Friday, August 28, 2015

Shin Megami Tensei's Identity Crisis (Part 2 of 3): That Which Leads to Intimacy

by Eirikr J.S. [tumblr] [twitter]

(continued from Part 1)

Though Shin Megami Tensei is far from mainstream, it wasn't long into its history that it began experimenting with spinoffs to reach different audiences. Shin Megami Tensei if…’s 1994 release traded nuclear devastation for a high school setting that served as a hub for abstract dungeons and a focus on the eroding psychological health of its villain—a much more intimate subject than previous games, establishing that “the side games… [treated] smaller themes compared to mainline [SMT].” [1] The second major spinoff was 1995’s Devil Summoner, a mix of detective pulp and occult matter whichwas kept relatively simple and straightforward so that players could enjoy the story as it unfolded." [2] Though narrower in scope, these spinoffs were still clearly cut from SMT’s cloth.

Of course, there was another spinoff, 1996’s Persona, which saw the potential of SMT: if...'s high school setting and psychoanalytical concepts and ran with them. Its very title and central concept refer to the work of Carl Gustav Jung, famed psychoanalyst, and don’t stop there: terms like Shadows, Philemon, personas originating from a "sea of the soul," and many other premises and interpretations derive from Jung's work. The psych angle was a natural fit for the Megami Tensei franchise, as Jung is still known for popularizing the psychological interpretation of myths and the religious experience. What were once gods and monsters physically manifesting through computers could now be personality-changing "masks" originating from internal rather than external sources, without the need of technology.

But it would be naive to say that the creation of Persona was entirely for the purpose of exploring psychological matters. Kaneko admits that, compared to the main series, “Persona was geared towards a younger audience." [2] The switch to casts of high schoolers and a heavier story and dialogue focus was all about appealing to different demographics. This turned out to be a seemingly magic formula, as adding a more relatable human element to Megami Tensei's modern settings paved the way for the breakout hits of Persona 3 and Persona 4. But what exactly is behind the popularity of these modern Persona games, and how would their success impact Atlus and the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole?

From Fool to Magician

Obviously, Personas 3 and 4 didn't happen overnight. Their legacy begins with the fact that Shin Megami Tensei's concepts are malleable and easily suited to any number of scenarios. The creative leads responsible for molding SMT into its new form were Atlus cornerstone and producer/director Cozy Okada, writer Tadashi Satomi, and, of course, artist Kazuma Kaneko. Their talents lead to the creation of the PlayStation's Persona and the Persona 2 duology of Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. For Okada, taking the series back to school was a natural move:
Put simply, given the popularity of the PlayStation with more casual game players, too, we wanted to make a game that they could ease themselves into as well. Like our other games, we're still about making players the actual protagonist in terms of how things proceed, but we tried to make it a bit more of an emotionally approachable game, one that players would be able to more readily relate to. We tried to target a bunch of different potential audiences in making that move, from kids still in school themselves all the way up to working adults who want to go back to that time in their lives and reminisce a little. [3] Pretty much everybody experiences being a student at some point in their lives. It's something everybody can relate to, including myself, and it was a time when we absorbed everything...In that sense, I believe it helps the players to accept the theme and the variety of ideas that we've proposed.  [4]
sex doll in the background mostly cropped for your protection
From left: Cozy Okada, Tadashi Satomi, Kazuma Kaneko
Similar to Shin Megami Tensei and its mythological bent, psychological themes would be deliberately integrated throughout Persona’s and Persona 2’s narrative and gameplay, including places of inner meditation like the Velvet Room, where the player creates new personas. Kaneko speaks proudly of this first era of Persona games, commenting, "In Persona we concentrated on the emotional and psychological aspects of the characters so much that it was comparable to a work of literature." [2] Tadashi Satomi’s scenario writing would share this ambition, culminating in the creatively insane Persona 2 duology, which is layered with complex character relationships. Getting the characters right was of paramount importance for the fledgling series. Of the first game, Satomi notes,In terms of actual narrative content, the thing I worked on most was depicting the characters' psychology well, especially on an existential level.” [3]

It could be said that the original generation of Persona titles hewed closer to their JRPG contemporaries than other SMT games, with a simplified structure though perhaps not simplified content. One of the most apparent differences is that Persona uses a more typical character-based party structure: “The Megami Tensei series has traditionally featured the main character employing demons in his/her party. Persona, in which several main characters form a party, is actually the one that’s unusual.” [2]

