header is screenshot from Dragon's Dogma 2
Learning the Script
Renata Price

Dragon's Dogma II is a game about how far one can stretch the threads of fate before they break. It tells you this from minute one. You begin with a walk towards a throne, your character heralded as the Arisen, Rightful Sovran of the Kingdom of Vermund, Chosen Enemy of the Dragon. And then everything stops.

The world darkens and a voice calls out to you, "Arisen, if thou seekest to behold this world in its true aspect, abandon thy reason. Cast aside thine heart and thy life both. I ask thee to demonstrate thy will, for naught but thine ambition can alter the course of the rivers of fate." Everything goes black. 

You wake up in a prison, and the game begins. You were given a challenge, now meet it.

Soon after you awake, you're met by a mysterious, ghostly figure: the Pathfinder, who explicitly tasks you with defeating the dragon, recovering your heart, and taking your rightful place on the throne of Vermund. Now we have both a hero and a quest. The rest of the game is about how those things break.

Much of the public and critical response to Dragon's Dogma II has been centered around the game's willingness to deny the player access to its content. Questlines break, sometimes intentionally (other times less so) when the characters therein die, and unlike most games, truly any character can die. Children, who are commonly immune to death in RPGs for fear of a player becoming the Boy Thrower of Vermund and posting a video that gets shown on the local news, are remarkably fragile in Dragon's Dogma II. As are all major NPCs, with the exception of vocation maisters who can actually put up a real fight against the world's many monsters.

There are, of course, ways to undo these deaths. Wakestones, magical rocks found around the world, are capable of reviving both the player and NPCs, and NPC bodies are moved to a centralized morgue shortly after death for convenient resurrection. However, the quest lines do not always recover when the characters do.

During my first playthrough, I got pissed in the village of Harve and it caused a real problem. The town's mayor, Jonas, is a racist piece of shit who repeatedly leaves the feline-faced Beastren citizens of the town to die, before eventually exiling them as scapegoats for the village's many giant lizard infestations. A few moments after watching this happen, I drove my Arisen's shoulder into Jonas' back and took him to the ground. I then firmly planted my duospear in his chest, and a pulse of magic stopped his heart. I left him there in the dirt.

A bit later, out of curiosity I searched other people's responses to that quest online, and learned that not only was Ulrika (an early game NPC who I spoke to once and never saw again) supposed to be in the village, too,, but there was a final stage to the quest in which those Beastren could be brought back to Harve and Jonas peaceably removed from power. I walked back to Harve, revived him, and waited for the final part of the village's questline to begin. It never did. He stayed in power there until the world ended.

In most games, this would be seen as a failure of some kind—the game's narrative systems producing an undesirable outcome—but Dragon's Dogma II is not most games. This is the system working as intended. The quests break, sure, but they're supposed to, and do so towards interesting ends. My regret over killing Jonas wasn't about whether or not I felt bad about killing him, but about the endstate of his questline. My failed attempt to right the narrative's course resulted in a racist shithead being put back in power. Dragon's Dogma II wants you to keep moving forward, even when it gives you the tools to change your mind.

This is clearest in the game's most controversial feature: Dragonsplague. Dragonsplague is an affliction that Pawns can catch from one another during their travels in other players' worlds. The symptoms range from glowing eyes, to an uncharacteristically passive aggressive attitude ("I'm perfectly capable of making such decisions for myself!" is my favorite of these lines). If the disease is allowed to run its course, the Pawn will transform into a horrifying Shadow Dragon and wipe out the surrounding settlement of the next inn you stay at, including the main cities of Vermund and Battahl. This can break upwards of half a dozen quests at once, forcing the player to pick up the pieces in a changed world—and thanks to the game's autosave system, that change is permanent. 

You can go on a quest to find a powerful Wakestone capable of reviving all of Vermund, but for many players this is far too much to ask, and they either abandon their playthroughs or accept their losses and move on. It is often said that gameplay systems like this are ambivalent to the player, or even hostile. I don't think this is quite right. Dragonsplague isn't ambivalent about the player, it's ambivalent about the necessity of linear plot in an RPG. It doesn't care if the story breaks, because it trusts that you'll be there to pick up the pieces in whatever way you see fit.

This is made explicit in the game's true ending. After successfully completing your main quest and slaying the dragon, you return to the throne room of Vermund where many of the game's major NPCs stand around celebrating you. The whole thing feels … a little empty. And then, the Pathfinder appears, and asks if you are satisfied. The answer, for many, is "No." The narrative of Dragon's Dogma II has been frequently, and rightfully, criticized for being poorly executed, but this particular sense of disatisfaction feels intentional. You are supposed to want something more and to seek it out.

