So far I have written articles that serve as deep dives into the alignments of Shin Megami Tensei – first Chaos, then Law. This leaves us with the third and final installment, which focuses on Neutrality. Neutrality is, simply put, the option of rejecting both Law and Chaos in favour of a third path. But what that means is not always the same from game to game. To reject both Law and Chaos can seem to be a reactive stance in the context of the larger war between Law and Chaos, but Neutrality as we can see throughout the games is powered by its own ideological contours, and these allow us to look at Neutrality as a proposal for the world in the same sense that Law and Chaos are.
The same conditions as the previous two posts apply except for a key difference: unlike the previous two posts, this post will actually have a section focusing on Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. This game was excluded from both of the previous posts on the grounds that, although it has Law and Chaos endings, the Law and Chaos dynamic is noticeably downplayed in favour of a narrative in which both Law and Chaos take a backseat to the conflict between a cabal of polytheistic gods and mankind. This time, however, we can include the game on the grounds that the game’s overriding premise is actually a narrative of Neutrality, in fact it is a game that not only starts off from a Neutral path in the original Shin Megami Tensei IV but also explicitly operates from the premise that Neutrality is the only path to take, and accordingly, as you’ll see, embellishes the conceits of Neutrality to a ridiculous extent.
Also, unlike the other two posts, which featured commentary on Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs King Abbadon, I have decided not to do that for this post on the grounds that, although there does seem to be a Neutral path and a Neutral ending, there doesn’t seem to be any content for it other than you get to fight Masakado, and the Neutral ending path appears to be basically the same as that of the Chaos path, so there’s really no point in covering it.
For the last time, this entire post will contain spoilers for all of the games featured here.
Shin Megami Tensei (1992)
As with so much else in the SMT series, the first game in the series is the first to introduce the dynamic of Neutrality between Law and Chaos as we understand it throughout the series. Here, the game posits a war between Law and Chaos, and a balance between the two rent asunder by this conflict. While Law means creating the Thousand Year Kingdom of perfect order under God, and Chaos means a kind of anarchic freedom that is enjoyed through co-existence with the demons (or “ancient gods”), Neutrality ostensibly means balance between order and freedom on behalf of humanity that can only be achieved by rejecting both sides. But, as with the other alignments, there is so much more to it than that.
It’s worth stressing that there is no “Neutral faction” in this game to counter the Messians of the Law alignment and the Gaians of the Chaos alignment except for an early part of the game in which there seems to be a Resistance movement in Tokyo. By this point in the game, there is an established conflict between the Self-Defence Force, commanded by Gotou, on one side, and the American army, represented by Thorman, on the other, and both seem to want some kind of martial law in Tokyo. Opposed to both factions is an underground Resistance movement led by the Heroine, who Gotou’s underlings are hell bent on capturing. The Resistance movement sees both Gotou and the Americans as merely seeking to impose their own will on Tokyo, and consequently they oppose them, although at this point all they can do is carry out petty sabotage against both forces, and they are unable to confront them head-on. Both the Law and Chaos Heroes want to help her for their own reasons: the Law Hero is interested in the fact that his girlfriend has the same name as the Heroine and has been kidnapped along with several other girls by Gotou’s minions, and the Chaos Hero is interested because Ozawa, a gangster who bullies him at the beginning of the game, is working with Gotou’s forces and he sees the opportunity to get revenge. Unfortunately, Yuriko, who is working with Gotou’s forces, kidnaps the Heroine, and tries to hold a public execution of her until the party intervenes and rescues the heroine. Although Yuriko and Ozawa are working for Gotou, Gotou claims that this whole incident had nothing to do with him personally. Of course, after both Gotou and Thorman are defeated, once “Thor’s Hammer” reigns down on Tokyo, the city is destroyed, the Heroine dies and is reincarnated, and we can only assume that the Resistance movement ceases to exist.
There are, of course, other representatives of Neutrality. Not terribly many of them, mind you, but they will be explored. There are non-aligned healers that the player can use instead of the Gaians or Messians if they want to stay Neutral. These are referred to as Kaifuku, which seems to just be the Japanese word for “healer”. And they do exactly it says on the tin: they just heal you, and do similar services to the Messians or Gaians, but with no alignment to Law or Chaos, and so no alignment shift for using them. The inside of the Kaifuku appears to a resemble some sort of Shinto temple, and its proprietor a kind of Shinto priest. You might count the Heroine herself as a de facto representative of Neutrality, though she follows you whichever path you take. You might also count Cerberus, the hound of hell (who for some reason looks like a lion in these games) fused from the protagonist’s pet dog Pascal, who scores bonus points for being, as a Majuu/Beast, actually Neutral-aligned. Alignment in this game is contingent not only on plot choices but also on consistent play. Going to the Messians or the Gaians for healing and fighting demons of a certain alignment can shift your alignment one way or another, so maintaining Neutrality is all about staying in the middle and keeping the balance of your alignment. In fact, after the battle with Gotou and/or Thor, there aren’t very many Neutral options between the Law and Chaos you have to navigate. Of course, though, there is an alignment lock towards the final stretch predicated on what you do in Tokyo Destinyland and Shinagawa. If you defeat Haniel in Shinagawa and then refuse to support the Gaians, or if you defeat Echidna in Tokyo Destinyland and then refuse to support the Messians, you become locked into the Neutral path, and that’s where you encounter someone important.
Not long after the start of the game, you find an unnamed old man who tells of a war between the forces of Law and Chaos and the balance being in danger. After you get locked into the Neutral path, you meet the old man again on your way to the Great Cathedral. There he tells you that it doesn’t matter if Law or Chaos win control of the Cathedral, because neither outcome will bring happiness to humanity, because whichever side humanity casts its lot with will merely use humanity as a pawn in their own domination, and says that the only one who can prevent this from happening is you, the player. When you’re about to fight either Michael or the Asura Lord on the Neutral path, the old man reveals himself to be Taijorokun, though he doesn’t really stay to introduce himself. Taijorokun seems to be a Japanese transliteration of Taishang Laojun, a Chinese deity venerated in folk Taoism who also goes by the name Daode Tianzun. Taishang Laojun is venerated as one of the Three Pure Ones, deities who are believed to be pure manifestations of the Tao itself, and as the divine origin of Lao Zi, the mythical author of the Tao Te Ching on which the religion/philosophy of Taoism is largely based, in a sense the divinization of Lao Zi himself. Given that the old man tells you to protect the balance between Law and Chaos, it’s very obvious that the game is invoking Taoism in popular understanding as a way to communicate the theme of balance. Because get it? Balance? Neutrality? Yin and Yang? Law and Chaos? It’s not that hard to guess where this game is going here. In the Neutral ending, he says that there are good things to be said about the Thousand Year Kingdom, because “one cannot deny that laws and regulations are necessary to preserve peace”, but that under God’s iron-fisted rule humans would not have the freedom they need to be happy. He also says that the world of Chaos envisioned by Lucifer also has its strong points, “such a world would be quite alluring, overflowing with excitement and exhilaration that naturally comes from such unfettered freedom”, but says that such freedom would lead to neverending conflicts and competition which would mean people never live in peace. Pursuing either of the two extreme produces only sorrow, and happiness is attained only through balance. He also proclaims a humanistic ethos that is familiar to Neutrality going forward, saying that the future of humanity will be built neither through God nor through the demons but by the hands of the people (humans) themselves.
There is an irony to the proposal that humans should not rely on gods or demons being put forward by a literal god, but the other irony consists in the fact that the representation of Neutrality is to be found in Taoism. Most people think about Taoism in terms of a belief system that encourages balance, owing to the dialectic of yin and yang, but Taoism has aspects to it that actually have more in common with Chaos than anything else. One of the core myths of Taoism is the myth of Hundun, a being embodying primordial chaos, who one day received guests who, believing they were doing him a favour, poked orifices into his body so that he can have eyes, mouth, ears, and other things he was missing, which caused his death. The clear message of this myth is that human civilization errs in its meddling with nature and that teleological order errs in deprivation from the spontaneity of the Tao, likened to primordial chaos. In addition, if you look at the history of Taoism, you’ll find comparisons to anarchist thought as well as links between Taoism and anarchism in modernity, and during Jin dynasty you see the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove eschewing Confucian piety and norms in favour of a life of rustic freedom in, as the name suggests, a bamboo grove where they enjoyed booze, sex, liberty, and the celebration of nature, and many of them such as Ruan Ji openly expressed contempt for authority and Confucian social custom. We can see that, if we were to somehow apply Law and Chaos to the history of Chinese religious and philosophical tradition, it would be the Taoists who come the closest to Chaos while the Confucians undoubtedly embody Law, and based on this I would argue that, despite Buddism being taken up the Gaians, it would arguably be more fitting for Neutrality to be represented through Buddhism if it needed an Eastern religion to represent it.
Despite the way Buddhism, and esoteric Buddhism in particular, gets fitted very tantalizingly onto Chaos, baseline Buddhism in many ways actually fits the Neutral alignment in terms of its humanism and its appeals to balance. For starters, Buddhism promotes the idea of the Middle Way as the path to enlightenment, which means rejecting two extremes of eternalism (the belief in an eternal unchanging self) and annihiliationism (the doctrine that everything is annihiliated upon death), which do not necessarily correspond to Law and Chaos but it is a dynamic of extremes to which the middle is the answer. Buddhism also believes, as part of is broader belief in the eternal cycle of reincarnation, that the best hope of achieving enlightenment is in the human realm, because only humans experience just the right balance of suffering and comfort that at least gives them the potential to achieve enlightenment. You can be born as a deva, but the devas, living in the highest realm, are too arrogant, too comfortable, and too addicted to heavenly pleasures to pay attention to the quest for enlightenment, while those born in any of the lower realms experience so much suffering or strife that the beings who dwell in them are forced to think too much about their own survival to think about enlightenment. In a weird way this idea may in fact influence the alignments here. If you think about it, it’s probably not for nothing that the leader of the generals of Chaos is the Asura Lord, king of the enemies of the devas. There are devas in the Chaos alignment (such as Agni and Bishamonten) but the leader of the devas, Indra, is a Law-aligned Majin/Deity, and so is Vishnu who is the most reliable and uncompromising benefactor of the devas and essentially an enforcer of their cosmic order in Hindu mythology. It is also probably not for nothing that, in the Sega CD version of the game, the buddha Dainichi Nyorai appears inexplicably as the only Neutral-aligned Maou/Tyrant and the most powerful Neutral demon in the game. And in fact, one of the names given to the protagonist, Futsuo, is apparently supposed to mean either “ordinary person” or “Contact of Buddha“, as if the Buddhist symbolism of Neutrality wasn’t clear enough.
Still on the subject of Buddhism, you might also count En no Ozuno as a representative of Neutrality, or at least every time you need need the Neutral theme plays over him. En no Ozuno, otherwise known as En no Gyoja, was a somewhat mythologized Buddhist ascetic who is believed by some Buddhists to be the founder of Shugendo, a syncretic esoteric Buddhist sect that mixed Buddhism with elements of Shinto, Taoism, and local shamanistic practices. In 1799, well over a thousand years after his death, he became honoured as a bodhisattva and given the name Shinpen Daibosatsu (“Great Bodhisattva Shinpen”), which may explain what he’s doing hanging around in Kongokai and why he’s depicted in later games as basically a being of awesome spiritual power. Indeed, buddhas and bodhisattvas actually make perfect sense as representations of Neutrality since, unlike the gods, the angels, and the demons, a Buddha is simply a being, typically a human, that has achieved Buddhist enlightenment, and a Bodhisattva is a being who delays his own attainment of Nirvana in order to save all sentient beings. These categories emphasize the transformation of humans into beings of enlightenment on a human level, and, frankly, would be better for the Light-Neutral milieu on this basis than the Majin/Deity clan, which was originally Light-Law.
Another representative of Neutrality that is established in this game is Masakado, the guardian spirit of Tokyo. His actual role in the game is very minor, but it establishes some plot conceits and devices that can recur in later games. After Tokyo gets flooded, on the Neutral path you can go to the Imperial Palace and find Masakado. There he laments that Tokyo has become a battlefield for the forces of Law and Chaos, that the conflict has led to the destruction of Tokyo, and that his time as the guardian of Tokyo may soon be over. When a Neutral player meets him, Masakado will deem you worthy of possessing his sword as the potential new guardian of Tokyo, and hopes that you triumph over the forces of Law and Chaos. After this you can also pick up pieces of the Masakado amor hidden beneath the ocean surrounding the palace. Both the Masakado armor and Masakado’s sword are exclusive to the Neutral alignment, so only Neutral players can wield them. Masakado himself is a fairly interesting character to consider. The real Masakado was a prince of the Taira family who, after a series of legal and military adventures, waged a campaign of insurrection against the imperial court, possibly in order to increase his status within the court or seize power himself, before being killed in battle by the forces of his cousin, Sadamori. He wasn’t too well-liked in his day, and indeed most of the records written about him were written by officials who despised Masakado and imagined him suffering after death. But over the centuries, he became an object of superstition and eventually reverance, his severed head believed to fly and possess magical powers, causing earthquakes and other disasters when it settled in Tokyo, and to this day his spirit is believed to be the cause of natural disasters whenever his shrine goes untended. Apparently even in the 20th century it came to be believed that Masakado’s spirit was still there, protecting his shrine from any who would dare topple it, based on some very strange incidents such as his gravesite somehow surviving the American bombing raids on Tokyo and a bulldozer meant to overturn the shrine suddenly collapsing and killing its owner. In Shin Megami Tensei, this restless spirit somehow came to be the guardian spirit of Tokyo itself, a symbol of the simple interests of the city, unconnected to the ambitions of Law and Chaos.
