From Heaven to Hell: Shin Megami Tensei

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[Warning: this article spoils the entirety of Shin Megami Tensei 1. If you are new to the series or looking for an overview of the series as a whole, read this before this specific piece. It'll help introduce you to the franchise's overarching concepts before seeing their original interpretations as presented in Shin Megami Tensei 1.]

By these names then, and by all the other holy names of God before whom no man can stand and live, and which names the armies of the demons fear, tremble at, and shudder; we conjure ye, we potently exorcise and command ye, conjuring ye in addition by the terrible and tremendous paths of God and by his holy habitation wherein he reigneth and commandeth unto the eternal ages. Amen.” – The Key of Solomon, Chapter VI, translated by S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers

Shin Megami Tensei is a bit of an odd duck in regards to the JRPG genre. Unlike its contemporaries (Final Fantasy V, Dragon Quest V, Romancing SaGa, Lunar: The Silver Star), it isn’t a game defined by its combat and character building nor an intricate, detailed narrative. Outside of the demon collecting, it’s a standard Wizardry-style JRPG, and the plot isn’t intrusive nor the writing especially deep. Very little about it couldn’t have been done on the previous generation of hardware. What makes Shin Megami Tensei notable is its atmosphere; the bleakness hanging over its head and the dreamlike trance enveloping the world. This tone turns what would have been a bland post-apocalyptic hero’s journey into something much more: a journey within the self, where the prize is true happiness and man is beset from all sides by the destructive facets of his mind. This is a game about enlightenment.

Much of SMT’s unique tone can be sensed within its opening reel. It first presents an image of the tetragrammaton from The Key of Solomon, a book of Judeo-Christian magic from the Italian Renaissance. In Judaism, the tetragrammaton is a holy symbol representing the true name of God: YHWH. In The Key of Solomon, it is invoked for the purposes of summoning and exorcising spirits. Images begin to flit in and out as a man types various greek letters into a command line, followed by an invocation of the many names of God. All the while, deep piano chords bang away. Within the first minute of booting up the cartridge, SMT sets the tone it will follow for the remainder of its story; it is claustrophobic and paranoid, without brightness or hope.

Shin Megami Tensei (Japan) [T-En by Aeon Genesis v1.00] 3From here, the player avatar is thrust into a dream; a presence asks for his name and tells him to preserve the balance between the followers of “Law” and “Chaos”. He then meets two men: one “whose soul has been offered to God,” hanging from a cross; and another “who seeks power,” pinned beneath a demon. Both are freed from their tortures and joined to the player’s party. After forcibly moving through the labyrinthine red halls of the dreamscape, the party encounters a spring in which a nude woman is bathing. She swears to be with the protagonist for eternity.

Demons appear and begin slaughtering humans left and right. Tokyo is placed under martial law, and conflicts erupt between the Japanese Self-Defense Force and stationed American troops. The protagonist meets the men from his dreams (Law Hero and Chaos Hero), the lustful woman (Yuriko), as well as another woman he saves from sacrifice in a subsequent dream (Heroine). The Heroes and Heroine join forces to fight the totalitarian military regime, but no matter what they do, nuclear bombs are dropped on Tokyo by America in order to contain the demon forces. From the void of nonexistence, the party is resurrected and divided thirty years later, as the forces of Law and Chaos battle for the control of mankind in the post-apocalyptic Tokyo cityscape. Narrative objectives fade and become more vague; all that matters is surviving the road through this hell.

The SMT franchise tropes are in full force here, but the narrative around them isn’t fully developed yet; it is in a prenatal state, before the script and engine are complex enough to support its ambitions. What makes it work is its atmosphere, the psychological veneer across the world that flits between the realms of reality and the mental conflict between man’s id, ego, and super-ego. Through the minimal dialogue, the surreality of the world, the repeating aesthetics, and the archetypal cast, SMT becomes a hallucination, a nightmare, a midnight revelation formed out of internal war. It turns hardware and budget limitations into the JRPG equivalent of a Beckett play.Shin Megami Tensei (Japan) [T-En by Aeon Genesis v1.00] 52

From the beginning, SMT isn’t especially wordy. Its story is reliant on short exchanges of dialogue, without set piece moments or long monologues, excluding the finale. Only ten to fifteen minutes pass in the introduction before random encounters start. While its contemporaries were lengthening cutscenes and pouring more resources into their writing, SMT keeps itself simplistic. At its core, it is a dungeon crawl with occasional moments of narrative, but it manages to work; enough is left to the imagination of the audience that it becomes an internal experience. We do not see the death of the first victim of the demons; we only see his sprite replaced with a demon, accompanied by one line factually stating his death. There is no grandeur here. It’s reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: two forces playing themselves out in a seemingly eternal conflict, where the drama is inferred rather than explained. SMT’s horror lays in what we assume rather than what we are told. We do not see the Hero’s Mother being killed by a demon, but after the party slays the shapeshifter possessing her lifeless body, we fill the gap. When the Hero’s childhood friend is resurrected as an immortal plaything for demons and the party fails to save her, when Tokyo washes away in a divine flood, we can infer that she’s still in a cage, drowning for eternity.