So the Arisen steps off the throne and walks out the door, and in doing so is transported back in time to just before they began their battle with the dragon, as it carries them to their final battlefield. There, the voice from the game's intro echoes in the back of your mind: "Cast aside thine life and thine heart both."

You plunge a godsbane blade into your chest, the dragon screams, and you both fall into the sea. What follows is an extended tantrum. The Pathfinder revives you a third time, and you wake to a changed world. The seas have vanished. The all-consuming brine is gone. The sky burns red and sickly. The Pathfinder tells you that this is what happens when you refuse to play your proper role in the story. He flips the table and burns the whole world.

The game's now famous second title card drops only after you enter the Unmoored World, and commit to imagining something new in spite of its devastation. Over the course of a few in-game days, you travel around the world to defeat several corrupted dragons called Purgeners, evacuate all of the game's settlements, and eventually challenge oblivion itself in the form of a final, gargantuan dragon. 

Immediately before your battle with this last dragon, your pawn is stricken with Dragonsplague and moves to attack you. Right before the killing blow, they reel and fall to the ground where they writhe for a moment. Their voice comes back to them, and they lunge—taking you up into the sky and onto the dragon above.

As you climb across it, the Pathfinder rants about what you were supposed to do, how the story is supposed to go. He tells you that, should any one part come undone or any one role go unfulfilled, the whole story will unravel. But we already know this to be wrong, don't we? The story doesn't unravel. It doesn't end. It transforms. It becomes furious and alive in front of us. And so, too, does our pawn, regaining control of their body through sheer volition and tearing out the dragon's eye. You fall. Your pawn dives again, this time tearing open the dragon's chest before giving a monologue about their newfound will—a will they found through watching the Arisen.

Suddenly, every moment spent with your pawn comes into context. All the times they ran around collecting items in the middle of a fight or started ineffectually throwing enemies around despite their perfectly good staff, stop being annoyances and become the evidence of a burgeoning desire. The dragon crushes them, and tosses them aside. They scream, and the music swells. You plunge your godsbane blade into the dragon's chest, and are run through by the fragments of its heart. You hit the water, and the Pathfinder heralds the coming of a new world that he was too pathetic to imagine and will never see. 

We don't see it either. The camera stops at the shores of a world free from the cycle of obliteration, and we do not follow it further even as we see it stretch into the horizon. And that's fine. The tale that you and the game have told together has ended.

Many have lamented the simple New Game+ offered by Dragon's Dogma II, which does nothing to adjust enemy placements or difficulty. I understand this frustration because it makes New Game+ feel useless (which it is), but believe that it misses the point Dragon's Dogma II is trying to make. It is a game about ending cycles and moving forward having changed; that New Game+ is even offered after the "true" ending feels like a concession. 

But that doesn't mean I won't keep playing Dragon's Dogma II. Far from it. Instead, I've developed a new relationship to the game, one which treats it as a palette with which to plan and choreograph my own narratives—something the game's design actively facilitates. 

There are few hard progress gates in Dragon's Dogma II. The game's two border walls can be subverted by a player who knows the mountains and cliffs of Vermund and Battahl well enough, allowing them early access to several vocations, quests, and dozens of pieces of equipment. Dragon's Dogma II is fine with this. It is okay with you disregarding and disrupting the plot as written to craft your own narratives, and, instead of simply pausing the world while you do so or rejecting your efforts outright, becomes an active collaborator with you. Once you've finished reading through the script, the game is happy to improvise alongside you.

By playing this way, I will eventually see all of Dragon's Dogma II's various quests. I will learn every nook and cranny of its world. I will eventually preempt every piece of my pawn's advice, having already seen enough parallel worlds of my own. I will not have done so as a completionist, but as a storyteller.

The ending credit theme all but begs the player treat it this way:

Boots on an endless, Virgin, white canvas. I come to my senses On a cold blue morning.

Open my eyes on the world. All without hope, without pain I'm alone in a world Full of turmoil and strife.

But I'm alive and I know I'll survive, I will make it

The stage set for greatness With no audience to witness the cast take their place

raise the curtain and let the drama unfold All told we'll be glad That we got to play

Open my eyes, Take a stand On the road that will Lead me into the dawn

I don’t know where It will take me to But I know I'm alive And I will make my way

Make my choice I finally see That I am finally Free

See me, hear me Take my hand I will follow you If you will follow me

I'm not alone here.

Here, the player's role in the story is transformed. They no longer resemble the Arisen, the hero who rejected fate itself to forge a new world, but the pawn, who found meaning of their own while guiding the Arisen and—for love of this world—lets it go.

Renata Price (She/They) is a video essayist, games critic, and designer, living in Brooklyn, New York. She has been previously featured on Fanbyte, Kotaku, Waypoint, Remap Radio, and Inverse. You can find her video essays at youtube.com/@renorraven.