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Artikel mit dem Stichwort ‘choice’

The Relevance of Choice in Computer Game Narratives

Freitag, 21. Januar, 2011

Interactivity, as the word activity implies, is what distinguishes games from passively received media. Non-linearity, which means giving players different choices in paths to follow, is what promises more freedom in comparison to linear narratives. Many approaches to other narrative media can be applied to games as well but both of these features of games have to be carefully considered when dealing with game stories. In regard to choice there are several aspects as to how it affects the nature of the story.

What kind of choices are present in computer games?

There’s action choices and dialog choices. Action choices might take the form of what part of the game world to interact with and what events to trigger by doing so. Or as part of an event there could be a multiple choice menu giving a set of action descriptions from which the player can choose one. This kind of action choice is almost identical to dialog choices, which can also be viewed as a special type of action, namely speaking. By means of microphone-based voice detection or certain words and phrases being mapped to button presses like other actions are, dialog choices have the potential to take the same form of free interaction (without menus) as more standardized actions but this potential is only beginning to be realized in adventure games like Hey you, Pikachu! (1998, 2000) or raising simulations like Wonder Project J (1994).

Are choices in computer games really free? Can the choice be escaped?

Of course the player can only make meaningful choices in regards to the narrative when the writer of this narrative has foreseen that the player might want to make this choice or planned to allow the player to make it. Thus the freedom is necessarily limited by what is feasible in including in the narrative without making production time and man power explode. It is further limited by what the game creator wants to allow to the player.

Also, if the player doesn’t want to choose they could just press the button to confirm whatever choice is preselected. Devil Survivor (2008) by Atlus is a rare case of a game that avoids this by not preselecting any option at all. The player has to press a direction button first before an option becomes selected and thus confirmable and the player can enter the ordered list from top or bottom, so the order doesn’t favor either one option by making it more quickly selectable than all others.

Initiating the predetermined1 Section added 22.01.2011

As mentioned above, apart from forced choices that take the form of menus where a selection has to be made to go back to the uninterrupted gameplay there’s also choices in free interaction screens, what parts of the game world to interact with and when. This can be treasures to be procured or information gained by talking to NPCs or observing certain parts of the world. In terms of dialog a considerable amount of in-game text is acquired this way, the player has to seek out the people who can tell them what they need to know about the setting of the narrative. Some of these interactions are necessary to progress in the game but many of them are optional and only enhance the gameplay experience. The player is in this way free to dictate pace and level of detail of the narrative to some degree.

In-game dialog is largely predetermined and little of it dynamically changing with players‘ choices. The options the player has are often reduced to who and when to talk to, but even here there is room to create better player involvement. In early games talking to a NPC would always result in the same text said over and over again. If the narrative progressed beyond a certain point dialog for this NPC might also change but at any one point in the game conversation would be severely limited. This is not a problem per se, in the same way as a reader of a novel is allowed to browse back to a previous page and reread dialog or a movie viewer to rewind and rewatch a scene, this makes sure the player can ask for crucial information again they might have missed the first time.

But by splitting long dialog parts into several smaller bits where the player has to repeatedly talk to a NPC to get all the information, sympathy and interest towards a certain NPC can be expressed, creating another layer of choice. In recent games most NPCs have several things to say and the player will get new dialog at least for three or so tries, the actual amount varying by game and character. To get all out of a NPC the player actively has to initiate conversation again and again, and although they can’t control what to say themselves2 Most of the time the protagonist is mute (see Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars) in this kind of conversation, regardless of his status in other situations. the choice how often to initiate conversation is meaningful.

Prince of Persia (2009) is an example where this choice of when and how much to talk is utilized very effectively. There’s only one character to talk to but since she is always by the protagonist’s side dialog can be initiated almost anytime, by pressing a dedicated button and without interrupting the action game play. While dialog text is displayed and voice overs are heard the player can go on interacting with and advancing in the game world. Dialog depends on the surroundings, is informative in regards of the game world but also characterizes the two characters having the conversation. Both length of dialog bits and their amount is high, giving interested players lots to listen to but without forcing them to do so. It’s an unintrusive way of mixing text and action.

The opposite example would be when a NPC conversation is unexpectedly long, interrupting the game flow until it’s over. Sometimes this kind of NPC (like Maechen in Final Fantasy X) might warn the player that their tale is a long one and ask them if they really want to hear it. It might be so long that the NPC will ask the player midway through if they should go on with their tale. The choice is the same as in the above cases, is the player patient and interested enough to listen to everything. But the way the choice is accentuated is different. In the above cases the player actively has to keep the conversation going, in this case they have to actively decide to turn it down or stop it.

