Empathizing with Loss – Mother 3

We’re half a month into the new year, and nothing says “hope for the future” like an article about DEATH.

(Hey, I figured I might as well make it a tradition.)

Now, I don’t make a habit of announcing spoilers. I figure if you’re going to read me go on about video game story elements, you’d better believe I’m gonna reveal something you don’t wanna know. But listen, y’all. Mother 3 is serious business. It’s an experience like no other, and I don’t want it on my conscience that I wrecked your gaming feels prematurely. You read ahead at your own risk, here.

With that out of the way…let’s explore the power of loss in storytelling. Remember all those memes about authors’ glee at killing off characters? I mean, it’s partly true. It just gets the story moving, ya know?

However – death needs impact. It needs purpose. Stories reflect the very real truths of life, and loss needs to speak powerfully to the audience so it doesn’t become trite. For many, the way to create this impact is to craft a likeable character who we couldn’t bear to see gone. But there’s an equally powerful way to impact your audience – by showing the affect your character’s death has on others.

In Mother 3 we meet Hinawa early on. Do we learn much about her? She’s the mother of twins Lucas and Claus, wife of Flint, daughter of Alec. She seems to be a generous contributor in her community and a well-respected and loved family woman. What we know of her from her own expression comes in a letter she writes to Flint and a few lines of dialogue to her children. She’s not spared much more because, well…

…the plot must have its way.

Hinawa is dead within the first chapter of the game; the audience can’t even claim to know her well. Yet the loss holds immediate impact, simply in how those closest to her react. Before Bronson delivers the news, Lucas and Claus huddle by the fire wrapped in blankets. Their stutters and speechlessness already build the dread for what’s happened. And then Flint finds out.

I have rarely seen such a raw and real reaction to death in fiction. I’ve known characters who cried in response, or moped, or denied their loved one’s passing. What Flint does is so human and unpredicted. Death is already difficult to comprehend, but in a utopian society? It would cause absolute catastrophe, as demonstrated.

It isn’t necessarily Hinawa’s death that causes shock and mourning for the audience, though. It’s the response of the people with whom we’ve spent more time. Flint, who moments ago risked his life to save the child Fuel from a burning house, who garnered our respect with his selfless actions, completely loses control when confronted with grief. It conveys all the sorrow and discomfort of handling a friend who reacts incomprehensibly to loss.

As the story progresses, the sadness deepens (underneath that wonderfully quirky surface all Mother/Earthbound games supply). Hinawa’s death has long-reaching effects – most notably Lucas’s isolation as the family breaks apart. In a stellar moment of “show, don’t tell”, Lucas wakes up years later in his empty home and – while still in his pajamas – looks at himself in the family room mirror. His reflection takes him back to early childhood, with his mother brushing his disheveled hair – before the scene snaps back to present day.

Do we miss Hinawa because of who she was? Not truly, I would say. While her altruism endears her to us quickly, she isn’t human enough for audience connection. Her mourners, however, are. The death of an individual affects us best if we’re familiar enough with that person – as would be the case in real life. Anyone, however, can empathize with what it means to move on after a death – and what pain that can bring.

In the end, what you want in your story is connection, and there are several ways to create that. You authors who love to kill, consider this a way to make all those losses mean something.


Mother 3 is the property of Nintendo & Shigesato Itoi and has no English language release. You can, however, emulate the game in Japanese and use this translation patch by Tomato. If you choose this route, please support the developers by investing in their other games and merchandise.

Show and Tell in Metroid Fusion

You know what you do when you can’t decide what game you’re going to cover in your next blog post? You look at what you talked about a year ago and revisit that franchise.

Now, the Metroid series knows its atmosphere; we’ve covered that. Super Metroid is arguably the penultimate atmospheric game of the franchise, but each of the others offers its own in-depth mood, too. This mood is most successful when imparted through subtle details and audience-driven discovery. The eerie isolation of Metroid wouldn’t work if people were telling you what to do all the time.


