There is no video game franchise as labyrinthine in its network of main titles and spinoffs as Atlus’ RPG series Megami Tensei. Adapted from a series of popular science fiction novels in the 1980s, the original games focused on dungeon crawling and turn-based combat, featuring a cyberpunk narrative involving demons summoned through personal computers in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Following a decade of side-games and experiments, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (2003/2004) was a conscious consolidation and revision of the main series’ identity up to that point, a new defining standard for a franchise that had grown increasingly fragmented throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. While responding to the textual and mechanical legacy of the games that preceded it, Nocturne achieves elegance, aesthetic cohesion and fractal complexity in systems, environmental and visual design, and navigates the tension between narrative and gameplay in the service of thematic richness. By revising the incomplete world-making ideology of past titles and even its own premise, Nocturne suggests a new way of thinking about freedom and change.
Nocturne’s international success, alongside that of the main series as a whole, has since been eclipsed by the later entries in the spinoff Persona series, but it remains a singularly daring work of uncompromising artistic independence, ambition and design prowess. In light of the recent, massively successful Western release of Persona 5 Royal and the Steam port of Persona 4 Golden, as well as the prospect of Shin Megami Tensei V on the horizon, it’s worth revisiting Nocturne, the high water mark not only of the Megami Tensei series but possibly of the RPG genre as a whole.
It’s only appropriate to begin at the end. Main series Megami Tensei games generally involve multiple endings reached by aligning with the ideological positions represented by opposing gods and demons, remaking the world in their image. While players may choose which ending to pursue, one of them generally achieves consensus as the “true” or “canonical” ending of each game. Shin Megami Tensei’s canonical neutral ending elects for “balance” between a fascistic heavenly rule of law and the formless freedom of chaos, while Shin Megami Tensei II’s canonical chaos ending marks the earthly liberation of those oppressed by God. Nocturne’s “True Demon Ending,” which was significantly omitted in the original 2003 release, abandons the linear alignment scale entirely, rejects either siding with one ideological faction (“Reason”) or another, or landing “somewhere in between,” and grasps what unites them all as its true object. It does so with the intention to break through a cyclical impasse, the endless reincarnation of worlds by the Great Will, in order to transform and gain control of the terms of the world’s constitution which the previous games take as given.
Ironically, the character who achieves this is denied his own Reason, as a former human hybridized into a “demi-fiend” by Lucifer at the beginning of the game. His role is ostensibly to harness his newfound demonic strength and human freedom of choice in order to align with one of the Reasons that emerges after Tokyo is apocalyptically transformed into the Vortex World, an egg-like inner sphere, within which the power struggle for the future reincarnated world plays out among the various surviving human characters. The Demi-fiend initially appears as a traditional nameless protagonist onto which the player projects as a vector for roleplay, but it becomes apparent as the game progresses that his function is more complex.
Rather than embodying the player’s desired role in the game world as an initially empty avatar imbued with characteristics, thoughts and emotions through in-game choices, or existing as a predefined fictional character whose role the player is encouraged to assume, the Demi-fiend is an enduringly empty protagonist without interiority who embodies the structure of the game-world itself. Nothing he can possibly do can be considered out of character, because in the narrative fiction he himself is an external actor, a player like the player herself. In working through the game, he roleplays as the world. This is not a trait unique to Nocturne, but few games render it so clearly through both narrative and gameplay.
Nocturne is a turn-based rather than real-time game, and the player is consequently encouraged to view the game world externally as a mechanistic structure to manipulate, a clockwork complex of systems to navigate and rules and strategies to remember and execute, rather than as an immersively realistic environment in which the player exercises her free will. Features such as the moon cycles which shift based on step count, the intricate, maze-like level design, the demon negotiation and fusion mechanics, and the “press turn” battle system, in which the player exploits elemental weaknesses to string together long sequences of actions, reinforce this distanced, tactical approach to gameplay. By extension, the same systems-conscious alienation characterizes the Demi-fiend’s “worldview,” and it ultimately informs the thematic significance of the game’s true ending.
This by no means implies that there is no interplay between the real world and the game world, however. On the contrary, one of the primary purposes of this antirealist estrangement is to heighten its meaningful sense of place. As John D. Moore argues in a 2017 conference paper, Nocturne consciously defamiliarizes and recontextualizes well-known, culturally, historically and politically significant locations in Tokyo as strikingly desolate digital environments, encouraging players to experience them anew and stimulating critical reflection on the real-life “diagrams of power” encoded within them.
Visual style plays an enormous role in Nocturne — the game is defined by the dominant influence of character artist, scenario and creative director Kazuma Kaneko. Unlike most previous Atlus titles, where initial designs were freely interpreted through pixel art, technicians developed and rendered Kaneko’s austere, heavily stylized designs for Nocturne as three-dimensional cel-shaded models. The effect is both cold and luminous, a world neither welcoming nor unwelcoming but regally indifferent to the player.
This sense of inhuman indifference amplifies the high-risk insecurity of Nocturne’s notoriously punishing and dynamic turn-based combat where even ordinary random encounters are capable of killing the protagonist, success almost always hinges on careful strategy, battles can quickly reverse course, and mistakes are often fatal. The classic RPG strategy of grinding for experience is rarely effective after the opening stretch of the game, and there is little the player can do to ensure her safety, even with a cautious playstyle. The dungeons and labyrinths that make up the bulk of Nocturne are designed to emphasize this as well, full of traps, risky damage tiles, disorienting teleportation points and the like, and the location-specific save and warp system imbues progression with a horror game-like tension, challenging the player to survive from one checkpoint to the next.
