I have a confession to make. I've not actually played Dragon Quest IX. Well, that's not technically true - I did spend a few minutes on it, back in September. It looked very nice. So why has it ended up as my game of the year?
Because for the last six months, since Nintendo belatedly brought the game to European shores, I've heard about almost nothing else from my eight-year-old son. He's obsessed with it. Besotted. Immersed in a way that adult brains can't hope to match. Every conversation somehow comes back round to Dragon Quest IX. He's abandoned Cartoon Network in favour of walkthrough videos on YouTube. He'll randomly quiz me on things I have no way of knowing, like how many magic points you need to cast Ka-Frizz. He'll re-enact his favourite attack moves, and patiently explain the exact recipe needed to craft the Agate of Evolution.
He's finished the entire game several times over, keeps going back for more, and I've not helped him once. Obviously that says a lot about his skill, but it also speaks highly of the game design. Enabling kids to tackle a mountain like that, and reach the peak single-handed, is worthy of applause. I loved Red Dead Redemption and swooned at the intelligent blockbuster scope of Mass Effect 2. And yet, without playing it for any length of time myself, Dragon Quest IX has impressed me more than any other game in 2010.
Kids are easy to distract but difficult to inspire, and that's the crucial point of difference for something like Dragon Quest IX. There will always be adequate movie tie-ins and not-bad platformers, and that's fine. Grown-up gamers get to pass our time with generic shooters and third-person action games in between the good stuff, and it's no great tragedy that kids should do the same, provided they learn to recognise the difference. As a vocal supporter of quality kids gaming I've been helping to develop Megaton.co.uk into something that taps into this distinction. Dragon Quest IX, it turns out, is the perfect example.
Because this really doesn't look like a kids game. It's a full-on JRPG, based on a dense and complex ruleset and offering non-linear exploration of a vast world. There's no handholding. No mercy. No breadcrumb trail. According to popular wisdom, kids should run screaming from it. The fact that they don't should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the success of Pokemon. Kids love complex games, so long as there's an easy way in.
But then, as I said, I've not really played Dragon Quest IX. That's why I've asked my son to write down the things he likes best about the game...
There are 307 types of monster in the game.
This seems like a simple observation, but it cuts to the heart of what makes a truly great kids game. The fact that he knew, off the top of his head, how many monsters there are, speaks volumes. Children, especially boys, love facts and trivia. It's in their nature. I guarantee that my son not only knows the name of every single one of those three-hundred-plus monsters, but their strengths and weaknesses and possibly even their starting HP too.
It's the same compulsion that Pokemon taps so ruthlessly with its "gotta catch 'em all" mantra, but it can be found in more traditional playground pastimes like Top Trumps, in arguing over football results and team rosters, in the way a pre-school child can probably list dozens of dinosaurs by their correct paleontological genus before they can write their own name. Kids collect. Whether it's something tangible like stickers, or just a vast mental database of cool information, it's the secret behind every childhood craze. Dragon Quest IX not only understands this, it makes it a central pillar of the gameplay.
It's very funny because there's a faerie called Stella who's always making up jokes!
This is a very important point, and one that really shows how much effort has gone into translating the game for western audiences. This really is a funny game. The JRPG is so steeped in wonky translating and po-faced melodrama that it's kind of amazing to see a game that avoids both the pitfalls of its genre.
Even though humour is so culturally subjective, Dragon Quest IX's Euro version is genuinely witty. There's a character called Jack from All Trades Abbey, for example, who becomes a boss monster known as the Master of Nu'un. When so many games, particularly for kids, are content to do as little as possible to get their point across, Dragon Quest IX positively revels in the joy of alliteration and wordplay.
"Barbaric birds that attack twice with deadly drumsticks and cry cacophonously to creep out foes and call forth friends," goes the description for a Beakon. Players fighting Grinades (smiling, explosive rock creatures) are warned that "these suspiciously sprightly stones merrily maul opponents, beaming all the while, and bring their boulder buddies into battle".
Such shameless verbosity and linguistic dexterity makes me think of Dr. Seuss or the fantastic English translations of the Asterix books, where puns and gags are folded into the language in such a way that you can't believe it's not the story's native tongue. It also reminds me of Stan Lee's breathless Thesaurus-hogging introductions in old Silver Age Marvel comics, where the wily old coot realised that if you challenge young readers with big words in a fun way, they're more inclined to work out what they mean.
I'd hesitate to call this game educational, but it definitely encourages kids to take pleasure in a varied vocabulary. Anecdotal evidence: my son won an award at school for excellent descriptive writing. He wrote about Dragon Quest IX.
DQVC is good, it gives you rare armour and items so it's cool-awesome.
It's funny, but while us grown-ups have been wringing our hands over the rights and wrongs, the dos and don'ts, of downloadable content, Dragon Quest IX has quietly been getting it beautifully right since the summer. DQVC is the in-game wi-fi shopping network, and it updates every morning at 8am. New, rare items are available for limited times. They have special promotions. This past week has offered a Santa suit, for example. There are also bonus DLC quests, expanding the game beyond its epic storyline. And it's all free. Shooter fans wait months to pay through the nose for a couple of repurposed maps, while Dragon Quest serves up a smorgasbord of free content, every single day. Boggles the mind, doesn't it?
In Dragon Quest IX I like the fact that you can have 12 different vocations to choose from. I also like the different spells, abilities and traits to increase your skill.
I know this much: customisation is king in Dragon Quest IX. Yes, you can put funny bunny ears on your characters, as Jedward have so gracefully demonstrated, but there's purpose behind the dressing up. I've always credited the LEGO games with teaching my son how to play videogames, allowing him to intuitively grasp arcane concepts like "double jump" that we take for granted. But if it was LEGO that lured him in, it's Dragon Quest that made him feel at home. He now talks confidently and knowledgeably about hit points, stat buffs and level grinding. He understands the importance of having a balanced party, of using status effects to swing a battle in your favour, of planning tactically and knowing when to retreat, level up and come back later. Time was, kids his age would learn the value of hard work by doing a paper round. Now, he's farming XP to get a full set of Legendary Armour.
What it all boils down to is the simple, wonderful fact that Dragon Quest IX has made my son a geek like me. It's glorious. It's a real, proper, challenging, inspiring, all-encompassing role-playing videogame. And an eight-year-old can not only play it, but beat it and become a better gamer in the process, perhaps coming away with a clearer idea of what divides the classics from the that'll-dos. Tomorrow's core gamers are playing Dragon Quest IX today. That's worthy of game of the year status as far as I'm concerned.