[Currently listening to: the Super Mario Galaxy OST. Holy buckets, that game was a masterpiece.]
Have you ever been bored with a story?
No, no, I’m not talking about bad writing or poor pacing that leads to the onset of ennui. I’m talking about intentionally inspiring you as the reader/player/viewer to feel bored. Have you ever found a character’s situation so empathetically dull that you exactly understand their desire to break free of routine?
Let’s explore via example. In celebration of Dragon Quest‘s upcoming 30th anniversary, I present to you:
Some months ago I was playing Dragon Quest IV on my phone. (What? I wanted party chat. Don’t judge me.) I’d just finished Alena’s chapter – kickin’ tournament butt and taking names – and was about to roll from there into Torneko’s merchant story. I knew ahead of time that his chapter would adopt a slower pace from my time playing as the rough-and-tumble princess, but I didn’t figure on how firmly the plot’s brakes were going to be pressed.
Torneko is a family man, working his daily 9-5 to provide for a wife and son at home. He’s a mumu-wearing middle-aged shopkeeper with an ample tummy: not exactly your typical RPG hero. The chapter opens on him getting ready for the work day, with his wife packing his lunch and scolding him good-humoredly on sleeping in. Then, as the player takes control of his movements, we’re given the opportunity to start Torneko on his EPIC JOURNEY…
…across town to his full-time job.
(I mean, you could take him out to the world map, if you want to get totally pasted five steps later.)
Basically, Torneko starts out with inadequate equipment for dealing with the battles outside town, and his stats without weapons and armor aren’t all that great. The opportunity’s there to buy him a sword and cuirass, but that takes a bit more money than he starts out with, which means – you guessed it – he has to work.
My first day helping him on the job, I was laughing. These customers come in and ask to either sell or purchase an item; it’s a simple, straight-forward process. Most times they complete the transaction with no issue, but from time to time a customer will ask to buy a weapon, then realize they either don’t have the money or they can’t even use it. And they flake out. I thought, “Oh man. What a hilarious representation of retail work.”
But by the third day, when one of those customers realized they couldn’t purchase their item, I was like, “DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND I’M GETTING PAID ON COMMISSION?! I NEED TO BUY SOME FLIPPIN’ ARMOR SO I CAN GET PAST THIS GRIND.”
This is the precise feeling Torneko’s chapter needs to convey. As we learn more about him, we figure out that his real dream is to be proprietor of his own shop (not a counter worker), and that, as an aspiring weapons dealer, he wants to find the legendary Zenithian Sword.
Imagine him slouching at the shop’s counter with his jowly cheeks in his hands, trying to muster up a little extra charisma to make his sales. What he really wants is a chance at entrepreneurship – and maybe a bit of adventure – but to get there he’s got to save a few Gold. The process is dull to the extreme.
With our expanded game memory and new innovations nowadays, there are ways to present merchant gameplay as interesting and engaging. Dragon Quest IV, originally released on the NES, didn’t have such luxury; but even so, I think if they’d had the ability to make it more complicated, it would have taken so much away from the story Torneko’s chapter was trying to tell.
The effect may not have been intentional, but in any case it worked. By the time you as the player can finally venture out with Torneko onto the world map, you feel an excited sense of freedom. That’s some great “show, don’t tell” if you ask me.
I can’t think of a book that’s given me an intentional “bored” feeling. Maybe authors prefer to focus on the more passionate emotions: love, sorrow, anger. I bet there’s a way, though, to capture effective tedium in the written story, too. What do you think it’d look like?
Dragon Quest IV belongs to Square-Enix. You can purchase it to play via Nintendo DS or as an app on your phone. (Go with the phone for party chat.)