But there is another character, perhaps more than any other, who represents something core to Neutrality in this game in particular. That character is Stephen, a man in a wheelchair who is very obviously based on the late physicist Stephen Hawking. Whereas the real Stephen Hawking was a renowned physicist known for among other things his discoveries regarding black holes, in this game Stephen is a computer programmer responsible for the creation of the Terminal system as well as the creation and distribution of the Demon Summoning Program. When you first meet him, he’s being held prisoner by the forces of Gotou, who was one of a number of people he previously worked with to study how to summon demons, at Echo Building. After this, you meet him in different points of the game where he can upgrade your COMP in various ways, including expanding the number of demons you can store within it. He distributed the Demon Summoning Program in the hopes that someone might use its power to save Tokyo from being destroyed in the coming conflict between Law and Chaos. He also represents Neutrality by way of the context that he embodies within the game, according to its developers. One of the many things Stephen Hawking was famous for is demonstrating that the universe and its origination can be explained entirely through physical principles and without appealing to the concept of God. Ryutaro Ito, one of the writers, explicitly stated that Stephen is intended to be a symbol of Neutrality because he visually represents an ideology in which science-based secular humanism, archetypally embodied by Stephen, is the guide to a world filled with gods and demons in which you’re meant to head in a different direction to both of them. So the idea for Neutrality in one sense that it was supposed to represent secular humanism asserting itself against Christian monotheism on one hand and the demons or “ancient gods” on the other. Of course, Lucifer himself during the Romantic era had a similar symbolism, but situated as the other side of the binary against the old religious order and political system, particularly in the context of post-revolutionary France, and is frequently invoked similarly to this day. But in Shin Megami Tensei, Lucifer, clearly positioned as The Devil, may be billed as one more spectre, and as the king of the demons the representative of those demons that Stephen would have intended you to ultimately oppose, and additionally also stands in for one of two ideological extremes that are usually opposed by the secular humanist, who is very commonly a liberal.
We see thus a marriage of secular humanism and Buddhism, and maybe Taoism. But there is an irony in all this. At the same time as you are supposed to follow Stephen’s humanistic goals of ridding Tokyo of the influence of gods and demons, you are constantly receiving assistance from demons, often the very same demons that you fight or were previously your enemies, and that was the whole idea behind Stephen distributing the Demon Summoning Program to begin with. Not to mention, as we’ve established, your Neutral allies include a restless spirit protecting Tokyo, the guard dog of Hades, a bodhisattva who was himself a man believed to possess mystic powers, and a Taoist god. All told, for a path whose ideological impetus is freedom from reliance on supernatural powers, you sure do depend on some of the same supernatural powers for much of the game and in fact might not have conquered the forces of Law and Chaos without it. I suppose that is a simple necessity of the fact that those powers are real in the game. However, we should also reckon with the fact that Stephen, at the same time as he’s meant to represent scientific rationalism, is ultimately responsible for creating a means by which demons literally travel into the world. It’s fiction, sure, but it begs the question: exactly what interest does the normally scientific-rationalist mind have in the reality of demons? But then again, Ito probably gives us the answer to that too. In the same interview where he talks about Stephen Hawking’s ideas, he also talks about how Japanese audiences weren’t as shocked by those ideas in the way that Western audiences might have been. He says this because the Japanese are not monotheists, obviously referring to Judeo-Christian monotheism, though if you think about it, it probably also has something to do with the fact that, in Japan, secular society integrates time-honoured tradition, custom, and even superstition, that is inherited from the interaction between mostly Buddhism and Shinto.
There is, though, for all the apparent positivity, a very profound negative to Neutrality, one that haunts Neutrality very noticeably but is usually smoothed over in favour of the usual discourse about how the extremes of Law and Chaos are inevitably worse. In order to ensure a Neutral Tokyo, in order to drive away both Law and Chaos, you basically have to kill your friends, and almost everything around you. Your friends, the Law and Chaos Heroes, now oppose you ideologically, and since they’re fighting on the side of Law and Chaos respectively, you must fight them to the death. But, even if you didn’t take the Neutral path, this was inevitable. If you take the Law path, you will join with the Law Hero as friends, but when you get to the bottom of the Great Cathedral you find that he’s been killed by the Chaos Hero, and you are forced to fight him to the death in order to defeat the Asura Lord. If you take the Chaos path, you will join with the Chaos Hero as friends, but when you get to the top of the Great Cathedral the Chaos Hero swipes the Devil Ring for more power and dies because of it, and then the Law Hero confronts you and you are forced to fight him to the death in order to defeat Michael. But in Neutral, both deaths are on your hands and yours alone, and so are those of countless Messians and Gaians, to say nothing of demons.
Yet another irony that emerges from this is that, while the Neutral player would oppose Chaos because its adherents talk about how the strong rule the world as essentially a way to play the negative consequences of a world without authority, who else but the strongest human alive, is shown to prevail and win the right to impose his own will upon Tokyo? After all, in the Neutral path you oppose all the forces of Law and Chaos, including optional bosses, and defeating them may let you accumulate considerably more experience, this strength and the ability to summon ever more powerful demons, not to mention getting access to the strongest equipment in the game at least for Neutral players, so from a gameplay standpoint you would conceivably be the strongest person in the game.
The unspoken reality within the game is that all of the three choices given to the player require a great sacrifice, there is no path that does not pay its own violent price, and so the question that emerges is what is the cause that you are prepared to make that sacrifice for? For Law, that cause is the Thousand Year Kingdom, a world of perfect order presided over by the absolute rule of God or his angels. For Chaos, that cause is to defeat YHVH and create a world built on anarchic freedom and have humans co-exist with demons. What then is the Neutral proposal? There actually is an answer to this that extends beyond just balancing order and freedom, but it takes us into the backstory of the sequel, and so we must bridge nicely there.
Shin Megami Tensei II (1994)
The sequel to Shin Megami Tensei is set several decades after the events of the original game, and so a direct sequel necessitates continuation from only one of the three paths. Naturally, the path of choice is the Neutral path, and so the story follows from a protagonists who had followed the Neutral path and this defeated the forces of Law and Chaos. Needless to say the Neutral protagonist fails in his endeavour to create a Neutral society and Tokyo is controlled by the Messians, but let’s focus on the story of how Tokyo got to where it is by the beginning of this game’s events.
According to the game’s original manual, the Great Cathedral is destroyed during the battle between the forces of Law and Chaos, and after this, with the defeat of Michael and the Asura Lord, the Neutral protagonist establishes what is referred to as a “Communal Cooperative Society”, a Neutral and “free” society in which, theoretically, everyone can live and co-exist in harmony, whether they be Messians or Gaians. This must have been intended to be an essentially secular democratic society, built on religious pluralism, meant to foster mutual co-existence and cooperation between all parties, without the influence of either God or the demons, without either the forces of Law or the forces of Chaos. A decade later, however, the Order of Messiah somehow takes over the government of the Communal Cooperative Society and converts it into a theocratic regime ruled by the Messians. Rather predictably this inspires the Gaians to try and overthrow the Messian government, so they start riots, which are soon quelled by the Messian Temple Knights. As time passes, the Centre is built as the central organ of a whole municipal government, built on the ruins of the Great Cathedral. The Messians also create artificial life-forms called “Demonoids”, humans and animals that are transformed into demons, to be used as either slave labour or livestock, whole facilities such as the Factory and Valhalla (the entertainment district) are designed to accomodate more people in what comes to be known as Tokyo Millennium, and several Gaian protests are suppressed by the Temple Knights, who then become the offficial elite police force of Tokyo Millennium. Meanwhile, most of the world around the city became uninhabitable as a result of climate change, widespread nuclear radiation, and the depletion of the ozone layer, resulting in many people from outside Tokyo Millennium migrating in order to live in its self-contained environment. By the time of the game’s events, Tokyo Millennium is established as a city whose citizens are stratified by a rigid class hierarchy, policed by the Temple Knights, and controlled by a corrupt and totalitarian leadership from its Senate and the Centre, all with the goal of creating the Thousand Year Kingdom and under the hope of the appearance of the Messiah. But as time passed, the Messiah never appeared, so the Elders of the Senate decided to create an artificial Messiah to do their bidding, as well as other artificial humans most of which would be his companions. This is how this game’s protagonist, known initially as Hawk, came to be.
As grim as that all must seem, the fate of the Neutral protagonist is even more tragic. Evidently he ended up working for Tokyo Millennium in the decades after the Messians took over the Communal Cooperative Society he helped create, which means that, although we can assume he didn’t align himself with Law, he did cooperate with the Messians. He founded Valhalla, the entertainment district of Tokyo Millennium, where people can pursue everyday worldly pleasures, and also watch people fight to the death in the Coliseum. Valhalla is also relatively “free” in that it is the only part of the city not directly controlled by the Center, who instead lend control of the city to a woman named Madam. The Neutral protagonist worked with Madam, and his old demon companion Cerberus, to build Valhalla into what it is, but although he ended up working with Tokyo Millennium he refused to blindly obey orders from the Center. Eventually he died in what appeared to be a cave-in but was actually an assassination carried out on the orders of the Centre and made to look like a cave-in. Meanwhile, a statue of him can be found in the Coliseum in Valhalla, and at some point the statue for some reason can be seen shadding tears. So ends the story of the Neutral protagonist, his dream of a Neutral society shown to be a depressing failure that was captured by the forces of Law.
Meanwhile, Madam remains in Valhalla, and is probably one of the main representations of Neutrality earlier in the game at least in the sense that she is a link to the late Neutral protagonist. After the Neutral protagonist died, Cerberus found Madam outside the cave where he died, joined Madam as her servant, and loyally serves his new mistress in building and looking after Valhalla. Madam governs Valhalla more or less independently from the designs of the Centre or the Senate, and they allow for this arrangement for as long as it they can still use it as a means by which to select individuals worthy of being admitted into the Thousand Year Kingdom and the Centre. Once the Centre decided that they no longer needed it, the Senate summoned Abaddon to swallow the entirety of Valhalla, and Madam along with it.
Masakado returns in this game, and this time his role is actually much more significant than in the previous game. Here, Masakado’s body has been torn apart, and each body part is guarded by various Kunitsukami gods who are sealed away in shrines across the Underworld. His attendant, Hiruko, requests the player to retrieve each body part so that he can restore his master with the help of the Cathedral of Shadows, where you typically go to fuse new demons. If you can find all the body parts and bring them to Hiruko, the master of the Cathedral of Shadows will fuse them together to restore Masakado’s body, who at point appears as a menacing and soulless warrior. Fortunately Hiroku has retained Masakado’s soul, which when fused with the soulless body of Masakado fully restores the guardian spirit of Tokyo to life and his former glory. Masakado then goes to open the Sealed Cave so that the protagonist can free the Amatsukami who were imprisoned there, and gives you his Katana and a Sun Pillar (one of several pillars needed to open the front passage to Makai). Masakado’s Katana is actually important to completing the game in the Neutral path, since it allows the player to get past the entrance to Kether Castle and make his way to Lucifer, so Masakado can be seen as a significant benefactor of the Neutral path.
Also returning is Stephen, who you can regularly encounter in Virtual Reality training sessions. Just like before, you can find him throughout the game and he can upgrade your COMP in various ways. You can even find him in Makai, where he somehow manages to link up the stone pillars that serve as Save Terminals to the Terminal System that he created. He becomes somewhat more important in this game’s Neutral path, since in that path he becomes one of your main allies and it is he that ensures that the player can access Eden for the final showdown against YHVH (as opposed to Satan in the Law path and Lucifer in the Chaos path). Just as in the previous game, he is once again looking for someone he can trust with the Demon Summoning Program he created about a century prior, and he deems a Neutral player worthy of that trust. Of course, there is the obvious and unanswered question of how in the world is Stephen still alive after so long? The real Stephen Hawking died in 2018 at the age of 78, but in this game Stephen apparently survived well past 2018 towards the end of the 21st century! The only explanation at this point seems to come from the GBA remake of the previous game, in which he is implied to actually be a reincarnation of Abe no Seimei, a 10th century onmyoji who performed esoteric services for the Imperial Court and, much like Taira no Masakado, became a subject of legend. Thus for both games the representation of Neutrality can be seen in spiritual protectors of Tokyo, even though one of them originally wanted to overthrow the Imperial Court for probably ambitious reasons.
But what actually happens in the Neutral path? Again, we must present the two other choices for context. The Law path, once again, means constructing the Thousand Year Kingdom, this time by taking all the believers to space and wiping out the unbelievers so that the chosen can repopulate the Earth. The Chaos path, by contrast, wants to destroy the dominance of Tokyo Millennium to bring freedom back to Tokyo, bringing forth not only co-existence with demons but also bringing light to the Underworld and the Mutants. So what is the Neutral proposal?
At some point you are introduced to Lucifer, who tells you about God, Satan, and his plans for Tokyo Millennium, and later Gabriel shows you Eden and your friend Zayin tells you about how he wants to rebuild the Thousand Year Kingdom. The Neutral path starts when you, first of all, say no Zayin’s proposal to build the Thousand Year Kingdom, and then, after defeating Astaroth, refusing Lucifer’s proposal to ally with him. After defeating Abaddon, making your way through Makai to Kether Castle, defeating the generals of Chaos and eventually defeating Lucifer, Lucifer warns that humans are not strong enough to survive on their own and that, with him defeated, the dragon called Kuzuryu that sits in the mountains of Makai will go berserk and destroy everything in its path. In the Neutral path, and only the Neutral path, you are given the chance to fight and destroy Kuzuryu in order to save Makai, the Underworld, and Millennium. Once you defeat Kuzuryu, Stephen encourages you to go to Eden to save Millennium. When Zayin shows his hand as Satan and kicks you out of Eden for the second time, Stephen tells you about God’s plan to use the Megiddo Ark to destroy all life on earth, and after this he teleports you to Eden to defeat the forces of YHVH and save the world. When you defeat YHVH, you return to Millennium, where Valhalla has apparently been restored. Then Hiroko stands outside the city to tell you that, with YHVH and Lucifer both defeated, there’s nobody left for humanity to rely on except itself, but assures the player that you and Hiroko have each other, and the two set out to rebuild the world with their own hands. With that, the sun rises on what remains of Tokyo Millennium.
Essentially, whereas the Law and Chaos paths both entail the destruction of Tokyo Millennium in some way, with the forces of Law destroying Tokyo Millennium in order to repopulate the world and the forces of Chaos destroying Tokyo Millennium in order to free the oppressed dwellers of the Underworld and Makai, the Neutral path sets out to preserve Tokyo Millennium, though not without bringing down the forces of Law who were behind the scenes. What happens to the Mutants dwelling below the surface is not clear. Indeed, the most that we can be sure about is that YHVH will not be able to interfere with a Neutral project, and consequently nor will his angels since, as you see in the Law ending, they disappear without him. But this is far from nothing, since that must surely be a mighty blow to the ambitions and morale of the Messians. With them possibly out of the way, perhaps there is room to use what’s left of Tokyo Millennium to restore the Communal Cooperative Society to what it once was. But with both YHVH and Lucifer warning that humanity is not strong enough to live on its own and that God and the demons will return one day, it does make you wonder how long it will be before the Neutral project fails again.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003/2005)
As complicated and difficult as the boundaries of Law and Chaos are in Nocturne, Neutrality nonetheless is actually fairly easy to point to and discuss in the context of the game. If we account for the Maniax edition introducing the True Demon Ending, we see a de facto division between the three Reason endings on the side of Law and the True Demon Ending on the side of Chaos, that leaves two Neutral endings: the Freedom ending, in which the world is restored to exactly as it was before the Conception, and the Demon ending, in which nothing changes, a new world is not created and the old world is not restored, and the Vortex World remains indefinitely until the next Conception. Both paths present different aspects of Neutrality that only become more pronounced later in the series.
