Etrian Odyssey is a fantastic example of how to create a potentially immersive game within a well-worn genre. It uses the tropes and trappings of old school dungeon-crawlers to effectively draw the player in to its world but also leaves enough of the details up to the player to empower them to adventure further in on their own. The playable characters are all created by the player, and while there is almost no control over the appearance of these characters (each class has only four available portraits, two for each gender, and no alternate colors), there are still mechanics in place to make these characters unique and personal to the player.
The first game takes place in a town next to a giant tree. This tree contains a sprawling forest-dungeon below it, and only a tiny portion of it has been explored. The town’s economy is based on attracting adventurers who then form guilds and explore it. These adventurers purchase goods from the local craftsmen and merchants, and in turn provide new materials for those craftsmen to use. The city’s economy is fueled by the dungeon, so the government has schemes in place to encourage adventurers to go further into the dungeon and bring back more resources for the merchants. Adventurers can also earn payment for bringing back information on monsters and items, as well as completing maps of each floor.
The map-making feature of the game is one of the hallmarks of the series, and is also worth mentioning in the context of player immersion. The bottom screen of the DS features a simple drawing program where you can map out where you have been. In theory this would mean that the player needs to stop every few seconds to add to their map, but the program is simple enough that you can do it without interrupting the flow. You can also make notes about suspicious locations or sources of materials to sell back in town, as well keep track of the dangerous FOEs (ultra-difficult, intelligent monsters that stalk you through each floor and in most cases mean horrible, horrible death if encountered directly). Most of the games Etrian Odyssey takes influence from have featured auto-mapping, but by placing this simple task in the hands of the player, it empowers them to put themselves in the role of the adventurer. What better way to simulate the experience of exploring unknown territory than by actually mapping it?
It is also an ass-kickingly difficult series. I’m no rpg neophyte but due to the one-two punch of difficulty and limited time, I’ve never been able to reach the end of any of the games. There are many potential players who would be put off by this difficulty before getting past the second floor of its sprawling dungeon. But this difficulty serves as another method of immersing those who stick with it. There is a real sense of accomplishment from moving forward in the game. Players need both an understanding of the game mechanics and the skill to use it, but luck also plays a large factor. Whether you make it past a difficult FOE through skill or luck, its still the same feeling of success. This sense of accomplishment is surprisingly rare in modern RPGs, where advancement is either a given or linked to endless grinding, and so players who manage to succeed in the game are given another reason to feel connected to the game. They’ve EARNED that connection. Even when I eventually gave up, I still felt I had accomplished something to get as far as I had.
The story of the game is pretty threadbare at the beginning, but features a number of genuinely surprising twists and ideas. The game lulls you into a false sense of complacency and nostalgia before slowly revealing the larger, over-arching story. This means that for much of the game, the only narrative is what the player creates for themselves as their band of adventurers explores the lush but context-free forest. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated, Etrian Odyssey has many tools to create a true Aristotelian sense of immersion with the potential for Brechtian analysis. However, there is one point in the first game where these clever tools are rendered useless and the game manages to revoke all of the empowerment it has given to the player.
Late in the game, after the dungeon has started to reveal some of its hidden depths but still far before any true questions are answered, the player will encounter a race of sentient humanoids. These humanoids forbid you from venturing further and set monsters on your party to prevent them from going further. This is their land and you are not welcome. When you return to the town to report these findings, the local government gives you exactly one option: wipe these forest people out. You are given no choice but to participate in genocide if you want to continue the game. There is no way to parlay with the forest people and the government is clear that it only cares about allowing free passage for their adventurer-tourists as deep as possible. If the player continues the game, then they will wipe out the forest people, destroy their home, and continue on without the genocide ever being brought up again.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi RPGs, be they old school table-top games or video games, are not often the most enlightened on issues of race or colonialism. Nearly every RPG has some group of humans or monstrous humanoid that are just plain “evil” from birth. Pretty much every D&D party has had an adventure where they kill every goblin they meet in a mine or murder a family of kobolds for their treasure. But in these cases they often at least attempt to justify it (“but they’re eeeeevil!”) or at least stop short of outright genocide. Etrian Odyssey doesn’t hide behind that. At no point are the forest folk anything other than protecting their land from invaders, and at no point does the local government offer any justification other than money. Its a dark and potentially subversive portrayal of the common RPG stereotype, but it is undermined by the game refusing to go any further with this idea.
If the game offers you no choice, and then refuses to address the issue, then the theme is never actually explored. Despite the potential for a subversive story, it instead becomes yet another “bad goblin” encounter. Murder and imperialism become just more numbers for your party to collect. Any personal narrative you have constructed for your party of cyphers is rendered useless because no matter who you decided they are, they HAVE to perform this task and it doesn’t shape or effect them in any tangible way. Etrian Odyssey 3 would address this by offering the player more story options and multiple endings. While that was more successful, I think there might be a way to still empower the player in a linear story like the first Etrian Odyssey using the same tools we have already seen.
