Sometimes I won’t write anything for a week or two, and then in a few hours a few thousand words will spill out of my brain. This was one of those days, and the result is the start of a series on prominent themes in the Megami Tensei series of games and how I think they relate to life in general. I know, it’s a huge surprise that I’m writing about Megami Tensei. I only bring the god damn series up every other post I make. Anyway, I hope this mind dump makes sense to at least one person. It contains a few very general spoilers for Persona 5 and a lot of very specific story and ending spoilers for the original Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.
It’s almost a cliche to say that we all like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. I recently had to attend a few events at my state bar association, where you occasionally get to hear some puffed-up language about the nobility of the profession of law. Law is a serious and complex profession, no matter what field you’re working in, and we are subject to real ethical standards (a fact that’s shocking to a lot of non-lawyers.) Perhaps as a result of this, there’s a tendency, especially among law students who don’t know any better, to equate being a lawyer with something like being a knight. We do take an oath upon being sworn in, and some aspects of discovery and trial could be compared to the dance of a duel between two champions. Otherwise, the reality of the practice is quite a bit dirtier and more mundane than that. (At least practicing law doesn’t usually result in someone getting axed in the skull. But I’m still never returning to the endless hell that is the world of litigation.)
This kind of romanticism affects many more areas of life, public and private, professional and personal. And, of course, we see it in video and PC games. Many of us, myself included, play games to escape from reality, so it’s only natural that we want to play the role of the hero. There’s a reason Joker from Persona 5 is such a popular character that he made it into Smash, and it’s not because of his amazing dialogue. His being a silent protagonist helps, in fact, because the silence makes it easier to pour own your personality into that empty vessel, a point that a lot of people who complain about the Persona games’ silent protagonists seem to either miss or ignore.
And who wouldn’t want to play one of the heroes in Persona 5? Joker and his Persona are references to the fictional suave gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and his Phantom Thieves as a whole are a callback to probably fictional romantic bandits like Robin Hood and his merry men of Sherwood Forest, only in a modern urban setting. Yes, Akira in the real world got a raw deal as a wrongfully convicted felon undergoing probation, but Joker in the world of shadows is a dashing hero. That’s not to mention the fact that even in the real world, Akira can romance almost all of the women around him.* Persona 5 does try to address serious social problems like official abuse of power, but in the end I see it more as an escapist fantasy than a commentary on reality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. God knows I need my escapist fantasy.
You can’t live in the escapist fantasy forever, though. Eventually, reality will catch up with you. There’s another game in the Megami Tensei series that emphasizes this point, and it’s the infamously difficult dungeon-crawler RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.**
In most of the endings of mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, the silent protagonist is not really the hero of his own story. He typically ends up assisting the head of one of the extremist factions build its own paradise based either upon the principles of the Law alignment or the Chaos alignment. The word paradise should really be in quotes, however. A Law ending usually leads to the direct domination of human society by God, complete with a nice “cleansing” to get rid of the unworthy, which is most of us, while a Chaos ending usually leads to the destruction of human society by a horde of demons and the violent murder of the weak, which once again happens to be most of us. The same is true of Strange Journey, in which you play another silent protagonist the fans have dubbed “Space Marine”, a member of an international strike/research force sent into a growing mass of dark energy covering most of Antarctica. Turns out said mass is swarming with demons (what a surprise!) which has gotten so bad that Mastema, a mysterious black-winged angel, is also there fighting the demons under the direction of God himself (or so he claims, anyway.)
Most of these mainline SMT games also have characters who represent the Chaos alignment and the belief in absolute liberty, following the lead of Lucifer, and a character who represents the Law alignment and submits body and soul to whatever avatar God happens to be using at the moment (often, but not always, the Old Testament YHVH, complete with his jealousy and smiting and weird mood swings.) And behold, two of your fellow crew members, Jimenez and Zelenin, take these roles and undergo a demonic and an angelic transformation respectively (equally monstrous transformations in the context of the Megaten universe, because both end up completely losing their humanity as a result.) Out of the three available ending paths, two involve joining your considerable power with Jimenez or Zelenin and bringing about either a new Earth ruled over by massive demonic worms that have apparently devoured most of humanity or a new Earth in which part of humanity has technically survived, but in a brainwashed state in which all people everywhere are constantly singing in praise of the Lord forever while standing on top of giant gray windowless buildings.