Let’s talk about Metroid Fusion, a game that straddles this fine line of audience intuition – though less in atmosphere and more in its plot. See, investigating a parasite-invested space station has its own creeps and curiosities. Though much of Samus’s mission is directed by a rather demanding A.I., and her exploration is broken up by long reminiscences in elevators, the atmosphere still generally stays true to what’s been established in the franchise.

You’ve got hints toward surprises to come – a sense of dread, for example, when you view Nightmare rushing by in the background of Sector 5, obscured behind glass. Yes, this is something you’re going to freak about later, the game seems to infer.

Metroid Fusion has more plot and set-up than its sisters in the franchise, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing – when done right. And Fusion definitely has its moments done right:

In this moment, the real Samus has only just descended the elevator into a new section of the space station. There are no words, no explanations, just this shot of a duplicate, sinister Samus prowling about – and we know from playing up to this point the X-Parasite is capable of assuming the shape and features of its host. This has been demonstrated through (some) text and encounters with enemies. When SA-X appears on stage, we know what’s goin’ down.

This is the value of showing a point of the plot. It lets the audience develop their own conclusions and emphasizes their emotional reaction. It respects the personalized experience.

So it’s rather disappointing that this very same game also falls into the “tell” pit.

THIS, right here. Ugh. The hint of eventual betrayal. It’s a cheap, cheap trope that ruins what could’ve been a punchier reveal down the line. Contrary to what some seem to believe, this peek into a team member’s unexpected duplicity does NOT bring tension to the story, nor shock value for the audience.

Telling in a story is like vicing a person’s head in both hands and forcefully turning it to where you want them to look. There’s no personal discovery attached and therefore no authentic reaction. If anything, the audience is probably annoyed by your fingernails digging into their scalp.

In this instance, you could probably completely remove this offending cutaway scene in Fusion, and the story wouldn’t suffer a bit. When the moment arrives, we’d share Samus’s experience of the unexpected, and therefore empathize with her shock and anger. As it is, we watch the scene play out and sit back with our popcorn, disengaged until it’s time to press buttons again.

(I realize this might be an exaggeration, but I’m trying to get a point across here!)

It’s better to keep your audience clutching that handheld or controller. To do that: Show, don’t tell. Their attention must stay trained on the story with subtlety; what effort do they need to present when everything is spelled out to them?


Metroid Fusion is the property of Nintendo. You can purchase it to play via the Wii U or 3DS Virtual Console.

Rationing Your Details – Dragon Quest VIII

Playing your whole hand at the start of a story is generally an imprudent move. Whether it be a character’s entire backstory, the complete purpose of the plot, or a point-blank run-down of events – don’t expect your audience to stick around. What do they need with the meat of your work when you already fed them the cookies?

The intrigue is in the details, and how you parse them out. When done right, they can work as clues that draw the audience toward the greater scope of the tale. What do I mean?

Look here at this fella. As you can tell by the lack of color, this is your run-of-the-mill flashback. Like any device of fiction, the flashback can work for or against the narrative.  At times it’s used as a lazy way to establish the backbone of the story; here, it serves as a bridge between what’s been shown and what’s yet to be revealed. A far more tantalizing premise!

At the start of Dragon Quest VIII, before this flashback even rears it’s sepia-toned head, we’re given only the barest details on our heroes and their story: two apparent mercenaries have been traveling with an odd frog-monster who calls himself a king, and they all refer to his cart-horse as “princess”. The audience clearly requires some explanation here, but Dragon Quest takes its time to supply it. It knows, however, where and how to drop its hints.

For example, let’s focus on these mercenaries: what do we know about them? Well, Yangus (pictured at right) is a bit crude and uncultured (can’t you tell by appearance alone?); we also get the vibe he’s been unscrupulous in the past. His story is expanded in short time, but what about our silent protagonist (pictured at left)? Is there any way we can know about him and his connection to this larger tale?

There’s a genius use of RPG tropes in this case. Because when you first see your party’s inventory, you notice our lead possesses a “Soldier’s Sword”. Now, any RPG will have your typical starter weapon equipped to the main character, which you’ll quickly trade for the first available upgrade in town. But doesn’t it arrest your attention that this lead’s sword is so specifically described?

