For one reason or another, fatherhood has always been a popular subject to explore through video games.
Interestingly, when fatherhood is presented in a positive light (as opposed to stories of, for example, abusive or absent fathers) it tends to be with the player in the role of said father, rather than the child. But there are plenty of interesting stories to be told about fatherhood from the child’s perspective, too.
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride’s early hours explore this idea in some detail, making for an incredibly memorable prologue chapter that concludes with plenty of incentive to set off on an adventure.
I preface the following by acknowledging that everyone’s experience with their father is different, so I am writing from my own perspective here. I am not a father, nor have I any intention of becoming one, but I have of course been a child… and, moreover, I’ve come to realise over the last few years that my memories of youth and adolescence are unusually vivid compared to some of my peers.
It’s partly for this latter reason that I found Hand of the Heavenly Bride’s opening hours oddly resonant, and thus if you’ll indulge me, before I talk about the game itself I’d like to explain how I have come to understand “fatherhood” as a concept.
For me, the idea of a father — the concept of “Dad” — stems from the convention of having a role model to look up to. But it was always a little more than that for me. As a child, I never really thought of my father in terms of the stereotypical “my Dad could beat up your Dad” idea often depicted in popular culture, but I nonetheless regarded him as a figure of strength, particularly in terms of mental fortitude.
Our family life wasn’t what I’d call difficult by any means, but just like any family, we had our own challenges to deal with as we lived through the ’80s and ’90s. My father always struck me as someone who just dealt with what life threw at him, though; there were times he’d get understandably stressed out at, but he always stood up to any challenges that faced him rather than buckling under the pressure, and was always supported by my mother. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that, as a very young child at least, I felt almost like my father was invincible, like there was nothing that could bring him down; nothing that could defeat him. Over thirty years later, I know of course that this is not the case for anyone… but growing up, it’s an unbelievable comfort to have such a strong “constant” in your life like this.
The reason I mention all this is because Hand of the Heavenly Bride’s prologue is based around almost this exact concept: the idea of the “invincible father” who is always there to take care of you, to protect you and keep you on the right path — but also the fact that living your life protected in such a way also sometimes stirs the fires of the heart. You sometimes feel like you are invincible by proxy; you sometimes feel that even if something terrible happens, your father will be there to “save” you.
Hand of the Heavenly Bride opens with your protagonist character having a dream in which you are apparently remembering their own birth. You were seemingly born the son of a king, but it also appears that your mother died after giving birth to you. You wake up before you can figure anything out one way or the other, however, and find yourself on a ship; your father, dressed in ragged adventurer’s garb, most certainly does not appear to be a king, and there is no sign of your mother, either.
It seems you and your father Pankraz are returning to your home village of Whealbrook after a two year absence, during which you have grown into a strong but nonetheless still childish young boy. You are unable to read — attempting to read a sign or a book simply informs you that you have no idea what you are looking at — and you don’t really know how the world works; it’s not unfair to say that your father is your world at this point.
As you leave the port and make your way back to Whealbrook, Pankraz is always there for you; level 27 to your level 1, he can cut anything down with ease, and if you take the slightest bump or scrape in combat, he will immediately heal you to full after battle, and has a seemingly limitless capacity to do so. The invincible father.
What follows after you and Pankraz settle back in to life in Whealbrook is a sequence of relatively small adventures that start to teach you a degree of independence. Pankraz can’t always be there for you as he has his own life to live and his own matters to take care of, so it’s at those times you have to learn how to occupy yourself. You learn some valuable lessons in the process — particularly that “being independent” isn’t the same as “going it alone”.
A memorable early adventure sees you spending some time with a local innkeeper’s daughter named Bianca. You and Bianca come across a band of youths who are bullying a young sabrecat. Bianca demands that they hand over the animal, but the youths say they will only do so if she deals with the ghosts at the local haunted mansion. Sneaking out under cover of darkness, you and Bianca head to the mansion to find out what’s going on and, eventually, deal with the core problem. In true Dragon Quest style, you can’t be “killed” on your adventure; getting knocked out while on this adventure simply results in Bianca dragging you all the way back to town and the pair of you agreeing to try again the following night.
Some time later, your father is summoned to a neighbouring kingdom to help its king take care of his somewhat wayward son and reluctant heir to the throne, Harry. Unfortunately, Harry’s fondness of playing pranks at the expense of others leads to disaster as he is kidnapped by a band of thugs, and your father charges off in an attempt to rescue him. You follow him, but have no idea where he has gone; you have to investigate all the nearby areas and ask around in an attempt to determine what his destination might have been.
When you do eventually track him down in what appears to be a ruined temple of some description, he’s faced with several monsters, who he effortlessly cuts down as you’ve seen him do so many times previously, and from this point on he once again takes on his role as “invincible protector”, keeping you safe from harm and curing your wounds if a monster so much as breathes in your direction.
But, unfortunately, as many of us come to realise well before we are ready to deal with such matters, fathers are not invincible. There are certain challenges fathers are seemingly unable to overcome. And so it is you find yourself and the rescued Harry with your lives threatened by a powerful foe, and Pankraz offered a choice: his life or yours. He initially resists, knocking aside the foe’s henchmen with ease as you have always seen him handle dangerous situations… but your foe makes it very clear that he is serious. There is no way out; your father’s “invincibility” will not help him here.
Apparently knowing something you don’t at this point, Pankraz steels himself and simply endures the renewed assault of the foe’s henchmen, and you are forced to watch as he is defeated excruciatingly slowly, without him even attempting to resist. In mechanical terms, you see this unfold from the battle screen; each turn, he does nothing more than “endure the assault”, with his HP getting chipped down little by little as you are unable to intervene.
It’s natural to expect some sort of heroic last-minute comeback during a scene like this — surely your invincible father will prevail! — but it never comes. Pankraz is cut down right in front of you, but as he clings desperately to life he tells you to seek out the legendary Zenithian equipment — that which formed such a focal point of Dragon Quest IV’s main adventure — and that your mother is still alive.
You have a purpose. You have a reason to live. But you no longer have your father to rely on.
That is how Dragon Quest V begins.
More about Dragon Quest: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
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