Monday, March 26, 2007

Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2: Christianity Done Well

I've mentioned in the past (many times) that the Japanese entertainment industry's mild obsession with Christianity is very annoying to me. Whether it's blatantly being misinterpreted by crap like the infamous Evangelion or Xenogears, or just semi-referenced and still completely misunderstood like the Church of St. Eva in Breath of Fire 2, the portrayal of Christianity in the Japanese media forms that I've experienced is just about always incompetently bungled. It's not that I'm up in arms about this because I'm some roaring fundamentalist Christian or something; it just grates on my nerves to see the same mistakes based on complete ignorance repeat over and over and OVER.

I'm told by my friend Jolt, who's pretty much my personal Japanese expert as he's studied the culture and been over there for an extended period of time before, that his take on why this is such a common phenomenon is basically because "it's something cool and shiny and neat to look at and experiment with," and since the religion is virtually nonexistant in the country, there's really no one that's local to be annoyed by the the same dumb, ignorant mistakes repeated over and over again, so no one of significance is going to complain about it.

Recently, though, I've played a couple of RPGs which prove that there's always an exception to the rule: Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2, for the SNES, of the Megami Tensei series, which, apparently, is a pretty damn large series with a lot of installments (you may be familiar with Persona and Digital Devil Saga games, which are parts of this series). And damn, Atlus knew what it was doing when it made these games. I mean, there're parts of these games that make me wonder if the fine designers at Atlus had some psychic hotline to the ghost of John Milton (author of Paradise Lost, one of the greatest works of fiction (fanfiction, actually) ever created). At the very least, these people were doing their homework.

You play as human characters in each game who must choose one of three paths to follow:

Law, the path which endorses divine righteousness, believing in that which is holy and logical. This path follows the spirit and belief of God (even if it does not necessarily follow God Himself).
Chaos, the path which endorses lawless freedom, believing in emotion and instinct. This path follows the fallen angel Lucifer and promotes equal worship for all the lesser deities that God banished and overthrew (represented by various important theological figures from an impressive range of cultures' beliefs).
Neutral, the path which endorses humanity's self-rights, believing that the human race should be free from the interference of otherworldly beings, particularly God and Lucifer. It can be hard to keep to this alignment in the games, and the general concensus is that this is the "right" path to take, though the games go to great lengths to present each path as no more or less correct than the others, simply only seeming so from a certain point of view.

And as you go along, you come across...well, EVERYTHING. Seriously, if it's a being from myth or religion, you've got a good chance to encounter it in these games. You meet the great angel Michael, God's greatest warrior angel. You resurrect Prince Masakado, famed figure of Japanese legend. You chase Puck around at the behest of King Oberon in order to get some of his Sap of Infidelity, which you need to fix his mischief (which is an awesome little tip of the hat to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream). You watch as Thor of Norse legends brings his hammer down on all of Tokyo. From unicorns to Jack Frost to harpies to even Beetlejuice, you'll have random encounters with so many mythical beings from across the world that you could give an entire college's Ancient Literature department hard-ons just by showing them the bestiary.

But, interestingly varied as the beings of these games are, the focus is always on a Christian basis that is astoundingly well-designed. They directly refer to the Bible, they've actually got God and Lucifer in there as characters, and the events of the plots draw direct parallels to fundamental aspects of Christianity and some of the greatest works which examine it. Adam and Eve creating a new world for humanity, a holy virgin being the mother of humanity's savior, the Ark which carries the chosen few above the disaster that God unleashes on the sinful, the Paradise Lost-ish idea of Lucifer, in being the entity who defies God, is the protector of humanity's free will...the games are seriously like an insightful, in-depth analysis of the ideals, beauties, and failures of Christian mythology, and indirectly of religion and faith itself. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that there will come a time when I'm in a discussion concerning some fundamental nature or aspect of Christianity, and I'll use something in these games to emphasize a point. The ideas and characters and events in these games do suffer a bit from not having a huge amount of dialogue and description, but it's enough to present plenty of food for thought if you sit down and consider it all for a little bit of time, and it's all crafted so well that I find myself over-examining some parts the way you find scholars over-examining great works of literature. You know how sometimes a teacher or professor somebody like that will talk about some tiny detail in a classic novel/poem/play/whatever, and come up with this huge, elaborate explanation for why it's hugely significant, when in reality it seems many times more likely that it's just there without any great purpose or significance? I caught myself doing that for these games already--wondering about the fact that the ultimate defensive equipment for Law-sided characters is called Jesus equipment (Jesus Armor, Jesus Greaves, Jesus Helmet, etc). Is it just called that because it's ultimate Law equipment, so obviously naming it for the son of God Himself is appropriately telling of its strength, or is there a subtle extra meaning to it--did Atlus mean to make a reference to the Christian idea that Jesus is (metaphorically) one's armor against the forces of evil, and so made that idea more literal? Probably not. Probably just coincidental. But the fact that I can wonder if such a small thing could have a subtle meaning really speaks of just how awesome and creatively diligent the writers for these games were in creating Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2.

I really am truly impressed with these games. I'm going to make it a point to find and play more games in this series, though, from the little research I've done on the series, it seems that the rest of the games are plot-wise unrelated to these ones, and shift focus from Christian foundations to more general stories. Regardless, though, Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2 are games so intricate and brilliant in their exploration of Christianity that I wouldn't have even expected any such Western-culture-based game of this quality to come from North America or Europe, let alone Japan. Definitely hidden gems, these two.

PS: 2 other points about these games that I just couldn't really relevantly fit into the rest of the rant: A, they have Stephen Hawking in them as a major character, and that is awesome, and B, in Shin Megami Tensei 2, Atlus totally came up with the idea for the Matrix way before the Wachowski brothers did.

1 comment:

  1. While having God a villain has been done to death, I still like how these two games have some really well down supporting characters who descend into villainy by following the Law path, and genially think that what they are doing is for the best.