Sunday, 20 September 2009

Why Atelier Iris 3 is actually a very alchemical story.

[Huge swathes of spoilers for the end(s) of AI3.]

In a sense, though it's not immediately apparent from the superficial story, Atelier Iris 3 could be said to be a game about how alchemy is disrespected and ignored in the world, and how it comes to be respected again.

The first statement is implicit in the plot; the second is not. But if we recognise that, after Iris's sacrifice, people are going to put together "Iris was an alchemist, and we disparaged her for it" and "Iris was the only one of us who could make things right" and realise that, at the very least, alchemists are people who are capable of turning away fundamental negative forces and tendencies that threaten to destroy us as intelligent beings-- as opposed to being people who do strange and disreputable things, who adhere to philosophies and practices that are outmoded or even dangerous, who generally have nothing to offer the world and may even do harm to it-- it becomes obvious how, by the end of the story, the opinions of the townspeople of Zey Meruze regarding alchemy might change.

Uroboros' physical manifestation, in this sense, could be taken as a symptom rather than a cause. "Uroboros" is really no more and no less than "the stagnation of the people's development". People in Zey Meruze have let themselves abandon ways of life that helped and advanced people, out of fear, apathy and inertia ("our lives are fine as they are! Why do we need this weird alchemy stuff causing upheavals?"). They've come to prefer to live mundane lives that don't ask anything much of them on a spiritual and philosophical front: alchemy, and by this I mean the discipline that we know as alchemy in this world, challenges the soul and the psyche and asks the practitioner to refine themselves, which forces them in the short term to go through transformations and confront realisations that might be uncomfortable in order to ultimately become better people. When people see short-term suffering and struggle, and the benefits lie beyond that, in the future, they tend to shy away. Their lives are chugging along well enough. Why put yourself through suffering to be even better? Aren't things okay now?

But that tendency to settle for "okayness", ultimately, creates more suffering in the world; because as long as things are just "okay", they aren't good, they aren't perfect, they aren't refined, and we experience suffering. Accepting "okayness" means accepting a certain level of suffering, and not wanting to move beyond okayness implies that we will never move beyond suffering. The only way to permanently move beyond suffering, spiritually speaking, is to advance ourselves to the point of transcendence-- which requires some short-term sacrifices which at the time feel more acutely uncomfortable, yet are preferable because they are temporary.

The tendency to settle for "okayness", to let the cycle of life go around and around without moving forward, is synonymous with Uroboros: the snake eating its own tail, the wheel of life and death and reincarnation that Buddhist practice exhorts that we move beyond. And so the people of Zey Meruze, in their denial of alchemy, their denial of spiritual striving and insistence upon living simple, unchallenging lives, are in a sense Uroboros.

Uroboros appears physically so that it can be defeated, because the world has come to such a crisis point. When Iris defeats Uroboros in the physical, she also defeats Uroboros in people's hearts. Her actions-- the fact of an alchemist, whose ways they disdained, saving the world through her wisdom and selflessness, which they doubted she possessed-- inspire them to the understanding that alchemy isn't a mindless practice but is in fact the only thing that can save them from Uroboros/stagnation.

And here's the interesting part, and the part that is really very alchemical: she had to defeat the physical Uroboros to inspire the philosophical change in people's hearts, but she cannot truly defeat Uroboros until she has inspired that change, because if the change is not present in people's hearts, then all you've done is defeat some superficial manifestation that wasn't really causing the problem. It's the classical end-boss quote from many RPGs: "as long as darkness remains in people's hearts, I will return someday". What's little-understood is that it's also an alchemical truth. In alchemy, you change physical materials in order to change the spiritual self, but it's spiritual growth and purity of the self that allows you to be subtle enough to effect the physical change. Thus they really occur simultaneously. In changing one you change the other.

So I like to think of Atelier Iris 3 as being set, at the beginning, in a world where alchemy is in decline, and through that decline, Uroboros becomes strong, and a hero-- someone with courage, power and wisdom, though on more refined and spiritual levels than most RPG heroes usually have it-- rises up to physically defeat Uroboros, in doing so showing the people the value of alchemy and truly putting Uroboros to rest.

What's nice about this interpretation, too, is that it provides the necessary characteristic of growth to the story-- in a classical story, a conflict arises, it is resolved, and by its resolution things are made not just as good as they were before but better. Without this interpretation, AI3 lacks the "better"-- the danger is averted, but things just go back to the way they were. If we say that people learnt something about alchemy from this, there's growth; the conflict was worthwhile not just because it restored things to a status quo but because something was gained, and that makes the story really feel fulfilling.

And best of all, that is also in accordance with the rules of alchemy: a trial, a suffering, is undergone, something is deconstructed, in order to bring that thing into a more refined state than before, to purify it, to get rid of something unnecessary through the struggle. Fairy tales are good alchemical metaphors, and I think, viewed in the proper light, Atelier Iris 3 actually makes a pretty good fairy tale. Is it original? Not especially-- most fairy tales aren't. But it tells a story people need to hear, and what's nice about it is that it specifically associates this story with alchemy, which allows a careful viewer to draw out more meaning and truth from it than they otherwise would.