Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is a story about dreams. It’s a story about ambition. And it’s a story about learning to have trust and faith in your own abilities.
While, as we’ve previously explored, the game takes a deliberately “directionless” approach to its early hours, these themes are nonetheless apparent from the very beginning of the game. And they’re explored not only through our heroine Sophie herself, but through many of the other characters, too.
So let’s take a closer look at the narrative, themes and characterisation of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, and ponder how these characters grow and change over the course of their respective journeys.
As the game opens, we’re introduced to Sophie as someone who has great admiration for her grandmother — who, we’re led to believe, has passed away relatively recently. Not so recently that Sophie is continually grief-stricken by her memory — this is not a game about melodrama — but the pair did clearly enjoy a close enough relationship that Sophie wants to follow in her footsteps as an alchemist.
When we first join her, Sophie appears to have a passing level of competence in alchemy, though she finds herself a little frustrated at the fact she isn’t able to improve a little more quickly. Indeed, one can argue that Sophie’s desire to rapidly get better at alchemy is what kicks off the game’s whole story — while looking through her grandmother’s stock of books to see if there’s anything that might help her out, she discovers Plachta in book form.
Plachta informs her of a hazy memory of something called “The Cauldron of Knowledge”, an alchemical device that allows anyone, regardless of their natural talent or trained skill in alchemy, to create things like a master of the art. Unfortunately, Plachta’s long years living as a book, apparently without being noticed by either Sophie or her grandmother, mean that she has forgotten most of the details relating to this tale. And thus, we have an initial, albeit vaguely defined, objective — help Plachta get her memories back.
Sophie’s initial motivation for seeking The Cauldron of Knowledge might seem a little selfish if taken in isolation, but it’s obvious from the first scene in which we see her that she isn’t in this just for the pursuit of power. When asked by her friend Monika to put together an item, her immediate response is “I can’t just ignore someone in need! Leave it all to me!”
This is a textbook response for not only Atelier protagonists, but RPG protagonists in general. But you get the impression that Sophie really means it — and the reason for that is, of course, her grandmother. Sophie’s grandmother was absolutely beloved by the people of Kirchen Bell not specifically for her alchemical abilities, but for the fact she would use her unique talents to help others.
While living on the fringe of society — both metaphorically, due to her unusual skills, and literally, due to her atelier’s location on the outskirts of town, Sophie’s grandmother was accepted for who she was, simply because she gave plenty of thought to the needs of others. But one gets the sense that she didn’t just constantly slave away over her cauldron to ensure everyone had an easy life; she simply offered the help she was able to offer, when it was needed.
The idea of how alchemy can be used and abused has been explored in a number of ways over the course of the Atelier series. Back in the Dusk subseries, for example, we saw the story of the Bumblebee (or “Hummingbird”, depending on how literal you like your translations) Princess, who solved the problem of a community’s failing crops with alchemy, only to be dismayed at the fact that offering a short-term solution didn’t solve the underlying problem — meaning the people ended up suffering in the long term.
Likewise, even further back in the Atelier Iris series, we saw Chaos take up the destructive red Azoth in an attempt to bring back his deceased sister; while his intentions were noble, the means through which he sought to attain power caused him to fall to darkness. (The name his parents gave him probably didn’t help, either.) And ultimately, as protagonists Felt and Viese prove towards the end of the narrative in a rather touching scene, even if he had been able to master alchemy with the help of the red Azoth, it wouldn’t have been enough to achieve what he wanted.
In other words, Sophie’s grandmother struck the correct balance — she was aware of the power that alchemy held, but she also respected and understood that power, and didn’t misuse it for selfish gain. Nor did she allow others to misuse it for selfish gain, either; one suspects Kirchen Bell would look quite different from the sleepy Germanic village it is had she truly chosen to unleash her powers.
Inspired by both her grandmother’s behaviour and the obvious affection which the people of Kirchen Bell held her in, Sophie follows suit. While she certainly wouldn’t object to a “quick fix” such as the Cauldron of Knowledge to make her alchemy better overnight, she demonstrates repeatedly over the course of the game that she’s willing to put the work in order to fulfil her dream: to be like her grandmother, and to be held in the same level of high regard.