In this regard, probably the main representative for Neutrality in this game is, without any doubt, Yuko Takao, the protagonist’s teacher who led him and his friends to the Shinjuku Medical Centre just in time for them to survive The Conception and compete to create a new world. Initially she works with Hikawa in order to bring about The Conception and serve as the Maiden for the Assembly of Nihilo, Hikawa’s organization for bringing about the Reason of Shijima. She does this because she believed that humanity has become hopelessly weak and irresponsible and that only by creating a new world and destroying the old one will set things right. But while she may have had a world of freedom in mind and thought that she was herself creating a new world, in reality she was simply being used by Hikawa as a vessel to gather Magatsuhi, the power to create a new world, so that he could realize his own goal of a world of stillness, and Hikawa has nothing but contempt for the freedom that Yuko would later refer to.
When the player rescues Yuko from the Obelisk, she is freed from Hikawa’s control, and over time she begins to try and form her own Reason to compete with Hikawa and stop him from realizing Shijima. Her Neutral colours display nicely when, in Yoyogi Park, she says that the world should neither remain in chaos nor be turned into a world of silence by Hikawa. But Yuko is ultimately indecisive, she struggles to come up with a Reason on her own, and so she petitions a god from beyond the Vortex World to grant her a Reason. That god (or rather goddess) is Aradia, the goddess of freedom based on none other than the witch goddess of Charles Leland. Aradia possesses Yuko in order to communicate with the player, and in general protects and accompanies her. In Yoyogi Park she tests the player’s resolve by asking a series of questions about whether they can face the consequences of following their own path. Answering her questions with fear paves the way for the Demon ending while answering her questions with courage paves the way for the Freedom ending.
Freedom is indeed the watchword for Aradia, since she believes resolutely in freedom. She proclaims that her duty is to bestow freedom to those who seek it, tells people not to obey others and instead do what they believe is right. When confronting Hikawa, Aradia states that his choice to believe in Shijima is a type of freedom to rebut his rejection of freedom. Yuko expresses an opposition to Shijima that more or less expresses the same ethos of freedom. Her objection is that the world of Shijima cannot even called a world, just an endless spinning of time without change, with no potential. Ot is possible that the Reason that Yuko desired may have been a Reason of freedom. But, Aradia never grants Yuko the Reason that she desires, and the laws of Amala ensure that she is unable to affect creation in any way. She is a false goddess, from a space in Amala outside the Vortex World where gods were not meant to exist gather. Aradia was born from the wishes of witches who prayed to a goddess for deliverance from their persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church, but all she can do is offer hope to her followers, and no deliverance ever came. In just the same way, all she can do is offer Yuko some hope and moral support, while being unable to actually give her any power to affect creation, and ultimately she leaves Yuko behind, albeit at Yuko’s request, before she is sacrificed by Hikawa so that he may summon his god, Ahriman. I can only suspect that this is to some extent an elaborate jab at the psuedo-historical nature of the Aradia myth, in that it was an invented myth that Charles Leland passed off as the long lost legend of Italian witchcraft or paganism.
Masakado returns, but his role in this game is honestly not too different from his role in the fitst game. After collecting all Magatamas, the demon bugs that confer abilities upon the player, the master of the Cathedral of Shadows gives you the Lord’s Sword, which you can present to his grave in order to open the way to Bandou Shrine, where he resides. Defeat the Four Heavenly Kings, his servants, to lower the temple where he rests, and he will greet you in order to ask you why you have summoned him. If you seek his assistance, he will ask you if you want to bring peace to Tokyo. At this point he gives you the Magatama Masakados, which makes you almost indestructible.
The Freedom path sees the player reject all three Reasons and try restore the world to the way it was before the Conception. As you enter the Tower of Kagutsuchi, Kagutsuchi attempts to see within his heart, but cannot determine if the player’s will is in accordance with his own. When the Freedom player meets Kagutsuchi, Kagutsuchi describes said player as having “a heart that follows no rule” and the “kingdom of freedom” he longs for as having no set future. He opposes the Freedom path because, he says, the Great Will once gave the world freedom in hopes of triggering its evolution into something better, but it supposedly led to evil, darkness, and destruction. And so Kagutsuchi considers freedom to be the fruit of ruin and the seed of disaster, compares you to Lucifer for being “a slave of freedom”, and fights you to the death. When you defeat Kagutsuchi, he warns that the “kingdom of freedom” promises only suffering, and with that his light restores the world to what it was. The player wakes up in his room to find Isamu alive again, and then we see everyone else alive again, and an email from Yuko, who tells you that she’s soon to be discharged from hospital and that she no longer feels hopeless about the world. And then, Lucifer tells the player that he has chosen to follow his own will and tread the path of thorns, just as he himself once did. He then warns the player that his true adversary, presumably referring to the Great Will, will hunt him down eventually, but assures him to stay strong.
By rejecting the three Reasons, the player is rejecting the three avenues by which the Great Will may realize his drive to perfect the universe into a cosmos devoid of free will. He does this under the auspices of an ideal passed onto him by Yuko, or perhaps more accurately through Aradia. By restoring the world as it was, you affirm the potential of humanity to do what it can to better itself and the world under its own power, in spite of its mistakes. There is talk of the kingdom of freedom, yet to build this kingdom you restore the world as it was. Why? Perhaps it is because it is in that ordinary world that the freedom Aradia seeks after is to be realized. Following the avenues of the Great Will is destined to destroy it, whichever path is taken, leaving the Vortex World in its present state achieves nothing, and destroying the cycle of creation may not lead to whatever Aradia imagines to be freedom, perhaps Lucifer and Aradia have different ideas as to what that means. And yet, that is not the case, since Lucifer sort of endorses the Freedom path as the player following his precise example. By denying the Great Will’s creation, the player has become a kind of fallen angel, treading his own path, off the back of his own will.
The Demon path sees the player either trying to support too many Reasons at once or responds to Aradia’s questions with fear while rejecting all the Reasons. Kagutsuchi, just like before, cannot see into your heart and cannot determine if your will is opposed to his. When you meet him, he laments that the dreams of those with Reasons were shattered, and the possibility of a new world forever destroyed by the hand of a demon. He says that although the player may have sought the power of creation, but a demon can never acquire a Reason no matter how strong his conviction, and, whether you realized it or not, you purged the world of those who sought creation. He praises your strength, but judges your soul to be empty, and declares you the incarnation of ruin itself, a false seeker of power, and the one responsible for the death of the world. At that point, unlike any of the other endings, Kagutsuchi doesn’t even deign himself to fight you, he simply curses your name and sends you on your way out. At that point, the little boy version of Lucifer appears to seemingly give you his blessing, remarking that you can do without the light that no longer shines on you. Chaos reigns, which is to say that the primordial chaos of the Vortex World remains as it is, and Lucifer declares that you have created a millenial kingdom of demons. And there you stand, in the desert of the world you have preserved.
On the surface, this actually looks like a Chaos ending rather than a Neutral ending, especially if Lucifer’s words about you having created a kingdom for demons are anything to go by. But you haven’t created anything. At most, you have tried to create a new world and failed. You didn’t bring about this outcome as a result of a resolve to fight God on behalf of the forces of Chaos. You brought this about because of your fear of freedom, or your lack of commitment to any particular cause. You raged against the three Reasons but with neither a Reason of your own (which you can’t create as a demon anyway), nor the resolve to restore the world, nor the resolve to destroy creation itself. As a matter of fact, you don’t even know why you climbed your way up to the Tower of Kagutsuchi to start with. Simply put, the Demon path is when you lack a vision for creation, or even for destruction, and have nothing but the void of the Vortex World that already exists. Maybe you prefer it like this, or maybe you just can’t decide what it is you want to do.
Yuko herself ultimately embodies both forms of Neutrality in the game. On the one hand, she embodies the Freedom path in the sense of her at least gradual belief that humans are supposed to be the ones resolving their own conflicts and destinies, and with it takes on board classical SMT Neutrality in terms of her obvious rejection of both chaos and absolute order. On the other, she also embodies the Demon path version of Neutrality because of her fear and, to some extent, indecisiveness. For so much of the game since her rescue from the Obelisk, all she knows is that she wants to stop Hikawa from realizing the Reason of Shijima and pursue creation on behalf of mankind, but at the same time she has no idea how to go about that, she constantly feels powerless even with Aradia around, and she cannot summon a Reason on her own which is why she attempts to petition Aradia to grant her one, never realizing that she is the one who has to establish a Reason herself. Plagued by a lack of self-confidence, she almost unwittingly allows herself to be manipulated by Hikawa, whose self-confidence and ambition are unfortunately stronger than hers. This lack of confidence leads fundamentally to an inability to conceretly choose her own vision, and this is an indecisiveness that, ultimately, metastasizes further in future games, in another female Neutral character. But that’s for later in this post.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (2009)
In Strange Journey, a version of the Law and Chaos dynamic more or less returns, with Law wanting to a create a Thousand Year Kingdom in all but name wherein perfect order is the object and Chaos wanting to create a kingdom where humans and demons live together in anarchy but in a much crueller context than in previous games. In a setting where the angels and the demons are competing for the power of the Schwarzvelt, Neutrality pretty straightforwardly represents humanity, or more specifically the interests of the Schwarzvelt Investigative Team and the Joint Project.
The aim of the Schwarzvelt Investigative Team was, as the name would suggest, to explore the Schwarzvelt after it began to appear over Antarctica, and originally this meant collecting information about its formation to understand what it was. Once the expedition crew realized that it was full of demons, and that the demons began attacking them with the intent of killing humans, the goal changed from wanting to investigate the Schwarzvelt to wanting to escape from it. Eventually, the Joint Project changes its focus and tries to destroy the Schwarzvelt, after thinking that the Schwarzvelt Investigation Team had successfully escaped. The Joint Project detonating nuclear weapons on the Schwarzvelt as the team escapes, but this plan falls flat on its face as the nukes do nothing to disperse the Schwarzvelt and the crew is once again stuck deeper within.
Humanism is, once again, the conceptual leitmotif of Neutrality, and this is reflected in the way the player can respond to alignment questions. The player’s alignment can depend largely on answers to the various questions posed to the player by your crew and the demons. With respect to the demons in particular, there are plenty of Neutral answers, and these all involve repudiating the challenges of the demons and the angels and asserting faith in mankind’s potential to solve its own crises without their aid. Or, failing that, you can always rig your way to balance by doing some mining with a Goblin in Sector Antlia.
Speaking of alignment shifts, before we come to the representation of Neutrality in terms of characters, there is one important thing to note. In Sector Grus, there is a potential alignment shift moment where, in order to access the path to Maya, you ostensibly have to choose between assisting the demons led by Grendel and killing Jack’s Squad in a revenge attack, or instead assisting Zelenin and having her sing her song in the demons’ headquarters to neutralize them. The former represents a major shift towards Chaos, while the latter represents the opposite shift towards Law. But there is actually a third option: simply force your way through to Maya on your own by fighting Grendel. If you don’t want to either be responsible for the death of Jack’s Squad or unleash the powers of the angels, all you have to do is go back to Grendel and, instead of joining him, initiate a fight with him. What’s curious is that this is the easy option that would allow the player to ignore the ethical dillemma the game intended for you, but Zelenin doesn’t endorse this option despite it meaning you refusing to listen to demons and instead actually fighting them. I suppose with the angels it really is their way or the highway?
Anyway, a figure who comes to represent Neutrality is a man named Gore, the commander of the Schwarzvelt Invesitgation Team. At first it seems that he doesn’t last too long, dying on the first mission of the game in Sector Antlia to protect the player from the demon Orias, which leaves command of the crew in the hands of Arthur, the AI unit of the Red Sprite. But as the crew progresses into Sector Delphinus they notice that Gore’s body has disappeared, prompting a search. They soon find that Gore has seemingly been resurrected, but controlled by the Mothers and proclaiming the will of the earth against mankind. After defeating Ouroboros, the resurrected Gore begins wander, as the Mothers’ control of him increasingly weakens. Eventually, when the player reaches Sector Horologium, Gore has fully broken from the control of the Mothers, and is now an ubergestalt entity seeking to impart knowledge to humans and help them escape the Schwarzvelt. He has thus changed from an opponent of humanity to its benefactor, from believing that humans are hopeless and beyond salvation to believing they are capable of anything. Then, if the player is Neutral, he tests the player with a series of questions designed to lock his alignment one way or another and determine his commitment to humanity.
Should the player answer those questions Neutrally, Gore accepts you as a champion of the human species and comes up with a new plan to destroy the Schwarzvelt. This plan is referred to as Plan Omega, in which, instead of simply escaping the Schwarzvelt, the crew is to use the nuclear warhead aboard the Gigantic, one of the other ships, to destroy the Schwarzvelt. So instead of creating a world of Law or a world of Chaos, Neutrality is essentially “Nuke the Schwarzvelt!”. With that, Gore can no longer sustain his ubergestalt form, his knowledge apparently “crushing” him somehow, and so he dies again. So whichever path you take, Gore dies, just that in the Neutral path you don’t kill him. With that, the mission remains in the command of Arthur, who elaborates on Plan Omega based on the information Gore give him (as opposed to just telling you before he died). Arthur explains that the plan is to destroy the Schwarzvelt from within through a high-energy detonation. This requires gathering high-energy matter, the substance referred to as Cosmic Eggs, with the power to create or swallow an entire continuum of space-time. These Eggs are what both Mem Aleph and the angels want use to create their new worlds, but which Neutral humanity will instead use to destroy the Schwarzvelt. The eggs are to be used as fuel for the nuclear warhead aboard the Gigantic in order to convert their creative energy into destructive power.
