The Moral Philosophies that Center Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

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The Moral Philosophies that Center <i>Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne</i>

In Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, the world’s halfway over and a new one is struggling to be born. Tokyo is a barren wasteland contorting spherically around a shining orb called Kagutsuchi, and the streets teem with demons. There’s little humanity or hope in the Vortex World, a transient place where the planet awaits recreation. You aren’t even human anymore; to survive the horrors of the apocalypse, you’re granted a half-demon form and act as the prophesied Demi-fiend, an agent said to assist a human in bringing their vision of the next world to fruition.

That’s exactly what sets Nocturne apart from its predecessors: humans will decide what the new world order looks like. In Nocturne, notions of alignment are thrown out the door in favor of Reasons, philosophies for how the world should operate that will be judged by Kagutsuchi after obtaining a divine sponsor and climbing its tower. Demons (including half-demons such as yourself) are expressly forbidden from forming their own Reasons. This directly contrasts how alignments manifest in Shin Megami Tensei—though the Law Hero and Chaos Hero represent their respective paths, they are bidden along by unseen interlopers like the archangel Gabriel or Lilith. These beings are disallowed from interfering in Nocturne; each Reason’s representative came up with their philosophy internally, and fought to legitimize it with their own strength.

Essentially, each Reasonmaker—Chiaki, Hikawa, and Isamu—form their own cult. The philosophies are driven by a populist mindset, with beings rallying behind them like small armies to assist in the obtaining of Magatsuhi, a spiritual asset that must be amassed to summon a Demonic Sponsor.

The cavalcade of demons that follow each of the Reasonmakers further conflate the series’ traditional alignments. Chiaki’s Reason of Yosuga envisions a brutal world beset by Social Darwinism. Her followers are predominantly angels who flock to the Mantra Headquarters after she acquires power from the late Gozu-Tennoh, a demonlord who revelled in “chaos” and opposed Hikawa’s Reason. Chiaki’s divine followers are at odds with her seemingly chaotic worldview; she yearns for a world untouched by outside forces like social safety nets or welfare and instead vouches for a world ruled by supposed natural selection. She also subsumes Gozu-Tennoh’s more “chaotic” followers—oni and other hellish beasts.

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Chiaki’s Reason could suppose, instead, a more capitalistic world. Chiaki comes from a well established family and seemingly struggles with little until she survives the Conception. Suddenly down on her luck, Chiaki resolves to create a world where only “strength” prevails. She defines this as those that are resourceful, quick-witted, or powerful enough make it through while the weak fizzle out, and also cites overpopulation as a key factor in why the previous world needed to be destroyed. What Chiaki fails to realize is that a world of Yosuga would also be devoid of privilege; it would be a world where every person would constantly have to watch their own back and rely on themself alone. It’s a world of distrust.

Hikawa, along with your teacher Yuko, is the one responsible for the Conception. His affluent, shadowed past would indicate him as a chaotic agent, and his use of Goetic demons would further align him with the Ring of Gaea who represented the chaos path in Shin Megami Tensei. We learn from the Lady in Black that Hikawa was indeed in the Ring of Gaea, but he turned his back on them and sacrificed them to demons to enact the Conception. The Ring of Gaea, along with their law counterpart the Messians, are all dead by the start of Nocturne. In other words, both the potential for a world of law and a world of chaos are nonexistent. Both cults are left to moan in the Amala Labyrinth while the Reasonmakers fight in the Vortex World.

Despite his nefariousness, Hikawa’s Reason of Shijima is really not all that bad. A staunch anti-individualist, Shijima is a Reason of “stillness”—a meditative world where there is no conflict but also no passion. Hikawa’s world would be classless, stateless, borderless, moneyless; in essence, he imagines a perfectly communist world, in which every divide between people would be eradicated. Though Marx might find Hikawa’s egalitarian leanings bourgeois, Shijima certainly mirrors some of the eudaimonic intentions of Buddhist philosophy.