This doesn’t mean demons are completely absent, as they were adapted to fill the roles of the personas summoned in battle by the characters, many using the basics of their mainline SMT designs. However, the personas specifically created for the Persona series have a design aesthetic and rules in contrast to the main series; whereas SMT utilizes the “collective interpretation” of neutrality with its demons, Persona’s personas are designed with a “personal interpretation” that is intended to be reflective of the individual summoning them. Kaneko touches on this difference: “For example, [the design of] Kali follows mythology in the Shin Megami Tensei series, but in Persona 1 I had to redraw features of her costume to prioritize her image.” [5] Particularly in Persona 2, Kaneko’s persona designs have a distinct influence of fashion and haute couture. They no longer resembled gods and demons of traditional art, but more of costumes from a play or runway.

I think this is about SEX
Persona 2's Rhadamanthys (left) was inspired by a costume from the George Michael video Too Funky
Evidence suggests that Atlus’ experiment of audience outreach was successful, by the company’s modest standards. In Japan, Persona moved 391,556 units, [6] Persona 2: Innocent Sin reached 274,798 lifetime, [7] and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment sold 200,103. [8] Persona’s more grounded settings and strong characters surely helped it win over players who wouldn't otherwise be interested in apocalyptic doom and gloom.

From Hanged Man to Death

A new era would await Atlus on the PlayStation 2. After focusing on spinoff titles for nearly a decade, Atlus returned its sights to the SMT main series in 2003 with Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. A true paradigm shift, Nocturne brought the series’ presentation and gameplay into the 21st century and gave Atlus an engine framework from which to iterate further PS2 titles. Nocturne sold 245,520 copies in Japan [9]; its expanded re-release, SMTIII: Nocturne Maniacs, sold 77,791. [10] However, Cozy Okada, who, beyond his creative roles, was one of Atlus’ founders, departed the company in late 2003. Why he left is unknown, though it possibly had to do with the failure of the half-baked Shin Megami Tensei: NINE, the ambitious (read: expensive) Nocturne not meeting sales projections, or other internal strife that will never be made public. Okada subsequently formed an independent studio, Gaia, which developed two SMT clones before shuttering in 2010. [11]

For Atlus, the three years after Okada’s departure would turn out to be a transitional period. 2004 would see the SMT mainline series' first international release when SMTIII was released in North America in October of that year, under the name Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. 2004 would also see another major release in Japan, the Tadashi Satomi-penned Digital Devil Saga duology, with its second half releasing in 2005; both would be released in North America in 2005, the beginning of a consistent trend for Atlus USA's localization process. However, even though Digital Devil Saga was the most Final Fantasy-like Megami Tensei product yet, evident in its colorful cast and straightforward character-based progression trees, its sales disappointed. Year-end sales in Japan for 2004 peg Digital Devil Saga at a modest 153,421 [10]; only 90,812 [12] returned for Digital Devil Saga 2 in 2005. The 2006 revival of the Devil Summoner series, Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army, only managed 91,008. [13]

Amid these lagging sales, 2006 also saw the Japanese release of Persona 3, a game that remixed ideas and assets from Nocturne and previous Persona titles to different aims, under the auspices of the younger Atlus staff. Names like director Katsura Hashino, designer Shigenori Soejima, and composer Shoji Meguro would be the new creative leads. The members of the "old guard" like Tadashi Satomi would disappear into the ether that claimed Cozy Okada, while Kaneko himself elected not to have direct involvement in this new project:
Kaneko: I wanted to let the newer, younger staff grow and gain experience. I tried not to, you know, push my own view or anything on Persona. That's because there's the sort of fan that likes the dark, colder atmosphere of the core [Shin Megami Tensei] series--

Persona's a lot lighter.