Watching these endings probably won’t make you feel like much of a hero for helping to bring them about.*** They might even make you angry. This is what I was fighting for? you might think to yourself. Generally speaking, the closest you can get to a “heroic” ending in a mainline SMT game is by taking the Neutral path, which rejects both God and Lucifer in favor of humanity’s control over its own destiny. Perhaps for this reason, both getting onto and completing the Neutral path is usually ridiculously difficult. Maybe that’s the price you have to pay for opposing the wills of gods and renegade angels.
It’s not too hard to find analogues to God and Lucifer in humanity itself, either. Replace all of Earth with a single country, God with an oppressive tyrant ruling over it and Lucifer with a violent revolutionary leader trying to oust him and you’ve got the basic plot of an SMT game, and one that occurs in the real world all the time. The only real difference between the two scenarios is that while the victorious revolutionary leader often transforms into the new oppressive tyrant, the Lucifer of Megami Tensei has no desire to rule over humanity because that would run against his belief in absolute freedom. But even in the Chaos ending, the soil is ripe for the growth of a new absolute ruler who can win power through strength and charisma, creating a constant cycle of lawful tyrants and chaotic revolutionaries that overthrow them. Even the Neutral ending always feels more like a temporary fix than a permanent one – the powers representing the extreme alignments might go away for a while, but they never truly die. God and Lucifer always return in some form to submit humanity to more suffering. Not exactly the fun “hero slays the dragon and saves the princess” kind of story, and certainly not satisfying if you’re looking for a happy ending.
Maybe that’s just the point – there are ups and downs in life, but there is no ultimate happy ending. There may not even be an ending at all. The Abrahamic tradition, the one I’m most familiar with by far, views time in a straight line starting with with creation and the Garden of Eden and ending with the apocalypse and Judgment Day. But in other traditions, time is viewed not as a line but as a circle. It’s not evident in Strange Journey, but other mainline SMT games adopt this cyclical view of time. It’s not that heroes can’t be born in that cycle – heroes simply can’t break the cycle. Balance between Law and Chaos is never achieved permanently, and the resultant suffering continues forever because of it.
My own country is going through a political upheaval right now. Our head of state and government is contained in one person, and that person is definitely incompetent and possibly traitorous. We Americans like to think we’ve somehow earned stability and prosperity, and even that God himself guarantees said stability and prosperity. When I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, “God bless America” was a mandatory line in every politician’s speech, whether Democrat or Republican, almost as if by repeating this line over and over we could keep God’s blessings forever.
You don’t hear that line so much anymore. My own millennial generation is less traditionally religious than past generations, but there might be more to it than changing demographics. I think there’s a sense now that we could lose everything we have, and perhaps that God, if he even exists, doesn’t care. Perhaps he doesn’t even care if all humanity burns itself out because of our inability to handle the technology we’re developing. If that’s our ultimate fate, there isn’t a hero who can permanently prevent it. That’s the message I take from Strange Journey. It’s a depressing message, but an honest one.
Or maybe I’m just a depressive pessimist. Yeah, that’s probably it. 𒀭
* I guess this point isn’t applicable to gay men or straight women. I’m not sure how well lesbian players can put themselves in Akira’s place either, him being a man and all. People have suggested bringing the female MC option back to a Persona game after P3P’s FeMC, or the possibility of at least one homosexual relationship (which did exist in implied form in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, but nobody seems to remember that game exists.) However, that’s a subject for a different post (and for countless, endless forum/imageboard/Twitter fights.)
** I technically haven’t finished this game, but I’ve gotten all the way to the absolute final Neutral route boss. Yes, I’m pretty lousy. I swear to God (or YHVH or whoever) I’ll complete it one day, just out of spite. I made it all the way through Horologium, for fuck’s sake.
*** Depending upon your religious upbringing and how well it stuck, the Law ending in Strange Journey might seem like a good one to you. I don’t think Atlus intended for it to seem like a good ending but rather to be a mirror image of the Chaos ending. But if you think you’d enjoy singing hymns on top of a giant building for all eternity, more power to you. Just don’t make me join in. Well, I’d certainly be one of the unclean humans who gets banished to the outer darkness anyway, so I guess it’s a moot point.