How is the narrative affected by these choices?

Some choices only flag minor events, changing small details in an otherwise fixed narrative. In this case the non-linearity, i. e. the branching paths, are short lived, keeping the overall plot manageable for the writer. Other choices more immediately and drastically affect story development, with longer chains of events only available depending on what choices the player makes. Structurally this distinction is purely based on quantity or length and amount of branching paths. But for the player to experience the non-linearity as freedom high amounts and longer deviations are preferable. They are also what makes the plot increasingly harder to manage in terms of consistency. Traditional narrative concepts as derived from other media and playful freedom are thus two opposing poles in governing what form the game narrative should take.

Giving the player moral choices

One of the first systematical approaches to shape and guide player choice dates back to even before computer games. Dungeons & Dragons, the first pen and paper role-playing game, used a two axis moral alignment system to define how the character the player creates should act when faced with moral choices in the narrative conceived by the group of game master (the main narrator) and role players (the narrators or actors of one individual character in the story). One axis reflected the notion of good and evil, the other of lawfully governed order or random chaos. D&D already acknowledged that the ideas of good and evil were dependent on the society in which the character lived and the second axis reflected concepts like duty/reliability opposed to whim/fancy. A lawfully evil character would maraud and abuse without fail, whereas a chaotically good character might save the damsel in distress only if he was in the mood for it.

In computer games both this alignment system and the idea of moral choice were adapted, many recent Western games like Fable stress the freedom to play an either good or evil character, however in many cases little affecting the core narrative. This is actually true of older Japanese examples like Shin Megami Tensei as well which uses an law-chaos moral alignment axis. But when moral choice is given to the player another question arises. Are these choices judged, meaning that the game encourages one choice over the other, maybe even penalizing the opposite one?

An example for a judged moral choice

In Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993) for Gameboy instead of using a menu to select what to buy in the local shop players can pick up goods and carry them to the cashier to select them for purchase. If the player tries to carry it straight to the door and leave without paying the shop owner will scold them and disallow leaving. But the shop owner randomly looks the other way creating the opportunity to leave without paying. The creator actively leaves room for the player to decide to steal and also does this by utilizing standardized actions like item pick up and walking, making it feel much more intuitive and player initiated than a menu option which more explicitly alarms the player to both possibility and importance of the choice. In fact this is a brilliant inclusion of moral choice in game play.

It is also heavily judgmental, since on return to the shop the player will be killed by the shop owner (which in terms of the game’s rules is less gruesome than it sounds because the player has unlimited lives) and branded Thief which substitutes the name they inputted at the beginning. The player will then be reminded by every non-player character (or NPC for short) addressing him by his (now changed) name of his action and also denied the perfect play-through and its ending available to players who beat the game without dying. The choice is thus an example for a small scale alteration of the narrative affecting only some details, although sticking out by being so over the top.

And although it is judgmental the fact that this option is even there in a game appealing to all age groups including children is a refreshing taste of Eden’s apple in the most effective way this kind of experience can be created in games. Stealing is also an action that’s hard to escape consensus on its moral status, no matter what society. Although the penalty considered appropriate will vary. In the case of the Zelda Gameboy title the penalty happens to be the most drastic one imaginable.

The moral dilemma

In Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995) for Super Famicom the player has to make choices in a war situation, fighting for the freedom of his ethnic group. When the populace of a village enslaved by the leading ethnic group is freed but unwilling to go to battle to fight for their ethnicity’s cause, the leader of the army the player’s character is a member of commands him to kill all villagers and blame the other side, as to better persuade other civilians to make the “right” choice in the future, the right one being the one favored by the leaders of their army.

Depending on if the player carries out this order or opposes it they choose one of two very long branching paths, heavily affecting two out of four chapters in the game narrative. The law path, where the player followed this order, determines both next chapters, the chaos path initiated by opposing the order allows for another branching changing the alignment to neutral. While common moral notions would seem to judge the law path as evil and the chaos one as good the dialog reflects that utilitarian and political interpretations, in other words adult considerations, justify this path. The chaotic player on the other hand, while having a clear conscious, is considered childish and unable to join the grown ups in their ability to make the “right” decisions.

Again, the choice and its consequences are extreme, but the empowering sense of freedom is also very evident for exactly this reason, affirming or shaking the moral ideas the player might have had before.

Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars

Most choices in games are not really moral ones though and some are even considered right or wrong in a non-moral sense.3 Fußnotenauszug: In Computer Games have Words, Too: Dialogue Conventions in Final Fantasy VII Greg M. Smith assesses game text by comparing it to previous text narrative media, where he naturally has to deal with the opposing poles of linear narrative and playful freedom mentioned above. Unfortunately he misses many peculiarities of the new narrative medium, too quickly applying concepts that don’t quite fit... In Final Fantasy VI (1994) a girl named Terra was controlled by an evil empire to carry out their orders using her magical talent. Freed from the slave crown controlling her she is helped by a group of people who are members of the Returners and oppose the evil empire. Terra is characterized as scared and feeling guilty over using her magic for evil. When she and her new found friends reach the base of the Returners they ask for her help in fighting the evil empire. The player is given the choice to either answer their request or politely turn it down.

This seems like one of the many non-choices present in games where only one will really advance the game plot and the player has to come back to it to make the “correct” choice this time. But in fact this choice can only be made once, and by the game’s evaluation turning down the request is even the better option, rewarding the player with some extra items to procure from Returner members trying to still convince her and new dialog by each of them expressing their understanding for her reluctance to join their fight. In fact, by interpreting Terra’s motives correctly the player can make a decision that better fits with her character as established by previous events.4 Fußnotenauszug: So instead of making a moral decision (if it were a moral one then joining the Returners should always beat remaining passive) the player has to stay consistent with the story, another aspect Smith correctly identifies when dealing with FFVI’s sequel but incorrectly applies. He writes: Often it offers two separate possible responses, only one of which is truly enticing or plausible. When giv... She does join them afterwards anyway, and the players taking the more obvious but misleading choice miss a part of the narrative that actually makes sense in the context of the story.

There’s really two approaches to role playing, either acting the role given to the player or the player being able to define their role themselves. The latter approach is hampered by the difficulty in granting the player enough freedom to really do this. The easiest way to somehow pull it off is to characterize the player character as little as possible and not involve him in the details of the story too much, leaving the actual characterization to the player’s imagination. In most cases such a player character will have no dialog at all and is referred to as a mute hero for that reason. Player freedom is pushed out of the scope of game play and into their imagination in this case, similar to linear narratives, like reader imposed characteristics on a character in a book for example.

Even if the hero is not mute, this type is very different from a strongly defined character like Terra, where the player has to act her role. Cloud in Final Fantasy VII (1997) is a mixture of defined and mute character and by giving him frequent dialog choices the player can bring some of their own personality to the narrative.

Relationships between characters

Most decisions in Final Fantasy VII lead up to a dating event and they involve distribution of information (being openly sincere or holding back information), trying to impress or alienate others, in general how to interact with fellow party members. This raises or lowers sympathy for Cloud in these fellow party members and determines who he will go out on a date with later.5 See Fergusson, FF7 ‚date‘ mechanics, 1999~2009. In other games like the Star Ocean series (first game released in 1996) it might affect how well the characters interact in battle and allow for useful actions triggered by strong emotional reactions based on deep relationships.  Or simply open up or block paths to certain events, the most extreme being who to marry and have a child with, which will become the next player character, something first tried out in Phantasy Star III (1990). As opposed to the above example with Terra all options are equally valid since the rude choices fit his previous characterization but deviating from his rudeness can always be interpreted as affection for a certain character or more generally speaking growing into a more caring individual, thus allowing for player controlled character development inside the boundary of the fixed broader narrative which after the dating event cannot really be altered anymore, only parts of it missed.

This again is an example of small scale freedom by giving a high amount of very short branching paths. The earlier Shin Megami Tensei and Star Ocean games also follow this pattern of letting the player shape minor details, which add up to one big event with multiple versions, but instead of midway through the game as in FFVII’s dating event this event is the final one, the ending. SMT uses it to show how the player’s alignment changes the world he helped rebuild, Star Ocean shows how character relationships end up depending on the player’s behavior during the game.6 See Welch, Ending/Relationships FAQ, and Feral, Star Ocean 2nd Story ending compendium, both 1999.

