“The Memory Card” is a seasonal feature that dissects and honors some of the most artistic, innovative, and memorable videogame moments of all time.
The realistic passage of time is something surprisingly ignored in the world of videogames. In most cases, it is handled in one of two ways. Either it is ignored entirely, as in almost all games, with an adventure sometimes taking multiple hours without time ever changing within the game.
Or, in the cases of most role-playing games, a day or night cycle will be established, with some characters even sleeping in inns to pass the time, but, still, no indication of how much time has actually passed comes into play. Characters never change clothes; they never age. Regardless of how many nights you sleep or days you journey through the world, nothing really significant changes.
This all changed with Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride on the Super Famicom. The entire game takes place over almost twenty years, but one sequence in particular shows time passing in one of the most creative and interesting ways ever.
Hit the jump to witness one of my favorite videogame moments of all time -- an affecting, profound moment that was years ahead of its time.
I have always been a big fan of the Dragon Quest games, but missed out on the opportunity of playing the fifth game in the series on the Super Famicom back when I was ... well, let’s just say it was a long time ago. It wasn’t until the recent Nintendo DS remake when I finally got to experience the classic role-playing adventure. And while I expected it to be great, I was not ready for the game to be full of so many classic moments that they could easy fill an entire season of Memory Card features. Seriously. It’s an incredible game. So incredible, in fact, that it inspired me to go back and play the original Super Famicom version to see if all the remarkably memorable moments would have the same emotional impact as they did on the DS.
Short conclusion: They do.
The game begins, literally, during the birth of the main character, a child known only as the Hero until the player names him. After he is brought into the world, the game fast forwards many years to when the Hero is six-years old. At this point, the Hero and his father, Pankraz, begin a journey, visiting many different places around the world.
At one village, the Hero meets a girl named Bianca, a tough-talking tomboy and daughter of the local innkeeper. The two become close friends and go on multiple mini-adventures together. Eventually, the Hero and Bianca part ways, with Pankraz and his son departing on a rescue mission to save the mischievous Prince Henry.
After finding the Prince, the Hero and Pankraz are attacked by an evil being. During the attack, Pankraz is violently killed in a moment that is most likely going to be a Memory Card moment of its own someday.
Devastated, the Hero has no time to mourn the death of his father, for he and Prince Harry are immediately captured by Pankraz’s murderer and sold into slavery.
Ten years pass, and the game picks up with the Hero and Henry escaping from a massive temple they have been tasked with building. After escaping, the Hero flees to the village of Mostroferrato where a wealthy man hires him to locate two magical rings.
After completing this task, the wealthy man offers the Hero the chance to marry his rich, beautiful daughter.
At this point, the game does something really cool. (See? Another Memory Card moment!) Instead of marrying the wealthy man’s daughter, the Hero can instead marry another girl or his old friend Bianca, who has come to town and been reunited with him after all these years. The choice is entirely up to the player.
For the sake of this article, let’s say the Hero chooses to marry Bianca. (And, really, why wouldn’t you? She’s the Tifa of the Dragon Quest games.)
Once he is married, the Hero and his new wife Bianca travel back to his hometown. Here, the Hero is shocked to learn that his father was once a king and, being his heir, he has now been given the throne. With Bianca by his side, the Hero accepts his new royal position in memory of his dearly departed father.
In a rather shocking and scandalous twist, Bianca announces she is pregnant shortly after the Hero becomes king. Jumping forward another few months, the game shows Bianca giving birth to twins -- a boy and a girl.
With two beautiful new babies and an entire kingdom at their bidding, everything finally seems to be falling into place for the Hero and Bianca.
That is ... until this week’s Memory Card moment unexpectedly occurs: The statue of a hero.
Not long after giving birth to the twins, Bianca is kidnapped by monsters and taken to a far away land. Leaving the twins in the safety of his trusted friend Sancho, the Hero departs the kingdom with only one thing on his mind: to find the love of his life.
After a long journey, the Hero finally makes it to the lair of the monsters that kidnapped his beloved Bianca.
