Picture this: you’re exploring the lake bed of a neon blue rainforest, coral reef trees around you. Pink lotus flowers slowly transport you across the pools of water, from one islet to the other.
As you walk the water-bounded path, a fish suddenly leaps from the stream. You look at the spot from whence it jumped and see the silhouette of another fish. Your companion, the spritely Raquna, exclaims: “Did you see that? It was pretty, the way it sparkled all those colours..!” Intrigued though you are, you see no need to fish it from the water and so resume your investigation.
That last paragraph was Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, filling in the tale as you uncover more of its signature lush environments, urging your brain to picture the rest of the imagery it was trying to invoke. It’s this vivid, yet succinct writing that forms the basis of what I like to call ‘The Etrian Odyssey formula,’ this indefinable magic that manages to make mundane tasks like gathering materials fun, and the simple act of exploration compulsive and addictive.
The other part of the formula is how you’re always scribbling the unknown on your map—you always feel like you’re making good progress, even when you’re staring at a game over screen. There’s something very fulfilling about looking at a half-completed map, reflecting on those astute observations you just made about the surrounding environment. It’s the writing that fills in the rest though, especially when so much of what happens in the game’s locations is described in writing only.
Take the taverns where adventurers of all sorts await, eager and not-so-eager to share the wisdom from their travels. You certainly don’t see the adventurers—in fact, once you’ve chosen to start a conversation with that “scarred protector”, or that “leggy dark hunter”, you’re only presented with a few short sentences encapsulated inside the game’s trademark gorgeous text boxes. I spoke to the “Precocious girl”, and she told me about how the floor I had just reached lets you ride a lotus flower. It’s snippets of information like this—information that’s clearly tied to what awaits you on your journey—which had me speeding back down to the labyrinth to find out whether it’s all true for myself.
On the contrary, the game’s writing in this context might not be so direct about things, but it’s just as revealing, if not more. There’s a hunter character that’ll only spill the beans if you buy her food. You’ll certainly want to do so, as you’ll then start forming some delectable image in your head from her sheer enthusiasm over the food that arrives. It’s moments like this where you really get a sense of ‘being there’, and it all certainly makes the chore of gathering information far more fun and involving as a result (in case you were wondering, I wanted to know how to get pressed fur from a Black Boar).
Not all the information is useful, of course, but again, the game’s sense of place is all the better for it, and you feel like you’re part of a richer world because of it. More recently, one “Shivering Researcher” told me a bit of gossip about Radha Hall, the base of the government of Etria, and how tense the atmosphere was there. Sure, I may not have learned anything useful for my adventures down in the labyrinth, but I did get pick up a subtle hint about which direction the plot may be going, without the game having to spell it out to me. This sort of writing really blends in well with the idea of interactive storytelling. How much of the little side details you uncover is down to your own actions.
As noted earlier, the labyrinths themselves are filled with little things that you don’t necessarily see, but read about. Just reading about those fish back in the azure rainforest had me scribbling down their locations with terms like “Sparkling fish” and “Glaring fish”. Even now, I can still remember exactly how they were depicted in the text. I soon wanted to explore every nook and cranny of the place, searching for more of these strange fish, rather than to attain some arbitrary goal like a map completion percentage (thankfully, Atlus have kept such wonder-spoiling measures away from the series thus far). Even better, it turned out later on that these fish were part of a fishing quest—instantly enhancing the joys of searching for them out of compulsion anyway.
Elsewhere, even the less serene environments are brought to life by the written word. Etrian Untold’s new area, Gladsheim, is an unexplored, ancient ruin that’s filled with technology from centuries past and deadly FOE enemies. A big change in atmosphere for the game, then, but the game’s writing gets you feeling the location’s intricacies beyond its visuals, or Yuzo Koshiro’s enchanting soundtrack.
Despite being visually appealing, Etrian Odyssey doesn’t show you much—it boils down to an angular connection of square mazes and rooms, with only important details visible. Again, it’s the writing that fills you in on what’s actually happening in there, doubly important given Etrian’s first person viewpoint, and how things might not always be happening in front of you. Upon activating a strange computer panel, I was told “a heavy, metallic sound echoes from somewhere”. Having scouted out the area beforehand, I immediately pictured those locked-down shutter doors releasing themselves.
Sometimes you’ll read about something that’s happening to you, the adventurer. Low on energy, I discovered a crevice in a nearby wall of the great labyrinth’s Primitive Forest by sheer luck. In game terms, that would mean a wall at B10F, coordinates D4. But you wouldn’t have known it from the writing alone. “You can feel your aches receding as you enjoy the cool, dry breeze” the game proclaims. In a way, Etrian Odyssey’s writing and how it fits in with the way the game presents itself to you reminded me a bit of Metroid Prime, another game which tells a huge chunk of its tale through the written word, and leaves the player to decide how much of its rich world to uncover.
In Etrian’s case, though, the writing plays a far more important role in forming a believable world, and it does a great job at painting a convincing picture within the constraints of a first person, grid-based dungeon crawler. The text it presents to you is vivid and succinct, describing the surrounding environments, your observations, and its inhabitants’ words to you in ways such that – like a good book – your mind will simply fill in the rest.
Food for thought:
1. A part of what makes the text so powerful boils down to the localisation team’s choice of font, Neuton. It fits the atmosphere of the games to a tee, particularly as most of the text is presented to you by way of a second-person narrative which describes your viewpoint and actions.
2. I was initially worried that the introduction of characters would spoil some of the wonder in Etrian Untold, but it didn’t. Your companions are a varied bunch—simply adding more viewpoints to the mix—and stereotypical anime tropes are kept to a bare minimum. It’s a tale of wonder, after all, not of the familiar.
3. It’ll be interesting to see whether Etrian Mystery Dungeon’s switch in genres to a third person roguelike affects how the game communicates its world and narrative to the player. The main series tended to use its narrative for even the smallest things that you couldn’t see, and I wonder if a perspective shift will undo this.