Colonialism under the guise of the dungeon crawl: Etrian Odyssey and the invasion

If the dungeon crawl can be likened to anything, it’s colonialism. Remember how Britain used to own the world? They did so through power, education, and money, supplanting the cultural practices of indigenous people with their own ideologies. The Romans embraced the adage of Total War where victory meant annihilation of a culture, assimilating all surviving men, women, and children under their directive whether they liked it or not. Colonialism disguises a bloody invasion under the guise of progress and civility.

And what are dungeon crawls if not a slow, methodical invasion of an unknown land? You takeover territory piece by piece, amass experience and strength, and uncover knowledge of the world ahead of you. You start as a minority and become the majority. You conquer all.

A successful dungeon crawl will set up the invasion as an addiction. Etrian Odyssey introduces you to the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, a giant tree resting nearby the town of Etria. Rumors of treasure and rare monsters have brought warriors of all sorts into town in a race to uncover the secret of the Labyrinth and reap the rewards.

You play as nobody, really. Tradition dictates you take on the role of Gamemaster, an organizer of both the story, non-playable characters, and the world in which you can interact with in traditional role-playing games. In Etrian Odyssey, you’re a Guild Master, which means you can make and swap recruits in and out of your party at will to explore a complex maze of twisting corridors and ferocious monsters. You’re spoken to in a sense by a variety of non-playable characters in the world but nothing connects you to the small army you amass throughout the game. You’re not even given a body. This is important. The individual does not matter in this world.

Theoretically, you can start with an empire at the beginning of Etrian Odyssey. You can delve into the Yggdrasil Labyrinth with five party members each round, spend a little time punching and kicking, come out of the experience with cuts and bruises and a few levels under your belt, and then do the whole thing over again with a different group. There’s nothing stopping you from creating countless party members of different classes and building them into powerhouses. Mix and match your party make-up for each level of the Labyrinth and you’ll be on your way to victory. A slow victory, but a victory nonetheless.

The constant meter of progression though is your map screen. Much like how victory in colonialism is determined by how much land you own, victory in Etrian Odyssey is determined by how much land you’ve uncovered. The bottom DS screen is a virtual graph pad and each step you take in the Labyrinth can, and should, be mapped out.

The map is the only constant in Etrian Odyssey. Your party members will be switched out, retired, and even put to rest. Each class has four different art icons to represent themselves in battle which means you’ll eventually double up on recruits if you prefer one class over another. There’s no individuality here, or even lasting connections with your creations. Your recruits are tools to help you conquer a hostile land.

Even feelings of empathy towards your recruits are hampered by an uncomfortable disembodiment. Etrian Odyssey refuses to give you a character to embody or a context to empathise with. It’s a problem that’s plagued dungeon crawlers since the very beginning. You’re free to create a large number of characters and determine so many variables that it’s difficult to engage with these characters beyond statistical advantages. You’re an ethereal presence lurking over their shoulders. Like a commanding officer peering over a meticulously detailed map, there are only numbers and statistics.

The biggest secret of Etrian Odyssey, though, is how successfully it covers up your efforts to explore the Labyrinth. Legends speak of the mysteries surrounding the Labyrinth, but you never find anything untoward in your exploration. It’s only when you reach the true depths of the Labyrinth do you uncover The Forest Folk.

The Forest Folk are the native people of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth and the first humanoid enemies you face in the game. They don’t want you here. And, much like the plight of so many indigenous people, you don’t listen to them or attempt to reconcile with them. You’re not given a choice, actually. You not only kill their people, you slaughter their army and their guardian in a laborious, methodical fashion.

And methodical is such a good word, too. Etrian Odyssey is a deliberate game that requires a great amount of patience. You’re taught to play thoughtfully and always think about your choices in battle. Progression is slow and hard won. Etrian Odyssey is a paragon in flexibility. Any party build can be successful provided you know what you’re doing.

But the ultimate fate of The Forest Folk highlights that all your freedom in the game is focused around different ways of killing things, not freedom in morality. Some people have said that this lack of choice to determine the fate of The Forest Folk is detrimental to the spirit of the game, but in reality Etrian Odyssey has taught you to behave this way. Your strength has been determined by the amount of land you’ve explored. It’s your map that has saved your life countless times. Its led you to resources, warned you when you’re about to encounter a monster, and highlighted the nightmarish high-level roaming boss fights called F.O.E.S.

The map has altered your viewpoint of the Labyrinth. It’s not a home. It’s a place to be charted and defeated. The Forest Folk make a mockery of everything you stand for. They have no use for a map since they’ve lived here for generations. They don’t want you to chart any more of their home. Illustrations and the written word are treated as dangerous things, especially when they’re exclusively used to indicate the “hot spots” of the Labyrinth. The Forest Folk see exploitation and misunderstanding. You see opportunity.

Etrian Odyssey’s futile ending and lack of choice to avoid slaughter is condemnation of your actions. The secret of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth is that it protects the Yggdrasil Tree, a plant responsible for cleansing the poisonous atmosphere of the world and making it suitable for life. The Tree is dying and a lone scientist accepts immortality in order to watch over the plant to ensure it functions in the years to come. You kill the scientist, naturally, and the colonization is complete. Divide and conquer.

Or not. For something lies in wait below the final stratum of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. It’s easily the most challenging area of the game, demanding a thorough understanding of the mechanics before you can even begin to tackle it. But there’s more “game” for you, if you so wish. Even after you’ve eradicated an entire race of people and slapped an expiration date on the world, you can still push onwards to higher heights of subjugation. Your horrible, terrifying reign can stretch on for eternity. There’s a pessimistic world view at the end of Etrian Odyssey about the cyclical nature of colonialism. They’ll always be weaker people to exploit and capitalise on. We’ll never learn.

Because where will you go next? Haven’t you heard the whispers about the city that lies on the Great Sea and the chasm that leads to the bottom of the Earth?