Dragon’s Dogma Took a Charming Video Game World and Saw Only Spite in It

Dragon’s Dogma Took a Charming Video Game World and Saw Only Spite in It
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Dragon’s Dogma, Capcom’s beloved 2012 action RPG, became a cult classic in spite of itself. It’s a clunky, at times arcane experience that can obfuscate the game in awkwardness. It also has a rabid audience — one that screams with delight every time it gets ported to a new platform — that fell in love with it for a reason its animated adaptation doesn’t seem to understand.

It’s mainly that Dragon’s Dogma is kind of dumb as all hell. In a good, fun way, that is.

Illustration: Jim Cooke

Designed by the legendary Hideaki Itsuno — the director behind hits like Devil May Cry and Power StoneDragon’s Dogma was more a sandbox vehicle for fantasy fun than it was a self-serious sweeping epic. It had a story, sure. You played a humble peasant from the coastal village of Cassardis; after hundreds of years in hiding, a massive dragon named Grigori appeared, burned most of the village down, and took your heart. The event turned you into a destined hero named the Arisen who could summon soulless vassals named Pawns to aid you as you traversed the land.

This is the bit the show borrows too, except now the player-character is an actual character: Ethan, who also loses his wife and unborn child in Grigori’s attack. After meeting his own Pawn, Hannah, he too ventures out to confront the dragon.

In Defence Of Dragon’s Dogma

Dragon’s Dogma didn’t get the kindest review on Kotaku when it came out in 2012 for consoles. With the PC version arriving on Steam today, it’s an opportunity for me to mount a defence for one of my favourite flawed games of the last few years. Dragon’s Dogma is far...

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After hours of combat fun slashing, shooting, and magick-ing the ever-loving crap out of giant monsters, sure you might decide to go smash up Grigori and maybe even break the eons-spanning cycle of dragons and Arisens that plagues the kingdom. Maybe. But the real story of Dragon’s Dogma the game was the misadventures you got up to along the way.

Image: Capcom

There is an earnest charm to Dragon’s Dogma that can only be found in the unexpected sandbox of its vast video game world. It feels less about this specific story — one that, in part because of that arcane clunkiness, kind of vanishes outside of the start and end of the game, as if intentionally compelling you to run off and do other things with your squad of Pawn pals — and more like it was made to have players tell a tale of their own to share with their friends. Its expansive world was filled with monsters to battle and environments to traverse, arenas for which you could stage your own little quests of heroism, full of over the top magic spells and action-packed sword fights.

There wasn’t traditional co-op play, either. If you played online, your Pawn could be uploaded into the digital ether for other Arisen to summon into their party. When they returned them to that ether, they would come back to you with experience. Not just the video game nature of having leveled up, but a familiarity with the world they’d adventured in. If they’d fought a Griffin in that world and you hadn’t yet, when you did, they’d have advice on how to beat it (shoot it with fire, always a good go-to strategy for fun and, well, things being on fire).

They brought you back a story. That’s what Dragon’s Dogma’s true magic was: playing it was like sitting around a campfire swapping tall tales. “Oh, you didn’t fight the Cyclops at the ruined fort? When I got there it was night time, and there were goblins and undead, and everything was on fire, and then my Pawn tried climbing up its leg, and then I did too, and then…”

Image: Capcom

Admittedly, this sort of emergent storytelling feeling can’t really be replicated in a linear anime series, one that has to have set characters and a compelling throughline for them, but Dragon’s Dogma the show actually tries. It’s relatively episodic, and the majority of the episode’s premises are essentially: “Ethan and Hannah stumble on some people who need help fighting a monster, they fight it and move on with their quest.” At times, it truly feels like every RPG player who’s promptly forgotten what the big grand story they were meant to be following is and just went off on a bunch of sidequests. There’s a Griffin fight, a cyclops fight, a Hydra fight, all memorable encounters from the game. Hell, one episode’s opening sees the duo peacing the hell out of a fight with a Lich that is, in metatext terms, too high level for their party, before coming back for round two with more help.

All these things, in abstract, are very Dragon’s Dogma, like someone read through a checklist on the back of the game box and went “Got it, let’s make an anime!” But it’s what that anime has to say around those bullet points that feels like it misses what made the game so charming in the first place.

Image: Netflix

There is nothing fun in the world of the anime. Every encounter Ethan and Hannah face along their path is framed as a tonal piece about the failings of humanity. You see, it’s not the monsters that are truly monstrous, but man! From the maudlin episode titles — a rundown of cardinal sins like Greed, Lust, Pride, Sloth, and so on — to its love of hyper-gory action, Dragon’s Dogma’s view of its world is just incredibly despondent, all the time. Good people are punished for being good with death. Bad people get their comeuppance at the cost of even more death. The world sucks, the people who have power exploit those that don’t, and the people just trying to get by in life are either forced to participate in vile conditions or get wrecked by a random monster of the week.

It’s no wonder then, that Ethan and Hannah’s arc is destined for tragic failure in a world as maudlin as this. Every one of their adventures sees Ethan stripped of his humanity bit by bit. He goes from an inspirational figure that helps Hannah see the good in people (that she cannot see as a myrmidon being) to a gruff outcast who sees every request for help as a barrier in his path to vengeance that sets him off in a fit of rage.

By the time the pair have reached the dragon’s lair in the finale episode, he’s so far gone because, as Grigori mocks him, that was the point: the nature of the Arisen and the dragon is cyclical, and the Arisen that slays the dragon that took their heart is destined to replace them. By showing him the very worst of humanity, Grigori compelled Ethan to spur on with his own prideful failings to end Grigori’s suffering and take his place. Which he does because in a twist of fate, Hannah has become too human to see the rationality of slaying Ethan before he can fully transform, setting the stage for a second season where a new Arisen…well, rises to break the cycle.

Image: Netflix

All that might be somewhat interesting (if a little rote in this post-Game of Thrones/Witcher era) if this show wasn’t trying to be an adaptation of Dragon’s Dogma. Sure that cyclical concept is ripped right from the game itself, but the sheer misery the anime stacks around that idea is just so comically empty that it feels like it’s trying too hard to compensate. As if the goofy charm that made the game such a cult classic in the first place was too embarrassing to consider acknowledging.

Maybe there’s a chance, if Dragon’s Dogma comes back for more (unknown at this point), that this second “cycle” of Dragon-battling events could be a little more adventurous in tone, a little lighter and whimsical now that Hannah has found a sense of humanity imprinted on her far less tragically cynical as Ethan’s. But while the show might be allowed some praise for the boldness of diving into a story structure that practically needs more seasons to actually feel worth it, for now, all it has is the misery of its first time out — and that misery might be all that it ultimately gets to engage with.