Octopath Traveler Nails the Short Story Format in a Video Game
Given that it’s sold more than one million units in its short time on the market, it’s not surprising a lot of people are talking about Octopath Traveler. The latest Japanese role-playing game from Square Enix is a real return-to-form for the developer, teasing our nostalgia with its gorgeous “HD-2D” graphics and delivering a compelling gameplay experience with its deep battle system. However, one area where the game seems to receive a lot of criticism is in its story.
More accurately, in its stories.
Octopath Traveler takes an approach that is somewhat rare in video games, in that it presents its tale as a series of unconnected (but subtly related) short stories. Rather than a single, epic quest to save the world, these smaller tales are generally about smaller issues: avenging a loved one, exploring the world, finding a lost book. On their own, each of these eight narratives might make for an underwhelming game; taken with their peers, they come together to form a moving, heartbreaking story. And one of the most exciting things about these stories is finding and tracing the narrative threads that tie them all together. Those threads do exist, and the restrained way in which the story is presented is one of Octopath Travelers’ greatest achievements.
I’ll do my best to avoid major spoilers in talking about these tales, because you’ll want to go in fresh to fully experience all the twists and turns. What I’ll be doing instead is presenting an overview of what each story meant to me, personally, and why I think it’s worthy of being a focal point in such a huge release.
Tressa, the Merchant
When you begin the game, you’re asked to choose a “main character.” This is the character you are never allowed to remove from your active party of adventurers, at least not until you complete their story. Knowing what I knew about Octopath, I wanted a character whom it would not seem odd to see wandering all around the world with a bunch of strangers, going on adventures that had nothing to do with them. In short, I wanted Tressa.
Tressa is the daughter of merchants and is quite skilled herself at the game of buying and selling. She finds the journal of a traveler, describing his adventures from around the continent, and wanderlust overtakes her. She sets off on a journey of her own, becoming a traveling merchant and seeking to understand what it is in this world she holds most dear.
Her story might have the “lowest stakes” of all the major characters, and yet, I found it to be the most personally affecting. Who hasn’t experienced that moment of realization, when the path you’ve been on suddenly seems lacking, and the allure of the wider world beckons? The resolution of Tressa’s story, when she discovers what she truly wants in life, is inspirational, and it cements her as my favorite of the eight travelers.
Olberic, the Warrior
Given the ease with which it seems stories of revenge can be written, it’s surprising that only two of the eight Octopath stories revolve around it. Olberic’s is one. Betrayed by a close friend, and losing his entire nation in the process, Olberic takes up with a small mountain village, training the kids in the art of sword fighting and generally being a protector for the downtrodden. When he overhears the name of his former friend, he sets off to get answers, and to have his revenge.
While it would have been easy to tell Olberic’s story as one of simple vengeance, Octopath takes a much more interesting approach. As in real life, there are many complicating factors, real-life motivations and situations that turn his betrayer from a two-dimensional mustache-twirler into a flesh-and-blood human being. As Olberic learns these facts, he must ultimately decide what means more to him: justice, or forgiveness.
H’aanit, the Hunter
H’aanit is the serious-to-a-fault apprentice of a famed hunter, and she has very little tolerance for his foolishness. With all his drinking, gambling, and general carousing, she does her best to keep him in line. When he goes missing while hunting a terrible beast known as Redeye, she sets out with her faithful animal companion Linde to discover the truth of what happened to him.
H’aanit’s story is one of the more simple and straightforward of the eight, and yet it doesn’t feel wasted. Not only is the character strong and likeable, but her adventures provide so much color and texture to the world. And while the origin of the creature Redeye is never explicitly discussed in the game, the implications that tie it into the greater lore of Octopath Traveler are incredibly intriguing.
Cyrus, the Scholar
None of the Octopath characters are treated as comic relief (not even the quirky Tressa), but Cyrus’s story is probably the most amusing, at least in its early hours. A studious professor at an esteemed university, Cyrus’s reputation is ruined when rumors that he is romantically involved with a student begin to circulate. The source of the rumors? Another lovestruck student, naturally. (He’s a real dreamboat.) Taking a forced leave of absence, Cyrus searches the land for an ancient, dangerous book that went missing from the university library.
