Warning: This topic contains immense spoilers for the video game, Shin Megami Tensei IV and other Shin Megami Tensei games. The main focus will be upon SMTIV but the topic may verge into comparisons with other SMT games.
For the Thematic Analysis of Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse: Part 1 and Part 2
Merkabah: is self-explanatory, God’s chariot that assists to bring forth one’s full light and it is representative of an ascended believer who has connected with the “higher realms.” We pretty much see this in the three routes, as either a dungeon or observing the transformation. Jonathan gives-up his freedom and willpower to follow the path of God and sacrifices himself to merge with the angels. There are symbolic implications to religious self-sacrifice.
The Great Spirit of Hope: is an interesting one. It seems to have ties in Greek and Roman mythology. An interesting fact that I learned was that the ancient Greeks were divided on the meaning of the spirit of Hope’s story. Hope, in the context of ancient Greece’s story “Expectations in life”, was seen by some as the only positive personification to come out of Pandora’s box and by others it was seen as subjecting humanity to the worst suffering through self-deception. The negative perspective gives us a pernicious meaning to hope’s existence. Yet, this Ancient Greek divide fits so well with theme of the Neutral Path in Shin Megami Tensei IV.
This divisive perspective coincides with the White’s message in the Neutral path: “Your will which rejects our salvation is the cause of your suffering.”
The argument, in both the game and in ancient greek literature, comes down to the question: “Is hope a salvation or is it a self-deception?”
Spes/Elpis, the Great Spirit of Hope
I haven’t found much on the Great Spirit of Goodwill or the Great Spirit of Spite. I’m guessing it’s derived from Judeo-Christian lore and not Greek mythology. Merkabah itself seems to fit the concept of “Goodwill” based on it’s mythology but I’m unsure if Lucifer fits “spite” or if that’s more derivative from Greek mythology.
The White: seem to be a reference to the Jewish ritual of passover, but in a morbid and bizarre manner, they’re an inversion of the custom of passover. Passover is suppose to be representative of Jewish people freeing themselves from Egyptian slavery under the glory of God. In the context of Shin Megami Tensei IV, this inverse is represented to the player by obliterating the entire multiverse to escape being a prisoner of God’s expectations.
The four – despite Isabeau – seem to represent the four sons of the Passover Seder through how they’re organized from left to right.
The first son is the wise son who knows most about the religious tradition, the first White uses Abbot Hugo’s form.
The second son is wicked and somewhat deviant but still toes the line of following the traditional ways when it comes time. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call K this but it actually does fit. If you speak with him at his tavern in the Chaos ending, he says that he isn’t surprised by the destruction of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and even finds it fitting that a citizen of Mikado was the one to bring about it’s destruction. He implies that he really doesn’t care that everybody is doomed.
The third son, Issachar, is the simple one. He follows along with no real animus towards the other sons. He finds the tradition exciting. He learns about what the passover is truly about through life experience.
The fourth son is where this becomes rather odd. The fourth son either represents one that’s too bashful to speak during passover, understands everything but is afraid of looking like a fool, or is represented as a quiet observer with no emotional connection to the Seder. It might be the reason why the fourth White was chosen to be female. A female representative isn’t customary and is defiant of expectations by virtue of not being a man.
(Note: I am not attempting to say anything negative about the Jewish ritual of passover. I’m just listing possibilities of what it could mean for the game itself. This is not, in any way, a criticism of Jewish traditions or the Jewish people.)
Apart from being female, Isabeau’s characteristics follow the fourth son’s description accurately, specifically in her inability to make a choice and either joining you or being forced to react to your choice in the game. Her quiet and reserved nature fit the fourth son’s characteristics.
The fifth son is the most interesting of all. He’s somewhat of an unknown except for the more in-depth Jewish theologians. He represents an ignorance towards the tradition. He doesn’t know nor acknowledge the history, the culture, and ultimately doesn’t care about it. He’s the most deviant and scornful by virtue of his ignorance to the significance of the Seder and Jewish tradition.
The religious significance of the Fifth Son
That is your main character should you choose Law, Chaos, or Neutral. You recognize the problem, but you decide that you don’t give a damn about what the White’s perspective is. As the battle with Sanat seems to imply, the main character doesn’t care and hasn’t concerned himself with the problems of different dimensions even after seeing them. What’s more, choosing neutrality – believing in hope – will mean the inevitable return of future struggles but the main character seems to accept that.
