header is screenshot from Dragon's Dogma 2
The Human Hand
Reid McCarter

Dragon’s Dogma 2 is an adventure.

That nebulous term, “adventure,” is deployed constantly in games—as an oblique genre descriptor, as a marketing term so overused it’s detached from any semantic potency. In its full meaning, though, an adventure is something more. It’s a type of story and a style of storytelling that, beyond any technical definition, conveys a sense of possibility, of a journey whose perils and revelations can’t be known beforehand. More than any of this, though, it’s a distinctly human kind of story that only resonates when depicted with a sort of freedom of approach.

The most striking and immediate sign that Dragon’s Dogma 2 understands adventure is its aesthetic, which borrows as much from mid-century matinee pulp as it does from the more familiar contemporary reference points of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Game of Thrones TV show. In its opening sequence, sandalled fighters are forced to defend themselves by jumping onto and crawling all over a writhing gorgon in the first of many moments that feel as if they’ve been pulled from a Harryhausen-animated movie. A few minutes after this, the game’s protagonist, dubbed the “Arisen,” and a pal jump off a cliff and are rescued in the nick of time by latching onto the back of a flying griffin.

The immediately personable, stop-motion Harryhausen influence runs throughout Dragon’s Dogma 2, as it did with its predecessor, but it's easiest to notice in the game's selection of monsters. The cyclops, griffins, harpies, skeletons, and dinosaur-like saurian all seem to have been plucked from his workshop, and, in a very direct homage from late in the game, the player and nearby villagers face off against a towering version of Talos clearly drawn from Jason and the Argonauts' identically named walking statue. The way these creatures are fought is reminiscent, too, of the same inspirations, the Arisen and their companions flinging arrows and technicolour bursts of magic at their enemies or climbing over larger opponents’ bodies like scrabbling rats. A character might be flung, limp, into the air like a mannequin after getting smacked aside by a monster or fall off a bridge alongside their quarry while moving about a riverside cliff in the chaos of a fight. None of this is clean or neatly controlled like so many mainstream action games, and, because of this, there’s a great sense of liveliness to each battle. Things go wrong. Attacks fail or succeed in spectacular ways on both sides of a fight.

Outside of combat, this spirit is maintained through similarly goofy dialogue that channels unselfconscious, pre-prestige fantasy. There are generic castle towns and evil wizards, bands of snickering goblins ready to waylay hapless travellers. All of it comes together to give the impression that Dragon’s Dogma 2 is not only aware that it’s playing within the confines of a well-known fantasy tradition, but also that the game itself knows that it’s going to be received as yet another story in a long line of stories. This is most clear in its ending, which unfolds like a fourth wall-touching play, concluding with a comment on the nature of storytelling—the Arisen, a hero, must eventually slay the dragon, their necessary antagonist, to complete a tale before it’s told again—and a kind of curtain call in the credits, showing off which characters the player befriended or spent the most time with.

All of the above are choices that seem to have been made without too much consideration given to contemporary fashion or expectation. Dragon’s Dogma 2 elides convention in its lightheartedness, and in the messiness of its combat. This approach is maintained throughout all of its design.

Where so many open world games want to ensure that their sprawling environments never feel overwhelming, laying a grid of checklist activities over their setting, Dragon’s Dogma 2 is content to offer the player largely unguided exploration. Adventure is, in part, defined by a sense of challenge. A good adventure involves overcoming trials—venturing into a world by turns delightful and dangerous and learning to navigate it. Rigidity of a certain kind kills this spirit. A Ubisoft open world game’s introduction often presents the thrill of exploration by dropping the player into a massive landscape, but that thrill quickly fades as it becomes apparent that the terms of engagement for this world are neatly segmented tasks: climb a tower, find a secret treasure chest, kill an enemy.

Dragon’s Dogma 2 never promises much of anything (except roving monsters) when players set out into the open world and, even less expectedly, the Arisen and their companions are worn down as they hike across its grasslands, desert canyons, and forests. The Arisen gets beaten up. Collecting items quickly fills up their pack. Even planning ahead and bringing camping gear on an excursion can go wrong if a bunch of goblins decide to attack in the middle of the night and interrupt a rest. Departing a town to complete a quest, find a path to another region of the world, or gather resources is a seriously considered, sometimes game-ending decision that requires preparation and might end with the Arisen and their companions limping back to a settlement with little to show for their efforts. The game never promises to consistently reward the player. It often seems indifferent to their presence, as if its story will continue to be told with or without the protagonist succeeding in their role as hero. (It’s completely possible to finish Dragon’s Dogma 2 without seeing huge portions of its map, with all the characters and quests that go along with those locations. Sometimes, quests will also fail automatically if the player doesn’t tend to them on time, the characters moving offstage without any audience watching.)

In these sometimes-jarring design choices, you can feel that real people made the game. Where so many open-world releases feel as if they’ve been programmed by robots in order to execute on a perfect vision of compulsive Fun, Dragon’s Dogma 2’s capacity for player inconvenience and its studied indifference show a consideration, above all else, for what its authors deem most important—tone; verisimilitude; indelibility—even if that might contradict what players have been taught to expect.

In this, and in its slapstick battles and pulpy fantasy narrative, the hand of Dragon’s Dogma 2’s creator is constantly present. It’s felt in the algorithm-and-focus-testing defiance of its construction and the aesthetic references to a more organic era of special effects. It’s in the consciously artificial, self-aware presentation of its story. And, as a result of this presence, the game offers an adventure that stirs its audience in the way that only an experience made and received by humans can.  


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV ClubWiredGQPolygonKill ScreenPlayboyThe Washington PostPaste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.