“Only you can save the world”. That’s a plot hook commonly used by games to invest the player into a goal. It’s one of the oldest clichés in the book, but no one really bats an eye to the premise of the player character being the sole defender of the world, as long as the plot and characters surrounding that are written well. Critics and narrative enthusiasts care more about why they’re the chosen one than whether you are the one. Being the one with the weight of the world on your shoulders just kinda fits in with the way we think about the worlds of games. The protagonist—the individual around which everything revolves—isn’t going to be some random schmuck NPC. The protagonist needs to be the player. If everyone else in the game had a chance of accomplishing your goals, what satisfaction does the player get out of that?
So when I learned more about the community-centric premise and themes of Ever Oasis, my interest was piqued.
Ever Oasis’ story is a very simple one. Your water spirit companion, Esna, flat out tells you what her personal goal is very early on: to create a thriving sanctuary for people in the harsh desert, where everyone can be happy. There is more to the story than that, but that’s the primary goal every other quest and plot thread is based around. This becomes the player’s goal in turn, and the mechanics the player sees before and after this point continually encourage and reward this goal. While the bulk of the gameplay takes place exploring the overworld and dungeons of the desert, hacking and slashing your way past dozens of monsters every day, there’s also a strong emphasis on building and managing your Oasis. To do that, you recruit dozens of residents into your Oasis. Every resident can join your battle party with a slew of skills the protagonist can’t use, or serve some other role at your Oasis to earn you more resources.
The protagonist is still very much a ‘chosen one’. He (or she, if you choose) is a designated chief from birth, born with powers specific to him, which play into both the story of how he creates the Oasis and the gameplay where his abilities are required to progress. He is a leader, a very necessary component for any large community to thrive. But he also can’t do everything. As the chief, you constantly manage your residents to make the most of their traits and abilities. This is where I began to realize that Ever Oasis places less emphasis on the protagonist bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, and more on the protagonist guiding everyone around him to bring out the best in them and bearing that weight together.
Ever Oasis’ mechanics revolve around the using the personal strengths of each resident, both in and out of combat. Each character uses a specific weapon type, which gives them advantages and disadvantages against different enemies. Skills and weapons are used to explore the world and gather rare materials. Your party will constantly shuffle to accommodate for the obstacles and enemies in each region (and thankfully, the game is generous enough to give you a free warp back to town to stop such shuffling from becoming a tedious waste of time). For your town, any residents not joining you in the field can work on earning you items or money as time passes. Productive and happy residents also give you a boost to your max HP, encouraging cycling your workforce to maximize happiness and HP. Even simply gaining new residents levels up your town, granting a wide variety of general bonuses and perks. Every single character you add to your town does something to help you, which makes every single character valuable in the eyes of an efficient player.
The division of characters into different races also helps spice up the diversity of your town and everyone’s roles in it. Each race has its own specialties that further set them apart from each other. The humanoid Seedlings can create Bloom Booths, shops that you can give materials to in exchange for a steady profit. Since there is no other way in the game to make money but through Bloom Booths, they are vital for funding the town’s further expansion and development of new equipment. Seedlings can also tend to your garden, getting extra crops or even items you can’t otherwise obtain. The animal-like desert folk can’t make shops, but make up for it with their greater combat prowess and race-specific weapons that have their own uses in exploration. Desert folk also have the unique perk of being able to go on expeditions in separate parties, gathering tons of resources for your Bloom Booths so you can spend more time accomplishing more progressive goals.
Does the game execute this idea flawlessly? Not quite in the writing, unfortunately. It’s natural that the writing’s focus would be spread out when its premise revolves around 60+ named characters with their own personalities, chatter, and questlines. Any fewer characters, and the game would have a much harder time selling the feeling of building up an actual town, let alone the liveliest town in the world. But many of your residents still feel a little flat, personality wise. Some are quite memorable through their quirks and personal stories, but others can be forgettable. Many of the desert folk, though still defined through dialogue, don’t even have full questlines to give them personal arcs of development and growth like the Seedlings. There are a handful of residents with relationships and dynamics with each other, but otherwise, everyone feels like independent individuals except in relation with the player. It could have been much more compelling to see your townsfolk involve each other more often in questlines, or something of the sort.
But the feeling of the community’s importance is strongly and consistently reinforced by the gameplay. Every single thing that you do ties into either fulfilling your residents’ needs, or recruiting new residents to your Oasis. Likewise, even with all of your unique skills, you can only accomplish so little alone without your vast community to support you. Ever Oasis doesn’t just feel like the story of a chosen one. It feels like the story of a community, of dozens of could-be-heroes who all have a purpose in the adventure’s grand scheme. And, should you manage them wisely and efficiently, every individual in that community can become one such hero.
This theme happens to be one of my personal “sweet spots” in storytelling. I could ramble on and on about why I love the premise of a hero who leads and inspires others to bring out the best in themselves, accomplishing their own heroics along the way. But as I said, Ever Oasis is a game that accomplishes that theme better in its mechanics than its writing. So that is a rambling I believe to be more appropriate for another day.