This last year, during the summer, I took it upon myself to write a series of articles covering in great detail the alignments of the Shin Megami Tensei series, examining their many ideological, philosophical and religious contours and the way they take shape in each of the main games of the series. Part 1 was dedicated to the Chaos alignment, Part 2 was dedicated to the Law alignment, and Part 3, the final part, was dedicated to Neutrality. These posts seem to have been fairly successful, and I hope they made for good reading at least to tide Shin Megami Tensei fans over before the release of Shin Megami Tensei V. But now, Shin Megami Tensei V is here, and has been here for a good while now. So with the dust settled and the game thoroughly explored, it’s time to give the same treatment to just this game.
I was originally expecting to have this post finished no sooner than January, but it took a lot less time for me to finish this essay than I had originally suspected. And so, contrary to what I said earlier in my original review of Shin Megami Tensei V, instead of a January release, I was able to move this essay over to a Boxing Day release, still accounting for holiday plans of course, hence you’re now able to see this essay earlier than planned. I’m also assuming that it will be months before we get access to translated interviews from the developers of Shin Megami Tensei V regarding the full story context and the thought process and inspirations that went into it in the sense that we have for previous games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, so it was best for me to expedite the release of this essay once it became clear to me that it was going to be finished before the New Year.
This article will be covering the manifestation of the Law and Chaos dynamic in Shin Megami Tensei V, all the ideological contours that come with it, as well as its relationship to previous Shin Megami Tensei games. It will also, in the process of all this, deal in the many flaws of Shin Megami Tensei V’s story, and the premise that game attempts to present to the player. I should also note that, whereas the original alignment and ideology posts started with the Chaos alignment before moving onto Law and ending with Neutrality, this time we will start with Law, then move onto Chaos, and end with Neutrality.
Before Shin Megami Tensei V was released, it was often speculated or rather assumed by fans that the game would eschew the dynamic of Law and Chaos that is central to the series, opting for something more like the Reasons from Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (which, as I’ve explained, all embody the Law side of that dynamic). Indeed, when the game was leaked before its official release, it was thought initially that there was actually no Chaos ending to speak of and instead a selection of Law and Neutral endings. But, having played the game, it soon became apparent that in fact there was a Law and Chaos dynamic, and while it plays out in an unconventional way relative to the rest of the series, it does still follow series tradition in many aspects, and one of the aims of this essay is to demonstrate precisely this.
I also see this essay as an opportunity to challenge various arguments made by various fans and commentators about the nature of alignments in Shin Megami Tensei V and their supposed departure from Shin Megami Tensei tradition and its “absolutism” (I’m looking squarely at you Comic Book Resources, and you TV Tropes!) that I believe to be facile, wrong-headed, and weak. In doing so, I’m probably going to displease a lot of people who are fans of the game, or even the series as a whole, but as far as I’m concerned that comes with the territory of our subject and my response to it.
Once again I’d like to stress before we start that this entire article is going to be riddled with explicit and major spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei V. If you haven’t played the game yet. it’s probably for the best that you not read it. On the other hand, there’s a good chance many of the people about to read this already have played this game. In any case, there’s your warning.
Since we are discussing one single game within the Shin Megami Tensei series, as opposed to basically the entire series of games plus some spin-offs, I think there is room to discuss the larger context of the game’s story, within which the dynamic of alignment is situated, before examining the three alignments indiviudally.
Shin Megami Tensei V begins with an account of an in-universe narrative of creation. It starts by establishing God, as in the God of the Bible, as the creator of the universe as we know it, or rather the “world of order” as it is called, and his servants, the angels, ensured that it functioned in accordance with his will. Humans, we’re told, led happy, fruitful, and prosperous lives under the auspices of God’s grace. But, we are warned, even the order of God himself is not eternal, that fate dictates that mankind will muddle and corrupt the path set out by God, and that order and chaos will continually beget and consume each other turn. We are then informed that the world is set to be destroyed, as is implied by the question, “How will these keepers of Knowledge strive and perish during their final, futile hours in this doomed world?”. The “keepers of Knowledge” are, of course, humans, or more specifically the cast of characters the game presents to the player, with whom they are soon thrown into the apocalypse. The narrators elect to watch these humans, as though observing a play, until a new ruler is seated on the throne.
Not too much later, after the collapse of Takanawa Tunnel, we receive yet more narration concerning the origin of the demons in the game. The games, keeping in mind their modern setting and the clash with secularism that this entails, often embrace differing explanations for the demons that inhabit them, and in that spirit here is the narrative that Shin Megami Tensei V offers us. In the beginning, before humans “gained Knowledge”, God (referred to as “the God of Law”) assumed the throne of creation, and upon doing so he confiscated all “Knowledge” from the other gods so as to deny their ability to challenge his rule over the cosmos. This, it seems, desecrated the other gods, robbing them of their former divine status and resulting in their transformation into the beings called demons. God then stashed away a “Fruit of Knowledge” in his own paradise, seemingly hidden from the other gods. And then a serpent sought the audience of mortal humans, so as to tempt them to eat the “Fruit of Knowledge”, promising that the humans will become more godlike. This is then cast as a conspiracy aimed at resurrecting the war between the gods. Humans everywhere ate the “Fruit of Knowledge”, and this meant consuming “Knowledge” which then bound to the souls of humans and brought them closer to gods. Naturally this leads to God angrily banishing humanity from his paradise, and humanity is constantly watched by demons, waiting for their moment to claim their lost “Knowledge” from humans.
