Moral Discernment in Shin Megami Tensei

A couple months ago I finished Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey for the Nintendo DS. It was one of the most gruelling video game experiences of my life, so much so that I soldiered on through the last few hours less out of a quest for entertainment than out of a demented determination to not be broken by the game. When the credits finally rolled, I couldn’t believe that the whole ordeal was over, and felt so exhausted that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about it until now.

Growing up, the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) RPG series was something of a holy grail for me. It was a cool-looking Japanese urban fantasy that had never reached western shores due to being considered too outre and controversial for a North American release. But we got the odd, more anodyne spin-off from time to time – notably the first two Persona games – and this was enough to whet my curiosity.

Truth be told, had the original two Famicom titles seen a release over here in the early 90s, there probably would have sparked some sort of media outrage. These games, after all, feature plot points like American religious fanatics nuking Japan. Not to mention the gameplay mechanics, which resemble (although actually predating) Pokemon in their monster collecting, but with characters drawn from real life mythologies and religions rather than being made-up, cuddly animals. The series can be irreverent to the point of blasphemy – God, specifically identified by the biblical Tetragrammaton, has been the final boss twice now – and isn’t shy about incorporating occult themes and imagery.

SMT proper finally arrived in North America rather quietly in 2004 with Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, but it wasn’t until a few years later with the breakout success of Persona 3 and especially Persona 4 that the franchise stepped into the western limelight. The most recent entry, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse was released earlier last year to general fanfare and acclaim. Ironically, the most shocking and provocative punk JRPG franchise managed to insinuate itself into the gaming mainstream without any of the controversy that it at times seems to almost crave.

The aspects mentioned above make SMT a series I wouldn’t really give an unequivocal recommendation of to everyone. But to the critical eye there are some interesting things under the hood. In particular, I want to focus on the series’ morality system.

Most video games that feature a morality system tend to focus around particular actions and their consequence: do you kill this person or spare them, do you take the opportunity to steal or not?, etc. SMT, however, has an approach which is less about what you do than what you believe in. Over the course of a typical SMT game, situations will arise which philosophically interrogate the player – up until a point of no return where the game fixes you into a particular moral alignment which determines who your friends and foes are and what your ultimate goal is.

In most SMT games, the moral alignments are described as Law, Chaos and Neutral, and these have a religious connotation to them. Law is typically in favor of order, tradition and equality and has God as its chief representative. However, this portrayal of God isn’t a god of love but rather one of law for law’s own sake. Freedom is often an afterthought and bringing about God’s reign tends to come with a significant body count. Chaos is associated with individualism and radical change and whose representative is Lucifer. The Chaos alignment also leans very heavy on the social Darwinism, often advocating an every man for himself mentality. Finally, Neutral is the middle ground between the two and is represented as a rejection of the supernatural in favor of a secular humanism of sorts.

As a Christian I find none of these options particularly appealing. And to a certain extent the developers’ own preferences has the series rigged towards presenting the Neutral alignment as the “true” or canonical choice that nets you the most conventionally happy ending. At the same time I also find it fascinating that a video game series seems to be implying that all moral choices ultimately reveal themselves to be religious choices.

Adding to that is how, in spite of the developers’ own intentions, the fanbase seems pretty divided over which alignment is the best, and debate over the topic tends to take on a quasi-philosophical/theological character. Something about the series seems to provoke a greater degree of reflectiveness than other mechanics of this type – perhaps because it makes use of images that to a western audience are particularly charged (I’m not too familiar with the series’ reception amongst Japanese fans, and would be interested to compare here), perhaps because it tries to, however crudely, allow players to see how individual moral choices eventually add up to a particular worldview.

But I also wonder if part of it comes from a hunger for something greater. Modern moral discourse is often critiqued for being quite shallow and desiccated – people often have strong moral convictions, but not an understanding of why they have them, or what their implications may be. There’s a general lack of moral vocabulary, and when we encounter someone who radically disagrees with us, the result is often just butting heads. Of course, to bring up God or religion is often a big faux pas.

And even when God is the topic, the result can sometimes be wanting. Within the Catholic Church, you’ll occasionally hear mention of a crisis in catechesis – that the teaching of the faith has in recent decades, for a variety of reasons, become watered down. The result often isn’t palatable to young people on the receiving end: I think it often just gives the impression that the Faith itself is something shallow.

