There’s a question that’s been on my mind for a while now. It should go without saying, but in this day and age we’re fortunate enough to be a society with full, often-instant access to media. We’ve had books, movies, and TV for decades (books especially, for obvious reasons), but it doesn’t take much effort to get more of that with a few button presses or key strokes. Maybe not even that, if you’ve got some kind of voice recognition system straight out of The Jetsons. Or just an Xbox One, apparently.
So in addition to books, movies, and TV, we can practically turn our heads and gain access to video games, comics, anime, and web-based content that no one would have dreamed could be interesting (who’d ever want to watch someone else play a game, amirite?). This generation -- and the next, and the next -- is going to be able to observe and draw influence from myriad sources. That’s how it should be. Each new generation should overtake the old.
Still, I can’t help but wonder: is it going to be acceptable to like those myriad forms of media, especially if it means trying to become legitimate? I mean, let’s use me as an example. I want to be a writer, and I’m ready to put in the work to do so -- but I would be lying out my ass if I said video games didn’t have an influence on me. And as the days pass, I’m getting more into (or being corrupted by, if you prefer) the various Kamen Rider installments. So if I or anyone else wanted to be a creative tour de force, would those things hamper our chances? Our legitimacy?
I’d like to think that that’s not the case. The creator’s skills should speak for themselves, in an ideal world. And while it’s true that video games don’t exactly have the highest regard, assuming that they’re all mindless gore-fests played by (and pioneered by) screaming, Doritos-stained racists would be like assuming every movie is something not even Michael Bay would put on the screen. Video games are going to become a medium that is DEFINITIVELY art, not just arguably -- if it hasn’t already, at least. That much is obvious.
I’ve heard the argument that right now, games are in an awkward transitional phase. And I agree with that; the past few generations have proven that the industry has -- or has long since had -- the potential to make compelling stories, unforgettable characters, dynamic worlds, and more.
But at the same time, we’ve seen just how bad things can get. There are games that assert their legitimacy, but there are plenty of others -- maybe too many -- that do the opposite. They try, but stumble and fail. Or maybe they don’t try at all. Or maybe the minds behind them just aren’t up to it. Or maybe they’d just rather try to ape the style and successes of the film industry…which strikes me as “giving up”, but whatever.
If this new console generation is going to prove its worth, then it’s going to be by way of developers learning from past mistakes. They’ll realize that the new hardware and the power within demand more than just better visuals or slight remixes on gameplay. That power needs to be used responsibly, and thoroughly. Case in point: Infamous: Second Son has been in gamer hands for a while now, and given its bizarrely-segued presentation last year, I expected a full capitalization on the ideas and topics therein. It…didn’t deliver.
The game was an opportunity to do more than just pare down complex issues on personal freedoms and government intervention into “I’m a rebel, you’re the establishment! You’re mean and you suck! FREEDOM RULES!” But the events therein -- up to and including the final boss, which I swear is better-suited for a Disney movie than a quasi-serious investigation of current issues -- struck me as a farce. I don’t think I’m asking for much when I say I want games that can tackle deeper issues without devolving into dour grit-fests and gormless, hyper-simplified fantasies.
Why? Because I’ve already had everything I want -- everything -- in Devil Survivor 2.
Let me explain. You see -- oh, wait. Hold on.
WARNING: For never was a story of more woe Than this, of SPOILERS and her MORE SPOILERS!
(Side note: don’t watch the DeSu2 anime. It’s awful and completely misses the point of the game. But for this post’s sake I’m going to use images as needed.)
There we go. Now, what’s the story behind DeSu2? It’s fairly simple, actually. You’re a high school student hot off preparing for exams, and heading home with your buddy Daichi. As you head for the subway, you run into the school idol, Io. Just as Daichi tries to get in close to Io, you all get mail on your cell phones -- apparently, from the Nicaea site you’ve all heard rumors about. Lo and behold, it does just what a “dead face delivery site” is supposed to do: it shows a clip of the three of you dying brutal deaths. And in the same subway station you’ve just entered.
Thankfully, the three of you manage to avert grisly fates, but only for a moment; you’re attacked by demons, and while you handle them with relative ease, that’s the worst of your problems. You head topside to find Tokyo in absolute ruins, with communications almost immediately cut off. What unfolds is a multi-day struggle to survive, dealing with rioters, the mysterious organization JPs (rhymes with “chips”), and of course the Septentriones -- extremely powerful creatures that are more or less incomprehensible genocidal -- and vaguely geometric -- aliens.
In order to explain why the Devil Survivor games have good stories, I have to briefly (and controversially) explain why the year-old DmC had a terrible story. One of the things that bugged me about it -- and the root of many of its storyline problems, I’d bet -- is that it all feels empty. Shallow. Incomplete. It’s a fat load of telling, but not nearly enough showing for the kind of story -- the kind of game it needed to be. It aimed high, but dragged itself through the earth’s crust from start to finish. Action game or not, you can’t hide behind that excuse if your PR touted being ready to revolutionize storytelling.
