Megami Tensei: Novel turned game turned novel
While the Megami Tensei series never quite enjoyed the same kind of success the other two big JRPG series Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy have, it still is one of the major RPG franchises in Japan, spawning many sequels and countless spin-offs which in turn often grew into their own series, like Devil Children for Game Boy or Devil Summoner for disc based consoles. The anime-heavy Persona spin-off series even surpassed the original series‘ success and also put Atlus on the Western JRPG publisher map during the Playstation era. After the first real Megami Tensei game published outside Japan, Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne, was released in the US in 2004 Atlus USA started slapping the SMT moniker on every spin-off title including the recent Persona games but not many Western players are aware of the roots of the franchise which is based on a light novel series by NISHITANI Aya published starting in 1986.
Megami Tensei was actually the subtitle of the first book in the Digital Devil Story series1 Digital Devil Story might remind some readers of the Digital Devil Saga games for PS2 which were named to allude to the series‘ roots. which started as a trilogy but got an even longer running sequel. Like other light novels the DDS books feature manga-styled covers and both color and b/w illustrations, the former at the beginning and the latter spread throughout each volume, drawn by KITAZUME Hiroyuki. The story is a mix of SF, fantasy and horror and its aesthetics and subject matter strongly appeal to fans of manga and games which is typical of light novels. The original trilogy follows the adventures of genius programmer NAKAJIMA Akemi2 中島朱実. NAKAJIMA’s first name is sexually ambiguous, like many Japanese names it can be both male and female, this one being more commonly female. This fits in with NAKAJIMA often being described as effeminate and rivaling a girl’s beauty. The author’s first name Aya is equally ambiguous. and his female classmate SHIRASAGI Yumiko. NAKAJIMA writes a program that unleashes digitally summoned demons into the world, in part because, like any genius scientist who discovers something new, he can, but also because he wants to get revenge on two other classmates, the ruffian jock KONDŌ Hiroyuki and TAKAMIZAWA Kyōko, who instigated KONDŌ to beat up NAKAJIMA for allegedly harrassing her the day before. Realizing what he has done he rises to become the hero to fight the demons he himself unleashed. He gets help from the recently transferred3 Yumiko being a transfer student (転校生、tenkōsei) is linked to her being reincarnated by the characters used to write the word. If just one is left out tenkōsei becomes tensei, which means reincarnation. Yumiko, who not only becomes his lover but also turns out to be a reincarnation of Izananami-no-mikoto, an ancient goddess,4 Fußnotenauszug: Izanami-no-mikoto is also the mother of the world. In the Japanese world creation myth a human-like goddess gives birth to the world after discovering sexual intercourse with her husband, Izanagi-no-mikoto. This myth is much more concrete and founded in real life experience than the Judaism/Christian equivalent, i.e. in the bible world creation (by an abstract being) and discovery of sexuality (by... hence the title Megami Tensei (Reincarnation of the goddess).
The demons lead by the norse god Loki aren’t willing to retreat from the world once summoned and soon endanger Yumiko. With her divine abilities and NAKAJIMA’s demon summon program they manage to fight back Loki, getting help from another demon, Cerberos, who NAKAJIMA befriends. The demons represent NAKAJIMA’s violent and dangerous feelings, resulting in Loki killing NAKAJIMA’s classmates, as much as his potential for heroism, wielding a flame sword and riding Cerberos. In the world of the DDS novels NAKAJIMA’s ability to program computer games that make professional efforts pale in comparison, as his friend TAKAI comments, is exaggerated in the fantasy narrative enabling him to summon real demons by simulating their every detail on his computer. The esoteric and mysterious sounding assembly code becomes actual spells, IT becomes the spiritual successor of Kabbalah and witchcraft. It seems like a childish fantasy but is actually an interesting allegory for how games can be perceived by the player. It’s like the gruesome scenes seen in some games have become reality. Every game has its hero fighting the cruel villain but NISHITANI actually acknowledges the programmer’s role in also creating the adversary, the adversary actually being a part of the creator.5 Fußnotenauszug: Hero and villain necessitating each other also is common theme in American superhero comics since the late 70-ies, when the mutant heroes of the Uncanny X-Men were becoming as feared as their evil counterparts. Should the victims be thankful of the hero saving them from the villain or the hero be thankful of the villain for making his adventures more interesting than saving cats from trees and cat...
But the story is also one of coming of age and of sexual awakening. Like Yumiko NAKAJIMA is a reincarnation of an ancient god, Izanami’s husband Izanagi. Rescuing Yumiko from the demon attacks, like Loki’s tentacles, he often gets to hold her naked body aftwards. The aggressive sexual assaults of the demons are juxtaposed with NAKAJIMA’s own timid affection towards Yumiko. Unlike Kyōko, Yumiko is kind and doesn’t ridicule him for his effeminate looks, unlike his absent working mother she is there for him and stands by his side. A reincarnation of a kind ancient mother goddess she’s the one he chooses to protect, to be his lover.
