There is a school of thought that claims that the main attraction of video games is the opportunity for reward. (Gosh, I would sound a lot smarter if I could remember where I had heard this idea, wouldn’t I?) We play and keep playing so that we can get our initials put up at the top of the high-score list, or that we can unlock that extra art gallery or just so that people will think we’re cool and like us. There is also a school of thought that believes in games as a medium for narrative expression. The interactivity of games allows authors to tell stories and connect with the reader/player in ways that only Janet Murray has dreamt of. The nice thing about a role-playing game like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is that it gives you plenty to think about no matter which of these theories you subscribe to.

Nearly all RPGs combine narrative with the work-to-reward pattern in the same way. The bulk of your time in the game is spent crawling through dungeons, fighting monsters, saving up money for healing items, etc. Even in a game with a truly fun battle system like Dragon Quarter or Grandia, the attraction of playing simply for the sake of watching the characters run around and whack things wears off pretty quickly, and when the average RPG lasts a minimum of thirty hours, you expect a little more for your time than to simply receive a “Level Up!” message every now and again. The reward for putting in all the effort of “playing” an RPG is in the story, or rather in its revelation. By progressing through dungeons and fulfilling whatever conditions the game has set before you, a series of cut-scenes is triggered that tell a little more of the story that the game is set within. The problem that most RPGs have is that the telling of the story is almost completely divorced from the playing of the game, making little connection between the plot and the play, and providing only the flimsiest of motivations for you and your avatars to fight yet another giant slime; at the end of the day, a series of fetch quests do not a moving tale make.

Dragon Quarter actually tries harder than most games to make the story a direct reward of the gameplay, as opposed to just an incidental prize acheived for reaching a certain goal. While the usual treadmill of dungeon-crawling and leveling is still run in the long gap between cutscenes, there are twists that let you know that there’s more happening than what you see. Foremost among these is the meter in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen, which shows the extent to which the main character, Ryu, has been devoured by the dragon power he possesses. The more you use the dragon’s strength (and its use is a very tempting proposition), the closer the meter gets to 100%, and the closer you get to your death. The plot has a fatalist bent as well, revolving around Ryu’s gradual merging with the dragon whose power he calls on as he tries to reach the top levels of his underground civilization before his time (and yours) runs out.

The manner in which the story is revealed is even more interesting: dying and restarting are not only encouraged, they’re required in order to uncover various pieces of the story’s puzzle. As you play through the same areas a second or third time, you reveal more cutscenes, flashbacks, and dialogue. What seems like a chance encounter early in the first playthrough is upon replay seen as the end result of forces set in motion before the game’s events even began. The gradual filling in of gaps in your mental model of the story (and there are a lot of them, especially the first time through) makes the story work in ways that it wouldn’t if it were told linearly, as a film or serial.