September 29th, 2011
This game came out in 1999, but the legal US (remake) release dropped on Sept. 20 and the Euro release is soon in coming. If you’re coming to the series now, this article contains significant spoilers.
You might guess the bastard from the picture, here; it’s certainly his most expected appearance (or something like it, anyway), the one that curls a squamous tendril across your forebrain in the dark. The big C, they’ve managed to make cuddly and even trite – mashing him up with Hello Kitty and selling plush cuddle buddies. But not this fellow – he still carries at least a little of the old fear with him still. This isn’t a profile, though – he doesn’t need one – this is one of his greatest triumphs.
Look, when it comes to the genre of the “heroic quest” in games, some of the earlier examples of the lamentably-termed “JRPG” still resound; let’s not talk about the genre’s strengths or failings, here, because they’re well and truly beside the point. Most of them are trying to tell you a story. Some of the stories are worth telling, forget the rest.
So when it comes to villainous victories, one of the most famous in classic gaming may be Kefka’s annihilation of the entire planet in Final Fantasy VI. It was well built-to, and well executed – and from a developer that hasn’t had that gift in a long time. Hey, credit where it’s due. That one’s old enough to still be well-regarded, even from people who haven’t much taste for the genre. Everyone likes a good “getting the band back together” story, and back then games were just far enough along in establishing long narratives that razing the planet and having to fight back from the brink of extinction counted as a shocking twist in that medium.
However, in the era of the PS1, Atlus did Square Enix one better. Somewhat ironically, it took a page from that game’s playbook in that one of the major antagonists was based on a Mindless favorite, Batman’s murderous Clown Prince antagonist. While the earlier game hinged on look and a bit of black humor, though, Atlus (as it always does) dug in and found something a bit darker, and a bit more true.
In the first half of Megami Ibunroku Persona 2 – the villain behind the scenes didn’t just destroy the planet – although he did – he gave humanity one right in the heart – quite literally. And in so doing, made a fair case against humanity as a species.
Here he is, again, wearing his human face this time. It’s a long plot, and you’re not going to want me to summarize it – either you’ll play it yourself, or you’re not going to care strongly enough. But he wears this face when shlepping around the human world for ten years, pretending to be the daddy of a kindhearted little boy who loves flowers, well and truly fucking him up good so that he could use him as a fulcrum of the plan. Honestly, that’s probably vile enough on its own to make the Great Bastardry long list, but to deserve our full attention, let’s get the bigger picture here.
The Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep, for obviously that’s who I’m talking about, had entered into an experiment with ostensible champion of humanity, the deity Philemon, to see if humanity was strong enough to endure on its own. They serve as the two sides of the collective unconscious, and while Jung’s pet had to stay largely hands-off in order to maintain the moral high ground, obviously the thing that moves in the dark had no such limitations. Nyar threw everything he had in his arsenal at the location chosen for the experiment, a Japanese metropolis called Sumaru City.
Step one was to fuck up a bunch of kids. Games were played with memory, a children’s game distorted. The long form of this would be familiar to any true comics fan, because this bit of the story is eerily similar because in the same year of the game’s release, a manga in Japan called 20th Century Boys had the same sentei-masked children, the same childhood games becoming cult obsessions, the same secret hideouts and heroes questing to take back their childhood dreams. For that matter, the past connections theme fueled a second role playing game to come out in Japan in 1999, the intellectually bankrupt Final Fantasy VIII. What was the inspiration for these to all hit at the same time? I don’t know. But dealing directly with the collective unconscious as Persona 2 is, it’s certainly worth noting.
Step two was the trial run. Persona 2: Innocent Sin is the first half of a duology, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that the same story is essentially being told through three games, including the preceding, original Persona title. Thematically linked at first, the links in plot are eventually made clear. Suffice to say, in that first (vastly inferior) game, he picks on a sick teenage girl, lets her create her ideal world, and then collapses the whole project in on her. It’s all very tragic and laden with DID issues. The world gets threatened, the crisis is put down, and our big bad nasty is only barely seen as culpable.
