Deep reads #5.4: Gods and devils

This is the last in my deep reads post series about Megami Tensei, though it’s certainly not the last time I’ll ever write about the series. I can absolutely guarantee that. This one deals a lot with religion in the context of the games, so if you don’t care to read about that, then you probably shouldn’t read it. Otherwise, have a good time! Maybe. That’s for you to judge, not me.

***

I was raised to fear God. Depending on your perspective, this might sound like a strange thing to teach a child. Quite a scary one as well, and in some sense it was. But in the Islamic tradition, it’s completely normal and even natural. The existence of an omnipotent creator of the universe and judge of humanity is taken for granted, as is the fact that this creator and judge is good, forgiving, and just. And in the various places I’ve lived for most of my life, the term “God-fearing man/woman” was a synonym for a good person, which tells you a lot about the values of the cultures I grew up in.

I’m not writing this post to debate the existence of God, gods, angels, demons, spirits, or the supernatural in general with anyone. You may certainly disagree, but to me, that seems like a pretty useless debate to have. If these exist, then they exist; if they don’t, they don’t — there’s nothing any of us can do about that either way. I won’t criticize anyone for their religious belief or lack thereof, either; life is such a miserable shitshow as far as I’m concerned that any way you can find to get through it is fine as long as you’re not hurting or intruding on the rights of other people in the process.1

However, the ways in which people think about religion and the supernatural are really interesting to me. Though Islam is one of the largest religions in the world, there were very few Muslims where I grew up, and there were none at all at my school who I knew of aside from me. This probably gave me a different perspective than my friends from Christian families had about religion in general; since I knew my family’s beliefs were very different from theirs in some ways, I had to accept that most of the people around us didn’t believe in the same way we did.

And maybe that perspective helped me get into Megami Tensei. Because out of every game series that I’ve ever played, MegaTen would probably be considered by strict adherents of any of the Abrahamic religions to be the most sacrilegious.2 Certainly it could come off that way at first glance, without even giving it a second look — just check out the cover of Persona 3 FES, the expanded version of the very first game in the series I bought and the first real breakout the series had here in the US:

Yeah, that is a pentagram in the background, behind the silhouette of Aigis. I think it’s meant to be a magic circle, which would make sense considering its origins. It seems to be a modified version of the older symbol used on the covers of Shin Megami Tensei I and II, which feature a six-pointed star and a more elaborate design in general with what I think is Loki’s face in the middle as a reference to his summoning by Nakajima in the original novel. However, over here, when people see a pentagram, the usual assumption is that it’s associated with some kind of devil business. The fact that the pentagram design specifically was used only in the West had to be deliberate on the part of Atlus — it’s also on the NA cover of Nocturne, maybe put on to add some extra edge (which honestly wasn’t necessary in my opinion, but if it attracted some edgy kid gamers I guess so much the better for their sales.)

In a way, it might have been a good thing that Megami Tensei had a very low profile in the West before P3. By the mid-2000s, the controversies connected to supposed Satanic references in popular media had died down, but in the late 90s they were still going strong. This may have been a result of the larger “Satanic Panic” of the late 80s and 90s generally, during which you couldn’t turn a corner without finding a den of devil-worshipers carrying out a sacrifice — or at least that was what people were saying at the time. I was either not alive or way too young for most of that period to notice that kind of talk or to care about it even if I had, but I do remember the continuing scare in the late 90s that most prominently involved Harry Potter and Pokemon.

The supposed Pokemon links were just silly, probably a result of some parents confused by all these weirdly popular creatures and thinking there must be something sinister about them. At least Harry Potter actually dealt with witchcraft, though the hero of that series and his friends were decidedly good wizards and witches fighting against evil ones, so even that doesn’t fit the bill of a Satan-inspired work. No — if the upset parent groups had really wanted something to be scared by, they should have raised the alarm over Megami Tensei, a series of games that actually featured Lucifer and that even let you join his cause and fight against God himself if you so desired.

(And here’s where I start getting into the actual theology, so please correct me if I get something wrong. Though I have an interest in it, I’m a total amateur in this area.)

“Louis Cyphre” as depicted in Shin Megami Tensei by Kazuma Kaneko. He never bothered trying too hard with his pseudonyms, at least not in the early days.

