Button Trance: Ar tonelico 2April 22, 2008
What is Button Trance?
On a drizzly evening six years ago I (Jetfuel) put down 15,000 yen at the Trader used game store in West Shinjuku and walked out carrying a shopping bag heavy with gaming potential. The contents of that bag ended up summoning one of the most intense fanhoods ever to take hold of me. The details belong in another article, but the result was that my days of casual, mainstream Japanese 2D culture fandom were over: I became a Sakura Taisen maniac.
Often, during the marathon Sakutai sessions my companion Andy and I conducted, after sitting in the dark for long stretches without speaking, pressing the A button to advance the story, absorbing the atmosphere, I would suddenly let out a breath that I had been unconsciously holding for who knows how long. Or I’d slowwwwly let out the breath with a noise like an old car door creaking open. Andy thought this was hilariously funny. I thought it was natural that while playing a game this transcendentally fun, I would forget to breathe.
Since then, I have been in search of another experience that could sustain that muted, measured hum of enjoyment for hours, with periodic bursts of mind-bursting thrills, and the atmosphere that makes me want to live in the game forever. I want, as often as possible, to forget to breathe. Button Trance is a journal of that quest. You could, I suppose, also think of it as an editorial video game review column. In each installment of this column, I’ll focus on what a particular game means for a _button trancer. _It’ll be a subjective look at the game by someone who judges not by graphics, sound, story, and playability, but by immersion, infatuation, and completionism. (Exactly what I mean by those three words will be explained below). If you find that you feel similarly about games, you too may be a button trancer, and you may find something to enjoy here.
Today I’ll present the latest work to jam on all of my buttons at once, Gust and Banpresto’s opus Ar tonelico 2: Sekai ni Hibiku Shoujotachi no Metafalica. If you’re not familiar with Ar tonelico, Wikipedia’s article is a fine place to find out the facts. There are also comprehensive reviews around the web.
For a lot of folks, time spent advancing the story by tapping the Circle button is time wasted. For me, this is time spent sinking into the game’s atmosphere. The longer the characters speak to one another, especially if there are voices, the further and quieter the real world gets, and the closer I am to complete immersion. I don’t need to think about the my hand on the controller, or my item stash, or my hit points. Of course, the purest form of this trance state comes from straight visual novels. The text appearing character by character, the audio, and the images, if melded together just right, can generate the quiet hum of enjoyment that I call button trance.
Ar tonelico 2 has a lot of opportunities for such immersive trance blended into it: most prominent are the Cosmospheres. Each of the heroines has a virtual world in her mind, which you can visit in order to help iron out her psychological problems and subsequently weave new song-magic for her to perform in battle. These Cosmosphere are essentially a series of little visual novels, each exploring one aspect of a heroine’s psyche. These become available pretty often, so you can intersperse your traditional RPG resource management-type fun with drops into the Cosmospheres whenever you like. The new Infelsphere mechanic is similar, except that it focuses on the relationship between the two main heroines, rather than the one between the main character and a heroine. And if the sphere levels are miniature visual novels, then the conversations you get when crafting or resting at a save point are mini-mini visual novels. The game offers hundreds of tiny conversations to discover whenever you make the tiniest bit of progress in the RPG part.
The protagonist Chroah makes immersion easy. He’s fairly astute (unlike Lyner from the first Ar tonelico), rather personable (unlike Edge from Atelier Iris 3: Grand Fantasm), and generally just an all-around reasonable guy (unlike many conventional RPG heroes). You can superimpose yourself onto him easily because he doesn’t blunder around doing ridiculous stuff, and the extent of his own personality that he exhibits is being a kind, sentimental person.
Some games are just games, mechanisms for prodding reward systems in your brain. You can get pretty excited about a really well-put-together set of game mechanics, such as, say, those of Go or chess. But there’s a more urgent type of excitement and joy to be had from the fulfillment of certain fancies you might have, and in our Japanese 2D culture we often call this feeling moe. Most commonly, and most simplistically, moe means cute girls who fit your preferences. But it could also mean certain types of weapons, music, vehicles (like the way I feel about R-Type spaceships), or even situations, if they stir up insatiable longing in your heart. One could write all day about what moe means, and Shingo has. If a game causes you moe, it is thrilling enough to summon up the same infatuation that otherwise comes only from high-school crushes.
Ar tonelico 2 is about as sweetly loveable as a game can get. Of course, the heroines and side characters are attractive, endearing people. These days, it’s to be expected that you’ll have some such female characters in nearly any game with any character designs to speak of. But in Ar tonelico 2, even the settings, the items, the game mechanics, and the music seem to be designed to spark infatuation. There’s more than one maid cafe. You’ll craft items as ridiculous as “Kayaku-tan”, a bomb sporting twintail fuses and wearing a school swimsuit. The way you level up your female characters is by putting them in the bath together. And the bathtime theme is “Mayonaka no Naishobanashi” — “Midnight Secrets” — a lazy, sultry duet by Shikata Akiko and Shimotsuki Haruka, two of the game’s four female singers.
