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How mainline Shin Megami Tensei subverts the notion of self and free will

Screen Grab from SMT V official trailer
Screen Grab from SMT V official trailer
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Modified 01 Aug 2020, 19:27 IST
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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” - H.P. Lovecraft

What begins as a simple and seemingly straightforward journey of the self- from ‘innocence’ to ‘experience’- is strangely marred with this constant sense of anxiety and fear, which is only often triumphed by ambition.

Such is the atmosphere that the mainline Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) games create for both the player as well as the protagonist.

In a Lovecraftian twist of horror, we as players are constantly spiralling down a Gothic descent, where the journey (even in medias res) starts to move from a supposed sense of ‘paradiso’ to ‘inferno’.

The more we play and with every choice we make in the game, the narrative imparts a sense of hopelessness. Our choices feel pale and insignificant to the cycle of dread and despair that SMT shows the world to be trapped in- one whose only escape is in a ‘philosophical suicide’.

A bit of Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) history

Screen Grab from Nyarly
Screen Grab from Nyarly' YouTube video.

For the persona weebs and those uninitiated to the mainline SMT franchise, let us go over a bit of Shin Megami Tensei history and trivia.

Megami Tensei or ‘Megaten’ did not exactly start out as a game but was actually a novel which was published in 1986 called ‘Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei’ by Aya Nishitani.

The book revolves around a high school student who gets acquainted with the occult and uses it to take revenge on his classmates.

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In 1987, the then-small video game company called Atlus took inspiration from this novel and created a game under the same name. 

What made the game such a big hit at the time was how it was able to set itself apart from the rest of the JRPGs out there. Not only did the game narrative provide a realistic setting for the players but it provided a story which was much darker than what the Japanese player base was used to.

Moreover, it was also the first game which made monster recruitment a thing, beating Pokemon to the genre by years.

A sequel of Megami Tensei was later released in 1990, which was one of the first of its kind to include multiple endings in a story. Subsequently, 1992 saw the release of its spiritual successor called ‘Shin Megami Tensei’ for the Super Famicom, which Atlus published under their own name.

SMT improves heavily on the gameplay of the second Megaten title and introduces the alignment system, which puts forth existential dilemmas in the form of choices.

The alignment system was an inspiration that Atlus took from western Dungeons and Dragons type of games and incorporated it into their titles.

The 1992 SMT game would eventually establish Megami Tensei as Atlus’ flagship IP with SMT being the mainline series. This, in turn, gave birth to a variety of spin-offs like ‘Last Bible’, ‘Digital Devil Saga’, ‘Devil Summoner’ and, of course, ‘Persona’.

Screen Grab from Nyarly
Screen Grab from Nyarly' YouTube video.

These spin-offs themselves will lead to their own sub-series (across different platforms), making the entire franchise an incredibly complicated one to keep track of.

However, for the purpose of our article we will be sticking to the mainline games and will briefly go over some of our expectations for SMT V, which is all set to release next year.

Alignments in SMT: A clash of ideologies

Image credits: Atlus
Image credits: Atlus

Shin Megami Tensei, the name itself, means the ‘The True Reincarnation of a Goddess’ or ‘The Goddess of Metempsychosis’ .

The recurring theme of the game revolves around the Pythagorean notion of the transmigration of the soul and the recruitment of demons and angels who represent specific alignments.

The alignment system of ‘Law’, ‘Chaos’ and ‘Neutral’ that we find in the mainline SMT games are deeply steeped in the political and economical status quo of Japan during the 1980s and 1990s.

Post-war recessions in Japan lasted for decades and bankruptcy became an all too familiar experience for small business owners. The unemployment rate was at an all-time high, and by the end of the 20th century, Japan was going through a drastic cultural mutation which sought to warp the nation’s traditional beliefs with that of the west.

The thirst for integrating western ideologies was such that Japan soon gave way to two factions of society; one which vehemently held onto their traditional beliefs and another that welcomed the west with open arms. 

Post-war ‘American occupation’ of Japan played a big part in the intermingling of cultures as well. The atrocities that the American troops committed stemmed a lot of the distaste that many Japanese had for the west.

This very schism in the societal structure of the late 20th century Japan is what is so well represented in SMT and in the alignment system.

There is no good and bad in mainline Megaten but rather ideologies which clash, and it’s up to the player to pick a side or take a neutral stance.

In the 1992 SMT game, the alignments were real life manifestations of society that can be looked at as forces which are capable of destabilising the set order of things.

Screen Grab from PMar Project
Screen Grab from PMar Project's YouTube video.

The chaos alignment in the game is represented by Commander Gotou, who is thought to be the real life manifestation of Yukio Mishima. Both Mishima and Gotou staged a coup against authoritarian figures and were looked at as the rebel faction.

