Yes, it’s more of this weird stuff. Sorry. The following post contains major story and ending spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne.
Humans are social animals. We all need connections with our fellow humans. We all need love from other people. That’s just common knowledge, isn’t it?
I’ve always been an introvert. Huge surprise, I know – you couldn’t have guessed that the guy who’s into weird JRPGs likes to keep to himself. I’m thankful for the fact that I can at least function in society and pretend to be a more or less normal person, but at my core, I’m still the same reclusive kid I always was. I used to dream about going to some distant island and just staying there alone forever. I still have those dreams sometimes.
As much as I hate to admit it, even I need to socialize. One of the reasons I write on this site is to connect with readers, after all, and that’s a kind of indirect socializing. And yes, I do have friends, and I’m maybe not quite as miserable as I let on sometimes. But does the mind really need those social connections to keep sane and healthy? That’s one of the questions raised by Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. You might already know that Nocturne is one of my favorite games, but one of the reasons I love it so much is all the philosophizing its characters get up to.
First we have to set the table. The game starts about a half-hour before the world ends. Specifically, about a half-hour into Nocturne, the protagonist’s hometown of Tokyo is mostly wrecked and turned inside-out so that its ruins are now on the inside of a sphere, like an inverted Earth, with a sun-like representation of the Japanese fire god Kagutsuchi floating in the center of the sphere.*
Our silent blank slate protagonist, your typical high school student, just happens to have been in a hospital with two of his schoolmates, Chiaki and Isamu, on a visit to their teacher Yuko Takao at the time – the same hospital where this apocalypse was triggered by a cult leader in the basement through some kind of arcane occult magic. Since the hospital itself was spared from the disaster (the cult leader wanted to survive, after all, so he presumably created a magical barrier around it) you, your friends, the teacher, the cult leader and a stray journalist you met earlier that day who somehow found his way into the hospital all survive. However, almost every other human has been killed, inverted ruined Tokyo world has been filled with demons (of course it has – it’s an SMT game) and the protagonist is himself turned into a demon by a mysterious boy and his elderly nanny who force an infernal parasite into his brain through his nose.
Got that? It’s all a little bizarre, but the gist of it is that the world as we know it has ended. But not permanently. Just before his demonic transformation, the protagonist receives a telepathic message from Kagutsuchi in which he’s commanded to “find a Reason” and create a new world. These Reasons are basic philosophies, principles for how the world should best operate. If a human can find one of these Reasons and collect enough magatsuhi (some kind of weird glowing red energy that exists in all living things in the Vortex World, as this inside-out sphere world is called) he can gain enough power to summon a god to carry him to Kagutsuchi, who will then let said human create his ideal world. So while the Vortex World is chaotic and filled with violence, it’s really meant to be a brief transition from the end to our world to the beginning of the next one.
There’s a problem, though. After receiving Kagutsuchi’s command, you might expect that your quest here is to find your own Reason, summon your own god and create your own world. In a different game, that would be the case. But in Nocturne it’s not, because only a human can conceive of a Reason, and the protagonist is no longer fully human. He still has a human mind and what looks more or less like a human body, but in exchange for gaining the superior physical and magical power of a demon, he has traded away part of his humanity, or at least enough of it that he no longer gets to enter Kagutsuchi’s “Create Your Ideal World” contest (only humans qualify; it’s in the fine print.) However, the Demifiend, as the protagonist is now known, can lend his power to one of the remaining humans if they conceive of a Reason he likes and can fight for the supremacy of that Reason over the others.
In the course of the game, three Reasons are conceived, and two more are attempted but fail for different reasons. The first of these Reasons is conceived by Hikawa, the dillweed cult leader who started this whole mess. It’s called Shijima, the world of stillness, one in which all souls melt into a perfectly consistent soup of energy and nothing changes for the rest of eternity (at least I think that’s the idea – his explanation is obscure, or maybe I’m just too stupid to get it.)
The other two Reasons are conceived by your two surviving still-human classmates, Chiaki and Isamu. Chiaki champions Yosuga, the world of strength, which seems to be something close to the Chaos “might makes right” alignment in the other SMT games with the exception that the powerful can’t be challenged and overthrown in Chiaki’s version. While both Hikawa and Chiaki actively seek demon minions to help them gather magatsuhi to call down their gods, Isamu retreats into the Amala Network, a series of tunnels “under” the Vortex World that act as a sort of extra-dimensional subway system for the Demifiend and those few others who know how to use it. It’s in this Network that Isamu realizes his own Reason of Musubi, a world of solitude in which every soul can create his or her own reality separate from every other reality. Strangely enough, Isamu starts to gather demon followers as well, though they don’t have quite the same team spirit as the Yosuga and Shijima demons have for obvious reasons.
