The Allure of Campfire Tales in Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
30May/160

The Allure of Campfire Tales in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

Not in for a good dayWhen we started our "Why Video Games" series last June, we came up with a hypothesis which we've loosely based our video game talks on.  The idea was how video games are at their best when they create an approximation of an experience you might not otherwise get from books or other art forms.  This has worked out well in titles as varied from Myst to The Witcher 3 (TW3), and I think it'll work well for today's game, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (DD:DA).

To preface this with an admission - I wouldn't have played DD:DA if it weren't for my writing partner today, the returning Quintus Havis.  I'm not a big fan of the open world RPG genre which sprung forward in the wake of Bethesda's success with Morrowind and so on.  TW3 turned out to be one of the few exceptions and my general distaste of the open world format combined with DD:DA's seemingly simplistic storytelling put me at an arms distance of the game.

But, Quintus hasn't led me astray before thanks to his recommendation of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel among other titles, so I decided to give it a shot.  I'm now on play-through 2, attempting to claw my way through the post-post-endgame, and am never bored with the results.  What seems like a shallow RPG on the surface turns out to be a complex game of strategy which requires the player to learn on the fly and reach out for help.  To tie this back to the thesis we began with last June, there's a lot of fun strategy in the midst of DD:DA, but what struck me is how it approximates the experience of spinning campfire tales.  One of my favorite directors, Zack Snyder, is a huge purveyor of narratives filtered through a specific character, and DD:DA is like a cumulative series of Snyder battles with the barest of plot threads designed to tell your friend or offspring about this epic time you had when you were in your youth.

There are some game mechanics which seem to support this on top of the general gameplay, so what say you to this idea Quintus?

Basic battleThat's a really great way to put it: it's probably the highest form of the water cooler game that I've played since maybe Monster Hunter. I found the story to be hugely compelling, but I'm the kind of player that wants to hunt down and kill every monster, so knowing there's a humongous dragon out there for me to take down (in one of the best boss battles I've played in nearly any game I've ever played and one that does credit to dragons like never before in a video game) was about all the story I needed to venture forth and chop up some beasties.

So I very much agree with you.. The game is about community internally, when I'd hire new Pawns (player-created sidekicks) to help me deal with a quest or teach my Pawn new ways to fight griffons and wyverns, and externally in the sense that it often creates these wonderful, organic moments that I couldn't wait to talk to other people about. The combat is simple, but deep and nicely layered, and really ties itself well to the layout of the duchy you run around in, getting into trouble and finding all the interesting nooks and crannies.

Heck, the game world might even be the best metaphor for the game as a whole. It takes what would otherwise be a small swath of land, two towns, a couple of dungeons, and a bunch of countryside, and somehow makes merely traveling the world thrilling and fun because I never knew what I'd find around the corner, or stumble across hidden away in some little cove. The game world, just like the combat, just kept giving me new and interesting little nuances and reasons to come back for more. I'm on what must be playthrough six now, and I adore the game just as much as when I first played it.

Griffin FightCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayI want to focus on that sense of community for a moment, because it helps emphasize the campfire tale aspect of DD:DA and creates an amazing storytelling venue.  It's great that I get a glimpse of how other players go through their games via their Pawns.  If you're enlisting a Pawn that's focused on magic or buffing, then you get an idea that their play-style emphasizes the player taking the lead.  But, if you are looking to enlist a Pawn as a front-line damage dealer, then you get the idea that the player likes to hang on the sidelines and shoot arrows or launch spells.

The community you're pulling from is more suggested than directly told in terms of what function the Pawn serves.  So, as a player, you're put in the position of speculating how the other players are going through their game.  It's a wonderful form of storytelling because it forces you to fill in the gaps and create connections which may be correct, and may not, but keep you connected in the world via the Pawns.  In contrast to DD:DA, I've been playing a lot of Dark Souls 3 (DS3), which has PVE multiplayer but is fleeting.  The system suits the world of DS3, but always (and intentionally so) leaves me adrift from forging lasting connections.

