Octopath Traveler and Setup and Payoff
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of an individual game narrative that doesn’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering Octopath Traveler (Square-Enix, 2018), the role-playing game that tells eight different stories. This essay will cover content from Primrose’s storyline in its entirety. Players who have not completed Primrose’s storyline want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers.
Content Warning: This essay contains discussion of spoilers that involve sexual violence, which may be upsetting to some. Those who wish to avoid this content may want to set this article aside. For those looking for an alternative study of setup and payoff, check out our Final Fantasy VIII breakdown or our general essay on setup and payoff.
In the mid-1990s, Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) were some of the most well-regarded video games on the market. Thanks to their compelling characters, complex stories, and memorable scores, JRPGs like Final Fantasy VI (Squaresoft, 1994) and Chrono Trigger (Squaresoft, 1995) launched dedicated fanbases that have endured for decades. Although JRPGs no longer hold the market share they once did, the fans of those early games are still searching for new standouts in the genre. To meet this need, the pre-eminent JRPG publisher of the 90s, Square-Enix (formerly Squaresoft), periodically releases new RPGs for this audience in the hopes of revitalizing the genre. Although reviews of these titles have been mixed-to-positive, none have received the near-universal acclaim of Square’s Super Nintendo-era offerings due to changing consumer tastes and fundamental flaws with the games.
One of Square-Enix’s most recent attempts to recapture early-JRPG magic is Octopath Traveler, a 2018 title designed to look and feel like the RPGs of the 90s. The unique feature that sets Octopath apart from its predecessors is the eight-part story that allows players to experience eight separate character journeys in one play-through. Unfortunately, this ambitious structure resulted in severe pacing problems, as the eight stories were separate from each other until the game’s final chapter. This made for a disjointed experience where individual stories would stop and start at awkward moments, and characters present in the party had no impact on the story.
Much has already been written about the pitfalls of Octopath’s irregular structure1,2, but the eight individual stories have their own weaknesses. The plot thread revolving around Primrose the Dancer is particularly noteworthy for its flaws, most of which spring from a disconnect between setup and payoff. Important story details from early chapters don’t play a role in the later chapters, and important characters introduced in later chapters aren’t properly developed in the little time they have. Together, these problems lead to a story that feels simultaneously rushed and drawn out, where the least interesting pieces are overdone, and the most interesting bits are undercooked.
Setup Without Payoff
The basic backstory of Primrose’s journey is simple yet effective. As a girl, Primrose saw her father murdered by three men with crow tattoos, and she’s spent the last decade hunting them to get revenge. It’s not the freshest plotline ever written, but a plotline doesn’t have to be new to be compelling. The revenge trope has been used to great effect countless times in all forms of media, including video games. Both Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger have party members who want vengeance for people they’ve lost, and Octopath is nothing if not an homage to those games. The reason that Primrose’s tale doesn’t reach the level of revenge stories that have come before it is because it doesn’t do anything unique with the trope. Instead of using the distinctive elements of her story to say something new, the story spends its screentime reiterating things the player already knows, leaving no time for anything else.
There’s an adage among writers that says every line on the page should reveal new information about at least one thing: plot, character, setting, or scene. While this is a rigid approach to writing, there’s merit to the idea that every line should be worth reading. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case in Primrose’s story. Starting from the very first chapter, the characters will set up some important element of a scene, then repeat what’s already been established without adding anything new. For example, in Primrose’s earliest scenes, she’s working as a dancer in a desert town, and her employer is a man called Master Helgenish. The first scene sets this up quickly when the other dancers mock Primrose for being their master’s favorite, then remind her that she’s “Nothing but a kept woman, here to flatter the dignity of men who pay for the privilege.” Moments later, when Master Helgenish comes in, he kicks out the other girls for a moment alone with Primrose, only to reiterate the same things the others said. Primrose is indeed his favorite, and she is indeed here to entertain men for payment. The one detail he adds is that he was the one who “groomed” Primrose for the role, which he establishes in a single line and then repeats in new ways for the rest of the scene. Thus, the player learned everything they needed to know in the first minute of the scene; everything after that point is reiteration, setting up what’s already been established. It’s a pattern that continues throughout her entire plotline, leaving no room to develop anything new or interesting. Simply put, it’s setup that can’t pay off.
