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Yuji Horii on the legacy of Dragon Quest

Religion, storycrafting and making cute monsters

Dragon Quest XI artwork
| Square Enix

Before Dragon Quest 11 hit stores earlier this month, over eight years had passed since the last major DQ released in the West. Sure, there were spinoffs, mobile games and re-releases in the interim. But even in Japan, the only numbered DQ game was an MMO that started in 2012. To say Western fans had been waiting a long time for a new, proper Dragon Quest adventure would be an understatement.

So for series creator Yuji Horii and his team, Dragon Quest 11’s Western release was a big deal. And to promote the international release, Horii embarked on a rare, cross-country tour of Europe and America.

We figured it was a good time to look back. Over the years, Horii has been open in interviews about the series’ history. He’s described how the first game borrowed ideas the Wizardry and Ultima franchises, and how his original goal was to distill the esoteric RPG genre into something more approachable and welcoming for all audiences. But there are always new secrets left to uncover. In the following interview, Horii is joined by series executive producer Yuu Miyake, DQ11 producer Hokuto Okamoto and DQ11 game director Takeshi Uchikawa, as we discuss the legacy that they’re trying to maintain.

Polygon: Is it weird doing interviews for a game that you finished and released back home over a year ago? Do you get a little bit of déjà vu?

Yuji Horii: It’s totally different from Japan and how the Japanese consumers responded to Dragon Quest [11]. This still feels very fresh and new.

With the hardcore American fans, we’ve met people who have been fans ever since the original Dragon Warrior days. We were fortunate enough to do some autograph sessions in the States and a lot of people brought their original Dragon Warrior NES cartridges; it seems like they are more diehard than a lot of the Japanese fans! They’re probably kind of thirsty for content, especially because, you know, a lot of the spinoff titles that have been released in Japan haven’t been released in the States.

Dragon Quest 11
Square Enix

Polygon: For the localization, were you very involved in that process, or did you primarily leave that up to the regional teams?

YH: We were pretty involved with that process. When any of the terminology, like new character names, are presented and proposed, that’s something I like to review with the localization and the development teams.

Hokuto Okamoto: In localizing the game from Japanese to other languages, oftentimes we receive questions with regards to things like the setting or characters, things we hadn’t necessarily thought of for the Japanese game. We discuss those aspects and provide a response to the localization team as well.

Takeshi Uchikawa: We also take the opportunity to make any necessary adjustments or tweaks to the game if anything feels a bit off or awkward.

YH: And also, as you know, the Western version adds voice-overs, so we worked with the localization team to determine what dialects and what accents we’d give to different characters.

Polygon: The name changes for some characters from the Japanese to the English version of DQXI have been very contentious for some fans. What was the thought process behind altering those names instead of just using the originals?

TU: It all comes down to the impression that certain names give off in Japanese versus English; what may sound like a very strong character name in Japanese might not be perceived that way in English. That’s when various suggestions are made and then discussed with Horii-san; when Horii-san agrees, we move forward with that name.

HO: Once we decided to implement voiceovers and give every character a distinct dialect or accent, it created a stronger sense of regionality within the world. In order to fit those region-specific character undertones, we occasionally decided to change the names of the characters. It brought this new perspective and new thought process to providing names to these characters. We decided that that would probably be the best in terms of the overall world.

YH: However, sometimes our development discussions were a little bit harder because of the changes. We’d have to ask one another, “Wait, what was that name of that character again?” Next time, it may be best to bring in the localization team from the get-go so that we can use names that work for both Japanese and English.

Dragon Quest 11
Square Enix

Polygon: And those localization differences have been around since the beginning of the series. The first Dragon Quest game in the U.S. was written in a very distinct, Old English style. Did you have a hand in that as well or did you defer more to the localization team back then.

YH: In all honesty, I actually didn’t know what they were doing at that time. My initial response was, “Why?” and then, “Please stop.”

Yuu Miyake: Back in those days, Nintendo and Enix were localizing the games essentially together. But we left it up to the discretion of Nintendo to handle that for us. It happened to not be so well received, unfortunately, after it was released. So thereafter, when we brought Dragon Quest VIII to the West, we reassessed the way we approach localization. It was important that the Japanese production and development teams took a larger part in the localization process to ensure that things were properly communicated.