Bad or premature endings

One way of giving the player freedom without convoluting the narrative are dead ends. The player can frequently make decisions but one is clearly wrong, resulting in an undesirable ending. The player then has to go back to before this decision and take the “correct” path this time to go on with the canonical narrative. Not all of these premature endings are disappointing or straight out bad, in Chrono Trigger the game can be beat early at any time in the narrative, with the resulting ending focusing on the events the player was experiencing right before they beat the game, often hinting at the events that would have followed if they hadn’t prematurely ended the game.7 See Pringle, Chrono Trigger Endings, 2007~2009

Also, inside of the big narrative there are many little narratives dealing with a specific character. If that character is allowed to die by the rules of the game, their part of the narrative will also end prematurely and all of their personal story will be missed in the rest of the game. This is only the case for certain characters in most games8 Cid and Shadow in FFVI being prime examples. Shadow can be saved if the player decides to wait for their ally in face of great danger, Cid can be saved by feeding him with healthy fish when he’s lying on his sick bed. If the player fails to take these chances they will die, complete with dramatic scenes reflecting their loss. but in many strategy RPGs like the above mentioned Tactics Ogre any character but the one representing the player can die without ending the game as a whole.9 Fußnotenauszug: The Fire Emblem series, which started this genre of strategy RPGs, is also the one most representative of this mortal game characters concept. In Fire Emblem: Genealogy of Holy-War the series also incorporated the opposite concept of lovers having children. Like in the above mentioned Phantasy Star III (1990) and after it also in Dragon Quest V (1992) characters in this FE game could fall in love ...

Dynamically shaping the narrative

Little choices adding up later are the most frequent type and there’s also fake-choices that don’t affect anything and only draw the player’s attention to their own behavior but the most powerful ones are still those that have immediate and lasting consequences, like the ones in the above mentioned Tactics Ogre. This game relies heavily on explicit menu choices that are less frequent in number and less intuitive than free input actions which the player doesn’t even notice they are choices at first, but TO manages to also include little choices into the equation by basing alignment and sympathy towards the player character also on battle performance. Basically each time a character is killed or saved from death this adds up and affects the ending,10 See the section dealing with the chaos frame in TO at the end of this article over at http://luct.tacticsogre.com/. as in some other games mentioned above. But even though these are small scale details because of the subject matter (death) and the increasing difficulty having to fight without a potentially valuable ally they have a more lasting effect than other small scale choices, because they are more strongly interwoven into game play, linking it more strongly to the narrative. Player triggered dialog by choice of party members gets a lot of variation out of the seemingly formalized game play.

A good balance of small scale and large scale choices, appropriate usage of obvious menu options and naturally played out action events and a complex statistical evaluation of alignment and relationships between characters, as well as linking game play and player strength to events in the narrative, with each one of these techniques utilized further layers of free narration are brought to the game. When skillfully applied and combined they can even enhance the narrative rather than hinder its natural development.

  1. Section added 22.01.2011 []
  2. Most of the time the protagonist is mute (see Playing the role: Defined characters versus blank slate avatars) in this kind of conversation, regardless of his status in other situations. []
  3. In Computer Games have Words, Too: Dialogue Conventions in Final Fantasy VII Greg M. Smith assesses game text by comparing it to previous text narrative media, where he naturally has to deal with the opposing poles of linear narrative and playful freedom mentioned above. Unfortunately he misses many peculiarities of the new narrative medium, too quickly applying concepts that don’t quite fit his subject. The points he raises on character moral alignment hold true when he discusses the characters other than the protagonist because they match the conventions he is used to from film, but when he discusses the multiple choice options he doesn’t seem to notice that the examples he gives aren’t actually moral choices, which are in fact mostly absent from the game he discusses. He writes:

    One significant way that this moral evaluation differs between games and film is that we occasionally have options to choose conversational responses in Final Fantasy VII. By choosing to deny vehemently a romantic attraction to Tifa (the „no way“ response), we take a different kind of ownership of the character’s moral stance. If we are allied with a film character who then does an action we morally disapprove of, we can more easily detach ourselves from this allegiance. After all, the character has made the choice, not us. But when we choose for Cloud to behave gallantly or badly, we are complicit in a more complicated involvement. Final Fantasy VII does not allow totally free choice in these „interactive“ dialogue situations.

    If the player has romantic feelings for Tifa they want to reflect in their choices or decide to either admit or deny something for their player character isn’t a moral decision in any way. There can’t be moral consensus on what individual to have feelings for. So it escapes the notion of morality altogether. Regarding decisions on how to make Cloud behave, again this is etiquette rather than morals and the significance of these choices lies in shaping relationships, more on which I write in section Relationships between characters. []

  4. So instead of making a moral decision (if it were a moral one then joining the Returners should always beat remaining passive) the player has to stay consistent with the story, another aspect Smith correctly identifies when dealing with FFVI’s sequel but incorrectly applies. He writes:

    Often it offers two separate possible responses, only one of which is truly enticing or plausible. When given the choice of making sweet feminine Aeris a flower seller or the town drunk, only one choice maintains any kind of narrative consistency.

    In fact, the choice being present (though inconsequential) hints at Cloud’s memory being fuzzy, foreshadowing a majot plot detail, Cloud being amnesiac and impersonating his dead friend without even being aware of it. The player doesn’t notice it yet but whatever they choose it will end up being consistent with the narrative.