Playing Depressing Games Alone in Your Room
It’s worth wondering what the point of all this is. Turn-based RPGs are sometimes derided as shallow, cynical Skinner boxes, more about the hollow and manipulative pleasure of “watching the numbers go up” than the apparently self-evident (and self-evidently laudable) skill required for other genres like shooters or action games. Success in Nocturne involves acquiring comprehensive situational knowledge of the game’s systems and areas, the ability to construct viable strategies and the capacity to make correct decisions in executing them. By all accounts it is a “deep” RPG, but it has nonetheless garnered a reputation for fickle randomness, arbitrarily inflated difficulty and bloated, marathon length. Furthermore, even if Nocturne was easier, shorter or less frustrating, would that justify it as a work? Why do games like this exist in the first place?
RPG video games have their roots in tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, inherently social experiences where pleasure is derived from the interpersonal and creative work of the participants, facilitated and shaped by the designs of the dungeon master and her guidebook. Single player RPG video games, on the other hand, strip out the social dimension entirely, generally simulating it through prewritten NPCs or party members, and possibly augmenting it with more traditionally video game-y features like real-time combat. If we accept that they serve a function other than providing gamers without the friends, imagination or initiative the opportunity to play prefabricated tabletop games with visuals, then somewhere along the way RPG video games must have developed an independent aesthetic system.
In other words, the mostly functional aspects of multiplayer tabletop games — navigating overworlds and dungeons, executing turn-based combat strategies, talking to NPCs, selecting skills from menus, even grinding — became valued objects of solitary pleasure when transplanted into single-player video games like Wizardry and Dragon Quest in the 1980s. Earlier this year, a quote by former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi at the turn of the millennium circulated through social media, in which Yamauchi claimed that the Sony PlayStation was more successful than the Nintendo 64 because gamers “[like] to be alone in their rooms and play depressing games.” He was unquestionably referring to single-player, turn-based RPGs, most notably the enormously popular Final Fantasy VII.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is the most “depressing game to play alone in your room” ever made. It lacks even the human party members present in previous Megami Tensei titles as simulated vestiges of normal sociality. The few human non-player characters in the game are barely so, weirdly opaque figures with mask-like faces and deeply unrelatable aims, and each fuses with a demon before their inevitable defeat. The protagonist himself isn’t even fully human, and in the game’s true ending he abandons what remains of his humanity entirely. The characters who most resemble ordinary humans are the long-suffering Manikin, unsalvageably doomed, synthetic automatons incapable of their own Reason, whom the game regards with narrative disdain (expressed through casual homophobia unfortunately characteristic of many Atlus titles) despite or because of their sympathetic predicament. The closest relationships the Demi-fiend forms are with the demons he recruits and fuses into one another, and with Lucifer, his eventual ally and final in-game opponent, who does not speak to him directly until the very end.
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The Apotheosis of the RPG
All of this is to say that Nocturne is notable both for its unusually precise narrative self-consciousness about the lonely, even meaningless character inherent to its genre, and for its commitment to a fully-integrated, formally unified approach to design that amplifies it. It is tempting to view Nocturne as a kind of death knell or hermetic logical conclusion for RPGs. It arrived at the tail end of the genre’s golden age at a moment of peak market saturation that would precipitate a drastic sea change in both the video game industry and player tastes, where single player RPGs diffused into popular action games and MMORPGs or retreated into a niche fan concern. But Nocturne remains a deeply beautiful, compelling work of art, and far from an esoteric dead end, it still has something generative and important to offer us today.
Most RPGs are designed to give the player a sense of personal attachment to characters and worlds, encouraging them to wander off the beaten path, experiment with different strategies and imagine themselves taking part in the adventure through simulated social experiences and branching narrative paths. Speedruns replace exploratory free play and expressive customization with rigorous, goal-oriented, ritual system optimization. Nocturne speedruns offer a compelling model for what is both beautiful and philosophically, even politically fertile about its structure.
In The Dash — The Other Side of Absolute Knowing, Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda write that,
“Whenever there is a conflict between competing particular claims to the universal, mediation […] is a matter of sharpening the antagonism to the point where the formal framework of the conflict shatters. This introduces a fundamental asymmetry into what would otherwise be a paralyzing impasse.
One cannot choose — and therefore one cannot but choose, and furthermore there is only one choice possible. In the face of an impossible decision (and every true decision is impossible) one must opt for one side only — namely, the side that forces us to completely change the parameters of the original decision.”
There is no middle way to the absolute, and no possible compromise on its terms, but the decision between one particular path or another is necessarily impossible, and this does not absolve us of the imperative to choose. Nocturne‘s hard mode true ending speedruns are long, grueling affairs, but what they clarify by abandoning roleplay and embracing optimization is that what at first appears to be a personally expressive, socially meaningful choice, to side with one pre-given ideology or another, is not really a choice at all. By comprehensively routing the meaningless mechanical structure of the non-choice to its limit, the formal framework of the conflict shatters and transforms, and we come to the true choice, which is the only choice; not only to change the world, but to change how it changes, and so to gain control over what controls us and build a collective freedom that is not already given. Crucially, the credits roll before its consequences play out, because this choice takes place beyond the game — it is the choice art presents to us in the real world.