So I do think that a series which on a meta level is really about moral discernment does have a bracing appeal in how it seems to attack the player’s own complacency: come for the heavy metal grimdark Pokemon mechanics, stay for the moral-existential crisis. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that for some people SMT was perhaps the first time they thought about the nature of God, or the relationship between law and the individual.

That someone could be more philosophically/theologically challenged by a video game than the more traditional sources doesn’t speak well for the present health of those sources. But it does suggest that the appetite for such a challenge still exists, which is an encouraging thought.

7 thoughts on “Moral Discernment in Shin Megami Tensei

  1. Regarding the use of God in artistic works, Galatians 1:6-9 comes to mind and in want of reflection.

    Galatians 1:6-9 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

    Perversion of the Gospel

    6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!

  2. I have never played this series of games because of the way they deal with God and Christianity. As you mentioned, it is blasphemous and I personally don’t want to play it because of that. But, I enjoyed reading your opinions on it as a fellow believer so I can see a different perspective of it.

    It’s interesting to see how they show God as the law, which reminds me of the Old Testament. They do not focus as God our Redeemer through Christ, instead only seeing Him as someone who is out to destroy us or hurt us at any mistake we do to Him. I wrote a similar article on this too, because I find that a lot of Japanese games reflect this way of thinking about God. It’s as if the game designers purposefully ignore grace and Christ, I wonder why they seemingly do that….but that’s just my opinion, not a fact 🙂

    1. Yeah, it’s a shame because while there’s a lot I like about the SMT games, its treatment of God always winds up being a big sore spot for me. iirc, the series’ creators themselves said that their depiction of God is based on the Old Testament, but even then it’s a pretty shallow caricature which a thoughtful reading of the OT would quickly disabuse.

  3. A friend of mine tried to convince me to give SMT a chance, which pushed me to consider the issues I had with it.

    Part of it, of course, is the use of the Tetragrammaton, which feels like an open display of contempt given the history of that name (i.e. using it vainly was considered so problematic that its vowels were intentionally left out of written records). SMT has, as far as I’m aware, respected the Islamic prohibition against portraying Muhammad, but it denies the Judeo-Christian God the equivalent consideration. As such, I would feel very differently about SMT if the in-game entity were simply called “God.”

    The other part is that, while I don’t necessarily have a problem with a game taking shots at a Cosmic Santa Claus (“He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake!”) who’s set himself up as “God,” stacking the deck such that secular humanism is one’s only option for avoiding the horrific extremes of Law and Chaos results in a portrayal of religion that’s essentially a straw man. Harsh criticism of a Cosmic Santa Claus “God” would feel very different if the three paths were Justice-Mercy-Freedom as opposed to Law-Balance-Chaos.

    Imagine a game that mixed the conceit of SMT (supernatural “demons” brought into existence through the collective will of humanity, with Law and Chaos as similarly-awful extremes represented by “demons” calling themselves “God” and “Lucifer”) with the scapegoat theory of Rene Girard (all myths derive from the unique power that the unified murder of a “scapegoat” has in defusing crises where mimetic desire sets everyone against everyone else and the subconscious need to justify that murder as a necessary and proper reaction to some failing on the part of the “scapegoat” — “Satan casts out Satan”) to posit that Cosmic Santa Claus “God” and Social Darwinist “Lucifer” are really just two sides of the same human-created coin, with the third option requiring one to seek a model of mercy outside of both the “demon” system and humanity itself. I could imagine that being just as off-putting as SMT to a lot of people, but I’d gladly play it.

    1. An RPG game based on Girard’s theories would certainly be interesting, to say the least. I do like to wonder what it would be like to have a scenario writer for an RPG game who actually had a solid formation in philosophy/theology.

      I do agree with you that the use of the Tetragrammaton is particularly galling.

      1. Well, Final Fantasy X is certainly amenable to a Girardian interpretation, what with its big twist being “Summoners are glorified human sacrifices and the Final Aeon is a self-perpetuating stopgap solution upheld by a religion of the dead.” I’ve never seen any official commentary acknowledging a connection, though (and FFX’s criticism of religion was apparently meant to be aimed at Buddhism and Shintoism).

        Of course, that’s not really the same thing as an RPG with a morality system, which is where Girard’s insight (especially as offered by a writer with a solid philosophical/theological base) could be particularly interesting. Not only could it be used to develop a morality system based around a justice-mercy-anarchy spectrum, it could also allow the more common “good vs. evil” spectrum to be used to lure well-intentioned players to choose false righteousness at others’ expense before pulling the rug out from under them.

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