This premise is central to the story of Shin Megami Tensei V, and it is constantly recapitulated to the player throughout the game. There is an entire plot arc based on this premise, which is then conveniently wrapped in the dressing of what is otherwise a paper-thin conversation about high-school bullying (which, I must stress once again, is the game’s only effort at “sympathizing” with the issues of contemporary society). The entire concept of a Nahobino, the neither-demon-nor-human hybrid being that the main character becomes, starts from this premise. It is a human with “Knowledge” and a demon uniting together, to access the apparent “true form” of the demon, and demons seek “Knowledge” in order to attain the state of being a Nahobino, presumably in order to challenge the power of God. Left untouched, however, is the nature of “Knowledge”. There doesn’t seem to be any effort within the game to actually define it. The closest the game gets to doing so is to establish that the gods needed it in order to be able to shape a functioning world, and that without it the gods ceased to be divine. Thus “Knowledge” is more accurately just “divinity”, in the sense of divine identity and power, which God sought to monopolize for himself once he became the supreme being.
Also, God is actually dead this time. 18 years before the events of the game, a war between the forces of order, or God rather, and the forces of chaos, led by Lucifer, engaged in a battle referred to as Armageddon, in which Lucifer apparently emerged triumphant. In a flashback, Lucifer proclaims that God has been slain by his own hand and that he has ascended the throne of God, or the Pillar Empyreal. He also proclaims that order has crumbled and chaos will envelop the world, leading to rebirth and a new future, with the only remaining task being to “sow the seeds that shall sprout into this grand reality”. So God is basically dead for the entire game, with Lucifer having defeated him. And yet for some reason God’s order still hangs over the world, at least in theory. The Condemnation, God’s edict barring the existence of the Nahobino, is at least suggested to still be in effect, despite the main character becoming a Nahobino in the midst of this, and the angels of God, gathered under the name of Bethel, continue to fight the agents of Lucifer despite God’s death.
Of course, this being a Shin Megami Tensei game, one continuing directly after Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne at that, there has to be a turning point leading on to the quest to build a new world in the wake of the apocalypse. As such, everyone eventually gets the memo that God is dead and the time for a new creation is at hand. In fairness, early on in the game, you are already informed that the Tokyo you’ve been living in for the last 18 years is not the real Tokyo, but rather the product of a miracle created by God, which is later referred to as the “Shekinah Glory” (that engimatic phrase which originally haunted the first trailer of the game). This means that the original or “real” Tokyo is what’s known as Da’at, or the Netherworld, completely populated by demons waiting for their chance to break into the Shekinah Glory version of Tokyo. But as the story progresses, God’s demise becomes apparent to the cast, as the Shekinah Glory fades, Tokyo begins to disappear, and meanwhile it turns out Bethel is composed of beings who have already figured out God’s death and are waiting for their chance to act accordingly. At that point, the “Goddess of Creation” (the “Megami” in Shin Megami Tensei, apparently) appears before the protagonist, beckoning him to seek the throne of creation. Eventually you’re compelled to choose between three outcomes, which will be explored over the course of this article:
- Uphold God’s order (that is, recreate the world in the image of God’s order)
- Recreate the world and save Tokyo (that is, recreate the world with a new order governed by multiple gods instead of just one)
- Destroy the throne
This is the game’s story, and thus the context in which this game’s version of the dynamic of Law and Chaos is situated.
Before we continue on to each of the respective alignments, it’s worth taking stock of where the overall story goes. We’re treated to what is essentially a retelling of the War in Heaven and the story of Man’s expulsion from Eden, one that also serves as an origin story for the demons and connects back to themes of the divide between monotheism and polytheism that were explored, pretty shoddily, in the last game, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. That game’s story-world might just hang over Shin Megami Tensei V like a shadow, since the vaguely-defined “Knowledge” of this game, although ultimately conceptually different, at least to me smelled a little bit like the concept of “Observation” in Apocalypse, a power given to humans by the Axiom which allows humans to give form to the formless and is thus coveted by the gods and demons because of its power to create and/or destroy them. “Knowledge” here doesn’t determine whether or not the gods exist at all, and we’re in no way certain where it comes from, but it does seem to follow a similar trend of using vague, abstract philosophical-sounding concepts, in lieu of any existing mythological or esoteric concept, as a device to explain the existence of the demons.