After gathering the four Cosmic Eggs, the next task is to claim the Exotic Matter that belongs to Mem Aleph. With her defeated, the crew prepare to head for the Vanishing Point in Sector Eridanus to escape. In order to facilitate this, the Red Sprite divides into two sections, the carrier section and the engine section, the latter of which is how the ship will escape. But Arthur will not be joining the crew in their escape. Instead he will stay with the carrier section to ensure the bomb’s detonation. He says this is because he has acquired too much information in the Schwarzvelt, the knowledge he has accumulated has the power to alter the whole course of human civilization, and Arthur calculates that, if he were to return to Earth, humans will become dependent on that knowledge and worship Arthur as a god, which Arthur believes to be improper and would stop humans from being in control of their own fate as a species. Somehow the fact of his coming demise has caused Arthur, a machine, to hesitate in his plan, and so he requires the player to “transfer the brilliance within you” to Arthur, whatever that is. With that, the plan to blow up the Schwarzvelt goes exactly as Arthur intended, the Cosmic Eggs are detonated, and the Schwarzvelt explodes before shrinking rapidly, thus the Earth is rid of it. The crew, meanwhile, successfully escape and find themselves in Antarctica, back on Earth, where their mission began, and they see that the Schwarzvelt has disappeared, thus their mission has been a success. The Joint Project contacts the crew and announces that they’ll send out a rescue squad to pick up the crew from Antarctica. All of the demons have disappeared along with the Schwarzvelt, and even though Arthur was destroyed in the process, the Schwarzvelt Investigation Team was able to produce a report of their findings. The report apparently shocks the world, as it would, but it remains unknown if humanity understands its repurcussions. Considering the fact that a sizeable amount of people still don’t take climate change seriously, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
It is on this note that we should probably talk about Arthur’s calculation regarding knowledge and human self-determination. On of the core points that the game relentless hammers away at the player is that the Schwarzvelt is essentially a response to the way civilization interacts with Earth in a harmful and decadent relationship. The demons within it position themselves as antibodies to a virus that gnaws away at the Earth, and the structure of the Schwarzvelt often reflects various vices in human societies. But then that’s not even getting into potential rammifications concerning energy and the use thereof. There’s all kinds of matter in there that would be utterly foreign to human understanding, certainly very novel for scientific discovery. Obviously this knowledge must be quite a lot to bear for humanity, for Arthur to talk about it like it would lead to him being worshipped as a god, let alone for Gore to talk about it “crushing” him in his ubergestalt state. But it also seems like there’s no reason humanity wouldn’t benefit from it immensely, radically altering the way we perceive reality itself and compelling humans to reckon with their own actions with a new perspective of the way they treat the Earth and each other. It sounds like something that could have pushed humanity forward, if Arthur had allowed it to happen. But on the other hand, there’s a good chance that, if it were released, humans might not have listened too much anyway. I cracked wise about the real world response to climate change a moment ago, but that’s honestly a good point to consider, especially considering that environmental degradation is a core theme of the game’s story. It has been decades since we have had some idea that the Earth’s climate was changing rapidly because of human industrial activity, but not much sign that human civilization is making much real progress in combatting anthropogenic climate change, and not only that but there’s still an alarming amount of people (and yes, I’d say this consists largely of Americans) who are pretty convinced that climate change isn’t even real. So, if Arthur were to share what he knew to humanity, would humanity even believe him, let alone worship him? Perhaps his real concern should have been the total opposite of what he posited. But in all that, can we really say that humans have been rendered more or less in control of their fate by such knowledge than they were before it dawned on them?
Shin Megami Tensei IV (2013)
By now we’ve already established the Law and Chaos dynamic for this game pretty concretely. Law represents the preservation of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and its realization as the Thousand Year Kingdom, a place of perfect order under the angels that lasts forever, off the back of the elimination of anything considered to be “unclean”, as well as representing the abstract concept of “preservation” in general, whereas Chaos represents the pursuit of anarchic freedom for humans and demons through a world where “the strong can shape things as they please”, achieved through the destruction of existing hierarchies and the current order, as well as representing the abstract theme of change as something that should be pursued even if it leads to conflict and discord. So what is the Neutral path between these two points? To hark to the more generalized interpretations of Law and Chaos employed in this game, what is the middle of the road between preservation and radical change?
Well, for a start, there are really two endings to this game that could be counted as Neutral endings. The first is what could be called Neutrality proper, in that it sees you defeating the final Law and Chaos bosses to achieve a Neutral outcome (which we will discuss), while the second is what is referred to as the White ending, in which you side with a cabal of beings known as The White to return the universe to nothing. Both are Neutral in the exact sense that they affirmatively reject the conflict between Law and Chaos, taking neither side and opposing both, but differ noticeably in how they intend to defeat the forces of Law and Chaos. One would not resort to destroying the entire universe and replacing it with nothing, and the other would.
Actually acheiving Neutrality in this game can be much more of an incredible pain in this game than most others. Your alignment is determined by a series of choices that can be made throughout the game, and unlike in most of the series there is no third option for the final alignment lock. The last alignment choice in the game has you choosing between preserving the status quo or destroying the current order of things, and the third option is “I don’t know”, which is not an option and means that there is no choice to affirm Neutrality towards the end of the game. This means that getting to the Neutral path requires the player to carefully callibrate their alignment by alternating between Law and Chaos choices all their way to the end of the game in order to arrive at a Neutral outcome at the final stretch. If you arrive at Monochrome Forest and find Jonathan or Walter at the end of it, you’ve failed and have to stick it out on the Law or Chaos paths. There are very few third options in many alignment choices and often the ones that exist serve only to paint you as indecisive, such as one where Burroughs, who is basically the AI navigator for your Gauntlet’s computer, reprimands you as being incapable of forming your own opinion. This results in a player who alternates between two different sets of often diamertically opposed convictions in order to achieve “balance” between Law and Chaos, which is honestly much more indecisive than simply not agreeing with two of a given set of opinions.
Speaking of indecisiveness, the closest thing to a Neutral paragon among the Samurai of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado is Isabeau, who also happens to be the only woman of the group, but to call her a paragon is somewhat inaccurate. Isabeau seems to reject both Law and Chaos, but is laughably indecisive for much of the game. When faced with major choices between Law and Chaos, Isabeau may seem to reject both but never expresses much of a coherent opposition to either choice. In the Passage of Ethics, Isabeau never makes any choice either way, and probably can’t if she’s supposed to be the stock Neutral character since there’s only two doorways in each section of the passage. Then, when the party is split over the decision to either go with Jonathan and kill Lilith or go with Walter and kill Tayama, you are only allowed to choose between one of either of those outcomes, there’s no Neutral option between them, and even after you make your choice for one or the other, Isabeau never comes to form any solid opinion on it, still finding herself needing think about what the best outcome is for everyone. The entire conflict in that sense is motivated by her concern for Fujiwara and Skins, two Hunters, in fact leaders of the Hunter Association, living in Tokyo, whose initial goal is to head up to the surface and seek co-existence with the people of Mikado. When Gabriel tells the Samurai that anyone living in Tokyo will be killed if they try to enter Mikado, Isabeau is fraught with concern for them, but the game never addresses this by giving you the option to perhaps go with Isabeau instead of Walter or Jonathan and try to warn the humans of Tokyo about the angels. When Isabeau is making a concrete choice, it’s when you return to Tokyo on the Law and Chaos paths, and that choice is to oppose you. In the former, she indicts Law for its pursuit of genocide for the sake of Mikado, and in the latter, she indicts Chaos for what she believes to be its pursuit of an endless war of succession. But even then, she laments her own lack of conviction next to the strength of your ideals, being unable to make her decision until the very end. Even when you find her on the Neutral path, she apparently has no idea what to do, no cause to set on her own against Law and Chaos, and it is only with the revival of Masakado that she finally arrives at the choice she has been longing for.
After the alignment split between Jonathan and Walter, or more specifically after the Yamato Perpetual Reactor is activated and a gate to the Expanse is opened, the game introduces you to The White, mysterious beings who, according to the official art book, represent ancient races that were destroyed by the angels, and who in the game set out to convince the player to wipe out all of existence in order to end the war between Law and Chaos and free all life from God’s control. The White seem to be based on the Great White Brotherhood, a group of perfected beings in Theosophy who were supposed to guide the human race towards enlightenment through the spread of mystic teachings, but the White in this game have goals that are radically opposed to the Brotherhood on whom they are based. To the White’s desired end of returning the universe to nothing, they send the player, along with Jonathan and Walter, to two alternate versions of Tokyo where the previous incarnation of the player chose a Lawful or a Chaotic outcome in order to demonstrate the futility of either choice. In Blasted Tokyo, the original hero sided with the angels of Law and allowed God’s Plan to destroy Tokyo and the world, leaving nothing but a desert populated by a handful of survivors who wait in vain for God to save them, while in Infernal Tokyo, the original hero sided with the demons of Chaos and joined Kenji in driving the angels out of Tokyo, which resulted in a lawless city where humans can become Demonoids to gain more power and keep humans as their Neurishers. After you pass through both of them, the White will tell that only by destroying the universe will you be able to fulfill your role as Messiah and save everything from God, and at that point you are given a choice: either agree with them and return the universe to nothing, or refuse them.
If you agree with them and return the universe to nothing, the White tell you that they created the Yamato Perpetual Reactor as a means to generate black holes, declare that mankind has finally won, and send you to Camp Ichigaya where you face the Yamato Perpetual Reactor, which makes no effort to oppose you. When you finish fighting the reactor, you get it to create a massive black hole that swallows Tokyo, the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, and the entire rest of the universe, thus all of creation has come to nothing. It is here that some very familiar undertones come into play. Obviously this ending is as close as the game gets to having its own version of the True Demon ending from Nocturne, but without the final war against God at the end of it. Instead of leading the forces of Chaos to victory over the Great Will to usher in an eternal age of freedom, you’re just saying “fuck everything let’s destroy the universe because life is mean”. Nihilism has been invoked to describe the motives of the White or the impulses they represent, and I think that in a loose sense this is an accurate descriptor but at the same time I would point out that “nihilism” in this sense can carry connotations that more accurately describe pessimism. Nihilism is not inherently pessimistic, as the belief that life is absolutely without meaning can be taken in a positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic direction, and pessimism conversely is not inherently nihilistic, in fact you may find that Christians, despite their belief in an omnibenevolent God and the constancy of the possibility of redemption, can nonetheless be some of the most pessimistic people around. The White in this sense stand as essentially both nihilistic and pessimistic; nihilist, because they believe life to be inherently and absolutely meaningless, and pessimist, because they believe that all forms of human action in the conflict of Law and Chaos leads only to different forms of ruin. Not even traditional Neutrality is spared from this attitude, since they think nothing leads anywhere except to despair.
If, of course, you refuse the White and pledge to keep the universe intact, they mock you and your “messianic tendencies” and ask what you would prefer to do instead. As I said before you are given a choice to either preserve the status quo or destroy the current order of things, the former pushing you to Law and the latter pushing you to Chaos. Your only third option is to say “I don’t know”, which just sends you back to the previous question, so your only option to move forward is to pick one of the two choices and, if you intend to do a Neutral playthrough, pray that you don’t get stuck in the Law or Chaos paths. But, if you manage to balance your alignment in just the right way, carefully gliding between Lawful and Chaotic choices all the way to the final stretch, you will achieve the Neutral path and, as confirmation of that, you will see a familiar face: Stephen.
Stephen was a staple of the two classic games in the series, but other than Shin Megami Tensei NINE, he didn’t make any appearance in any games after the second one as anything other than a cameo or a reference, so for him to return properly in this game would have been very welcome for long-time fans of the series. At first he makes some fairly brief appearances early in the game, guiding the protagonist and hinting at the role of a mysterious little girl with a hoop. After acheiving the Neutral path, Stephen reappears to tell you that you have chosen your own path instead all three others, and Burroughs tells Stephen that the player has taken essentially the same path as his previous incarnation, which as you’ll see is a big deal for the Neutral path. Stephen then tells you that, if you are the reincarnation of the previous hero, then you must revive “the goddess of Tokyo” order to save both Tokyo and Mikado. This is quite a shift in theme when we consider the secular humanism and scientific rationalism Stephen was supposed to represent and for which he was intended as a symbol of Neutrality. True, he still favours humanity and represents the rejection of both the angels and the demons, but now he seems to place the hope of humanity on some unspecified goddess, as well as the spirit of Masakado.
We should point out that the game never really gives you a good idea of who this goddess is and why it’s so important for you to revive her. What we’re told, though, is that the little girl carrying a hoop is actually the goddess of Tokyo and that Burroughs’ likeness is based on the original image of that goddess. After defeating the White, Stephen congratulates you for defeating them and gives you some pep talk about Neutrality. He says that the Neutral player chose “a world without bias”, but warns that though its people yearn for joy they will probably only feel more sadness. While this seems like Stephen knocking down his own non-alignment, that apparently is what the goddess of Tokyo (who he says is “Tokyo itself”) is for: to embrace those people who feel sadness. He elaborates that the previous hero answered her cries to protect Tokyo, but while erecting the firmament protected the people from nuclear annihilation, it resulted in the people of Tokyo being divided into two separate populations, and so reviving the goddess of Tokyo means removing the firmament over Tokyo, restoring Tokyo to normal and somehow the goddess’ true form along with it. This also means petitioning Masakado, whose body is that very firmament, to assist you in your quest.
So, essentially, the Neutral path consists of bringing Tokyo “back to normal”, back to the way it was before the ICBMs fell on the city. But there is an obvious problem that the game never really addresses. Where was this goddess when Tokyo was being besieged to start with? Was she not able to do her part along with Masakado in protecting the city? What are her actual powers? And we still don’t have a reason why we’re supposed to care about this goddess other than she’s Tokyo itself. There is never any real address of this in the entire game, and that is a serious problem for this games’ Neutral path.
Then Stephen teleports you back outside of the Expanse so you can go back to your own world, and you end up at the Counter-Demon Force base in Kasumigaseki, where you find Isabeau who fills you in on what happened since you disappeared. Demons are all over Tokyo, order in Tokyo has esssentially collapsed, Tayama is dead, the angels are planning to completely destroy Tokyo, the Monastery of Mikado is defunct, Yuriko/Lilith is nowhere to be seen, and the angels and demons are gearing up for war. Amidst all that, poor Isabeau has no idea what to do and insists on going with you. Then you make your way back to Cafe Florida to find Fujiwara and Skins, who tell you that they themselves are at a loss, with Lucifer being resurrected in Tokyo. Just when Skins says it doesn’t look like there’s anything humans can do, Burroughs interjects and says “why not turn to a god?”. The god in question is none other than Masakado, the guardian deity of Tokyo, who Skins explains is a “patriotic warrior” and a National Defense Divinity. Skins gives the player Masakado’s Katana, the medium by which Masakado can be summoned, to see if you can unsheathe it, which you can, which proves that you are the reincarnation of the previous hero, a young member of the Counter-Demon Force who defeated and was sacrificed to Masakado to protect Tokyo from ICBMs and thus became the ceiling that protects Tokyo. You’re then instructed to go to Ginza and unsheathe Masakado’s Katana before a giant boulder sitting there, and that’s when Masakado appears. Masakado then discerns that you are the reincarnation of the previous hero who has come to remove the dome above Tokyo and revive the goddess of Tokyo, which Isabeau somehow embraces as the answer she was looking for the whole time on the grounds that she thinks it will mean the people of Tokyo and Mikado will live together at last.