Interestingly, alchemy isn’t the only way in which Sophie can demonstrate this. A completely optional sequence of events involving the piano in Kirchen Bell’s café allows you to take Sophie from a complete musical novice up to a competent pianist through some diligent practice. What’s especially interesting about this sequence from a narrative and structural perspective is that it gives you no feedback whatsoever while you’re in the middle of it — initially it just seems like a nice little “Easter egg” that you can move Sophie over to the piano, and she’ll tap out an awkward little tune on it.
Repeatedly do this, though — in total it takes about 30 in-game days’ worth of practice — and you’ll not only see a few events as people quietly notice Sophie’s diligence, but also witness her gradually getting better. The fact that there are long periods without any feedback between these special events is a reflection of how you don’t just get better at something overnight — you need to make a commitment and put in the practice.
The same is true for Sophie’s alchemy. Like in most Atelier games, Sophie starts as someone who is already remarkable by the very fact she knows how to perform basic alchemy, but becomes extremely powerful by the end of it all. However, as a naturally humble sort of person — largely due to her memories of her grandmother, and her desire to follow in her footsteps — Sophie completely fails to recognise the fact that she is improving over the course of the narrative as a whole, and as such is rather surprised any time someone complements her.
This can perhaps be explained by the fact that Sophie has lived for a long time with the vague feeling that catching up to her grandmother is some sort of far-off, impossibly attainable dream. She has difficulty believing that she could ever reach that dream, such is the regard she holds her grandmother in. And as such, when several characters tell her outright that she’s reached a level absolutely and definitely comparable with her grandmother, she is surprised.
Part of this is perhaps down to the fact that Sophie feels like she’s just been doing things her own way all along, and as such doesn’t necessarily feel like she’s been truly “following” her grandmother. That’s not for lack of trying, however; a plot point partway through the narrative sees Sophie restoring a set of clothes that her grandmother once wore, and adopting them as her day-to-day outfit rather than her initial iconic baggy coat and Germanic corset dress combo. While wearing the clothes, Sophie comments that she feels stronger and closer to her grandmother; she obviously believes that people will take her more seriously dressed like that, and she seems to take herself more seriously, too.
But achieving one’s dreams isn’t just a matter of emulating someone else, and Sophie knows that deep down inside herself. Ultimately, your dream might actually take a slightly different form than what you initially thought it was — in Sophie’s case, “I want to be as good as my grandmother” becomes “I want to help people in the way my grandmother did”. And that latter option, although similar, allows Sophie the flexibility to do things her own way — to be more than just a clone of her grandmother, and someone who becomes beloved in her own right.
Let’s sidestep a moment and look at some of the other characters involved in the story, because a number of them embody this concept of how dreams and ambitions change over time — particularly when you come into contact with other people.
Clothier Leon is probably the most potent example of this. She swans into town with an incredibly distinctive appearance, brimming with confidence and personality along with obvious talent for her craft. She takes great pride in her work, and repeatedly shows that she considers the needs and wants of others rather than simply doing her own thing.
We see Leon do this multiple times over the course of the game — initially, during a lengthy major sequence in the game that culminates with Sophie transferring Plachta’s consciousness from her book into a doll’s body, Leon makes a great effort to truly understand what makes Plachta tick, and from that determines what would be her perfect outfit. Later, Leon does the same thing for Sophie — only this time around, she quizzes Sophie’s friends instead of Sophie herself in order to surprise her.
This being an anime-inspired game, Sophie, of course, initially mistakes Leon’s questioning of her friends as her talking about her behind her back — but this being an Atelier game, the misunderstanding is resolved quickly and in a friendly manner, though Leon manages to do so without spoiling the surprise. When Sophie does finally receive her new clothes, she is delighted — they’re an excellent reflection of her personality, and from a thematic perspective they allow her to stand out and distinguish herself as her own individual person rather than simply a copy of her grandmother.
