Shin Megami Tensei Year continues, but before we get to the rant proper, Imma just plug this Kickstarter project right here: Cosmic Star Heroine. All told, it looks like it'll be a rather creative and fun RPG, so take a look and consider backing it.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled rant.
Honestly, there’s a lot about Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 that doesn’t impress me. I mean, it’s an alright RPG, but come on! “Alright” may be acceptable for a game in some other series, like Final Fantasy, “alright” may even be a tremendous achievement for a few series, like Dragon Quest, but “alright” is just not worthy of the prestigious name of Shin Megami Tensei! What’s the deal, Atlus?
But anyway, there still aren’t that many things about the game that merit outright criticism. Nonetheless, there ARE some, and I AM running an overly critical RPG blog here, so...let’s talk Yamato!
I gotta say off the bat that I don’t much like Yamato. He wants to reshape the present world into a meritocracy, an unequal world where the strong rule absolutely over the weak. Although it’s not precisely like the brutal might-makes-right world that Chiaki wishes to create in SMT3--Yamato’s intention is to maintain a clear and strong society, and the “strong” refers more to individuals who are more skilled, who perform more essential functions than others. A brilliant scientist would, I believe, be a very powerful person in Yamato’s merit-based society, regardless of their physical strength. Though I find this vision of a new world order to be leagues better than Chiaki’s nasty, brutish, and short ideal, it’s still one that I’m philosophically opposed to, and since Yamato stakes so much of his own character depth upon this idea, I can’t help but dislike him as much as I do his meritocracy.
Nonetheless, I’m fairly convinced that his vision’s got some flaws in it beyond what my bias can concoct on its own. The game offers a half-hearted argument against Yamato’s meritocracy on grounds of human equality and how we should all get along and so on, but beyond theoretical social arguments, Yamato’s vision is seriously flawed, for a couple reasons.
The first reason comes from a scene you can witness during the game’s course that’s meant to develop Yamato’s character. It’s actually rather reminiscent of some of the character development of Mitsuru from SMT Persona 3. Yamato and the Protagonist, whose semi-canon name is, I think, Hibiki, happen across some takoyaki, which he views as beneath him, since it is commoner food (good thing he explained, because I sure as hell wouldn’t have known myself). He does try it, however, and immediately finds that it is delicious.
Sadly, that’s more or less all the scene amounts to in the game, save some possible mention later on of his new fondness for takoyaki. I think it was only intended for the humor value. But take a look at this scene more deeply: we have an instance here where Yamato has a predetermined notion that something having to do with the common people, those who he considers beneath him, is bad. But when he actually gives it a chance--the very instant he does!--he finds that his belief was completely wrong, and that there is pleasing merit in this food, this product of the commoners, this representation of the weak! Although surely in a small way, this scene is a very effective metaphor for his views upon the supposedly lower people of the world and as a metaphor shows just how fragile and inaccurate his view, a view based on little to no actual, personal experience, can be! Honestly, it’s fucking tragic that this scene is never built off of later in this direction, because it would have turned this occasion into a strong and worthwhile argument and point of character development. As it is, its lack of impact on the plot and cast simply makes it a lesser shadow of a previous game’s better character and better scene. But the point is still completely reasonable to be inferred--Yamato’s views are flawed by inexperience and his own admission that the weak can provide a product, a service, that he desires.
Far more compelling, however, is my second argument for how the game itself shows the folly of Yamato’s beliefs--that argument being Protagonist Hibiki himself. It is well-established in SMTDS2 that Yamato has spent his life as head of his organization seeking out the best and brightest individuals possible as recruits, those whose skills, abilities, and intellects will be able to serve him best. And it is likewise well-established, by Yamato’s own words, that Hibiki is better and more useful than most, perhaps even all, of the agents that Yamato so carefully selected. Hibiki, who is only a volunteer, not an actual organization member. Hibiki, who Yamato never knew of until this crisis. Hibiki, who comes from the lower rabble that Yamato’s philosophy dismisses.
Question for ya there, Yamato. If you’ve crafted your organization to be as perfect a representation of your philosophy as possible, and the random bystander Hibiki has turned out to have hidden talents that make him better than any individual in your organization (and by a significant margin), doesn’t that sort of, y’know, completely invalidate your idea that the regular, unexceptional people you so casually dismiss can have no worth? You can’t even say Hibiki’s that much of an exception to the rule, because most of his party members are also civilian volunteers, and are more effective than the majority of Yamato’s elites.
Now, there is a seemingly strong argument against this point. You could say that Hibiki actually proves Yamato’s point, because Hibiki only became exceptional once the game’s events are in motion--essentially, he only excels when adversity comes to him, when it becomes a matter of survival, and that could reasonably be inferred to be the sort of circumstances that Yamato’s world order of meritocracy would naturally create.
There’s some good sense to this argument, but one must keep in mind that the dire circumstances of SMT Devil Survivor 2’s events are very different from the ones of Yamato’s meritocracy. Yamato’s meritocracy is shaped from from his view of an ideal world, and as such, the details of how the environment will pressure people to do well or be dominated will be based on his conceptions. Hibiki represents a potential of common people that Yamato has already previously failed to discover through Yamato’s methods of determining merit, so there’s no reason to think that a world based off of the beliefs and mental processes that created those faulty methods would be any less flawed in its assessment of people. If his judgment of merit failed before, and nothing significantly alters that judgment, it will fail again.
Yamato’s philosophy is flawed, flawed not by the game’s intended counter-position of a possible society of equality and share and share alike, but flawed rather by a demonstrable lack of experience and by strong representational evidence. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy to have his philosophy’s arguments weakened, being that I disagree strongly with it. But what I am unhappy about is that the game doesn’t seem to realize that it’s given itself a good setup to better explore the personal failings of Yamato’s vision of meritocracy, never acknowledges or capitalizes on these pieces of evidence and the arguments inherent within them that I’ve outlined here, but instead offers nothing but theories against the meritocracy that are just as hypothetical and insubstantial as the ones against the other side. Shin Megami Tensei usually humbles me with its subtle nuances of storytelling...it’s a very strange feeling to think that I might actually have noticed a significant avenue of their theme and plot that was apparently, to use the words of another SMT game’s character, outside the bounds of their own conjecture.