    Smith also talks about non-choices that make the player drop out of the narrative, but ironically in this case to stay consistent they have to make the decision that is easily mistaken for a non-choice or drop out. The examples of drop outs Smith gives are from a different game but also in fact viable choices. He writes:

    Frequently we are given a choice between doing something that advances the plot or doing nothing („No thanks,“ „I don’t care“), providing the appearance of choice while allowing the game to continue its story arc. To make such a „non-choice“ is to drop outside the game.

    Again, Smith seems to be too quick to assume that a bias formed in encountering previous games will apply in his examples as well. Although he previously acknowledges how protagonist Cloud is characterized in the game, being a non-caring mercenary, he dismisses these choices as drop outs even though they allow the player to act the role staying true to previous characterization. This is where the notion of consistency, which he misused earlier, actually applies. The „non-drop out“ choices would be the player trying to change Cloud’s previously established characteristics, a process that will be advanced by the plot even if the player doesn’t take these earlier chances to advance it. He goes on stating this about decision making in games:

    Final Fantasy VII loads the dice to induce us to make the right choice. We inhabit the characters‘ behavior more fully partly because we choose that behavior, even when that choice is rigged. One of the many ideas implicit in the concept of „interactivity“ is this more complex notion of moral judgment that is no longer as externalizable as it is in film.

    I very much agree with Smith stating that judgment isn’t as externalizable anymore as it is in film, but as I pointed out above not all or even most of this judgment is of the moral kind. Instead the notion of the „right“ decision refers to consistency, if the player is supposed to act out a defined character, or to what the player feels to be the right choice in developing their player character, if they have the opportunity to shape the character.

    Also the choices aren’t rigged as they do affect the narrative or illuminate details of it, a fact Smith ignores completely. []

  5. See Fergusson, FF7 ‚date‘ mechanics, 1999~2009. []
  6. See Welch, Ending/Relationships FAQ, and Feral, Star Ocean 2nd Story ending compendium, both 1999. []
  7. See Pringle, Chrono Trigger Endings, 2007~2009 []
  8. Cid and Shadow in FFVI being prime examples. Shadow can be saved if the player decides to wait for their ally in face of great danger, Cid can be saved by feeding him with healthy fish when he’s lying on his sick bed. If the player fails to take these chances they will die, complete with dramatic scenes reflecting their loss. []
  9. The Fire Emblem series, which started this genre of strategy RPGs, is also the one most representative of this mortal game characters concept. In Fire Emblem: Genealogy of Holy-War the series also incorporated the opposite concept of lovers having children. Like in the above mentioned Phantasy Star III (1990) and after it also in Dragon Quest V (1992) characters in this FE game could fall in love and have children, only this time it wasn’t limited to just the main character anymore. []
  10. See the section dealing with the chaos frame in TO at the end of this article over at http://luct.tacticsogre.com/. []

Megami Tensei: Novel turned game turned novel

Freitag, 24. September, 2010

NISHITANI Aya, born in 1955 in Mie prefecture. Graduate student of economics at Hokkaidō University. Mostly known for his Digital Devil Story books but also for other horror/fantasy light novels.

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.

DDS1: Megami Tensei (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).

Yumiko finds out about the demon summon program making her a target of Loki.

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...

Coming to the rescue

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.

DDS2: Mato no senshi (1986)

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.

Snake in Outer Space

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.

DDS3: Tensei no shūen (1988)

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.

Digital Devil Story Megami Tensei (1987)

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.

Digital Devil Story Megami Tensei II (1990)

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.

Blinded Yumiko, NAKAJIMA and Cerberos

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.

NAKAJIMA chooses Yumiko.

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.

Lucifer battling Izanami

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.

Shin Megami Tensei (1992), PSX Version (2001) Opening

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.

Shin Megami Tensei Jerusalem 1 (1994)

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.

  1. Digital Devil Story might remind some readers of the Digital Devil Saga games for PS2 which were named to allude to the series‘ roots. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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. []
  5. 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. []
  6. 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. []
  7. In the ending Devil Buster is revealed to be the demon summon program written by NAKAJIMA Akemi. []
  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. []
  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. []
  10. This becomes the law ending in the later Shin Megami Tensei games. []
  11. 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. []
  12. 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. []
  13. 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. []
  14. Being frequently bullied the chaos player seeks a way out of being pushed around, resulting in radicalization. []
  15. Makura no sōshi, written by court lady SEI Shōnagon in the Heian period. []