You’ll understand if you truly love your Pawn
(cw: suicide mention)
I recently finished Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, a 2019 Nintendo Switch port of a 2013 game that I, along with countless others, totally missed the first time around. It’s excellent and engaging, despite the six years of age weighing on it. But rather than review the totality of my experience, I want to discuss the “good ending” and the wonderfully complicated feelings it gave me.
**Big ol’ meaty spoilers for the main story of Dragon’s Dogma ahead**
You would think a climactic, multi-part battle with an apocalyptic wyrm would be a fitting final boss for a game called Dragon’s Dogma, but my quest through the land of Gransys took a weird and existential turn after reclaiming my stolen heart from the beast. In his final moments, the dragon tells me that nobody except me can decide my future, and in turn the future of all humanity. Before the credits roll, part of the largest city in the game collapses into a gigantic sinkhole that turns out to be a portal to God.
Yeah, I was surprised, too.
Delving these new depths revealed the overarching cosmology of the game: you, as the Arisen, were an individual blessed (or cursed) with the willpower to challenge the keeper of the cosmos. The dragon’s duty was to find these nascent heroes and set their feet on a path to confrontation between the two. They are the gatekeepers turning away pretenders and posers at the door to the Big House in the Sky. But victory against the dragon was only the first test.
Enter that big hole in Gran Soren, the main hub of Dragon’s Dogma. The Everfall, as it’s called, was the spoke upon which the entire world turned. It’s a recursive gyre of tunnels and chambers filled both with monsters and Pawns. The latter are a different flavor of humans that the game tells you reside in a place between realities and do not want in the same way we do. They are vessels whose only real drive is to serve the Arisen in all things and help them along their journey.
Mine was named Podrick, and he shot a bow real good. I loved him dearly.
At the bottom (top?) of the Everfall was a being known as the Seneschal. They were the true final boss who might as well be god for all their power and influence. They spoke of how humans, pawns and every other living thing were the same in their empty uselessness. Life and death lose their gravitas when you can wield either without check. They challenged the Arisen to combat, which turned out to be yet another test of worthiness.
At this final conclusion, the Seneschal offers their power to the player, revealing that they, too, were once Arisen: they walked the same path and overcame the same challenges. But they are tired and eager to pass the mantle onto to somebody else. Now, the game can end in several ways depending on the player’s choice here, as well as how they fare in combat against the Seneschal. But Dragon’s Dogma intends for the Arisen to use the blatantly named Godsbane to off the ruler of creation and sit in their big ol’ chair. So, that’s what I did.
I returned to the fishing village where my adventure began, the sky painted blue and everything back to a relative peace. I was invisible and could not interact with anything, except to kill people with my omnipotent power. This was, to be honest, a nightmare. Podrick, the Pawn who had followed me into a burning mountain, to the depths of some hell and then to the crown of all creation was nowhere to be seen. The stones used to summon him were gone. My ability to travel the countryside was revoked. I felt like a prisoner, and so I returned to the big chair, took up the Godsbane and promptly buried it in my own chest.
Podrick and my corpse plummeted through a corona of light that spit us both into the waters outside that fishing village. In a final act of desperation, he reached out and yelled, “MASTER!” before hitting the water. Though I never washed ashore, Podrick did. Except, now he inhabited a body indistinguishable from my own and spoke with my voice. Mercedes, a soldier with whom I had developed a relationship, pulled him (me?) up out of the sand and together they walked away from the ocean’s edge. Roll the actual, final credits.
Pawns, Humans and Definitions
Phew, still with me? Let’s unpack some information about pawns. They are supposed to be these immortal companions that exist outside of normal time and space, beckoning to the call of Arisens and aiding them along the eternally repeating cycle of Heroes killing Gods. But the game keeps providing examples of couplings who broke from the cosmic mold.
The witch, Sofiah, was an Arisen who sacrificed her life to impart humanity to her Pawn, Selene. By the time you meet her, the young girl is beginning to piece together some semblance of a personality, perhaps realized when she tells you that she desires to leave the woods and live in your village. The Dragonforged and his Pawn, The Fool, have spent centuries together aiding fellow Arisens along their journey to defeat the Dragon. In that time, The Fool’s appearance altered to resemble his master, and he remarks that all Pawns who live long enough undergo the same change.
We as players are left to wonder about the categorical difference between Pawns and humans. If the former can, given enough time and care, become the latter, should that be treated as a natural order interrupted by the ever-repeating cycle of deicide? It feels icky to buy into an entire race existing solely for the benefit of player instruction and growth. And perhaps Dragon’s Dogma feels the same way.
I couldn’t help but impart so much humanity in Podrick. He learned about the world around him and shared that knowledge with me whenever possible. He warned me of dangers, asked questions about the people we met and the places we visited. Though NPCs and the game’s lore kept insisting that Pawns were not humans and did not act as we do, Podrick became a fully realized person in my eyes. The whole pawn system seems to challenge its own description, which is honestly a very Dragon’s Dogma move.
Why else give the player the ultimate power fantasy of becoming god and then pull back the curtain to reveal how empty and meaningless such a goal truly was? As I walked unbidden and invisible through the game’s world, I longed for the moments where Podrick and I went toe to toe with a group of hobgoblins in the dead of night, desperately clinging to life amid a oppressive canopy of trees. I recalled bittersweet memories of equipping him with a jaunty jester’s hat that inexplicably remained the best headgear for him throughout the entire damn game.
I don’t want to give Dragon’s Dogma too much credit, as it is still a weirdly melodramatic fantasy game where hitting mythical beasts in satisfying ways is the main selling point. But it managed to codify player investment into the mythology of its world and provided questions about humanity and what it means to live a worthy life.
When I drove that sword through my chest, all I wanted was more time with Podrick the Pawn. And while I didn’t make it back to that beach in the end, I’m glad he did. He was more real and human than any other character in the game, and he deserved a life unshackled from my predestined bullshit.