Octopath Traveler and the Lonely Road Less Traveled

Aristotle once famously said, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” Our reliance on the people around us to enrich our irrefutably uninteresting lives—whether that be through work, play, or otherwise—is evidence enough that we as a species have evolved with the desire to be in the company of others. To think otherwise would be to devoid our lives of value, a dreadful cost of becoming utterly meaningless, uninteresting, and isolated.

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For the past month, I have been playing Octopath Traveler, a new role-playing game by Square Enix for the Nintendo Switch. Stylized as a modern take on classic SNES-era JRPGs, the game follows the stories of eight young heroes, each of whom come from wildly disparate walks of life. Among them: a helpful cleric, a flirtatious scholar, a youthful merchant, an amicable warrior, a vengeful dancer, a kind-hearted apothecary, a narcissistic thief, and a keen-eyed hunter. Their motivations for going on such an arduous journey cannot be more different (much like their personalities and backgrounds), and their actions are more or less discrete, apart from battle sequences and the occasional travel banter. Still, as improbable as it seems, Octopath Traveler feels no less like a tale of traveling chums wandering to the far corners of the realm in search of answers. This is a remarkably good thing, as I will soon explain.

Popular YouTube duo Rhett & Link released a video in 2013 titled “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek.” At about the halfway mark, there is a line that reads, “Your life is like Skyrim / An endless quest of Solitude.” Those familiar with the Elder Scrolls series of games will immediately recognize this as a play on words involving one of Skyrim’s most well-known locales, but as with many rap lyrics, it is also a double entendre. One of my biggest gripes about Skyrim is just how lonely it feels—so lonely, in fact, that the first mod I installed after only playing the game for mere hours was one that allowed me to recruit unlimited members to my party. It made the game infinitely more fun, even if exceptionally broken (the game never expects so many allies to appear on-screen at the same time), but it was worth it nonetheless for the company of unlikely heroes that came to my aid.

There is a sense of loneliness that many single-player games like Skyrim evoke, and oftentimes I cannot help but feel that such desolation comes at a detriment to the game itself. It is ironic, then, that many people view video games as a form of escapism that lets them avoid socializing with others. Octopath Traveler sort of bridges this gap in its own unique way; while each of its eight characters has their own stories, it never feels as though they are going about it alone. In a sense, the design of this game prevents it from being anything else—its open nature makes it difficult to tell a compelling, overarching story, and party members are an inherent part of most JRPGs—but it is still an interesting decision on the part of the development team, and the game is much better because of it.

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One of my favorite games of all time is Xenoblade Chronicles. This game, a JRPG from Nintendo, is one of the most critically acclaimed games on the Wii and features the now-iconic main character Shulk and his ragtag group of friends as they try to save their world from war-torn destruction. Here, the party banter is more explicit, especially during battles, and unlike Octopath Traveler, Xenoblade Chronicles follows a single, coherent storyline throughout its 70+ hour campaign. The game spawned two successors, Xenoblade Chronicles X for Wii U and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for Nintendo Switch, both of which introduced additional features that enhance the party elements of those games, so much that story writer Tetsuya Takahashi had this to say about X: “There were so many lines, some voice actors lost their voices during the recording.” These additions make for a livelier game—and by extension, a livelier game world—which goes a long way in adding a bit of variety to these longer, more narrative-driven games.

A common complaint with Octopath Traveler is how its characters very rarely speak one another. This is perhaps true if you are chasing a narrative style in the same vein of Xenoblade Chronicles, in which case you are bound to set yourself up for disappointment. But the lack of character interactions by the developer gives rise to imaginative creativity on the part of the player; in giving each of the eight travelers just enough personality to make them relatable, we ourselves can connect the dots and shape our own interpretations of how these characters interact with one another. Take, for example, the dichotomy of Therion, the thief, and Tressa, the merchant. Their values clash against each other at every turn (Therion makes a living out of stealing from townsfolk, a trait that Tressa openly detests), but the game never really establishes how the two compromise on such an alarming difference in principles. This is up for the player to decide; does Therion have a change of heart, or does Tressa defiantly comply?

It seems as though many game developers are taking note and have become increasingly open to the idea of having multiple protagonists in a single game. One shining example is Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V, which introduced three distinct single-player storylines featuring different characters—a first for the series. GTA V went on to become one of the best-selling games of all time. In 2016, Square Enix released Final Fantasy XV, a game that featured a party of four main characters which director Hajime Tabata labeled “a bromance.” More recently, co-op hit A Way Out took the idea of multiple characters to a new level by requiring the game to be played with a friend. A big reason why we are seeing more games like this is that consoles are getting more powerful, thereby affording game developers the ability to design multiple, believable characters in a single game. Moreover, as our interest in narrative-based games continues to grow, so too will their stories, as well as the number of characters involved.

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For the first hour or so of Octopath Traveler, the player is stuck with a single character of their choosing. It is only after they complete this character’s initial chapter are they able to travel around the map and recruit the other travelers. This gives us an interesting look at what the game would feel like had it only featured a single character—and it should be clear to anyone who has played the game that Octopath Traveler feels completely different once you have a full party. What the developers decide to do next with this type of game is still unknown… but hopefully, the sequel to Octopath Traveler will have just as many paths as the first one.

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