Leon herself is troubled, though. Through interacting with her in the long term, it becomes apparent that she is actually a talented fashionista from another land — specifically, one who won a prestigious competition. Oddly, though, it seems she fled her homeland after winning the competition rather than embracing the fame and fortune her new status would have brought her; her justification for this is the fact that what she had thought was her dream — to be a successful, recognised, famous clothier — actually wasn’t what she wanted at all.
Instead, she realised that all she really wanted to do was to make people happy through her talent — and as a result, she felt disgusted with herself for the recognition she had achieved, but didn’t feel she deserved. She’s partly reminded of all this by continually seeing Sophie acting so selflessly for the people of Kirchen Bell, but also by the fact that as the story progresses, more and more people start to recognise her “true” self.
Sophie, having grown rather close to Leon by this point, is concerned, and wants Leon to understand that what she is doing right now is already fulfilling her true dream — that of bringing happiness to others. So she turns her own techniques against her: by quizzing her about her likes, dislikes and tastes, she uses alchemy to produce a brooch that is exactly the sort of thing Leon would love, then presents it to as a gift — just as Leon gladly handed over both Plachta’s initial outfit and Sophie’s new threads without expecting anything in return.
“My real dream was to create clothes that make people smile,” she admits to Sophie. “You two were really happy when you wore the clothes I made, right? That’s the kind of stuff I wanted to create. It’s more important to me to see people smile, not getting top awards at some contest. I’ve been chasing a different dream up until now. No wonder I wasn’t satisfied when I reached it. I feel like an idiot for being so worried about it. But I also feel really relieved.”
Leon’s probably the best example of the secondary characters that reflect the concept of dreams changing form as time passes, but there are plenty of others, too. A great one is Corneria, a young-looking girl who sets up a street stall and who, in mechanical terms, is your main source of duplicating and restocking items.
Corneria reveals relatively early on that she has been looking for information about her people in general and her family specifically. She doesn’t really know where she came from and as such hasn’t really found a place that feels like “home”, despite being born in Kirchen Bell — with that in mind, she’s been trying to track down information that will lead her back to her homeland, and perhaps a reunion with her father, who has been absent her whole life.
That information isn’t immediately forthcoming, but over the course of Atelier Sophie’s complete narrative, all this starts to matter less and less to Corneria. She starts to understand that she’s finally been able to set down some roots in Kirchen Bell, thanks at least in part to Sophie’s continued trust in her. While her initially stated dream was to “know where people with [her] power live”, it seems all she really wanted was a place where she felt like she belonged — where people wanted and needed her, and would treat her as a valued and precious friend.
An inversion of the “following your dreams” formula is found in the form of clock shop owner Harol, who inherited his store from family but resents his obligations. Early in the game, he finds himself fascinated with guns, which are seemingly a relatively new invention in the world of Atelier Sophie, and ends up displaying his considerable dexterity and technical mastery through creating those rather than clocks.
Sophie continually teases Harol for never having any customers and never working on any clocks, but it’s all in good humour. She knows that Harol feels resentment towards the shop he inherited, but also doesn’t feel like he can just abandon it — it was passed to him by family, after all. While he’s sometimes upset at Sophie’s comments, Harol also knows that she has a point. And, over the course of the narrative, his attitude quietly starts to change.
There’s never a big deal made of this, but it just sort of ticks along in the background. As the main story proceeds, Harol is presented with more and more opportunities to demonstrate his skill in working with small and precise machinery — until he eventually realises that he actually derives some sort of enjoyment from making use of his natural talents.
His resentment was more from the fact that he felt like he was being forced down a particular path rather than not actually wanting to follow that path; he finally comes to realise that he can choose to follow that path not out of obligation, but out of earnest desire — and ultimately that makes him feel much more satisfied and content with the situation in which he finds himself.
All of these stories you experience in Atelier Sophie — and plenty more besides the ones we’ve talked about here — act as an excellent lead-up to the game’s finale, during which Plachta finally recovers all of her memories, and recalls exactly why the Cauldron of Knowledge had been sealed away for five centuries.
Plachta once worked alongside another powerful alchemist known as Luard. The pair of them developed their skills in alchemy together, and both struggled at first — but they found shared joy in the time that they helped out their village by producing a simple item that helped with the ailing crops.