Kaneko: Yes, exactly. And that's where I want Persona to be...for a wider audience to appreciate Megami Tensei. It's like a separate branch. I'd like to make it more distinguished by having someone other than myself working on it. [14]

Who would you want to share a beer with?
The fresh faces: from left, Katsura Hashino, Shigenori Soejima, Shoji Meguro
Persona 3 was a watershed moment for the company and the franchise, with sales of around 210,319 for the year. [13] While that's less than what Nocturne or the original Persona sold, this new generation of Persona was only getting started; Persona 4, released two years later in 2008, sold 294,214, [15] and truly ignited the Persona phenomenon.  Effectively going back to the Megami Tensei drawing board with a fresh perspective, Persona 3's and Persona 4's departures from other games in the franchise and keen insight on contemporary trends in Japanese gaming were at the root of their successes. So what were the innovations that catapulted P3 and P4 to a level of recognition the other games of the franchise could not reach?

1. Primary Focus on Characters and Relationships. Primacy of character interaction was certainly nothing new to RPGs or the Persona series, but Personas 3&4 introduced a significant innovation: Social Links. Though the crux of Social Links, relationship vignettes between the protagonist and other characters, is undeniably similar to preceding concepts like the Tales series’ skits or aspects of PC dating simulators, P3&4’s vital development was to quantify a relationship into levels. These levels, or “S. Link Ranks,” offer incrementally rising experience bonuses for persona fusion and thus expedite the battle and dungeon-crawling process, so increasing S. Link Ranks as high as possible (up to a max of Rank 10) becomes a priority for the player. However, most of their content is separate from the main storyline: "the Social Links the Hero establishes with people are a reflection of that [protagonist's] personal values and philosophy, and do not necessarily hold any particular meaning over the rest of the game." [16] What was once character growth available in other RPGs only through specific sidequests was now integrally tied to a positive feedback loop that could only benefit the player, except in the rare case of an easily mended relationship reversal.

Character relationships affect P3&4's major gameplay systems
An extra aspect of Social Links is the ability to romance classmates. A reward for successfully completing a Social Link sequence with peers of the opposite sex, these romances have almost zero impact elsewhere in the storyline but have added significantly to the allure of P3&4, particularly in overseas markets where such features are uncommon on console games. In an anecdote, director Hashino notes how during early development of Persona 3, a menu-based, visually minimal Social Link simulation still managed to enrapture staff members with this possibility:  "One of the most unusual things I heard about from the staff when gathering their thoughts about this simulator was how fun it suddenly was once a character became your lover! Even with no visuals to go along with the Social Link and nothing but dialog boxes to work off of, somehow that allure you feel around the opposite sex as a young adult like in the game still somehow came through! As a result of all that, this simulator was indispensable to us as we were working on the feel of the calendar system and it somehow made Social Links with the girls in the game even more satisfying than we originally envisioned." [17] Considering their myriad intrinsic rewards, it's no surprise that Social Links have become one of modern Persona’s most popular features.

The way P3&4 present their S. Links and story sequences—static camera angles, large portraits and text boxes, and character models that puppet dialogue cues—is a considerable step back from the dynamic, cinematic cutscenes of Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, essentially resembling PlayStation-era RPGs. While this presentation style is flexible, it also runs the risk of cutscenes being interminable or containing repetitious dialogue, and certainly neither P3 nor P4 is immune from either. But considering the games’ length and their abundance of dialogue, it’s a pragmatic approach that doesn’t eat up budget that can be expended elsewhere, such as the animated cutscenes interspersed rarely throughout both games. And, at least in Japan, the preponderance of visual novels and their aesthetic influence on many modern RPGs means that the intended audience has a built-in acceptance of this style.

Nocturne's cinematics were impressive, but to replicate the same effect with P3&4's copious interactions would have been unfeasible
Despite a greater focus on dialogue and characters than either the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series or previous Persona games, P3&4 do not possess plots anywhere near the density of the Persona 2 duology and are instead a better match for the comparatively straightforward, though not necessarily simple, initial Persona title. This is not necessarily a weakness and instead may be an inevitable effect of how P3&4 are structured, unfolding day by day and never without your posse of friends to discuss important events in detail. But even without overwhelming complexity, both games possess strong central themes and twisting turns such as deducing the identity of Persona 4’s murderer. 