Cyrus’s overriding desire is that knowledge be acquired and shared. Even books that have the power to destroy, he does not view as evil. Instead, he acknowledges that it is the reader who is responsible for behaving appropriately. Many times, I wondered if he was about to take a “better safe than sorry” approach and destroy some of the potentially world-ending information he comes across, but he refuses. His steadfastness and desire to share his love of learning is his defining characteristic, which is rare in the hero of a JRPG.
Therion, the Thief
Therion is a good-for-nothing thief. One day, while attempting to rob an enormous mansion, he is caught by a man who is perhaps even more talented, and he is given a mark of shame. This will make it clear to all that he has been bested, and it’s something he’s not able to live with. If he wants the mark removed, he must help the master of the house retrieve some family heirlooms that have gone missing. Therion, begrudgingly, agrees.
Therion’s story is not one of redeeming him into a more praiseworthy profession. No, his status as a thief is never questioned, nor is it really that important for his personal arc. Therion’s story, instead, is about trust. Betrayed as a younger man by someone he considered his best friend, Therion has chosen to live his life separate from others, keeping himself shielded to avoid future hurt. His quest to reunite his rich captor with her magic stones becomes a vessel through which he can determine if anyone in the world is worthy of his trust, and if he, himself, is worthy to be trusted.
Alfyn, the Apothecary
Alfyn is a small-town doctor. At a young age, he was stricken with a terrible illness. If not for the charitable work of a traveling apothecary, he would have died. Inspired by this kind man, Alfyn decides to set out and become a traveling apothecary himself. Along the way, he encounters people that cause him to question his rose-colored outlook on life. In the end, he has to decide what kind of healer he wants to be.
Alfyn’s story is particularly timely and moving. Questions about unethical medical practices and discussion of who “deserves” to be cured take up the bulk of his tale, and watching Alfyn struggle through them is riveting. It feels like a deeply personal story, the sort which wouldn’t typically get screen time in a big-budget RPG these days. The fact that Octopath Traveler made room for it is the reason I’m so in love with this game.
Ophilia, the Cleric
Ophilia, orphaned at a young age, is taken in by the Church of the Sacred Flame. Raised as a cleric, we find her preparing to say goodbye to her adoptive sister, as the girl is being commissioned to go out and perform a ritual across the land for the sake of the church. When their father takes ill, Ophilia decides to perform the ritual herself, so her sister can be with her father. Along her way, she learns of a troubling cult that is developing in the country, one with potentially devious intentions, led by a Savior who seems to be anything but.
Ophilia is a very interesting character. She seems to have the unconditional love of a family, and yet she insists on keeping herself at arms’ length from them. She can’t even seem to bring herself to refer to her father as except but “Your Excellency.” By selflessly going on her sister’s journey for her, Ophilia comes to understand the power of love to overcome any obstacle. And when things seem the darkest, that is when the light can shine the brightest.
Primrose, the Dancer
Primrose witnessed her father’s murder at a young age by men tattooed with the image of a crow. Now an adult, she has become a prostitute and dancer, spending all her time in the seediest parts of the world, in the hope of discovering where her father’s killers are hiding. Her story is one of bloody revenge. While this could potentially make her the most stock character of the bunch, strong writing and characterization helps her rise to the top.
You see, Primrose is an incredibly strong character. While some might view her circumstances as a woman being victimized, she is instead fully in control. Some twists and turns along the way keep her story from being as straightforward as it seems at first blush, as well, so don’t expect things to stay simple for long.
Octopath Traveler keeps its characters’ narratives separate. Their only interactions with each other come in the form of optional “Travel Banter” segments that can be viewed when new developments happen in a character’s story. This does create a strange sensation in playing the game, but I don’t believe it actually damages the story being told. Each story is wonderful on its own, and eventually, in the post-game, learning how all the stories connect is exciting. While I understand the criticism of the game’s separation of each character’s story, and while I wouldn’t object to future games in the series better integrating various characters into each other’s tales, I found Octopath Traveler’s approach to be a breath of fresh air in an increasingly dour and dark world. Sometimes, I want to read a novel. Other times, I want a smaller, more intimate tale. Octopath brings the latter brilliantly.