Playing Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 as a young teenager was the only event in my gaming career I’d describe as truly “formative.” I was a child, born and raised in the Bible Belt; I had little comprehension of the issues I’d face in the real world. The mechanics of gender and sexuality, religious self-questioning, and the desire to find a future for myself were flitting in and out of my mind. Here was a Japanese RPG that integrated each of these elements of the teenage life into a fantastic narrative with fun combat. So began my love affair with Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei franchise.
Persona 4 wasn’t the best of starting points, to be fair. It was light and airy, polished and gleaming, comparable to the standard high school anime out there. But running through it were underpinnings of a darker world: a vast catalogue of gods, angels, and demons, made playthings beneath the might of the human will (when MegaTen is in a cyberpunk mood, “human will” is interchangeable with “science/technology”); the place of humanity in a world wrested from the hands of their former deities; the will of the individual versus the might of tyrannical organizations; etc. Where Persona 4 flirts with these concepts, other MegaTen titles make these the focus, most notably in the mainline franchise.
Persona 4’s tone isn’t consistent with the main series, but I remain a big fan of it to this day, and it managed to get me interested in the rest of SMT. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to finish any of them; Digital Devil Saga, Nocturne, and Strange Journey still sit on my shelf, mocking me. They were so dissimilar to Persona 4, each filled with more difficult combat and bleak overtones, that I was put off for a while. After going back and playing the original SaGa, I’ve discovered a newfound appreciation for the old-school JRPG, and the SMT games have become vastly more playable for me.
Unfortunately, the first two MegaTen games have yet to be translated. There have been two attempts at translating them: one for Kyuuyaku Megami Tensei (a SNES remake of the first two titles) and one just for Megami Tensei. Neither of these have been finished. Since this makes them unplayable for me at the moment, we’re gonna start with the original Shin Megami Tensei, where developer Atlus broke off from their publisher and went on to continue the franchise on their own terms.
But first, let’s have a little background.
Though it’s only started to emerge from a “cult” status to being relatively well-known in the west, MegaTen or SMT has been a popular franchise in its home country of Japan since its proper inception in 1992 with Shin Megami Tensei I. Considering the breadth of games bearing the franchise’s name, running the gamut from cyberpunk post-apocalypses (MegaTen II, SMT I and II, Digital Devil Saga) to kid-focused monster collecting (Demikids) to modern-day anime ensemble stories (Persona, Devil Survivor), it isn’t surprising that they’ve gained some measure of popularity since the franchise’s humble inception in 1987. Beginning as a loose adaptation of Aya Nishitani’s Digital Devil Story book series, Atlus made their own story for Megami Tensei II and fully moved away from the source material in Shin Megami Tensei, dropping the Digital Devil Story name and former publisher Namco. Since then, they’ve produced all manners of MegaTen-related games, anime, and comics.
If you’re just looking for what the name translates out to (via Hardcore Gaming 101, paraphrased):
Megami Tensei – Rebirth of the Goddess, a reference to the heroine of the original MegaTen
Shin Megami Tensei – Rebirth of the True Goddess or the cultural equivalent of Super Mario Bros. to Megami Tensei’s Mario Bros.
Despite the breadth of the franchise, SMT has several concepts that tie its various branches together. Final Fantasy is about as big, and there are definitely thematic undercurrents throughout it, though a few are less obvious than others.
Before Pokemon had kids collecting, training, and battling monsters for power and glory, Megami Tensei had teenagers negotiating with members of Lucifer’s army, convincing them to join the side of humanity, and fighting to save the world from his control. Though it’s decidedly more grim than most examples of the genre, MegaTen is generally credited with starting the monster-raising and battling style of game. The means of gaining demons (or Personae in the Persona series) changes from title to title, but the vast majority of SMT titles feature large casts of deities, devils, etc. culled from various world religions and folklore. Digital Devil Saga is the only notable exception to this, as its protagonists are each imbued with their own customizable demonic powers, removing the need for strategic demon collecting.
Much like how Final Fantasy has an obsession with the past (reminiscing on ancient societies, ancient all-powerful weapons, etc.), SMT has an obsession with religious figures. That obsession takes on a similar meaning to FF’s: the influence of outside cultures on Japan after World War II, a loss of national and religious identity, and the westernization of Japanese culture.
SMT’s multicultural influences were a strong deviation from the norm back in the SNES days, and to this day they’re still the primary pillar in what makes SMT what it is.
I’m not sure if some folks at Atlus were playing Dungeons & Dragons when they came up with this dichotomic morality system, considering how underground tabletop RPGs were (and are) in Japan, compared to how they shaped the genesis of the western computer RPG. D&D’s morality system is based around two dichotomies: good versus evil, and law versus chaos. The JRPG genre at this time was defined by the interpretations of D&D seen in Wizardry and Ultima, without focus on the law versus chaos dichotomy and a priority on combat over role-playing. After these took off in Japan, localized versions of tabletop RPGs came out overseas, including D&D in 1985. Dragon Quest was released shortly afterwards, keeping to the standards set by Wizardry and Ultima, with a story only concerned with good versus evil. Megami Tensei and Megami Tensei II both rely on a “Good-Neutral-Evil” system for demon recruitment; it wasn’t until Shin Megami Tensei I that the D&D law versus chaos dichotomy was made the focus of the story.
From its introduction in Shin Megami Tensei I, the law/chaos system has had hands in the vast majority of SMT titles, be it through mechanics (summonable demons based on player alignment), story (conflict between worshippers of the different systems), or merely thematic elements. Each point of the spectrum is represented by various deities, with prime rulers for the polar ends: Lucifer for Chaos; YHWH, creator of all gods, for Law.