2. An Entertaining Tone. Persona has never been as serious in tone as the main SMT series, but P3&4 are seemingly cognizant of their own fiction, with tonal shifts that swing from absurd to serious over short periods. Even though both games feature supernatural elements pecking away at the fringes of the real world, these extreme circumstances do not preclude fun trips to hot springs, or the male characters trying to peer at girls on the beach after one experienced personal trauma the night before. Mascot characters like Teddie, who try to inject most moments with humor, would seem out-of-place in Shin Megami Tensei, but are easily accepted within the timbre of Persona. Above all, it's apparent that modern Persona knows its target audience just wants to have fun: "An important characteristic of the Persona series is that it’s a 'young-adult fiction' work." [18]

3. New Art Style. With Kaneko bowing out of the Persona series, the torch of art designer was passed onto Shigenori Soejima, who, up until Persona 3, was most notable for adapting Kaneko’s art into character portraits for the previous Persona and Devil Summoner games. "Naturally, [Kaneko] had a large influence on me, since I was his assistant for a long time. So when I approached the designs [in P3&4], I thought I didn't need to consciously emulate his style, and if I explored what my own strengths were instead, I could come up with something new." [19] Even if the approach was his own, Soejima’s persona designs are nonetheless a close match for the style and rules Kaneko set for himself with Personas 1 and 2; his human characters, though less distinct from industry standards compared to Kaneko’s, still possessed the series' fashionable qualities.
George-kun's gettin' upset!
Mimetic: How many times have you seen the Persona AOA cut-in iterated upon with characters from other franchises?
In addition, Persona 3 began a trend of utilizing theme colors to paint mood or tone into the menu aesthetics and overall visual design. "When I work on a title, its theme color is very important to me. I think when a person remembers things unconsciously, what leaves the strongest impression isn't words or shape, but color. P3's theme color, blue, symbolizes adolescence; P4's yellow is the color of happiness. Both meanings are tied to Japanese culture, so it might be hard for western audiences to understand." [19] The sleek style resulting from bold colors has become characteristic of Persona.

4. Use of Vocal Music. Like Soejima, composer Shoji Meguro joined Atlus in the mid-90s as they were developing their audience expanding games like Devil Summoner and Persona. In his own words, he felt constricted by the technical limitations set by console hardware in reproducing his music: "In Digital Devil Saga, we could use streaming to play about half the songs. And in P3 and Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army, all the songs were streamed. That was the point at which I was finally able to express my music without making any compromises, and I felt that I made it to the starting line." [19] Once the PlayStation 2 and DVD format permitted CD-quality music in needed amounts, he was free to compose how he wanted. In Persona 3 (and continuing since), this resulted in numerous vocal tracks, used in a variety of situations throughout the game.

Meguro shredding at a Persona concert
While vocal music is nothing new to video games—proper songs have been heard in games since CD-ROMs emerged as a storage medium, usually in opening movies or the ending credits—what was different in P3&4 was where it was heard. Whether in battle, cruising the town, or hanging out after school, Meguro’s typically Japanese-pop-infused tracks broke the mold of the standard orchestral scores heard in other RPGs. And since these games are so long, chances are the lyrics, unintelligible “Engrish” as they may be, will get stuck in your head whether you like it or not. It seems to have paid off for Meguro and Atlus, as frequent P3&4 soundtrack releases and remixes have become the norm, not to mention the yearly live Persona concerts headlined by Meguro himself and played in established venues like Tokyo’s Budokan.

5. Economy of Authentic Settings. While Personas 1 and 2 starred high school students, not a lot of time was actually spent in high schools or doing high schooler things. Once the setting was established, the young heroes were swept up into the story’s events like so many other stoic protagonists seen in Japanese RPGs. But in Personas 3&4, high school is the central location. Nearly every day of the calendar defaults to school-based activities like hearing rumors on the way to school, listening to short blurbs from teachers, encountering friends between classes, or taking tests. It’s also a hub for Social Link interactions, some of which are explicitly tied to the school, like those involving school clubs and extracurricular activities. Outside of the school life, a handful of other areas like malls or shrines add to the authenticity of the Japanese setting while providing more avenues for Social Links. According to Hashino, the limited number of locations meant that "the cost of creating the environment was lower than the standard in RPG development, allowing us to expand other portions of the game. And staying in the same location in the perfect way to allow the players to sympathize with the daily life that passes in the game." [19]

The relative few, compact locations available are nonetheless authentically detailed
But when they do appear in P1&2, high schools are little more than traditional RPG dungeons with a modern coat of paint; it was merely novel at that time to navigate mazes intended to be something other than the customary moldy crypts or haunted castles. And though P1&2 staged their conflicts in varied locations like hospitals and record stores, P3&4 simplified this by each having a singular, clearly delineated “shadow world” where the actual battles and persona mechanics finally come into play. While they are relatively simple-looking—each shadow world has mostly procedurally generated layouts with basic tileset patterns—both Persona 3’s Tartarus and Persona 4’s Midnight Channel tie into the thematics of their respective games. Tartarus is literally even a nightmare version of P3’s school, makes it apparent that, even if separated by gameplay mechanics or story delineations, high school remains the axis mundi of the modern Persona experience.