Think about it. We’re told that a demon-produced soft drink is enslaving mankind, but we’re never shown in what capacity. We’re told that the demons are watching our every move and have a hand in every entertainment outlet, but we get maybe fifteen seconds of capitalization on that idea. We never learn the impact of demon control, or the status of humanity, or the aftereffects of both the heroes’ and the villains’ actions until maybe the last hour of the game; it’s a story that demanded narrative focus and a smaller scale. But because the camera was so far up Donte’s ass, we never got to see anything that would have made the setting more than a multi-million dollar backdrop.
Compare that to Devil Survivor 2, despite appearing on the criminally-underpowered DS. For starters, the world actually feels like one that’s lived in, because there are actually other characters besides the main cast. Granted the main cast is pretty large, but the presence of extras is one that lends credibility to the whole “the world is coming to an end” angle, because it’s through their fear and panic that we players know that things are getting bad.
If you’ll let me borrow a phrase from the Zero Punctuation lexicon, what’s important to note about the DeSu2 isn’t that “humanity is fucked”, and certainly not “pre-fucked” from the moment you turn on the game. Things start out normal and degrade over the course of about a week (barring some backstory shenanigans that make the game’s events possible). What this means is that we have some twenty hours of game time to see things go from all green to OH MY GOD DEMONS EVERYWHERE YO and appreciate the difference between the two states.
Let me put it this way: in Gears of War, humanity is already in a bad spot, and the planet is essentially wrecked; the COGs are just trying to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. That’s not necessarily a bad trait to give your setting, but there are problems; the effectiveness and malleability of your setting are capped. Where do you go from “the world is wrecked”? Gears’ answer is “Well obviously, you just wreck the world even more!”
It’s a possible answer, but it’s not automatically the best; it’s an artificial way to raise the tension, considering that outside of a few instances the world is pretty much just a backdrop for firefights. My basic argument is this: how are we supposed to care about a world that’s already destroyed and get only occasional glimpses at life in this war-torn world? And Gears has a similar problem as DmC: the focus is put on people who can’t be bothered to dwell on or help color the world, because they’re too busy being snarky superhumans.
Not so with DeSu2 (and the first DeSu by extension, but let’s focus on game two). The degradation that takes place over the week is almost palpable. People -- office workers, gang members, schoolgirls, merchants, and even cops -- start abusing the summoning app just to survive. They may be using what's essentially Pokemon for Satan enthusiasts, but the fantastic elements still ring true in the context and affect of the in-game world -- itself a portrait of the real world in a what-if scenario.
Food and medicine run low, demanding skirmishes in the middle of a street. Power outages beget civilians gathering into shelters and parks, which beget mass demon attacks…and of course, more riots. The SDF quarantines a hefty part of Tokyo, and will go so far as to shoot anyone who tries to escape. And throughout all of this, you get to see people from all walks of life react to -- and collapse because of -- the disaster.
It’s not just NPCs that are reacting to the disasters you face; it’s your party members, too. Some of them are just one event away from crumbling (and in DeSu1’s case, some of them leap over the line, to the point of committing suicide or enacting some very messy vigilante justice). Characters start to question their world and themselves, with past mistakes and decisions rearing their ugly heads in the face of adversity and certain death.
Oppression tracks these people no matter where they turn, either from external sources, internal struggles, divides between one party member and the next, and good ol’ fashioned horrific hellspawn from realms unimaginable. I don’t know about you, but I prefer a cast that reacts to things -- the world or otherwise -- instead of a cast that…well, doesn’t.
I'm trying not to dump hate on every other game in the universe here, guys. So let's just have a picture of Deneb from Kamen Rider Den-O and move on. Dude's got guns for fingers. You can't beat that.
So do you remember those Septentriones I mentioned earlier? They’re in the employ of the world’s administrator, Polaris -- and having believed that humanity has lost its will to live, Polaris decides to erase everything. So at the end of the game, you’re going up against the guy who makes and maintains the world -- but this isn’t exactly the easy-breezy act of deicide you’d expect from most JRPGs. One ending suggests that by killing Polaris, the damage done to the world can never, ever be repaired. What’s left of humanity is all you’ll ever get, and you’ll just have to deal with it. Rebuild society and all that.
By the way, that “damage done to the world”? It’s not just demons and alien-type things smashing buildings. Polaris has been erasing the world by having it sucked into a spreading black nothingness nicknamed The Void. Kill him, and The Void goes away…to be replaced by nothing but a sprawling ocean.
And The Void has pretty much sucked up everything but a small section of Japan.
Better call Kevin Costner.
