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Communication, Music, Sound Design, Videogames. Telling stories with new media. The individual formerly and presently known as arglactable.
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The Nintendo DS was a system with a lot a great games. More importantly, and more relevant to this post, it had a lot of great RPGs. From remakes to ports to brand new games, itís an understatement to say that the DS has an impressive library of fantastic niche titles (and no shortage of trash either). Nonetheless, for me, Etrian Odyssey was the first quintessentially ďDS RPG.Ē It was the first RPG that felt like it could have been nowhere else. The main reason for this is the mapping system, which while perhaps outwardly gimmicky solidified the old-school pencil and graph-paper experience so often associated with the PC RPGs of yore, in a manner notably more tactile than the old school SMT/Persona experience. I mean Wizardry and the first person dungeon crawlers that followed it, the game that most obviously influenced the birth of the Japanese RPG along with Ultima.

But it was more than that. The mapping system wasnít just some fleeting mechanical flourish incorporated to make the touch screen suddenly useful or a clever reference to the shared experience of certain older gamers that remember, perhaps fondly, the ďgood olí daysĒ of PC RPGs. Ok. Sure. It may have been those things, but it was also your most important tool in a harsh and relentless labyrinth. It was how you kept track of the many dangers between you and the beautiful, but deadly depths of the twisting labyrinth and its many strata. It was how you remembered where that pool of healing water was to keep your party in fighting shape. It appealed to that irrational annoyance I have with auto-mapping systems that leave empty grid spaces, because I didnít need to walk into that particular corner. It was the first ever present reminder that the dungeon space is always there. It was that small bit of control, that small way in which the player could touch the world that truly sparked the imagination, as they sketched the outline of a world on their virtual graph paper.

And imagination is a big part of the Etrian Odyssey experience, because you wonít find any cut scenes here. You wonít find paragraphs of exposition, exaggerated character archetypes vying for your attention and trying their best to make you believe they have depth and some meaningful emotional conflict that you should definitely care about. There is no overarching plot by some ridiculous villain to destroy the world so he can actually save it. There is no melodrama. The sole town and the NPCs in it are static hand-drawn images, with a simple interactive menu overlay. You get requests. You get missions. You complete them. And along the way, many small events add up to a memorable experience. Something hidden in a bush, a fruit plucked from a tree, a spring filled with healing water. A wild animal. It might be friendly; it might just eat your face.†

There is so much that the game shows you and very little it feels obligated to outright tell you. For me, that made the story very personal, because I was the one who pieced all of those small moments together into a story. Each member of your guild is someone you gave a name, a face, and a job. Maybe you came up with a back-story for them from the beginning. Maybe one developed as you played the game. Maybe you named them after your real life friends. Maybe they remained a mystery. But they are YOUR characters. They represent YOUR agency in this mysterious place.



Itís the synergy between these characters and their skills that will keep them alive as you venture deeper (something that has been expanded and re-balanced as their series continues). Because of this, the bond between your guild members has a very practical foundation. The integrity of your five person team is essential to surviving the tougher parts of the game to a greater degree than most RPGs, regardless of your combination of character types. The loss of any of them, even with Revive spell or a nectar handy is a serious blow to the partyís fighting strength and something that can mean the swift end of a harder fight (and sometimes seemingly easier ones). For me, that simply served to further reinforce the importance of these characters to my experience as the game continued. Even though they never anything more than a series of portraits within a nest of menus, they feel like a close nit group of comrades, bonded by the dungeoneering experience they all share.

True to its roots, Etrian Odyssey is structured around repeated trips back to the labyrinth and slow, measured progress deeper and deeper into its twisted depths. Itís an unforgiving experience, entirely unafraid to decimate your party with a simple random encounter. Your support classes hide in the back row. Status effects are a VERY serious danger that you have to prepare for. You send your party in, explore until your resources run low (HP being one of the big ones) or your bag becomes stuffed to the bursting point with plant and animal parts, and then you return to the town.