That said, I could remark about the connection between divine identity and the ability to challenge the order of God. It is not too uncommon in pre-Christian myths to see humans and even other gods challenge the celestial order in some way, and in fact, in the Atrahasis, the Mesopotamian precursor text to the story of Noah’s Ark, humans are created through the blood of Geshtu-e, a god of intelligence and a leader of a group of rebellious deities known as the Igigu, and in turn humans gain a portion of the divine in their blood. The gods in the Atrahasis created humans to do the labour that the Igigu refused to do, and the suffering of their labour led them to cry out in defiance, resulting in the attempt by the god Enlil to destroy them. The hero Atrahasis saves mankind with the help of the god Enki, though the gods afterwards control the human population through sterility, the chaste priestess, stillbirth, and infant mortality. Humans rebelled, as Geshtu-e did, rather than accept the fate Enlil might have wrought upon them, and as Peter Grey suggests in Lucifer: Princeps this emerges from the heritage of the divine blood that created humans in the Atrahasis. In Shin Megami Tensei V, God seizes the divine identity of the gods and stows it away, only for humans to eat the Fruit of Knowledge and become infused with that same latent divine identity. So humans become a threat to God’s order through their latent ability to contest it, which is why the narrator laments God’s order being inevitably corrupted by humanity. That said I would probably not suggest that the writing team for Shin Megami Tensei V actually sought to channel the depths of that ancient heritage that Peter and I would retrospectively refer to as “Luciferian”, and instead suggest that what we see in Shin Megami Tensei V is more or less specific to the game and focuses directly on the base myths of the War in Heaven and the Garden of Eden, not so much their deeper polytheistic roots.
I would also like to stress that not every reference in Shin Megami Tensei V seems to have a particularly coherent meaning, or at least not one that is apparent to me anyway. The netherworld where the demons live is called Da’at. In Kabbalah mysticism, Da’at is the name of the location in the Tree of Life where all of the ten sefirah converge and unite as one. What this has to do with the demons or any concept of the netherworld/underworld has never been obvious to me. The name Da’at means “knowledge”, which you might think connects to the story. But don’t you think it sounds weird that the demons look for knowledge in a place that in Hebrew is called “knowledge”? Or that the demons seem to have their home named after the thing they’ve lost, like some kind of cruel joke played either by themselves on themselves or by God I guess? Also, a demon named Lahmu mentions being in a place called Assiah. Assiah is the name of one of the spiritual worlds in Kabbalah mysticism. That’s not unfamiliar to Shin Megami Tensei, since Assiah along with Atzulith are mentioned in the series in some way, but it’s not the obvious what the connection to Da’at is. Maybe they’re separate dimensions that are connected somehow? Who knows.
Anyways, with all that out of the way, let’s address the alignments in Shin Megami Tensei V, starting with the Law alignment.
Assessing the role of the Law and Chaos dynamic means establishing exactly who represents each side of that dynamic. Shin Megami Tensei V’s representation of the Law alignment is, for the most part, fairly predictable by Shin Megami Tensei standards. Although God is dead, his angels are still very much alive, fighting on his behalf seemingly to protect Tokyo from demons. But is that all there is to it? And what do these angels really want?
First of all we should note that, for much of the game, you are essentially stuck on the same side as the angels and don’t get to really oppose them until much later in the game. This is because the protagonist has been drafted into membership of the demon-fighting organization known as Bethel, a name that, conspicuously, means “House of God”. Most of the units of Bethel that you see are angels, and it is through the angels that you are initially introduced to Bethel. An angel named Abdiel also serves as the commander of Bethel’s forces, meaning that she (yes, the male angel Abdiel is a woman in this game, for some reason) is basically in charge of the organization as a whole. And in typical angelic fashion, Abdiel does not brook dissent, and in fact has to be dissuaded from killing the protagonist for being a Nahobino, a violation of the edict known as the Condemnation.
The Condemnation is the name given to an edict imposed by God after he assumed the throne of creation, which barred all other gods from being able to assume the form of a Nahobino and thus access their divine identity. This meant the seizure of all “Knowledge” from the other gods, and their transformation into demons, and in theory means that, in the words of the angel Camael, God is the only Nahobino in existence. But with God dead, this edict seems to no longer stand, as evidenced by the protagonist’s transformation into a Nahobino. Of course, the angels don’t quite realize this yet, and Abdiel certainly doesn’t get the big picture until much later in the game, when she holds a summit with the rest of Bethel’s leadership and is defeated for the first time by the player. Indeed, when you first meet Abdiel, you’ve only been playing the game for an hour or so, have only just met Abdiel for about a minute, and she’s already prepared to kill you for violating the Condemnation, saying that Bethel will not tolerate anyone who violates the will of God. Bethel then emerges as what is initially the clear Law faction of the game, one that you are forced to cooperate with for the majority of the game.
