Sam Hatting: “Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne and Nietzsche’s Übermensch”

Sam Hatting. “Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne and Nietzsche’s Übermensch”. Essay, March 2013.


Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne for the Playstation 2 has been described as one of the more difficult games of the Shin Megami Tensei game franchise, and remains one of the most difficult games I have ever played. The protagonist faces an unforgiving world that tries to destroy him at every turn, and he must persevere through its trials alone. The only saving grace is the ability to recruit demons to help him in his quest, so long as he is powerful enough to control them to begin with. In the end, he has the opportunity to create a new world of his own design, or end the cycle of the world’s rebirth altogether. The game goes from hard to frustrating within the first 15 hours of gameplay, and as players progress through the 70-hour game, many continually ask themselves if all of the effort is actually worth it. This is because the game’s difficulty and underlying themes are representative of Nietzsche’s Übermensch theory introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which man must be driven to overcome all obstacles in order to ascend to the status of Übermensch, or Overman.

The Shin Megami Tensei–hereafter referred to as Megaten–series has gained a cult following for its focus on symbolism and philosophy. “Megaten games are ‘good for your mind’, and that is true: they expose you to a lot of mythology and inspire you to think more widely about the symbolism that underpins even modern (or ‘post-modern’ or ‘integral’ depending on who you ask) society” (bajan13k). Each game features a combination of different sources of inspiration ranging anywhere from ancient writings to pop culture, and from this unique culmination of ideas comes a game with a variety of messages that are left up to the player’s interpretation.

Nocturne’s protagonist, a high school student, witnesses the destruction of the world before watching a strange boy drop a maggot into his eye socket, passing out, and waking up to find that he has been turned into a half-demon—a Demifiend. His two friends are now nowhere to be found, though it is clear that they also survived this strange apocalypse referred to as the Conception. From here on, the game becomes continually disheartening, especially to players unfamiliar with the game mechanics of the Megaten series. Unable to find his friends or someone who can provide him with some sort of explanation, Demifiend wanders the vast overworld looking for other characters. Dungeon after dungeon, he is met with continual disappointment as the people he called friends slip away from him and the people who promised him answers reveal their weakness and incompetence. To Nietzsche, such a situation is to be expected if one relies on the values of others alone. “The rise to the ubermensch is a process where one discovers the impediment of conventionalism to his own ability to achieve personal greatness… The individual reaches his potential when he breaks away from convention and asserts his own personal dominance over prior values and morality” (Wukasch).

The overworld of the game—an inverted sphere called the Vortex World—is vast and desolate, the dungeons are headache inducing, the boss battles are ridiculous, and save points are few and far between. The difficulties I faced only scratch the surface of this game’s egregious trials. It features a Hard Mode with the descriptor, “A level of difficulty suitable for those seeking the thrill of death.”

Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra introduces philosophy and ideals that can serve as an explanation, rationalizing Nocturne’s trials and difficulty. In the beginning passages of the book, Zarathustra proclaims, “Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” Zarathustra speaks of overcoming all odds and rejecting the status quo to become a leader who is at peace with oneself. Fueled by desire, the Übermensch enacts his will to destroy, or create the world around him (Jinachitra). Dozens of hours in, the game finally reveals that Demifiend must strive toward a similar—and even more literal—goal: the creation of a new world to replace the desolate one that he now inhabits. The Conception and subsequent destruction of the world was part of a cycle of death and rebirth on all worlds throughout the universe.

Nietzsche wrote that life is an unending cycle with no beginning and no end, and only once one becomes unified with the cycle of creation and destruction can he ascend to a higher level of self-actualization, his existence and power living on after his death (Jinachitra). Kagutsuchi, the energy that flows through the Vortex World, can be gathered and formed into dogmas called Reasons, which are presented to the Japanese god Kagutsuchi in order to form a new world of the wielder’s desire. By defeating others and taking their Kagutsuchi, Demifiend has the opportunity to create one of four worlds—freedom, strength, silence, or the world as it was before the Conception. There exist other endings in which the world is not re-created, or the cycle is ended permanently as demons wage a final war against God (Megami Tensei Wikia).

Demifiend’s journey to create a new world can lead to different ideals and repercussions, depending on the player’s actions. Throughout the game’s story, there are questions that the player must answer according to the values they hold, or the ending they are aiming to obtain. This storytelling format allows for the player to have little influence over the other characters until the final stretch of the game, resulting in many more misfortunes that the player is rendered unable to stop. Demifiend’s former friends, Isamu and Chiaki, are soon corrupted by the Vortex World and through the game you are forced to oppose them constantly if you do not agree with their ideals. Zarathustra preaches that one seeking to become the Übermensch should only have friends to clash with in order to make themselves stronger (SparkNotes). A feeling of helplessness sets in as the player realizes that they will not receive support from anyone, and must forge a path themselves.