Hence, chaos in SMT is primarily associated with the traditional Japanese liberal ideologies who want to reject the hegemony of Western principles. They are the propagators of freedom and believe in the Darwinian theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ as the ideal rule of the world.

Law, or Western Principles, on the other hand, is seen to be ‘rigid’, ‘practical and mechanical’ with no form of flexibility or tolerance for anything apart from their own ‘modus operandi’.

And this is precisely why monsters under the law alignment are usually Angels, Archangels and authoritarian figures who blindly follow God’s rule. 

Screen Grab from PMar Project
Screen Grab from PMar Project's YouTube video.

Chaos monsters, on the other hand, are provided with a much open and free personality and are often shown to be overly sexualised and boast speeches, which gives each of them a distinct sense of identity.

Despair and the loss of self in Nocturne and SMT IV

“I sing sing of the progresse of a deathlesse soule,

Whom Fate, which God made, but doth not controule,

Plac’d in most shapes; all times before the law

Yoak’d us, and when, and since, in this I sing.” - John Donne (Metempsycosis)

Even though the alignment system in SMT is primarily Biblical with certain monsters and deities taken from folklores and religions from all across the world, the theme of ‘metempsychosis’ itself is not a Christian one.

Image credits Medium
Image credits Medium

Christianity is not in favour of the transmigration of the soul. They believe more in reincarnation, rather than rebirth, and even figures like Christ and Lazarus were brought back from the dead rather than given a new life and a new body.

And it is this very transmigration of the soul or rather the ‘cycle that a soul goes through’ that creates the crisis of self in the mainline SMT games.

In the poem Metempsycosis by the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne, we see how the very concept of rebirth is filled with juxtapositions. The images in the poem are in a state of constant conflict, as if the soul itself is in splits about what it is or what it wants to be.

Questions like “what was the nature of the linkage between soma and psyche? If a soul transmigrated, did it remember its past lives? Was the rational soul unique to human beings? Did the vegetative and sensitive soul join human beings to plant and animal life in ways that changed their connection to the environment?” raise ethical and moral concerns about the very implications of the philosophy of metempsychosis.

IMage Credits: Fanbite.com
IMage Credits: Fanbite.com

And we see this very dilemma with the choices that the player is forced to make in SMT III Nocturne and SMT IV.

Romance and realism, which is what the protagonist (along with the player) of the games take the world to be and what it really is repecitivelty, is constantly at a conflict of interest.

The player/protagonist plays out the story like Don Quixote, misguided by the very 'hermeneutics of romance’. The choices of alignments present in both the narratives set you down on a path with an unknown destination but if it’s an ending you don’t want, you can always come back in a new game and pick the other paths.

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

One single gameplay cycle in an SMT title is not nearly enough to complete the story in its entirety. Multiple endings aside, the character development that you and your allies go through with every unique decision vastly differ from each cycle.

Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing called a good or bad ending in mainline SMT. There are just endings.

No matter which decisions you make or which alignment you pick, the story in Nocturne and SMT IV play out in the same cycle of despair with every New Game.

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

In SMT IV, the Law ending leads to genocide, where the human race is looked at as a scourge and the world is turned into a barren waste land, with a clean slate for the next cycle to start all over again.

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

The chaos ending, on the other hand, provides impetus to freedom, as survival of the fittest reigns supreme, with no laws and restriction. In this ending, we see demons rampaging all over the world and taking humans as their slaves. 

And like the wheels of change, ever turning and ever moving, this state of being too is temporary, and there will be another form of usurpation which will set the next cycle in motion.

From one cycle of despair to another, your journey in SMT will be nothing more than a stark representation of the actual human condition, which looks at free will as a myth.

If your end is predestined, then are you at all free to choose? Or are you being manipulated by forces beyond your control?

One of the best manifestations of the ‘illusion of choice’ can be seen in the neutral endings that Nocturne and SMT IV have for us.

In Nocturne, the endings come with the abuse of power. In a game which literally pushes you- the ‘demi fiend’- to punch God in the face, the story gives you two ends. One is where you abuse the power you acquire over the course of the game, and the other is where you let go of that power.

Image Credits: Megaten Wiki
Image Credits: Megaten Wiki

In Nocturne, the descent into ‘inferno’ starts when God suddenly decides to eradicate every living creature on Earth, barring you and some of your friends, so that you can build the world anew. Quite reminiscent of SMT IV’s Law ending, this Genocide, is given the name of ‘Conception’ in Nocturne, which is another juxtaposition, as conception is closely related to creation, and to create the world anew, the old needs to be destroyed.

As the game progresses, your friends develop various ideologies, which becomes starkly different from one another. 

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

While Chiaki wanted to do away with all the excess in the world, Isamu wanted a world where there are no faces and people live their own lives disconnected, and Hikawa wanted the world to be systematic, uniform and well-ordered.