6. Time Management and Life Simulation. Nearly all RPGs, Shin Megami Tensei and previous Persona games included, are strictly paced via “event flags,” which are simple, usually time-unconstrained triggers that progress the game, like talking to a specific NPC or defeating a boss. Personas 3&4 would mostly turn this convention on its head with the introduction of a time management system where the player, living vicariously through the protagonist, experiences life one day at a time over the course of nearly a year. In the initial plan for Persona 3, its scenario involved living through all three standard years of Japanese high school, but was trimmed down to one for players’ considerations. [17] The calendar year introduces a key element of life simulation, as during the year responsibilities (i.e., school, plot demands) must be juggled daily with the joys of free time (Social Links). This time/calendar system Hashino calls along with Social Links “some of the most drastic gameplay changes we’ve ever implemented.” [17]

The impetus for this time system was to “replicate through gameplay the sensation of having a day-to-day life, one that includes actual weekdays and weekends. The sense of fun you get over the course of a single week can change depending on what sorts of plans you make and how your goals are coming along. We figured that if players could get a taste of that sort of sensation through a game that we’d be on to something enjoyable and that’s how the calendar system came to be.” [17] The innovation of this system compared to other RPGs is that progress, as measured by the advancing calendar, is always being made.  

Social Links are designed to improve battle efficiency, which then improves time management efficiency, which then improves Social Link management, which then...
Unfortunately, the calendar is not completely open-ended, as at prescribed times the plots of both games will dictate that event flag bosses and dungeons be completed by a certain day to bypass sometimes arbitrary gating; however, the deadlines are usually made clear. But it’s apparent that modern Persona treats its combat underbelly as “work,” opposed to the “play” inherent in Social Links, when it is most rewarding in terms of time management to spend minimal time in dungeons (or completing them in one fell swoop), leaving the maximum time for the life simulation aspects of the socially central “real world.” Proper time management means an increased quality of life for both player and protagonist.

7. Streamlining of Legacy Systems. For Personas 3&4, nothing was sacred; if vestigial elements from Shin Megami Tensei or previous Persona games did not support their collective ambitions, they would either be refitted or thrown out completely.

Examples of modified concepts include the Press Turn system and fusion. Nocturne’s innovative Press Turn system provided a model of benefiting battle gameplay through weakness exploitation for almost all Megami Tensei games that followed, and in P3&4 it was stripped down to the bare essentials. Whereas Nocturne doled out extra turns for keen offense or forfeited enemy turns for impenetrable defense, P3&4’s variant shunned the extra turns and defensive benefits for an offensive-oriented style of play with “All-Out Attacks,” powerful unblockable attacks that are a reward for hitting all weaknesses of the enemy party.
Shadows represent little more than their tarot designation
Previously important elements that were removed in Personas 3&4 include demons as battle antagonists and their related conversation systems. Kaneko-designed demons would now exclusively play the role of the protagonist’s personas, introducing Soejima’s “Shadows” to the limelight. These Shadows serve exclusively as one-dimensional “enemies” in the usual RPG sense; without conversation as an alternate means of battle resolution, the Shadows’ entire purpose is to be defeated—only the handful of boss Shadows are afforded any plot focus.
The result is... Cu Chulainn :D
Persona cards are gained at regular intervals, encouraging frequent fusion
And though conversation was the primary method of gaining fusion materials in P1&2, the complications and randomness of it were replaced by P3&4’s straightforward “Shuffle Time” where personas, among other bonuses, could be easily gained after battles by playing relatively simple timing or memory games. Subsequently, adoption of Nocturne’s modern SMT fusion for P3&4’s personas was thus streamlining itself. While the original releases of P3&4 retained Nocturne’s random skill inheritances, Social Link experience bonuses ensured that personas could level up instantaneously and thus gain more desirable skills much faster. And with re-releases like Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden, manually selected skills or skill cards would be transferrable in fusion, allowing the easiest customization yet seen in the series.


