My favorite moment in Akira Toriyama’s manga Dragon Ball occurs about halfway through its original run. In it, Freeza, the most dreadful villain in the series thus far, arrives on Earth, seeking revenge after series protagonist Goku defeated him. Goku made one mistake, though: He left Freeza alive. And now Freeza has made it to Earth, threatening the life of every being on its surface.
Before he can, though, a mysterious stranger young man with purple hair appears. Freeza jeers at him. Then this unassuming stranger (we only learn later his name is Trunks) transforms into a Super Saiyan, a special form that so far only Goku has been able to attain–and kills Freeza. In seconds. An entire storyline’s worth of suffering, over in minutes.
Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 lets me relive the visceral thrill I first felt when I read those moments in middle school. More essentially, it lets me relive them as myself–or any other character I can dream up. The key, it turns out, is time travel.
As a “Time Patroller,” your job is to maintain the Dragon Ball timeline, even as evil trans-dimensional wizards and warriors try to muck it up. To do this, you create your own original character to fight alongside the heroes from the manga and anime, jumping from critical moment to critical moment: standing on the sidelines at every important battle, delivering the saving blows.
If that premise sounds like the stuff of fanfiction, it absolutely is. It’s goofy nonsense designed around the story-breaking premise that you, the player, need to be included in everything. It accommodates a particular sort of fan service, one that lets enthusiasm mutate into participation. In fiction, the move is known as the Mary Sue: a character written into a story in order to allow the author to live out their own fantasies, whether that means romancing their favorite hero or just being the badassest badass that ever assed a bad. It’s a trope common to all fandoms, and Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 is helping me understand why.
Make no mistake: I adore Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2. Not because of the gameplay, which is an odd hybrid of role-playing game and brawling fighting game that manages to do neither one all that well. It’s because of my original character. In the character creation engine, I crafted her as a fantastical version of myself. I gave her curly pink hair, longer and more distinctive than mine but fundamentally not dissimilar. Her eyes are green and as piercing as I wished mine were. She is strong, brave, with a defiant grin on her face. Taking her into battle feels like living out an alternate reality version of my own life. In a different place, a different time, who would I be? Who do I want to be? The answer, if heroism is on the table, is her.
Mary Sue characters often invite accusations of bad writing, but that criticism misses the point of self-insert characters. Fanfic, like Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, isn’t meant to be good in a traditional sense. It’s not for an imagined audience, but for the person whose character gets to enter their favorite stories. Talented critics before me have written about the possibilities and limitations of the engines in videogames that let you build your own characters, how they create and constrain self-realization. A created character is like a photograph of a person, fundamentally limited but complete. It’s an image that you can then take into a play space, letting it operate under the rarefied set of rules that govern it. By placing yourself within a fictional space, whether it’s medieval Europe or a 31st-century space station, you can rethink yourself in proximity to that space and its context–and see how it shapes you.
Dragon Ball is ultimately a story about transformation, about the idea that people can change to become more than they are. Toriyama makes this literal: Heroes and villains release power from inside themselves as their bodies change shape, as light and fire gathers around them, as the ground shakes. That’s what so enthralled me about the introduction of Trunks, all those years ago. Sure, it’s a surprising, well-paced and -drawn fight scene–but what’s magical about that moment is the gap between appearance and reality, and the sudden transformation that makes that gulf clear.
Trunks is just a kid with goofy hair and a denim jacket; he also happens to hold within him enough power to destroy planets and dethrone the ruler of an evil galactic empire. Playing as myself in the world of Dragon Ball, I have an opportunity to imagine myself the same way. I can see my body and my personality transform. I can look at the raw materials inside of me and see them as possibility, as the potential to become something greater–and more whole–than I am now. Something powerful, even brave.