The pair of them knew that the item wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but the grateful response from the villagers — who were more happy that someone had gone out of their way to help the situation in a extraordinary way than with the actual form the “solution” took — led them both to feel like making use of alchemy to help others was a wonderful thing. Until Luard changed.
“Luard was taken in by the power of alchemy,” Plachta explains. “His research became more and more self-righteous, and selfish. If allowed to continue, his research could have affected the entire world. That’s why I fought to stop him.”
Luard’s desire for power led him to pursue a form of alchemy known as Ablation Alchemy. While Plachta explains that the form of alchemy used by Sophie is a means of the alchemist listening to the “wishes” of materials and allowing them to fulfil their potential — an interesting parallel to Sophie’s friend Oskar’s insistence that he can hear the voices of plants — she explains that Ablation Alchemy forcibly drains the power from nature in order to create whatever the alchemist desires.
There are some obvious parallels to modern-day environmental concerns here. Luard’s use of Ablation alchemy mirrors how today’s industry is able to make pretty much anything we want — but that there’s inevitably a cost that nature has to pay.
The food industry causes nature to pay a direct cost by, say, cutting down forests to make land for animals reared for meat to graze on. The manufacturing industry requires raw materials, inevitably pulled from nature, and produces pollution. And more modern industries charge nature an indirect toll by requiring energy to be produced — which, in turn, uses up the Earth’s natural resources and, again, produces pollution.
In more recent years, the latter case even sees nature paying the price for producing something that has no actual physical form — but now is not the time for a rant on the inherent absurdity of cryptocurrency or non-fungible tokens. That said, in today’s world, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Luard’s Ablation Alchemy research — which, during the story, we don’t see produce any actual tangible results besides a severely adverse effect on nature — and selfish modern technologies which could well be accelerating the destruction of our own world.
Sophie and Plachta recognise that one day, there might be a place for Ablation Alchemy if it can be performed in a sustainable manner — but right now, that simply doesn’t seem to be possible. One might argue that it’s only through potentially destructive research that sustainability could finally be achieved — but you also have to ask if it’s really worth it.
Sophie’s world has been getting along just fine without Ablation Alchemy, after all — and moreover, certain areas of that world have been permanently scarred by previous attempts to tame this immense power. So Sophie and Plachta initially attempt to remind Luard of the dream he once had — to help people through alchemy — but it quickly becomes clear that just as Plachta lost her memories over the course of five centuries, so too had Luard lost sight of his original goal while sealed away. And Luard didn’t have a Sophie to help him rediscover those memories.
As such, the only option left to Sophie and Plachta is to defeat Luard, destroy the Cauldron of Knowledge and prevent this situation from ever happening again. A drastic approach, to be sure, but one which will ultimately benefit the world in the long term — assuming, of course, that Sophie and Plachta never end up tempted to the dark side. Which, being Atelier protagonists, they probably won’t be… right?
The interesting thing about Atelier Sophie’s finale is that although it is technically a “save the world” kind of affair, the only people actually aware of the magnitude of what Sophie and company have accomplished by the time it’s all over are the people who were there when it happened.
The people of Kirchen Bell have no idea that this spunky, tomboyish, clumsy young alchemist has just saved the world from eventual destruction when she comes back to town — and, in keeping with Sophie’s general selflessness and desire to help people rather than basking in glory, she makes no effort to tell a tall tale about her victory. Instead, she goes right back to how her life was before — only now she’s as good an alchemist as her grandmother once was, even if she doesn’t quite believe it herself.
That’s not to say people don’t notice that something has changed about Sophie, however; during the ending sequence, if you speak to various people around Kirchen Bell, many of them who were not present for the final battle will comment on how much more “mature” she seems today. And we can take that as concrete proof that once the credits roll in Atelier Sophie, our heroine has absolutely fulfilled her dream to help people — and also understands that her work is never done from hereon.
But she doesn’t resent that at all; she’s found her own life’s meaning on her own terms rather than living in the shadow of her grandmother — and she still has fantastic goals ahead of her that she can continue to explore with her friends by her side.
Sounds like a good way to wrap things up for her story, huh?
More about Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book
More about the Atelier series
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