We need to talk about the sexist garbage in 'Octopath Traveler'

This post includes spoilers for Octopath Traveler's story, but who cares? It sucks.

Octopath Traveler might be purposefully retro in its aesthetic and gameplay, but the game's most backward quality of all is by far the blatant misogyny.

The pixelated art style of this new beloved JRPG looks positively modern in comparison to how it unnecessarily sexualizes, infantilizes, patronizes, and exploits the abuse of nearly every one of its women characters.

The widespread success and popularity of Octopath Traveler took publisher Square Enix by total surprise, selling out so fast in Japan that the company publicly apologized twice. When it made its way to America on the Switch in July, it was to rave reviews that earned it a Metacritic score of 84

Critics showered it with praise for its blend of nostalgia and innovation, while admitting that the stories of its eight different main characters were little more than juvenile cliches.

But few seemed concerned with which of those characters suffered most from its trope-y mess of a script, giving it a pass on the sexism it resurrects from a bygone era in games.

I wish I could believe this was a self aware criticism

I wish I could believe this was a self aware criticism

There's a clear, gendered difference between how the male and female protagonists storylines play out. We've seen this in the genre before, though JRPGs often get a pass, perhaps because American writers use "cultural differences" as an excuse or simply don't bother taking these stories very seriously. 

But I'm tired of excuses for why we should ignore this bullshit.

To its credit, Octopath Traveler does have an even gender split among its eight heroes. But the portrayal of the women is a noticeable regression from JRPGs with solid women protagonists (consider Final Fantasy VI's Terra and Celes, Trails in the Sky, or Valkyrie Profile).

It is perhaps the wasted potential of Octopath's female protagonists — whose stories somehow always manage to revolve around the men in their lives — that makes the game's casual misogyny feel like such a slap in the face. 

Let's run through the very basic plot elements from Primrose's opening chapter.

This is only one of two townsfolk who giggle at rape

This is only one of two townsfolk who giggle at rape

Primrose's origin story begins with shades of Arya Stark — if Arya chose to become a sex worker instead of an assassin, and her entire personality revolved around a) being like rly hot, and b) whoring for Daddy.

After surviving her noble father's assassination, Lady Primrose went into hiding as a tavern's prized dancer. She and the other dancers are regularly beaten, starved, and raped by their "master." Yet Primrose is only motivated into leaving these abhorrently abusive conditions when one of the men who killed her father happens to walk in.

Inexplicably, the townsfolk make jokes about the dancers getting raped and lusting for the "private viewings" that their master forces them to do for him at night, if you know what I mean ;))) 

All of these ordeals don't seem to hinder Primrose at all as she flirtatiously uses her "special skill" of seducing people into following her with a dance. In fact, the trauma of the place that taught her to dance appears completely divorced from all the fun she has using her sexuality as her main weapon and contribution to the team.

The prevalence of creepy, paternal infantilization is astounding

The prevalence of creepy, paternal infantilization is astounding

This results is jarring scenes where, one minute, her master is beating her, calling her pet names like "kitten," telling her where she should put her mouth, threatening to rape and kill her unless she finds more patrons — only for Primrose to saunter outside and obey by performing an adorable, winky, coy dance animation for a man on the street.

I'm all for sexual empowerment, or reclaiming what was once traumatizing for yourself. But this isn't what that looks like. 

This kind of careless mishandling of Primrose is a result of writers who want to use women's trauma  to give a thin character some semblance of personality or depth. But her trauma is conveniently forgotten about for lighthearted moments when Primrose needs to be The Fun Sexy One. 

At one point in Chapter 2 of her story, she gives a little "hehe" giggle while talking about the things that used to happen at the tavern. Noooope. 

Youthful beauty and male masters seem to be prerequisites for the women heroes

Throughout Octopath, sex workers and sex slaves are routinely murdered and used as background props. A creepy undercurrent of daddy-daughter dynamics runs through most of them. 

One scene encapsulates the weirdly fetishistic vibes embedded into Octopath's depictions of fathers and daughters: A father goes to a pimp with the sob story of how his daughter killed herself after being raped. But he's not grieving for her. He's grieving for himself, for the loss of having a little girl to dress up like his living, incestuous sex doll.

He's elated to be given a sex slave in direct replacement for his "sullied," dead daughter. 

I mean, what the actual fuck, Octopath Traveler

Someone needs to answer for the crime of subjecting me to this scene

Someone needs to answer for the crime of subjecting me to this scene

This absurd scene goes completely unaddressed, as if it's not the most messed up shit you've ever seen in your goddamn life. But it tracks with the countless other inexplicable instances of infantilizing, sexually charged scenes between father figures and young girls. 

And it's hard to even justify this portrayal of trauma as lazy world-building to convey Octopath's gritty, cruel vision of society. Because it's pretty much exclusive to Primrose's story, and it's entirely inconsistent with the comparatively rosy world experienced by every other character.

I can already hear the "well, actually!" excuse that all of this is the game trying to show how only bad, evil men objectify women, or reduce them to a madonna/whore dichotomy, or value them based on their purity, appearance, or relationships with men. I'd be more willing to suspend my disbelief if the game didn't do all those things to its other female characters.