In the second novel Mato no senshi (The Warrior of the Demon Capitol) NAKAJIMA’s teacher EBARA, who was raped by Loki in part one, gives birth to Seth, another demon adversary, but only after killing NAKAJIMA’s mother before his and Yumiko’s eyes to get revenge for him slaying Loki. The demons infiltrate more and more of the world including the sphere of politics and the younger brother of Charles Feed of the MIT (a friend of Richard Craft who helped NAKAJIMA write the demon summon program) decides to use the demon summon program again even though NAKAJIMA chooses not to. Yumiko is summoned to a mythical plane to be trained by the real Izanami how to use her divine abilities while NAKAJIMA and his American friends keeps the demons at bay in their home town. They even go to outer space from where the demons start their big invasion.
When faced with the decision to either save the whole world from being overrun by demons or save Yumiko from dying he chooses to save his lover. After losing his mother, first to her career, then to his evil pregnant teacher (who in a way is the antithesis of his mother as the villains Loki and his son Seth are the antithesis to the heroic NAKAJIMA), he cannot bear to also lose the girl that is supposed to be her substitute, the reincarnation of the mother goddess.
In the last volume, Tensei no shūen (End of the Reincarnation), NAKAJIMA and Yumiko face off with Lucifer himself, whose advent to the human world is heralded by a spreading cult which the frightened humans succumb to. But first NAKAJIMA has to find a cure for Yumiko’s loss of her eyesight. NAKAJIMA seems destined to become the world’s Messiah but like Jesus he is seduced by Lucifer and unlike Jesus he cannot resist Lucifer’s control over his actions. Izanami has to kill NAKAJIMA as he turns on Yumiko. Of course the story doesn’t end with NAKAJIMA’s death, there’s a 6 volume sequel series, Shin Digital Devil Story (The New Digital Devil Story) which continues the battle against Lucifer.
The game adaption, which NISHITANI also wrote the scenario for, shares the same title as the first novel, Digital Devil Story Megami Tensei6 The only difference is that Story is written in Chinese characters instead of Latin or Japanese characters like in the novels but it still is meant to be read as Story. and adapts the story of NAKAJIMA. The game skips the exposition and depictions of real life Tokyo and instead starts right with NAKAJIMA and Yumiko entering the demon lair and is basically one big dungeon separated into five areas. NAKAJIMA and Yumiko have to fight off and negotiate with demons to make the needed allies to get through the dangerous mazes until their final confrontation with Lucifer. Unlike the book NAKAJIMA can become the Messiah this time. The series‘ mainstays like befriending demons and the fusion system to make stronger demons are already introduced in this first installment. Unlike most other original Japanese RPGs of the time it also used a first-person perspective and an alignment system differentiating along the axis of Good-Neutral-Evil, which both were common in Western RPGs.
The sequel Digital Devil Story Megami Tensei II was made without NISHITANI’s involvement and continues the story established in the first game ignoring the novel sequels. It actually has a much stronger narrative than the first game and introduces another element typical of the later Megami Tensei games, choice. The player still can’t choose or in any way affect his alignment, which remains fixed at Good, but depending on a few choices at crucial plot points he can get a different ending than the standard one.
The story is set in a bleak future after World War III. The atom bomb has been dropped on Tokyo and people hide in shelters. In one such shelter a boy and his friend, both named by the player, play a video game called Devil Buster7 In the ending Devil Buster is revealed to be the demon summon program written by NAKAJIMA Akemi.. It is very similar to the first DDS: MT game but with a top down perspective switching to first person for the battles, reminiscent of the Dragon Quest style of presentation. A male hero is coupled with a magician girl, like NAKAJIMA and Yumiko in the first game. They befriend demons to beat the boss of the dungeon. Once the boy and his friend clear the dungeon something weird happens. A demon addresses them and tells them about demons coming to their own reality. He explains to them how they can use the game soft to summon demons in the real world and that they have to use them to save the world. When they stop playing they find themselves in the shelter which is seen from a first-person perspective indicating their return to the „real world“. The Dragon Quest-style game fantasy has been replaced with the more realistic game setting of Megami Tensei again.
The boy’s friend takes the place of the girl from the game and they travel ruined Tokyo together. Until they make their way to Tokyo Tower where they meet the girl from the game in the real world.8 The girl in the game is of course a symbol and a projection of the hero’s image of women as based on his closest female reference, his mother. Finding her in the real world outside the game is an allegory for the shift from affection towards the mother to love for same age girls. She seems to know how the player can become the Messiah but the boy’s friend doesn’t want him to listen to her. The player doesn’t have a real choice here and must ask the girl into the party at some point which causes him to have to split up with his male friend. Who then becomes an evil demon summoner trying to stop the player from restoring the world.