And Lucifer himself would have been the source of a lot of this controversy. While he doesn’t seem to figure into Judaism very much or at all, in Christian tradition, Lucifer was originally one of the prominent angels in the service of God. But this prominence made him prideful, and he eventually led a failed rebellion against God, who tossed him and the rebel angels who joined him into Hell. Lucifer is sometimes depicted as a sort of king of Hell, ruling over vast legions of demons, including many of his fellow fallen angels featured in old European grimoires like The Lesser Key of Solomon and The Infernal Dictionary. Lucifer is also generally equated with Satan and is often simply referred to as “the Devil”, the one who tempts humans to sin so he can drag them down to Hell when they die.

Islamic tradition contains a similar story about the rebellion against God, only Lucifer is named Iblis and is considered by many Muslims to have been not an angel but rather a powerful djinn, a supernatural being with free will and the source of the genie legend that we know over here. But the gist of the story is the same — Iblis refuses to accept God’s command (in this case, by vocally disapproving of his plan to create humanity) and gets cast out of Heaven and thrown into Hell, but with special permission to tempt humans to sin once again. And in both traditions, it’s implied that he’s the serpent who causes the fall of man by convincing Eve to eat a fruit from the tree of knowledge, who then got Adam to eat the same fruit, and then we were all royally boned and had to till the soil and all that nonsense for thousands of years.

As with just about every element of our religious traditions, there are a lot of disagreements over much of the above between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and between members of sects and schools within those religions, and even of sects within some of those sects — for example, over whether Lucifer and Satan are the same or are distinct beings,3 over his or their origins, over whether he even exists, over whether or how an apocalypse will go down and how he might be involved in it, etc. etc. What really interests me in this case, however, is the relationship Lucifer, or the Devil, or whatever you want to call him has with God and with humanity, how those play out in the universe of MegaTen, and what that might mean for religious believers who might not be comfortable with its interpretations.

Mastema, an angel loyal to God, as depicted in SMT: Strange Journey offering support to you and your friends. But is he really trustworthy?

The biggest difference between these traditional interpretations and the ones found in MegaTen as I see it is based in the Law vs. Chaos system used so often in the series. In tradition, God is absolutely good and Lucifer/Satan is absolutely evil.

There are very old, famous interpretations of Lucifer than are more nuanced that that. The best-known of these is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which depicts him as a tragic figure. The Devil is also featured briefly in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, not laughing maniacally over his kingdom but rather trapped in a mass of ice in the center of Hell, uncontrollably weeping over his fate and being frozen in by his own tears.

However, in both these works, Lucifer is still considered to be evil, or at best extremely misguided. By contrast, in the Megami Tensei universe, Lucifer is not at the evil end of a good-evil scale but rather at the chaotic end of a law-chaos scale, with God or an avatar of God at the law end. One of the results of this difference is that the games don’t put any particular moral weight on your choice between the two, leaving you to make that call for yourself. I’ve written a bit about the hero’s unusual role in these games before — you’re generally required in Shin Megami Tensei games especially to decide between joining God or one of his avatars and his allied forces and supporting a regime of total order, in which peace reigns but at the cost of freedom, or joining Lucifer and his forces and going full chaos with all the freedom but also the destruction and misery that leads to. If you’re lucky enough to manage it, you can also reject both and fight for humanity independent of these two supernatural powers on the Neutral path, though thanks to the games’ strict requirements it’s usually a pain in the ass to achieve this route.

And then you have to fight this asshole. No, I haven’t forgotten about you.

There are many more gods and demons from around the world thrown into the MegaTen mix, and some games center more on eastern traditions (the Digital Devil Saga duology, for example, which is based largely in Hinduism and Buddhism.) But the idea of “killing God” that Megami Tensei is known for is still in those games to some extent. It still feels a little sacrilegious to me somehow, even if these gods aren’t the ones I was brought up to believe in.

This idea of killing God isn’t unique to Megami Tensei, of course: it’s a staple of the JRPG genre itself. If there’s an organized religion in a JRPG, it’s almost certainly dysfunctional and corrupt at best and an insane, evil cult at worst. Gods, if they exist in the game universe, are also generally best mistrusted, since they’re often planning to either end the world or use and sacrifice the heroes for their own ends, and they generally don’t give a shit about humanity or any other sentient life even if they’re not actively trying to destroy it. There are exceptions, but this seems to be the standard, at least in older JRPGs.

So the writers at Atlus didn’t exactly invent this idea. However, they are the only ones I know of to actually put the God of the Abrahamic religions in their games and let you quite literally punch him in the face, mostly notably in the form of YHVH, the Tetragrammaton or four letters of the name of God of the Old Testament. When this guy shows up, he demands absolute obedience or else. Fitting for the one who represents the Law path, but it leaves a bad impression on me, especially when the end result of taking that path involves a lot of people dying as it inevitably does.

