Doubtless I’m making mountains of molehills here, but I cannot help but feel some slight concern over what I’ve seen with a couple of the recent Shin Megami Tensei games’ characters who embody the Neutral path.
In case you’re unfamiliar with this, most Shin Megami Tensei games have multiple story paths and endings, and usually, those follow a formula of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. Law is the path of those who believe in absolute order and submission to rules and regulations (which is usually, in SMT, represented by God and the heavenly host of Christianity), Chaos is the path of those who believe in absolute freedom and that the strong should decide their own destiny (which is usually, in SMT, represented by Lucifer and a wide mythological array of demons), and Neutral is the path of those who believe that too much law or chaos is a bad thing and that a balance between them is important, that humans should decide their fate for themselves without the oversight of God or the temptations of Lucifer, and ultimately hold out hope that there can be a better tomorrow of our own design. That’s a very rough summation, but it will suffice. Not every SMT with multiple paths has a distinct Law or Chaos route, but even the titles that lack either of those routes will usually still have a path of Neutrality (or even more than one) analogous to the one I’ve just described, one which sees the flaws and benefits of both other possibilities and seeks a less extreme middle ground.
Usually, for each path there is a character in the game who is the iconic representation of that path’s philosophies. For example, in SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, it’s Dahn who stands for Chaos and Akane who stands for Order, and in SMT Strange Journey, Chaos, Law, and Neutral are represented by Jimenez, Zelenin, and Gore, respectively. And that’s where my problem today comes from: I find that, as representations of the Neutral path, Daichi and his followers in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2, and Isabeau from Shin Megami Tensei 4, are disappointing, and since they’re some of the most recent Neutral Heroes, it troubles me that this could be the direction that the series is going to go in for this role.
The problem I have with Isabeau and Daichi and company is quite simple: they’re figureheads of indecision, not balance. Look at Daichi’s band in SMTDS2. Once you reach the point in SMTDS2 where the factions are starting to distinguish themselves from one another, the point at which we see that the major choice of the game is between a world of equality or meritocracy, Daichi begins to question whether either world is truly a good idea, pointing out the flaws of a society of both utter equality and complete meritocracy.* And that’s fine. I expect someone, particularly the Neutral figure of the game, to see the problems of the game’s major paths, and to seek out and offer a third, middle-of-the-road solution.
But that’s just it--Diachi never offers that solution, never has any idea of what it might be. I give him credit that he seems to be thinking about it and trying to come up with a solution, but when the day in the game comes where all must choose their sides, he’s got nothing. True Armegeddon is approaching fast at this point in the game, and the only way to prevent all existence from being reduced to utter nothingness, a white void of nonexistence, is to approach the entity causing this situation with a plan for recreating and reshaping the world. It’s Yamato’s plan to take this entity’s power and make a world where only those who have strength, intellect, or do something useful to society have any power. Ronaldo opposes Yamato, and intends to instead make a world where all people share all resources equally and harmoniously, where the strong protect the weak and all are valued exactly the same. At this point in the story, with only a day or so left before the last small piece of the world left is erased, everyone must make a decision on which side they will follow.
Except for Daichi. Still insisting that neither side is ideal, and that if a philosophy makes you fight against those important to you then it can’t be a good one,** Daichi, and the friends who then follow him, refuse to follow either Equality or Meritocracy. Okay, fine. So what’s his middle-ground solution?
Yes, that’s right. One day from the erasure of all existence, when all the lives that ever were and ever could be are on the line, when everything and everyone will be blanked out forever if a leader does not step forth and provide the blueprints of a new, ideal world, Daichi just wants to sit on his hands. Not only that, but he wants everyone ELSE to do so, too. Daichi insists that there must be some better way than to force friends to fight each other over which flawed world to enact, but when outright asked by Yamato what this alternative is, Daichi can produce no answer. Just...what the hell? It’s 24 hours to the end of existence, dude! If you don’t like either Yamato’s or Ronaldo’s option, fine, that’s your choice, but if you’re going to actively oppose them and encourage others to do the same, you’d sure as hell better have an alternative plan of action beyond “sit tight and hope things work out” in mind! Good God, I’m all for the “finding a better way” approach to things, it’s an RPG story staple, but if you don’t actually find that better way by Go Time, and the universe and all its history and future is on the line, that is not the time to cross your arms over your chest, pout, and whine, “I don’t wanna!”
Yes, if you do support Daichi, a different option besides Equality and Meritocracy does present itself, but that’s beside the point, honestly. The point is that when the chips were down and it was time to nut up or shut up, Daichi, and the characters who choose to follow him, had no plan, no idea, just the dislike of the options presented. The fact that another path does present itself eventually if the player chooses to follow Daichi feels more like a lucky break than some sort of reward for his commitment, a blind gamble with all of existence as the ante, that thankfully just happens to pay out.
