As I’ve discussed previously, games are pretty much garbage for children when it comes to talking about anything other than violent colonialism. We seem to only have one language here, only one terrible solution. Dragon Quest Builders 2 can’t escape colonialism entirely, but it breaks free from this very shitty tradition in a lot of key ways. It’s a breath of fresh air, frankly, and I wanna talk about it.
Let’s get a definition in place, to start with. “Colonialism” is “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically,” yes, but I’m going to use it here in the academic sense of including the ongoing and pervasive effects of that historical (and, yes, ongoing) colonialism in the modern world. More than a simple dry “economic exploitation”, colonialism is highly damaging to everyone involved in various ways. The practices of subjugation and Othering implicit in colonial thought and colonizing societies have widespread and awful implications and effects, not the least of which is the justification of widespread and intense violence, both systemic and particular.
Basically, don’t think of “colonialism” as something empires did in the past that no longer happens. It is still very much a part of the policies of all world powers today. And it doesn’t just take literal military occupation to accomplish, though that still does happen quite a bit in 2019. The mindset of the colonizer is everywhere in games. How many times have we played as white soldiers murdering brown people? How many games revolve around the exploitation of natural resources for profit? The destruction of “barbarian tribes” as in Civilization 6, for instance?
Keeping this in mind, we turn to Dragon Quest Builders 2, a post-scarcity, anti-theist, anarcho-communist game about community building.
The first thing to realize is that the legacy of colonialism is everywhere, and it is at present impossible to fully escape it. DQB2 is no exception. Even in this game, we are forced to “defend ourselves” in a “justified” battle against waves of “mindless enemies” as we build up our settlement on the land. There are no shortage of hostile “monsters” to kill, and many of them do drop materials such as food and other items for use in building. In this way, the game is explicitly colonialist, and violent to boot. However, it is important to realize that in nearly every other way, the game struggles against this legacy. Its reward systems are set up to encourage players to focus on other aspects of the game, to engage in combat as little as is possible. The player character is quite weak in combat, drops are generally not that useful beyond a certain point, and there are no deeper combat mechanics to explore or discover. It is a chore by design, something to be avoided wherever possible and only engaged in in defense of your community. Even then, you rely on others to help, giving them weapons and engaging as a group.
One of the things I love about this game is that Forbes hates it. The first DQB had you by yourself, all-powerful, building up civilization from nothing with only your own hands; a very neoliberal bullshit “rugged individualism”. You’re RPing what people think Elon Musk is, basically. Not so, in the sequel. In DQB2, you are good at building, not destroying. You have friends who are better at destroying things than you are. Those friends also help you build. The largest and most impressive structures in the game aren’t anything you build yourself. They’re communal efforts, and the NPCs do most of the work and bring most of the materials. This is a fascinating choice, because it’s closer to how things actually work in real life. So, of course the money magazine for billionaire assholes hates it. The player character isn’t all-powerful but is just a creative agent of change in a larger system.
The biggest reward system in place is “gratitude”, and I love this. Basically, nobody is going to starve or die in your community, but they do have needs like food, beds, shelter, showering, relaxation. There’s no meters to tend to, or anything like that. However, as you build up facilities for your people to use, they’ll emit gratitude as they use those things, in the form of little hearts. You pick these up, and they become your primary currency. Gratitude unlocks new recipes, new islands to explore, and even levels up the community itself, making everyone better at doing what they do and giving you new ideas for things to build. The game gradually walks you through ideas for things to build for your residents, but when it comes to the particulars, you’re free to implement those ideas in whatever way you see fit (for the most part). Your reward for helping see to your neighbors’ needs is more stuff you can build to help empower and entertain them even more, in an endless upward spiral of satisfaction and contentment.
You do need to eat, and farming is your primary means of raising food for your community. You can build a certain kind of room with cooking implements and some decorations in it, and it becomes a kitchen where residents will automatically go to cook up meals. Build a farming bedroom, and people who sleep there will work the fields, planting seeds. Residents water crops and harvest them, once you’ve learned how to do that. Build a bar, and someone will come in and tend it and make drinks, provided they have the materials in a chest somewhere. Build a massage room, and residents will take turns massaging each other. What I’m most struck with as I take food from the communal stockpiles to feed myself is how the community itself pooled resources to make those meals. I find myself only taking what I need for the day, so that there’s food left over for my community to eat. I find myself caring about their needs, because I’m incentivized to do so. I want to unlock more recipes and islands, after all. This is why I call the game anarcho-communist, because it explicitly incentivizes the pooling of community resources, providing for everyone’s basic needs, and the absence of any hierarchy or state. There are inevitably a few side characters who think they can or should be in charge, but the game has a solution: ignore them, ridicule them, and get on with the work.
I call the game post-scarcity because of the explorer’s shores mechanic. These are islands you can go to and do some cataloguing work, looking for a list of materials, plants and animals on the island. Once you complete a section of this exploration “shopping list”, you get unlimited free access to a specific basic resource, like wood, cord, or copper ore, from then on. This eliminates the tedium of scavenging around for resources, and further de-incentivizes combat so you can focus on community building.
The game is anti-theist for obvious reasons: The Children of Hargon are the bad guys and the game has explicitly anti-religious messaging. Converting believers away from them and teaching them about the wonders of building up the commune is a major part of the game.
One other thing: the game has a healthy attitude toward gender and gender expression. You can change your gender freely once you’re able to find or build a dressing table, and even though there’s only two available, neither is restricted from wearing any clothing they like. There are several NPCs that explicitly “cross-dress” as a form of sincere expression and not as a “drag show” or anything, and the game treats it quite normally. People should wear whatever they want, says DQB2. That’s awesome as far as I’m concerned.
I think that’s it for today. This game owns a lot and I strongly recommend it both as a very solid and fun experience, and as an excellent example of a game with great politics. If you’re sick of wading through the sea of colonialist shit that is video games, check this one out.