As a sum of these reworked parts, the new face of Persona has become an unprecedented success for Atlus, both in Japan and abroad. This success was not just in sales but also in total brand awareness, moving Persona out of the niche that Shin Megami Tensei had been living in for more than a decade. The influence of Persona 3 and Persona 4 has without a doubt changed the playing field of modern Japanese RPGs, a claim easily substantiated by the number of imitators left in their wake. Whether or not Persona was truly at the forefront, trending elements in Japanese RPGs released since include high school or academy settings (Valkyria Chronicles 2, Final Fantasy Type-0), vocal music in gameplay contexts (Final Fantasy XIII-2, NieR), and Social Like-style relationship quantification (Conception). Other games, like Mind Zero, are total ripoffs.

Games like Conception II (left) and Mind Zero are clear imitators of Persona's style
The triumph of Personas 3&4 is even more remarkable when you consider the context and climate of their releases. For Persona 4 in particular, it became a breakout hit despite it being a PlayStation 2 game released in 2008, then already years into the subsequent console generation. However, the continued popularity of the series in the 2010s has been especially striking. In Japan, this has been the decade of burgeoning mobile development, whose overwhelming share of the market has cannibalized many landmark developers, like Irem or even Konami (whose revenue mostly comes from non-gaming sectors). In America, this was a time of growing suspicion or distaste for Japanese games, particularly RPGs, with the middling reception of 2010’s Final Fantasy XIII perceived as proof of a genre's obsolescence. But despite these circumstances, Persona has only blossomed in Japan and P3&4 proved to be critical darlings in the American press.

So why could Persona breakthrough to mainstream attention while Shin Megami Tensei could not? Besides the progressive changes listed above, it's mainly a matter of tone and focus. From SMT's bleak settings to its meticulous attention to mythological details, it's pretty much the opposite of Persona’s carefree optimism, despite the series’ shared assets. Where this is most obvious is in each series' contrasting approach to party members: SMT features an interchangeable roster of strange "monsters" that don't feature any character beyond the archetypal personality they're allotted, while Persona has a more standard cast of friends and fellows who stay and grow along with the protagonist. It should go without saying that a character defined by a love of steak or a father complex is going to be more generally palatable than a stoic god so obscure it might not even have a Wikipedia page. The "human element" is important in order to resonate with an audience, and it's something that's simply stronger in Persona than SMT.

She loves steak; it...groans
Between its down-to-earth characters and relationships, being relatable is at the core of Persona’s popularity, which has approached levels of comparison with other RPG goliaths. It’s not uncommon for Persona 3, especially, to be compared to Final Fantasy VII, not because it approached that game’s multi-million sales but for introducing so many players to the Megami Tensei series who otherwise overlooked Nocturne or Digital Devil Saga. But this comparison to Final Fantasy is salient; as one of Persona’s founding principles was to reach a larger audience, P3&4 in particular were not afraid to lean on the orthodox approaches that SMT opposed. Knowing how important the essence of “character” is to Persona, perhaps the better analogues are Persona 3 to Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 to Final Fantasy VII. Consider the following comparisons:

  • In Persona 3/Final Fantasy VI, you are thrust among a ragtag team, one a carefree young lad whose main arc is defined by the death of his bedridden love interest (Junpei/Locke), a young woman with daddy issues (Yukari/Terra), a cold young woman of authority who is eventually encumbered with great responsibility (Mitsuru/Celes), a non-human who struggles to fit in with the others (Aigis/Terra), a bruiser of a lad with a brotherly relationship (Akihiko/Sabin), an animal (Koromaru/Mog), a little kid (Ken/Relm), and a guy who is in the party briefly and then dies (Leo/Shinjiro); this team opposes an insane megalomaniac (Ikutsuki/Kefka), even deities (Nyx Avatar/Warring Triad).
  • Persona 4/Final Fantasy VII feature a central villain (Adachi/Sephiroth) whose shadow you chase the whole game but turns out to be manipulated by a supernatural female force (Jenova/Izanami), a mascot character (Cait Sith/Teddie), a young woman martial artist with an inferiority complex (Chie/Tifa), a guy with a tough-as-nails exterior but a tender center (Kanji/Cid), an endlessly high-spirited lass (Rise/Aeris), and a few more lesser correspondences. 
Bless them, Moon!
For veteran players, P3's and P4's characters may seem stale and their emotional climaxes cliché
Of course, these similarities are incomplete and superficial. But they work on a general level as stock characters, archetypes, and clichés—basics of attributing personality in fiction. They are proven and familiar, and the way Persona uses them is key in creating varied casts that try to appeal to players’ multitudinous tastes. Says Hashino, "People can’t relate to something they’ve never seen before, so we actually put more effort into adding common characteristics — without overdoing it — than we did into differentiating the characters." [18] Soejima says about the casts of P4 that he "designed them so any type of player could find at least one favorite character. This tendency is especially strong in the design of the female characters...The protagonist, however, is the player's alter ego in the game, so I had a lot of trouble making his design appealing to everyone's tastes. " [19] Undeniably, Shin Megami Tensei’s human characters are also archetypes, but since they operate in less grounded situations with different aims, they end up being intentionally less colorful or personable.

