31st Jul2018

Opinionated: Octopath – Travelers’ Tales

by Rupert Harvey

octopath-opinion

Since its release a fortnight ago, one of the most consistent criticisms of Square Enix’s JRPG Octopath Traveler has been that its eight stories are almost entirely separate and don’t converge in any “meaningful” way. Having played around 40 hours of the game, I began to wonder why so many might feel this particular frustration.

The obvious answer is that, with video games, we are used to singular, focused narratives – even more so than with movies. Game narratives are a product of the conventions of an unambiguous medium: level after level, inexorably driving toward a final boss. Their storylines are frequently epic in nature because games can conjure fantastical worlds as easily (more easily, in fact) than they can reality, and by their nature games last longer than movies.

So far at least, Octopath Traveler is subverting these conventions. Not only are each of its eight protagonists on their own journey, but even within those journeys the structure is episodic. Take Alfyn the apothecary, for example – this guy just wants to wander from town to town, helping people where he can. Interaction between the eight is limited to occasional, optional “banter” moments. These cute vignettes are sometimes sad and sometimes funny, but essentially superfluous.

But I would argue that this superfluity is precisely why Octopath Traveler works so well. For example, take the “Inquire” path action. This allows you to ask an NPC about themselves. The mechanical purpose of this action (along with its roguish equivalent “Scrutinise”) is to possibly reveal a hidden item in the scenery, or perhaps unlock a discount in the town. But you also get a little backstory: something about orphanhood or parenthood; a tale of woe or joy. I love to read these stories, not just because they’re nicely written and varied, but because they draw me deeper into the game world, one HD pixel at a time.

It all could have been unspeakably twee, but many of the stories are surprisingly adult, with the occasional sharp modern relevance – for example, the travails of Primrose, who slays her pimp and ventures forth on a campaign of female liberation. On another path you encounter the tale of the travelling quack who makes the villagers sick so she can sell them overpriced remedies. But what happens when the victim cannot afford the remedy? That’s when you the player must step in, fix the situation (via a very video-gamey boss battle), and then move on – all within an hour of play. The game’s scattered structure naturally eliminates grind. If you aren’t levelled enough to complete your current quest, you just go and follow another character.

It brought me to a realisation I’ve never considered before: the focus on smaller stories, and stories within stories, has a world-building effect which would be missing in other, save-the-whole-damn-world games – by which I mean those games with a conspicuously overarching storyline; the ones with the Big Bad waiting in the volcano/flying fortress/underground lair at the end.

MMORPGs achieve something similar to Octopath Traveler through necessity. Talk about “endgame” content all you want, but games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online are made to be played forever. Thus they are a trove of side quests, and ultimate victory is out of reach by design. It’s all about the garnish; the smaller problems whispered in a wider world. It’s those nuances – those tiny brush strokes – which make the greater canvas feel alive; which, paradoxically, make the game world feel vast and epic.

Breath of the Wild is the quintessential example of this model at work in the single-player realm. It was never about Ganon. It was always about the moments along the way: discovering a fishing village hidden in a cove; finding a mournful poet beside a heart-shaped pond; or stumbling across a sleeping dragon at the top of Mount Lanayru. Such digressions do nothing to push you toward your nemesis, but everything to provide context for your travels.

Octopath Traveler is much more rigid in its design than Breath of the Wild, but also more explicit in its granulated world-building, and more varied in its travelers’ tales. Multi-stranded narratives are only as strong as their weakest link. Even Olberic – probably the most straightforward class in the game – is given an engaging and heroic story about the meaning of nobility. His story asks, “Does being good at something make it intrinsically meaningful?”

It makes me wonder, if I get to the end of this game and these eight disparate paths never fully converge, will I feel that the overall experience has been “meaningful”? I’m sure I will. Because I’m not waiting for the apocalyptic showdown. I’m not expecting a mighty evil to unify our cause. I’m just enjoying the journeys, and the people and places that come and go along the way, and the small part each of my characters plays in the weaving of a world far greater than each of them.

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