The deceiver: I want to add that the “son” representative of the deceiver who then admits to certain negative aspects about the ritual might actually be White Isabeau. I thought it was White Issachar but he furiously holds to his beliefs in the meaninglessness of struggle and actually tries to make you feel guilty for not choosing his side: the real Issachar asked you to kill him, White Issachar – who admits to using Issachar’s form – says he wanted to be saved.
White Isabeau, by contrast to the other three, admits that God is just a convenience created by humankind and thus disagrees with the presumption that God is an inescapable omnipresent being. Despite that, she argues that humans are too weak to continue the tightrope choice of neutrality. She isn’t wrong either, because she – rightfully – thinks it’ll eventually fall away to Chaos or Law. It’s still an interesting implication because she admits there can be a temporary reprieve. She just doesn’t consider that option to be good enough.
Interesting information to consider: the passover means “The Telling“, The White are telling you the facts of the multiverse so that you become the Messiah – or in a Buddhist sense, you attain the “ultimate realization” – and bring about the long-awaited end of days that the White see as the only salvation of humankind.
Although, in this case, it’s not revival of the dead for the glory of the Abrahamic God to be acknowledged as the one true God. Instead, it seems to reference turning everything into nothing. It’s a pernicious perspective on the Buddhist meaning of “Emptiness” combined with the Seder as a metaphor.
The White take a nihilistic perspective on the concept of “Nirvana” in comparison to the majority of real life Buddhism.
I wasn’t entirely sure why Atlus Japan decided to take this route regarding the concept of Emptiness. As it turns out, I have Friedrich Nietzsche to blame for that. Nietzsche argued in his book, the Genealogy of Morals:
“We simply cannot conceal from ourselves what’s really expressed by that total will which received its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hate against what is human, and even more against animality, even more against material things—this abhorrence of the senses, even of reason, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing for the beyond away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, desire, even longing itself—all this means, let’s have the courage to understand this, a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a revolt against the most fundamental preconditions of life—but it is and remains a will! . . . And to repeat at the conclusion what I said at the start: man will sooner will nothingness than not will . . .”
The Ascetic Ideal, in this context, is the ideals of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism in renouncing oneself, renouncing our possessions, and renouncing our sexual desire for the sake of following a “morally good” path for “Oneness with God” as the highest purpose for ourselves as human beings. Nietzsche argued in many of his books that such a path is self-contempt disguised as moral purity. Nietzsche specifically argued in Genealogy of Morals that ancient human civilizations did this because they needed a “meaning” behind their suffering.
Religion is the guidepost for understanding the “meaning of life” for the majority of people. Shin Megami Tensei IV seemed to borrow this analysis and expressed this perspective through the arguments by The White. They couldn’t find the meaning to the suffering in the multiverse so they just gave-up on everything. The protagonist becomes the Messiah of Nothingness, should you choose to agree with them and you end the world. Most religious prophecies argue that the Savior of God will come at the end of the world and thus critics could argue that many believers would yearn for the end of the world.
Overall, it’s a fascinating outlook on religious morals and their utility in life. Shin Megami Tensei IV manages to really ask deep questions about people’s personal beliefs; providing subtle and insightful criticism on religion without the player realizing it. That is why it is one of my favorite games of all-time.
5 thoughts on “A Thematic Analysis of Shin Megami Tensei IV”
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Thank you! Glad you enjoyed reading.
At first I was critical of how you trolled the other dude’s blog, but I have to say. This is a great analysis – I can appreciate the deep-dive into the reference mythology.
One question. Could the white calling Flynn the Fifth Son have something to do with, in the nothingness ending, White Isachar calling Flynn his ‘fifth self’?
Decided to re-watch the scene to remember the context, he calls Flynn the Fifth Self because it’s the Fifth reincarnation of Flynn that chooses the White Ending. They call him Fifth Son in-game when Flynn doesn’t choose the White Ending because humanity has been destroyed and recreated five times with the people in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado being the Fifth incarnations of themselves. Mythology-wise, it is a reference to the Jewish Passover rites but in a more nihilistic form as I discussed above. I don’t think there was anything else referenced, but I’m open to being proven wrong should there be credible evidence that shows the contrary.