Science fiction and future tech in the Shin Megami Tensei video game series

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Apr 13, 2017

The world of Shin Megami Tensei is one heavily steeped in mythology, demons and the evils that plague this world. But it’s not without its futuristic components, either.

In fact, for a series that literally translates to "True Goddess Reincarnation," it errs more on the side of science fiction than demonology and the supernatural, at least in some of its incarnations. Characters rely on smartphone apps and mobile phones as well as other technologically advanced devices to accomplish the tasks set out for them. In a world where high fantasy is the usual pool from which role-playing game creators cull their plot devices, Shin Megami Tensei and the Persona series happily turn toward the future.

Warning: Some Persona and Shin Megami Tensei plot spoilers will follow.

Most recently, Persona 5 released to both critical and fan acclaim, and for good reason. It’s one of the greatest entries in the long-running series, with an excellent plot, tight mechanics and characters that dig their claws into you the first opportunity they get. It also heavily relies on smartphone usage, to the point where a strange app showing up on the protagonist's phone is an important plot point. The protagonist and his friends, a group calling themselves the "Phantom Thieves" who steal the hearts of corrupt individuals, end up together as a result of an errant visit to the Metaverse to visit a "Palace."

While walking to school one day with a new acquaintance, the protagonist accidentally navigates via a navigation app straight into the Palace, the first of many locales he and his friends must travel to later in the game. Having been sent to serve a probationary period in another town, the protagonist's only real link to the rest of the world is his phone, which he continues to notice weird activity coming from, notably the app that will not stay deleted, no matter what measures he takes to take it off his phone.

The app turns out to be the Metaverse Navigator, which allows the protagonist to find the locations of their targets and enter the "Metaverse," or another dimension, in the first place. The app goes to anyone who the protagonist actually wants to help him with his mission, and thus it's installed on each character's phone. It's a huge part of what allows the game's narrative to proceed, which is intriguing on its own. Rather than relying on some outside source to push things along, Persona 5 analyzed the current youth climate and tech culture and injected it with its own kind of commentary on apps, how important our phones are to us and how the kids of today practically live on their devices.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a story about a group of teenagers who have been given devices that look a lot like Nintendo DS consoles known as COMPs. The COMPs allow the teenagers to summon forth friendly demons that will fight for them out in the world after their city becomes overrun by a demonic presence. This is a massive part of the game, as it's your primary method of summoning and organizing demons in-game. It also connects the story to the current technology of the time, putting the Nintendo DS in the narrative itself.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 veers off into similar territory as Persona 5 with smartphones, where the protagonist and friends receive spam email from a website called Nicaea, which sends a video of friends "dying" along with a warning. Nicaea becomes a very real presence in their lives, an application that's installed on the protagonist's smartphone so that demons can be summoned and catalogued accordingly.

The series even has entire games centered around future technology as related to computers, such as the case of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, for the Nintendo 3DS. Taking place in the futuristic city of Amami City, it places a protagonist in a hacker collective known as the Spookies. The Spookies infiltrate Paradigm X, an MMORPG meant to bring those who live in Amami City together. Like a ridiculously technologically advanced version of Second Life, Paradigm X is rife with its own bizarre secrets, namely that of supernatural forces attacking the city in real life and in-game.

Exploring Paradigm X feels oddly prescient, an attempt to connect citizens of a city in a virtual world where it's really just as simple to walk up to someone and say hello. There are movie theaters, shops and hangouts in the game, and in fact the initial concept according to producer Kouji Okada and designer Kazuma Kaneko the concept was based on the release of Windows 95. The operating system had just released back then, and the idea of a system going out of control or the Internet being used as a means for it was fascinating. It made for a mesmerizing cyberpunk thrill ride in line with the other releases in the franchise.

Through these plot devices and narrative structures, the MegaTen games (as they're affectionately known by fans) all contribute to a distinctly techno-centric lilt that gives the games their unique flavor. Rather than looking toward arcane magic or high fantasy settings, they're content to look ahead and within the current state of society for a more nuanced commentary on society. Perhaps that's why they're so hard to forget once you start playing.

In any case, if you're interested in science fiction and tech, the Shin Megami Tensei/Persona games are a series you'll want to investigate.