I’m not terribly familiar with the Atelier RPG series. I’ve never played any of the games, and I didn’t even realize that Sue was cosplaying the main heroine from Atelier Meruru in a chapter of Genshiken (see above). But I was asked by one of my Patreon sponsors to write something about the games, so I decided to do some research. While I can’t even pretend to call myself an expert, what I’ve found out about the Atelier games has intrigued me, particularly the way they eschew Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest-style “save the world” scenarios.
Before I go further, I’d like to thank two YouTube channels: ValkyrieAurora, whose overview of the entire Atelier franchise allowed me to better understand the overarching themes of the games, and WeLoveGUST, whose Atelier Meruru play-through introduced me to the feel of an Atelier game. Watching them is no substitute for actually playing, of course, but they were quite helpful nevertheless.
Video games have classically had a violence issue. I don’t mean that violent video games are bad, or that they inherently corrupt people, but that fighting is a convention that’s so easily relied upon in games that it can be a kind of crutch. Fight to save your kingdom. Fight to get revenge. Fight to prove your worth. This doesn’t define all games, but those that step away from violence, also tend to go so far left-field from that world as to be considered a practically different universe. I’m talking about puzzle games like Tetris or gentler games like Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons or Animal Crossing. There’s a wide space in between those approaches (“violence solves everything” vs. “what’s violence?”), and the way the Atelier games strike a middle ground is rather fascinating.
Rather than having a looming evil that must be defeated, the narratives of Atelier games are more often based on personal growth. The key gameplay involves the player as the main character learning to make potions and other concoctions in a quest to master the discipline of alchemy. Experimentation is encouraged, and while the games can vary in terms of how demanding the clock is, they more often than not lean towards the leisurely. It’s still clearly a non-mundane environment, and there is combat involved when it comes to gathering ingredients, but violence clearly takes a backseat.
In this respect, I find myself drawn to Atelier Meruru‘s soundtrack, which is very heavy on recorder and flute usage. There’s a certain sense of innocent fun that permeates the game as a result, and it communicates a certain message, that there’s room to breathe, explore, and maybe even relax. It really sells the games well and really entices me to try out one of the games myself.
The franchise is hardly devoid of a more fantastical setting, as all of the Atelier games take place in classic fantasy settings full of magic and kings and queens, but the balance it strikes is very alluring. It’s not so far into “farm plants and drive trucks” territory as to feel like a simulation of the mundane—the games give the impression of adventure, just not in the “defeat evil” sense. At the same time, I do wonder if it can be hard to balance the niche appeal of that classic Atelier pacing with the desire to draw in a more mainstream audience. In her video, ValkyrieAurora talks about how some of the games put more emphasis on going out on a quest. It makes me wonder if GUST (the company behind Atelier) thought that they needed to draw in more general RPG players, perhaps at the expense of the more core fans.
Atelier is hardly the only RPG series to try and minimize the impact and importance of violence, but its approach is a refreshing one, at least to someone like myself who didn’t really know about these games. It’s a celebration of a certain mellow pace that the world could use more of.
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