The magical realism of the setting does much for SMT’s tone. After the initial dream, the world is real, concrete. A few fleeting glimpses and strange conversations create an otherness. Dream logic creates odd meetings and disappearances, as when the player meets Yuriko in reality for one line of dialogue in a cafe where she references his dream before promptly leaving. The illusion of reality dies with the first witnessed casualty of the demons, an old man getting his throat ripped out by a goblin. As the narrative progresses, the demons become more pervasive; the conflict goes from interhuman conflict to inter-demon conflict, where humans are merely pawns. With the bombing of Tokyo, the last vestiges of reality are removed. The Abyss is entirely unreal, a labyrinth separated from reason and matter. Once the heroes are reborn, the city has become a no-man’s-land, dotted by a few small communities living off of resources scavenged from the old world. Demons are the key players now, not humanity. Many random encounters are against human followers of Law or Chaos; they function as demons, to be slaughtered by the party just the same. Law Hero and Chaos Hero are reborn by their respective churches: Law Hero is reincarnated by God as a messiah who will lead His human followers, and Chaos Hero becomes a general under Lucifer. Both lose the vestiges of their human forms in the process; Law Hero looks akin to an alabaster ghost, and Chaos Hero’s humanity is hidden beneath his demonic armor. The fading of humanity is reflected in their visages. It is only through the Hero and Heroine that humanity is represented, free from the control of God and Lucifer. They are the only reality left in Tokyo, artefacts of a world that died thirty years prior.

The cast is mostly archetypal, and many of them become more archetypal as the plot goes on. Conflicts between the Gaians and Messians come to divide the party. Where Law Hero once represented kindness and selflessness, he comes to represent pure Law, a strong believer in God’s love and divine punishment of the unfaithful. Chaos Hero was once a scared, bullied kid; he sacrifices his humanity for power and vengeance, killing anyone who seeks to tie him down: a pure Chaotic force. The Heroine, unfortunately, goes from being the respected leader of a revolution to playing the damsel in distress multiple times before deciding to follow the protagonist wherever he goes.

As the Heroine becomes a passive character after her rescue by the Hero, the player avatar is the sole driving force in the battle between Law and Chaos. The only guidance he receives is from an incarnation of Laozi, the founder of Taoism. He takes the form of an old man, warning the protagonist of the dangers of imbalance and spurring him on once he reaches the final battle between the two sides. Once both the forces of God and Lucifer are defeated by the protagonist in the Neutral ending, he appears to present a final piece of guidance for man’s new age: there is merit to the systems of Law and Chaos, but neither are what humanity needs; it is through cooperation, freedom without fear, that man can be truly happy. As the camera zooms away from the Milky Way, he closes his monologue: “Can you sense it? The world… the galaxy… the universe… The common thread that connects all exists… You too are a part of it….” He is the guiding sage of this story, the morality in a world abandoned by man.Shin Megami Tensei (Japan) [T-En by Aeon Genesis v1.00] 61Aesthetically, SMT is almost as minimal as its dialogue. Most of the environments aren’t more advanced than what was in Wizardry: a series of cubes connected to each other, separate dungeons differentiated by their color schemes. Tsukasa Masuko’s soundtrack is similar in this; where in Megami Tensei II he focused on upbeat melodies, here the music is dark and repetitive. The shortened loops become trancelike.

The dreamlike tone of SMT ends up reinforcing and internalizing the underlying message of the narrative. If we view the Law and Chaos dynamic as a representation of the super-ego and id, self-control and perversion, the symbolism gains meaning. The conflict between God and Lucifer reflects the conflict within us all: the internal quest for enlightenment.

While the Law vs. Chaos dynamic fits into Freud’s theories, the journey of SMT’s protagonist reflects Jung’s concept of individuation. The Hero is the Self, an avatar upon which the player impresses their unique traits. What we impress upon him is based on the true facets of our own personality. He isn’t his own character. He is a persona the audience takes so that they may participate in the narrative of SMT as an active being. His shadows, the elements of himself that aren’t expressed in the narrative, are impressed upon him by the audience in the same way. These shadows may be seen within the cast members that represent alignments; each influences the Hero to follow a facet of his personality that aligns with their position in the Law and Chaos spectrum. What we choose for him is a representation of ourselves.