None of this is better exemplified than my first encounter with the griffin in one of the main story quests.  It's the perfect campfire fodder with your player character and Pawn joining a tired platoon of soldiers to take down a griffin who scales a tower during the darkest storm with the fiercest lighting.  On a sheer gamer perspective, it's fucking fantastic, and as you flee the griffin you're constantly thinking of what resources you have left as the soldiers who are around you are picked off one by one.  But on the community aspect, I was having the hardest time dealing damage to the griffin despite Kendra (Quintus' Pawn) yelling at me to use fire on it.  Three rounds of surface to air to surface combat later, she stops yelling to use fire and just picks up one of the many barrels of explosives around the arena and throws it at the griffin.

It's suddenly set on fire and grounded, so as soon as that happened my main Pawn and hired help yell, "I know how to fight this!"  What follows was a train of fire-based pain as all three of my companions grabbed barrels to hurl at the griffin.  Again, on a gamer level this is amazing as I watch the adaptive AI of my companions learn from each other to take down the enemy.  From the campfire storytelling aspect, it's like adding a detour from the overarching narrative on how a mysterious stranger gave me the tip I needed to emerge victorious - and all this is before you have the dragon fight which ties up the first part of the game.

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisI love that story, because that iteration of Kendra got the idea of throwing the fire barrels from me. I normally played the Mystic Knight and could prepare certain spells ahead of time, but my last time around, since I wasn't playing that class, I couldn't, and had to resort to more mundane methods. I've had similar instances of that when I was fighting the Evil Eye or the Lich, where hired Pawns holler, do something heroic, and I learn and grow both in the game and as a player of the game.

I had this happen my first time playing the game on the Xbox 360 and stumbling across a chimera. One of my Pawns just leapt on the thing, cut off it's snake head tail, then bellows "SILENCE THE GOAT!" We then killed the magic casting goat and I suddenly realized "Each head has it's own HP!" Was a beautiful moment of teaching from the game. I love the way exploration and knowledge translates in terms of gaminess in that way. It's a lot more than "Don't cast Fire on Bomb," or the relative sexlessness of elemental effects in The Elder Scrolls series.

I do think this part of the game goes a little underutilized, because until the absolute endgame, fire and light are pretty much all the skills you need (Grigori, the dragon, is weak to darkness, and he is one of I believe two enemies with that weakness). Goblins hate fire, wolves hate fire, harpies hate fire...I love that fire has such varied effects, but I almost feel like it was too much of an unfortunate nod to reality. Harpies that soar and when frozen, shattered on landing, and so on, would have been a lot more interesting. There's a cult of dragon worshipers in the game whom I assumed would be week to darkness elemental attacks because, regardless of their relative villainy, they were holy men that worshiped a divine creature. It wasn't to be, and I feel like DD:DA really missed a fun beat there. So it inspires wonderful campfire tails, especially when your Pawn returns with high marks or you read someone praising your Pawn online while browsing forums, but as ambitious as it is, I feel like it still missed the mark a bit. On the other hand, I have taught several Pawns that the quickest way to kill bandits is to knock them down, heft their half-conscious bodies, and fling them off a nearby cliff, so I'd have to say that overall, it's a victory.

The bosses and events like you're talking about are really the highlight of the game, though. There's a somewhat easy to miss event where you fight off a series of escalating assassin attacks that I find absolutely delightful. And DD:DA's addition, Bitterblack Isle, adds an almost primordial (in terms of RPG history) dungeon crawl that is downright blissful. I remember telling a friend "Play Magick Archer and fight in the hallways. You can use the ricocheting magic arrow to destroy most of the enemies." Or the zombie dragon that breathes a mist that rots your perishables. It was really basic, and really fun. Almost like a pen-and-paper RPG module.