He certainly doesn’t look the part of “soldier”. Sure that head wrap is swag, but it’s no formal helmet. What’s the real story on this classically mute hero?

You’ve probably made your own deductions already, right? That’s what a story is supposed to help you do. That way, when you come to the flashback later in the game, you’ve intuited something of this fellow’s background already – and his connection to the plot as a whole.

And guess what the game does with that flashback? That’s right – It leaves you with MORE questions to be pondered!

Well, isn’t our hero a special little snowflake?

Think of it this way: Are you more likely to develop a friendship with someone who shares their experiences in engaging parcels? Or with that random person who approaches you in the grocery store and tells you all about the surgery they had on their intestines last Thursday? (I mean, maybe you do meet your friends that way. Who am I to judge?) Let the subtle details of your story cause the audience to want to pursue what you have to offer. Prove there’s still some patience to be found in this era of instant gratification.


Dragon Quest VIII is the property of Square-Enix. You can purchase it to play via Android, iOS, or Nintendo 3DS.

Don’t Take it So Seriously – Super Mario RPG

No one’s perfect, not even our most admired storytellers. If human beings can’t even get their own lives in order, what makes you think they’ll be able to flawlessly organize alternate realities? So next time you run across a plot hole in your favorite book or movie, cut the creator a little slack and – I dunno – clean that room in your house you’ve been neglecting. REMOVE THE PLANK IN YOUR OWN EYE FIRST, NITPICKER.

*cough* But still – no one likes a story with obvious plot neglect. It’s like driving over a road where sewage maintenance didn’t bother to cover the manholes. Fortunately, there ARE ways you can help your audience overlook *minor* suspensions of disbelief:

  1. Craft your world and story as thoroughly as possible.
  2. Rely on solid characters.
  3. Inject humor. Like, a lot of humor.

If you ask me, nothing covereth over a multitude of plot sins like a healthy dose of levity. Think about it: if you aren’t taking yourself seriously, your audience gets the message that this isn’t something that requires their heavy scrutiny, either. Case in point:

Now, Super Mario RPG has a GREAT story. It’s simple and straightforward, but still sweetly emotional with a sense of wonder. It’s by no means riddled with plot holes, but if I’m being straight with you, it wouldn’t have HALF its greatness if you took away the humor. Honestly, it’d be weird if such a bright, colorful game didn’t poke a little fun at itself.

If you feel obligated to critique Mario RPG‘s finer literary points, you’ll find loads of well-milked tropes. Stars and wishes, dolls coming alive, royalty that needs rescuing, the “obviously adopted kid doesn’t know he’s adopted” storyline…

I mean, you don’t have to look further than a Disney movie to find these clichés and more, yet Super Mario RPG can still hold its own. It finds originality in its heart and in its humor. Sure, you spend part of the game rescuing Princess Peach Toadstool for the zillionth time, but you can excuse the overdone plot point because this man-child with a totem pole face and zero understanding of normal social customs has kidnapped her with plans to marry her.

The hilarious scenarios continue through the whole story: Bowser fussing about losing his castle, a cake coming to life and attacking the party. a team of evil-doers based blatantly off of the Power Rangers. Not to mention the countless classic fourth wall-breaking one-liners peppered throughout the dialogue.

Thank you, Ted Woolsey.

The Mario RPGs have continued the tradition of humor to great success with both the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. (I just don’t have much to say about them because my partiality remains trapped in the mid-90’s.) Considering the plump plumber’s longevity in this gaming genre, the approach must work pretty well.

Clichés abound in every story ever told. Sometimes the old adage applies: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” At times it’s better not to avoid the clichés, but to make the clichés work for you. Learn to laugh at them, and your audience will laugh with you.


Super Mario RPG is the property of Nintendo/Square-Enix. You can purchase it for your own enjoyment through the Wii  and Wii U Virtual Console.

The Element of Surprise – Killing the Lead in Chrono Trigger

[Currently listening to: Lost Odyssey OST. Branching out in a desire for more Uematsu.]

A new year brings with it an air of the unexpected. Much as we try to prepare for whatever life throws at us, most times it flat out slaps us in the face with a fish when we’re not looking.