There’s obviously a lot to unpack just from this alone. For starters, the humanism that came to define Neutrality in the first game is pretty much rendered a joke here. All that talk about humans not relying on any gods, or angels, or demons? That’s basically gone, at least in practice. Now humans are powerless to do anything, according to the Neutral humans themselves, and so they turn to the power of a god, with the object of restoring the power of a goddess. But it’s OK, because instead of relying on foreign gods and their angels and demons, this time you’re relying on the spirits of Tokyo, representing the goodness of the city, or hell perhaps even the nation more broadly. Speaking of the nation, there’s also that bit about Masakado being a “National Defense Divinity”. The National Defense Divinities are a group of Japanese deities who pledged loyalty to the nation and were originally enlisted by the Counter-Demon Force to protect Japan, but over time fell into the hands of the Ashura-kai after the dome was erected. Besides Masakado, they consist of Koga Saburo, Tenkai, Yaso Magatsuhi, Omoikane, Michizane, and Yamato Takeru, some of whom were never really considered guardian deities and quite a few of whom are deified persons from history, many of them not even warriors (for instance, Michizane is the soul of a poet-politician who somehow became a god of thunder). These are more of the gods that the humans are to rely on, since they cannot rely on themselves, an assortment of deities and deified souls retconned as gods of the nation who can repel foreign demons and gods. Essentially, we have a sort of vaguely nationalist or “patriotic” undertone, wherein the solution to the problems affecting Tokyo, which here also affect the entire rest of the world, is to gather around jingoistic national solidarity, which is too often called “patriotism”, though is more accurately called nationalism. At the centre of this of course is Masakado himself, the “patriotic warrior”. Obviously this status is extrapolated from his status in lore as a sort of protector spirit of Tokyo, which it is important to stress has nothing to do with the real Masakado. After all, what was so “patriotic” about Masakado’s campaign against the central government of the Imperial Court? Nobody really knows why he rebelled, but a lot of the possibilities concern ambition, failure to secure a government post through legal means, or even dispute over a woman, none of which particularly scream “patriotic loyalty to the nation”, to say nothing of the fact that “nations” in the modern sense did not exist yet. But I suppose it is true that “patriotism” can often serve as a front for ambition and power-seeking.
And then there’s just the fact that only now does Isabeau finally have the answer she was looking for. Ever since the alignment split with Jonathan and Walter, Isabeau has been particularly indecisive about what to do regarding Tayama or Lilith, and the lynchpin of her indecisiveness comes down to concern for the fate of Fujiwara, Skins, and anyone from Tokyo who will try to live in Mikado, spurred on by Gabriel’s declaration that any of the “unclean” who enter Mikado will be eliminated. Finding her in the Neutral path, she still has no idea what “the best outcome for everyone” could be, and only now that you see Masakado and he talks about you wanting to remove the dome does she now find the answer. By removing the dome that is the firmament, she now thinks, the people of Tokyo and Mikado will be able to live together. Of course, the obvious problem for the Mikadoans is that this would mean the complete destruction of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and, if not the destruction of its people, certainly their dislocation. They’ve been conditioned to live exactly as their society set out for them, and destroying Mikado would force them to relocate to Tokyo and perhaps assimilate, thus possibly robbing them of their previous cultural connections. But then when has nationalism cared about complex things like that? The nationalist’s answer is to just tell refugees and immigrants to “be like us”, and then treat them with chauvinistic contempt anyway because as it turns out being made to assimilate is never enough to earn the respect of people who partake in perpetual and pathological mistrust of foreign Others. But Isabeau? Arguably she’s actually worse and more naive, if only off the back of the fact that she seems to assume that this all won’t happen. At least the Chaos ending makes sense to the extent that Mikado still exists and, although you’re invading Mikado, you’re not completely dislocating its people through the complete destruction of their land.
In any case, Masakado can’t remove the dome just yet. For you see, his “essence” has left him to become the dome, and he’s now just a floating head who can’t lend you any power. But there is a way to restore his power. How? By forming “a singular great soul” by uniting the people of Tokyo, the “Great Spirit of Hope”, and offering that hope to him so that his head can return to his body. So, yeah, the Neutral path, traditionally a path where you’re encouraged not to rely on gods or demons and which is usually represented by an icon of secular humanism, has you very literally make an offering to a god in order to progress. And that offering is literally just a cup (chalice) filled with literally just the hopes of Tokyo’s people. And how do you fill that chalice? Simple. You do a bunch of Challenge Quests until you make it to the top of the Hunter Association’s ranking scheme. This, we’re told, would inspire the people by the fact of a foreigner, a Samurai from Mikado, would make you a hero that everyone can pin their hopes on. You know, as opposed to the other Samurai who also made it through the rankings much earlier in the game. Anyways, should you succeed in this arbitrary mess of a plot point, you become the “champion” of Tokyo and people start talking about how they suddenly feel hope, which of course means the chalice you’re carrying starts to fill up with their feelings of hope, and after enough instances of being accosted by crowds who want to tell you who awesome you are, you eventually start seeing a glowing green orb that is apparently the Great Spirit of Hope. Then of course you offer that spirit to Masakado, who swallows it, which allows him to lend some of his strength, but as he tries to remove the ceiling over Tokyo, he encounters interruptions from two other presences called “the Great Spirit of Goodwill” and “the Great Spirt of Spite”. These feelings normally “buttress” hope, but now act as obstacles to it, the former “blindly moving only to preserve” and the latter “running amok solely for upheaval”. And who are these spirits? None other than Merkabah and Lucifer. Yes, in the Neutral path, God’s chariot and the Demon Lord themselves are reduced to vague abstractions that exist only to serve “hope”, and must be put down if they disobey. Naturally, they must be slain in order to allow Masakado to remove the dome from Tokyo.
Nothing but questions ensue from this. For starters, why are you making a literal offering to a god if your whole conceit is that you’re not relying on any gods? Second, if the whole idea is to inspire hope in the people of Tokyo, then even if you need something arbitrary like a “Great Spirit of Hope”, wouldn’t it be more straightforward and make more sense to just make it so that you only have to defeat Merkabah and Lucifer to create that spirit? That would actually mean a sign, from the Neutral perspective, that humans may no longer have to fear either the wrath of God or the presence of demons, and therefore it would constitute real hope for the people, and you would get the obstacles to the ceiling removal out of the way right at the same time as you create the Great Spirit of Hope. Third, just what is meant by “Goodwill” and “Spite” in relation to Merkabah and Lucifer? Is it “goodwill” when Merkabah declares it’s time to commit genocide on all of Tokyo? Is it then “spite” when Lucifer seeks to oppose it, along with freeing Mikado from the mystic tyranny of the angels? Notice that the option that entails the “preservation” of Mikado through genocide is practically given the benefit of the doubt by being referred to as “goodwill”, a positive trait, while the option that entails you saying “stop that, that’s wrong!” and defeating the genociders and liberating the Mikadoans from their rule is referred to explicitly in terms of negative sentimentality. Imagine applying that to the real world that the games sincerely strive to reflect. It would mean that fascism is considered an expression of the best of intentions that merely devolves into extreme violence while anti-fascism is considered inherently spiteful and interested only in upheaval for its own sake. This, quite frankly, bears familiarity to the kind of moral equivalences conjured by conservative talking points, but especially from liberals. But, ironically, if we want to talk about upheaval, which is honestly more disruptive for the Mikadoans? Being invaded by demons and having their whole corrupt and oppressive system of government overthrown, or having the entire land of Mikado destroyed as part of the removal of the ceiling? Of course, we’ll get to that in more detail soon.
One interesting thing to note is that, here, Masakado can be seen not only as an “earth spirit” (as the game puts it), the guardian deity of Tokyo, and an embodiment of the spirit of Tokyo or even the nation itself, but also as a representation of the abstract concept of “hope” itself. Thus the Law and Chaos dynamic is complete as a trifecta of abstract concepts. Law represents “preservation”, Chaos represents “upheaval”, and Neutral represents “hope”. Masakado says himself as he swallows the barrier erected by the angels in Naraku (yes, you heard me) that “there is no barrier that cannot be overcome with hope”. We should examine this hope. Hope in what? Perhaps by following SMT conceits we might understand this as hope in humanity, hope that humans will overcome the crisis in Tokyo and dispel the forces of Law and Chaos? Humanity in this framework would be the point of focus as usual, but then the whole basis for hope consists in your reliance on the power of the god of Tokyo. Or, in this game, the god of hope. If we are to take Masakado as a stand-in for the abstract concept of hope itself, then perhaps we are to surmise that hope comes from hope itself, as in you derive hope from placing your hope in hope itself. It certainly sounds like a tautology, and what we get us essentially hope without object. Let’s consider hope in relative terms when dealing with Law and Chaos. For Law, the object of hope consists in the survival of the order of Mikado and the quelling of chaos from below, and this is relative to the interests of the Mikadoans as conditioned by the angels. For Chaos, the object of hope consists in the destruction of the existing and oppressive hierarchies of Mikado and Tokyo, and is relative to not simply demons but also to all humans who yearn for freedom. But for Neutral? Well, it’s supposed to consist in Tokyo returning to normal and seeing sunlight for the first time since the dome was raised, but is ruthlessly telegraphed as simply hope itself. But if it’s hope you’re after, you can find that anywhere and base it in anything, including within Law or Chaos.
At any rate, let’s cut to the ending. So the player goes to Purgatory and defeats the armies of angels and their leader Merkabah, leaving Isaebeau in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado to convince its inhabitants to evacuate to Tokyo. Well at least we can be sure the Mikadoans won’t all be killed by Masakado. Then of course the player makes his way to Lucifer’s Palace to defeat Lucifer and his devils. With this the Great Spirits of Goodwill and Spite have been recovered and the player returns to Cafe Florida to find the Mikadoans and the Tokyoites socializing and probably drinking together, looking forward to the removal of the dome covering Tokyo. Then you offer the Great Spirits of Goodwill and Spite to Masakado, who of course swallows them, and then Masakado grows three sizes and merges with the ceiling. At this point everything trembles around you and we see some bedrock fall from the firmament, then Masakado rises up and the ceiling is lifted up from Tokyo, letting sunlight into the city for the first time in a long time. Then the player beholds that the goddess of Tokyo has been restored and the drab waste she once inhabited transforms into a lush, verdant beach.
Probably the most noteworthy thing about all of this is that this is a rare instance in the series where the “goddess reincarnation” element encoded in the title of the games explicitly manifests in the story. But again, what does it mean and why do we care? The goddess does nothing, ever, has no identity, no goals, and really no reason to be here except to be the Megami in Shin Megami Tensei. And her relationship with Masakado is never explored at all. We don’t know if she’s supposed to be an ally or consort of Masakado, or really anything. Speaking of Masakado, it is here that Masakado briefly reaffirms the series’ core conceit of Neutrality, saying that humans have regained control of their own world, albeit while depending on Masakado to do it. But just as soon as that he also insists that humans are destined to repeat their own mistakes, and his farewell will be but a brief one. Already you get the sense something will inevitably go wrong again, but then such is the struggle of life. And yet, even with the sun returning to Tokyo, what might we expect? Tokyo has ostensibly returned to normal, but the demons are actually still here. Even after you’ve defeated Lucifer, you can still encounter demons on your way back to Cafe Florida, and in the ending sequence you can see some demons looking up to the sky to behold the ceiling removal just as the humans are. Are the demons going to go back to the Expanse or will they stay in Tokyo? And if they stay, will they co-exist with humans or will they try to prey on humans? The game leaves this open. Keep in mind also that this is obviously after the gate to the Expanse had opened, the “flood of demons” that Tayama warned about had already come to pass by this point. Exactly how this is to be reckoned with is in no way addressed in the Neutral path. For Law the answer is obviously that the demons running around in Tokyo are to be annihilated even if that means genocide against the people of Tokyo, and for Chaos the answer is to embrace the demons and learn to live and forge a new world with them even if that means life being unstable, but it seems that there is no Neutral answer to this question.
And of course, with no obvious purpose for the goddess of Tokyo needing to be “revived”, let alone existing to start with, exactly what purpose is there to removing the dome other than so Tokyo can have sunlight again? Meanwhile there’s lots of fresh water and arable land and space in Mikado, and with the angels out of the picture there’s nothing stopping the Tokyoites from coming to Mikado, beholding the sun, and rebuilding Tokyo there, figuring out how to co-exist with the Mikadoans, maybe even modernize Mikado and lead to the creation of two prosperous and harmonious societies; well, for the most part at least. The only reason that’s not on option in the Neutral path is because the goddess of Tokyo doesn’t want that and won’t be revived, but there’s not enough reason to care about the goddess’ existence or desires for that to matter. Why should the land of Mikado be destroyed when it’s perfectly fine land to live on just because that’s what some unnamed goddess wants? Because it divided the people of Tokyo? Well couldn’t that also be solved by having the people of Tokyo live in Mikado with the Mikadoans? No, because that’s not what the goddess, Masakado or Stephen want, because reasons. Maybe Masakado just really doesn’t like the thought of there being a seemingly separate people on his back. Or maybe, it’s just a consequence of the fact that the whole goal of the Neutral path is to bring Tokyo back to exactly as it was. In a sense, though, I suppose it really does combine the two ideals of Law and Chaos in a very specific sense. It represents preservation, or rather restoration, of the status quo of Tokyo, thereby meeting the game’s minimal criteria for Law, but in doing this it also means upheaval because doing that means removing the firmament, which if anything is far more of a total upheaval of the Mikadoan way of life than simply having Lucifer invade it, and so arguably exceeds the scope of the Chaos path. The White are more or less on point when they describe what the Neutral player wants to do, preserving the status quo and upending it at the same time, even though they’re wrong in the final hand, and I think this is what you get when, in an attempt to blindly emulate series tradition, you present what is essentially a Platonic archetype of “neutrality” or “balance” whose fidelity matters more than the actual outcome or values thereof.
