyed the core gameplay in this game. It just clicked with me even though it took me a while to learn how the systems worked. It took me a long time to finish the main quest and I really enjoyed the direction the story took. I found myself immersed and sucked into the world in a way very few games have managed to do since. Dragon Quest IX became my benchmark by which I judge and compare RPGs (until it was dethroned by Persona 4 Golden).
I spent several lunchtimes at secondary school playing the local multiplayer of this game with other autistic students checking out grottos. We bonded and had fun. One of my friends had a very high level and we frequently went into his high level maps. It led to plenty of rare items however being of a lower level to him meant I was more vulnerable to getting game overs. This was due to being wiped out by powerful monsters. We communicated and teamed up to take down the enemy.
Autistic people tend to be more likely to open up and communicate if their special interest/passion is brought into the equation in some way. Dragon Quest IX’s multiplayer is one such example. This allows friendships to develop which may lead to them finding social acceptance within a certain group. Overcoming social anxiety can also be aided through situations like this as the topic at hand is easier to talk about.
A lot of parents of autistic children worry that allowing their autistic children to play games online will encourage them to shut themselves away and become a recluse and not learn how to cope in a world that isn’t made for them. While this is a very valid concern (it does happen), there are perks. Social skills are often aided and developed through these interactions even if online only. Not to mention online friends are valid especially when many people in real life are not accepting of autistic people.
Personally, I think local multiplayer like Dragon Quest IX’s mode is the best compromise. This is because there is the face-to-face interaction without the pressure to talk and constantly interact which drains energy. Players could either go it alone within the group session or stick with the rest of the group. Therefore there is freedom during multiplayer sessions. It’s a shame local multiplayer is declining in general as I do feel that there is still a place for it especially in circumstances like this.
I’m hopeful that the upcoming worldwide release of Dragon Quest XI will finally give the series the large audience here that it deserves so we can get more titles in the series. I also hope one day soon Dragon Quest IX gets remade for modern platforms so a new generation can experience one of the most underrated RPGs ever, multiplayer and all.
That’s all for today.
(All images not mine. They belong to their respective owners.)