The first time I played Nocturne, I wasn’t following a guide, so I didn’t realize that rejecting all three Reasons was a viable option. I thought I had to make a choice out of the three. All three of the Reason-conceiving characters try to some degree to convince Demifiend that he should support them, and there are a few dialogue and decision points starting around late mid-game that present the player with the option of supporting or rejecting each. Naturally, you can’t support more than one reason, so the game uses a point system to determine which Reason you end up backing, sort of like the Golden Saucer date system in Final Fantasy VII except the fate of the world lies in the balance.
Out of the three Reasons, I rejected Shijima out of hand. Hikawa is an asshole who never shows any sympathy for the protagonist or his friends, who in fact uses and deceives your teacher to collect magatsuhi for the purpose of creation. On top of that, his ideal world sounded like a hellish nightmare to me. Shijima seems similar to some of the less orthodox Western ideas about Heaven or to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, in which the idea of the self and all its desires are lost. I know that’s supposed to be a good thing, but I guess I’m not enlightened at all, because I’d rather keep my self intact, as much as I hate it sometimes. So there was no way I was going with Shijima. The “strong oppressing the weak forever” world of Yosuga also sounded pretty lousy. Chiaki is the game’s only female human character aside from Takao, so some players might have thought about making her Demifiend’s qt waifu, but alas, near the end of the story she’s absorbed into a weird-looking god named Baal Avatar and completely loses all semblance of humanity, so that’s not happening. Nocturne isn’t a Persona game, and there’s no Christmas date with your girlfriend in the Vortex World.
That left Musubi. Isamu is kind of a dick throughout the first half of the game and ends up blaming Demifiend for not saving him from being captured by a gang of demons that were squeezing magatsuhi from every living thing they could find, something that wasn’t Demifiend’s fault at all. But once he finds his Reason, he forgives Demifiend for that, since he seems to have found his own truth – that people live essentially separate lives and can never truly empathize with each other. Hence Isamu’s ideal world, which takes a lot of credit from the idea of solipsism, that you can never be sure of any fact other than that you exist. Isamu doesn’t elaborate on this idea a whole lot when you meet him in the Amala Network near the endgame, but he seems to suggest that in his new world, everyone would be able to create their own worlds in their own minds, essentially talking to themselves for the rest of eternity, or at least until the next death and rebirth of this universe.
This might sound just as hellish to you as Hikawa’s world of stillness or Chiaki’s world of strength, but I find something interesting in it. The mind needs socialization, but if it creates its own society, its own world, its own universe – maybe that fulfills its need perfectly. The real world may already be headed in that direction with improvements in AI and the creation of virtual worlds that are starting to not look and feel like shit when you enter them. Be honest with yourself – given the choice, would you deal with the outer world full of people you can never fully empathize with or trust, or with your own inner world? Most people would honestly say the former, and I understand why. But I also understand where Isamu is coming from, and I was 100% in “fuck the whole world” mode the first time I played Nocturne. I chose to support Isamu, and we built our own world(s) at the end of the game when I beat the hell out of Kagutsuchi for him (turns out Kagutsuchi doesn’t let you create your own world unless you can beat him in a two-stage boss fight. That must have also been in the fine print.)
On my second playthrough, I found out that I could reject every Reason and get a different, better ending, so I did that instead. Still, even after all this time, Isamu’s world of solitude holds some appeal for me. Throughout my life, I’ve been told what to do and how to do it. I’m sure you’ve been told the same. Even now, I don’t feel like I live for myself at all, but only out of duty to others. I’d like nothing better to escape, though that’s impossible. Is it selfish of me to think that way? Probably. Should I care whether that makes me selfish? Every day I live, I care less and less. Weirdly enough, then, Isamu is the character in Nocturne I empathize with the most. Aside from Yuko Takao, that is. She’s got it the worst. Elaborating on her story would take an even longer post than this one, so I’ll set it aside.
What are your thoughts? What kind of world would you create if you were given the option? Do you think it’s even right to impose your own ideals on the entire world the way the characters in Nocturne do? Do you wish I would shut up about this nonsense and review my backlog of games instead? I will, I promise. 𒀭
* What happened to the rest of Earth outside of Tokyo after the Conception is never addressed, but our characters have enough of their own problems to be concerned with that. Maybe Tokyo just blinked out of existence and left a void behind, or maybe every city and every little bumfuck town in the world experienced its own Conception based on their city and county limits.