The World

For these many reasons, the Persona series now possesses the same kind of impassioned fanbase that Final Fantasy held only a couple console generations ago. Whereas Final Fantasy’s various missteps over the past decade have entrenched an air of cynicism among its fanbase and the mainstream gaming audience it once attracted, Persona now reigns as probably the most genuinely liked Japanese RPG series of the 2010s, its ragtag parties scratching the persistent itch for a traditional, turn-based, character-driven RPG experience. Persona has won over hearts like mainline SMT could only dream of.

One looked better and sold better, but which one found near universal acclaim?
So if Persona is the new Final Fantasy and if, by Kaneko’s admission, Shin Megami Tensei exists to be the converse of trends, are the two series diametrically opposed to one another? Despite the fact that what’s made Persona into a hot property and what defines SMT are apples and oranges, this isn’t necessarily true. Persona and SMT live as two sides of a coin; their strange symbiotic relationship works because each has a discrete identity. While you could make a post-apocalyptic Persona or a SMT with life sim mechanics or chatty mascot characters, it would betray the appeal and individuality of both series. The obvious fact is that Persona’s fresher outlook and casts of human characters will always garner more attention than the dourer SMT, particularly from the key demographic of younger players. But for veteran RPG players who may find modern Persona’s charms to be less unique, having encountered similar characters in Final Fantasy or elsewhere, Shin Megami Tensei’s role as an alternate choice from the norm remains as important as ever. 

That said, Persona has subsumed the main series not just in popularity but in perception. Some effects of this are natural, such as people thinking that Kaneko’s original demon designs originated from P3&4, the only games in the series they've played. Then there are instances where the main series is simply perceived as the inferior product. After all, the cost of being niche is lower sales and lower budget; this is no problem for most fans because Kaneko's distinct art style shines through even the most egregious asset reuse, but it may still seem "cheap" or outright unappealing to the many.

This faces Shin Megami Tensei with a sobering reality: while remaining one of Atlus' most valuable assets, that also means it is merely a company's intellectual property and must perform adequately. Too important for Atlus to shelve entirely, yet facing dwindling returns compared to the Persona behemoth, something of Shin Megami Tensei had to give. Unfortunately, the core aspects of SMT that distinguish itself from other games—myth, art style, obtuse mechanics, alignment characterization—also lack broad appeal and could be considered expendable in appealing to younger and wider markets. Shin Megami Tensei's identity as an artwork is unmistakable, but art is trumped by its role as a consumer product. Could the series transcend its niche without compromising its distinct identity?

In 2013, this question would receive its answer: Shin Megami Tensei IV

Next: False Reincarnation
[1] Dengeki Online. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne interview.
[2] (archived on Megatengaku) Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.
[3] A Roundtable Interview with Cozy Okada, Tadashi Satomi, and Kazuma Kaneko.
[4] Persona 2: Eternal Punishment Bonus Disc. Kazuma Kaneko and Cozy Okada Interview.
[5] Kazuma Kaneko Works III. Interview
[16] Persona 3 Official Design Works. Interview with Creators About Death and Ties.
[17] Creator Works: December 20, 2007, Katsura Hashino, Volume 24.
[18] (archived on Megatengaku) Persona 4 Afterthoughts.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent articles, thanks for taking the time to write them.