Shin Megami Tensei IV (2013) is a Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) for the Nintendo 3DS developed by Atlus Co., Ltd. It is the 4th mainline installment of the Shin Megami Tensei series (SMT), in which you, the protagonist (named Flynn by default) apply to become a samurai for the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a kingdom in a medieval fantasy setting.
Unlike traditional depiction of religion (especially prominent monotheistic religions) god is not portrayed as entirely good or the devil as completely evil. Rather god and various angels represent the forces of Law striving for order, and Lucifer and the various demons from a variety of mythologies represent the forces of Chaos striving for freedom.
This is represented in the structure and hierarchy of both sides. For example, for the forces of Law, god is always at the top, below him are the archangels, and below them are various other angels, and it would be considered blasphemous for anyone to even consider going for a higher position in this hierarchy. On the other hand, the structure of the forces of chaos lead by the Demon Lord Lucifer is more similar to a meritocracy taken to an extreme, where the strong will take all that they desire by force, and the weak have to obey those stronger than them. This divide does not end at the supernatural. For example, the kingdom of Mikado follows the caste system which is similar to the hierarchy of the forces Law, with the secular nobles at the top and the commoners at the bottom. Meanwhile the dystopian depiction of Tokyo is more similar to the anarchy represented by the forces of Chaos, where the strong and affluent take what they want by force, and the weak regardless of status or background have to struggle to survive. Even the visual design of the supernatural figures differs from tradition. For example, the 4 archangels look robotic, with unsettling anthropomorphic symbolism (Marcato & Schniz, 2023).
However, this type of depiction of religion may also comes with it’s own problems and controversies. This game includes mythological figures from a variety of sources including Abrahamic mythologies, Chinese Mythologies, Greco-Roman mythologies as well as many more. It also draws from historical figures, and modern fiction, and it also contains some originally designed demons. It could be argued that showing actively worshipped divinities from ‘world religions’(Hinduism, Christianity, Islam) alongside historical and folkloric deities (Greek, Egyptian, Mayan), as well as originally created demons may seem unsettling, disrespectful, and inconsiderate by some people. The same could be said regarding the art-style of each individual deity as well, since this game often takes some liberties in their art design. Although most aspects of each artwork are based on the actual mythology, the actual depiction of the deities may still come across as disrespectful to some worshippers of that religion (de Wildt & Aupers, 2020). I would argue that the design and variety of these supernatural beings helps to create a more interesting and varied gameplay, and they assist in creating a deeper and more complex narrative for this game.
Morally Ambiguous Choices and Dilemmas
Within Shin Megami Tensei IV you as the protagonist start as a commoner (referred to as “casualry” in game) who goes to the capital to apply to become a Samurai. You end up being one of the five people being accepted as a Samurai. Along side you there is Jonathan, a gentle noble (referred to as “Luxurors” in game) who seeks to unite all in service of Mikado regardless of caste; Walter, a brash commoner who becomes a Samurai in order to escape the life of a fisherman; Isabeau, a strong-willed noble, who lacks in conviction; and Navarre, an elitist noble who looks down on the commoners. As you go through the game there are many morally ambiguous dilemmas that you and your companions will have to deal with. There are too many for this paper too go in depth with them, but I will cover an example that seemed very interesting. In one example, you try to place yourself in the place of the king of a country who has invited people from all across the country to attend in a competition. However, one individual attending is much taller than the rest. You are then asked if you would exclude this individual from competing for the sake of fairness. Walter claims that the person’s height is out of his control and should not be excluded for it. However, Jonathan claims that it would be unfair for everyone else attending for there to be such a big height difference.
A Videogame as a Platform for Ethics
This section focuses on and questions whether a videogame is an appropriate platform for ethics. First thing to consider when looking at this topic is the effect of moral intuitions on moral decisions within the game. According to the Model of Intuitive Morality and Exemplars (MIME) “ exposure to media featuring content that exemplifies the upholding or violating of moral principles will increase the accessibility of related moral instincts (termed as moral intuitions) through both short-term and long-term processes” (Tamborini et al., 2016, p.566). Within the context of a videogame these moral intuitions may influence the players decision. For example, if the scenario involves the act of cheating, the fairness intuition in players may make them reluctant to commit the act even if it is strategically beneficial to do so. It is also shown in the research that strength of these intuition will vary within each person.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is an extraordinary videogame that goes beyond the boundaries of entertainment. It’s depiction of religion helps to remove any of the player’s pre-existing bias as they tackle ethical questions in the game. Those questions themselves influence much of the narrative, with the supporting character clashing their beliefs and ideologies with each other, the player will be left to consider who to support and who to oppose. Even the world of the game itself shows the contrast in morality, like order in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado being represented through the caste system, and the freedom in Tokyo being represented with anarchy. This all brings us to the question of whether a videogame is truly an appropriate platform for moral themes. Throughout various research including that of MIME it is shown that not only can videogames be an appropriate platform for ethics, but they can also be one of the best medias for exploring morality, as long as they are created with sophistication. Shin Megami Tensei IV shows that it does have that level of sophistication, and stands as an exemplar, demonstrating that video games have the power not only to entertain but also to stimulate ethical contemplation. Therefore, it can be said without a doubt that Shin Megami Tensei IV can be considered as a platform for meaningful ethical reflection.
Formosa, P., Ryan, M., Howarth, S., Messer, J., & McEwan, M. (2021). Morality meters and their impacts on moral choices in videogames: A qualitative study. Games and Culture, 17(1), 89–121. https://doi.org/10.1177/15554120211017040
Tamborini, R., Bowman, N. D., Prabhu, S., Hahn, L., Klebig, B., Grall, C., & Novotny, E. (2016). The effect of moral intuitions on decisions in video game play: The impact of chronic and temporary Intuition Accessibility. New Media & Society, 20(2), 564–580. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816664356
Ryan, M., Formosa, P., & Tulloch, R. (2017). Playing around with morality: Introducing the special issue on “Morality play.” Games and Culture, 14(4), 299–305. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412017738862
Marcato, L., & Schniz, F. (2023). At the Same Time … Both Truth and Fiction. In Fictional practices of spirituality I interactive media (pp. 356–362). essay, transcript Verlag.
de Wildt, L., & Aupers, S. D. (2020). Eclectic religion: The flattening of religious cultural heritage in Videogames. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 27(3), 312–330. https://doi.org/10.1080/13527258.2020.1746920
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