Law is controlled and safe. It is humanity following strict virtues to a T, with little freedom but without fear. While the developers claim it represents more than the Judeo-Christian God, YHWH is normally used as a symbol for any religious system that binds its worshippers to heavily constrained rulesets. He has a tendency to be very aggressive, especially when the player is tasked with killing him in Megami Tensei II and Shin Megami Tensei II. The followers of Law are the Messians. Many demons of this alignment are angels or enforcers of religious law, whether or not those laws fit conventional moral standards. The perfect world of Law is YHWH’s angelic Thousand-Year Kingdom, united under His rules.
Chaos is disorder and anarchy. It is individualistic, to the point of solipsism and self-obsession. Lucifer, often poorly disguised as “Louis Cyphre,” is painted by his followers as a hero for presenting humanity with knowledge, breaking them from the shackles of God’s heavy-handed rule. While YHWH is presented as tyrannical, Lucifer is much less antagonistic. When the protagonist chooses not to follow him, Lucifer’s reaction is calm, non-violent. He even serves as a guide in Devil Survivor and Nocturne, teaching the protagonist about the power of his choices and the effect they’ll have on the world. The followers of Chaos are the Gaians. Most demons of this alignment represent sins, from sexuality to bloodlust. The perfect world of Chaos is an inflection of YHWH’s Thousand-Year Kingdom; Lucifer ruling over a lawless land where only the strong survive and power is the sole currency.
Between the influences of heaven and hell lays Neutrality. Neutrality is individualism tempered with compassion and humility. Siddhartha Gautama’s definition of the Middle Way and Laozi’s concept of the Tao are the best religious examples of this philosophy. It is about doing what is best for humanity and finding out what that “best” is for oneself. In SMT games with branching storylines across the alignments, Neutrality is always the best choice. It is most commonly canon (in places where canon matters, like SMT I to SMT II). Neutral demons are generally chaff that lay between the Law and Chaos alignments or representations of Neutral concepts; the most direct example is a form of Laozi in SMT I. Few NPCs walk this path; the majority of the time, the only truly Neutral characters are the protagonists.
The combination of these elements leads to a sense of moral ambiguity that is rarely matched, even in modern western RPGs that espouse their amazing moral choice systems but end up being almost entirely bipolar. Compare that to Nocturne, which had multiple endings for each alignment, with significantly different effects on the world.
In much the same way that Final Fantasy VII contrasted the human-controlled Midgar with the ecosystems of the rest of its planet, much of SMT is built upon contrasting humans and demons and the means they use to control each other. While the protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei I forms an army of demons to crawl his way across the ruins of Tokyo, other demons set up city-states in various prefectures to control humanity, the most notable of which are the domains of the Gaians and Messians.
Most SMT games feature cults as plot devices. In the main series, the Gaians and Messians are the primary factions, each ruled by a deity seeking power and influence. Cultists in Nocturne enact “The Conception”, utilizing a combination of their intense beliefs and modern technology to bring about a rebirth of the world. The Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha series makes the idea of supernatural power resulting from pure belief a plot point and the focus of the conflict. Persona 3, near its conclusion, has shades of this as well. These cults are important because they act as concentrations of human willpower, which have a tendency to produce disastrous results.
The best western example of this idea would be Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. While it features new and old gods warring over the beliefs of the American people and, therefore, the soul of America, Shin Megami Tensei takes place on what is simultaneously a much larger and smaller scale. SMT is concerned with the conflict between two essentially different ideals, two halves of humanity’s belief systems, but the battleground is just Tokyo or some other urban area that might as well be Tokyo. Persona 4’s small-town setting is one of the few exceptions to this rule.
For a much more thorough, though spoiler-ridden examination of this element of SMT, I recommend reading this excellent post from Kenji on the Atlus U.S.A. forums.
On a similar note…
Most JRPGs use this concept to reinforce themes of anti-authoritarianism, generally against corrupt governments or religions. In SMT, it is similar, though it usually isn’t focused on acting against a single idea. The lone protagonist(s), generally one or two people, must go up against the powers of God and/or Lucifer, each fueled by legions of followers. Persona 4 reinterprets this concept into a counter-cultural “societal norms are damaging” philosophy, in which the protagonist helps people see through the veil of larger societal beliefs so they are able to live for themselves. The Neutral endings of the mainline SMT games are the purest representation of this idea.
These are the main pillars of SMT. If it doesn’t have at least two of these, it’s probably not an SMT game. There are definitely other trends throughout the series: the love affair with cyberpunk that has relapsed somewhat, the audiovisual dream-team of Kazuma Kaneko and Shoji Meguro (or Tsukasa Masuko, depending on the time period), and so on, but many of these trends have been off and on throughout the years. Especially now that we’re in a post-Persona 4 world, Atlus is poised to make Persona its mainstay rather than SMT proper, what with the massive amounts of money it’s made them. We’re still getting Shin Megami Tensei IV, albeit on the 3DS rather than a home console, much like what happened to Strange Journey on the DS, and without Kazuma Kaneko, the man who’s designed characters and demons for the main SMT franchise since it became SMT.
I suppose there are many reasons to fear what may happen to SMT in the future. But I remain hopeful that Atlus won’t make the mistakes Square made in the majority of its follow-ups to Final Fantasy VII.
In any case, it’s left us with several fantastic games, and if it must end, Atlus had a good streak going.
Coming Soon: Shin Megami Tensei I