Game Pile: Atelier Ayesha

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This isn’t exactly what I was expecting when I went looking for games about witches.

The witch was always an object of fear. She could take from you, she could manipulate you, control you, she could endanger your very soul, destroy you with a word and a thought. Ultimately, the witch of my childhood was a woman with knowledge and will, who had stepped outside of the realm of human society. There was power in the witch’s hands. It would translate so well to a videogame – a girl with magical powers tearing out souls and treating mortals as her puppets.

So now we’re going to look at a game about cute girls making danishes.

Oink-Moo

Atelier Ayesha is the story of Ayesha, an apothecary, which is a sort of hybrid alchemist, chef, and itinerant medic. At the start of the game, she’s a lonely woman with a pet cow and a sad backstory featuring a disappeared sister. The story unfolds from this point, growing outwards to include prospectors, witches, ancient ruins, the dreadful machinery of those who try to stave off the inevitable, and trying to rescue someone who matters to you enormously.

What most people notice about Atelier Ayesha when they first pick it up – and look at the screenshots that I’ve posted on twitter – is that this game is pretty. Not pretty in the same way that say, Far Cry’s landscapes are pretty, but pretty in this really deliberately aesthetic way. It’s a game full of pastel colours, of elaborate dresses, of deliberately cute designs. In so many games, you’ll see one character whose design stands apart as ‘the girly one.’ Atelier Ayesha is a game entirely composed of those.

The game is crammed full of things that are cute. Cute characters, cute dialogue, cute moments of laughter and surprise. Cute cute cute cute. The monsters are cute. The equipment you pick up are cute. The explosives are cute. This is a game where there’s a calendar that’s part of the storytelling device, and where the 0s have smiley faces in it and the 8s have little bunny ears! This game is cute, in an utterly unapologetic way.

This follows through in the cast. The majority of the characters in this game, unsurprisingly, are girls. This means that this is a story about women interacting with women in a variety of different ways. Some of these relationships are bossy and antagonistic. Some of them are about projections and social expectations. Some of them are wholeheartedly fun. Some of them –

okay more than a few of them –

are kind of gay.

Videogames these days are struggling with the weight of outsider opinion. Focus testing, market group, maximising market segments, all of that opinion tends to be about making games that appeal to someone who it doesn’t currently appeal to. If you told a developer that you wanted to make Atelier Ayesha, if it didn’t already exist, you’d be laughed at. The thing is, this game laughs right back. It’s a game that doesn’t try and satisfy anyone else. It knows who wants to play it, it knows what they like, and that’s all it tries to do.

“Oh no,” Atelier Ayesha seems to say sarcastically, “you mean Call of Duty fans won’t want to play this game? I’ll console myself with filling up this progress bar that’s made out of pink flowers.”

The thing that’s surprised me with Atelier Ayesha is that all I have to do is show someone a few screenshots, and they already know whether or not they’re interested. I think, in part, this is because Atelier Ayesha is another iteration of a game style, a mechanical model, that’s been well-established, and is very, very well understood.

Putting The J In JRPG

I’ve heard people say Atelier Ayesha – and really most of the Atelier series – aren’t really JRPGs ‘in the conventional way.’ They certainly lack for a macho male protagonist with spiky blonde hair, a ridiculous sword, and an outfit like he fell through a roof, and at no point so far have we learned we need to go kill God. And it’s true that this Final Fantasy 7 derived game structure is pretty familiar, even if it is an oversimplification.

In the past I’ve spoken – angrily – about how our system of defining genres is wonky. JRPG is one of my favourite things to point to for this because the factors that make a game JRPG seem to be incredibly nebulous. It’s not all about menu-based combat or a particular aesthetic, it’s not about story tropes, or levelling systems. There’s something that people can point to and say That’s Very JRPG but we don’t really have a robust definition of what that is or is not.