The last elephant in the room that must be addressed before we move on is Akira, the man who came to rule Mikado as King Aquila. While this could be covered more in the next section, the previous two posts talked a lot about him in the context of his incarnations in the Blasted and Infernal Tokyos, so he’s worth bringing up here in the context of his actual incarnation. He isn’t really talked about for much of the game, but it seems that Akira was a member of the Counter-Demon Force alongside Skins and the previous incarnation of the protagonist. When Masakado erected the firmament leading to the creation of the land of Mikado, Akira wanted to go up there to find and save his sister, who was “chosen” by the angels and placed in a Cocoon. When he finally got up there, though, he found the angels already there, and then it seems plans changed. He decided to cast his lot with the angels, became the king of Mikado, and sealed off Naraku so that no can get in or out of Mikado. After some time, Akira was killed by the angels, presumably they no longer had any use for him or they kind of got sick of having one of the “unclean” rule their kingdom. The exact purpose behind Akira’s actions is laid out in the Apocalypse version of the game, but for now let’s just run with that to make the point that, in this game, as in the second game, the Neutral outcome initiated by the previous hero seems to have led into the creation of a Lawful outcome for the land that is now Mikado. For whatever reason, Neutrality sometimes seems to lead to the forces of Law seizing the moment and gaining ascendancy.
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse (2016)
The sequel to Shin Megami Tensei IV that only the developers really asked for, Apocalypse represents an alternate timeline within the fourth game’s overall setting which begins from when the previous protagonist, henceforth referred to as Flynn, chose the Neutral path and set out to oppose the forces of Law and Chaos. In this alternate version of the Neutral path undertaken by Flynn, we see another demon summoner, officially termed Nanashi and that’s how we’ll refer to him because that’s what the game does anyway, an apprentice Hunter who dies, forms a contract with a god named Dagda and is brought back to life, and ends up being responsible for the emergence of a new faction, the Divine Powers, who interrupt the war between Law and Chaos with their plan to “save” all of humanity by killing all humans. As I said at the outset, I chose to ignore this game in the Law and Chaos articles because these are downplayed by the game’s heavy emphasis on a Neutral timeline and especially by the introduction of the conflict between polytheistic gods and YHVH, but now we can cover this game on the grounds that it stems off from the premise of a Neutral path, radically emphasizes Neutrality, and in its own way offers many different shades of Neutrality. I suppose this also counts as my way of talking about the game in general, which I never really took the time to do after its release.
I suppose the best place to start would be the Divine Powers, since they, more than anything else in the game, radically alter context of the setting they establish themselves in. The Divine Powers are a Neutral faction in the precise sense that they reject the forces of Law and Chaos. But whereas traditional Neutrality has a general focus on humanity and human power against supernatural forces, the Divine Powers operate on the theme of a reassertion of pre-Christian polytheism against Judeo-Christian monotheism. Some SMT fans or at least readers of the Chaos article might take this to be more familiar to the Chaos alignment at least in the sense that this sounds like what the Gaians advocate for; indeed, the Ring of Gaea in this game seems to be divided between those who support the Divine Powers and those who oppose them. But the Divine Powers have nothing to do with Lucifer, they claim to represent humanity, and in fact as you’ll see in time the game retcons the forces of both Chaos and Law as two factions of the forces of monotheism against polytheism. Yes, this means that the same Lucifer who in the Chaos ending of the last game mocked Mikado for only allowing the worship of one god, now finds himself in the camp that stresses the worship of one god, which is a patently absurd revision of his characterization, and frankly not the worst as there is more to come.
The Divine Powers consist of numerous deities, but are led by Krishna, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu and thus can be taken as representing the series’ own bowdlerized version of Hinduism, which is important to keep in mind. Other deities found in their ranks include Odin (who received a complete makeover for this game), Maitreya (who is notably a buddha and NOT a polytheistic god), Inanna (here erroneously portrayed as a mother goddess), Shesha (the serpent of Vishnu), Zhong Kui, Quetzalcoatl, Pachacamac, Pales, Ba’al, Seth (not Horus, for some reason), and Apsu. It’s also mentioned that some kunitsukami side with them, or at least “lap up the Allfather’s lies”, but you never really see those kunitsukami in action, only seeing Sukuna Hikona opposing you for trying to unseal Krishna. Their ranks also seem to include monsters or beings who are neither gods nor buddhas, such as Mushussu, Fafnir, Medusa, and Titan. The latter two seem to billed as Greek gods for some reason: I guess they couldn’t enlist gods like Zeus or Poseidon for the job.
They claim one goal: the salvation of all of humanity. But what does that mean? They talk about how “the Creator” (meaning YHVH) assumed himself to be the only true god, took control of the universe, and imprisoned all souls into bodies of matter bound by the power of word. This means two things in practice: making Flynn into their “Godslayer” to kill YHVH, and killing as many humans as possible to collect (or “save”) enough souls to gain the power to create a whole new universe. There is an unmistakable resemblance to certain “Gnostic” teachings, in which the universe is created by a false god who imprisons spirit within matter for the purpose of having people worship him as God. YHVH, being cast here as imprisoning souls into matter and proclaiming himself the one true God, the implication being that in fact he isn’t, is thus this game’s version of the “Gnostic” Demiurge, or rather specifically the Demiurge as envisioned by certain “Gnostic” sects such as the Sethians. You might then be tempted to imagine the gods of the Divine Powers as essentially the other Aeons rebuked by the Demiurge and whose mission is to free spirit from its bondage to matter. Of course, Krishna being their leader makes perfect sense, because Hinduism tends to have a similar theme in its doctrine: the ultimate goal of Hindu spirituality is to achieve moksha (liberation), which means to attain unity with God and transcend the illusory nature of the universe. Krishna also refers to Flynn as Kalki, which is the name of the tenth avatar of Vishnu who appears at the end of the Kali Yuga (the “age of strife”, ruled by sin) to purge evil or adharma and usher in a new Satya Yuga (the “age of truth”, ruled by the gods) and thus a new cycle of ages.
Of course, there are other gods not affiliated with the Divine Powers. One of them is Danu, based on the Irish goddess. Here she inhabits the body of Nozomi, a Hunter, with whom she jointly watches over the fairies, which is pretty much a direct continuation of a Challenge Quest from the previous game in which Danu appears and becomes part of Nozomi. Danu in a certain sense represents traditional Neutrality, emphasizing “balance” in opposition to Law and Chaos. She also represents one side of a different dichotomy: friendship versus isolation. These can be taken as yet more shades of Neutrality but are also the basis of the two main endings of the game. On that note we must also pivot to Danu’s son, Dagda. He’s the god responsible for Nanashi being returned from the dead early in the game, and himself sort of stems from another Challenge Quest from the previous game in which his cauldron was to be acquired for the Tuatha De Danann. Dagda here is almost nothing like his original mythological character, and is very interested in using Nanashi to kill every other god, demon, or buddha in order to create his own universe where humans live in isolation from each other and don’t engage in friendship (what he means by “true individuals”) and, as the game later reveals, gods like him can escape the confines of “understanding” (the roles given to them by human thought through the power of God) and return to being formless aspects of the universe or nature.
Dagda’s version of Neutrality is worth examining here. Very clearly it ratchets up two negative aspects of the Neutrality of old, namely isolationism and omnicidal rage. The isolationism is resplendent in Dagda’s pathological contempt for others and the pursuit of friendship. He prefers that you disregard your comrades and think of them as essentially dead weight, he thinks of friendships as inevitable sources of disappointment and failure, you being mean to your friends brings you closer to him, and if you take his side and fulfill the destiny he assigned to you towards the final stretch of the game, you kill nearly all of your friends, hence it is referred to as the Massacre route, signifying in no uncertain terms which outcome the game prefers you to pick through its negative juxtaposition to the Bonds route – this, incindentally, represents a sheer deviation from the fundamental moral ambiguity and its resultant scope of legitimate choice that is absolutely central to Shin Megami Tensei. When you become crowned king of the Cosmic Egg and thus of the new universe, your only companions are those who are essentially your slaves – a Flynn who has been conditioned to serve you and Dagda, and one of many slain comrades who can be revived at your leisure to be your partner. Isolationism, thus, morphs into solipsism. Dagda considers this to be free will, but for someone who claims to want “true free will”, he might just as well consider Lucifer since all he does in the series is champion free will to some extent or another, but I suppose that’s out of the question because demons, in the series, represent a fundamental Other to humanity, and Others are something that Dagda wants to entirely cast off. The omnicidal rage is clearly manifested in the fact that, insofar as he opposes both Law and Chaos and is thus a Neutral character, his answer to the struggle of Law and Chaos is to kill all of the gods and demons of Law and Chaos, along with any other gods and demons who get in his way, and he’s perfectly content with destroying the universe on the grounds that he deems it to be worthless, in a certain sense echoing the nihilism of the White from the previous game. It also dovetails with the militant isolationism in the fact that killing everything necessarily includes killing your friends, echoing the main negative aspect of Neutrality in the first game except in the sense that, now, you’re killing your friends because you actively despise them and consider them to be worthless instead of just being forced to fight them for ideological reasons. It further positions Dagda in proximity with the Divine Powers; like the Divine Powers, Dagda wants to create a new universe through the Cosmic Egg, but Dagda ultimately opposes the Divine Powers in terms of the world they want to create because he doesn’t like the thought of a new universe not being controlled by him and Nanashi and seems not to agree with Krishna’s ambition to turn humanity into a “great singularity” and portion out all souls to all gods.
The Neutrality of the Bonds route, expressed by Danu and your comrades, is in many ways the polar opposite. Danu’s Neutrality is one in which the universe as it is remains intact so that everyone can, well, it’s not actually clear what you do except work together to rebuild Tokyo and Mikado through cooperation, which apparently applies not only among humans but also extends to gods and demons – you know, the very beings Danu was quite clear in saying they needed to be out of the equation in the end? Also friendship. Just friendship. That’s the whole lynchpin of the Bonds route, that friendship is what matters most. As lame and anodyne as Dagda’s pessimistic nihilism is (at least the White’s nihilism had some content), Danu’s optimistic vision is not much stronger. Her objection to Dagda’s plan essentially comes down to the universe being diverse, containing many different deities and worldviews, and that this diversity needs to be embraced for the betterment of all life, and that only this can allow humans to seek the truth and better themselves. In fact, the first half of the back-and-forth between Danu and Dagda is entirely focused on “views”, with Dagda wanting to kill all the gods because he finds their views “toxic”, as though he himself isn’t particularly toxic, like some kind of angry liberal. Dagda almost reads like someone who’d like to turn the whole universe into a safe space for himself by killing everyone else, with Danu preferring a cosmos consisting of diversity of thought, which to be honest tells me that the underpinnings of this game’s Neutrality are constructed by a certain empty, air-headed rhetoric about campus culture that briefly pervaded the internet before everyone just sort of forgot about it by the outset of the 2020s, with Dagda being the “angry SJW” caricature and Danu being the “last liberal”. And I assure you, this is far from the only trope of bad writing the game has, just one that you wouldn’t recognize at first glance. But then, on the other hand, I suppose it could be looked at the opposite way too, and Dagda’s rhetoric about toxicity is only camoflage for him being the “toxic troll”, merely seeking to use modern liberal rhetoric against its advocates, such as Danu, in order to rationalize pure, irrational contempt for others. The second half, though, comes down to something more substantial: the nature of humanity. Danu wants to preserve humanity as it is and preserve the bonds between humans while Dagda wants humans to become self-contained gods and shed their humanity to live in isolation from each other except in their oneness with the universe. There’s also the role of the gods, with Dagda wanting the gods to become essences of pure nature, one with the universe, and Danu not really having any problem with being anthropomorphized deities because of human evolution.
Although most of Dagda’s philosophy is just empty and not to mention nakedly hypocritical gibberish – deriding influence while influencing Nanashi and condemning dependence on others while offering you a companion to depend on should you side with him and also making you depend on him as his puppet for the entire game – what he says about gods here is interesting enough because it touches on a question about the development of religious thought in regards to the divine. Why exactly did humans go from seeing the gods as formless aspects or spirits of nature to seeing them as anthropomorphic controllers or governors of natural forces or more frequently human functions (such as law, war, or marriage etc.)? How, or better yet why, did we go from animism to polytheism, let alone monotheism? In this game, it is explained by humans being granted the power of “observation” by the Great Will, or rather “The Axiom”, to give life and shape to, but also potentially kill, the beings called gods and demons. But what of the real world? Humanist psychoanalysts like Erich Fromm would tell you that it’s because the development of human religion occurs as an evolutionary process, beginning with animism and arriving eventually towards a concept of one God as a blank void encompassing reality itself without a name, but this still invites questions. It is easy to take this as a rational process of progression towards a view of the divine that marches ever closer to the truth, but when we account for Fromm’s description of polytheistic idolatry as an alienation of human thought and creativity through Man’s surrender to his own graven images, as well as beyond that a much more general observation of polytheism entailing a cosmos governed by irrational and moody intelligences, you have to ask yourself, to what extent is it more rational or closer to the truth than the idea of gods as formless spirits or aspects of nature? Of course, we can’t expect the game to fully dive into such questions, but they are interesting to consider and unfortunately it doesn’t really go anywhere in this game. On the other side of the in-game debate, Danu says that it’s good that the gods changed because humans gained “new understanding”, but we never get to examine what that is or why it is so good, because evidently Danu is an avatar of Good whose ideals and motives cannot be questioned for any reason (that would be a sign of you “surrendering your humanity” after all).
In any case, there really is nothing complicated or too deep about the Bonds form of Neutrality than the general idea that it’s better to have friends than be alone. That’s not a bad thing in itself, of course, and there are good points made in favour of the idea of bonds with others as being a part of human nature, but it’s something that requires less analysis because, throughout the game, the progress towards the Bonds route is just your friends talking about how great it is to have each other. Besides which, it doesn’t matter, because it’s not really a meaningful choice. The three shades of Neutrality in this game are as follows: (1) overcoming the conflict of Law and Chaos by turning all of humanity into a singularity ruled by the gods of old, (2) overcoming the conflict of Law and Chaos by killing everything around you to create a universe where everyone’s alone and the gods are all formless aspects of nature, and (3) overcoming the conflict of Law and Chaos through the power of friendship. Each have different contours and you might argue that some have more content than others even if they’re all malformed and absurd, but the choice is not a meaningful one. You obviously can’t side with the Divine Powers, not that you’d want to anyway, you can join with Dagda but doing is so is played as an unambiguously callous and evil choice to make, and the entire game, even on the Massacre route, more or less conditions you into supporting the Bonds route as the objectively correct choice. This conditioning is facilitated not by your own individual sense of morality or values when faced with the ontological dillemma of order and freedom as would be the case for previous games but instead by the gameplay, which favours cooperation with the other characters by design through the Assist system, its emphasis on having a cast of characters represent the game, and the sentimental value of the characters, including the sentimental reaction to you having to kill them in the Massacre route.
