Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster provides a unique experience by plunging players into dark and serious environments and offering one of the most challenging gameplays seen within the dungeon crawler sub-genre. Despite being a remaster of a 2003 title, it continues to stand out within the JRPG market, its narrative still fresh and intriguing thanks to its themes revolving around political philosophy.
This article aims to dig into this classic JRPG and explore one of the oldest problems discussed in political philosophy, dating back to ancient Greece: What would be the best rationale for establishing an ideal society for humans?
It’s not new for the Megami Tensei series and its subseries to offer a narrative and world conducive to the treatment of philosophical problems. The series is full of mythological and philosophical references, some of which are fairly constant across most of its titles.
As Sam Hatting recalls in his essay for Megatengaku, one of these constants in the franchise is the idea that the religions enshrined in the Western tradition are based on a conception that humans need to see themselves as inescapably subservient to certain divine interests inaccessible to them or even incomprehensible. In this sense, the "god" presented in Megami Tensei's games is represented as a tyrant, known as YHVH (the Hebrew name for "God") and lacking empathy towards those who are not his followers.
However, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (SMT III) is especially interesting to address the philosophical question posed previously for two reasons:
First, because the game allows the player to have the power to restart humanity. The player can carry out a project for a new world based on certain philosophical dogmas (Reasons), having to choose between one of these or simply none.
Second, the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic universe with few human survivors scattered across what’s left of their old world. This provides a metaphysical premise that allows the player to have a more introspective experience of the problem without having to question themselves too much on the means to reach his ideal project of society.
Humanity is practically extinct, and the player does not feel as compelled to reject some projects of societies for demanding harmful means to achieve them. Humanity already lives a posthumous era, and it is up to the player to decide the value of what it meant and the value of what it can still assume from a certain point of view (the player’s choice).
In agreement with the theoretical approach of Ian Bogost, in his book Persuasive Games, we can say that SMT III formulates a particular “political simulation” in an imaginary and metaphysically charged scenario. A type of simulation, however, that is not used for politics, but to talk about politics, offering a unique experience of freedom, challenge, and reflection.
Thus, SMT III provides something like a dream (or nightmare) from which to invent the foundations of the world, in which the player would like to wake up. A dream or nightmare that would comprise a kind of fictional experiment for the philosophical problem of the desired ideal society, and it is in this dark dream that we will enter the following topics.
Even at the beginning of Shin Megami Tensei III there is an event called Conception. In my review (Portuguese) of its Switch remake, the event was summarized as follows:
“[...] an apocalyptic event that results in a Vortex World that remains until there is a next moment of “creation” of a new world. Shortly before this event, the protagonist is transformed into a Demi-fiend, a human with the powers of a demon, to possibly lead an army against the so-called Great Will.”
The “Great Will” ties in with Megami Tensei’s god, YHVH. After the aforementioned event, the protagonist finds himself alone in the infernal desert that the world has become, full of demons and human spirits on sandy paths. This world is full of empty island cities that hide magical and dark labyrinths within which are the minds and arms of the underworld of this Vortex World.
In this context, the young protagonist Demi-fiend (part human and part demon) faces demons, remaining humans, and different reasons on both sides for whether to create a new world. After all, if it is up to you to choose who or what to support for the resurgence of humanity. What should the foundations of this new beginning be like? Or would it be better if he didn’t even start over?
Rejection and Release
Yes, in SMT III, there are different endings, each one related to either of the “reasons of the world” or none of them. In case one rejects these reasons, the player will end up in one of the following three endings:
- Libertarian: You choose to restore the world as it was, chaotic and with no defined future. In this choice, Lucifer commends the Demi-fiend for denying the Great Will’s order and recommends that he keep his demonic powers, as the Great Will will eventually hunt him down as well.
- Demonic: In the absence of the will to create a new world, you choose to leave it to the demons until a new moment of Conception comes. Which refers to the idea of the “eternal return” of the world, also from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For this ending, the player must either choose no reason or contradict himself between two.
- Truly Demonic: What remains of the world becomes sacrificed for the birth of a new demon, resulting in a last battle between Lucifer and the Great Will, in which the Demi-fiend becomes Lucifer’s greatest general.
In any of these endings, the player “chooses not to choose”, but even that is a choice and will have consequences that will vary according to the context. The variation occurs because when someone doesn’t choose something in time, another will choose it instead and will share the burden of responsibility with the one who chose not to choose.
Whatever the player's decision in SMT III, he will learn two things:
First, that it is inevitable to bear the weight of choices while alive, even in the absence of alignment with a specific reason to maintain one's life or to recreate the world.
Second, he will learn that choices are not just options of thought, but their accomplishments require the imposition of will on the world. They are also achievements. This is because the difficulty of the game and the underlying themes represent Nietzsche’s theory of Übermensch, introduced in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. According to the text, man must be driven to overcome all obstacles in order to ascend to the status of Übermensch, or “superman” (or “beyondman”, or even “overhuman”/“overman”). This is not only reflected in the gameplay's difficulty.
Dungeon after dungeon, the Demi-fiend finds continual disappointment as the people he considered his friends leave his side and the people who promised him answers reveal their weakness and incompetence. For Nietzsche, this situation is to be expected if one trusts only what others show from their moral values.
This is because the ascension to the level of “overman” is a process in which one discovers the impediment of conventionalism to one’s own ability to achieve personal greatness. The individual reaches his potential when he breaks with conventions and asserts his self-control over known values and morality.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche)
However, this does not mean that the player cannot align himself, of his own volition, with one of the reasons found along the way, and which is headed by different pieces of the board of this post-apocalyptic battle.
We can understand reasons as dogmas or competing internal philosophical positions that, each in its own way, configure specific cults that wish to form natural laws in the new world. There are many scattered throughout the world of SMT III, but the main ones are perhaps Shijima, Musubi, and Yosuga.