Since fussing around the definition leads to a lot of frayed ends and rabbit-hole sidetracks, I’ve decided I need to provide a clear definition for the purposes of discussion:

JRPGs are narrative-driven, expression-light stratified videogames that focus on high-volume systems that reward mastery and time investment.
I recognise this isn’t a perfect definition, and there will be JRPGs that are exceptions to many parts of this definition. Still, note that RPG isn’t in there, even though it’s implied by the word JRPG. Maybe sometime in the future we can have a long chat about Role Playing in videogames. For now, this is what we mean when we talk about JRPG.

Really quickly, to run down those terms:

Narrative-Driven in this case refers to a core game aesthetic; you play these games because the story of what is transpiring in those games matters. Consider games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim, where the vast majority of the game is spent wandering around finding little pockets of things to do, and the ‘central story’ is usually something you avoid doing. Note that narrative includes elements like character interaction and dialogue, not just ‘the plot’ of the game.

Expression-light means the games do not give you much room to determine a thing in the game that you can consider yourself. I think the JRPG I’ve played with the most individual expression was Final Fantasy 5, where you can choose classes and combinations. You could also consider Persona 3, where you have some ability to shape your character over time as they interact with others and increase their stats and skills. In each of these cases, though, you don’t change how the character expresses themselves or solves problems – they mostly are the same people. That’s fine, though – the games aren’t about expressing you.

Stratified refers to how the games deliver content. In most JRPGs, the parts of the game are kept distinct from one another. You don’t receive narrative in combat, you don’t have combat burst into you while you’re changing your equipment. Think of the iconic ‘whoop whoop whoop’ random encounter, where a totally different-looking version of the game starts to show you what’s going on in combat. You do A, then B, then C, and they don’t tend to mix with one another. Even elements that influence one another do so discretely. Consider for example, in Final Fantasy 6, that there were plot-unlocked espers, but once you unlocked them, they were just added to your interface to influence combat as any other esper.

High-volume systems are things like inventory management when you have dozens of similar but not identical items. It’s things like a magic system where rather than upgrade a spell, you receive a new spell that’s slightly better. It’s about filling out a whole book full of individually crafted pieces, or collecting all the espers, it’s catching all the pokemon. These systems tend to have a large number of things, only a small number of which are meaningfully usable at any given point in time. This leads us to the next step.

Rewarding mastery is when a game gives you a thousand options, many of which are bad, and as you become better at the game, you see the options that are bad, and dismiss them. Mastery is when you begin to intuitively know and recognise the ways in which the game works, and that influences your decision. Almost all games reward mastery, but JRPGs, with their high volume, and deliberately stratified play experience push it hard. It’s possible to become very good at an individual JRPG, and its skills do not necessarily translate well to other games.

Time investment – most JRPGs are long. Mostly, they are games that have lots of stuff to do, and you’re offered time in which to do it. There’s almost a direct correlation with time spent on a JRPG and distance through it; it’s hard to totally spin your wheels, and most of them have systems that make speed hard to obtain. Sometimes this is things like backtracking dungeons and sometimes this is things like enormous world maps you need to search across for small things.

So.

With all that in mind, is Atelier Ayesha a JRPG?

Well, yeah, it really is.

Punitive Vs Creative

Atelier Ayesha sure does feel really different to the iconic JRPGs, though, doesn’t it? I mean, there’s something here that makes Atelier Ayesha feel utterly alien compared to the game that everyone’s joking about when they talk about Killing God. It’s a game with such low-key combat, with systems that are more about collecting recipes and filling out conversations, about shopping and searching weeds for ingredients than anything to do with sequential sword structures.

The thing that sets Atelier Ayesha apart isn’t that it’s a girly story – though it definitely is a girly story, girly as an aesthetic, girly as taking the social memes and tropes we treat as ‘girls’ stuff and then using them as hard as possible. What makes Atelier Ayesha different is that it is a creative story rather than a punitive story, and that it’s a spatial story rather than a travelling story.