But you know what? Honestly? I actually think that’s one of the best things I could have hoped for. See, the first ending I got -- the “Liberator” route with Daichi, I believe it’s called -- is a cop-out. It’s the quintessential third option, where a small portion of the cast branches off to find a new path; that is, they don’t want to resort to extremes to create a new world, and certainly not by way of demonic urban warfare. So they opt to march up to Polaris’ throne and take out the administrator (who, much like the Septentriones, looks like a geometric nightmare creature) on the grounds that a world free from the control of some inhuman administrator trumps anything else.
Speaking on a long-term level, it might work. Somewhere along the line, humanity might gain enough strength and wisdom to rebuild a world forcibly left as 99.999999999% water. But in the short-term, it’s a remarkably shitty idea -- not only is there a currently-capped amount of resources and supplies, but the ending heavily implies that there’s now no god of sorts to protect you from danger. So if there’s anything out there even nastier (i.e. a key enemy in a potential DeSu3), they’d better hope that the last remnants of society are up to the task.
It’s a harrowing ending -- bittersweet and not necessarily heralding the end of humanity, but the implications are there. Still, the reason that I call it a cop-out is because, in many ways, that’s what it is. The route is the “third option”, a medium between extremes. It’s something there that I think appeals to the player sensibilities; it’s the most peaceable path (relatively speaking), and one that upholds peace and the status quo instead of drastically changing the world. And maybe that’s its biggest problem. DeSu2 being a video game, taking a third option is as simple as picking your endgame route from a menu. It’s all too easy to assume that it’s a right, not a privilege.
But in a real-world context, what if there WASN’T a third option?
What if, in spite of good intentions and a desire to avoid hurting the feelings of friends -- or just hurting them in general -- opting for a different path wasn’t just difficult, but outright foolhardy? Daichi and his supporters end up getting called out for being so naïve and childish -- and while the oldest member of the cast is a hoary twenty-six, there’s some semblance of a point in there.
Even if there was a third option, Daichi’s “let’s not fight, let’s just be friends, and let’s turn everything back to normal” drive comes off as simple-minded and dangerous by the time he proposes it…doubly so because it’s a course sorely lacking in vision, and Daichi himself can’t define it beyond cowardly mutterings. Given that they only have two or three days max by that point to save the world, it’s understandable that a good two-thirds of the cast writes him off.
So what are the other two options? Well…the simplest way to put it is that they’re extreme.
In the blue corner, representing order, we have Ronaldo Kuriki. He’s a detective, and a passionate one at that; ignoring the fact that most of his sprites/assets have him expressing some sort of indignation, he’s the one most likely to start shouting about fighting in the name of justice (in an “aw, bless your heart” sort of way). But make no mistake, he’s serious about his goals.
In the face of adversity and a country being completely dismantled by demons and invaders, he starts pulling together dislocated peoples and forming a sort of allied force. His ultimate goal (once he finds out Polaris exists)? To have the administrator remake the world in his image -- that is, to create a world of equality, where everyone works together and supports one another without question. Simply put -- in the game’s terms, at least -- it’s egalitarianism.
(That bunny hood is why you don't watch the anime.)
Common decency suggests that if players don’t choose Daichi’s route, Ronaldo’s is the next in line. But what’s important to note is that for all his good intentions, Ronaldo is…well, he’s more or less a terrorist. The people he brings to his side? They’re rioters -- and many if not all of them are rioters thanks to Ronaldo’s orders. He's used his charisma and force of will to put together a band of vulnerable, desperate people; there's something scary about a guy like that, independent of his ability to summon demons.
He’ll gladly break into government offices and steal data, willingly killing anyone that gets in his way. He has good intentions, but it’s likely that none of them would have been sparked if not for his own quest for vengeance; he’s out for blood, and the very idea of compromise has never occurred to him. So he’s not exactly a good guy…and his ending isn’t 100% ideal.
And in the red corner (ironically) representing chaos, we have Yamato Hotsuin. Yamato is probably one of the most inexplicable characters I’ve encountered in a while -- he’s the head of the secret government agency JPs in spite of being only seventeen. He’s not only a genius, but also the heir to a clan that can harness the supreme energy known as the Dragon Stream. He’s an unfortunately gray-haired teenager (though not the first Atlus hero to have such colorless locks).
But no matter his status, his goal is clear: to use his resources and his organization, one well-versed in demon summoning, to rebuild Japan. Except Yamato has no intention of restoring the status quo; he’s out to create a new Japan, one where the strongest and wisest will rule and be rewarded, while the weak will suffer. He wants a meritocracy, and he’ll do anything to get it.
It’s easy to label Yamato as extreme, but in the end that’s probably the best description of both his actions and his goals. If not for his commands and his JPs peons, it’s likely that a lot of the game’s conflicts wouldn’t have happened. They’re hoarding food and medical supplies for themselves, acting under the impression that they deserve it more than the average citizen. That’s actually kind of true, given that JPs is trying to fight off the demons and Septentrions with some success (and plenty of support for the main cast). So even if it’s not the ideal situation, it is a cruel truth that has to be accepted.
