Octopath Traveler for Nintendo Switch is the hotly-anticipated RPG from Square-Enix and Silicon Studios. It promises eight different playable characters with compelling stories, a unique art style and an innovative combat system. Last year, a demo was released, showing the first few hours of two of the playable characters, Olberic and Primrose. I started with Olberic's story and enjoyed the game's combat and the ability to challenge NPCs to duels. However, I noticed some serious narrative design issues with the way it handles the introduction. I felt that it's something worth discussing.
Narrative design is, in layman terms, the way gameplay and story combine to form a cohesive whole. This makes games completely unique from any other storytelling medium. One popular technique of narrative design is making players feel like they're acting directly in the story, responsible for moving it forward instead of exclusively watching it happen. In other words, this technique is "Do, don't show" instead of "Show, don't tell". Using this as a rule when designing your game helps players stay immersed, making them care more about the story. Some great examples of these include Bioshock, Final Fantasy VI and Undertale. Unfortunately, Project Octopath, at least in Olberic's campaign, does not use this technique where it needs it the most. I couldn't help but find its overly long introduction cutscene as a weakness, especially in comparison to Final Fantasy VI.
In the campaign, Olberic is a knight who loses his kingdom after a fellow knight betrays them. The intro cutscene sets this premise up entirely.
It opens with Olberic defeating a soldier, with the enemy commander talks about how strong Olberic is. When it looks like Olberic and the soldiers are about to fight, allied reinforcements come in and the battle never happens. Here, I was hoping to see Olberic take down the entire crowd of enemies, even if it was a cutscene to see how truly strong he is and felt a little left down.
We then see Olberic moving to the next scene, where he sees corpses of his allied soldiers, remarks on this fact and instantly mentions Erhardt.
We then go to the scene where Olberic watches his fellow knight, Erhardt, kill the king. Olberic then fights Erhardt, who taunts him. They then cross swords one more time, causing the screen to fade to white. Here, I was also hoping to see a battle in which Olberic was defeated as the flash implied.
Olberic then wakes up in the present, stating that this was a nightmare. Now, he talks with a young village kid. Olberic then monologues internally about his current state of being a mercenary guarding a village and training watchmen. At this point, I personally lost most engagement with the narrative and was mostly anticipating when I got to take control.
This cutscene lasted about 7 minutes and 15 seconds. Most of it was dialogue, which often consisted of characters stating the story repeatedly without subtlety. The issue was not the length of this cutscene so much as the fact that it never lets the player get to do anything in those seven minutes. This runs the risk of completely disengaging players from the game like it did for me.
Let's contrast this with the introduction of the character, Cyan in Final Fantasy VI. Developed by Squaresoft in 1994 and directed by Hiroyuki Ito, FFVI is popular among Final Fantasy fans and widely regarded as one of Squaresoft's greatest RPGs.
The scene starts with a cutscene at the castle of Doma, with several imperial soldiers at the gates trying to break in. Players then see Doma soldiers inside, discussing how to handle the invaders. Enter our new playable character, Cyan, who is introduced through a few brief lines of dialogue and narration. Players are also able to change his name at this point, giving a little bit of interactivity here before the action starts. He suggests going outside to fight the enemy commander to stop the imperial soldiers from attacking. We then see Cyan and the Doma soldiers moving outside of the gates to face the imperial soldiers. We learn that he's a headstrong commander through just a few short lines of dialogue. It's also at this point that players are given control over Cyan. Players are now expected to act out the mission stated earlier. This cutscene lasted for less than a minute before giving the player free reign to fight.
Despite being a straightforward objective that moves the story forward, the game provides the option of fighting the troops strewn around the area trying to get past the gates. You, as the player can approach each one and press the action button to initiate a normal battle that plays out like any other battle. This is where players experience firsthand how powerful of a fighter Cyan is, especially with his Sword Tech ability(Bushido in later versions). The scene ultimately ends when the player defeats the enemy commander, moving the story forward.
This all does an excellent job at setting up the character and fully utilizes the "Do, don't show," technique. Players easily figure out the context and start to get invested in Cyan as an exceptional warrior.