It’s a good idea to pull out the face-slapping fish in your writing too (in moderation, you understand. Your readers don’t want to smell all briny). The plot is going as predicted, and then – WHAM! – what just happened? The characters are in disarray, your emotions are rocked, and you can’t see any way this sudden twist will be resolved.

Some authors pull this trick far too often – so that what used to be unexpected becomes predictable. Others shy away from it altogether, which can be fine depending on the genre and goal of the author. But if you’ve decided your story needs a bit of a jolt, let me just tell you –

Chrono Trigger can show you how it’s done. ‘Cause that game killed off its lead.

Let’s preface this bold move a bit, just to strengthen its poignancy: Back in the 90’s, JRPGs were hitting the big time. Final Fantasy IV and VI  were quick sensations (though under different numbers at the time) boasting characters of distinct goals and struggles. Titles like Earthbound and Secret of Mana were developing their own fan followings with unique world-building and atmosphere. A year after Chrono Trigger‘s release even Mario would get in on the RPG game and leave an unforgettable experience of his own.

That’s not even mentioning the RPGs released on the Sega systems, or numerous titles that never made it across seas to the states. Truly, it was a decade for Role Plays, and the stage was set for Chrono Trigger to be the pinnacle of them all.

Aside from the Final Fantasies, most RPGs adhered to the “silent protagonist” trope: the game’s lead character would never speak, and if he needed to get a point across he would either pantomime or rely on other characters to emote for him.

Crono, leading teen of Chrono Trigger, kept true to the “silent protagonist” tradition. He could look shocked, happy, serious, or thoughtful – but never spoke a word. (Well, aside from one particular ending.) At the point of CT‘s release, RPG fans would know the drill by now. Crono was simply a device to move the player and the plot forward; he was the mainstay and common denominator that allowed interactions to occur among other, more three-dimensional characters. Nothing ever happened to the silent protagonist.

And then, three-quarters into the game, Squaresoft rocked the boat. Crono stood his ground too early against Lavos, the story’s ultimate menace, and was blown to pieces. The mainstay of the game was gone.

It wasn’t any sort of quick gimmick, either. The other members of your party wake up the following morning, and Crono is still dead. You watch them come to grips with this reality and sort out their emotions. You take control of the party and walk them outside the tent into an uncertain world. For at least an hour of gameplay you don’t even have the opportunity to change Crono’s fate. What’s more, you don’t even have to finish the game with him alive.

This was unprecedented in the gaming world, and would (I’d argue) still be considered a bold move today. Chrono Trigger dared to explore a question JRPGs hadn’t yet asked: what happens when the main character dies? How do the others in the team carry on? How does it affect the trajectory of the story? And I think that’s the true purpose behind surprising your audience. If you create any plot twist just for the sake of shock value, you’ve missed the point entirely. The unexpected should serve the impact of the story, not meet some “I can’t believe that just happened” quota.

In real life, surprises can seem to have no bearing or meaning on the ultimate scope of our days. (And that’s a Faith post waiting to happen right there.) In fiction, however, we’re given the opportunity to create structure and a message through plot twists. If you think you need a dash of the unexpected in your story, don’t forget that it needs to matter in its own right.

Because even if those silent protagonists never speak, they can still make a strong statement for the story.


Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.

Knowing Your Story – Mario vs. Sonic

[Currently listening to: Olympics, baby!]

Mario vs Sonic1

The Olympics are pretty much the only sports I watch zealously. I’ve had several friends and some family members try to entice me into the world of football, but I typically use those games as an excuse to nap on the couch (while my mom screams at the Denver Broncos and throws her foam brick at the TV). But dude, when the Olympics come on I’m like, “IS THIS WEIGHTLIFTING I LOVE WEIGHTLIFTING LET ME WATCH IT FOR FIVE HOURS STRAIGHT.”

This really is a video game post. Hang tight.

A recent gimmick in the Nintendo world has been to create a “Mario and Sonic at the Olympics” game whenever the event itself comes around. I’ve never played the series, but its existence – and the fact that this Friday lines up right near the end of Rio’s summer schedule – has given me inspiration for a storytelling study.

