A Bit of Humanity

Dragon Quest Builders

Nearly a decade ago I was searching for information on 3D modeling. For some reason this weird game kept popping up. It was all boxes and looked terrible. I was getting more and more irritated. Why was this thing showing up? I wasn’t looking for it, and I didn’t care about it. I was trying to find something important.

After an hour, I surrendered and pulled up the damn thing’s official website. What the hell was this thing? Some kind of creative building nonsense?

Fine. I’ll try it out and we’ll see. I wasn’t about to buy it, since I had no idea if I’d want to actually play it. So I pirated a copy and grudgingly installed it. It was taking me away from my real interest (at the time), but I had to know what the hell was going on. There did seem to be a lot of talk going around, so maybe it would be worth it.

Within two days I’d paid for the game and couldn’t stop. I was searching forums for mods and texture packs, checking out other people’s creations, and planning out a mega cathedral. That game was Minecraft, the second best-selling game of all time. And yes, it was worth it. Over the next seven years I would spend over a thousand hours with it.

And if I had never played Dragon Quest Builders, I would have played a thousand more.

Promo art for Dragon Quest IX
Promo art for Dragon Quest IX

The beginning of the end

The first Dragon Quest game, originally titled Dragon Warrior, was a short and sweet RPG published in 1986 for the NES. It’s as basic a game as you can get. Start a quest, collect three magical Macguffins, save the princess, and fight the evil dragon lord. Between 1986 and 2017, 11 different games have come out for the core series, along with several spinoffs. One such spinoff was Dragon Quest Builders. Released in 2016, it managed to sell over a million copies and earn itself a sequel. For the initial simplicity offered by the first game, it's incredible how long this series has lasted.

Dragon Quest Builders takes place in the same area of the world as the first game. The Goddess resurrects you so you can save the world from darkness. After climbing out of a shallow grave, you discover the ruins of the city of Cantlin. Shadows cover the land, and all seems hopeless. The hero of light, scion of the hero Erdrick, betrayed the world to the Dragon Lord. Instead of defeating him, the hero joined him. And it’s this injustice that you must work to correct — freeing the world of the Dragon Lord’s corruption, one block at a time

You plant a banner of light at the center of town, and begin reclaiming a piece of the land from the darkness. The more you build, the better your town becomes. A room, in the game, is a space enclosed by walls two blocks high, with at least one door and a light source. As you fill rooms with different furniture, they turn into specific rooms. Put two straw mattresses down and it becomes a basic bedroom. Put four down, and it transforms into a Grotty guesthouse, increasing the health of your residents by 15%. Build a kitchen and the villagers will cook food for you while you’re out adventuring. Create a blacksmith’s studio and your equipment becomes more durable.

I kept building until I had reconstructed the great walled city of Cantlin. High walls and spikes protected my people from the monsters outside. Then the golem appeared, ready to tear down my city and scatter my people to the winds. But with the villagers’ help, I was able to beat back the golem and free the land from the darkness of the Dragon Lord.

Promo art for Dragon Quest IX
Promo Art for Dragon Quest IX

A journey twice over

If you’ve never played the original Dragon Quest, this first part of the game wouldn’t seem particularly special. It’s a good time, but it’s no more special than any other game. But if you have played the original, Dragon Quest Builders takes on a dramatically different feel.

In the original game, Cantlin was the last city you visited. It was a fortress. Surrounded by walls and a fierce golem protector, it could withstand any assault. To get into the city at all, you had to defeat the golem.

But in Dragon Quest Builders, Cantlin is the first place you visit.

The more you see, the clearer the pattern becomes.  The second place you rebuild is Rimular. The once beautiful lake and surrounding forests have been poisoned. The water is a putrid purple, the trees withered husks. Freeing it from the blight and helping its citizens regain their lives, you venture off again to your third location.

There you find ruins in the middle of a vast desert. Once the town of Kol, a city in the forest, famed for its hot springs, it’s now just a small pool of warm water surrounded by endless, barren wastelands.

In Dragon Quest Builders, you’re visiting the same places you would have in the original Dragon Quest, but in reverse. In the original, you were the hero of light. You went to these places, then arrived at the castle of the Dragon Lord who gives you the option to join him. You can join him, dooming the world to death and darkness, or you can fight him.

Dragon Quest Builders is the story of what happened to the world after the hero abandoned their quest. Playing the original, then playing Dragon Quest Builders, is an incredible experience. The journey is reversed, to undo the damage the hero caused by his choices. And now you know what the world once was, and what it became. It elevates Dragon Quest Builders from just another building game into something special, unlike anything I’ve played before.

And the people! Those villagers who show up as you work to rebuild civilization. You talk with each of them, listen to their ideas and make them real. You help them. Protect them. They become your people. It’s not just you building the village, it’s everyone. Seeing them walking around, crafting items and protecting the village, they become real. Real in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced in a game before. The whole game is this wonderful, beautiful experience of humanity at its best.

Sadly, it’s also why I don’t think I’ll ever play Minecraft again.

Promo art for Dragon Quest IX
Promo Art for Dragon Quest IX

A human element

I returned to Minecraft a month or so after playing Dragon Quest Builders. And I turned it off maybe an hour later. The game felt like its color had been washed away. The inspiration I’d felt before wasn’t there. It was like walking into a familiar house after all the furniture was taken away. An empty, lifeless shell.

I had changed. I had been changed. It wasn’t the creativity I wanted to experience anymore. I wanted a purpose. I wanted to build things for people I cared about. I wanted to design things that could be useful. It wasn’t enough to build a castle if there was no one to live in it. No point in constructing homes or farms or roads anymore. They were just empty decorations.

I felt hollow. Dragon Quest Builders had illuminated a part of me I didn’t even know about. And now that self-knowledge haunted me as I tried to play Minecraft again. Moving with me from room to room. In the deepest caves or the open fields, I couldn’t escape.

I had experienced a real connection to the people in those villages. A feeling of responsibility for their wellbeing. I was on a quest to save the world. But in doing so, I found people worth saving the world for. The Hero, when he abandoned his quest, did so for his own gain. But the Builders, when they saved the world, did so for the people they cared for.

It’s this humanity, this sense of connection, that I desire most in games now. This idea, that a game’s mechanics should somehow foster relationships between the player and characters. It doesn’t make Minecraft a bad game. I don’t regret the time I spent with it. But it means my time with it is over. I’ve grown. There’s something else I want now, and Minecraft can’t offer it. I don’t think there’s many games that can. But maybe, if I keep in mind these experiences, I’ll someday  build a game that recaptures that feeling. Maybe … one that does it even better.