The initial presentation of the Law and Chaos dynamic is pretty straightforward. Representing Law are the forces of order, consisting primarily of Bethel’s angels and their allies on one side, fighting the demons of chaos on the other. The demons of chaos want only thing: to reclaim their lost “Knowledge”. And they’re prepared to invade whatever passes for Tokyo and apparently capture your high school classmates in order to get it. Seeing this as a threat to God’s order, the forces of order lead by Bethel want to stop them, and “protecting Tokyo” just happens to be part of the package insofar as it means driving their enemies into the abyss. The game introduces you to the angels fairly early on as “working tirelessly to protect the people”, presumably from demonic incursions. But this is little other than a ruse, as becomes apparent later in the game. The angels, although they fight the demons breaking into Tokyo and seemingly protect its inhabitants, don’t actually care to stop its ultimate apocalyptic destruction. The angels, when confronted with the failure of the Shekinah Glory and of God to protect Tokyo, and its destruction despite conforming to the will of God, insist that Tokyo’s destruction is to be considered inevitable, “for God’s anger burns many and spares none”. For the angels, God’s order is absolute, and if that means the destruction of the very Tokyo that they were ostensibly “protecting”, then they do not oppose the destruction of Tokyo. Abdiel affirms this creed to the hilt, and so does her apparent rival, Camael, when he tells the protagonist it is his “justice” to loyally execute God’s words, which means killing the player as a Nahobino. The difference between Abdiel and Camael is that Abdiel would rather kill the Nahobino that is the player, but can be convinced to use the Nahobino to execute the will of Bethel until the demons are gone, while Camael brooks no such thing and prefers to immediately kill the player so as to ensure that God is the only Nahobino in existence. Your existence, after all, is a threat to God’s order, because your power as a Nahobino might cause some of the angels to join your side and, so Camael fears, abandon God’s side.
There is obviously a heavy leaning into the implications of Christian theology, or least about as deep as it gets for a game that’s only trying to be
an edgier Tokyo Mirage Sessions a new generation of Shin Megami Tensei. The Christians frequently counsel us that God in his unconditional love for humanity has given us free will, that we might come to choose his side through it. Any even cursory reading of the Bible gives us reason to doubt that assurance, considering, among other things, that it is down to God hardening the Pharoah’s heart that the Israelites were refused the right to leave Egypt until the death of the firstborn. Leaving aside the Old Testament, the Book of Acts, within the New Testament, makes clear that “in him we live and move and have our being”. The implications are very much pantheistic, and I would argue that these implications are not the rosy and reasonable alternative to classical theism that certain rationalists both Christian and secular would like to believe, and certainly not the alternative to monotheism that certain neopagans would like to believe. The full scope of that is best reserved for another article in another time, but for now let us establish that there is only one God in pantheism, just that this God is the whole universe. The implications presented in the theology of the New Testament is that God is omnipresent to the point of permeating the whole fabric of the universe and is the sole agency underpinning our every movement. Free will, in this sense, is impossible with the Christian God present, and insofar as God’s order cannot be meaningfully opposed in that even evil actions must necessarily be underpinned or made possible by God’s agency alone, then God’s order would indeed by absolute. Indeed, this I think is what Abdiel means when she says that the ability of her enemies to resist her at all is “by the grace of our Lord”.
Turning away from the main plot for a moment, I should mention that Shin Megami Tensei V also features a series of subquests in each region of the game, one seemingly corresponding to Law and the other seemingly corresponding to Chaos, in theory anyway. This correspondence is at least inferred by the available guides for the game. If there is any correspondence to the alignments, then these subquests are worth exploring for content regarding the expression of Law and Chaos outside the game’s main plot.
In the Minato sector of Da’at, specifically in Shiba, we see a grotto in which a demon named Apsaras, based on the celestial nymphs from Indian mythology, is worshipped by a congregation of weaker demons who pray to her for salvation. Apparently the Apsaras has a whole space set up as a shelter for the weaker demons, who come to rely upon her benevolence in a hostile netherworld and obey her as a result. In fact, only the weak may enter her cave, as the strong do not much benefit from her benevolence. Asparas’ stated goal is to form a circle of gods and offer the weak the minimum amount of knowledge and resources to survive while belonging to her circle. This is opposed by another demon, Leanan Sidhe, who accuses her of seducing weaker demons in order to create an army of soldiers who unconditionally obey her will without regard for their individuality. Apsaras in turn accuses Leanan Sidhe of deceiving the demons with empty words that will only cause them to despair at their own powerlessness. Apsaras is a Yoma and therefore Law-aligned, while Leanan Sidhe is a Femme and therefore Chaos-aligned, so the familiar dynamic of Law and Chaos is well-established here. Taking the “The Spirit of Love” subquest sees you siding with Apsaras and fighting Leanan Sidhe.
