The myth of the philosopher’s stone has often been used as a plot device in media. People are introduced to this legendary object capable of extraordinary things through alchemy, may spend most of the game attempting to learn more about it or acquire it, and have peripheral encounters with it. While most forms of media focus on its ability to grant immortality, resurrect the dead, and transmute metals into gold, many Japanese games choose to focus on its ability to create new, artificial life.
It’s an interesting prospect, since the creation of a homunculus could be considered both an unselfish and self serving act. After all, many of the other philosopher’s stone abilities result in immediate boons for the user. Instant riches and immortal life only benefit one, but using this legendary material to give life is benefiting another soon-to-be-living being. Conversely, these man-made people soon find themselves under the power of another, making their very existence even more intriguing. The fact that they’re living beings, yet also artificial tools subject to a master, allows us to contemplate the nature of life, free will, and nature versus nurture.
This conundrum often ends up driving the action in games. Aksys and Idea Factory’s Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ is a perfect example. In fact, the image above is the philosopher’s stone embedded into the neck of the heroine, Cardia. She is a homunculus created by her “father” as a means of purifying a philosopher’s stone for his own ends. As a result, she’s constantly spewing poison that makes her a threat to any living individual. This has left her living in isolation for years as her creator waited for his tool to accomplish her goal.
Her artificiality and affliction allow players to identify with a heroine with disabilities they can’t imagine. It can thus be used as an analogy for what people who suffer with real-life physical and mental disorders experience every day, allowing people an opportunity to better empathize with those around them. Yet despite this curse she bears and her abused upbringing, she has the opportunity to become a strong, independent, loving, and capable woman in Code: Realize. Through dealing with Cardia’s dilemma as an unwitting and innocent host of the philosopher’s stone, we may be better able to connect with those around us in the real world and see how outside factors shape a person.
Her experiences shape who she is, not her father’s intents. The fact that she’s artificial doesn’t discount her feelings or the relationships she forms in this visual novel dating sim. The philosopher’s stone, a means of giving life, is shown as something that can also be cursed.
The nature of homunculi created by a philosopher’s stone can also allow people to think more about the unexpected benefits that can come from being different. While Cardia is a good example of such a thing, Valkyrie Profile can also be used to examine people’s intricacies. In this game, possession of a philosopher’s stone grants the owner information about runes, power over life, and even the ability to survive the end of the world. When Lezard Valeth obtains it, he uses it to create a homunculus that can house the soul of the valkyrie, Lenneth. He wants to make her beholden to him.
However, this artificiality leads to untold power once her sense of self is inside the vessel. Though their exact nature is left unknown, the homunculi created by Lezard appear to be half-human, half-wood elf. Since Odin himself is half-elf, Lenneth ascends to a higher tier of god inside this artificial body. This grants her the power of creation and ability to save the world. While Lezard hoped for a vessel that would leave her a pawn so he could reign over his ideal woman, he unintentionally gives her the means to change destiny.
Lenneth is different from everyone else, both due to her initial nature as a goddess and later as a resident of a vessel body. Rather than hindering her, the condition provides an opportunity to rise above her circumstances. Again, we see a character who isn’t held back despite an artificial body. Her creator’s intentions can’t hold her down.
The Fullmetal Alchemist series shows a darker side of homunculi created as tools, because in this series they serve their master’s purpose. Each one of the artificial beings in the series has a philosopher’s stone inside their chest, and seemingly no sense of care for others or themselves. There are rare exceptions, however, which showcases how even these human weapons can eventually come to enjoy and desire life and sense of selves.
Two, in particular, show how pawns can overcome their upbringing to pursue their own goals and ideals. Greed ends up turning against Father and the other homunculi, joining Edward Elric in what seems to be the pursuit of power. Instead, it’s revealed that all Greed ever wanted was friends, and he betrays Father even while being absorbed in the name of protecting people he cared for, even going out of his way to ensure his host, Ling, didn’t perish in the process. Pride is one of the most vicious homunculi in the series, yet all he really, truly wanted was to be a normal, human child. After fighting Ed, he’s left in a pure form and goes on to live what may end up being a normal life with his adopted mother.
Despite the differing premises and situations, Code: Realize, Valkyrie Profile, and Fullmetal Alchemist have so much in common. By presenting us with protagonists that aren’t entirely human, we’re able to think about the concept of nature versus nurture, free will, and life as someone who doesn’t quite conform. These characters are created with a certain task in mind, challenge their intended purpose, and go on to live their own lives. Despite the impairments that may hold them back, each one gets to successfully survive on their own terms. It’s a reassuring and touching message that encourages unexpected connections to virtual characters that we might use to improve interactions in our own lives.