Mainly, who does storytelling better: Mario or Sonic?

Dat sweat detail.

Ah, Mario vs. Sonic – the rivalry of the 90’s. I was a Nintendo gal, so of course I had a built-in appreciation for Mario, but when I got the chance to play the Sega Genesis Sonic trilogy (+ Sonic & Knuckles; would that make it a quadrilogy?), I had a great time. The speed was innovative, Tails was adorable, and – of course – the music was always solid.

Back then, each franchise kept their stories simple, but console limitations didn’t necessarily force them to do so. Of course, they couldn’t make things flashy with CG cutscenes, but more complicated stories like Final Fantasy and Shining Force (possibly a poor comparison) were already demonstrating what video games could tell.

Mario‘s plots usually centered around a rescue – typically Peach, but sometimes other unfortunate kidnappees of the Mushroom Kingdom. Sonic‘s plots during the early Sega era focused on stopping Dr. Eggman from turning all those cherubic forest creatures into robots for his own evil designs.

Years passed; consoles expanded their capabilities. Mario and Sonic continued to deliver games, adding new characters, small twists, and different challenges. But despite their mended rivalry, their games’ respective receptions began to divert from each other.

Sure, Sonic has had struggles with glitchy games and incomplete programming, but I also think its lag behind the Mario franchise has been because – it doesn’t know its own story anymore.

*dodges raw vegetables thrown by Sonic fanbase*

Listen: in a platformer, you don’t need much story. You need engaging level design. Mario and Sonic both had that, and they had enough characters and world-building to keep players interested in progressing through the game.

But in recent years Sonic games have begun to experiment with more involved plots. More cutscenes, more characters, more dialogue. I certainly can’t fault them for getting creative, but so much dabbling at once can screw with the canon – and the flow of the games themselves.

Remember what the Sonic games did well: rescuing robotized animals. You didn’t need more than that; you just wanted to go fast through all the loop-de-loops. So why did the games divert into odd territory like Arabian mythology, Arthurian legend, and (who could forget) this unnecessary display of affection?


Mario sticks to kidnapping – what it’s done since the beginning. And yeah, you could argue that the trope is getting stale – the same old rescues, the same Bowser set-up – but it could also be argued that these games know what works, and they know how to bring in fresh ideas without over-burdening the gamers with new plot ideas or a barrage of characters.

Which brings me to my next point: There’s also this problem with dumping characters quickly into a franchise. Sonic no longer allows time for its new additions to settle in our hearts. In the span between Sonic Adventure and Sonic ’06 its platformers introduced us to: Big the Cat, Shadow the Hedgehog, Rouge the Bat, Cream the Rabbit, Silver the Hedgehog, and Blaze the Cat – not to mention a few others who didn’t stick around.

In the span between Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy (a roughly similar time frame), we were introduced to Bowser Jr. and…Rosalina. That’s it. (Remember, we’re talking about main platformers.)

Because it leaves time between each addition, The Mario franchise gives its characters a chance to breathe when introduced – like Rosalina, whose premier game made her a focal point to the story.


Remember when Sonic 2 gave us just Tails, and Sonic 3 gave us just Knuckles? We were able to connect with those characters because their spotlight wasn’t split three separate ways. Not to say Sonic‘s more recent characters don’t have personality, but they end up becoming just one more face in a crowd of over-the-top dispositions.

It’s something to keep in mind when creating a written story or series: how much is too much at once? Do you keep interest more by busying readers/viewers/players with tons of characters and plot twists? Or do you build a better story by focusing on the critical points and allowing a smaller number of characters space to grow? Personally, I bank more on the success of the second option. Mario’s had his own hits and misses, no mistake; but he’s never forgotten his story.

So, Sonic fans…no hard feelings, right?

*runs from pitchfork-wielding mob*


The Mario franchise is property of Nintendo. The Sonic franchise is property of Sega. Go play ’em both!

What’s at Stake? – Yoshi’s Island vs. Yoshi’s Woolly World

[Currently listening to: Yoshi’s Woolly World OST. Appropriate, no?]