You'd think the dragon fight would take away from that, given it's so heavily scripted, but it gives me goosebumps just to remember. I can't remember a game made me feel as heroic as I did clinging to that dragon's back while we soared to the setting of our final duel. It was just absolutely excellent. And the revelation that follows was similarly great. The whole of DD:DA feels like some Forgotten Realms adventure from a low-level nobody to an epic level being whose decisions rock the world. And in between that are so many stories, so many things to discover. And again, the setting of the game is relatively small compared to country trotting epics found in most open-world RPGs (or multiple countries in the case of TW3). I just adore the game for its use of space in that sense. It has a sense of scale and the epic that most games only flail at, in my opinion.

Cast your magical mightCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawaySee, now you've got me thinking about how art - in general - tends to favor fire over ice.  I think it's because we like the idea of going to our deaths for a reason other than entropy.  After all, there's nothing inherently sexy about freezing to death, the implication being that if you were just smart enough you would have found a way to create a fire.  The same thing applies to fighting enemies, as there's an element of "hah I was able to overpower your fleshy existence" with fire versus the "you'll stop moving soon I swear" element of ice.  It may be one of the many reasons Jack London named his amazing short story "To Build A Fire", instead of, "To Weather A Blizzard."

To shift gears a bit, I like that you brought up both PnP RPGs and how computer RPGs in general tend to be sexless.  There's very much a feeling of escalating dungeon terror that the best dungeon masters of the PnP realm are able to generate.  Once you think you've conquered the biggest challenge a dungeon has to offer, an elevator opens up or a NPC arrives to beg assistance to go even deeper.  It's one of the advantages of DD:DA's relatively tiny world compared to its Bethesda or Rockstar counterparts, because instead of padding your travel time with a lot of mundane driving or walking, you're usually not two or three minutes away from fighting a big beastie or taking out a squad of bandits.

On the sex aspect, I love how DD:DA incorporates relationships.  In most RPGs the love interests for your character are staked out in advance and dialogue trees might as well say, "PRESS HERE TO ADVANCE ONE STEP TOWARD  SEX".    In DD:DA, there's no obvious signs about who your love interest is until just before your first encounter with the dragon.  Both times I played through DD:DA's story mode I ended up with a homosexual character.  It may be because women get the short end of the stick in most RPGs, and my tendency to play women in same, but I always gravitate toward helping women in any way that let's them keep their autonomy while sticking it to the men.  Both my campaigns with my female Arisen (player character) yielded relationships with two different women of the realm, and the spontaneity of how each relationship blossomed along with the inciting event of each, yielded a responsive game world which didn't feel pre-determined.

The best PnP dungeon masters are able to anticipate and work with the sense of spontaneity which arises from the table.  By keeping the world of DD:DA so small and focused, it allows for greater breadth of options in each play-through which reveals different aspects of the game world.  It's that element of choice, not explicitly stated, that makes DD:DA so spectacular.  There are gameplay elements we've talked around as well, but as someone who loves when video games bring an experience to the table instead of generic victory, I love this approach.

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisI'm of two-minds regarding the romance aspect. On one hand, the game presents it narratively as if I know who my beloved is, and I definitely loved Mercedes more than Asalam, despite my visiting the latter all the time and the game seeing that as love. On the other hand, there are quests that lead you to more narratively significant romances, and I do enjoy how there's not much direction on the romances. Feels synergistic with the way the game expects the player to learn how to fight monsters; it's much more a jam session than a composition, and I like that, even if I have some qualms with it. And it definitely helps the game world feel more lively overall.

As far as spontaneity, I don't think there's an area in any game that inspires as much dread in me as Hellfire Grove does. It's the place that I encountered my first wyvern, and where I learned that, as a Mystic Knight, I could parry dragon's breath to tremendous effect. There's a smaller cousin to the dragon that lurks 'round those parts, and if you're around the area, he might just decide to swoop down and destroy you. I wish I had another word because I use this one so much when I talk about DD:DA, but I love the tension this adds to what is otherwise just mundane questing and traveling.  And at the lower levels, that's what DD:DA is all about - the fear of the wilderness vs. the call to venture forth. It's the Hero's Journey every time you set off from Cassardis.

