I have been playing Japanese RPGs since the 90s. As a gift for my brother and me, my parents bought a second-hand PlayStation One with over a hundred games included. Among the used CDs was a copy of the first Wild Arms — which would set the bar for my role-playing game experience from then on.
I’m not just talking about the excellent quality of the story and the solid characterization of its main characters. Wild Arms introduced me to the staple tropes that Japanese RPGs are known for — a villain or a great evil wants to conquer, recreate or destroy the world and a group of mostly young protagonists set out on a voyage to stop the great evil.
Since then I have played various incarnations or reincarnations of this story, from the different Final Fantasy titles, Lunar, to Ni No Kuni, with only minor changes to plot or structure.
Octopath Traveler, while having an upgraded visual “HD-2D” aesthetic to that of Wild Arms and the 16-bit Final Fantasy era, takes a different route. Instead of having to unite against a great evil, we have eight characters who have their own self-contained story arcs to fulfill. While they all live in the same world and can technically travel with one another and fight monsters together, there is no single, unifying narrative that binds them.
Alfyn is a medic who leaves his small village to help people across the world after being saved by an older medic when he was a child. He starts off having a black-and-white kind of thinking: “I will heal people no matter who they are.” Conflict arises when his morality and ethics are put to the test in the real world. Does he help a known murderer recover from an injury, knowing that he might hurt another person in the future? What does he do when he discovers corrupt medics who use their healing skills to take advantage of the sick and the ignorant?
Primrose is a young prostitute (yep, you read that right) who was once a member of a noble family but was forced to be an exotic dancer and sell her body to survive after her kin is wiped out. When his father is killed right in front of her, she sets off to find the murderers and get her revenge on them one by one. Her story is by far the most compelling.
Olberic is a knight who loses his sense of purpose after the kingdom he serves falls. He journeys to find a new reason to wield his blade.
These characters, as well as five others, can meet and join each other’s respective journeys according to the player’s preference. They can fight together but they do nothing to interrupt each other’s goals. Olberic can help Primrose kill her father’s murderers. Alfyn can help the thief Therion recover a prized jewel. Primrose can comment on Alfyn’s dilemma regarding healing criminals.
Their role in each other’s life is to offer unconditional support — even without knowing the full story. I can’t recall a moment where one character is judgmental of another or attempts to stop him from fulfilling his quest.
Octopath Traveler ran into some criticism because of this seemingly disjointed take on narrative. Some have called the character interactions virtually “meaningless” and practically coincidental. Would it have made a difference if these characters had or had not met? What justifies the fact that they are journeying together at all?
For me, this approach is not only a refreshing take on the Japanese RPG genre but also a poignant reflection of real-life encounters. When we travel, we meet people whom we have a brief connection with but may never see again.
I remember spending my 28th birthday in Coron, Palawan. Coron is known for its majestic coral gardens. The tour group I was in was instructed to follow the guide as he swam toward the different coral structures. I’m not a fast swimmer and I had half a mind to just drift near the boat. After all, the corals near the boat seemed beautiful enough.
But then a slightly older woman holding on to a round floating device offered to swim together.
“Hold on,” she told me, signaling to her floating device. “Let’s go together.”
Holding on to the floating ring, we helped each other catch up to the guide. When one of us would get tired, the other would kick faster.
We saw the major coral structures because of our combined effort, and we did this without really knowing anything significant about each other.
In these kinds of instances, I don’t have to know who you are back home or what you do or what your political leanings are. We don’t have to be joined together by some grand cause like fighting pollution or ending world hunger. We can just be two travelers helping each other out for a brief period.
It’s the same for the characters of Octopath Traveler. That they are strangers to one another, that they may not remain friends after their time on the road ends, and that there is no great evil to defeat do not take away from the meaningfulness of their journey together — no matter how short it is or how different their life paths are.
Frankly, I would love to see more of these kinds of stories and interactions for future RPG titles.