Step three was to take this Sumaru City and do something funny to it. Not bound by the rules, he allows anything that becomes a pervasive rumor to rewrite reality until it becomes true. I’m going to leave it to you to consider the ramifications. How the banal can be so dangerous in that context. I’ll also leave it to you to ponder the clarity of a metaphor, where belief and perception changes reality, and what that means in the hands of people as a whole.
The cleverness of the idea might be enough to rank our Big Bad, but it wasn’t enough for him. As you play the games, you find that he has plans within plans, he’s generally very good at avoiding those villain slip-ups that make for such tiresome cliches, and most of his actions work out to win-win decisions. So no, doing this wasn’t enough to show that humanity was a failed project. He also encouraged the conspiracy theorists and the occultists.
This is the Mindless Ones, here, and our tastes for writers like Moz and Moore, our occasional interests in things like magic or occult ideas – this stuff is all known, so I’d imagine that I’m not the only one here with a little bit of sympathy for the conspiracy theorists and occultists – the ones who aren’t promoting actively present and harmful ideas, you know? What’s going to happen in 2012? What you believe or don’t is less important than what you do with those ideas. Is it an excuse for interesting writing, or promoting positive consciousness change, or whatever? Then it’s a positive thing, however that may jive with what the universe has in store. But stop and consider what would happen if every fuckhead who said the world would end tomorrow was upping the possibility that it actually would.
And depending on your opinions of things like religion and politics, you could argue that such a thing is true for us here. But in the game, the story, consider the position of our heroes – four high school teenagers and two reporters – and now consider that one conspiracy theory that’s never gone away is that Hitler survived World War II. Or even that he had access to artifacts like the Spear of Longinus, an idea that should be too stupid to be pervasive, and yet apparently hasn’t been. Suffice to say, pretty soon it’s all out war in the streets. Dangerous situations enflame paranoia, and paranoia enflames rumors like these.
So! It’s all big and dramatic, there’s a long quest, everyone undergoes massive psychological scarring, including pitched battles with their own shadow selves. But you know how all this goes. Eventually they begin to have victories, and the heroic quest angle is in full swing, and everything seems like it’s going to line up fine in the end in the manner of video game heroes and villains throughout the medium’s history.
Unfortunately, the heroes were wrong, because the real test was more complicated.
Ahhhh, God, what is it?!
Nyarlathotep, the darker side of dreams and the unconscious, wore Adolf Hitler as a skinsuit. Defeating him was an ordeal – but this was a bigger one. He took on the form of their fathers – all of their fathers. Father issues were big in this game. So they all had to kill their fathers to get at Nyar, and when they won that battle… he didn’t seem all that bothered.
A lot of things revolved around this occult prophecy, right? We sort of mentioned that. And one of the last things that had to happen was that a woman named “Maya” had to die to complete the ritual and end the world. Well, there were two women of that name amongst the named characters.
And a single paranoid schoolteacher was enough to tip things the other way, because she was willing to kill a woman she barely knew, rather than die herself. As the final step in a long and complicated ritual, the act did destroy some 99% of the planet in one fell swoop, but the real victory was in proving to Philemon that the occasional hero was not enough. Fuck the world getting razed. Nyarlathotep was right.
The teenagers who had battled to save the world saw their perpetual big sister bleed out eternally from a wound caused by the Spear of Longinus and decided it was better to chuck it in and start over, rolling the clock back and forgetting their own relationships to give the world half a fighting chance. And their chosen hero, the boy Tatsuya Suou, couldn’t even do that – selfishly hanging onto his memories and damning the world a second time over. That’s the third game, you see, the second installment in this Persona 2 title, when the heroes mount the comeback in true trilogy fashion. But the damage was already done.
Even by the time you’d played through the game’s second half and eked out a victory against the Crawling Chaos, it was clear that he’d won the argument, if not the battle. And the thing is? Really, that’s all he cared about. A few brave heroes and all that epic shit couldn’t cover up the fact that a mostly-average person was willing to throw another human under the bus – really, all of humanity under the bus – to save herself.
And that’s what makes him a top bastard. The best ones are always right sometimes.