This really hit me when I first played Nocturne. That game, unlike most of the others in the main line of Shin Megami Tensei games, doesn’t work on a Law-Chaos scale but rather gives you a choice of three different Reasons, essentially the life philosophies of three characters who are trying to make a reborn world out of the ruins of Tokyo, one that operates according to their own ideals. All three result in pretty shit worlds as far as I can tell, though Musubi is still my favorite (even if my ideas about what Musubi means for its inhabitants might not be correct; I might have to revisit that someday.) Different classes of demons support different Reasons, and strangely enough, the faction of angels decides to support Yosuga, the “might makes right” Reason that has some resemblance to the Chaos concept in terms of its violence against the weak, only with a supreme leader standing at the top who can’t be knocked over by a new challenger.

This was strange to me because I’d always understood that one of the tasks of God’s angels was to protect the weak against the strong, but here they were doing just the opposite. So when I made it to the near-endgame fight against the archangels — including Gabriel, who plays a major role in the tradition I was brought up in4 — I didn’t have any problem knocking the shit out of all of them, since they were clearly twisted depictions of those figures that I couldn’t recognize.

Seraph as depicted by Kazuma Kaneko

Even so, I partly understand this sort of interpretation of God and his angels. The Old Testament God was famously testy, putting his people through all kinds of trials, inflicting plagues and infestations on them and even drowning them in a massive flood. And while God later said he wouldn’t do that again, the prophesies of apocalypse found in the Bible and Quran both have that same sort of feeling to them, to me at least.

And even setting the Old Testament aside, a lot of our shared religious tradition comes off as a lot more terrifying to me than some of us are taught. The idea of a final judgment of all souls is scary enough in itself, but some of the angels as described in the Bible come off as very strange and alien — Kaneko’s depiction of the seraph, left, a high-ranking class of angel, is a lot closer to those descriptions than the guy or lady with wings we generally think of. Hell, even most of Kaneko’s lower-level “guy with wings” angel designs look pretty fierce and unapproachable.

Of course, the point is that if you’re a righteous person and a true believer, you have nothing to worry about despite how scary it all seems. The mercy and forgiveness of God are constantly emphasized as well. All this nice stuff fits perfectly well with the terrifying aspects of religion, because it truly can inspire terror if you believe in it — the kind that hopefully sets you on the moral path. I guess that’s the idea, anyway.

Whether any of that is true or not, I never had the feeling playing these games that I was doing anything particularly against the religion I was brought up in. For one thing, it’s all fiction, so no matter how many angels or even versions of God I beat up in these games with insta-kill dark attacks or Freikugels, I don’t think it matters. But even if it does matter, the ideals expressed by the Law path, to me anyway, never lined up very well with my own concept of God. I admit that concept might not be an orthodox one, either in Islam or any of the other related religions. But I do think it’s totally possible for even a strong religious believer to enjoy these games on that basis, even if they don’t want to follow the Law path. Megami Tensei contains some interesting angles on the ideas of religious faith and how it can affect humanity that are worth exploring, no matter what your feelings about faith in the real world are.

But I won’t be addressing those here. Not yet, anyway, because I’m done with Megami Tensei for now. There’s a lot more that can be said about these games, and I’m sure it’s all been said already. Of course, if I feel like returning to this series, I won’t let that stop me from saying it over again.

Until that time, I’m saying goodbye to MegaTen for a while. At least until SMT V comes out, whenever that might be. If there’s one thing being a fan of this series has taught me, it’s how to wait. 𒀭

1 This view itself could be considered a sacrilegious one, since true believers (at least in my tradition and the related ones in the Abrahamic line) are meant to feel and express gratitude for life, which I’m not properly doing.

That’s the reason I also want to reject a lot of what I see as the more useless social norms. It’s not just because of my leftover bits of edginess from when I was a kid (though I’m sure those are still buried around somewhere, probably in the lines I wrote above now that I look at them again) but mainly because I believe life is generally enough of a burden to bear that people should not be required to conform with such norms on top of that, especially when they’re handed down from generation to generation for no reason other than “this is how we’ve always done it.” Again, as long as nobody’s being hurt or having their rights infringed upon, I say you should be free to cope with life as you like.

Of course, that issue becomes more complicated when the reason is “because this is how God told us to do it.” I think that’s an interesting issue, but it’s not something I feel like getting into here, and anyway it’s way outside the scope of this post and site in general (and also outside the scope of my own abilities to address in a meaningful way, which is another reason for me to avoid the subject.)