The Law and Chaos conflict is as external as it is internal, and its respective heroes fit Jungian archetypes on their own as well as they fit the internal archetypes of the Hero. In the beginning, in reality, all of the characters present their personae: the forms of their personality that are dictated by society. As this society frays and falls into oblivion, the personae of humanity dies along with it. Chaos Hero sheds his frail outer shell to give himself over to his id. He becomes a true Chaos Hero. After the end, the Gaians and Messians will engage you in combat, the same as the demons; they do not care about their personae. Law Hero is the exception to this rule; he was a truly good person underneath his persona, as he travels with the Hero and assists him until his untimely death. His transformation into the messiah is not through his will but the will of God. This makes him less of a tragic character but at the same time makes his role in God’s second flooding of the Earth all the more despicable; he loses his morality and humanity to become a messiah, where Chaos Hero willingly forgoes humanity for power.Shin Megami Tensei (Japan) [T-En by Aeon Genesis v1.00] 36Yuriko and the Heroine represent the Anima, the facet of the male Self which allows for openness and emotionality. The Anima paves the way for the Self to open itself up to others. In von Franz’s essay, “The Process of Individuation,” she warns of the dual aspects of the Anima: “They can bring life-giving development and creativeness to the personality, or they can cause petrification and physical death.” The Heroine is life; she sacrifices herself for the Hero and supports him through the entirety of his journey. Yuriko is death. She lusts for the Hero and symbolizes his erotic desires but is exploitative and deceitful. At one point in the story, she can paralyze the whole party if the Hero refuses her demands, literally representing Jung’s idea of “petrification.” In the end, Yuriko is slain after attempting to kill the Heroine, revealing her true nature as Lilith and the dual protagonists as Adam and Eve. The Hero’s relationship with Yuriko and the Heroine also reflect Jung’s levels of anima development. SMT’s first female presence is Yuriko bathing in a pool, unclothed and erotic, representing the Hero’s sexual desire. The second important female presence is the Heroine in her first meeting with the Hero. Here she is the leader of a group rebelling against the military coup d’etat; we do not know of her virtue yet. After she sacrifices herself to save the party from the nuclear holocaust, we become aware of this, sympathetic to her plight. With the death of Lilith, the balance is reached; we may sympathize with both facets of the anima: the chaste and sexual, the ego and id. Each has its positives and negatives.

Laozi, the guiding sage, represents the boon of the journey of individuation: the Wise Old Man. This is the penultimate form of the Self that provides assistance in reaching the final, true Self. Laozi’s role in SMT is to teach the Hero to accept his shadows and his Anima so that his quest can end. As he says in his speech, each facet of the Hero’s personality has its positives and negatives, and balance between them all must be achieved in order for one to be truly happy. He sums up the philosophy of Taoism and the philosophy of individuation in a single, grand speech.

What unites all of these archetypes is the ethereal tone hanging across SMT. Jung believed that the journey of individuation was an internal one that would be achieved through dreams or active imagination. When SMT opens with its iconic dream sequence, Jung’s quest begins in the same way. The preservation of this tone throughout SMT is a reminder that this is, in the end, completely internal. Everything on screen, everything in the narrative, is an internalized conflict. In this regard, the Hero is truly us, and the quest is truly our own. Where other games cast the player as a free-will in an external conflict, this is a quest into our own hearts and minds. The Law Hero and Chaos Hero, the Heroine and Yuriko, God and Lucifer, Laozi–they are within us all. It is by accepting and balancing them that we are able to become enlightened, happy beings.Shin Megami Tensei (Japan) [T-En by Aeon Genesis v1.00] 65This franchise’s Jungian themes aren’t exclusive to this singular game; the Persona series is completely based around them, casting shadows as dungeon bosses, demons as the collective unconscious, and, in Persona 3 and Persona 4, making the player a guiding sage to assist others in their own journeys of individuation. What these games failed to do was make the player subject to this journey. The heroes of Persona 3 and Persona 4 are already playing the role of sages when we control them. We do not work to become these enlightened beings; we just are enlightened. SMT removes this power fantasy. It is not an external quest to enlighten others; it is an internal quest to enlighten ourselves.

SMT’s ultimate contribution to the medium is that, where the vast majority of games externalize their conflicts, relying on the concrete and objective, SMT internalizes the conflict; the antagonists of this story are within us, not without. It is about subjectivity of the Self as well as the subjectivity of a narrative. We are encouraged to question what specifically makes us heroic and what elements of our individual minds truly define us. We are not predefined heroes, but we have the potential to become heroic.

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About Justin Hutchison

Despite being the youngest member of Stereogram’s staff, Jay was still old enough to cut his teeth on the last arcade in town before it closed for good. (Damned go-kart accidents.) Though he’s a bit of a late arrival to the comics scene, he’s spent most of his life steeped in anime and games of all sorts. Outside of his writing, he makes music as Fatal Labyrinth. He is not a fan of Fatal Labyrinth, the video game.

  • Nagabenang

    .. This is the best Shin Megami Tensei’s essai I’ve ever read to this time. I have yet to try playing it though, hopefully I will find some time for it eventually.

  • Arthur Xavier Caetano

    Amazing. As a psychology student, and as a great admire of mythology, Shin MegaTen is just perfect for me. One day I’ll actually take time and play all of the game. I only played (and finished) Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga 1 and Persona 3. Great games indeed.