If you think I can’t find serious literary juice in super cute and colorful platformers, then you’ve got another thing coming.

I’ve mentioned before that Super Mario RPG is the game of my childhood, but maybe I should amend this declaration and say that I have two games which hold such a coveted place in my heart. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island fills me with wonder every time I play it. The game mechanics are flawless, the world is beautiful, and the challenge is balanced enough that even when you die repeatedly attempting 100% level completion you still feel like you’re having fun.

(But will you just STOP CRYING, BABY MARIO.)


(Keep this on in the background for full enjoyment of post.)

I have two memories from when I first played Yoshi’s Island: the first was letting the title screen sit so I could hear this way good island melody play. The second was watching the end in awe, allowing my adrenaline to settle after finally beating giant baby Bowser, captured by the simplicity of 16-bit piano music and a stork intent to deliver two celebrity plumber babies to their parents.

It. Was. Immersive.

I didn’t keep up with Yoshi’s solo games after that. Once the next gen of consoles arrived, my brother and I opted to get the PlayStation instead of the N64. When the Wii was released, I returned to play the Super Mario Galaxy games, but by that point at least three Yoshi games had come and gone, and I’d heard they weren’t earth-shattering.

Fast-forward to the present year. Yoshi’s Woolly World makes its debut, and fans wonder if this will be the game that brings the magic back. And you know, it’s this blogger’s opinion that it did.

Yoshi post3
I never thought I’d fangirl over a yarn Chomp Rock, but there you have it.

Since it’s a newer game, I won’t spoil the nuances that Woolly World implemented to bring back memories of Island. Sufficed to say, there were several levels where I was grinning like a fool at the way Good-Feel perfectly pushed all my nostalgia buttons. They made a whimsical setting on par with the childlike world of Island and even mirrored some of the challenge present in the first game.

But this is a blog that talks about story elements in games, right? And while playing Yoshi’s Woolly World, I was surprised to realize: I wasn’t as interested in its story as I was with Island’s.

Yoshi post4
The plot thickens!

That seems silly, since platformers generally stay light on plot so the player can focus on enjoying level design. How could the two games’ stories produce such different responses from me? Well, aside from an obvious nostalgia factor (I won’t deny it), there’s that question every person who creates a story needs to ask concerning his/her plot: What is at stake for our characters?

In Island, the Yoshis are tasked with the protection of baby Mario, dropped from a sabotaged stork delivery and separated from Luigi, who’s been captured by Kamek. Not only does our dino friend have to keep Mario safe, he also must find a way to reunite the separated brothers and get them back on their way to their family!

In World, Kamek has turned nearly all Yoshis into skeins of wool to complete his plot of building Baby Bowser a bigger castle. The remaining Yoshi(s) must chase after him and rescue their un-spooled friends along the way.

Yoshi post6
Kamek knows how to get to the point.

Both plots give enough premise as needed for their games, but in the case of Island, there’s far more the player needs to care about. I mean, yes, rescuing your entire species from being un-spooled is serious business, but since Woolly World mainly uses it to create a goal for collectibles, emotional attachment is never quite established. Additionally, there’s no increasing tension as we near the end: We’ve saved several Yoshis at that point. The crisis has gradually been lessened.

Meanwhile, in Island, the risk is always increasing for Yoshi and the infant plumber. In later levels it becomes harder to keep Mario on the saddle; there are more enemies to avoid. Plus – provided the player has experienced other Mario games – there’s a sort of “destiny” on our shoulders to make sure baby Mario becomes the video game hero we’ve already known and loved for a decade.

Even today, this picture brings the relief flooding back in. That Bowser fight, man.
Even today, this picture brings the relief flooding back in. That Bowser fight, man.

How do we apply this practically if we attempt writing our own stories? Think about what’s at stake: for your characters, for your world, even for the readers. Is the potential loss serious enough to warrant emotional investment?

I mean, if a cute, green, tennies-wearing dinosaur can pull it off, then surely so can anyone.

Writing to Bore – Working as Torneko in Dragon Quest IV

[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:


Torneko Taloon!

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.)