You probably drop by Shillekaís to offload your loot, the plant and animal parts youíve harvested, restock on healing items and whatever new equipment can be hacked together from the latest hide you found, and you head to the Inn lick to your wounds (and save, of course). Maybe youíll drop by the Golden Deer Pub that evening to relax, check with Valerie for any more jobs, and talk to some fellow adventurers, ex-adventures, and whoever else is carving out a life in the bustling town of Etria. These interactions arenít in-depth, but they add just the right amount of detail to the place. The town theme quickly becomes a sound both familiar and safe, as it accents the peaceful beauty of that small settlement.



The next morning, you head back in, hoping you can make it further down this time and that those Venomflies you ran into on the second floor donít decimate your party with their surprisingly potent poison. You fight your way through the various animals inhabiting the area, including some oddly dangerous rabbits that donít seem to like you very much. There is a certain comfort in this routine and the satisfaction of making it just a little bit further into its depths, as punctuated by the new areas that youíve mapped out yourself, is immenseÖ

Then you meet your first FOE (Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens). Well, to be fair, this happens pretty much immediately on the second floor. I delayed it in this narrative for the sake of the dramatic twist. Thatís just quality storytelling. You donít have to tell me. I know youíre shocked and surprised.



FOEís are basically bad-ass mini bosses that wander around the same space your party does. If you run into one, they will attack you and in all likelihood brutalize your woefully unprepared group of adventurers. The necessity of awareness and avoidance, which only becomes more complex deeper in, takes the tension of exploration up notch in a manner somewhat less psychologically distressing than a reflex-based game like Demonís Souls or perhaps more appropriately, its first person predecessor: the Kingís Field games. Things get more interesting a bit later, when you meet aggressive FOEs that will give chase if they spot you. Itís important that you always watch your map, because turns that pass in battle pass in the dungeon as well. If you get into a fight and youíre in the path of a FOE, they WILL join the battle and make your life a hell of a lot more difficult.†

The major bosses are an extension of this, from Fenrir and its pack of wolf minions with no sense of fairness, to a dragon spewing its fiery breath around an entire dungeon floor. The sense of place, that they are moving through and interacting with the same area as your band of 5 intrepid adventurers, gives these towering beasts a presence they often lack in other similar experiences, despite the decidedly retro presentation. They loom over the battlefield even before the 3DS titles that put them in their fully rendered glory in the dungeon view. I canít think of a more threatening videogame abstraction than that glowing orange ball, plodding towards you with every step you take, threatening to corner you if you make the wrong move. You can practically feel the ground rumble with every movement.

And, honestly, thatís pretty much the EO experience, without spoiling much. Things get hairier further down, with more environmental hazards and meaner monsters. The locale changes every 5 floors along with the excellent backing track, courtesy of Yuzo Koshiro. There might be a couple of unexpected narrative twists down the line. All told, itís a pretty pure dungeon-crawling experience, but Etrian Odyssey never lets you forget that you are always in the dungeon. You arenít in a mystical, abstract random encounter dimension and battles feel unusually immediate because of this, despite their turn-based foundations. The inter-play between the ďreal worldĒ of the labyrinth and the pseudo-cyberspace of combat is a central theme. You are in Yggdrasil and itís never truly safe until youíre out of itÖ But I always want to come back, because itís such a curious place with so much to see and it doesnít take hours of melodrama or a plethora of convoluted and ultimately irrelevant lore to make it engaging. Thatís the magic of Etrian Odyssey and itís why I love the series as a whole, but the first one is a special experience for me (the 3DS remake is great too).








There are many things Bethesda's first part titles are well known for. Some are great: Consistent mod support, a commitment to single-player-only experiences, large quantities of content, player freedom, ludicrous amounts of lore. Some aren't: bugs, poor overall performance (often regardless of hardware),†using a handful of voice actors for dozens of different characters, clunky combat mechanics, forgettable writing. Like any developer, they have strengths and weaknesses

Role-playing isn't one of their strengths.

"But wait!" you may ask. "What? Bethesda, the public face of western RPG development (along with Bioware) doesn't provide quality role-playing? But I can catch fish, create potions, and smith armor! Those are roles! I am playing them! Isn't that role-playing?"

Good question. Not exactly.