At higher level, that shifts to a more constrained feeling in the world. Instead of exploring, I'm resolving. I like that shift, in a way. The growth in my power felt like it mirrored my mastery of the world, both in statistical terms and my knowledge of the world. Fleeing Death in Bitterblack Isle was as thrilling as watching the wyvern of Hellfire Grove swoop down on me. Learning that ogres will dropkick me off cliffs or how to deal with garms was a lot like learning to fight off swarming bandits. If  The Elder Scrolls is sexless, then DD:DA has a progression that feels like going from curious groping to skillful and satisfying copulation. Both very satisfying, and probably more so for the contrast. And it even has that shared component of excitedly telling your friends about your first time, although for DD:DA, that first time will be when you realize you can shoot a cyclops in the eye to force it to one knee.

Choose your PawnCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayOn that subject of monster weaknesses via tactics, that's what makes DD:DA spectacular as a campfire tale game.  With the right mentality, you can try to take on the strongest beasts in the game straight out of the gate.  Granted, it's unlikely you'll beat a dragon or even a chimera on your first try, but if you're patient and let your Pawns learn or lead you through the encounter you'll be victorious.  But you typically can't let your Pawns do all the work as they're still limited by the AI programmed in DD:DA.

That's where the smooth as silk player controls come in handy.  One of my favorite video game experiences was taking down an airborne foe in Shadow of the ColossusDD:DA condenses these epic fights in bite size portions while keeping all the danger.  If you aren't paying attention to your surroundings when you fight a bog-standard chimera in the late game, you may still find yourself wandering into a nest of goblins or lizards who'll stunlock you and kill your run.  Keeping with the colossus epic encounter template, if you forget what bits of anatomy to target on dragons or the mega cyclopses then those fights will take longer than normal to complete.  You can still easily emerge victorious, but you'll waste Sixfold Shot after Sixfold Shot (Magick Archer for life) whittling the opponents life away before you're able to claim the sweet rewards.

It suits the storytelling vibe of DD:DA.  I'm much more likely to tell the story of the time my companion got bored of me fighting a griffin ineffectively and threw explosive barrels at its face than the time I trapped a mega cyclops on the other side of a hanging bridge pumping arrows into it because I didn't know how to expose its weak point.  The way DD:DA rewards the curious player by, say, crawling around the gigantic beastie to see what armor can be cut away, makes for better tales to tell other gamers than the time I had to grind my way through a boss.

The only complaint here is that the right class with the right weapon can cheese its way through just about any fight in the game.  My Magick Archer can load up on temporary magic boosting items to stun then destroy just about anything it comes across.  Those stories aren't as much fun to tell, but I admit that those magic powerloading builds are saved exclusively for the uber end dungeon where DD:DA's campfire battles wind down to a close.  At this point, DD:DA becomes just another RPG you have to grind through to achieve success, but since 99% of the game leading up to that point is so purposeful in its encounters I can't fault this part clearly aimed at hardcore gamers.

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisThe game is prone to abuse. I'm playing Assassin this time around and Blast Arrows with Fivefold Flurry decimates things. For every great story I have about parrying something as a Mystic Knight, I have a story where I practically fell asleep killing an enemy with Mystic Cannon and Perilous Sigil as I practically fell asleep.

There's a way in which I like that duality, though. Going back to PnP, there's games for powergamers who really chart out their build for deadliness, and there's games that aren't for that. DD:DA, similarly, gives back what I put in. If I want to just play around and explore the game at my leisure, it rewards me with some really fun and exciting extemporaneous moments. If I want to break the game over my knee, it gives me that, too, with New Game Plus and being able to chart stat growths for maximum returns to build the perfect Assassin or whatever I might want.