While Primrose’s path wastes most of its setup time with reiteration, a few interesting aspects could have been developed and paid off later in the narrative. One aspect is the prevalence of sex workers in the story, an element that could have never been explored in the child-friendly JRPGs of the 90s. At the beginning of Primrose’s tale, it’s all but spelled out that she and the other dancers are forced to have sex with their master to keep him happy, and he’s also not above selling the girls to other men as property. He’s not above killing them, either, which he does to Primrose’s fellow dancer, Yusufa. Later in Primrose’s story, she meets up with one of the women who used to work for her father and discovers the woman now works for a brothel. Like Primrose and the other dancers, she too has used sex to survive difficult circumstances, even though that work continually places her in danger. These parallels act as their own kind of setup, establishing the idea that women using sex work will be an essential element throughout the story—except it isn’t. Once Primrose kills her first target and returns to her childhood home, the relationship between sex and survival ceases to impact the storyline. It doesn’t inform any of Primrose’s decisions, and it doesn’t change the outcome of her story. Despite all that setup, Octopath has nothing to say about women in sex work. In the end, it was just window-dressing: setup with no payoff.
Payoff Without Setup
The poor pacing in Primrose’s tale leads to issues with payoff, as well as setup. Since so much screentime is dedicated to reiterating facts the player already knows, or setting up concepts that don’t get explored, pivotal characters and concepts are left underdeveloped. The most egregious example of this problem occurs with the introduction of the main antagonist, Simeon: the leader of the tattooed men and Primrose’s childhood friend.
Like the stories of the other Octopath protagonists, Primrose’s story is comprised of four chapters, each of a similar length. Simeone, Primrose’s former friend, receives no mention in Primrose’s first two chapters. Their relationship isn’t established until they reunite in Chapter Three when the story is more than halfway over. To bring the player up to speed fast, Octopath relates their entire backstory through a combination of expository dialogue, narration, and flashback. It’s a pacing nightmare that brings everything else in the story to an abrupt halt, yet it’s still not enough to make Simeon feel like a complex character. All the information the player gets from the extended info-dump is that Simeon was a gardener who cared about Primrose, and now spends his time writing plays. These surface details don’t say anything about who Simeon really is, which is why it feels so hollow when he’s revealed to be the main antagonist in his very next scene. There wasn’t enough setup for the payoff, so the payoff doesn’t land.
Primrose’s tale contains a wealth of missed opportunities, both to set up and to pay off. By paring back some of the repetitive dialogue, the developers could have taken the extra room and used it to develop the unique aspects of the story and the antagonist’s role in Primrose’s life. Unfortunately, the repetitive dialogue won the day, and the aspects of the story that could have made it a standout were left underserved. Writers who want a better understanding of setup and payoff can use Primrose’s story as an example of how a story founders when the elements that are set up don’t pay off, and the elements that pay off aren’t set up.
1 “[The eight-pronged story] is viable in theory, but Octopath woefully struggles to weave interesting tales despite the wide range of personalities behind them. You get an intro, a spirited launch into a quest, a revelatory examination of people and places, and then a conclusion, each chapter lasting roughly one or two hours with a lot of drawn-out dialogue.” – Brown, Peter. Octopath Traveler Review: Divide and Conquer. GameSpot, 2019.
2 “Octopath Traveler is a small triumph in that it mostly delivers on its promise to give us eight stories worth seeing through. None of them push the envelope in any way, and several drag, but that’s not a huge issue when you have so many to choose from.” Carter, Chris. Review: Octopath Traveler. Destructoid, 2018.
* Reference Footage: Just JMann. Octopath Traveler – Primrose – Story Only (NO BATTLES). YouTube, 2018.