I only wish this story treated your trauma as more than a plot horse, Arianna

I only wish this story treated your trauma as more than a plot horse, Arianna

Whether or not it knows it, Octopath Traveler perpetuates the same vile treatment of women as the villains it tries to condemn. The notion that women would rather die than live with the shame of rape or sex work is a sentiment put into the mouth of so-called "ruined" women. And nobody contradicts these characters. The game does little to disavow its audience of the belief that, on some level, it's true.

Octopath Traveler perpetuates the same vile treatment of women as the villains it tries to condemn

The physical beauty of three (out of four) of the women protagonists is referenced throughout. It's remarked on whenever Primrose is on screen; Tressa's captain savior focuses on it when they meet, even though she's a child; the religious Ophelia's own father figure feels the need to praise it in his daughters.

On the Daddy front: There are just a few too many instances of women's fathers serving as a replacement for their own character motivation. Ophelia and Lianna's story is so ludicrously centered around their paternal figure that Lianna betrays Ophelia on the off chance that some dude might bring him back from the dead.

Or, to summarize the sentiment passed between them in the screenshot below, women be crazy! And stupid!

Lol same

Lol same

Maybe this focus on their youth, appearances, and fathers wouldn’t feel so gross if it happened to literally any of the male characters. But it doesn't. Youthful beauty and male masters only seem to be prerequisites for the women heroes of Octopath Traveler

Infantilization, frailty, and male superiors are traits so ubiquitous to the women of Octopath Traveler that it goes beyond just protagonists. Even Cyrus' story begins with two female students fighting each other over his attention. He's forced to leave the school to spare the princess involved any social destitution from the mere hint that she might be impure.

We don't hear anything about how that princess feels about all of it, since Octopath is in no way concerned with how women feel in general. But it’s emblematic of another funny characteristic all the women in this game share: Female friendships end with death, despair, or schisms born from their obsession with a man.

Coded into the gameplay itself

Then there's the gender divide embedded into the combat mechanics, specifically the job classes and special skills attributed to each character.

Though you will eventually unlock secondary classes, by default the men are: a warrior, apothecary, scholar, and a thief. The women are: a dancer (or as the game describes, a "whore"), cleric (the picture of pure, virginal feminine servitute), and a merchant. 

The most empowering female character is by far the hunter. Though notably, even H'aanit falls into the trap of having her motivations tied exclusively to finding her missing "master" — a man clearly less competent than her, yet somehow still her superior. 

I see what you did there, Captain

I see what you did there, Captain

Primrose and Ophelia are the only two characters whose predominant special skill is to call in someone more powerful than them for assistance in battle. Tressa also has a summoning ability tied to her job, and H'aanit's hunter skill lets her summon animals.

Again, I'd be willing to overlook this if any of the male characters' special skills were at all tied to summoning others for help. But their abilities are all markedly more self-sufficient and grounded in raw power, competence, and intelligence. The men get to challenge people to sword battles, glean useful information, steal valuable items, and concoct potions.

Don't get me wrong: these issues don't originate with and are not exclusive to Octopath Traveler. They're grounded in the mechanics and stories of many role-playing games of the past, as well as a deep-seeded misogyny buried in us all.

But that doesn't mean the shitty sidelining of women is inherent to the genre. We've heard the arguments justifying these reductive depictions of women in these kind of games already, and they mostly come down to historical accuracy or the excuse of archetypal characters.

As far as "historical accuracy" goes, it's odd that the fantasy genre — literally defined by its deviation from reality — necessitates treating women like garbage in order to make worlds with magic and dragons more believable. The archetypal defense might have more grounds, if it didn't seems to conflate "archetypes" with "tropes." 

Archetypes are prototypical characteristics and traits that date back to the traditions of oral storytelling. A trope, on the other hand, is a cliche inherited by pop culture that writers fall back on instead of creating anything remotely nuanced or original. 

To be fair, most of Octopath's characters and stories are unoriginal, with fewer dimensions than its pixelated art style. But the male cliches are infinitely more empowering and at least tied to their own individual interests, desires, and passions rather than perpetuated by a father figure.

By the end of Primrose's story, the game seems oddly self aware that it gave her absolutely zero character motivation or personality outside her father. (By the way, her mom's barely mentioned, as usual.) She climatically goes to her father's grave, and all but shrugs because now that Daddy's been avenged, she has no idea who she is or what she even wants.

I was asking myself the same question, Primrose

I was asking myself the same question, Primrose

But sure, for the sake of argument, let's say this bullshit is just how fantasy works, and compare Octopath Traveler to another modern fantasy story that dives into a multitude of different characters' perspectives. 

The TV adaptation of Game of Thrones might also get criticized for using rape as a plot device while negating the trauma of women. But the books don't, instead bringing readers into the minds of archetypal women as they seek power and survival within an oppressive patriarchal society. And low and behold, it results in women treated as actual people rather than someone's concept of a woman.

Women don't have to be portrayed this way, in Octopath or any other game and fantasy setting. We just have to care enough to demand better, and then do better.

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