“All in tune with the world” (Hikawa's Reason)
Shijima is a coherent ending to the cult of the “Reason of Hikawa”, which is also supported by Ahriman’s demonic powers. Worship is based on the primacy of the idea of stillness and unity. This cult intends to form a world of perfect harmony, without the idea of a “self”. This is a world without individualities and, therefore, without personal passions, conflicts from said passions and, therefore, removing the cause of destruction between people.
To reach this end, the player must agree that individuality should therefore be eradicated. In its place there will be a collective inner peace in which everyone is analogous to a serene and sensible God, but without a will of his own. This collective would function as a cluster of gears in the giant, stable machine that is the universe.
Hikawa’s position in SMT III bears resemblance to several philosophical positions throughout history. One of them being, for example, the position of the Stoics in Ancient Greece or modern philosophers, such as Spinoza. For such thinkers, such determinism governs the world and humans do not exercise real freedom to impose themselves on the phenomena of the world. Instead, humans should seek harmony with themselves, accepting that, by nature, each one will go through certain events, even if they do not know it in advance, and even if this destiny has not been planned by a superior entity.
The thought experiment of philosopher and mathematician Laplace, known as “Laplace's Demon”, illustrates this position well. Laplace suggests we imagine a creature capable of accounting for all the variables that influence the universe from all the laws of physics and their applications.
One consequence, if this creature had full knowledge of nature, in theory, it could know what any person would “decide” to do. For him to decide, for example, to raise his hand, this she would do it for motivations that are nothing more than phenomena governed by biological and psychological structures in her body, which could be quantified and calculated by Laplace’s Demon.
“I am the center of the world” (Reason by Isamu Nitta)
The Musubi ending is gained when one adheres to the cult of Isamu Nitta’s Reason. It is based on solitude and isolation. The player can get this ending if they agree with most of Isamu’s statements. Basically, the cult holds, as opposed to the Hikawa Reason, that the “self” is absolute, and every living being must live in an independent world, completely separate from all other living beings.
The individual could use his mind to shape his world to his will in his own personal paradise, without unwanted consequences or interference from others. It is an isolationist and solitary motive sponsored by the demonic Noah.
Thinkers have also held this philosophical position in the past and leads to interesting questions, also related to science fiction. For example, wouldn’t it be interesting in the future for people (or rather their minds) to live in isolated artificial worlds carefully designed for themselves instead of living in a complicated and chaotic world like reality? Films like The Matrix explored this idea inspired by the reflections of the book Simulacres et Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard.
"The world belongs to the fittest to rule it" (Reason by Chiaki Hayasaka)
There is still Yosuga, the Reason of Chiaki Hayasaka. It is a reason based on elitism and survival of the fittest. Those who are useless or weak would not deserve to live and would be purged from society. And only those who are strongest could rule, power being recognized as the most valuable property. The weak would serve the strong forever.
Apparently Chiaki created this Reason in order to protect herself from becoming weak or being a part of the lower class, therefore, reflecting her fear. The fear she always had to look over her shoulder and fear being knocked down. It’s a chaotic reason, therefore, and one that, from that point of view, resembles part of the experience one had in the pre-apocalypse world. His demonic sponsor is Baal Avatar, and many angels follow this Reason.
That a society should be based on the “victory of the fittest” is also something found in philosophy since ancient times. There are several motivations to support it, for example, as a way of maximizing what humans can best produce, making the world richer and humans more fulfilled.
There are several criticisms in the philosophy of positions, such as the ones above, but it is not appropriate for this article to go into detail. It should be noted, however, that they were presented in a very primary and introductory way and that they are rarely defended seriously nowadays, at least not in such extreme and rigid versions. Still, the game makes it possible to reflect on important and still influential philosophical premises, even if they are formulated with greater moderation today.
It is still worth noting that in SMT III we can see that there are other people who tried or who effectively formed independent cults around a Reason. But, depending on the case, they are not within reach of the player. Among them, we can highlight two cases:
- The case of Yuko Takao, who managed a demonic alliance to promote her ideal, but who failed, as she apparently lacked sufficient conviction and foundation for her thesis.
- The case of Futomimi, a cult of the Manikins, who developed his own Reason, which consisted of developing a world in which everyone should have happiness on an equal level. The world would be populated by people who would be only slaves of a greater will that would balance what would give happiness to each one of them. This cult, however, is defeated by Chiaki’s, leaving few remnants, who cannot realize their Reason.
Nietzsche wrote we can understand life as an endless cycle with no beginning and no end (idea of the “eternal return”). However, once a person tunes into the creation-destruction cycle, he can ascend to a higher level of “self-actualization.”
In SMT III, the Kagutsuchi energy flowing through the Vortex World executes this concept after the end of the world at the beginning of the game. Energy gathers around the so-called Reasons, which must be presented to the Japanese god Kagutsuchi to form a new world under one of them.
After facing many conflicts with other cults, Demi-fiend has the opportunity to create one of four possible worlds, related to yearnings for more freedom or strength or silence or simply for the world as it was. As we have seen, there are closures in which they do not recreate the world.
Whatever the player’s decision, he will find himself in a very interesting experiment, not only theoretical but also practical, in representing the ascension path described by Nietzsche. In addition, it is also a representation of the moral and political dilemma in which humans face the process of creating the social future and understanding moral values.
For those who are interested in the subject of this gaming essay and want to delve deeper into it, I recommend reading the books Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche, and Persuasive Games, by Ian Bogost. Other important references for this article were the websites Megatengaku, MegamiTensei Wiki and Megami Tensei Fandom.
This text was originally published in Nintendo Blast (Portuguese).
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