Note: This article contains full story spoilers for Octopath Traveler. If you haven’t played it, please do so before reading.
Octopath Traveler is a game I probably wouldn’t have picked up if I were the one paying for it. When I saw the trailer, it piqued my interest, but I figured it would be just like all the other Square RPGs I’ve picked up over the years and never finished. Instead, it turned out to be an incredibly well-crafted game with an amazing battle system, a phenomenal soundtrack, a beautiful art style blend, and a deeply compelling story. It now holds the relatively small honor of being the first JRPG I’ve played to completion. While I could rant for days about its combat or storytelling (which I probably will at some point), today I want to talk about the way Octopath deals with morality.
As a game with an ensemble cast, Octopath Traveler has to present a diverse cast in order to keep things interesting. And it does a great job. You have a cleric, a scholar, a merchant, a warrior, a dancer, an apothecary, a thief, and a huntress. Each has their own motivation for traveling the world and each has a distinct set of values. For example, Alfyn, the apothecary, just wants to help people, while the warrior Olberic lacks purpose and wants answers about a past betrayal. Still, the game manages to present all these stories through the same moral perspective. Most (more on that in a minute) of the characters go about helping the weak and defending the innocent while trying to obtain their personal goal. If I were to describe the moral of Octopath in one sentence, it would be “selfishness is the ultimate evil.” Through the storytelling and the gameplay, it shows you that giving freely and using your strength to protect those who can’t protect themselves is good and noble.
Let’s talk for a minute about Primrose. She’s an interesting character and acts almost as a foil to the rest of the cast (Therion excluded). Her story is centered around avenging her father, who was killed by three men with crow tattoos. As she goes throughout her journey, several characters call her out on letting vengeance consume her. The final boss of her storyline, Simeon, even writes a play about her life and calls it a tragedy. While Primrose does a significant amount of good while on her path, her motivations are self-centered. The good she does is incidental, happening as an added bonus to her quest. Contrast this with Alfyn, for example, who’s whole quest is to do good. Everyone else, while they have a specific objective, will still go out of their way to help those in need. Primrose, however, has selfish motivations. She wants revenge for her father’s death and she won’t let anyone get in her way. This appears to be a sharp contrast to the moral of “selfishness is the ultimate evil.” However, by showing the player that Primrose’s behavior is self-destructive, through NPC comments and her own instability, it provides a negative example to prove the same point.
And then, there’s Therion. Gah. I love this human-shaped pile of salt, but I’m also disappointed in him. While his story highlights his willingness to do the right thing whether or not he’s held captive by the slap bracelet of shame, his gameplay encourages you to steal from everyone whether or not you need what they have. The game doesn’t even try to make you feel bad for literally stealing candy from children. The way Therion’s ability to steal from NPCs is structured subverts the moral message the rest of the game works so hard to deliver.
So why does this matter? Well, I think it’s important to recognize that just because a character acts a certain way in a game, that doesn’t mean the game is saying that the character is right. Counter examples can serve to drive home the moral point of the game. It’s also important to recognize where games fall short in delivering their moral message. Therion’s gameplay undercuts the rest of the game, including his own storyline.
I believe in the power games have to influence people for good. That’s the primary reason I take the time to write these articles and the primary reason I want to go into game dev. I dig into every virtual experience, searching for something that I can take with me to help me make better choices in my daily life. From Celeste, I learned the importance of perseverance. From Undertale, I learned that everyone deserves a second chance. Even though the resident edgelord impairs them, I do really appreciate the lessons of selflessness and sacrifice that Octopath teaches. As we go forth and game, may we find the nuggets of truth that make our real lives better and call out the mechanics that keep them from being embraced.