Having logged more hours into Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, I notice that my opinion on the story and themes have made a weird double-movement. (some vague spoilers below)
When things started out I felt that the surreal, urban fantasy setting was refreshing, and, given that this game is renowned for doing things differently than other JRPGs, was interested in seeing where the plot would develop. But as time went on, I noticed that the more exotic stuff was all surface level, and that when you scratch it away you’re left with a pretty standard premise : you’re a teenager destined to shape the world on an epic quest to discover what that means. ‘yer a wizard, Harry etc.
Like I mentioned previously, the game is set in a post-apocalyptic world where various factions duke it out for the right to shape the new world according to their own philosophy. The player’s choices during the game ultimately result in an alignment with one particular philosophy. But the characterization is quite thin, with the cast mostly reduced to ciphers for the various philosophies that they stand for. As a result, everyone kinda starts to feel like a jerk. The Brothers Karamazov this ain’t.
Granted, Nocturne, unlike other SMT titles like Digital Devil Saga, isn’t meant to be a character driven narrative. Still, it was a tad disappointing to find its heart a little bit prosaic.
Then I started thinking.
In a lot of stories which begin with, or in the immediate aftermath of, some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, what usually emerges is a study of human nature in a limit situation: with civilization gone, what will people do? What will humanity show itself as, lacking any facade to hide behind? Will good or evil ultimately triumph?
Nocturne bypasses the practical aspect of this: even though the world has just ended, a new civilization has seemingly asserted itself overnight. On par with the game’s dreamlike, surreal setting, this is never given any explanation.
Instead what it does is remove metaphysical limits: the humans in this world, if they have the will to do so, have the possibility of shaping the new reality in their own image; they’re no longer any objective constraints beyond that of the rules for being victor. The question then is what sort of world is their “perfect world”? What would people dream up if left to their own devices, and what would they be willing to do to obtain it?
In that respect, it reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi film, Stalker, where three men go on a pilgrimage to a holy site that will grant what they truly desire.
None of the philosophies on display in Nocturne are appealing, and everyone winds up doing horrible things in their bid to get what they want, so it’s a pretty grim picture of humanity.
But there’s a truth in this: all utopian ideologies inevitably get blood on their hands. Humans are warped and limited, because of original sin (or whatever other explanation you may prefer), and attempting to enforce a “perfect world” in this state has always had horrifying results. Even if, indeed, we were given the godlike ability to shape our own paradise, we would stand a good chance of making it into a personal hell – the damned, after all, get exactly what they want.
There’s some meat on these bones.