Straying away from these ideologies, the demi fiend’s thirst for power is ever growing, and by the end, he is left with two choices: to usurp the very notion of God or to turn the clock back before the conception.

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

If the demi fiend usurps, he is left all alone in the barren world, abandoned even by his creator, Lucifer. He is left in the vortex world, with no demon or human for company

In the other ending, he gets to turn back time and go back to how the world originally was before the ‘Conception’. However, the ‘Conception’ can most definitely take place again, and you- as the player- can or cannot be selected as the demi fiend for a second time. Hence, the cycle is bound to continue again, with or without you; the same cycle of grief and misery that leads down to a path of self destruction.

But the neutral ending in SMT IV is quite different from that of Nocturne, and it will effectively allow you, the player, to break through the cycle. Picking either of the alignments will lead to you killing your friends, whose characters develop alongside you as the game progresses.

Both law and chaos alignments result in more death and despair, with no proper solution to the human condition. And while the neutral ending is often looked down upon by the community as the bad ending, we feel that it’s the only proper ending a game like SMT can have.

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

Almost by the halfway point in the story, your journey will lead you to the Yamato Perpetual Reactor in SMT IV. The reactor is the portal that connects the human and the demon world which, upon activation, will pull you into it. You will then come face to face with some white figures who make you question your own existence.

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

They tell you that all of your choices in the game so far has not made the world any better, and no matter which alignment you pick from then on out, will only lead to more despair.

And it is at this point, that the game provides you with a choice, where you can either continue playing the game or destroy the Reactor. 

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

If you choose to destroy the Reactor, the human world and the demon world will be engulfed in nothingness, leaving no trace of existence behind, and thus forever breaking the cycle. 

The very notion of identity and free will are in a constant state of delirium in mainline SMT.

The duality that is Satan and Lucifer

In the Megaten family, Satan and Lucifer are not the same. Sure, they might be two faces of the same coin; however, they never meet and only exist in one form or the other.

The identity of the fallen angel in SMT draws influence from both the Old and New Testament, and Atlas themselves are quite unsure what role ‘Morning Star’ plays in the main line games.

Lucifer is unsurprisingly shown as an Agent of Chaos, a rebel with a cause, sprouting free will and Darwinian ideals. Satan, on the other hand, represents lawm (especially in SMT II) and is used as one of God’s agents who tests the faith that humans have.

Satan is used as a tempter who will goad mankind away from God’s good grace and expose their greed and follies. However, he doesn’t use the power to rebel against God- quite the contrary actually. He uses it as an instrument of testing true faith and weeding out the weaker links from the flock.

Lucifer’s dual existence symbolically represents the multifaceted layers of identity and characterisation that SMT has in the mainline games.

Screen Grab from Nyarly
Screen Grab from Nyarly' YouTube video.

Law and Chaos are two sides of the same coin. Creation cannot survive without destruction and order cannot be expected to survive without a bit of anarchy.

And this is precisely why both the alignments in themselves lead to ruin. No matter which path you choose, self-destruction is imminent, unless the cycle is broken, once and for all.

The fear of the unknown

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

Gameplay-wise, if we look at the level design and how the SMT titles play out as a whole, saying ‘grind heavy’ will be a very unsatisfactory way of putting it.

Nocturne and SMT IV create a constant sense of foreboding as the story progresses. There is danger in every corner and the levels get bleaker and more grim with every level.

Music forms much of the atmosphere in the game and, at times, help in building up a sense of anxiety that unsettles the player with each turn. The anxiety of decision is another factor that creeps in at the back of the mind, with every step that you take.

As the story gets darker, leading into a sort of frenzied self-destruction, the more you as a player will hesitate in taking the next step, when faced with the consequences of the actions that you have taken so far in the game.

Screen Grab from Simply Dad
Screen Grab from Simply Dad's YouTube videos

In SMT IV, it all starts with the death of Isabeau, who as your friend, will not allow “your hands… be stained..” 

SMT V might begin by destabilising the order of things

The latest Nintendo Direct finally brought with it a brand new SMT V trailer after what seemed like years of waiting.

And with the short snippet that was shown to us, it’s safe to assume that the game is going to throw the player in a state of flux from the very beginning itself.

Lucifer seems to have taken over and the trailer begins with ‘Morningstar’ saying, “The God you worship is dead”. So, the subversion of the set order of things is going to be right at the very core Shin Megami Tensei V.

Screen Grab from SMT V official trailer
Screen Grab from SMT V official trailer

There is a fan theory that the protagonist might be carrying a copy of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ in the trailer. And if that is the case, then it will be quite interesting to see how the protagonist’s journey from ‘paradiso’ to ‘inferno’ is going to be in SMT V.

Published 01 Aug 2020, 19:18 IST
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