But even if not for that, Neutrality of some kind is the only choice that matters in the game in any functional sense. There are Law and Chaos endings in the game, and you can access one of them during the final showdown between Merkabah, Lucifer, and Flynn at Camp Ichigaya. During the showdown you see the Samurai of the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado and some Tokyoites rallied behind Merkabah, the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea rallied behind Lucifer, and the Hunters rallied behind Flynn. But if you choose either Law or Chaos, the game ends almost abruptly, with your friends condemning you for your choice and Dagda calling you a coward, and for your trouble your only reward is to see a snapshot of Mikado under either the Law or Chaos outcomes, narrated by either Jonathan or Walter respectively, and both explicitly suggest that you’ve actually made the wrong choice. Let’s briefly examine both paths.
For the Law path, Merkabah offers you, “poor child torn from your humanity by the hands of a demon”, the choice to join him, right after you just saw him annihilate humans who oppose him, and “know peace”. The characters, of course, preach the Gospel of Neutrality at you ad nauseum before the choice is even made. If you do choose to side with Merkabah, your friends all leave you in disgust and confusion (they are, after all, dogmatically Neutral), Flynn (well, Shesha, by this point anyway) leaves the scene even though he could conceivably oppose you, which leaves Isabeau in despair, you fight Lucifer with Merkabah on your side, and after defeating Lucifer you pick up the remote control to the Yamato Perpetual Reactor and once again summon a black hole to destroy Tokyo and the “filth of civilization”, killing yourself and Merkabah along with all of the “unclean”. Jonathan narrates that peace has returned to Mikado, but laments that this peace will not be eternal, and that somehow “the world our Lord desires” has not yet arrived despite everything, and the gods are trapped in an endless war with Flynn. Didn’t you literally just annihilate Flynn and the other gods, though? Wasn’t the whole point of the whole point of “Great Abaddon” (the black hole of the Yamato Perpetual Reactor) to destroy all the “unclean ones”, the demons, and the gods who opposed YHVH? And then there’s the Chaos path. If you choose to fight Merkabah instead of join him, you defeat him, and then Lucifer congratulates you and, after preaching the Gospel of Chaos to you, offers you his own bargain: join with him, and gain a new life free from Dagda’s control. Interestingly enough, your allies wait until after you rebuke Lucifer to preach the Gospel of Neutrality this time. If you side with Lucifer, pretty much the same thing as before happens except this time Lucifer releases you from the service of Dagda and it is implied that, although you are free from Dagda, you have more or less become a demon. After this Lucifer readies everyone to make for Mikado, taking it over after taking over Tokyo, and everyone accepts his rule “with fear in their hearts” (very subtle). After Lucifer conquers the world, Walter narrates about how you changed Mikado and brought free will to its people and a world “for the strong” like in the last game, but he laments that the “false messiah” (Flynn, but not Flynn) still exists and the people need a leader against him, and so a new king emerged in a world ruled by the strong. Walter laments further that the very world he wanted was only the beginning of an eternal nightmare, with cries of agony echoing endlessly, and the gods still in endless war with Flynn. Isn’t Flynn still in the possession of Krishna? Isn’t that what Shesha disguising as Flynn was for? To fool the people?
But again, it doesn’t matter. Nothing meaningful happens if you take the Law or Chaos endings. You don’t get to fight Shesha-Flynn, or Dagda, or your friends, even though that would probably be justified, and you don’t get to fight Krishna and the Divine Powers even though you’ve taken the opposite side of the “monotheism vs polytheism” conflict the game puts forward. All that happens is you sit through what are not even cutscenes showing you what happens, each time the game hammers away exclusively negative interpretations of your actions in a way that not even Strange Journey did. The plotholes and contrivances seen at the end of each path serve explicitly to design Law and Chaos as meaningless, incomplete, unambiguously terrible, and unsatisfactory paths, which of course is designed to enshrine Neutrality as the objectively correct path, not through putting forth any actual merits of Neutrality or any process of forcing you to weigh the pros and cons of all sides in concord with your own values and judgement but quite simply because the narrative has already decided that for you. This is entirely out of step with the core ethos of Shin Megami Tensei, in which you are forced to choose between three imperfect and in some ways ultimately equally legitimate paths based primarily on your own criteria of value.
And the artificial devaluing of Law and Chaos in favour of Neutrality doesn’t stop there. As you progress in the game, and as you reject both Merkabah and Lucifer in favour of Neutrality, the game tells you that both Law and Chaos were all just machinations of YHVH, with even Lucifer, the literal opponent of YHVH, being a tool of YHVH, his scapegoat by which his order is ultimately reinforced. YHVH is the ultimate creator, or manufacturer, of the war between Law and Chaos, which is his way of keeping humanity and the universe under his control. And so, in order to end the war of Law and Chaos for good, you must defeat YHVH in both the Bonds and Massacre routes. This is the most absurd, nonsensical retconning of Law and Chaos on behalf of Neutrality in any SMT game, and it’s only in this game where it happens. Even in the original game where Lucifer tells you that he was a part of YHVH, he also tells you that YHVH discarded him, and so this establishes his independence from YHVH and the separation of Law and Chaos. In this game, however, that context is jettisoned to establish Lucifer as a piece of YHVH, utterly dependant on YHVH even as he opposes him, just to arbitrarily establish Law and Chaos as equally meaningless in an unprecedented retcon. In fact, Law and Chaos are so established as one and the same that during the final dungeon Merkabah and Lucifer fuse together into Satan, here “the arbiter” who has decided, for no reason, to oppose his master YHVH.
But then I suppose, if you think about it, the foundation for it was already laid by the White in the previous game, who espouse that even the Chaos path plays into the hands of God’s rule which is why the only true way to be free is to annihilate the universe. Of course, there’s never any actual good reason for why that’s the case other than “too much freedom means people destroy themselves” and so I guess God steps in. But if you kill God, what then? All it means is that maybe he comes back, and you have to stop him again until people finally abandon God. But is that “playing into God’s hands”? And if it is, why is killing the demons and Lucifer to build a world of Law not “playing into the hands of Chaos” because it means one day the demons return for Man’s flaws or desire for freedom (depending on perspective)?
In any case, the conflict with YHVH is all very contrived and abrupt, instigated entirely out of the blue at least in the Bonds route (at least the Massacre route leads to a logical enough explanation), but establishes yet more conceits for this game’s version of Neutrality, and to get to that we should discuss the context into which the journey to YHVH begins. You are abruptly introduced to YHVH by Stephen, after having just defeated Krishna (as Vishnu-Flynn), who tells you about how unless you defeat him humans will never know true freedom (or, in the Massacre route, you will not get to create your new universe unless you defeat him). He also tells you about the Axiom, a force of reality itself, which granted humans the power of “observation” and tasked them with “observing” the whole universe, which gave rise all manner of faiths, truths, and eventually gods, who all fight each other and humans for the sustenance they derive from the power of “observation” which is exclusive to humans. Belief becomes a sort of McGuffin that can give a god life or death, and this becomes important to the fight with YHVH (and only that fight), where damaging him in the first half of the fight is facilitated by denying his very existence; this is very amusing when you consider the fact that in-game he’s right in front of you and your lying eyes! In the Bonds route, you and your friends team up to argue against the existence and goodness of YHVH to his face. In any case, sustained assault on YHVH by both brute force and force of argument leads to his degradation into some kind of Final Fantasy monster and his eventual defeat and death.
But has the player punched out God himself? No. Because here YHVH is not the true God, and certainly not the creator of humanity. That distinction belongs to The Axiom, which appears to be the new name for what was originally called The Great Will. YHVH is framed as some unruly avatar of The Axiom who broke with its will in assuming control of the universe, and so The Axiom summons two Messiahs – Flynn and Nanashi – to defeat him. One Messiah apparently wasn’t enough this time, as it was in the second game. This is, without a doubt, a premise inherited from “Gnostic” Christianity or certain sects thereof, in which the Demiurge defies the true God by creating the universe and claiming himself to be God, and the messiah, the Christ, being sent by the true God to spread the truth and liberate spirit from the rule of the Demiurge. It also side-steps any notion of the morally ambiguous theology unique to Shin Megami Tensei by lazily resorting to rewriting The Great Will as a benign, non-aligned force and in that respect the real Good God. For such a benign God, however, he still subjects all beings to a merciless cycle of death and reincarnation just like in Nocturne. But, by somehow contacting The Axiom, you can apparently become a transcendent being who has surpassed the cycle of reincarnation to become almighty.
That seems to be what happened to Stephen, according to the developers. Ever since his original experiments with the Terminal System and his encounter with demonkind, Stephen somehow made contact with The Axiom and, as a result, exited the cycle of reincarnation in order to become a transcendent, superhuman agent of The Axiom. Nobuyuki Shioda notes that exiting the cycle of transmigration would mean achieving Nirvana and becoming a Buddha, which means that, according to the developers, Stephen is actually a Buddha, and apparently so are Mido (master of the Cathedral of Shadows) and Saint Germain (a mystic count with whom you can trade gems for items). Indeed it is fitting enough that in a DLC Challenge Quest we see that he appears in the Diamond Realm (Kongokai), the same place where you met En no Ozuno (who appears in another DLC Challenge Quest) in the first game. Thus, it seems as though the Buddhist themes associated with Neutrality in the first game return in this game. Even him just talking about “the middle path” makes me think about it as a reference to Buddhist teachings. But there is no “True God” to meet and connect with in Buddhism, so what we get for Stephen and the transcendence he partakes in is essentially a hybrid of Buddhism and “Gnostic” Christianity. Buddha here also seems to be a way of saying “higher being”, which is a generic way of referring to transcendent beings in a context familiar to New Age teachings. In all, we seem to arrive at a fourth shade of Neutrality: transcending and overcoming the conflict of Law and Chaos by connecting with The Axiom and becoming a Buddha/higher being.
Through it all, though, aren’t we forgetting someone? Yes: the goddess of Tokyo. You know, that random made-up goddess meant to be Tokyo itself (that is what Stephen tells you, anyway). Your mission is still to restore her, and it seems that this can only be done in the Bonds route. If you defeat YHVH in the Massacre route, she stays a nameless little girl with a hoop, wails at your actions, and disappears to be pursued by Stephen, who warns you that one day she may summon a new Messiah to destroy you in order to restore herself. In the Bonds route, she is restored and tells you about The Axiom. This time, though, her restoration doesn’t mean removing the firmament over Tokyo. After you destroy the Cosmic Egg in the Bonds route, Masakado says that, after Shesha bore through the dome, he realized that it is no longer necessary to remove the dome because the Tokyoites and the Mikadoans can co-exist on the surface. Incidentally, this is Masakado’s only appearance in the entire game. Well that’s real nice, but why couldn’t Masakado have realized that in the previous game? And if the dome isn’t to be removed, how does the goddess of Tokyo manage to restore her form? By you killing YHVH? Apparently you didn’t need to fight YHVH last time to restore the goddess of Tokyo, so why do you need to do that now? The only clue the game gives us is that she responds to the hearts of the people of Tokyo, and became diminiutive as a result of the people of Tokyo becoming divided. Well, Masakado straight up says that the people of Tokyo and Mikado can be one without removing the dome, and the forces of Law, Chaos, and the Divine Powers have all been defeated, removing all the major threats to peace, so how come the people of Tokyo and Mikado haven’t been unified yet? It’s all very arbitrary, and again, just like in the last game there is no actual reason to give a shit about this goddess enough to want to revive her, except that maybe now The Axiom itself wants it to happen, but that only raises the question why The Axiom cares so much about some random unnamed goddess of what is just one city in Japan. The goddess of Tokyo, for a figure of such grand importance to the plot, makes remarkably few appearances in the game’s story, and so is afforded very little exposition; that bit about her being the embodiment of Tokyo itself responding to the hearts of its people is pretty much the only explanation of her nature you’re given in the game, and that’s all you’re told about why you should care about the goddess.
And then, there is the whole protagonist reincarnation plot carried over from the first game, and how that plays into everything. In the same sense that Flynn is the reincarnation of the hero who sacrificed himself to Masakado to create the firmament, Nanashi is the reincarnation of Akira, who we talked about before, his partner who became king of Mikado. As the game progresses we see flashbacks of Akira’s life and thus get a better picture of his actions and motives. He along with Skins and Fujiwara and many other Hunters were part of an expedition crew to the surface of the firmament and they discover Mikado, but are immediately beset by the angels who attack all non-Mikadoans who enter, and so the Tokyoites are forced deeper back underground. Gabriel, however, offers some of the Tokyoites a chance to live in Mikado, if they pledge to abandon civilization (by which she means Tokyo) to become a citizen of Mikado and have complete faith in God and the angels. Then Akira tells Skins and Fujiwara that his plan is to stay in Mikado with the angels, which naturally shocks his comrades who had up to this point been struggling to survive the angelic onslaughts against them. When Skins complains that leaving Tokyo isn’t worth it if it means being slaves to the angels, and Akira responds by questioning if Skins means to give up after coming all the way to the top, proclaiming that it’s not worth leaving because that’s what the angels want. Akira states further that although humans are weak, it would be the end of them if they gave up, and that he’ll use whatever he can, including angels, to save the people of Tokyo. Akira tells Fujiwara that his plan is to outsmart and control the angels to create a country for humans, and this is what he calls finding the middle path. Akira and his comrades then agree to have him rule Mikado with the angels while they return to Tokyo to restore order, and then meet each other in the middle when their missions are complete.
Of course, the overlooked part of all of this is that Akira didn’t really succeed in this mission. In fact, if this continues off of the backstory of the previous game, then we know exactly what happens. Akira, now King Aquila, is dead. He was killed by the angels up in Mikado before he could complete his mission. After that, his legacy, at least in the form of a statue, was demolished under the new regime of the Four Heralds, and he reincarnated into the body of some juvenile Hunter who died, and was revived, only to spend the majority of the game as a pawn of a manipulative, genocidal deity who doesn’t even reflect his original myth. Maybe in the Bonds route it becomes possible to argue that the reincarnation effort was worth it after all, since you do sort of acheive what Akira had in mind, but that still means Akira had to die thinking he was going to “use” the angels to his own benefit, like someone playing cosmic backgammon with angels and demons. It was a dumb idea Akira had, and as in the previous game the “middle path” ended up just paving the way for the Law outcome for Mikado, or at least just its whole feudal society.