I think that's the way I'd sum it up. DD:DA is a giving game. The Pawns I hire give to me by teaching me, the world gives me secrets and shortcuts to discover (that the fast travel system happily doesn't undercut, but instead enhances), the bosses give me unique foes to fight that give rise to surprising and interesting events and strategies. The lone exception to all that open giving, fighting the dragon itself, instead gives me a setpiece showcase that really felt like a heroic battle with a dragon rather than Skyrim's pretty bland, paint-by-the-numbers overgrown lizard fights.

I think there's something to be said for the scale of the game, ultimately. The depth of the countryside benefits from a slimmer width. The mighty hugeness of the monsters plays off of the player characters relative smallness. And even when there is nothing in the Duchy that can stop my Arisen, Bitterblack Isle is there less as a dungeon to loot than as a challenge to all that prior mastery. For an open world game, it feels very pointed to me, both in terms of the direction from the quests and just in it's relatively narrow and deep world. For my money, the only other world that managed a similar depth is TW3, and even then, in terms of pure combat mechanics and gameplay, having a player-created Pawn teach me how to take down a chimera or a griffon organically trumps the Arkham series-esque tracking of TW3.

Targeting awayCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayWhile DD:DA is targeting a different player / avatar feel that TW3, I get what you mean.  TW3 requires the player to get involved in the quiet rhythms of the daily life of the citizens in-between the grand battles, and cautiously studying the enemies when they arise to figure out the best strategy to take them down.  By contrast, I can either hurl gigantic fireballs at the thing that's trying to crush me, or I can make use of my sense of observation and am almost always rewarded for spying the trap which can be sprung or the bit of armor which exposes a fleshy weakness with a bit of poking around.

It seems like it boils down to the varying strengths of the unspoken narrative versus the shared narrative.  TW3 has an unspoken narrative told in the careful parrying of humans or finding the right potion / magic combination to take down monsters.  Then, right when you think you've attained victory, some army or other squad of monsters comes in to make your triumph less bombastic.  DD:DA has victories which eviscerate the careful give and take of TW3, and lend more to the sort of story you tell after a few shots with friends.

I love that video games have gotten to a point where both narratives are viable storytelling venues.  As much as I love the uber-depressing and thoughtful DVDs lining my shelves, I have equal affection for the one-and-done comedies and lighthearted dramas which speak to a different need art can fulfill.  The proof is in the stories - much like your stories of encounters pushed me to buy DD:DA, my story of the griffin fight led another friend to purchase it.  Rare is the game which gives me a story to tell in ten minutes of gameplay, and I'm grateful you pointed me toward DD:DA.

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisI think that's what affects me, too. Intellectually, I love TW3. I've played every game in the series, and I've had a lot of fun following Geralt through his adventures. I've enjoyed my time in Skyrim and every other Elder Scrolls game, and have had a lot of fun with Dragon Age: Inquisition's (DA:I) steady, comfortable routine. But nothing give me that good old fashioned, heroic, Harryhausen-style fun that DD:DA gives me. It's like a well planned multiple course meal; each encounter accentuates the last and it builds to a crescendo. TW3 is a more solemn wind-down, a last taste of a familiar meal, while The Elder Scrolls and DA:I strive for something more like make-your-plate buffet. The unity of purpose that DD:DA has feels unique to it, and I can't help but find myself craving it every few months. The progression is ubiquitous and gratifying every time, even once I've reached the point where I'm teaching every Pawn I hire all kinds of new things because I have the game memorized. And hell, even that is fun in a mentoring kind of way, which is another feeling I don't think a game has managed to give me since Breath of Fire 3's quest to train Beyd.

DD:DA really is a game that enables me to create my own hero and my own heroic tales, and that enablement is a unique and wonderful aspect that comes from a beautiful interplay of the internal mechanics of the game world and the external exchange in the community, even if it only happens through the knowledge communicated by the hired Pawns alone. So many open world games offer extemporaneous stories, but the mix of combat mechanics, statistical and intellectual progression (both in the player and AI), and the myriad ways to interact with foes really does create the perfect space for generating the kinds of campfire tales has kept me returning to the road toward Gransys for years now.  It will keep calling me back for years to come.

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Posted by Andrew

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