survival arcs and etrian odyssey

this is a script for a dead genre chronicles minisode which you can listen to here. support DGC at https://www.patreon.com/invisifool?ty=h

hi, I’m leeroy lewin of the starlight scholars. I write my stuff on my own wordpress, which is vextroforever.wordpress.com. follow @jrpgsaredead if somehow you aren’t, that’s really what I want to plug. we’re doing work that comes out of a want and a care and maybe a desperation, I think it’s really exciting. shout out to anyone doing that sort of work, honestly and earnestly.

if you ask me personally what grinding is, well, I’m going to say that grinding is something exploitive and unholy. I’m sort of joking, but I think as a baseline it’s disrespectful for the player’s time. it’s going to communicate a message that doesn’t really become enhanced by participation, it’s only after detaching from the reward loop that it can be examined. I don’t think indulging in the reward loop from time to time is as harmful as it is unsubstantiative, it’s just not a challenging use of time, and it doesn’t relax me as much as agitates me. that’s only considering grinding as thing that exists for one game, for one purpose, which it absolutely doesn’t.

most people are familiar to the kind of grinding that dragon quest and games that proceed from that direct lineage, like phantasy star, demand of the player. these games demand getting a certain level or having a certain amount of currency to be able to progress through new areas and to be able to complete new challenges. I know it’s a resistance on the game’s part, an opposition and aggression that can only be overcome by planning and commitment. it can also be a casual, welcoming thing, this game accepting anyone who feels justified in putting time into it. yet it is still very time consuming, taxing, and inflexible. I think the authoritative, forced nature of how much, and why, is what makes grinding disrespectful. it feels like the game demands tribute from the participant in order to take part in any new action.

there is, however, a particular consequence of this style that I believe is absolutely gripping and evocative, though still trapped within the framing of lazy inevitability. to initiate a game that ebbs and flows on the arc of these grinding sessions, there’s a christening that’s particularly intense. in the first phantasy star, encounters out in the world map are impossible to defeat. I mean that in a literal sense, there are no battles that can be won, except within a very singular patch of forest within the starting walled city. even in this forest, specific enemies, the owlbears, still need to be ran away from. the protagonist is too weak to defeat an enemy of even the weakest class. and so areas of the game are closed off, not by actual walls or barriers, but by their inherent aggression, their malice to the player. in this initial bit, phantasy star strongly communicates that the protagonist is fragile, inept, and will die taking the most basic and encouraged action constructed by the videogame. a jrpg functions when it is traversed, its primary mode of communication is travel; of being in a place and of participating in a place. often to exist in a place is to fight against it. phantasy star wholly kills whoever starts this dialogue without being properly initiated.

this initiation in these really grindy jrpgs is what I’ve taken to call the survival arc. it’s different than grinding comfortably to accomplish a distant objective or to afford shiny new stuff. during those opportunities, dispatching enemies is immediate and easy. jrpgs usually offer a decent range of environment around to inhabit while obtaining those resources. fighting ten or twenty battles for new clothes is something to zone out to, or something to force intimacy with the videogame. it’s idealized gambling and a perfect system, so it’s not really a stressful experience, unless the monotony leads to impatience.

in a survival arc, I’m fighting to earn the ability to play the game at all. with no accommodation, it requires an exact place to slip into, a niche to fill uncomfortably and tentatively. the struggle extends even to the encounters that can be won, victories earned by a margin of just barely. the only possible way to cut my teeth, to get even begin the time consuming process of exploring and playing this game, is itself an incredibly time consuming process of figuring out what kinds of encounters won’t outright end the game.

a survival arc is an uncompromising reflection of what it’s like to assert individualism, anywhere at all, but especially within a constructed place of being that values profitability. what I mean is, to exist in these worlds, and act out a supposed role, it requires identifying the least harmful place to act in and practice this role. it’s not a safe place or a place designated for this practice, just the place that causes the only level of harm the character can handle. I won’t make the deft leap and claim they model systems of oppression, because they’re too binary and too specific. jrpgs systems are naturally idealized, the right actions will produce the desired results. it does, however, communicate something unreasonable, unfathomable, in comparison to jrpgs that are not oppressive. jrpg characters that do not have survival arcs can be understood as privileged. they have the means, equipment, and ability to have free range and domain, a comfortability with their role, that those subjugated to a survival arc definitely do not. for the benefit of flowing, gratifyingly designed videogames, and videogame systems, there is an expectation for a reasonable hardship, a desire to be uninhibited by toil in these scenarios. I expect a gentle slope, to be treated as wanted, proper, and capable of the task given to me, because the alternative is difficult to cope with.