Polygon: Another big change over the years has been the box art. With Dragon Quest 11, the U.S. box art has a reversible cover that displays the Japanese version of the box art. But the first four games in the U.S. had a very different style. How did you feel about that? Was that, again, deferring to what Nintendo thought?

YM: That was 30 years ago, but we discussed with Nintendo and they mentioned that the perception of anime at that time was very childish so it might not be the best approach. I guess there was an inclination and a desire for more realistic artwork in North America and Europe and that’s the argument that they had presented.

Polygon: Toriyama is now a worldwide phenomenon, but even at the beginning of Dragon Quest, he was a very popular creator, especially through Dr. Slump and the Dragon Ball series. How did that partnership between Toriyama and Dragon Quest come about initially?

YH: It happened by chance, really. At that time, I was also a writer for Shonen Jump and Toriyama and I were working with the same editor. His last name was Torishima, I believe.

Prior to that I had released Portopia, which Toriyama-san had played. It’s something that he really got into. So Torishima-san said, “Maybe you should try asking Toriyama-san to work on a game too.” That’s when everything came together.

This is a kind of funny anecdote, but before working together I had also heard that Toriyama-san had always wanted to do some work in gaming. But when I asked him about it later, he said he never remembered saying anything like that; it just happened to be Torishima-san, the editor, trying to create this new kind of impetus for his artists. So it was really all his doing.

Dragon Quest 11
Square Enix

Polygon: Maybe the most iconic element of Dragon Quest is the slime. Was that something that you designed or did that come more from Toriyama?

YH: The rough sketch of that I had initially created was a very kind of a gooey slime. But then Toriyama-san converted it into the very cute slime.

Polygon: Outside of the slime and maybe the Drackies, the first game’s aesthetic felt relatively traditional, very Dungeons & Dragons. But then the series grew and felt more whimsical and comical, especially after Dragon Quest 4. What drove the decision to bring the design away from more standard monsters to things like dancing cucumbers?

YH: From the very beginning we wanted to create a warm, inviting world. In that vein, we started to shift towards monsters that had a broader appeal — a kind of cuteness. Something that attracted you to them.

We were also really careful about how we presented defeating monsters. We never say, “You killed the monster.” It’s always, “You’ve defeated it.”

Polygon: It’s been mentioned many times before that Ultima and Wizardry had a big influence on the creation of Dragon Quest, but what was appealing about that specific kind of Western fantasy theme? Why did you go with that instead of changing it to something with more of a Japanese influence?

YH: There were so many options we could have potentially gone with: ninja, samurai and those kinds of themes. But Japanese people are already familiar with those topics; I felt like there wouldn’t be a sense of escapism. I thought swords and sorcery, which Japanese people weren’t quite as knowledgeable about, would help expand people’s imaginations. That kind of style, but made more lighthearted.

Polygon: Religion also plays strongly into the overall theme of the games after the first one. Every town has a church, and you “confess” to save your game. What was the thinking behind making that, in a way, a religious experience?

YH: As you may recall, in the first game you always save your game with the king, but he’s often far away. By the end of the game, you have to go quite far and travel quite a lot in order to get to him. So making a church the save point [in Dragon Quest 2] made it a little bit more accessible and more efficient. And because we decided to make it the church, it just made sense that you’d need to confess to save your data.

HO: That made me question why it wasn’t just at the inn, but it just fits the game better. You have to confess what you’ve done in order to save your data. Thematically, that makes more sense than an inn.

Dragon Quest 11
Square Enix

Polygon: What is the role of religion of the Dragon Quest world? Churches are everywhere. In Dragon Quest 7 you can actually battle God. And in Dragon Quest 9, you take on the role of an angel who goes down to the world.

YH: Obviously there are people around the world who believe in various types of religions, but in Japan, there isn’t the same kind of overarching system. In that sense, religion is more of a lighthearted addition to the game. It’s more to generate an atmosphere. In the world of Dragon Quest, there is no specific religion that it associates with in any way, shape or form, whether it’s Catholic, Protestant or Muslim, whatever it may be. The world is just protected by this overarching entity.

TU: As a player myself back in the day, and going back slightly to the swords and sorcery influence, Dragon Quest felt very fresh and new to me as a child. And there was probably a lot of children like myself who felt like they were tapping into and experiencing this different culture through Dragon Quest. The whole act of confessing at a church, that’s something that I admired. It made me want to try it myself. It was like getting a feel for the culture from somewhere far from where I lived. Also, it really helped build up my imagination, to a certain degree, of what Western fantasy could be like.