Another subquest that follows the same formula is in the Shinagawa area of Da’at. At Shinagawa Pier you will find a Principality, one of the angelic orders, who requests that you assist him in exterminating a group of Lilim who are apparently plotting to infiltrate Tokyo (by which he means the Tokyo produced by the Shekinah Glory). Principality’s rationale is pretty straightforward, and not unlike Apsaras’: he claims to want to protect the weak, in this case humans as he sees them, and he thinks that the Lilim want to attack the whole human world, so in order to protect humans the Lilim must be defeat. The Principality is an agent of Bethel, as is to be expected of most angels. The Lilim, of course, would dispute the angel, saying they only wanted to live quietly among humans. The traditional alignment dynamic is once again clear cut, with Principality as a Law-aligned angel (or Divine) and Lilim as a Chaos-aligned Night. Seeing as you can reject the Principality’s subquest and side with the Lilim instead, this would be probably the only instance in the game in which you can actively defy the orders of Bethel. However, this doesn’t actually affect your actual allegiance to Bethel, since until the last stretch of the game you still have no choice but to work for Bethel and follow their orders. In any case, siding with Principality and thereby carrying out Bethel’s orders by taking the “Holding the Line” subquest is the obvious Law-aligned choice.
Things get more unusual when you go to the Chiyoda area. In Sukiyabashi you meet Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who tells you that he has set the rules regarding the distribution of alcohol in Ginza. He claims to be impartial in granting alcohol to all who ask for it, and that this is one of the rules he set. Opposing Dionysus is Black Frost, who calls himself the emperor of Ginza and wants to take Dionysus’ alcohol by force. Curiously enough, both Dionysus (a Fury) and Black Frost (a Night) are actually Chaos-aligned within the game, and even Dionysus responds to the suggestion of survival of the fittest by saying “so be it”, and that those who challenge him will be “put back in their place” because he is strong and not weak. Despite this and the fact that he really doesn’t have all that much to do with the ideology of Law, Dionysus’ quest, “A Sobering Standoff”, appears to correspond to the most to the Law alignment. I can only assume that this is because Dionysus wants to maintain the system of rules he has in place for regulating alcohol whereas Black Frost wants to upend all of that.
The last of these subquests can be found in the Taito region. In Ueno Park, you can meet Futsunushi, the Shinto god of swords, who gives you the subquest “In Defense of Tokyo”. Futsunushi identifies himself as one of the Amatsukami (which doesn’t sound strange, given that he actually was one of the Amatsukami, until we start getting into the Chaos alignment), and tells you that “foreign demons” led by the fallen angel Adramelech are trying to invade Tokyo. He very peculiarly complains to the player that if Adramelech was merely chased from his home and landed in Tokyo then he would not turn him away, but he claims that the “foreign demons” instead steal the land of the Amatsukami and try to “exterminate” them. When Futsunushi was initially revealed for Shin Megami Tensei V, some people saw him talking about “foreign demons” and suspected that he would be a continuation of nationalist themes in the series, and if you think about it, the way Futsunushi talks kind of reminds me of certain anti-refugee talking points we could bring up. In any case, although Futsunushi is a Wargod and therefore listed as Neutral, his quest “In Defence of Tokyo” seems to correspond to the Law alignment.
Altogether, the microcosm of Law presented in these subquests seems pretty straightforward. Law is about order, and that can mean many things: it can mean creating a society where safety comes with dependence on authority, it can mean simply preserving order in general, often on behalf of Bethel and the angels, and apparently it can also mean some sort of nationalism. Keep that part in mind for when we explore one of the central Law characters in the game.
Returning to the main plot, we see towards the final stretch of the game that, after the player defeats the demon king Arioch, the horizon of the Law and Chaos dynamic seems to change. The director of the Japanese branch of Bethel, Hayao Koshimizu, abruptly declares that the Japanese branch is going to break off from Bethel in order to install a Nahobino as the new ruler of creation. This leads to a summit between all the main heads of Bethel, in which we discover that the heads of the other Bethel branches are not angels but instead the various polytheistic gods: Khonsu, the Egyptian god of the moon, represents the Egyptian branch, Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, represents the Greek branch, Odin, ruler of the Norse Aesir gods, represents the Nordic branch, and Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, as well as the serpent Vasuki, represent the Indian branch. It turns out that Bethel is just an alliance between the various gods and the angels of God cobbled together by Abdiel, who serves as its leader and commander, seemingly for the purpose of fighting the forces of chaos under the pretext that God is still alive. Earlier in the game we see a flashback in which Lucifer greets the angels led by Abdiel to tell them that God is dead and that he has killed him. Naturally, Abdiel angrily dismisses the “vile serpent”, believes that he is lying, and refuses to believe him. For much of the game Abdiel continues to hold onto the belief that Lucifer is trying to deceive everyone, and organized Bethel with that belief in mind, assuring the rest of Bethel that rumours of God’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
During the Bethel summit, it becomes clear that the other gods have already figured out that Lucifer had defeated and killed God, that the Condemnation is no longer in effect, and that the world is due for a new cosmic ruler. Abdiel insists that Bethel still exists to preserve God’s world, that the Condemnation still stands, and that the right course of action is to simply wait for God’s return, reasoning that even if God did die he would surely return soon. When Khonsu points out the existence of the Nahobino that is the player and speculates that God wants the player to replace him, Abdiel, unable to counter Khonsu’s argument, decides that in order to prove that God’s order still reigns supreme she has to kill the player. She, of course, fails and is defeated by the player, and as a result the rest of Bethel, vindicated in their skepticism, go their separate ways, with Odin and Zeus in particular heading out to recover their lost “Knowledge” and become Nahobinos themselves, all of which Abdiel considers to be selfish. Until this point, the gods who formed the Bethel alliance may have been convinced that God was still alive and that, with his order via the Condemnation still in effect, it would be impossible for them to become Nahobinos. Thus, they settled for simply working with the angels in order to protect the world by fighting the forces of chaos, which, thinking about it, must seem strange considering that Odin and Zeus seem to have the same ultimate goal as certain “forces of chaos” such as Lahmu: namely, they want to regain their divine status as Nahobinos, challenge the current order, and recreate the world.
