Before we begin the rant tonight, I'd like to mention that the Kickstarter game You Are Not the Hero looks like it will be pretty neato-torpedo. You might wanna check it out and throw in a pledge in these last days of its funding drive. Or not; purely up to you, and they're certainly more than fully funded at this point anyway. But it's neat so I thought I'd share it.
Okay, now the rant, for real.
Hey guys, here I am, with November's Shin Megami Tensei rant for my self-created SMT Rant Year. I ranted on SMT Devil Survivor 2 last time, so I figured to mix things up, I'd...rant about the exact same game again. Okay, so I'm not very original. Sue me.
Most games in the Shin Megami Tensei series have multiple endings. Not in the traditional RPG sense of a Good Ending, a Bad Ending, and sometimes a Better, True Ending as well (although SMT Persona 4 did that schtick), but rather a finale to the game that reflects the player’s moral beliefs and choices. Traditionally, it’s a split between Law, Neutral, and Chaos, although not always (SMT3’s moral choices are related to these, but not the same, for example). But one thing that that stays pretty consistent in an SMT title with multiple endings based on your personal beliefs regarding society and religion is that Atlus tries pretty hard to keep an unbiased stance on the matter. True, the Neutral path in an SMT game is most often considered the “best” one, and even the canon one, but it’s a small enough margin that it doesn’t feel like you’re pigeonholed into that choice over the other ones. As a general rule, Atlus presents a case for one side, emphasizing its virtues and flaws, and does the same for the other side, and clearly tries to do so equally enough that it’s left to the player’s personal beliefs on what aspects of humanity that the game’s focusing on are valued more highly than others. Almost always, it’s not a choice between a “good” side and a “bad” side, it’s a choice between which side’s virtues you value more and flaws you mind less. Or, if you think both are too extreme, you can go the Neutral route, which usually is shown to be a happier medium between the other choices (hence why so many consider it the “true” choice), but to require more work, and to have the downside that it’s little more than a gamble that a prolonged balance between the extremes is possible.*
This is all true of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2. SMTDS2 has multiple endings, the most prominent ones being an ending that reshapes the world into one of utter equality where all is shared between people, an ending that reshapes the world into a meritocracy where one’s social position and power are dictated by one’s strength, intelligence, and general skills and usefulness, and a couple of Neutral endings that straddle the fence one way or another. The game has the figureheads of each school of thought (Ronaldo for Equality and Yamato for Meritocracy) argue to the protagonist the main benefits of their philosophy, and the main flaw of their opponent's. Unfortunately, however, SMTDS2...well, it didn’t do a particularly good job with providing equally compelling arguments.
The first reason that the argument between Equality and Meritocracy is imbalanced is that the latter’s spokesman, Yamato, has a perspective which is shown to be flawed and incomplete--and not by the writers’ intentions. I already went over that, however, so just refer back to my Yamato’s Folly rant if you want to refresh your memory. Ronaldo, champion of the world of Equality, has no such glaring, specifically self-defeating character development scenes. Thus, regardless of which one’s view you actually would support, Ronaldo is the one who comes off like he’s actually got his act together simply because he’s not a hypocrite to his ideals.
But there’s another, larger problem with Atlus’s attempt to balance the sides out here: the big flaw. Like I said, each side has its benefits and its downsides, but ultimately, the characters of the game focus very specifically upon a small handful of each side’s merits and flaws. The one I’m concerned with is the perhaps biggest alleged flaw of Ronaldo’s proposed world of Equality, a flaw pointed out by several other characters who object to Ronaldo’s philosophy. Their claim, and thus the game’s claim, is that in such a world of full equality, where all work is for the good of others and all resources and aid are distributed equally and without preference, humans would no longer feel the drive to excel, to try their hardest and overcome their own limits to be and do better. The game reasons that if all wealth and resources are truly spread equally, if no one person is valued more than another, then there is no higher position in any part of society to yearn to achieve, no reward for those who do better than others for which a person can strive for. Ronaldo’s equality would mean the end of power, wealth, perks, property, and at least some forms of fame and prestige--at least, in the sense that these things can potentially be possessed in greater quantities by one person than by another.
It seems a fair point, and certainly there’s truth in it, to the effect that the material bonuses for working harder/better/faster/stronger would not exist, and so, indeed, would there be no more motivation for people to work harder and exceed expectations just for the benefits it could bring to them personally. In Ronaldo’s world where no one gets more than another, the most reward one could really hope for as a return for exceptional work would be a pat on the back and others’ appreciation.
But the thing is, the game’s making this out like the hope for advancement and reward are the ONLY reasons people have for giving their all and going above and beyond in their jobs, duties, and so on. When the characters discuss the downsides of Ronaldo’s world of Equality, they talk about how such a world would have NO ambition, they question whether such a world would be taking something important from humanity by removing people’s desire to do their best, do more than is expected, do better than others around them. The game’s philosophy in determining this to be a major, possibly THE major, flaw of Ronaldo’s vision is that EVERY reason to excel is removed when you remove the possibility for material benefits and/or social recognition.