Nietzsche writes that there can be a self-defined Übermensch whose ideals differ from those of another Übermensch. An Übermensch is not “restricted by tradition nor bounded by convention but has independent values of his own” (Jinachitra), thus validating the Reasons, so long as they gain the power to create a new world based on the ideals of power that drive them. However, due to the dogmas of the Reasons themselves, Nietzsche would not be in support of some of them.

Chiaki’s Yosuga Reason, the path of strength, relies upon Darwinist principles of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. She comes to believe that only the strongest need live, and begins to destroy all she believes to be weaker than herself, causing the genocide of simpler mud beings called Manikins. Zarathustra, however, preaches that the Übermensch should use his strength to become a leader and role model for the weak, guiding them towards a better path than that which they were previously aware of.

Isamu’s Musubi Reason, the path of freedom, comes closer to the sentiments of the titular character of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, who lives happily in isolation in the wilderness for 10 years, far away from the influence of others and the mob of humanity that he decries. Musubi entails accepting the isolationist ideals that everyone should live independently of one another, with no need to rely on or interact with anyone else.

Hikawa’s Shijima Reason, the path of silence, is a dogma of equality and stillness. All beings live under God equally in collective peace. Stability and peace are reached, and the world carries on, unchanging. Nietzsche would reject such a path because of his belief that there is no fate worse than remaining a member of a mob of the state or the church. (SparkNotes)

The Neutral ending is a result of rejecting the above Reasons and forging a path alone. The player’s Reason becomes that of restoration of the old world, returning everything to the way it was, and everyone to the way they were. This goes against the Übermensch’s goal to improve and change the world by imposing new ideals upon it.

There are two endings that are arguably the closest representations of possible results on the path to the Übermensch: success and failure. Unfortunately, the ending I received on my first run of the game was the failure. This ending, referred to as the Demon ending, is a result of rejecting all other paths without the conviction of the Neutral ending. After defeating all forces in my path, including my friends, I presented Kagutsuchi with my power. However, he saw me as a demon without a cause or Reason, refused me the opportunity to create a new world, and cast me out into the wasteland of the Vortex World, alone. This too, is representative of the journey of the Übermensch in that Nietzsche rejects the idea that all men are created equal, stating that there are only some who are capable of becoming the Übermensch. The path I chose was not of the Übermensch because my dialogue options did not reflect that I had the determination and drive necessary to become the Übermensch. Though I gained power over others by defeating them in battle, I did not gain the power over self that is crucial to ascension.

This power comes from the singularity of one’s own ideals and the singular drive to achieve them, which arises in Nocturne in the form of the True Demon ending. It is the most difficult to obtain because it requires the player to complete 5 extra dungeons that become increasingly demanding and intricate, each with their own difficult bosses to defeat. At the end of these dungeons, Demifiend renounces his remaining humanity to become the commander of Lucifer’s army in a war against the Great Will, which is inferred to be God (MegamiTenseiWikia). Zarathustra proclaims that “God is dead,” a statement that has earned Nietzsche much infamy and criticism. However, Nietzsche meant that it was people who had stopped believing in God; that God has become dead because people no longer pay him tribute (Friedrich Nietzsche Part 1). The God featured in Megaten games is a tyrant referred to as YHVH, God’s Hebrew name. He is a ruthless figure with no empathy toward those who are not His followers. Throughout the series, siding with YHVH entails becoming inescapably subservient—a description of religion that Nietzsche would agree with. Zarathustra refers to humans as beings of flesh and blood that have no reason to give their attention to a life beyond the here and now, seeing each moment as an instance of a moment that will be repeated infinitely throughout the past and future (SparkNotes). In his eyes, selfishness and the lust to rule are human emotions that should be pursued, and the added difficulty of the True Demon ending only serves to better prove this point.

YHVH curses Demifiend’s fate after his allegiance to Lucifer, yet he presses forward to wage a war of his own conviction throughout eternity (Megami Tensei Wikia). In this way, he will continue to suffer as he has throughout the game, if not more so. Nietzsche champions accepting suffering as a part of life, and coming to terms with the fact that we cannot wish for happiness without expecting suffering alongside it. The other endings give Demifiend relief and pause, while this ending prolongs his suffering in the name of a lasting goal. Those who are willing to suffer through the difficulties of life and the players who are willing to suffer through the difficulties of this game therefore deserve to reap the enlightenment and power that the Übermensch status gives them, and receive the rush of euphoria that comes with the completion of a 70 hour game.

 Bibliography

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