In any case, Bethel, from this point onward, no longer represents the Law alignment. Now it’s just the angels of God who constitute the primary Law faction in the game’s story. In fact, the angels of the Herald and Divine clans are among the few consistently Law-aligned demon clans in the whole game. The only other reliably Law-aligned clans in the game are Avians, Raptors, and Yomas. Megamis, previously Law-aligned, are now Neutral except for Demeter and Maria, and even then Demeter’s ambitions in this game have no connection to God unlike in Strange Journey Redux. Viles were also previously Law-aligned, but now half of the Vile clan is Chaos-aligned while the other half are Law-aligned. That’s pretty much the extent of Law representation within this game’s Demonic Compendium. In contrast, and I hate to say this but, there are if anything way too many Chaos-aligned demons in this game!
Abdiel may be defeated but she’s not giving up. She is still committed to ensuring that God’s order is preserved and upheld as the supreme order of things, and as it turns out she, despite being an angel and therefore a creation of God, somehow has “Knowledge”. That would entail that she, like all the other demons, had somehow “fallen” from godhood with the ascent of God, and, in order to restore it, she needs to find a human with her “Knowledge”. This leads us to perhaps the single most important Law character in the game who we have not yet discussed: one of your classmates, Ichiro Dazai.
Admittedly, Ichiro seems like an unusual Law representative. Before the game was officially released, many thought that Ichiro would turn out to be the Chaos representative rather than the Law representative. And you could be forgiven for thinking that since he certainly doesn’t quite look like what you’d expect from a Law representative. Indeed, your first impression of him in-game is that he’s an aspiring internet streamer who’s viewed by the rest of the class as kind of a dork, and when you first see him in the game he’s trying to film his next video, talking about rumours of monsters in the Takanawa Tunnel. He actually looks like Logan Paul, don’t you think? But as the game goes on, you slowly see him develop as a more or less standard, perhaps even cliche, representative of the Law alignment.
When you first enter Da’at you see Ichiro lifted above the ground by an angel, who then carries him off to the Diet Building. After this he expresses an interest in joining Bethel, saying that he really wants to be a part of protecting Tokyo. This of course is right after one of your other classmates, Tao Isonokami (a.k.a. “The Saint”; no, not that one), informs you and your two other classmates (including Ichiro) that the Tokyo you’ve been living in isn’t real, and Ichiro never really seems to reflect on that fact in any serious way. Later, after the defeat of Lahmu and the explanation of “Knowledge” and the demons’ desire for it to the students, Ichiro never contemplates it and avowedly doesn’t care about the subject. A lot of his time in the game is just him talking about how weak and indecisive he thinks he is, how much he admires the player for his strength and ability to confront danger, and his desire to get stronger and more confident himself.
That’s where Abdiel comes in. While she’s busy ruminating about the deposed rival gods in Shinagawa Pier, Ichiro introduces himself to Abdiel and talks to her about how awesome she is and how he wants to know how she can be so strong. Keep in mind, when Abdiel is first seen by the player and his friends, Ichiro is actually scared of Abdiel, and for good reason; she was about to kill his classmate for being a Nahobino. So it’s definitely a little odd that Ichiro would want to follow Abdiel. Abdiel then tells Ichiro that the secret to her strength is her unwavering faith in God, which gives her the ability to act without hesitation based on simple belief. This seems to inspire Ichiro somewhat, and eventually he bonds more and more with Abdiel. During the raid against the demon king Arioch and his allies in the Chiyoda region, Abdiel assists Ichiro by giving him some angels to command so that he could fight on his own. But whether or not Ichiro has gotten much stronger is honestly a matter of opinion, and I would argue that all he ended up doing was leaning on Abdiel for outer strength. For whatever reason, Ichiro seems to hang on Abdiel’s every word. He even calls her “Master Abdiel”.