But the cruelty doesn’t end there. They’re not above using force to suppress rioters -- “rioters” taking on a VERY loose definition in several instances -- and using flimsy justifications at most moments. Also, for a group that one would think would be the best Japan has to offer, more often than not JPs agents aren’t much more durable than the common redshirt. And really, do I need to say anything about the nastiness behind a meritocracy? I’m pretty sure I don’t -- but in case you need a bit more evidence, just imagine a guy who looks like this deciding how the world is remade and you’re halfway there.
(But not Anime Yamato. He's such a shitass.)
What’s important to remember is that neither Yamato’s meritocracy nor Ronaldo’s egalitarianism are treated as absolute right answers. Supporters of each ideal (i.e. your party members) will poke holes in both…and they’ll do so even if they’re on the side they want to be on. Take Joe, for example. It’s established almost immediately after meeting him that he’s a scatterbrained fool, someone who Yamato only tolerates because he’s a solid demon tamer. Over the course of the story, though, Joe reveals a certain savvy that makes him wiser than he appears, if only slightly so.
More importantly, it’s highly probable that Joe was working alongside Ronaldo, gathering and stealing supplies to give to hospitals -- no doubt the same hospital where his sick girlfriend resides. No small wonder, then, that Joe decides to partner up with Ronaldo when the party splinters; Joe knows he’ll be the first to get the ax in Yamato’s new world, and he’s seen the good work Ronaldo’s done with his own eyes. But it’s Joe of all people who wonders the loudest if Ronaldo’s world is any good, either -- and I can see why that wouldn’t work. (The fact that the real world has yet to adopt an utterly-equal society is a hint in its own right.)
But I’d argue that “who’s right and who’s wrong” isn’t the point. DeSu2 is asking you a series of questions. One of them is obvious: “Do you think this new world of Yamato’s/Ronaldo’s/Daichi’s could work?” And the other one is “How do you rebuild a broken world?”
The second question is one that I want fiction -- games, especially -- to answer more readily. Look, we’ve all seen something related to zombies at this point in our lives, and we all know that the real danger (and draw) of the stories is the degradation of society. Humanity is the real monster, we live for chaos, et cetera, et cetera. Part of the appeal is seeing everything we’ve built either torn down or abandoned -- and while it’s not exclusive to zombie fiction, it IS an incredibly commonplace idea throughout fiction (again, the fact that Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation used the phrase “humanity is fucked” to describe multiple games is a pretty marked signal). But in my eyes, that’s not enough. Not anymore. Not in the wake of plenty of solid games.
IIRC, Gears of War 3 ended with the Locusts and immulsion completely erased; Anya consuls a grieving Marcus and tells him that there’s still hope left…this, in spite of their planet Sera being utterly wrecked. So you’d expect for them to start showing how they’d rebuild their shattered world, right? Nope. Not even an epilogue; it just fades to black with no justification of the hope Anya suggests.
If you couple that with the fact that Gears of War Judgment is a prequel, it becomes incredibly obvious that the franchise is comfortable with wading in the “humanity is fucked” end of the pool. You could make the same argument about DmC; it was all too eager to tell us that the world was in sorry shape, but when it came time for genuine reform, all we got was a shot of a smoldering city before -- you guessed it -- fading to black.
The first DeSu was all too eager to show how society went from all right to all ruined -- the key difference being that putting an end to the disaster was intertwined with creating a safer and/or better world by game’s end. But DeSu2 manages to take it a step further, letting it be more than just a rehash of DeSu1 as well as carving its own niche. Putting an end to the havoc is a big part of the story, as expected, but “saving the world” in this case means more than beating the bad guy. In fact, in a lot of ways the struggle to decide how the world will be rebuilt is more important than beating the bad guys. And rightly so.
There’s no right answer to the question of whether a merit system, equality, or restoring the status quo should reign supreme. Like I said, that’s part of the point. You, the player, have the chance to decide for yourself what “the right answer” will be. There are faults with each system, but there are positives and benefits as well; even if it takes you a playthrough or two to realize that, you may end up agreeing with Yamato after seeing the game through to the end with Ronaldo.
Although, to be honest, I think there IS an answer to be had. Not an immediately obvious one, of course, but a subtle one. The true answer may very well lie in two qualities -- those belonging to a single person…or rather, the proxy of a single person.
What are they? Well, I’ll be sure to explain in full -- next time. Hold on to your Jack Frosts, guys; next time, we’ll get in deeper with DeSu2. And next time, I won’t just do slack-jawed gushing.
So...what's the tl;dr takeaway from this post? Play DeSu2 so you can be a cool guy.
About Voltech One of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012
Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.
I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.
You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.