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World-Building and the Dense, Impelling History of Dragon’s Crown
In Vanillaware’s most recent game Dragon’s Crown, the player is given control of many things, able to select and grow with one of six classes, develop a wide range of class-specific abilities, and adapt to the complex rune system that functions as an ancient written language. For a beat-em-up game this depth can be near-overwhelming. There is just so much to do in Dragon’s Crown that it can feel daunting.
The game’s atmosphere, one of high fantasy and deep gloom, is supported by these game mechanics. Every character class is worth playing, demanding nearly 20 hours each, and every party you take can be subjected to numerous strategies, which are also altered greatly if you are joined by friends in local or online multiplayer. This deep strategy and thick atmosphere make Dragon’s Crown an excellent game to play, one that is challenging and inherently menacing.
But these factors are aided by another surprisingly complex aspect of the game, one that fuels the game’s narrative, as well as its atmosphere and gameplay. Every moment of Dragon’s Crown is drenched in an imaginative, staggering history that is far beyond the grasp of any figure you encounter in the game. Dragon’s Crown applies a suitably complicated history, one of past races, goddesses, and the great dragon born alongside them, to explain the complicated world it takes place in. The result is a world that is enriched and enlivened by strong world-building, one that internalizes each aspect of its own history until it pervades through every aspect of Hydeland and, by extension, Dragon’s Crown itself.
This history is obvious in both the narrative and the world the narrative depicts in Dragon’s Crown, shaping the game’s tone and how each dungeon is designed. When a player enters a location, they are instantly made aware of the space’s vast history via narration and animation. The history of the game is persistently shared orally and visually, creating an urgency beyond the immediate situation in the game, one that transcends the present and carries past wars, kingdoms, and friendships with it. In the Catacombs, for instance, the player is introduced to a visibly old space, one filled with gloom and spider webs. At the same time the narrator, the deliverer of plot in Dragon’s Crown, discusses folklore regarding the Catacombs and how the space is known to be one where young village girls commonly disappear to. The key here is that many of the historical lectures the narrator gives are reinforced by each space you inhabit; each space is appropriately designed in conjunction with its own history.
In fact, the scale and scope of history in Dragon’s Crown is so far-reaching that much of Hydeland’s history is now bonded with mythology, making the many folk tales heard in the game ring true. This is justified by the environments in Dragon’s Crown, which all hold signs of antiquity within their walls. Each historical tale the player is told clearly seeps through the walls and each dungeon tells its own unique story.
This all-encompassing history even extends beyond the narrative and setting of Dragon’s Crown to its core gameplay in the form of runes. Players utilize rune magic throughout the game, writing spells using archaic scripts imprinted on the walls of every dungeon by ancient fairies and spirits. The well-developed history of Hydeland, one where magical beings are commonly seen performing such acts, helps to justify the existence of rune magic in Dragon’s Crown, moving it beyond being a simple gameplay mechanic to a narratively reasoned aspect of the world. The first narrative use of rune magic is shown in the Forgotten Sanctuary, where ancient golems, stone statues given life by rune magic, once stood guard. Now, these monsters have been brought to life to prevent passage through the sanctuary. When the player finally meets these beings, it is in combat with newly raised golems, brought to life by your own use of runes.
By implementing mechanics that are historically justified, Vanillaware has created a world that allows players to interact with an immense history, one that is not fluid, but jagged and multiple. Like Dragon’s Crown’s quest-driven, yet non-linear approach to gameplay, the history of Dragon’s Crown and the mythology the game enacts are debatable, not ever set in stone. Occasionally, a quest will re-write historical and mythological perceptions of a space, such as the encounter with the Forest Hermit in the Lost Woods, where the threat of the Illusionary Lands is said to be myth. Though the player eventually learns that the threat of the Illusionary Lands is real, the details of the threat are altered by the meeting with the Forest Hermit and his deconstruction of old mythological beliefs. Myth and history intertwine and break into segments, mirrored by the countless possible paths one can take in Dragon’s Crown, as well as the historical implications the game discusses in each quest. Art, folklore, and even weaponry in the game represent this dense history, but are also unlocked in different places, at different times. The path in Dragon’s Crown is split in many ways and the game lives and breathes its own many-faced history, providing a wholly unique experience in world-building and design.