By the time you get to the Bethel summit, Ichiro is absolutely convinced that Abdiel is right about everything and that only she can bring order to the world. When you see the summit and get the chance to talk to everyone there, you can talk to Ichiro and he’ll tell you that although he sympathizes with Koshimizu’s goal in terms of wanting to protect Japan, if only because Ichiro himself is also Japanese (well, half-Japanese, but we’ll get to that), he simply believes that Abdiel’s words make the most sense. Why? Ichiro doesn’t tell you, at least not at this point. Earlier, when Koshimizu explains to the students that he will be breaking off from Bethel, Ichiro emphatically opposes this move, which he believes to be a betrayal, and naively suggests that Koshimizu simply ask the rest of Bethel to help them save Tokyo, which is at this point rapidly disappearing from existence. In trying to figure out what motivates Ichiro to this thought process, it occurs to me that he legitimately only thinks about the basic mission of protecting Tokyo, and has no interest in any of the surrounding conflicts and contradictions that influence the fate of Tokyo or the rest of the world. And since he associates the mission of protecting Tokyo with Bethel and Bethel with Abdiel and the angels, Ichiro seems to just instinctively side with Abdiel and the angels and with Bethel as a broad whole, and over time he seems to have internalized Abdiel’s ideas about God’s order being necessary for the safety of Tokyo.
When Abdiel is defeated at the summit, Ichiro begs to go and see her again. Eager to continue depending on her guidance, Ichiro begs Abdiel not to give up on her cause. When Abdiel laments that even an archangel is no much for a Nahobino, Ichiro suggests that Abdiel become a Nahobino too in order to gain the power to defeat other Nahobinos, notwithstanding the fact that his fellow classmate who just defeated Abdiel is there to hear him say that. Ichiro pledges to find the human that has Abdiel’s “Knowledge” and bring them to her, only to be informed that it is in fact he himself who has Abdiel’s “Knowledge”. Ichiro is elated and volunteers to be used by Abdiel to become a Nahobino, but Abdiel initially rejects this proposal, because as an archangel she is still bound to uphold the Condemnation. Even though the existence of a Nahobino means that the Condemnation no longer stands on account of God’s defeat and death, the archangels, being created as servants of God, have to uphold God’s law and order anyway. And then, suddenly, the voice of Lucifer echoes into the summit, telling Abdiel, “if your prayer is indeed for harmony, you must bring it about yourself”. In other words, if Abdiel means to preserve the order she believes in, then she must take the power to do so into her own hands, even if that means going against her own rules to do it.
All of this culminates into the final stretch of the story where, at some point, on your way to the Temple of Eternity in Umayabashi, you find Ichiro, standing above, pondering what will happen without Abdiel. Here, his philosophy for what to do with the fate of Tokyo takes shape. He expresses the belief that Abdiel is the only one capable of bringing order, the thing that Ichiro appears to suddenly care about the most, and claims that without her Tokyo and the world as a whole would “tear itself apart”. He then goes on to state that “divine diversity isn’t an answer, it’s chaos”, and that humanity needs “a single ultimate truth” as opposed to “an excess of false opinions”. In the midst of his despair, he recalls what Lucifer said about harmony and comes to the conclusion that, although he seems useless on his own, being useful to Abdiel will be enough for him, and declares that his “Knowledge” alone will serve “the greater good”. And then, he throws his cap to the void, furls back his hair, his eyes seem to glow, and declares that he will rise above the rest and be “the sword of heaven”, before laughing an unusually evil laugh for a Law character.
This is a lot to unpack on its own. Going off of his new look, I remember seeing some fans remark that Ichiro has basically morphed into this game’s version of the Chaos Hero from the original Shin Megami Tensei, mostly due to his hair and his sinister smile. I would point out, though, that the Law representative for Shin Megami Tensei II, Zayin, also has a similar look, at least when he turns into Satan anyway. More importantly, though, this seems to be the point where Ichiro’s focus shifts from the basic mission of protecting/saving Tokyo to “order” as an abstract idea and as governed by broad notions of “ultimate truth”. It’s also the point where we see Ichiro develops what amounts to a fascist or at least quasi-fascist worldview. Remember when I pointed out how Futsunushi’s Law-aligned quest had possible nationalist undertones, and then told you to keep that in mind up to this point? Well, who else do you know in real life who says that diversity can only mean chaos and should be opposed for that reason? Think about it. Hard-right, authoritarian conservatives make the same point all the time, so do right-wing nationalists and fascists. The fascistic nationalist tends to have an agenda of smothering all diversity under the banner of a single, hegemonic state order, with an attendant monoculture, with dissent and difference policed in order to maintain it. That’s the implications of the order that Ichiro would prefer. Only one opinion is allowed to be observed as having weight, all else is “an excess of false opinions”. That “single ultimate truth”, God’s order, is supposed to provide security at the expense of freedom and diversity. Such appears to be the primary concern of the Law alignment in this game, which I guess makes some sense for what it is, and contrary to certain claims that Shin Megami Tensei V represents a broad move away from the “absolutism” of God, this game’s Law alignment is in no way a departure from the series tradition of Law as an absolutist, order-centric ideology revolving around the order of God. Well, except perhaps for the development to come.
