The Persona series has quickly become one of my favorite JRPG franchises. The last few of these games have struck a wonderful balance of character driven story and engaging gameplay. I’m not the only one who has come to appreciate the series in the last decade. Persona 5 was well represented in “game of the year” discussions last year, and it certainly deserved to be included in those conversations. I thought it was great.
While Persona has become Atlus’s flagship franchise, it’s was originally marketed as a spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei series. If the Persona series has become the popular younger brother… then the SMT series is like the unfriendly older brother who pushes you around to remind you that you aren’t as clever as you think you are.
But I’ve been waiting for my chance to stand up to the older brother… and prove that I can be somebody! So I picked up a copy of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked.
SMT: Devil Survivor is a strategy RPG that was originally for Nintendo DS in 2009. A few years later, Atlus revisited the game and produced an enhanced port for the Nintendo 3DS, retitling the game SMT: Devil Survivor Overclocked.
Playing this game shortly after having played Persona 5, there is quite a bit about Devil Survivor that feels familiar. The personas, which are monsters that make up your fighting team. The rock-paper-scissors-esque elemental strengths and weaknesses. Even the characters in the game feel like discount versions of Persona characters, and I mean that in the best possible way.
This sense of familiarity is not a bad thing. Rather, these familiar elements carried me happily through the first half of the game. Then the game got hard.
I mean it got brutally difficult. In fact, the game ceased to be any fun for me when I crashed into the mid-game difficulty spike. This is partially due to the fact that i’m not the biggest fan of strategy RPGs. It’s also partially due to the fact that the difficulty outpaces the natural experience growth of your personas. This means that I had to grind for experience to keep my monsters at parity with the enemy. Eventually, the grinding offers diminishing returns—as I’m fairly certain that experience scales down when you fight weaker enemies. So that means that you need to grind a bit more for the money that you need to fuse stronger personas.
Eventually, I found a way to tip the odds in my favor. I finished the game. Then I started thinking through the themes.
First, this game is not for anyone who might find a pantheistic depiction of angels and demons a bit unsettling. I certainly wouldn’t recommend immersing oneself exclusively in stories about fighting demons, but the monsters are mostly tongue-in-cheek interpretations that play fast and loose with mythologies from around the world. In my opinion, the game is far too anime to be offensive.
The primary thing that I think is worth thinking about is the way the game articulates the battle between order and chaos.
At the end of my last blog post, I wrote about how the archetypal struggle between good and evil is a foundational component of storytelling in western culture. But this isn’t distinct to the west. It’s well represented in the east… at least the bit of the east that gets portrayed in anime and video games. Though, I fully understand that these Japanese cultural exports and are not representative of the entire region. But it’s a tiny, tiny step toward more global thinking. That’s a good thing, right?
In any case, the struggle between good and evil is frequently portrayed as a fight between order and chaos. I’ve watched enough Japanese anime to have seen this trope applied with varying degrees of success, and the plot of Devil Survivor is heavily inspired by anime. The protagonists are fighting to restore order to a chaotic world, which is a noble pursuit. However, in order to have any chance at success, they have to ally themselves with the very demons that threaten Tokyo. They must wield a bit of the danger against itself.
Toward the middle of the game, one of the characters decides to follow this pursuit of order to its ideological extreme. He allys with a god of judgement to become the sole arbiter of justice, which involves killing evildoers. He still desires to make the world a better place, but he does so through a tyrannical application of order. An entire chapter of the game is devoted to sorting out your relationship with this character. Devil Survivor seems to present this ideological extreme as the wrong choice, gently suggesting that success is found in the space between order and chaos. Ultimately, the choice is left to the player. It forces him or her to consider some big, abstract ideas like the weight of human life and the limits of the application of justice.
Now, it’s important to remember that this is not a novel. The way that it deals with these challenging questions could be a bit more nuanced, but there is only so much room for complexity in a story that appears to be intended for teenage boys. As a high school teacher, I spend quite a bit time with teenage boys. I know that their lives are often beset by chaos. Straightening up and pointing their lives toward order can be profoundly beneficial. However, order and chaos aren’t a binary that easily equate to good and evil. In my experience, building a more nuanced understanding requires experience. And in the absence of actual life experience, we rely on narrative to make sense of a complex world. There is something to be gained by dealing with a philosophical question in a virtual space where the consequences are relatively limited—winning or losing a video game.
If only Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked weren’t so danged hard. I guess that’s life.