Etrian Odyssey has a very large fandom for such a niche game series, and that fandom is extremely devoted. There are many forums devoted to walkthroughs and Let’s Plays, and it is fascinating to look through these forums for the exact moment where the player is forced with the prospect of genocide. Players were really affected by this part of the game, and it is fascinating to see the different ways they dealt with it. Some players got angry and were no longer able to immerse themselves in the game as before, some were able to justify it as “just a game” and were content to know they would not take such actions in real life, others were able to justify their actions within context of the game and continue on still immersed, others simply stopped playing the game at that point. Notable gaming writer Jeremy Parish choose to review the game on his personal site by writing the review as a diary of his characters which included aspects of the moral debate and justification not included in the actual game. By not giving them a choice, the game forced the players to live with and justify their actions. What appears at first to limit player choice potentially offers the player more choice in a different way. I believe that rather than from design, this has emerged from the surprising creativity of the Etrian Odyssey fanbase.
It should be pointed out that those of us in the West benefit from a history of genocide and oppression. Its not a problem exclusive to the West, many countries have extremely sad histories in how they have treated and continue to treat their indigenous and minority populations (Japan, where Etrian Odyssey was made, has its own history with the Ainu and Okinawan people and with their colonial practices in China, Korea and Southeast Asia, for example). However, the West and America in particular have a particularly stark history in this regard, and we have had a hard time as a people both owning up to what happened and making amends for it.
From the genocide of the American Indians to the slavery of Africans to the war-time horrors and genocide we have visited on the Phillipines, Korea, Vietnam to the modern-day indiscriminate drone strikes on schools, weddings and villages in the Middle East and Central Asia, we are a nation with a lot to answer for. Now I am not saying that every white American person is directly at fault for this, because that would be silly. However, the issue of responsibility is not about fault. None of us white people living today owned slaves or stole land and very, very few of us have actively taken part in genocide. But we have benefited from these actions. If you are American, then the reason you and I were able to be born in this country is because it was stolen from people the government then wiped out. We are American because of genocide, so yes, we have benefited from genocide even if we are not personally at fault for it. America became rich and powerful because of what it was able steal from other countries in the name of manifest destiny, so yes we have benefited from our most odious wars as well. Today we can buy cheap goods in this country because of corporations taking advantage of other countries and because we wage wars against countries that could undermine this, so yes even if we are not at fault and are completely against American imperialism we still benefit from it. Even the most anti-Bush, anti-war, vegan, tree-hugging activist American still benefits from the amoral historical and contemporary actions that America participated in. We can ignore it and attempt to silence those who bring it up, but that does not change reality. We cannot escape our responsibility or that we have benefited in this way, but what we can do is work to not be complicit in the continued oppression of others.
So how can a game deal with these issues while still empowering the player to think critically and take part in the world? The answer is to adopt those same Aristotelian techniques we discussed earlier, but to do so in a way that encourages Brechtian analysis and alienation. We are already seeing people going further to justify or analyze the genocide of Etrian Odyssey in their own discussions and narratives outside of the game, so why not simply offer players a space for this within the game? A Brechtian Etrian Odyssey could easily include a journal using the same template and theme of the map-making. In this journal, the player could write notes that connect to parts of the map, but they could also write entries from the point of view of the characters, creating personalities and identities for them. After certain events, the game could provide space for players to, as the characters, write about what happened and how they justify or experienced those events.
Now it’s not reasonable to expect every player to write a novel as part of a game, and many players would be turned off even by a little writing, but thats not the only way to address this idea within the game. In addition to a “free writing” journal, the player could select a simpler version instead. In this case the game will ask the player to answer a few multiple choice questions for each party member, and based on the answers provide journal entries itself. In the case of the forest folk, the answers the player gives may end up creating a party of heroes who are tormented by their actions, or a party of cynical, amoral conquerors. Or they may end up with a party composed of differing viewpoints and bubbling antagonism between members.
Either (or both) of these options would additionally reward replaying the game. A player could play through the game attempting to take on the role of a specific character and end up with a completely different journal at the end. Provide players the options of saving completed journals to be read and shared later and you further empower the player to both replay the game and to think more critically about what is happening. Players may choose to replay the game while writing their own journal as opposed to the simple mode so that they can share their work. This would sync perfectly with Nintendo’s new Miiverse, the social network built into the Wii U. Imagine completing a morally challenging quest and then being able to read the journals of other adventurers and even discuss the issues with those players. By providing space for the player to think and develop, and giving them the trust to use it, a game can carefully balance player freedom and thematic meaning with a linear story. It can even help the player confront the unthinkable, and potentially even empower them to take action outside the game in regards to their own complicity in the real world.