At a later stage the player can show mercy to a defeated boss turned frog. This decision leads to the possibility of uniting him with another boss to restore the god Ba’al who then can join the player. With Ba’al in his party the player doesn’t have to fight Lucifer who instead explains to him that devils are just gods of other religions.9 The two demons reunited as Ba’al, Bael and Beelzebub, are actually both interpretations of the same god Ba’al as an evil devil. The player can then choose polytheism over becoming the Messiah of a monotheistic god. This is actually the true ending which leads to the world being restored. If the player decides to become the Messiah he helps build the biblical 1000 year kingdom in which according to the game only the strong survive.10 This becomes the law ending in the later Shin Megami Tensei games. This can be seen as an expression of the mixed feelings of the Japanese towards the patriarchal values of post war Japan stressing importance of education and achievements in school and the work place and the suppression of some more lenient Japanese values like maternal kindness.
For the next installment developer Atlus chose to reboot the series and interpret the original narrative of NISHITANI’s novel in new ways. The title was shortened to just Megami Tensei but with the prefix Shin added. Shin usually means new, as in the New Adventures of or the New Tales of, but here it is written with the character indicating true. In the opening someone is entering cryptic computer code that turns into ancient spells and when he enters the title Shin Digital Devil Story the beginning part Shin is at first converted to the usual New, then to God and finally to True. Digital Devil Story is then converted to Megami Tensei making the title read The True Reincarnation of the Goddess.
Major story motives of the original, like the demon summon program (this time written by Steven, a man in a wheel chair), the death of the hero’s mother, the friendly demon Cerberos (who is created by fusing the hero’s dog Pascal with any demon), politicians controlled by demons11 In the game the American ambassador Thorman turns out to be the Norse god Thor who drops an atom bomb on Tokyo because of the Japanese millitary allying themselves with demons. Thorman (トールマン) is obviously a play on words; if one character is displaced it becomes Truman (トルーマン), alluding the ambassador’s decision to the historical bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. and cults spreading are reinterpreted. Also a new alignment axis is introduced: Good-Neutral-Evil is changed to Light-Neutral-Dark and Law-Neutral-Chaos is added12 These are the same two types of alignment also present in D&D, the original RPG to come up with the alignment system in the first place.. This latter alignment changes with the player’s actions. There’s also two more heroes, the law hero who is accused of having killed his girl friend and the chaos hero who is beat up by ruffians. The law hero actually dies and comes back to life after 3 days to become the actual Messiah13 The alleged murder of the law hero’s girlfriend can be seen as a symbol for war crimes the generation of the law hero haven’t themselves committed. The law player seeks to distance himself from this past and becomes a Messiah type hero. while the chaos hero seeks strength so desperately that he decides to fuse with a demon to gain its power14 Being frequently bullied the chaos player seeks a way out of being pushed around, resulting in radicalization.. Both try to convince the player to join their side but it’s up to him to remain neutral or choose either one. Law is linked to the Messiah church and chaos to the Gaia church, the former representing patriarchal systems like Christianity in which the mother only serves to enforce male values, the latter maternal goddesses of the world which are similar to Japanese folklore.
Choosing when to fight, choosing who to treat as friend or foe, choosing your own actions and ideology to follow, if the game is a virtual mirror of the real world then giving the player this kind of freedom must be empowering. Shin Megami Tensei also avoids associating either religious stream with light/good or dark/evil. In fact both the law hero and the chaos hero are aligned with light.
This element of choice made a big impression on the Japanese gaming scene and NISHITANI was inspired by this game to revisit his creation, writing his own version of Shin Megami Tensei (The True Reincarnation of the Goddess). The hero-heroine team of reincarnated ancient Japanese gods is replaced by a heroine becoming the mother of god and a secondary hero protecting her (or failing to protect her from the demon rape). In the afterword of the first volume NISHITANI explains his aim with this new novel:
I belief that no work of art is ever created by just one single individual. The music of Wagner for example could only exist because of traditional German folk tales, opera, the environment of his family and the harsh historical background he lived in.
The Pillow Book15 Makura no sōshi, written by court lady SEI Shōnagon in the Heian period. also is a literary work which could only exist because of the overripe culture of the nobility, the life at court and the author’s hereditary genius.
A great artist is like a priestess medium, sucking a certain something out of his era. The part emerging as a work of art is but the tip of the iceberg and in the depths of it there is a hidden huge core, of which the artist isn’t even aware.
The bigger this hidden core is, the deeper its layers and the more profound its meanings. The game Shin Megami Tensei seems to me like a large bloom coming out of the border line of such a core.
I’ve heard that most of the development staff of Shin Megami Tensei created the game leaning towards chaos or neutral.
Among the people close to me at least there is no one who played the game taking the lawful route.
As for myself, I only beat the game the lawful way.