eventually, though it is more like inevitability within these neat systems, the survival arc ends. it’s really just a flash in the pan over the course of phantasy star. it demonstrates that at the very start of this scenario, the protagonist alis was not prepared for the task at hand, that the world she inhabited was inclined to reject the probing person that is yet absolutely necessary for the videogame to happen at all. this does represent the scenario: alis is a young woman suddenly thrusted into a political revolution in an oppressive world by the death of her brother. it dresses the conflict, communicating that alis was unprepared for the terrible fighting, and had to train with much care and difficulty, not to defeat great evil, but to even begin traveling. still, the survival arc melts after concentrated effort and alis eventually becomes as privileged as the average jrpg protagonist, able to comfortably develop and earn the necessary abilities and equipment needed to exhibit mastery over the world around her.

phantasy star’s survival arc, and later freeform grinds, are the properties of dragon quest, which can be deferred to as more or less the father of jrpgs. dragon quest flops between breezy grinds and gritting survival arcs throughout its length. it’s not comfortable with things just being earned, but it won’t commit to force things to a complete stop, at least not constantly. dragon quest is as cruel as it is vibrant and joyful, it’s an experience in flux and switches up its mode of thought at a shrug. this is markedly different to how jrpgs continued to progress despite the looming presence of dragon warrior, their systems being adjusted to perfectly model a current conflict. player and enemy numbers adjusted in synch, exponentially, keeping the playing field exact, and idyllic.

etrian odyssey communicates like dragon quest, and like phantasy star, in a modern climate where it’s decidedly unfashionable. I believe dragon quest’s continued success in japan is because of its consistency and stability. dragon quest is a symbol of a specific, binding videogame, much like the iconography of mario. so there’s a consciousness, a deliberate feeling, to etrian odyssey employing this framework decades later. I’ve read often that etrian odyssey is now carrying a torch, being an old-school game in a hostile market, which I think is pitiful snark. it relies on faulty definition of what “old-school” represents, that is, implying it’s an object that exists to reject a “casual” player, that it’s going to manifest as a thing to spend a lot of empty time on. I think the most obvious contradiction is that these old style games never went away, dragon quest remaining a flagship still. fashionability dictates game culture’s fickle discourse.

etrian odyssey is an unfashionable game, that’s just true. grinding without physical, braggable, social benefit has never been accepted, or even an understood thing in the west. grinding is the butt of jrpg discourse, it’s the laziest put down, it’s the most negative spin on the system. it’s difficult to reconcile because there’s truth to the emptiness of the transaction. etrian odyssey reconciles that truth, I think, etrian odyssey is constructed to hold the emptiness. it doesn’t condemn the emptiness, or judge it, because it’s founded on the effect of the transaction.

etrian odyssey begins a survival arc more intense than phantasy star or dragon quest. the first task, the orientation, is to map the first floor. the guild, my guild, starts at the lowest level, and is equipped with low quality, unusable stuff. the shops are as barren as your coffers, all you can do is walk in and struggle. unlike the survival arcs of past, there are no expensive items to look forward to, no indication that there’s something to strive for. the party will only be able to handle a few battles and will be sent back to spend their slowly earned currency on being healed. the shops sell few items, their inventory expands slowly as the first floor is mapped, as enemy spoils are collected, and as resources are mined. a place that outright and completely rejects the player contains the exact keys and tools needed to progress, walled behind tentative survival.

this survival arc doesn’t end when the first floor is mapped out, I’ll still be too weak to do anything in the second floor. it doesn’t end when I gather enough resources for the shops to fill up with items, because it’s not enough to actually buy said items. even when my group can confidently win fights in the second floor, an encounter with a visibly wandering boss monster, otherwise known as a FOE, will destroy your guild. FOEs can be seen on the map, and as such can be avoided, but that’s not a solution to the survival arc, because the third floor comes out with even more fierce encounters. when these layered stopgaps are overcome, when a stability creeps into traveling around these first five floors, this first stratum, the boss and guardian of the stratum is still unbeatable, new progress is unreachable.