In narrative terms, almost all other JRPGs are structured around two halves. The first half introduces a character, who then commits an action that you then punish them for. It’s not enough to topple an evil empire because the emperor is a jerk, or because taxation policies are unfair. No, the emperor is responsible for hurting someone that matters to you. Sephiroth wanting to kill the world is important, but the way the story makes that personal is by killing someone. Even games which seem more mystery-driven, like The World Ends With You or Devil Survivor still have this structure where a character is shown to be responsible, and the latter half of the game is about punishing them for what they chose to do. This is the punitive story structure. It’s honestly pretty common, partly because a lot of our society is built around punishment as the only form of social control.

This comes through in the games where you’re surrounded by people who oppose what you’re doing, who need to be either brought in line or bribed around to your side. Think about how many fetch quests you’ve done where all you’re really doing is giving someone a token so they will give you an unrelated thing, a thing they’re probably not even using? How much easier would those quests be if people shared with one another, if they were trying to help one another?

Instead of a story about punishing someone, Atelier Ayesha is a story about rescuing someone. There’s some of the iconic tropes, but the focus of the story isn’t punitive, it’s creative. You have to become smarter, wiser, better, to try and find a way to rescue your sister. Along the way, you grow, with your friends, you solve their problems, and you help them look at themselves. But while say, Persona 4 turns Emotional Problems into things where you have to beat them up, Atelier Ayesha instead uses the conflict/combat elements around these incidents to structure the emotional considerations.

Most JRPGs are about travelling to a sequence of locations. You’ll arrive at a hub, do some things, then move on to another hub. Some games will eventually open up and give you a space to explore freely, but that’s the last stage of the game, and, inevitably, there are things that, having committed to them, you can’t go back and do again. Sylph Tower stops being full of bad guys. The World of Ruin replaces the world of Order. This is a journey story, and it’s really good for keeping a story going. It’s also high on asset value, where you have to keep on designing new spaces or it looks bad.

In Atelier Ayesha, rather than going on a journey , you stay in one space, and move around between its components, between cities and towns. You watch things grow and change over time, which is part of the parameter of the story. This sort of story is one better for showing long, slow changes; it’s good for showing characters growing up, showing businesses change over time, good for showing seasonal change. This sort of spatial story is actually pretty familiar to western RPGs. Diablo is a spatial story (though not a particularly complex one). You have your space to work in, and the story is about the passage of time in that space, rather than the transition of the character from space to space.

These two major framing elements change a lot of how the game expects to work. Everyone is helpful, for example. There are things like traders’ unions and infrastructure that makes some sense. In most JRPGs that try to make their systems – like fast travel networks – make some in-world sense, there’s always the strangest question of wait why are they doing this for me? There’s almost always some abstraction or distance that you can’t think about too much, as you move around a gang of homeless murderers. But in Atelier Ayesha, you’re a local business owner. You’re part of the society.

When Link wanders up to a stranger and gives them the medical patch they need for their injuries, it’s odd and usually indicates some degree of eavesdropping. When Ayesha does it, it’s much more reasonable because it’s her job and she’s part of the society in which those people belong. This feeling of belonging also fosters a feeling of responsibility; you can look upon the characters as connected to you. Even the most confrontational and aggressive character in the story is an outsider, and he represents a really destructive, harmful attitude towards study and science, an extremism that I’m still not sure the story is willing to tolerate.

Normally, I’m kind of reluctant to comment on this sort of thing, you know, game design from the perspective of an amateur designer. But if one were an RPG-maker kind of player, who had characters they wanted to show and a story they wanted to tell, but the asset grind of a conventional JRPG was a bother, maybe they should consider the value of this sort of thing. Fewer assets, more focus on character. More of a place to grow over time.

Just saying.

Verdict

You can get it on Amazon and eBay, and it’s only available on the PS3.

Verdict

Buy it if:

  • You want a JRPG experience that’s low on conflict.
  • You want a large game that can consume a lot of time.
  • You want a game that’s about girls.

Avoid it if:

  • You need something fast and dynamic.
  • You don’t like the very whole aesthetic.

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