In a tough battle, the Hero defeats the evil creatures. Before he has a chance to even reunite with the mother of his children, one of the creatures puts a spell on the Hero and Bianca before he dies and turns them both to stone.
As the creature takes its last breath, The Hero and Bianca stand silent, alone as statues in the eerily quiet room of the tall tower.
Back in the kingdom, Sancho worries about his friend the Hero and his wife Bianca. With the Hero’s twins by his side, Sancho puts together a search party to find his missing companions. Unfortunately for the Hero and Bianca, Sancho has no idea where to look.
More days pass, and the Hero and Bianca’s statues start to gather dust. The few torches illuminating the tower have since been extinguished, leaving the room they stand frozen in dark and cold.
After a few more days, two explorers come wandering into the deep, abandoned dungeon. At first, they are disappointed to not find any treasure, but the sight of the Hero and Bianca’s statues changes their attitude. They can sell these oddly intricate statues for a healthy profit!
Dragging the statues out, the two explorers set up an auction to try and sell the Hero and Bianca, not knowing that the things they are selling are not carved creations of an artist, but the petrified bodies of a loving husband and wife.
During the auction, the Hero is purchased by a wealthy art dealer and dragged to his mansion. Sadly, the wealthy man has no interest in Bianca’s statue and leaves her behind.
When he returns home, the wealthy man shows his new purchase to his wife, who quickly sets up the Hero in the front lawn, proudly displaying him for all the town to see.
At this point, the game begins a brilliant montage, showing the Hero’s statue as it silently sits in the front of the wealthy man’s mansion.
Day turns into night as various people comment on the statue.
The wealthy man and his wife watch as their new child takes his first step right next to the statue of the Hero. The wife comments on how their luck has changed for the better since they purchased the decorative statue.
The next scene shows the wealthy man and wife’s son, now a young boy, running around the front yard and playing.
The statue of the Hero next silently witnesses the tragic event of the wealthy man’s wife telling her husband that their son was kidnapped by monsters -- an event all too common around the increasingly unsafe world.
In a fit of anger, the wealthy man blames the statue for bringing his family bad luck and kicks it. The statue of the Hero falls to its side, making a deep groove in the soft ground below.
Summer passes and fall begins. The leaves from nearby trees blow through the air.
Winter hits. The harsh snow paints the ground white, covering part of the statue.
As the snow melts away, spring enters with its lush flowers and cleansing rain.
As all this is happening, the statue of the Hero just sits there, not moving.
Finally, after eight long years, two young children and an older man wander up to the mansion and knock on the door. The wealthy man answers, still depressed after all these years about the loss of his son. Before the children and older man have a chance to speak, they look to the side and notice the moss-covered statue.
The older man is speechless.
At this point, the player realizes that the older man is the Hero’s old friend Sancho and that the two children are -- gasp! -- the twins that were last seen in the game as babies.
Sancho immediately recognizes the Hero.
Asking for help, one of the twins steps forward and performs a magic spell. The spell surrounds the Hero and slowly cures him of his petrification. After all this time he is finally back to normal.
Although confused, upon learning that the two children in front of him are his beloved twins, the Hero embraces them and refuses to let go. Without hesitation, the twins hug back, informing their father they have been looking for him for many years.
With much rest in front of him, Sancho and the twins escort the Hero back to his kingdom.
After regaining his strength, the Hero sets off once again to search for the woman he loves. But this time, in an amazing twist, he is joined by his two children. Happy to be almost complete, the newly reunited family bans together, forming a new party, to find the statue of the wife and mother they love with all their hearts.
You can watch the ingeniously constructed scene right here:
Let me correct an earlier statement of mine. I did play Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride when it was remade for the PlayStation 2, but was turned off by the blocky graphics and awkward camera angles and stopped playing only a few hours in. While I am mad at myself and my snobby graphics attitude in hindsight, I think it was a sign. Playing it for the first time on the Nintendo DS was great, but liking the game so much and finding inspiration to seek out its original Super Famicom version was life-changing.