The Oxford dictionary defines role-playing as "the acting out or performance of a particular role, either consciously (as a technique in psychotherapy or training) or unconsciously, in accordance with the perceived expectations of society with regard to a personís behavior in a particular context."

Bethesda's recent games either don't do this, or they do it poorly. I'm going to stick to Skyrim here, as I think it's the best example and a post on the problems with Fallout 3 would simply take me too long to write.



Skyrim provides the freedom for the player to do whatever they want in a fantasy world, without any of the advantages and disadvantages that come with being an actual person or playing a specific role. The world revolves around them, the apocalyptic main story simply waits for them to finish whatever fetch quest has caught their fancy before continuing, and they can just as easily wield a great sword at the start of the game as a dagger. The Dovahkiin is not a character. You are not playing a role. The Dovahkiin is simply an avatar for whatever it is the player feels like doing at the time in the fantasy sandbox that has been provided. The relevant key words in the dictionary definition would be "expectations" and "context." In Skyrim, Dovahkiin (regardless of it's literal meaning) is effectively another word for player and that's how everyone in it treats you.

That's not to say that TES V is a bad GAME as a whole. I have my fair share of problems with it, but I've put a good amount of time into it and generally had fun. I think in many ways, it comes the closest to the vision Bethesda has had for the series since Daggerfall. As a game world (albeit filled with extremely similar tombs filled with variations of the same undead creatures), it can be engrossing. The lore they present is detailed and often well-integrated. It does a decent job of adapting to your play style as you play. The world of the Elder Scrolls is full of things to do, NPCs to do fetch quests for, and factions to simultaneously lead, regardless of their conflicting motivations. It's a pretty fun, open-world action game in a fantasy setting with light RPG trappings. Skyrim is a world that excels at player freedom on a large scale, but utterly fails at demanding player choice at even the smallest.

This problem starts as soon as the game does. After the player is caught and arrested for a crime that is never mentioned again and indeed dropped as quickly as it was introduced, the player selects their race (which has essentially no impact on the rest of the game) and are thrown straight into the linear tutorial level that does its best to outdo the similarly unclear beginning of TES IV. And that's it. That's your character development. That's all of the background your character has: A country of origin, presumed criminal status, and apparently a complete lack of any skills (or as much as that's possible given that you start proficient with all weapons, armors, and various magic). They don't have any talents or handicaps, your character has no personality or history to speak of, and even the star sign, which once was an appreciable part of your character build is now a fleeting bonus that you can switch out at your earliest convenience. Oblivion may have had a convoluted, imbalanced mess of a progression system that required tedious micromanagement to keep up with the enemy and item scaling, but at the very least you played a character. In Skyrim, the Dohvakiin is nothing more than a blunt instrument of the player's power fantasy: the faceless lens through which you view the game world.

But it isn't just that you play an empty non-character, it's the that entire game world lives and dies based on what you can be bothered to do. The story won't advance and the big, menacing, world-destroying dragon won't continue trying to destroy the world until you can be bothered to go to the next quest marker. Factions have no investment in events until you decide to start the quest-line. Nothing happens unless the central player is there to fetch an item or kill something. The impact of your actions, as with all Bethesda games, is measured on a binary scale of "good" to "bad" and even that has pretty minimal impact. The closest thing they come to providing consequences is town-specific notoriety which goes away fairly quickly anyway. It seems like they are so intent on preventing any sort of inconvenience to the player or any situation in which the player can't do exactly what they want when they want to, that they removed almost any meaningful reactivity from the game-world itself and in doing so, removed almost all legitimate player agency from any of the story, aside from being able to pick from two huge factions at war that have different accents and clothing (oh, and one of the leaders is just an asshole. PLAYER CHOICE!!).

In short, Skyrim has you "play the role" of a catalyst, an avatar, not a character and the only meaningful RPG systems are the vague sense of progression you get when you hit things repeatedly with the same kind of weapon. Is it a fun game? Sure. Is it a genre-defining masterpiece? Not even close.

Surely, I'm not the only one that finds it ridiculous when people associate the entire genre with Bethesda's last 3 games.