Here’s the thing, though. That’s NOT the only reason people can have to do their best, to excel at their duties, to try to be the best and brightest and do great things. That’s not even close to true! There are so many examples of how this idea is wrong that I don’t know where to start! Are there not many teachers in the world who have a passion for passing on knowledge, a passion whose satisfaction comes not from their meager paycheck or ever-dwindling benefits and social status, but rather from the knowledge that educating others helps to better them and the society they take part of? Is it not true that many doctors, nurses, and EMTs throw themselves into their career ultimately because they want to heal, to help people? Isn’t it true that many, many soldiers joined their country’s military because they love their country and wish to protect its people and values? As far as I’ve been able to tell, the more impassioned about their work a charity worker, environmentalist, or human rights activist is, the more likely that passion flows from a genuine interest in the betterment of society and the world, not from the interest of becoming more affluent or getting a better position. In fact, many such people readily give up those comforts so they can better excel at working for their convictions!
Good heavens, just look at science and mathematics! Philosophy and art! How many countless thinkers of human history, the people we ultimately revere as our greatest members, were motivated by nothing but the pure desire to understand, to explore the workings of the world and the human race? Certainly, many profited from the knowledge and discoveries they achieved, and certainly some did so specifically with that goal in mind, but I daresay it’s quite fair to assume that most of them were working with motives other than personal advancement, power, or material benefits.
It’s a huge gap in SMTDS2’s logic, and not a hard one to recognize. That by itself makes this a rather large and embarrassing flaw for the game’s writers, very uncharacteristic of Atlus. But it’s not just that one’s own simple reasoning can debunk the position that True Equality = No Drive to Excel. The game itself proves this idea wrong! Many times, even!
Consider the character of Daichi. Daichi’s character development in the game is mostly concerned with him dealing with his fears and reticence to stand up for what he believes in, and coming to believe in his ability to help people and the need to do so when they can’t help themselves. Why in the world does Daichi later in the game question whether people in a world of true Equality would be capable of going above and beyond, capable of the important human quality of ambition? His whole bit of soul-searching has given him the convictions and strength of character to put himself on the line to help others, and his reasons for doing so are unrelated to any interest in being rewarded or winning a higher position in life. Daichi’s character development is proof positive by the game itself that motivations to do more than your minimal duties, to go above and beyond in the tasks you take, can be entirely unrelated to desires for reward, prestige, power, or anything like that.
What about Ronaldo himself, for that matter? Ronaldo is putting his life on the line over and over in battling against Yamato’s forces, and he does so in defense of the weak and helpless, people that Yamato ignores as worthless. More importantly, Ronaldo throws his every possible effort into bringing about his ideal world of Equality. You can’t tell me that he lacks motivation to succeed, that he doesn’t give his all to his goals, that he doesn’t have a hell of a lot of ambition. He and Yamato are meant to be seen as basically evenly matched when it comes to ambition and desire to succeed. All of this determination pretty obviously isn’t coming from a desire to be better off or more respected than others, since it’s all being directed at creating a world where such things don’t exist.
And there are plenty of other examples like this in the game. Makoto is one of Yamato’s best officers, and her motivation for doing her job as well as possible, for sticking with Yamato’s group no matter what, is because she’s grateful to him for having given her an opportunity to make a difference with her life after her original life plans fell through. In fact, it’s her motivations of loyalty that keep her with Yamato to the end, not a belief that his ideal world is actually the best option. Keita puts everything he has into being as strong as he possibly can be, and this desire for personal perfection seems entirely motivated simply for its own sake, not the benefits it can confer. Hell, practically every time the party scrambles to prevent a Nicaea death video from coming to pass, it’s unrelated to their basic duties and motivated entirely by the simple wish for that person to live.
You know what? When I really think about it, the vast majority of motivations shown throughout Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 are ones that have little to nothing to do with social or material benefits! The whole damn game is its own argument against itself!
Companionship, altruism, desire for personal perfection, loyalty, love, a wish to make the world better, a thirst for understanding, patriotism, moral obligation...these are many powerful motivations that give people the drive to be as great as they can possibly be and do as much as they possibly do, and there is no logical reason at all to think that ANY of these motives would not exist in a world of Equality as described by SMTDS2. In fact, several of them would probably be all the stronger!
While the debate between philosophies in other SMT games usually comes down to personal beliefs and values because the points for and against each side are well-balanced and logical, the debate between Equality and Meritocracy in SMT Devil Survivor 2 is poorly balanced. As mentioned in a previous rant, the figurehead of the Meritocracy, Yamato, has an incomplete perspective that is contradicted by his own words and actions multiple times. Additionally, as I’ve pointed out in this rant, the game’s big clincher argument against the world of Equality is debunked both by simple logic on the player’s part, and the actions of the game’s own characters. It’s all well and fine for me, since I’m a proponent for the world of Equality, but it makes for a less intellectually engaging story and theme. It feels like the SMT team phoned this one in. Bad show, Atlus, bad show.
* A gamble that actually seems futile sometimes, really. I mean, the balance of the Neutral path is often a return to some semblance of regular life, but the situation of these battling extremes came up naturally from a relatively Neutral world to start with, so it seems like the Neutral path is just a temporary extension of balance that’s eventually going to lead right back to the same situation. Look at some of the major SMT games--SMT1, 2, 4, and Strange Journey. The forces of Law claim that humanity can’t exist on its own without faith in God and a need for restrictive order. The forces of Chaos claim that humanity can’t exist on its own without a desire for the power of demons and a yearning for freedom. Well, since all these games are (tenuously) connected to one another, and the conflict between Law and Chaos keeps repeating itself to the backdrop of regular Neutral life, it would seem both sides are correct. Well, if Neutral is going to keep leading to these wars between Heaven and Hell over the convictions of humanity, maybe it’s not as good a path as everyone says, and somebody SHOULD make a lasting decision of Law or Chaos.