As a huge fan of old school games (RetroforceGO! Woo hoo!), I am obsessed with and endlessly impressed by 8- or 16-bit videogames that can tell a great story and portray sophisticated emotions. The fact that games with such limited technology (compared to the current generation) can create these emotional, beautiful moments is an absolutely amazing achievement to me. I infinitely tip my hat to all the designers whose retro games have ever been featured on this series.
The entire use of time in Dragon Quest V is incredible. I love the way that the main character is actually born at the beginning of the game. This same technique was used in Fallout 3, but, just like other games that have used a similar storytelling technique, after a quick early montage portraying a character’s birth and adolescence, once they quickly reach the age they are in the main game, the clever passage of time ends.
That’s what makes Dragon Quest V so great. Time is treated with such respect in the game that the characters feel much for real -- much more alive. It is true that most of the role-playing trappings are included -- mainly, when the characters stay in an inn or travel for many days and nights, time doesn’t move forward -- but the game’s story is so perfectly structured and so fast-moving, that the brilliance of how certain characters age masks the hard-to-avoid traditional pitfalls.
So let’s talk about this specific moment: a glorious example of how time is used in the game.
Early in Dragon Quest V, each beat of the story takes place at a different period of time. The game starts with the Hero’s birth, it moves on to when he is a child, and then fast-forwards to when he is a young adult. These transitions are cool, but involve quick cuts where the character is one age in one scene and another in the next.
Later in the game, when the Hero and his wife (in this case, Bianca) are turned to stone, the passage of time is handled much differently.
Think about how easy it would be to show the Hero being turned into a statue and then immediately cut to years later when he is found and changed back. If the game was designed this way it still might have been a cool and unexpected little story moment.
But it’s not.
When the Hero and Bianca are turned to stone, the designers let everything play out in long, deliberate scenes. In a game with a pretty fast-moving story, things are slowed down dramatically during this sequence for one reason and one reason only: the designers want the player to feel the length of time the Hero is encased in his stone prison. They want the player to understand what the main protagonist is going through.
After he is turned into a statue, the Hero sits alone for a while before being dragged to and sold at an auction. This unto itself is brilliant, but the true genius occurs once the Hero’s statue is brought back to the wealthy man’s house. Here, many different storytelling techniques (both visual and non-visual) are used in absolutely spectacular ways.
First, the statue is placed in the yard, with the wealthy man and his wife happy to have it there. To signify time passing, instead of a generic card coming on-screen saying “[x] Years Later,” the game uses the characters to tell its story. The man and his wife have a baby. That baby grows up and starts to play around the yard. That same child grows up even more and is kidnapped by monsters. The man and wife grieve the loss of their son. Each of these beats is fascinating in establishing the mood of the game’s world, but it also signifies how much time has passed. By using this creative technique, the designers are accomplishing many different things. It really is beyond brilliant.
After the story montage involving the family, the Hero’s statue is knocked over, and one of my favorite visual montages in the history of videogames begins. It appears very simple, but seeing the seasons change around the statue is, at the same time, beautiful to look at it and moving to behold. The way the scene’s color palette continually changes and the leaves and snowflakes fill the screen is gorgeous. And just when you settle in to smiling at the beauty of it all, the true emotional impact of everything kicks in. The Hero -- a man who has been separated from his wife and children -- is all alone, sitting in the same place for years as life changes around him. It is a shockingly profound moment.
And then it all concludes with a twist that is overflowing with equal parts emotion and stellar game design. Having the Hero’s own children -- now grown-up -- find him and cure his petrification is one thing, but to have them actually join your party to battle by your side as playable characters for the rest of the game is undeniably genius.
I knew I would have a lot to say about the Hero turning into a statue in Dragon Quest V, but looking back over what has already been written, I had no idea it would be this much! But, honestly, I could easily write much, much more (don’t worry; I won’t). I am fascinated and unbelievably appreciative of strong, compelling, creative ideas, and this sequence in Dragon Quest V is the perfect example of what I love most about videogames.
Time is a precious thing that affects everyone. It’s impressive to see a videogame tackle its unstoppable power in such a clever, beautiful way.
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