Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Year: 2013
Like most RPGs, Etrian Odyssey Untold has a bunch of side quests, and most of them are of little import outside of the hefty chunk of XP and item you get as a reward for completing them. So when I took a quest that challenged me to spend 5 real time days on floor 8 of the single, massive dungeon that comprises EOU’s gameplay, I hopped to it expecting little more than a boring back and forth shuffle, killing now-trivial enemies as I waited for the in game clock to tick towards my goal. What I found instead was the heart of this game, and of Etrian Odyssey in general.
Etrian Odyssey is a franchise heavily inspired by Wizardry, which I only know because wikipedia and video game sites tell me so, but what that means concretely is that it’s ‘old school’ in that dungeons are grid based, first person affairs; party members are paper dolls you create out of whole cloth; and the difficulty is somewhere between challenging and crushing. Etrian Odyssey specifically offloads the maze-like gridded dungeons into a third of its gameplay mechanics, tasking you to map the floors you move along yourself on the 3DS’s second screen. It’s laborious, sometimes confusing, and often exhausting, but by the end of each floor you have a true mastery of the space you’re on, only to head down deeper into your quest to the bottom of the labyrinth.
The other difference, however, is that unlike the traditional caves and fortresses of many RPGs, Etrian Odyssey almost exclusively puts you in areas that are overrun with the natural world. Your maze is through forests crawling with furry critters, or roads lined with coral growths and blocked by tidal pools where giant crabs lurk. Etrian Odyssey is a game about you exploring, learning, and ultimately exploiting the natural world as you gain mastery over it and plumb its seemingly infinite depths. This is both implicit in the mechanics and explicit in a narrative of a world gone back to medieval times after ecological disaster set humanity back to the beginning, and society has clawed its way back to here with sheer will through arms and understanding.
Which brings us back to this quest, where one shuffles their party around a limited space for hundreds of squares on end while time passes. There’s nothing to do, each monster easily swatted away, their loot no longer valuable and their experience paltry. Every night your party, exhausted, asks to make camp under the canopy of trees. Etrian Odyssey has day/night cycles, but rarely does the game remark upon them outside of the color temperature of your environment. Here, you spend the night with these people, spending each of the five nights learning a bit about a different party member, only to wake up the next morning (or sleep in, as your youngest party member always suggests) to trudge around the forest some more.
For this moment, the game asks you to stop and actually dares you to be bored, to remove all the pressures of your quest and the grinds associated with it, to stop and live in a tiny fraction of the huge game space for a ludicrous amount of time. It becomes tiresome. It becomes funny. And then I just reached a place of acceptance, where I walked around the forest, and remembered that Etrian Odyssey is a beautiful game, with creatures equally as striking in their cartoony naturalism.
Dungeons are grids we fill in, but they are also spaces with ecologies and histories, and we bring characters with personality and awareness into them even if we often forget. My party spent five days sleeping on the ground, complaining when their packs got damp from the trees above, cooking food and sharing tales around a modest fire in an enormous, overpowering forest. Every step I take in this game, or any other game, is a step made with intention through spaces that are as real as I want them to be in my mental landscape. It is only up to me to bother giving a game the attention to imbue it with said life. Which is how the truth of personal experience shines through—a game is a lens through which we experience characters and places and ideas, breathed life not just by an author, but by us in our consideration of their truth as we experience it.