Swords & Zippers: I’ll Sing You My Song

Swords & Zippers

Last week, I talked a bit about Gust’s 2007 JRPG Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia and explained a little about the game’s unusual mechanics. This week, I’d like to talk a little more about the game’s story and setting, because they’re just as interesting — if not more so — than the actual way the game plays.

The following column may contain mild spoilers, so be warned if you’re intending to play Ar Tonelico yourself.

Ar Tonelico

Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia is set in a relatively small world for a JRPG. Rather than wandering across the entire globe, you spend the majority of your time on a relatively small floating continent known as the Wings of Horus, and the rest of your time climbing up, down and through the titular tower of Ar Tonelico. There are only a few towns to visit, and there aren’t even that many dungeons when compared to many other more sprawling JRPGs, but as many genre veterans will know, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — small-scale settings are often well-rendered and have a lot of “personality” about them, whereas in games where you’re constantly pushing forward, forward, forward you don’t often get the opportunity to just stop and appreciate the character of a particular area.

We’re introduced to the world of Ar Tonelico through the eyes of the protagonist Lyner, who is an “Apostle of Elemia.” We don’t know much about what an Apostle of Elemia is at the start of the game, save for the fact that they live far above the Wings of Horus towards the top of the tower, and are apparently a technologically-advanced race of humans.

Or are they? As you progress through the game, it becomes apparent that Ar Tonelico features that strange sort of fusion of fantasy and sci-fi that is so often seen in JRPGs — we’re talking knightly dudes wandering around with swords in metallic corridors with massive blast doors, airships that can travel at frightening velocities, and a level of technology that goes considerably beyond “future tech” or into something else altogether — something far more outlandish, exciting and confusing, but somehow plausible in the context of the game’s overall setting.

One of the most intriguing things about Ar Tonelico’s setting is that it doesn’t do much to explain all this at the outset — you have to derive a lot from your own interpretations and observations. Over time, you’ll come to realize that the tower of Ar Tonelico has clearly been there a lot longer than anyone who lives on it, and that not many people know an awful lot about it — it’s just accepted as something that’s there, and people have come to understand a few things about how it works as the years have passed. There are just as many unanswered questions as things that people know, however, and a big part of the latter portion of the game involves learning more about the tower, where it came from and what it’s for. This is something which continues to be explored in the subsequent games in the series, which we’ll get to in the coming weeks.

Ar Tonelico

An important part of Ar Tonelico’s overall setting is that this isn’t a world solely occupied by humans, but rather than featuring various fantasy races like elves and dwarves, we’re quickly introduced to the “Reyvateil,” a race of female “song maidens.” Reyvateil look and act very much like humans, but they have a few peculiar properties. In gameplay terms, this manifests itself as their “Song Magic” ability, which allows a wide variety of effects to be cast on the party’s enemies, and their ability to absorb “Grathnode crystals” through their skin to enhance their abilities. When partnered with another person — known as their “Oracle” — they are also able to open up the world inside their mind (their “Cosmosphere”) and allow their Oracle to “dive” into them and interact with their thoughts, fears and anxieties. We discussed this interesting gameplay mechanic last week, but it bears further mention as a narrative device.

In the first half of the game, the player is introduced to two Reyvateil, known as Aurica and Misha, and has the opportunity to Dive into both of them to have a poke around and learn a bit about them. It becomes apparent quite quickly that despite the pair of them having polar opposite personalities on the surface — Aurica is sweet, gentle, meek and innocent for the most part, while Misha is filled with youthful exuberance and always says what she feels — that they both have a lot of repressed anguish for various reasons. The twist is that you can only go so far into these girls’ psyches in a single playthrough — roughly halfway through the game, you hit a very obvious “split” point that focuses the rest of the game on Lyner’s relationship with either Aurica or Misha, and it’s at this point that things start to get really interesting.

As Lyner delves more deeply into his chosen companion’s subconscious, he encounters a lot of strange things. He’ll come across projections of Aurica and Misha’s personalities that don’t necessarily correspond to the way she is in the real world, and he’ll come across projections of characters that he knows, but they won’t seem quite “right.” The Auricas and Mishas that Lyner comes across inside the various levels of the Cosmosphere each represent just one part of the two girls’ personalities, and it’s the combination of all these often conflicting influences that helps make them the person that they are. The other characters, meanwhile, represent how Aurica and Misha see other people when looking through the eyes of that particular facet of their personality; Aurica, for example, often sees herself as inferior to others, so people that she respects often talk down to her or refer to her as if she still has a long way to go — but as Lyner gets deeper into her Cosmosphere, he’ll see how she starts to look at people in a different way.

Lyner’s journey through his companion’s Cosmosphere reflects how a real-life relationship grows and changes as two people get to know one another. You start with fairly obvious initial impressions, but over time you come to understand your partner’s cares, worries and anxieties — and for the relationship to work you have to learn to accept all of these facets of their personality, not just the bits that you like or the parts that you find easy to deal with. Lyner, fortunately, has the patience of a saint when dealing with the more outlandish incarnations of both Aurica and Misha, which helps both of them grow to trust him — and for him to realize that they’re an important part of his life, too. The peculiar twist on this narrative device is that the “real world” incarnations of Aurica and Misha don’t know exactly what Lyner has seen when he’s visited their Cosmospheres, but from his visits, he learns the best way in which he can communicate with them, and this helps them both to express their feelings for one another over the course of their adventure. This is demonstrated by regular incidental “conversation” scenes whenever the party makes camp at a save point — in fact, it’s a requirement that Lyner and his companion interact to a certain degree in the real world in order to unlock each new level of the Cosmosphere.

Ar Tonelico

There are also more than a few sexual undertones in there, and I’m not just talking about the wince-inducing innuendo that comes up any time a scene involving inserting ability-enhancing Grathnode crystals into a Reyvateil comes up — though that is arguably part of the same thing. No, rather, the Dive process is depicted as being a very intimate affair which only an Oracle-Reyvateil pair who trust each other completely will benefit from; the latter letting the former into the deepest, darkest, most secret places of her heart, often revealing and unleashing her true desires — which are sometimes obviously sexual in nature; the former coming to understand the Reyvateil as a complete person in the process, along with how to interact with her in a way that will make her happy. By the time Lyner reaches level 9 of his companion’s Cosmosphere, their mind is stripped completely naked — there’s nothing more to hide, and no reason to hide any facet of her personality any more, such is the level of trust built up between them.

Ar Tonelico, then, is an interesting JRPG not just for its intriguing gameplay systems, but also for its well-realized setting and interesting characters, whose inner turmoils are explored in a much deeper manner than many other similar titles. Despite its extremely dated visual presentation — it looked like a PS1 game even when it first came out — it’s well worth your time if one of your favorite things about the JRPG genre is getting to know some strange and wonderful characters a bit better.

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Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years. You can follow Pete, author of this article and GrE’s managing editor, on Twitter.

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