Many people assume that the lawful hero route is, in a nutshell, just like any other RPG, but I don’t agree.
Law is not about doing what is right but believing in an absolute ruler and accepting the fate you’re given.
The conduct of a typical benevolent hero like the one in Ultima is not what you would call lawful virtue in theological theory. That is nothing more than a relativistic law. In fact Shin Megami Tensei is the only RPG that contains a lawful standpoint in the true sense of the word.
But there’s something severly missing from the lawful world portrayed in Shin Megami Tensei.
I’m speaking about „Mary“.
Christianity, which represents the lawful ideology, could only become a world religion because of Mary worship. The protestants deny Mary worship but in catholic belief Mary, who in theology is positioned only slightly beneath Jesus, sustains Christianity.
A few years back when I visited Jerusalem I went to a graveyard church built on mount Golgotha, the most holy of places.
The statue of Mary standing there didn’t smile gently like the depictions of the holy mother usually do.
She was grieving for her crucified son, shedding tears and calling to the heavens.
As I saw her sobbing expression all the doubts I had about Christianity were suddenly cleared up.
The world portrayed in the game is truly like the year 0. It’s the world just before Mary would give birth to the son of god.
Just like the prophets of old were telling of coming change this game is now telling of something being born.
I’m giving my all to draw out the lawful element in this.
NISHITANI understands that his novel has taken a life of its own, that it has grown into something bigger than what he created. His world is now shaped by the software developers he teamed up with earlier. So maybe he seeks to claim his part in forming this techno pseudo religion. But he also stresses that Shin Megami Tensei’s achievement isn’t just to provide an alternative to the standard good RPG hero. He points out that this law stance is unique to Shin Megami Tensei and that it might have more in common with the chaos stance than is first apparent. For NISHITANI law is still a viable choice and Shin Megami Tensei includes this option as well.
- Digital Devil Story might remind some readers of the Digital Devil Saga games for PS2 which were named to allude to the series‘ roots. [↩]
- 中島朱実. NAKAJIMA’s first name is sexually ambiguous, like many Japanese names it can be both male and female, this one being more commonly female. This fits in with NAKAJIMA often being described as effeminate and rivaling a girl’s beauty. The author’s first name Aya is equally ambiguous. [↩]
- Yumiko being a transfer student (転校生、tenkōsei) is linked to her being reincarnated by the characters used to write the word. If just one is left out tenkōsei becomes tensei, which means reincarnation. [↩]
- Izanami-no-mikoto is also the mother of the world. In the Japanese world creation myth a human-like goddess gives birth to the world after discovering sexual intercourse with her husband, Izanagi-no-mikoto. This myth is much more concrete and founded in real life experience than the Judaism/Christian equivalent, i.e. in the bible world creation (by an abstract being) and discovery of sexuality (by humans created in god’s image) are split up into two stories. Izanagi and Izanami are thus at the same time similar to Adam and Eve and to the Jewish/Christian creator god. [↩]
- Hero and villain necessitating each other also is common theme in American superhero comics since the late 70-ies, when the mutant heroes of the Uncanny X-Men were becoming as feared as their evil counterparts. Should the victims be thankful of the hero saving them from the villain or the hero be thankful of the villain for making his adventures more interesting than saving cats from trees and catching bank robbers? In the end both are projections of the comic creator. Same is true of novels and games. [↩]
- The only difference is that Story is written in Chinese characters instead of Latin or Japanese characters like in the novels but it still is meant to be read as Story. [↩]
- In the ending Devil Buster is revealed to be the demon summon program written by NAKAJIMA Akemi. [↩]
- The girl in the game is of course a symbol and a projection of the hero’s image of women as based on his closest female reference, his mother. Finding her in the real world outside the game is an allegory for the shift from affection towards the mother to love for same age girls. [↩]
- The two demons reunited as Ba’al, Bael and Beelzebub, are actually both interpretations of the same god Ba’al as an evil devil. [↩]
- This becomes the law ending in the later Shin Megami Tensei games. [↩]
- In the game the American ambassador Thorman turns out to be the Norse god Thor who drops an atom bomb on Tokyo because of the Japanese millitary allying themselves with demons. Thorman (トールマン) is obviously a play on words; if one character is displaced it becomes Truman (トルーマン), alluding the ambassador’s decision to the historical bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. [↩]
- These are the same two types of alignment also present in D&D, the original RPG to come up with the alignment system in the first place. [↩]
- The alleged murder of the law hero’s girlfriend can be seen as a symbol for war crimes the generation of the law hero haven’t themselves committed. The law player seeks to distance himself from this past and becomes a Messiah type hero. [↩]
- Being frequently bullied the chaos player seeks a way out of being pushed around, resulting in radicalization. [↩]
- Makura no sōshi, written by court lady SEI Shōnagon in the Heian period. [↩]