Ponder, if you will, the most common criticisms of the video games medium as a whole. The things that make people roll their eyes and exasperatedly say “videogames” (with no space); the things that inspire endless op-eds by well-known games journalists that ask that eternal question: why aren’t things any better?
Games, these critics say, are worryingly homogeneous; the domain of late-20s, early-30s, bestubbled, gruff-voiced male protagonists with a big chip on their shoulder and usually some sort of “dark past” (or, in the case of anti-heroes, a dark present) to overcome. Games are overly violent and show a poor attitude towards women; games are concerned more with chasing the gritty Hollywood blockbuster model than providing inclusive experiences for everyone to enjoy; games are rehashing the same old ideas over and over again, often on a yearly basis.
Now take a moment to consider Atelier Rorona Plus: The Alchemist of Arland. Or, indeed, the original Atelier Rorona that came out back in 2011. Or, for that matter, the Atelier series as a whole. Spot anything interesting?
That’s right; it’s a series that deftly addresses a significant number of these concerns about modern video games — and yet it’s one that passes a significant number of people by. If you’re not already “in on it,” chances are you won’t give it a second look. And that’s a real shame.
Let’s take a look at why.
The Atelier series, which has been running for many years now, though we haven’t seen all its games in the West, is an alchemy-centric role-playing game series from Gust, the same team who made the excellent Ar Tonelico series. While the three Ar Tonelico games were, in many ways, fairly traditional role-playing games, the Atelier series — and particularly its more recent incarnations — has veered away from the conventions and tropes of the Japanese role-playing game genre in a significant way to create something that very much has its own unique identity.
Atelier Rorona Plus is a remake of the first game in the Arland series, a trilogy of games that follow three generations of young female alchemists in the small kingdom of Arland. Taking on the role of Rorona, a girl who began working in Arland’s alchemy workshop after its master Astrid provided medical care for her parents that they couldn’t pay for, you’re tasked with helping her successfully realise a number of alchemical assignments for the kingdom. Succeed, and Rorona will build up her reputation in the kingdom. Fail, and the workshop will be closed down to make way for factories, and Rorona will be forced to leave the kingdom forever.
The “antagonist” in Atelier Rorona is not the usual world-threatening villain or giant monster; it is the state itself.
The “antagonist” in Atelier Rorona is not the usual world-threatening villain or giant monster, then; it is the state itself, although the kingdom’s desire to see the workshop wiped off the map is personified through the grouchy minister Meredith Alcock, a cantankerous middle-aged man who believes that the industrial revolution that recently came to Arland is the only way forward for the kingdom.
Alcock isn’t a “villain” in the traditional sense of role-playing games, however; he doesn’t magically turn into a giant monster and force you to fight him, and his machinations are very much things that go on in the background while you go about your business rather than the more direct approach some antagonists take. Instead, his villainy is more insidious; he’s actively working against Rorona to ensure the workshop shuts down, but as the game’s narrative progresses, Rorona garners more and more support from her friends and the community as a whole.
This is, in part, due to Rorona herself. Beginning the game as a slightly ditzy, innocent but nonetheless likeable young girl who doesn’t have much confidence in her own abilities, she grows into a strong young woman who is more than capable of taking on the challenges the world throws at her. She takes some hard knocks along the way, but instead of letting them beat her down, she learns from them, picks herself up and carries on, and her friends — even those that initially regard her as loveable but ultimately unremarkable — come to recognise her abilities and talents.
Beginning the game as a slightly ditzy, innocent but nonetheless likeable young girl who doesn’t have much confidence, Rorona grows into a strong young woman more than capable of taking on the world’s challenges.
The depiction of Rorona throughout the game is a positive one — and certainly a far cry from the oft-criticised depiction of women (particularly female protagonists) in Western games as the product of “bad things” men have done to them in the past. Rorona lacks confidence not because she’s been abused in any way — some of her master Astrid’s ribbing walks a very fine line, but it’s ultimately intended in a light-hearted, jocular manner –but because she’s a fifteen year old girl who has yet to discover her own skills and talents, and who really knows themselves at fifteen?
Rorona’s personal growth over the course of the story’s three years is a direct result of her (and the player’s) actions: as she grows older, she learns new things, discovers that yes, she does in fact have talents, she is good at things and that she is more than capable of dealing with the obstacles life continually throws in her way.
The whole experience is just — and this is an insipid sort of word, but it really applies here — nice. It’s hard to play the game without a broad grin on your face, and the depiction of Rorona in particular is heartwarming, enjoyable to experience and, perhaps most importantly, genuinely inclusive. In many ways Rorona’s gender doesn’t matter all that much — she could just as easily have been a young boy with the same self-confidence issues and personal growth over the course of the narrative — but by making her a girl, it sends a powerful message.
Ultimately, Rorona becomes a strong, powerful, capable and much more confident young woman — and without any of her character development coming from her swooning over men who are stronger than her, or from men abusing her. She’s a relatable heroine who helps hold the whole experience together — and sets a great example for others to follow.