Anthologies and Epics
As per usual, I’m late to the game. Octopath Traveler II was just announced, and I’m finally getting around to its predecessor, Octopath Traveler (2018). And you would think, for someone with an attention span as terrible as I have, that eight smaller stories wrapped around a larger journey would have stood out to me sooner. For me, thinking about those stark differences between Epics and Anthologies, both in games and literature, helped me realize what I love now, and what I still love in my heart that formed the basis.
Epics and Journeys
Final Fantasy. Chrono Trigger, and Chrono Cross. Fallout, 1 and 2. Fire Emblem. Hell, even Mario & Luigi and Pokemon. What do these have in common, aside from the fact that I love them? It’s all about you. The protagonist. The party. There is an underlying savior complex permeating all of them. You’re the Crystal Bearers. The Vault Dweller. The Very Best (like no one ever was). Literally Super Mario. Basically, you’re the hero, the protagonist of, not just your story, but everyone’s story.
How we play is different, but those epics all follow a similar progression. Final Fantasy was improving on its gameplay system seemingly every time they released a new entry: customizable equipment, job systems, magic dynamics, and so on. But you always ended up traipsing through the big points in the story in about the same order, without fail.
And that story is largely similar in its structure, across a variety of those RPGs: you start small, then quickly work your way up into larger and more world-ending threats. You punt around goblins or Goombas so, in time, you can deliver a sonic backhand across whatever face God has at the end of your journey. Could be an army commander, an ascendant court jester, a time-and-space hurtling parasite, or Bowser, but a little weirder than usual.
They’re different games, and different stories, but told very similarly. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I was recently enamored with the new Final Fantasy VII Remake, and for as different as that was from its predecessor, they still kept the focus on Cloud as the main character.
But that’s another thing; even in those stories that boast party members out the wazoo, you’re mostly just following the one. All eyes and perspective are on and from the Party Leader, or the Hero Character, to the point where it’s a big deal if they’re gone for any amount of time (see Cloud again in Final Fantasy VII (1997), or Crono in Chrono Trigger (1995)). The scope is narrowed and focused; other characters serve to accompany or rotate around the Main Character, and the story, at its core, serves that main character.
Think of the original Star Wars trilogy: the films could be seen as the epic of Luke Skywalker, his growth into a Jedi Knight and fighting for his father’s redemption, even as there are space battles and skirmishes going on around him. Harry Potter battles, on-and-off, against Voldemort and his wizard-fascist followers while his magical friends and following flit in and out of frame with him. Old-school Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh’s second half goes through the whole Hero’s Journey before the Hero’s Journey was even a thing, trying to discover the secret of eternal life in the wake of Enkidu, his friend’s, death. These are stories about one person, their adventure, and the people lucky enough to be around at the same time. And so there are these games, too, RPG and otherwise: epic in scope and construction, but no less good. And they are only one side of this coin.
Anthologies and Divergences
I hated reading for school. This carried on to college, where I was a terrible English major. You see, I’m one of those unfortunate souls who is constantly thinking about fourteen other things at once, when I’d rather just be concentrating on the super-nifty story I’m reading, watching, or playing. If I tried to play one of my old favorite RPGs, I’d probably find myself super lost just trying to follow the one, expansive story thread. World-shattering problems require pages of lore before we can find a solution, after all. The same, unfortunately, can be said for my lackluster reading habits: lots goes on in those pages, and lots more gets lost in the cracks. Might be I just need drugs to concentrate more effectively, but that’s a slippery slope for another day.
The Canterbury Tales in college was a similar casualty. Hated reading it…but, again, I hated reading 96% of what I read in college. Maybe he’s born with spite, maybe it’s unmedicated ADD. Who knows. But college class structure and literary canon aside, I loved the overall structure of Tales: a collection of disparate stories, told by a bunch of people, to a bunch of people, as they traveled the same pilgrimage off-yonder.
I’d even argue that The Lord of the Rings, a titular Epic Fantasy, has more in common with anthologies and collections: it follows different groups and characters, each important in their own right, as they weave in and around each other’s efforts on their way towards the destruction of the One Ring. Even against Star Wars, the 2008–2020 Clone Wars animated series follows several smaller stories against a larger backdrop of the conflict. Everyone from familiar Jedi Knights, newly-canon Padawans, otherwise-indiscernible Clone Troopers, neutral bounty hunters, and major antagonists who oppose the traditional “good guys” all get their fair shake a story.
But that’s one of the reasons I think I fly so close to those kinds of stories: they’re separate, piecemeal, and sporadic. Rather than trying to digest an entire, singular story all the way through, I get to enjoy bits and pieces of several smaller stories throughout. It doesn’t follow just one character. The stakes are smaller, if not comparably nonexistent (the journey to and around Mordor notwithstanding). It feels easier to consume in its own right, but doesn’t sacrifice storytelling through its methods. And I think that’s what roped me in so quickly with Octopath Traveler.
So far (pending any later-game shifts), the story consists of eight, separate stories, in which each of the eight controllable characters gets the spotlight on their own journey. Between those stories, it’s all overworld exploration and battles, the meat and potatoes of any RPG. But during those main beats, all other characters basically fall into the background: this is the Spotlight Character’s story, and everyone else is just along for the ride. No major intricacies of “what would the teenage merchant girl think of the thief’s hubristic assignment?” or “what does the historical scholar make of the dancer’s quest for revenge?” They just exist in the periphery.
The combat and gameplay scale and adjust in-step with the player, no matter the circumstances of the quest. To that end, it makes even the most mundane-seeming enemies and bosses absolutely terrifying. Big snakes and nerdy researchers have become more nerve-wracking boss fights than they had a right to be, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Elemental Lords in those aforementioned Epic RPGs. But that makes sense. The stakes are high with those enemies, because of these characters.
The situations are focused. The gravity of those situations is focused. The scope of an anthology, and the stories within, can be its greatest asset. These are small stories, but no less important. Finding the truth. Getting revenge. Seeing the world. Fulfilling an oath. Small things, especially when you prop them up against the plot details of the Epics. These characters aren’t teaming up to save the world, by any stretch of the imagination. But these quests are important to them. They’re relatable to us. And that scope, that way we can see ourselves reflected, even just a little, in the characters, that’s where the story shines brightest.
There’s no way for me to know (short of spoiling the rest of the journey) if Octopath Traveler won’t eventually fan out into world-ending problems and proportions. But for now, where I’m at and what I’ve seen, what a way to set it apart. What a way to be just a little different after so many epics before it.
To Be Continued
I love the epics that I grew up with, both in nostalgia and revisiting. Sometimes, you do just want to be the hero and fight the apocalyptic threat at the end of the world. But I also love the ground-level stories and collections, the slices of life and the journeys of normal people who will never save the world. But they may save people, or just themselves, on their personal quests. And sometimes, all you want to see is that little victory, or that full circle in one person’s life. Something so small in the grand scheme, but that meant, or means, the world to them.