2 And maybe of eastern religions as well, though I don’t know enough about them to say for sure.

3 In these games, Lucifer and Satan are portrayed as different beings, and even as directly opposed to each other. The MegaTen depiction of Satan is as scary as you might expect, but he is a loyal servant of God carrying out the role of accuser of humanity on his behalf.

4 The MegaTen version of Gabriel is interesting, partly because the games depict the archangel as female, but more because they generally show her as actually feeling some sympathy for humans that isn’t shared by either her colleagues or her boss (though this doesn’t come up in Nocturne from what I remember.) Even if she still does follow God’s orders no matter what, at least she feels bad about it sometimes.

4 thoughts on “Deep reads #5.4: Gods and devils

  1. Once upon a time, I was going to do a big giant post on the treatment of God in the SMT games, but tapped out of it due to the huge amount of work it took in getting all the info together in a period where I just didn’t have much time. But the gist of it is, SMT as a whole is very gnostic inspired, and the original story designer is utterly fascinated by the Old Testament, and is on record as believing it to be the purist and most distilled example of creation myths. YHVH and the Abrahamic angels get such a heavy focus in those games because of that fascination. But, for all it does to represent it’s mythological figures accurately visually than most other media, and for all the obvious research and real-world inspiration it takes, SMT really doesn’t care to actually try to replicate mythological and religious figures accurately in its work. So between that and the gnostic inspirations giving a heavy dose of the demiurge playing into YHVH as well, you end up with a prominent figure based on God but not really being intended to really represent the religious figure and with a lot of really, really obvious points indicating that. It’s not just YHVH you can see this with either. It’s why Thor went from being the redheaded wild child beserker of mythology to the chilly, reserved, structure oriented jailer in a onesie in SMT. Or why Nyx, who’s powerful yet very benign and passive in the Greek mythologies she springs from, is an incredibly selfish and malicious figures in at least 2 of the 3 incarnations she has in SMT games.

    And even at that, there’s that off-quoted interview where one of the creators said that YHVH in the games was only evil because of something very wrong with the universe itself. The more recent games may be counteracting that, but in the earlier ones, the backstory we get seems to hold that up, where it was YHVH that used to separate the demons from humanity and kept them from preying on or taking advantage of the squishy monkeys, until something changed in him. Which a lot of players get confused about, as the demons that explain that all remark at that being a horribly bad thing, but they’re also all villains, so you know, pay attention to bias of the source. And then there’s the presence of the Great Will, who also seems to be based, in part, on the more benevolent aspects of the religious God, and it’s really a much more complicated subject than it really seems, at first.

    • That Gnostic connection makes a lot of sense. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that they saw the beings we call God in the Old and New Testaments to be different figures. I know there’s a pretty obscure SMT game out there, I think SMT Nine on the XBox, that uses some of these themes, with the demiurge representing the creative but also the baser aspect of God. Some very interesting designs for Adam and Eve as well, if that’s who they’re meant to be. I haven’t played Nine (I don’t know if that many people have, anyway) but some of the same figures show up in other games like Strange Journey.

      I can see the logic behind having God in these games be something of a tyrant — there are rules set down I’ve been told to accept at face value and stories I’ve been told to take literally that I have real problems with, but it seems like there’s no room for questioning them. Then again, maybe that’s just how we humans interpret these things (or maybe it’s just a personal problem more than anything else.) And yeah, then there’s the Great Will, who seems to resemble much more that actually omnipotent God, and with those benevolent aspects; you can’t really say SMT YHVH is omnipotent after all, since you can beat him up, and he sure isn’t very benevolent.

      But you’re certainly right that a lot of these religious/mythological figures don’t resemble their real-world selves very much, and not just from the Abrahamic tradition. Since I’m a total amateur, maybe I shouldn’t have even tried touching this subject since it’s easy to misinterpret such things. It is interesting, though.

      • Nah, the line between experts and non when it comes to things like personal religions and media analysis is really broad and fuzzy. Your perceptions of it are yours, and are very valid, and are worth talking about. Definitely glad you posted your thoughts here, I really liked your take on it, particularly coming from your background.

      • Thanks! And yeah, you’re right about that. I try to be accurate when I’m getting into what others believe; while I know some things about Christian doctrines from family and friends, I still have to approach that from an outsider’s perspective. But I do like reading other people’s angles on these issues as well.

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