Polygon: For me, Dragon Quest was my introduction to role-playing games, and it also led me to start playing Final Fantasy. But as a competing game that came out so soon after Dragon Quest, what was your reaction to its release?

YH: I thought it was great that a suitable rival had arrived. But I was quite taken aback when Enix and Square merged.

Polygon: Was that when you split off onto your own company, Armor Project?

YH: Actually, I had Armor Project from the very beginning. Back in the day, Enix didn’t have an internal development team so I started Armor Project. It’s like the relationship between an editor and an artist; that’s how it was back then. For a while after the merger, that didn’t really change much since Dragon Quest had this pre-established system of “outsourcing its development.” And Final Fantasy was developed internally [with its own staff], so there wasn’t much of a change for quite some time.

YM: Though, obviously, the internal company structure changed significantly; we’re much bigger now.

Dragon Quest 11
Square Enix

Polygon: Going through all of this growth, does working at a company like Square Enix feel family-like and collaborative, or do the different departments operate as separate development pillars? How has that evolved over the years, and do you feel like you know everyone who works on the game?

YH: Back in the day, we had about 10 or so people on the development team. We were working together to create the game so, obviously, we were familiar with each other. There was definitely that sense of family back then. But the development teams kept on growing, and once it reached over 100 or so, that’s when it became impossible to know every single person on the team. So, in that literal sense, I probably don’t know every single person on the team at this moment in time.

YM: Of course, for the managerial team up on top, the people originally from Square or from Enix, they’ve known each other for a very long time, so they’re very familiar with one another. But when it comes to the ground level, we have so many development teams on staff, and everything’s run on a project basis with 100-plus people per project. I’m not sure how much overlap there is in terms of communication beyond each project because everyone’s just working wholeheartedly and pouring everything into their project at any given time.

HO: However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t interaction between projects. For example, the Dragon Quest 11 and the Kingdom Hearts teams often exchange know-how on certain points pertaining to development.

TU: There were cases where people from other projects would jump into Dragon Quest 11 and help with development. So there’s interaction between staff on different projects; we’re definitely friendly in that sense.

Polygon: Of course, outside of Dragon Quest, one of Mr. Horii’s most well regarded games was the collaborative Chrono Trigger. Why haven’t you gone back to do another cross-team project on that scale? Or do you feel like you get to tackle those different approaches to development through games like Fortune Street and the Dragon Quest spin offs?

YH: We have Dragon Quest Builders, and we have Rivals on mobile. There are just so many spinoff titles that I also oversee. In that sense, there really isn’t much time to work on other collaborations. And, of course, there are other projects in the works that I can’t comment on right now.

Dragon Quest 11
Square Enix

Polygon: Thinking about story creation now, how directly are you [to Horii] involved in writing the games these days? Do you primarily delegate out more of that process, or do you still have a direct hand in crafting the story?

YH: Given the fact that we have more people on the staff, we have brainstorming sessions to determine the scenarios together. I have a general image of what I envision, and so that’s communicated to the broader team. Then various ideas and discussions take place, and then we hone in on what to focus on, basically.

Specific to Dragon Quest 11, we had the general concept, the overarching story, and the vision for that. That’s something I discussed with the team. Once that was finalized and locked in, we would build out the content and the plot text from there. I’d review the content and the team would go back and forth like that. Once the actual plot and text was implemented into the game, I’d review the final text. That’s the overall process.

Polygon: Wrapping up, right now, we’re on Dragon Quest 11, but obviously the series isn’t consecutive; you don’t need to play the first Dragon Quest to understand 11. The games already have subtitles, so why does the numbering persist?

YH: It’s a really simple reason, actually. When we created the second one, it was Dragon Quest 2. Then we created the third and it was Dragon Quest 3. So in that vein, we just continued the number system. From a consumer perspective, it’s possible to move forward with just the subtitle, but I feel like people wouldn’t know which one is the latest installment in the franchise otherwise. It just makes it easier to identify which one is the latest.

Polygon: So do you think this will just go on through Dragon Quest 30?

YH: [laughs] Yes, that would be ideal. That would be great.

This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.