Of Your Own Making: Etrian Odyssey, Imagination, and Gender
It’s the fall of September, 2013, and I am playing Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl. It’s not technically my first Etrian Odyssey game, but I only spent about three hours with my short-lived copy of Etrian Odyssey 4 before it broke, so it’s kind of my first experience with the series, if you squint a bit. I’m spending a lot of time creating my adventuring party, because if you give me nine classes with their own skill trees and a wealth of synergy between them, I’m gonna bust out my notebook. I’m having fun so far.
On the last party member I hit a roadblock. My first four characters have covered all the classic RPG archetypes: frontline fighter, tank, healer, and spellcaster. Those choices were easy, but I’m stalling on the last. I’m kind of eyeing the Troubadour, EOU’s take on the bard archetype, but the character portraits are giving me pause. I want my last character to be a girl, but don’t really like any of the female Troubadour portraits. They’re not bad, exactly, but if I’m going to be looking at this portrait for the entire game, I want it to be one I like. Unfortunately, the only Troubadour portrait I really like is one of the male portraits. I’m sitting on the couch, DS in my hand, thinking about whether I want to suck it up or try to find a different class, when I have a thought.
Why couldn’t I just make my character a girl, no matter what portrait I chose?
It’s just an impulse at first, and initially I dismiss it, but I come back to the thought, and it’s not as ridiculous as it first seemed. I have made four out of five characters, and looking back, not once have I been made to choose a gender for any of them. Sure, the portraits are pretty obviously coded, with two masculine and two feminine for each class, but gender is only implied, never made explicit.
I realize there’s nothing actually stopping me from just picking the portrait I like and saying this character is a girl, so that’s what I do. I pick the leftmost Troubadour portrait, the one i like the most, and I name her Mallory. It feels weird at first, like I’ve discovered some kind of exploit or cheat, but as I tab over to Mallory’s skill tree and break out my pen, I start feeling more comfortable with it. Eventually, it doesn’t feel weird at all.
Mallory becomes the team support, capable of buffing our attack, defense, and elemental resistances. While our attackers go on the offense and our defensive members keep us alive, Mallory helps both parts do their job better. The party does pretty well until they stall on an optional boss and I get really busy with school work. I never end up finishing that file, but I’ve played every Etrian Odyssey game I can get my hands on since, and I have Mallory to thank for at least one fifth of that.
If you’ve never played them, the Etrian Odyssey games are a series of dungeon-crawling RPGs on the Nintendo DS and 3DS. You take control of a party of adventures and traverse a giant labyrinth comprised of several smaller dungeons, drawing your own map of the many floors as you go. You explore dungeons, fight monsters, and do a lot of strategizing for dozens of hours, with the ultimate goal of reached the top (or the bottom, in some of the games) of the labyrinth.
These games are purposefully big on the mechanics and light on story. You’re given a vague ultimate goal and maybe a villain in the final stratum, but there’s a lot of blank space in between. If you want your party members to have personalities, backstories, and interpersonal dynamics, you have to come up with them yourself. This too, is by design. Series director Komori Shigeo recalls his inspiration for Etrian Odyssey as “an RPG that stimulates the imagination,” drawing on childhood memories of daydreaming about his favorite games whenever he wasn’t playing them. His team designed the character creation process appropriately — the game provides only the portraits and the numbers, and everything else is up to you. To paraphrase Aevee Bee, you play two games when you play Etrian Odyssey: one on the DS and one in your head. The second game may have no “real” impact on the first, but if the weekly headcanon prompts thread on the Etrian Odyssey subreddit are any indication, players get just as into thinking about Etrian Odyssey as they do properly playing it.
The imagination game of Etrian Odyssey also extends to your characters’ gender. As I said above, at no point does Etrian Odyssey ask the dreaded boy-girl question of anyone in your adventuring party. In the game’s narration, your character are referred to either as a collective guild, or with neutral “they” pronouns. The only player characters in Etrian Odyssey that are ever explicitly gendered are the Story Mode characters in the Etrian Odyssey Untold remakes, and those games still give you the option to play the games with characters of your own.
The latest entry in the series, Etrian Odyssey V, expands its customization options while remaining committed to never explicitly gendering your characters. In addition to more portraits and color control, the game also offers 40 options for character voices. Like the portraits, there’s some implicit gender coding — half are blue-colored and half are pink-colored, but any voice can be assigned to any portrait, or even turned off if you don’t want a voice for that character at all. Etrian Odyssey V is the entry that convinced me that the series’ handling of gender was intentional. If the lack of explicit gendering was a developer oversight or a translation convention, this would be the game where it would be changed. The fact that it hasn’t convinces me that this is a deliberate move on the part of the team, and I’m all the more grateful for it. It’s one of the most impact selling points of the series for me.
The way Etrian Odyssey does gender may seem like a small detail to get excited about in a game that that has a devoted following for a lot of other reasons, but I honestly think it might be the most unique feature of the series. Don’t get me wrong, all the exploring, fighting, and questing is absolutely my jam, but there are other games I know that scratch similar itches. I’m hard-pressed to think of another game that does gender the way these games do, and that means a lot. Like a weird new word you’ve just learned, gender is something you never notice until you do. So to have a series that leaves it entirely up to you the way that Etrian Odyssey does is refreshing to me and many others as well. I know quite a few queer people who are fans of these games, and I’ve never heard any of them talk about the game without mentioning how it does gender.
I don’t think I ever decided if Mallory was explicitly trans, but I don’t think I would have started creating trans characters without her. Ever since that first party, my guilds have always had a few gender-defying members. My Etrian Odyssey V guild currently has two trans girls. Helena is our heavily-armored, heavily-armed Dragoon. She mostly protects the party with her shielding skills, but she can also do things like fire a cannon so hard it puts an enemy to sleep, which is both entertaining and surprisingly useful. She’s the guild’s stalwart leader, and often the last one standing on a failed run. Our second trans guild member is Iore, a long-haired magic user with really cool coat and a timid voice. Ironically, she uses it a lot, as her skills are a combination of magical incantations and special chants that augment their power. When my party kills a tough enemy, it’s often through one of Iore’s 400-damage fireballs, tossed from behind Helena’s shield. We’re about halfway through the 3rd Stratum, and trudging steadily up. Maybe in another 20 hours, we’ll make it to the top.
What’s most interesting about gender in Etrian Odyssey is how much it accomplishes by not including gender in the game. We don’t naturally think of taking something out of a work as being the better option for portraying it, but by leaving out explicit gendering while encouraging the players’ imagination, Etrian Odyssey opens up a space for possibilities it could never hope to capture in its code. It’s a relatively tiny detail, yeah, and it’s mostly in my head, but for me it elevates this little (3)DS series that I already like a lot into something truly special. Give it a try if you’re interested, and don’t forget to decide which of your adventurers smoke weed.