Update 23rd April 2019: Dragon's Dogma is out now on Nintendo Switch, so we're repromoting Sam's excellent piece on how the cult RPG's character creator changes the game.
The fantasy world of Dragon's Dogma is pretty darn unremarkable isn't it? It's a collection of Google image results. You want a griffin? Here's one exactly as drawn on a fantasy novel cover from when you were a kid. Cyclops? Just like the one in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. There's so little of the Dragon's Dogma world that feels unique or standout. It's as if everything was borrowed from the most typical version of itself. The world has a name but it might as well be called Ye Olde Fantasy Place.
But that's okay, because Dragon's Dogma does have one ace up its sleeve: the character creator. Aside from being flexible in terms of the kind of character you can create, it also lets you create your very own sidekick, called a Pawn. You can also have two other pawns to make a party of four, but these pawns must be borrowed from other players in an online sharing system - you can't create them.
And it's not just for show - your character's attributes matter. If they're too short, they can't pick up enemies or heavy objects. The bigger they are the slower they are. The character you create informs how the game plays and shapes the experience you have with it. It helps the game backs all this up with an immense amount of freedom. There are few hard barriers. If you want to do something the game will let you, whether that's skipping important quests or chucking NPCs off cliffs.
So when it came to creating my characters, I thought long and hard about what was going to make my experience more novel. If the fantasy world had little to offer, maybe the characters I played as would make the difference. So I opted to make a group of kids in the vein of a Goonies-esque adventure. Specifically, I chose to recreate the cast of the Paper Girls comic series (which hey, if you like good comics check that out). Restricted to crafting just two characters, creating the other two members for the gang required a bit of work. I had to create two additional Steam accounts (you can share your Steam library between accounts on a single computer) then add myself as a friend before finally uploading these pawns to the game's servers. A lot of effort but the results made it worthwhile.
Playing as this gang of young kids made Dragon's Dogma a completely different kind of game, where everything is bigger and grander. Monsters tower over you, as does pretty much every NPC. Being a kid in this dangerous fantasy world made the game so much more enjoyable. That's the strength of Dragon's Dogma - it lets you shift the tone.
Making your own challenges can be part of the charm too, as game designer Dan Pearce (10 Second Ninja X) found out. "I created a main and a pawn, a boy and a girl," he says. "I have a twin sister and I remembered that completely changing how I felt about the story in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates. This became my headcanon. They were twins in this big scary world and I was gonna do my best to stop them getting eaten by lizards."
Dragon's Dogma is built with a full party in mind, which for Pearce would have meant bringing two other players' pawns into his adventure. This he wasn't interested in. "This conflicted with the fantasy I was setting up, as most of the other player pawns were joke characters or giants," he says. "I liked the idea of feeling small in this sprawling world, but I also didn't want to get stomped to death constantly. I played on easy. This mostly balanced things for two characters, but I was still restricted in combat in some interesting ways."
As mentioned, the characters you create have physical traits that dictate how Dragon's Dogma plays. Being a small child in this world has its limitations, doubly so when you're restricting yourself to two party members. Yet for Dan, this added much. "One encounter I remember distinctly involved the twins fighting a big rock monster on a cliffside. It took three in-game days. It was tough and tiring and completely engaging. The conditions completely recontextualised what I reckon would have otherwise been a pretty forgettable ARPG boss fight and the fact that the game facilitated such a fresh feeling perspective is still really impressive to me."
Dragon's Dogma's lack of a real multiplayer component hasn't stopped people from making the most of its pawn sharing system. Married couple Adam and Mary have been playing through the game together in spite of its limitations. "I have two accounts, one mine, one my wife's," Adam says. "I'm her pawn, and she's my pawn. So long as we keep the character levels close, we can run parties with both of us in them, or friends can rent us as a pair."
Despite the effort, Adam and Mary's virtual lives are in Adam's hands. "My wife really only 'plays' her account vicariously through me," he says. "I do the playing, she makes all the decisions and has final say on the wardrobe."
Dragon's Dogma wasn't necessarily built for this kind of cooperation but Adam and Mary made it work for themselves. "On my account, she's generally interested in her pawnself, since that's the one that other folks, including our friends, will be renting. She just wants it to look nice and kick ass - I'm more than happy to comply. On her account, she's not picky about my pawn's style as long as he's effective."
For a newly wed couple, it's been quite the way to spend time together. "We just got married in August, so it's been kind of neat being able to do something like this as a husband-wife team," Adam says.
It is possible to get a little more abstract with Dragon's Dogma. Game developer Alex Zandra did something a bit different with her characters. "This was one of the first games in which I made myself and not a different character in the creator; I'd recently come out and it felt liberating. I'd also just made a comic about my social anxiety, in which I anthropomorphised my worries into a little girl. When it came time to make a pawn, I made my social anxiety, since she's always by my side."
While this didn't really change how she played the game very much, it did give her a different experience to take away. "It made playing the game a little therapeutic since the mechanics are about getting to know your pawn and learning how to work with them, and that echoed a lot of my feelings about my anxiety."
These are just a few stories but I think they highlight the variety of possibilities the game offers. If nothing else, they should show how players are able to contextualise the game's narrative in a way that feels more meaningful to them. That's a powerful tool to put in the hands of an audience.
So Dragon's Dogma might not provide an engrossing fantasy world like that of The Witcher. Yet even now, several years after its initial release, it possesses so much strength as a blank canvas. Player expression is an important thing and many RPGs try to accommodate it. Yet how many respond to the player's unique customisation, changing the way the game plays? Few if any. That's why in spite of its lacklustre world Dragon's Dogma still feels incredibly special in the RPG landscape and is still worth checking out all these years later.