Ugh, and Isabeau in SMT4? Pretty much just as bad. It’s not noticeable at first, but when you watch her for the entirety of the game, you come to realize that she is completely, utterly incapable of making a decision or picking a side at any time of significance during the story. The Passage of Ethics? Can’t make a decision on any of the questions; doesn’t even try--Jonathan and Walter are the ones who mull over the philosophical ramifications, and Isabeau just stays silent. When the time comes that Jonathan and Walter split, one to kill Lilith and the other to do her bidding? Isabeau can’t choose either and instead chooses to go fool around with some NPCs she’s met all of twice because she has no convictions about the matter at hand beyond a vague disapproval. Even once the protagonist, Flynn, has set his path at the end of the game to Neutral (assuming he doesn’t go Chaos, Law, or Nihilism), and Isabeau joins him as his only fellow who also sides neither with angels nor demons, she STILL doesn’t know what to do. Seriously, Flynn comes back to his own world, and Isabeau finds him, and says she’s going to hang out with him during this crisis of heaven and earth, and the reason she gives is just a flat-out confirmation that she doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know her priorities, doesn’t have any idea of how to do the fence-straddling act she wants to pull, just wants to dump it all on Flynn and have him do her thinking for her.
If Daichi’s bunch and Isabeau are any indication, it seems that Atlus has begun to mistake paralyzing and incredibly irresponsible indecision for the balance and self-determination that Neutrality is supposed to be known for. Yes, the first half of the Neutral path in SMT games is a denial of the extremes of the other paths. But that’s not ALL there is to it; there has to be an actual plan, conviction, even just the faintest wisp of an idea as to what should be done instead! The most proactive action either Daichi or Isabeau takes in the end is to inspire someone else (Flynn and what’s-his-name, SMTDS2 protagonist) to do the figuring-out-a-different-path legwork for them!
I mean, compare this to those characters who have previously represented the Neutral path. When the party splits apart in SMT Persona 3’s The Answer continuation on whether they should change the past for the sake of their late friend Minato, Aigis walks the middle road, refusing to make a decision on this matter. That seems like indecision, but we see soon after that Aigis was not refusing because she felt unable to decide--she’s refusing because she won’t make the decision until she knows more about what, exactly, it was that happened the day that Minato banished Nyx and was in turn doomed to be taken from his friends. Aigis is a character whose ethics have been clear by this point for quite some time, and she’s walking the Neutral path on the decision her friends are warring over with an actual plan in her mind, having thought of an important angle to the situation that no one else has. Like Isabeau and Daichi, she doesn’t know enough to comfortably decide the best course of action with their chance to change the past. But unlike Isabeau and Daichi, Aigis is proactive in her lack of understanding, and moves to correct that indecision, to give herself the knowledge she needs to make an educated choice. Isabeau and Daichi are people who don’t know something and sit there stagnating in that ignorance, and Aigis is a person who doesn’t know something and so goes out and finds the answer.
Gore in SMT Strange Journey? Once he’s back in the game and ready to take up the mantle of the Neutral Hero, he has an ideal and a plan for his path. Atsuro and Gin in SMT Devil Survivor 1? Each comes up with a way to put control of the city and world back in the hands of humanity, proactively dealing with the situation of Babel and the war between demons and angels. These are characters who have strong feelings of what is best for humanity, characters who make choices and actively seek ways to do what they think is right and act upon their convictions.
Even the unnamed Heroine of Shin Megami Tensei 1 is better than Daichi and Isabeau. The SMT1 Heroine’s only ethic and plan of action eventually is to stick with the protagonist and support him no matter what course of action he chooses, and yeah, that obviously ain’t a stunning example of a strong, iconic character, but at least she’s showing consistency and loyalty, at least she’s making the choice to follow the SMT1 protagonist. It’s not much better than Isabeau’s joining Flynn because she doesn’t know what to do with herself, but still, it IS a step up. A paid servant and a slave may perform the same tasks, but the fact that a servant has chosen to do so makes for a world of difference between them, and so I say that the decision to follow another and trust his judgment is different from being led because you cannot self-determine. And the SMT1 Heroine’s decision is, at least, thematically appropriate, since the SMT1 protagonist is essentially the avatar of humanity, the one who will decide what path humanity will follow, so you could see her putting her faith in him as putting her faith in humanity itself. And since Neutral is, y’know, about humanity standing on its own to make its own decisions and whatnot...I dunno, it sort of works, right? At any rate, since it’s a case of the Heroine actually choosing to put faith into someone, rather than Isabeau’s desperately turning to someone else to find her path for her, it’s a point in the Heroine’s favor over Isabeau.
Anyway, that’s all I really have to say about this. Being unsatisfied with the obvious paths offered, that’s a natural part of the SMT Neutral figurehead. But the point is for them to go from there to taking action, asserting their views, addressing their lack of knowledge, doing SOMETHING about the situation, taking SOME step toward the future. And that’s a level of proactivity that Isabeau and Daichi never reach; they just stall at the dissatisfaction stage. And that does concern me, because it’s a strike against their games’ storytelling value, and that strike has come both times against some of the series’s newest titles. I’m probably worrying over nothing, but nonetheless, I do hope that characters based entirely upon indecision and choking at the finish line aren’t going to become the norm for future SMT titles’ Neutral figures.
* At least, he tries to point out those flaws. If you’ve read my SMTDS2 rant on the supposed major flaw of the world of equality, you’ll remember that the major criticism of that path doesn’t hold any water whatsoever.
** Which is hypocritical idiocy, of course, since, if you follow Daichi, the protagonist will be leading a campaign against his friends in the other factions anyway.