the leanness, clarity, and conciseness of etrian odyssey is a reflection of its literal, tower climbing core. each floor is informed by the floors finished and the floors still to go. the distance traveled is how far, how tentative and unsafe the excursion is. so much of it needs to be traveled at a time to start breaking new ground and yet progress only leads to another floor, another difficult, unreasonable mapping session. the kind of catharsis that comes from finishing a cave or a dungeon in dragon quest is minimized, because etrian odyssey’s dungeon consumes, and surrounds. I never felt incredibly proud or successful when I cleared a floor or beat a FOE, because I was never ready for a new floor, or a different, harder FOE. the survival arcs never close neatly, there’s rarely a moment where I could muse proudly on the capability of my guild. I never felt comfortable or confident in etrian odyssey. the space, the dungeon, does not want me to continue, it does not want me to explore, it does not want me to exist.

I think that’s what I want to leave off on. this is anecdotal, but, I recognized how miserable this game was, and stopped playing it, twice. friends of mine that have tried the game eventually peter off and quit. though that’s generally a common symptom when it comes to finding time for long works, I still want to believe that the main factor in dropping etrian odyssey is just how hostile and exhausting it is. the person playing is filled with futility and is convinced that it’s simply not worth it. it’s fine to play a bit of this game and quit, I think that’s really representative of the conceit of etrian odyssey as a whole.

that’s my conclusion, but I want to add a bit more, with fair warning that I’m going to spoil the rest of the game. the twist ending of the game really sets the whole experience apart for me, but if you like reveals, feel free to bounce. still with me? at the bottom of the dungeon is a ruined civilization – our ruined civilization. etrian odyssey is technically a post-apocalyptic story, though it’s more like post-post-apocalyptic. humanity ruined the earth by their wasteful consumption of resources. in the final moments of the planet a group of scientists devised a solution to heal the planet. they called the machine yggdrasil because of its visage. the leader of the project, visil, devised a personal symbiotic relationship with the machine to keep tabs on it. the tree gives life, he keeps yggdrasil alive, and he is thus immortal. this man is also the governing leader of the settlement above the world tree.

the subterranean lands came to exist on their own and visil has learned not to fight that inevitability of existing land. he monetizes the lands below etria. promising riches, treasure, and fame to all of those who dare to make the trek, yet controlling who and what gets through the dungeon, visil’s presence is a literal model of the bottleneck created by the upperclass. the guild is free to act and pursue their dreams of wealth and fame, so long as they’re injecting their wealth back into etria. this dungeon economy is strikingly similar to tourism, with a whole town promoting spending, while a whole group stays within a “trap.”

visil has allies in the lands below. the forest folk, an elven race, know and accept him. once a guild has goes in too deep, the forest elves assassinate the members. rpg systems map an inevitability, so the acting guild is the first exception, and the forest folk are forced to use their entire might to push the guild back. a genocide is committed, not for self-defense, but to get to the next floor. a race of people is nearly wiped out to see the next territory of this people’s land. they were killed just for the spoils, just to see what’s else is out there. a model of literal, violent colonialism. whatever manipulation by visil scarcely matters, the land was the forest folks’, and they were killed upon it.

visil and his allies are defeated as well, his altruistic scam coming to an end. with visil’s demise, the pain, suffering, and deaths he would set upon to-be guilds, these to-be entrepreneurs, is passed. his violent capitalist bottlenecking ends, but at the price of massive, and world ending bloodshed. the forest folk’s lands are mapped, their numbers are dwindled, and future will see to their fate. the planet-healing machine yggdrasil has been destroyed and no one can know if the planet was finished healing. etrian odyssey’s own epilogue shrugs at these developments, speaking to a fair end for the guild. it is not a happy ending, nor it is a sad ending. etrian odyssey makes no comment on the events that transpire. I’m left, sitting in darkness, contemplating the immense horror on my own.

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