Thursday, February 17, 2011

Analysis: Dragon Quest

Dragon Quest is a classic series dating back to the original NES / Famicom. In that way, it shares a lot of its origins with Final Fantasy: it's a simple RPG about heroes vanquishing villains, with a lot of recognizable fantasy concepts. However, unlike Final Fantasy, DQ chose to stay in that genre. While Final Fantasy moved on from fantasy to steampunk (FF6), dystopia (FF7), and modern fantasy (FF8), DQ kept doing what it's always done.

Talking about things like the setting, story, and logic (i.e. my usual fare) of Dragon Quest seems to be a bit pointless. Dragon Quest has always been about being iconic, rather than challenging or innovative. It's had some neat plot twists and so on in the past, but the point has always been heroic adventure, not grounded politics and sensibilities. When I talked about FFXI, for example, I was doing so on the grounds that the material indicated a level of realism and depth that I didn't think was expressed in the game itself. Dragon Quest doesn't deal in that - it deals in mighty knights, crafty wizards, and noble priests banding together to rid the world of evil. It's simple, but effective for what it needs to do.

Early on, Dragon Quest's designs were essentially a way to convert Toriyama's art into character sprites, hence the need for bright, recognizable colors. They also helped to maintain a fairly cartoonish look that defined the tone and theme of the game - heroic, but childish, fantasy. This trend continued into later Dragon Quest games, where simple-but-recognizable designs like the cleric, the mage, and the warrior were necessary to create a sense of genre consistency based on immediately comprehensible iconic imagery. Dragon Quest could be said to have established a standard for the "generic 8-bit RPG", and whenever there's a parody of that era in a game or anime, it's going to resemble Dragon Quest on some level.

However, as those class designs showed, "realism" wasn't really a major concern for classic Dragon Quest. The clothing is bright, colorful, and clearly not intended to look like "real cloth", while the armor is similarly intangible and nonsensical. The series has varied in its representation of what items are supposed to look like, from those very basic beginnings to slightly more tangible materials by DQ VII. The designs are still certainly cartoonish, but there's at least some effort to make the material look more real. It's a lot like "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" in that sense, where it's hardly meant to be realistic, but there's still room for things that looks a bit more "real" (as well as the addition of a mail shirt to Link's design).

This brings us to Dragon Quest IX, which I feel expresses both material realism and stylistic cartoonishness. In fact, I'd say the use of the former (far more than any previous DQ game) emphasizes the nature of the latter. This is going to tie both into armor design and clothing design. So, without further ado, let's take a look at some classes:

Right off the bat, we can see the clash between the old and the new. DQ9's warriors are laudable because they look like they're actually wearing metal, cloth, and leather. They did a good job of representing the material and making it look like what it's meant to be, rather than the sort of abstract "colorful metal" that previous games used. The male warrior is even wearing a padded or leather tunic over his mail in a quite sensible fashion. Sure, the helmet is a little cartoonish to fit his giant head, but overall the male warrior looks like a pretty solid design.

Which, unfortunately, brings us to the female. The female is weird because the materials are still there - it still looks like metal and mail and leather - but not much else is. It acknowledges the nature and subsistence of armor, but neither its role in providing coverage nor the discomfort that would follow with wearing armor in such a fashion. It's hard to imagine the woman getting hit without unpleasantly gory things following because of the nature of the materials. It's one thing to image being hit by a plastic sword, it's another if that sword is clearly sharp enough to cut flesh. This is probably something that deserves its own update - when women are depicted as soldiers, they're rarely shown to be as vulnerable to distressing or catastrophic damage as male soldier are.

While both of these designs are pretty solid in terms of materials (I especially think the male paladin's cape and tunic being bordered in such a way is a nice touch), there's still some visible imbalance. For no adequately explained reason, the woman is leaving flesh exposed on her upper legs and upper torso. There's not even cloth underneath, unless she's choosing to wear skin-colored cloth. It's just skin under mail and plate.

