<Author's note: This blog is simply my own understandings and interpretations of the SMT series of games. In no way do I infer my beliefs are correct, they are simply my beliefs. I also recognize that the Persona series is not a mainline MegaTen series but I include references due to the similar natures.>
For me, SMT starts with my parents
My father suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
BPD is a very difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat psychological disorder that results from a conflict of self. Something both the SMT and Persona series revolve around...
The conflict of self that comes from BPD affects people differently, but for my father, it appeared as an over-inflated sense of narcissism
. Consequently, he wasn't present much during my childhood.
My mother and I had a difficult relationship. Coming from a past of abusive men, she had difficulty relating to me in the way a mother should. It didn't help that in the early 90's she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and was forced to retire.
When I was a teenager, my father forced my family and I into a Christian
lifestyle. We started going to an evangelistic church 2-3 times a week and actively engaged with other Christians.
As a person with BPD, the "black and white" Christian mentality made it easy to justify his own actions while elevating his own sense of self. Yet another SMT theme...
I became a Christian later by choice.
In 2004 Atlus released Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne in North America.
I was in my first year of "Bible School" at that time. Instead of college I had opted to go through my denomination's ordination process. I was studying to discover the very nature of what it meant to be a Christian and have a relationship with God.
I managed to play through Nocturne despite my busy classes. I was in love, though, I feel that the depth was lost on me at the time.
Two years later I left for Japan with a position as Youth Pastor at a church in Osaka. In all the time I spent there (not long), I brought only a few things back with me: boxed SFC copies of Shin Megami Tensei I, II, If..., and a Japanese PC Engine CD Duo with the rare voiced SMT I port. (The later of which cost me upwards of $300 USD and several trips around the Kansai area.)
In my experience with the SMT series since then, I've come to a unique perspective position:
[u]The Shin Megami Tensei series is all about parent-figures; and the journey from being a son/daughter to becoming a parent.[/u]
Traditionally, Japanese culture is parent-less.
In Japanese (and other Asian) culture, men are expected to work outrageous hours in service to their companies. Their off hours are often spent in compulsory meetings with clients, co-workers, or bosses. While this culture has changed over the years, the very nature of each SMT game starts with the absence of both a mother and father figure.
In the first SMT, you start with a mother figure but very quickly you leave her to embark on a demon summoning quest. No mention of a father is made.
In SMT III, there is a unique scene early where the Protagonist is reunited with an old friend shortly after the catastrophic event. The other character (Chiaki) makes a reference to the loss of her parents but the protagonist pays no mind and shows no emotion.
As the SMT series has evolved, it has incorporated these elements to include the absence of both parents (as in Persona 3 and 4).
While the average gamer might not take simple plot devices like these seriously, it has become uniquely acute to me that they are intentional.
The absence of parental figures is not only relatable in this generation, it sets up what is probably the most important exploration of character. Psychology tells us that children require authority figures to help set the boundaries that make us who we are.
Without those boundaries, we are essentially subject to (or freed from depending) moral ambiguity. The confusion that comes from uncertainty of direction and safety are what makes every moral choice both enthralling and terrifying.
As someone who has suffered under Borderline Personality Disorder, being uncertain of who you are as a person makes choices more difficult. If I choose this direction, is that who I am? The SMT games have the power to make you question that, and often takes your choices to the extreme.
Relationship with a strong yet flawed "mother" character type.
In almost every SMT game there has been a plot setup for a strong woman "type". By "type" I mean a symbolic representation of guiding womanhood and unconditional love.
In an absence of a proper mother figure, most people (men especially) would be drawn to strong women figures. The SMT games directly relate these first two points with underlying depth.
In SMT I it was Yuka (alt Yuriko):
In SMT II it was Hiroko (who ends up being the Protagonist's literal mother):
In SMT III it was Ms Takao:
In Strange Journey it's Zelenin:
They are meant to appear "pure" and "untainted" by the chaos. At the beginning of SMT III Ms Takao says "I'll be your strength and guide you"; in Strange Journey Zelenin refuses to use demons, even to survive.
These figures are expertly crafted to represent our desires for unconditional love and acceptance while at the same time abusing those desires for ulterior motives by putting the protagonist in harm's way. Ms Takao wants the Demi-fiend to fight a deranged psychotic killer for her; Zelenin constantly requires "saving" from the Protagonist; Yuka forms a mind-meld with the Protagonist which causes him debilitating pain once a moon cycle.
Even though my mother suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, I'm sure many people can relate to mothers who may (willingly or unintentionally) take advantage of our love for their benefit.
God is the enemy, but who is this Louis Cyphre?
When you combine the first and second points you start to see that the SMT series paints a picture of flawed authority figures. Fathers who aren't around and mother's love that is just out of reach.
To continue the theme of authority figures, it reaches to a much deeper level. While parents are supposed to be our safety and support system during our development- if we develop without them, what authority figures do we relate to?
The next logical step is the innate morality present in the world around us. Law and Chaos; represented by God (YHVH) and Satan (Louis Cyphre) respectfully.
Of course, these are represented by "Black and White" choices; either all Chaos or all Law. While the games do offer a "neutral" path, in all cases these paths are essentially "non-endings" where either the world continues on or starts back up where it stopped.
Coming from a Christian background I have to admit I find humor in SMT. I was originally intrigued by the idea of the Hebrew God as a final boss. The "black and white" Christian way of thinking would probably condemn such a game.
The point behind this, I feel, is to set up the transition between childhood and adulthood.
Generally speaking, most people try to "graduate" from their parents. There comes a time we have to strike out on our own and create our own life.
In each SMT game the protagonist is tapped to become the catalyst (or "Messiah") for a new world. He/she becomes the "parent" of the next generation of man. In our journey to adulthood, we have to overcome our parents.
The idea of "God" or "Satan" plays into all the things we wish to do away with when we think of our parents. We would try to be free from pride, greed, lies, hypocrisy... All these traits and more are represented in these "boss" figures.
Accepting ourselves for who we are as people, good or bad.
In reality, there is no "black" and "white". The world around us is made up of greys. Just because I said something mean to a stranger, does that mean I'm also a murderer? Shin Megami Tensei tricks us into choosing a path knowing that both being neutral and being one sided is wrong.
In the end, there is no right answer- and that's the thrill in replaying the games. Not in simply seeing the different endings, but imagining ourselves as different people making the different moral choices; aligning ourselves with different demons to boot.
In the end, who we are is what we create.
Shin Megami Tensei paints this message as we make the transition to adulthood. Most RPGs have static elements and static endings. In the world of SMT, your ending is determined but what you've become over the course of the game. An angel? A demon? A messiah? A destroyer?
In that way it's much like parenthood. Despite our best intentions to be the best parents we can, our children become a representation of ourselves. Just like we did, they will have a choice someday to become different and create their own world. Fortunately for us, they won't be able to summon demons to do it with.
It's an interesting life picture; however flawed. In all of the SMT games, you are required to choose from other people's choices, never allowed to make your own.
Regardless of it's little flaws, SMT is a series I love wholeheartedly and will continue to support with my means as long as they keep making them. In many ways, SMT helped me confront, converse with, and persuade my own demons...