Few years back I saw the art-book for the Atelier games in a bookstore. I remember browsing it, being on verge of buying it but eventually left it there. Next month, the only copy had disappeared and since then I’ve had a lingering feeling about this book.
I’ve never played the games, but they are on my to-play-list. They are said to be excellent examples of how to make a compelling crafting mechanics. Also, I’ve held a soft spot on how the Japanese romanticize European aesthetics. Similarly as someone said about 5th element – it is the french interpretation of New York.
As I spent August drawing characters and using it as excuse to buy references, I decided to scratch the old itch and bought the book. Memories were hazy but expectations were high, book about character design of the revered Japanese game series! The collected best art and design from three games! Something new reaching the masterful level of design in Valkyria Chronicles, but in different style!
After initial enthusiasm, I found myself having grown old. This is more of a look back on myself than objective criticism, so while a solid 8, I go ahead where I found it lacking. I found anime when I was 20, and it opened a fresh new world – exciting new styles, myths, arch types, humour etc. Eventually it started to repeat itself, and I moved onwards. I haven’t watched Anime in yeas and the few times I’ve tried to watch some, or read manga, it has failed to sustain my attention. I remember having adored the big-eyed cuteness and innocence contrasting with larger than life narratives, heavy themes, sex, growth and relationships.
Maybe I expected to reach and remember even a piece of that magic and emotion that back then had me charmed. This binds back to dream of being able to smoothly work with character design, portraits and emotionally expressions in multiple styles – there having a inherent understanding on anime/manga style, would be beneficial and even inspiring! I had it – just reignite the flame and maybe the book will rise to be part of the pantheon of artists that have inspired me during the last month. And while the book succeeded partially, it utterly failed with what I expected to love again.
Firstly, as art book of a game, it is only character design and story screens. Nothing about the world building, assets, maps, locations, etc. Only characters, but that can be fine. The style is maximization of sweet cuteness. And what else it could involve than magical teenager-princesses? I’m not shy of extremeties of cuteness, but I’ve aged, and I have a kid. When 20 I could vividly remember being a teen – now days I cannot relate. This means, that most of the female heroes, for me, look way too young to be sexualized as they are. Even though it is masked on veil of innocence, the hemlines are short, panties and legs are showing and I’m a grumpy old man. It is the extremtization of youthfulness: characters that are supposed to be teens have faces with proportions of kids under 10, and those that are 30-40, look like tweens. I feel dirty and seeing revealing dresses and mature shapes on a character that looks like 9-11. just no.
The illusion of belief is further broken by the hilarious dress design. What the main heroes are wearing, are, well, nicely put, fairyish. I applaud for bravery of the designers, as I could not have drawn those, or evolved the design through the steps shown. It is a crappy to argue about unrealism in fantasy games, so be it that some would fall off in real gravity or the impracticality and uneccessary details and cuts.. they are there to bring out the characters, atmosphere and the world. But it shows that I don’t belong within the target audience nor understand the genre. Why the main characters look like they do? What kind of personality and world are they fitting in? How do they move? This is where contrast of having grown within Europe and making fan fiction of idea of Europe shows. There are various of elements and details of what medieval- noble- fantasy wear, but the composition, cuts and functionality are a mess. On surface, it conveys the setting, but then it goes all awry. And I love it. Cultural appropriation being fun while neatly wrong! Or more likely, evolution within the continuum of traditional of Japanese RPG-designs, where accessorizing with copious amounts of floaty leather belts is nothing unusual. Overall, less important to the story, or older the women in the book are, the better they are designed. And men, their designs just are more age-appropriately sexualized and having less ludicrous clothing while still suiting the magical world. Maybe the artist could relate better on male clothing, understood their sexuality through other means than underlining their youthfulness and women were drawn from more distant insight. Surprisingly, the designs on artificial but humanoid comic-relief characters are actually joyful, resulting being free from genre expectations?
So yes, I got what I wanted: A display of Japanese teen-targeted sugary creativity composed with visual elements of historical Europe. But instead of charm, and being fan of pin-up art and having liked the style before, I was surprised by feeling dissonance from the overt sexualization. It further made me wonder the design choices, where I kept questioning when it showed insight and creativity and when it crossed either to stereotypical or tasteless. And thinking how the style had evolved to this point: would a jrpg-fan be able to point patterns that I’m not blind to?
I’ll keep the book, and it may find a use as reference, but I will look at it differently. There was a reason why I left the book in the shelf years back. Now I know.