Isamu is a little harder to pinpoint, given how inherently opposed Hikawa and Chiaki’s Reasons are. This certainly aligns with his Reason, Musubi, though—he desires a world of solitude, where each person exists in their own world and cannot interfere with anyone else’s. Isamu’s Reason is born of an intense sense of social alienation. Estranged from his body and safety because of his material surroundings, Isamu limps away from danger and spends much of the game imprisoned, beaten, and disappointed.

Isamu’s Reason echoes a bit of the hikikomori phenomenon, which became a major talking point in Japan around the time of Nocturne’s original release. Hikikomori withdraw from social appearances wholesale, living a life of intense isolation because of their anxieties, financial struggles or dependence, and other factors indicative of a failing system. Musubi feels reactionary, a sign of an injured spirit seeking absolution outside of a broken government. It only makes sense that Isamu’s followers are the ghosts haunting the Amala Network—they’re people that had divested from society long before the Conception.

Then there’s Yuko, who is the game’s most tragic character. Manipulated by Hikawa into being a vessel for Magatsuhi, Yuko is saved by the protagonist halfway through the game and tells him of her hope of forming her own Reason thanks in part to a goddess she found from outside the Vortex World, somewhere far in the multiverse. Yuko’s “sponsor” is Aradia, a patron of witches who is unable to actually manifest within the Vortex World. Yuko seeks her Reason much the way a hero from a previous Shin Megami Tensei game might; she waits for Aradia to reveal it to her.

Yuko’s desires are really just for a better version of our current world—a world where people appreciate life more and pursue their passions openly. She’s a very depressed person who struggles to deal with the cruel realities of Creation. She refuses to kill and has no interest in gathering Magatsuhi. In the ending where the previous world is restored, Yuko’s opinion on the world’s degenerative state (a common symptom of alienation that can be used to radicalize vulnerable people into fascism) changes for the better, and she strives to improve the world within her own abilities.

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It’s no secret that Nocturne is themed around Kabbalistic mysticism and theories of creation, but the game has a much more implicit narrative—it greatly mirrors Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and some of his ideas within The Gay Science, with the Demi-fiend correlating to the Übermensch, where the Demi-fiend wanders through a conventional world and, disillusioned, decides to change it to his liking by force. The cycle of Creation also greatly resembles Nietszche’s theory of eternal recurrence, in which all of existence eternally repeats unpinned by morality.

This severely complicates Nocturne as a text because it not only posits Kabbalah as similar to Nietszche’s aristocratic value of tyrannical superiority, but also supposes that choosing a Reason at all is by nature fascistic. Nietszche’s brand of nihilism toes the line between anarchism and Nazism (fitting that Hikawa’s league is known as the “Assembly of Nihilo”), and picking a Reason inevitably leaves a gut wrenching feeling of wrongness by the game’s end. Only by rejecting every Reason can the Demi-fiend subvert the violent reshaping of the world to one individual’s liking.

This all, of course, ignores the True Demon path in which the protagonist follows the “chaotic” nature of his own demonhood all the way through the Labyrinth of Amala. This path is more honestly Nietszchian, embodying, quite literally, the cliched notion of “God is dead… and we have killed him.” It’s a path of great suffering and misanthropy, where the player not only forsakes humanity’s best wishes but chooses to leave the world in an unfinished state to pursue an atheistic war.

Nocturne’s ideas of humanity and how humankind controls its own destiny are complex and scattered, and there’s no unifying way to interpret each of its individual ideas. None of the paths are exactly “evil”—though Chiaki’s path is never one I could possibly condone, it’s certainly the sort of world I can imagine people envisioning themselves. At its core, Shin Megami Tensei is transgressive and angsty, and the Reasons certainly represent an irrepressible need to shake up the status quo. It’s an integral part of the game’s charm and one reason why I always seem to return for another go.



Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire