Octopath Traveler & The Joy of Opening Title Themes

I’ve booted up Octopath Traveler around two dozen times in the just-over-twenty hours I’ve managed with the game at the time of writing this, but not once have I hammered the buttons on my Switch to skip past the title screen. It doesn’t offer much by way of its visuals — outside of a brief skimming through footage of all eight of the game’s main protagonists casually strolling through their starting regions — but musically, on but its mere main theme alone, Octopath Traveler’s sound is a wonderful thing to behold. I won’t try and mask a likely whiff of nostalgia permeating this baffling appeal of but a mere title theme, yet I seldom stop to listen-through to a game’s opening crawl or static screen. When I do, it’s usually because the music has such a rapturous sense about it beyond anything remotely to do with past experience. That, right there and then, it’s managing to represent so much with so little; it’s somehow encompassing the amalgamated mood, tone and likely emotions that its players will transition through, without ever feeling construed. In as little as maybe three-or-so minutes.

In Octopath Traveler’s case, it’s around two-and-a-half minutes, yet that’s more than enough to engage me with a piece of music I refuse to skip over. It’s not loaded with audible flair or some would-be flurry, rather it feels carefully measured with whimsical little phrases and hum-inducing melodies that better eases players into the fold. Reflecting well on Octopath Traveler’s pull as a callback to the golden age of JRPGs — a genre we may well be used to now so far as its formula, its general approach goes, but can still warrant a fondness for the journey taken. Flutes that gently lead into strings which build towards a brass segment, itself finally transitioning to a grandiose, but deserved, climax before the key change gives us that signatory invitation to [at long last] jump straight into proceedings.

Octopath Traveler Screenshot
There’s no overthinking chord structure or attempt to be secretly evocative. More on the lines of: “come on, we’re going on an adventure/trip…and we’re going to have fun while we’re at it.” There’s no suggestion here to some grand theme, message, idea…or rather, if there is one, it’d likely be the notion that “16-bit JRPG’s were really something weren’t they?” That retrospective fondness for the genre is very much evident its visuals of course, but there’s something about the soundtrack’s willing limitations, its lack of bombarding players, its focus instead on individual and stand-alone situations, that underscores why Octopath Traveler is as attractive a proposal as its very first teaser alluded to.

Even if said opening theme were completely misrepresentative of the experience — if it were just another example of some mellower easing in, ambiguous uncertainty or just one with a killer riff — it wouldn’t matter, because not unlike the sprinkling of expository lore, world-building and the tale it begins to spin (its many tales in fact) with its protagonists in their respected first chapters, the music doesn’t seem all that bothered in facilitating some fantastical, maybe absurd (by our standards) formality, with vast assemblies of instruments or overwhelming blasts of choral chanting. Octopath’s creators know that we know — those marking Octopath as their first foray into the genre massively outweighed by those who’ll make it their fiftieth. You might consider that a fault, a justifiable criticism and so far as the game’s story/narrative (or excuse for such) is concerned, indeed it is no doubt one of Octopath’s weaker elements as a supposed complete package. This despite the novella-like manner of its narrative. A narrative that doesn’t really offer much outside of the predictable nature of its progression and its major story beats.

Yet this easing the player in while not exactly painting thick brushstrokes with its musical dynamics, serves Octopath’s progression extremely well. Yes, it’s clear the game’s story is rather subservient to the visuals and music on display — a lesser priority by the developers (or at least one would like to imagine/hope) with Octopath’s means of keeping players invested, coming by way of its combat mechanics, its visuals and perhaps the very purest fascination on where one’s travels will take you. There are of course other tracks/themes that I’ve equally come to favor over the course of one’s play-time, but the reason why Octopath’s opening jingle has been on loop more so, is because of how content it feels on simply being, as a game, a compilation of smaller tales, as opposed to a solitary and grand epic by contrast. How its individual phrases — defined by a particular group of instruments — aren’t fighting one another for supremacy or even relevancy. That everything just easily, casually maybe, slides from one aspect, one perspective to the next but still makes sure to draw you in with the timbral qualities of, for example, its flute-playing.

Octopath Traveler Screenshot 2
This admittance, an honesty of its scale and ambitions, I can’t help but respect even if one can throw in the tried-and-tested “…deep as a puddle” idiom. That Octopath’s attempt to intrigue and to appeal, overrides any longer-term and singular attempt at hard-hitting story-telling. Would I have liked such a tale in this genre — one that is epic, tragic, comical; evocative, self-parodying — or any genre for that matter, absolutely. But one can’t say there isn’t some decree of enjoyment in its gameplay, its visual aesthetic and more prominently, its soundtrack, to make up for this obvious absence. Some of the protagonists have their moments, of course. Naturally, the soundtrack jumps from charming character themes to spurring battle music alike but for the most part, Octopath decides on striding the low-road, the road it knows best. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, so long as the music still finds ways to hook you. To have you willingly look past its superficial detail and (as I’m doing right now) break down its finer components. To subtly provide a picture of how the experience may well turn out for its players.

In much the same way Metroid Prime’s complimentary holy and synthetic ramblings painted such a great, though still crucially vague, picture about the nature of Samus’ first foray into 3D exploration, let alone the lore of its setting. Or how Majora’s Mask’s sinister delving into some chaotic abyss in its last few bars, befits the apocalyptic looming of the Moon high above Termina. It’s easy to forget, dismiss in fact, the power of opening themes because, let’s be frank, when you finally have that one game in your possession, you just want to play the damn thing. Not sit through a[nother] five minute crawl. Regardless of how good an introductory composition it might be. Or in Persona 5’s case (another one I seldom refuse to skip on boot-up by the way), how well the trimmed-down version of said introduction works to justify its confident flaunting of a visual aesthetic in motion.

Octopath Traveler Screenshot 3
Octopath Traveler’s brief mention of the instrumental ground it hopes to appease (strings, brass, woodwind…fairly common families of instruments in the fantasy genre, it has to be said), manages to side-step the pitfalls of merely ticking boxes, by at the very least providing a hook, a melody, to get its players back into the swing of things. As if conversing with our former child selves — the child of many years previous whom sat by one’s SNES/Genesis/PC and invested time into this hobby more so because of worlds we got to explore. The gradual journey as much the end destination.

Does a great opener have to, regardless of intent, have to truly condense the game put forth in such a short amount of time? Does it even have to run the risk of pandering? Well no, not always; you can craft something eloquent, a tad minimal or just easy on the ear but can still do wonders with the motifs on show and the notes being delivered. It may end up rather dispensable, a tune so deprived of individuality or context that it could slot in with any title card or static screen — the piano being any composer’s go-to instrument when the need for some heartfelt (sadly hollow) sentiment is necessary. For better or worse. As such, it’s harder to rely on soloist instrumentation because without such things like rhythm or even electronic synthesis to help bolster the ambience, the space in-between so to speak, the sounds are at a greater peril to come across as sterile, lifeless, easily conforming to whatever and whichever game that higher octave chord is required for.

Octopath Traveler Screenshot 4
Octopath Traveler’s clever (and beautiful) opener works because it strides a dynamic middle-ground (neither mellow nor aggressive) and beyond that, like a lot of the game’s delivery, comes off as some fond memory of experiences past — one which you long to replicate. There’s a quaint, picturesque quality to the opening theme — its flute-playing, its use of brass, its transitioning between such, the very notion of moving from one moment to the next. Octopath Traveler’s sweep of traditional instrumentation is a welcome reminder as to why nostalgia isn’t always inherently a bad thing, because its music and “HD-2D” visual aesthetic calls up one of RPG’s potentially exemplary but wholly-human qualities: the pure, unsolicited joy of exploring new worlds on its own. Of “traveling” from one venture to the next.