After alternating to a separate group of characters for a short time, we see a later cutscene of the game's main villain Kefka, poisoning Doma castle's water. We then see many of the NPCs in the castle dropping dead. Now, we retake control of Cyan and explore the castle to figure out what's going on in this chaos. Initially, after a few seconds of moving downward, the fellow soldier Cyan talks with urges him to go to the king. This brief cutscene has Cyan talking to the dying king, who tells him to check on his family. Cyan says that there have to be survivors and split up to explore the castle. Throughout, you are free explore the aftermath firsthand until you find Cyan's family dead. Here, the scene ends with Cyan rushing out on his own to fight the soldiers in the same area we had the other party fighting.
Using the "Do, don't show" technique in narrative design, these two scenes effectively keep players engaged with the story by enabling them to partake in it, only taking away control to add information about the story and characters and create drama. Compared to Olberic's intro, players gain more empathy with Cyan by playing as him instead of just merely watching him. You get to feel like the badass warrior and feel the loss of your kingdom more effectively. Whereas with Olberic, the game only shows and tells you how powerful he is. If Olberic's intro had even a fraction of the interactivity that Final Fantasy VI provided with Cyan's, it would be a lot more compelling and narratively engaging.
Using Final Fantasy VI's narrative design techniques, here's how I would fix Olberic's introduction:
- A cutscene shows the enemy soldiers defeating most of the allied soldiers. Then Olberic appears, banters with the enemy and reassures the surviving allies that he'll handle them.
- The game transitions into a battle, where Olberic is pitted against several enemy soldiers. These are deliberately designed to have HP, Attack and Defense stats low enough for any of Olberic's attacks to instantly defeat them and for Olberic to take minimal damage.
- After defeating all the foes in battle, the enemy soldiers who didn't participate will run away from Olberic while allied reinforcements appear. They ask you to move on ahead while they secure the perimeter.
- Control is then given back to the player to move upwards. This is where the corpses of the allied soldiers are strewn about. Olberic makes a quick remark about this, but then returns control to the player. The player has the option of examining the corpses, to which Olberic concludes that their cuts were made by a sword belonging to one such as Erhardt, his fellow knight. The player is given control again to move up to the scene of Erhardt's betrayal.
- The scene where Olberic watches Erhardt kill the king plays out similarly, but when the latter starts to fight, it then transitions to a battle. Erhard's stats allow him to dodge all of Olberic's attacks, strike first and deal more damage to Olberic than vice versa. Between each turn, Erhardt and Olberic say most of the same lines. This battle is meant for the player to lose, no matter what attacks they use.
- After Erhardt's makes an attack that reduces Olberic's HP to 0, the screen fades to white, where Olberic then wakes up…
- After waking up, dialogue would be significantly cut so it's brief and to the point. Instead of Olberic monologuing about being a mercenary for the local town, the young boy who comes in to tell Olberic that the town elder wants to see him while briefly complimenting him on his exceptional sword skills.
- Olberic then monologues, bringing up how he lost his meaning after losing his kingdom. Then, the watchmen outside that Olberic talks to bring up topics such as how he's done a great job protecting against bandits as well as the current status. After this, the player is free to roam around the town.
- This sequence may last from around 5 to upwards of 8 minutes depending on the time taken, but players would experience greater engagement throughout. Players would feel awesome as they took down enemies as Olberic and feel more down as they lost to Erhardt, ultimately better able to sympathize with the former after the dream sequence ends. They would have no doubts from the intro that they're playing as a powerful knight-turned-mercenary.
Despite this criticism, I am definitely looking forward to project octopath Traveler with its use of multiple character perspectives an excellent turn based battle system and its use of 16-bit Graphics Style put on polygons to make for a unique immersive looking world.
I personally believe that FFVI still holds up with how it handles narrative design. With Ito's direction, the game has a excellent balance of gameplay and storytelling which keeps players and most without detracting from either the story or gameplay too much. Ito did this through giving the player more control in story-centric scenes. Players act out the characters' actions both in and out of battle. Control was only taken away from players for dialogue and sequences that were out of the characters' control. However, even in battles, dialogue also went on during it. This is especially the case in Cyan's introduction several hours into the game.