One strange thing about this picture, though, is that in some ways the woman is actually better-armored than the man, with leg protection, gauntlets, and some light plate protection on the torso. However, those pointless gaps draw enough attention that it overcomes that difference. The man's legs may be exposed to damage, but at least they're not exposed to the elements. He seems like a reasonable traveler - she does not.

Now here, at least, is a class where both male and female are equally exposed. Sure, the female is still wearing a skirt for no reason other than "girls wear skirts I guess", but in terms of armor protection they're basically equal, and they both show off some skin for no reason. This is the crux of the issue - thematic fairness, rather than simply being protected or unprotected. It's okay for Red Sonja to run around in unrealistic gear as long as Conan does the same. Naturally in the earliest Robert E. Howard stories, both Conan and Sonja were reasonably armored for whatever period they were in - it was the style of comics and movies that resulted in the depictions we imagine today. As a side-note, I think this design does a pretty good job with tangible materials despite its obviously less-than-sensible coverage design.

Look how close they are to having balanced design. They're so close. They're both reasonably clothed in a pretty exciting visual style that still looks tangible and sensible (although perhaps not for long-term adventuring), and then the woman just neglects to wear pants. Now, obviously, skirts are a real thing and there has to be some allowance for their existence, but within the context of the illustration it just seems unfair. Technically the skirt seems short enough that she could still move around and so on, but still - if she's a traveler, she's going to want to avoid exposure to the elements. The part that bothers me is that it's so close to being equal and sensible, but there's still bared skin for clear fanservice reasons. I just wish there was a class where the woman was wearing more and had more coverage than the man did.

Oh! Well, thank you, DQ9! 

While I really like both of these designs in terms of style and tangibility (with clear steppe inspirations), it's funny how the warmth and coverage of some sections makes the few exposed areas look weirder. Like obviously there's the male refusing to wear a shirt, but even little things like the woman having some leg-skin exposed and not wearing gloves just makes me feel like they'd get cold quickly. It's not just because skin is exposed per se - after all, it makes sense to wear less if it's warm out - but the presence of thick clothing and fur hats sort of suggests that it's meant for cold weather. I suppose it all depends on the artist's mindset when he drew it.

There's still a few classes left I haven't looked at - casters, primarily - that I didn't feel were quite as important to get across what I'm trying to say. Most of those classes focus on cloth and leather alone, and some are pretty good as far as coverage and equality go. These pages have all of them, and even the unrealistically exposed ones like the minstrel and mage are justified by at least a general sense of fairness (i.e. neither the male nor the female is really meant to look like a serious adventurer). The warrior is by far the weirdest case, not just because the female's unrealistic, but because the male is.

This goes back to concepts of tone. If things are going to be realistic, they should be realistic equally. If things are going to be unrealistic, they should be unrealistic equally. Theoretically, "unrealistic" is less of a hassle because something can look plausible and still be unrealistic, as these designs are, but it still creates a sense of distance between the two. A realistic or plausible design naturally brings up concepts of coverage, protection, and materials, and this ends up correlating to the idea of a blow hitting flesh rather than leather or metal.

As far as clothing goes, though, it's all going to depend on how the environment is portrayed. Heat and sweat are naturally going to make exposure more reasonable, while wind and chill are going to suggest bundling up. I tried to judge these designs not by an assumption of a default environment, but by a sense of consistency within the design itself. Covering up 9/10ths of your body with heavy materials and then deciding "no, I think a skirt is fine for weather like this" seems a bit counter-intuitive. This isn't as big of an issue, because unlike armor clothing choice comes down to personal comfort and so on, but it's still noteworthy to me because of the depiction.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Dragon Quest is a pretty solid "not realistic, doesn't care to be realistic" RPG series.
2) Its recent forays into more realistic textures (if not characters) has led to an odd disconnect.
3) While this decision was for stylistic, rather than logical, reasons, it still has an impact on perception of the world.
4) Establishing gender equality becomes an issue when armor seems logical, rather than stylized.

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