So there’s no shortage of material to hook into your instincts for attraction and longing. It seems like the game would turn out to be all frosting and no cake, but somehow there’s enough solid, meaningful characterization and epic plot beneath all the fluffy cuteness and lavish sexiness that the game actually does feel worthwhile. Sure, this is a game where instead of collecting 100 pocketable monsters or trading cards or somesuch, you’re collecting 100 cute girls in costumes. But the game convinces you that it’s all for a good reason; the painstakingly crafted backstory and the _Xenogears Perfect Works_–like design books back it up with sufficient grandness.
Of course, I’ve only mentioned the infatuation hooks that are new since the first game. The heroine costume system, the charming side characters, the visual-novel-style fanservice CGs, and all such sugary stuffs are back in full force. The Cosmosphere system once again works as a way for the creators to kind of preemptively self-doujinize their creation. Cosmospheres take place inside the heroines’ minds, so it’s legitimate to set them in a Japan-like high school, or in an Akihabaraesque urban ward, without actually breaking from canon.
_Cosmospheres can present characters in classic moe modes _
As for sexiness, a game like At2 can push up against the boundaries of acceptability much more closely than an actual eroge adapted from the PC. If the creators know from the start that they’re constrained by the content standards of console games, they can keep that in mind when designing, say, costumes and reward images. But when adapting eroge, creators have to just lop off all of the erotic content and offer what’s left, which could contain almost no fanservice at all. So there’s plenty of near-eroticism to discover. The Cosmosphere even offers a mamakita button — “here comes Mom button” — just press Select and whatever embarrassing scene may be on the screen is replaced by a mundane diagram or some other harmless image.
And it’s not every day that a console RPG spawns a new moe mode: the dorodere is a character who’s dorodoro on the inside (messed up and disturbed), but deredere on the outside (sweet and affectionate). This term was coined particularly to describe At2’s_ _Luca Truelywaath — the Cosmosphere game mechanic is a perfect fit for characters who are x on the outside but y on the inside. (Thanks to Hatena blog After Seven for the explanation; asking Luca herself didn’t yield a very satisfying answer…)
Some games expect you to push the game to its limits and squeeze all of the fun out of it in some way or another. These games offer more to do than you could possibly get around to in a casual completion of the story. They’re built for our compulsive minds, to provide more baubles to collect and more secrets to unlock, far afield from the central story, for those of us so immersed and so infatuated that we never want to leave the game world.
The first time through this game I just meandered along, eventually getting to Croche’s end. But I still wanted the secret character’s ending, and it turns out that unlike in the first game, if you don’t learn the rules and plan wisely, you need to go pretty far back in order to get a different ending. So I played through almost the whole game again, and the second pass was surprisingly rewarding. The battle, crafting, and bath systems finally slipped into fun grooves, rather than just being things I erratically muddled through as necessary.
I was bitten by the completionism bug. It was tempting to go for 100% of everything, but that would have taken at least 200 hours and at least one more pass through the whole game. Instead I endeavored to rescue all 100 I.P.D. Reyvateils, the previously mentioned “collectable” cute girls who are scattered throughout the game and who you “rescue” by defeating them in combat. I could have instead chosen to craft every last one of the ridiculous items that can be crafted, in all of their various forms that depend on which heroine you employ to help create them. I could have chosen to find all the crystals and bath accessories to bring my heroines up to level 99 (and beyond?). I could have tried to find all of the conversations that can be had between every combination of the protagonist and the three heroines.
So yes, there’s enough material in here to take the game from being just a node in your overall gaming hobby, into being a hobby in its own right. I spent 108 hours, over six months, playing no other game but At2, and there’s so much I still haven’t seen. The game is wide and deep. And Gust is unbelievably encouraging to their fans, what with their whole Ar-portal site featuring gobs upon gobs of new material all the time: playable Flash games, audio interviews, Q&A newsletters, merchandise… Yes, it seems like one could stay perpetually entertained without ever needing to turn to another game company.
At this rate, I’d be happy to keep buying Ar tonelico games as long as Gust and Banpresto care to make them. I’ll buy the limited edition boxes, the soundtracks, the Hymmnos Concert discs, the design works books, and the figures. Ar tonelico has so far been the greatest answer to my quest for more games that push my buttons like Sakura Taisen did, and in several ways has even surpassed that series. In terms of epic storyline and nitty-gritty game mechanics, for instance, it’s already more satisfying. I’ll proudly hold up Ar tonelico 2 as the right way to follow up an already sparklingly fun game, and as the reason I love video games today at all.