There’s one final thing to note with regards to this game’s version of Neutrality. Stephen very explicitly encourages Nanashi to take “the neutral path”, but there is more than one Neutral path. After Danu and Dagda first outline their competing visions in the Fairy Forest, Stephen appears and tells you that both Dagda’s and Danu’s visions are the middle path, with both rejecting the angels of Law and the demons of Chaos, but adds that there is more than one middle path, and tells you to “walk your own”. The problem? Dagda’s path is represented as the Massacre route where you kill everything to create a new universe with Dagda, Danu’s path is represented as the Bonds route where you overcome Dagda’s ambitions to have the Tokyoites, Mikadoans, gods, and demons live in harmony in Mikado, and in some ways this means you are choosing between Dagda and Danu, and there is no third option between them. Contrary to Stephen’s encouragement, the game does not let you walk your own version of the middle path, and only allows you to choose between Dagda’s and Danu’s version of the middle path. For once, in a Shin Megami Tensei game, you are presented not simply with a false choice but a false encouragement of choice, the presentation that you can make a choice independent of two choices followed by the reality of only having the two choices originally presented to you. This, among so many other contrivances found in the game’s plot unrelated to alignment, leaves us with what is without hesitation the worst game in the entire series, and certainly the worst expression of Neutrality in any series. But then, how even does Stephen tell you to choose your own path while also constantly getting you to do as he says and restore the goddess of Tokyo?
To interject a little in regards to polytheism and the conflict with monotheism, this also means that Neutrality, despite its conceit about placing humanism above reliance on any gods or demons, invariably places you in the side of polytheism. Danu defends a universe with a diversity of gods and opposes the rule of YHVH, herself appears in the game as a sort of Mother Nature figure, herself and her son representing pure powers of nature and her presiding over a forest, and in the Bonds route Dagda basically tells you that you’ve actually helped the gods. The Divine Powers, then, are simply well-intentioned extremists as Danu herself basically says, who would be on your side if they weren’t trying to kill everyone. You can even re-summon Krishna at Kanda-no-yashiro after defeating him in order to enlist his service in the fight against YHVH. Dagda and Danu are positioned as gods or spirits of the earth, just as Masakado is billed as an Earth Spirit, and again the primary object is to restore the power of some unnamed goddess. Thus the forces of polytheism are arrayed against monotheism and one way or another Neutrality means you lead them to victory.
It’s all so confused and contrived, let’s just move on to the last game already.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux (2017)
The Redux edition of Strange Journey offers an alternate take on Law, Chaos, and also Neutrality by way of the introduction of New endings for each alignment path. These are alternate versions of each ending that can be accessed by completing the Womb of Grief dungeon and collecting all pieces of a Fifth Cosmic Egg. It also involves a new character named Alex, a daughter of Lucifer who travels back in time to change the future created by the protagonist, the exact content of which depends on the ending path being taken. The New Law route sees Zelenin create a world where she is the absolute ruler of a world where everyone has their urge to fight removed through song, and the New Chaos route sess Jimenez create a world where co-existence with demons and free will trump the rule of the strong. So then, what is the New Neutrality in this equation?
Much of the Neutral playthrough, much like the rest of the game’s story, happens exactly as it did in the original game up until you complete the Womb of Grief and make it to Sector Horologium. Just after Mem Aleph is defeated, Alex appears to confront the protagonist and tell him what happens in the future. Her AI, George, presents this information as “good news” and “bad news”. The good news is that the Schwarzvelt Investigation Team will succeed in its Plan Omega to destroy the Schwarzvelt and return to Earth, the human race is saved, and peace follows this success. The bad news, however, is that despite all the calamity of the Schwarzvelt, humans did not change, and in fact the knowledge that the Schwarzvelt can be destroyed led humans to ignore the opportunity to change. Without the danger of the Schwarzvelt humans soon resumed their previous ways of war, decadence, and environmental disregard. This ultimately leads to the Schwarzvelt eventually re-emerging, and bringing with it a demonic invasion to destroy civilization and mankind, and this time humanity has no means to counter it, having forgotten all about its horrors, leaving humanity overrun within one week. When Alex pleas for you to change the future and you ask her what needs to be done, George proposes that he share information with Arthur, the Red Sprite’s AI, and the two machines discuss plans for dealing with the Schwarzvelt. and Arthur concludes that the destruction and monitoring of the Schwarzvelt are imperative for preventing future catastrophe. This means destroying the Schwarzvelt as originally planned, but it also means enlisting a sentry to monitor the Earth and the Schwarzvelt and destroy the Schwarzvelt’s entry point whenever it returns to Earth, which is much easier than destroying the Schwarzvelt as you do in the game. The Fifth Cosmic Egg will be used to give the protagonist the power to persist long enough to perpetually monitor and destroy newly formed Schwarzvelt entry points every time they appear. Essentially, he will be an immortal guardian of a complacent humanity.
Then Demeter appears to claim the Fruits that form the Fifth Cosmic Egg, offended that the humans seek to claim them as their own. She opposes the player using the Cosmic Egg because apparently it’s too much for a human to handle, and so she takes the Fruit back to her masters, the Three Wise Men. Then Louisa Ferre appears to tell you to go to the deepest level of the Womb of Grief to go and find the Three Spirits. There, the Three Spirits congratulate you for reclaiming the Fifth Cosmic Egg, and tell you that, so long as you do not disturb the god of law’s creation, you will be left alone, but warn that if you decide to dabble in creation then they will destroy you. And then they come together to form Shekinah, who proclaims that the Earth belongs to her and her alone, and that you will accept her “mercy” whether you like it or not. Defeating Shekinah grants you the Fifth Cosmic Egg, and you return to the Red Sprite, where the crew is eager to destroy the Schwarzvelt. Then the crew arrives at the Vanishing Point to escape, and just like before Arthur tells the crew that he will not be returning to Earth. This time, however, Arthur informs the crew that he and the player will stay to monitor the Schwarzvelt, and the protagonist will “transcend space and time” using the Cosmic Egg. The crew despairs at having to lose two more comrades right as their mission is over, but Arthur insists that their course of action is the best for humanity.
The New Neutral ending sequence at first plays out like the original did, with the crew successfully landing back in Antarctica after escaping, albeit with references to the player still fighting somewhere. Then, we are panned over to the moon, on whose surface we see the protagonist and Arthur watching the Earth, 150 years after the game’s events. Then the Schwarzvelt appears or at least an entry point does, apparently this is the seventh time they’ve seen it occur. Arthur asks the protagonist if he still feels human, he looks at the ring Alex gave him, clenches his hand, and marches on to destroy the Schwarzvelt again. And so, the protagonist is now an immortal protector who will keep watching over the Earth and destroying the Schwarzvelt as many times as it takes until it stops appearing…which may never happen.
This ultimately brings us to the question of just what has changed in the New Neutral outcome. Alex disappears into the new timeline that you have set into motion, and I suppose we could safely assume that Alex didn’t get stuck in the Schwarzvelt and maybe die there, but the world doesn’t actually change for the better. The problem with the original Neutral outcome still remains: humans are still complacent, and still resume their faulty ways, and there is no actual means of addessing the problems that remain. The only difference is that now you and Arthur watch over the Earth forever to destroy the Schwarzvelt whenever it appears. The Schwarzvelt will reappear each time humans remain complacent, the Earth and the species continue to face severe existential problems, and from what we are shown the Schwarzvelt has appeared seven times over the course of 150 years, which means that humans have come no closer to solving or even addressing the problems of the planet in all that time. All you’ve gone and done, if anything, is ensure that humans can keep being complacent as long as you keep destroying the entry points to the Schwarzvelt. Thus nothing actually changes and Neutrality consists only in maintaining the status quo and practically foreclosing the possibility of change for the world.
We are shown or rather told by Alex that, in the original Neutral outcome, the Schwarzvelt overruns humanity and consumes the world. If you remember what that means, you’ll understand that it entails quite possibly Mem Aleph returning to once again remake the world in her own brutal design to kill off humanity, and this time without the possibility of creating that wonderful world of free will and co-existence with demons on even slightly human terms. Or alternatively perhaps the angels and the Three Wise Men gain the upper hand this time and so Shekinah wins the right to rule the world and with no chance to have the somewhat more seemingly benign utopia Zelenin had in mind. So in this way, Neutrality may yet give way to one of two horrible outcomes from either alignment. Thus the sad truth about Neutrality for both the original and Redux versions of Strange Journey is that, although it means saving the human race, it’s also not much more than preserving the status quo for human civilization, and all that this entails.
Insofar as we take Neutrality to mean the broad rejection of Law and Chaos in favour of middle path, we can see that this tends to mean many different things throughout the series, and in a way Stephen is correct when he says that there is more than one middle path.
In the first game, it means rejecting the forces of Law and Chaos to “restore balance” and create a new society of cooperation. In the second game, that same project fails but by defeating YHVH and Lucifer you preserve Tokyo Millennium to begin the process of reconstruction, which seems to take priority over “balance”. In Nocturne it can mean either committing you restore the world as it was while also defying The Great Will, or caving into indecisiveness and retaining the status quo of the Vortex World. In Strange Journey, it means choosing the human race over the ambitions of the angels and the Mothers, but it also means preserving the status quo for human civilization without addressing its errors. In the fourth game it can mean either arbitrarily following the desires of some random godddess while claiming to represent human power, or literally just destroying the universe to free all beings from God’s control. In Apocalypse, it means getting humans away from gids and demons but at the same time cooperating with them to rebuild the world under the auspice of nature spirits, or just replacing YHVH as the new ruler of creation, or the gods of old getting together to share the souls of humans, or becoming a Buddha by knowing the true God. In Redux, it just means preserving the status quo forever by becoming an immortal demon-killing space marine. All of those represent different ideas, but are united pretty much singularly by the rejection of both Law and Chaos.
Neutrality in general tends to be framed in terms of a focus on humanity and/or humanism, and while that’s generality true, even if in some cases more in emphasis than content, it’s also true that there are forms of Neutrality that seem to entail post-humanity, the state of becoming more than human. This is what happens in the New Neutral outcome in Strange Journey Redux, it’s sort of what happened to Stephen in Apocalypse, and in the same game becoming “more than human” is part of the whole point of the Massacre route. Neutrality can entail a very broad change for the world, but in many cases it seems to simply mean preserving the status quo or restoring one, without much vision for how to solve the problems of the world in relation to the demons and the way humans live going forward. But I suppose this might just be a more distinct product of later games than some of the earlier ones. Insofar as that is the case Neutrality seems to get emptied in terms of content by its elevation in terms of some a priori assumption of Neutrality’s inherent superiority, which in turn affects the writing of the alignments leading up the Apocalypse.
Neutrality can sometimes bear a certain relation to the other alignments in terms of its outcomes. In the second game, a Neutral outcome initiated by the previous game’s protagonist ultimately gives way to a Messian theocracy and thus a Law outcome. In the fourth game and its sequel, the original incarnation of Flynn sacrifices himself to Masakado and becomes the firmament, which leads to Akira’s plan to somehow “use” the angels as part of a “middle path”, which leads to him becoming a king of the feudal, Law-run society of Mikado, and ends in his death. Sometimes, however, it runs the other way. If Alex in the Neutral path in Redux is to be believed, Neutrality conceivably gives way to the designs of Mem Aleph (though the possibility is open for the Three Wise Men to be victorious instead). Beyond that, Lucifer often seems to support Neutrality to some extent throughout the games, at least in the sense that, if your path still means you defy the forces of Law and The Great Will, it will have his blessing on the grounds that it fulfills his will or goals in some way, and (at least from his perspective) sets the blossoming of free will into motion. That’s why the Freedom ending in Nocturne ends with Lucifer telling you that you have walked the same path as him.
Neutrality is held to be the best, most gratifying path in the series, though the whole point of the series is that it’s ultimately relative to your own opinion or values. But I suspect that a certain consensus regarding the merit of Neutrality has gradually led to an increasingly artificial elevation of Neutrality within the series, or at least just the fourth game and its sequel, and this is often done without a good deal of supporting content for Neutrality. You’re just supposed to be Neutral because Law and Chaos bad, and that’s not really a merit in itself especially when you consider the fact that all of the alignments are supposed to come with a raft of ambiguities that you have to choose from. Even Neutrality is frought with uncertainty, namely the fundamental lack of a guarantee that the gods and demons won’t just return again and once more initiate the struggle of Law and Chaos. That struggle itself is interesting, because later games seem to play it off as a sort of alien conflict, in the sense of being alien to humans in the sense that the drama of the gods and demons is of little import to humans. But demons are as much human as the humans themselves, and sometimes not even as malevolent as them, and the struggle of Law and Chaos is a human one, the struggle of order versus freedom, whether it’s framed as a struggle to realize the latter or a struggle for the triumph of the former, and this echoes from real human strivings just as much as the demons, as one side of the coin of humanity, echo from the psychic content of humans. In earlier games, you could reckon with this even if they don’t hammer it away at you. But in later games, this is to be side-stepped in favour of some dogmatic assertion that Law and Chaos are inherently bad and Neutrality inherently good because of artificial plot demands.
Now, to bookend this post, let’s note that Shin Megami Tensei V is set to be released in November 11th-12th in an almost simultaneous global release, and new content keeps being revealed and new speculation keeps emerging. It is too early at this point to tell what the whole story is going to be, and as such what the dynamic of Law and Chaos, and Neutrality, will mean for this game, so we are left with questions. So far, it looks like the game centers around a conflict between angels and demons, and so we might be able to assume that Law and Chaos will probably revolve around those camps to some extent, just like they did in the fourth game, Apocalypse, and Strange Journey. But in Strange Journey this conflict could still mean all sorts of gods and goddesses joining the side of the angels and their God, and the forces of Chaos consisting not only of demons but also wrathful gods and goddesses, which entails the possibility of Law and Chaos as inclusive, trans-cultural absolutes. Whether or not this actually is what the game runs with is unfortunately still a mystery, and will probably remain a mystery for months until the game is actually released. It also means we can’t really talk about Neutrality for the game yet, since we don’t yet know what it means to reject Law and Chaos for this game. Maybe it’ll have something to do with that Aogami man you fuse with, maybe it’ll involve quasi-humanist polytheism again, maybe it’ll go back to the form of the first game? Who knows. But we have only to wait and see, and fortunately it looks like we need not wait too long in the grand scheme of things.
And with that, my series on the ideologies of Law and Chaos is concluded.