But before we get to that point, there’s one thing about Ichiro I should note that is probably incidental in the bigger picture but has a weird connection to the rest of the series. I mentioned that earlier that Ichiro Dazai is half-Japanese. What I didn’t mention yet is that the other half is American. Yes, Ichiro is half-Japanese and half-American. Historically, the association of the Law alignment with America goes back to the original Shin Megami Tensei, in which the Americans as represented by Ambassador Thorman comprise the Law faction for the first stretch of the game. Granted, America was not always represented by the Law alignment in the series, as shown by Strange Journey’s Jimenez being both an American and the Chaos representative, but Ichiro’s partial American identity coupled with his alignment with the angels of the Christian God follows a thematic conceit that had been established in the early days of Shin Megami Tensei, namely that Law tends to represent Western ideas of religion, mostly “Judeo-Christian” beliefs, in the context of a Japanese society that has historically encountered Christianity as either a contradiction and threat to indigenous Japanese religion, a political threat to the Japanese state, or the attendant religion of a humiliating post-war occupation.
Now then, the final alignment-based decision in the game commences when you reach the end of the Temple of Eternity. There you offer the three keys to the temple and then the “Goddess of Creation” shows you your two classmates vying for the right to create the world. You see Ichiro discussing with Abdiel that the only way to maintain order is to give everything, including your own life, over to God, and tells Abdiel that he is here to “do what needs to be done” even if it means to “stray from the path”, stressing that nothing matters so long as his side wins. Abdiel stresses that God’s word is still unchanging and that she is sworn to defend it, and that she is ready to become a Nahobino, thereby blaspheming against the Condemnation set by that very same God, in order to carry out his will. Almost immediately afterwards, the player returns to reality and is on his way to the Empyrean, only to be interrupted by his two classmates and potential rivals, Ichiro among them. Ichiro interrupts the presumptions of his rivals Yuzuru and former director Hayao Koshimizu to preach to them that they need only entrust everything to God. He argues that, because Zeus and Odin each vied for the throne of creation, a world of myriad gods would result in “endless war” with all the gods “eating each other alive” in a brutal contest for dominance, and that, by contrast, everyone will “get their fair share” if they only let God do his thing, on the basis that someone who is all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-knowing can’t possibly be wrong.
And that’s when Abdiel makes a dramatic transformation. After rambling about her sacred duty and her “fettered form” being no much for a Nahobino, she declares that, in the name of the Almighty, she will “embrace darkness” and become a fallen angel. Her body writhes and is covered with purple darkness, she spews black vomit, and then her body radically transforms from her former angelic self to the body of a demon, all topped off with her old face splitting open to reveal a new one. Abdiel then declares that she will uphold God’s will at all costs, even if it means being severed from God’s grace, and Ichiro remarks that Abdiel’s faith as an archangel remains unwavering. In Lucifer’s words, Abdiel has defied God in his own name and traded God’s word for his will. Naturally her fallen angel form has her move out of the Herald clan and into the Fallen clan, but she still maintains her Law alignment. Hence, Abdiel becomes the only Fallen demon in the game, and the series as a whole, to be Law-aligned, since she unlike all the other Fallen demons is still loyal to God and wants to preserve his order.
This certainly is an original take on the Law alignment. But it is also utterly incoherent. Abdiel’s whole purpose is to uphold God’s will, which means God’s word as well. The Condemnation is God’s word and his will as much as each other. The two cannot be separated in isolation. Therefore, the whole premise of her being prepared to fall from grace is nonsense, since the whole act of undertaking that fall emerges from defying his will and his word. Furthermore, if God is dead, and this means his order and power are fading away with him, that means the Condemnation no longer stands, as evidenced from the beginning by the fact that the player becomes a Nahobino. Why, then, should Abdiel need to worry about falling from his grace and defying his word, and why should she transform into a devil-looking thing? If the Condemnation is no longer in effect, then Abdiel could lay claim to human “Knowledge” without needing to undergo a “fall” since the rules that mandated this surely no longer apply. Also, when Abdiel does become a Nahobino, she doesn’t look like any particularly godly being, and instead she seems to more closely resemble what the merged form of Sirene and Kaim from Devilman would look like without their skin. What’s the deal with that? But then, once again, why does Abdiel even have “Knowledge” to be stored inside an unwitting human if she’s not a god? Is it because Abdiel in Paradise Lost was originally one of the angels who followed Lucifer before repenting? Is it for the same reason that there’s a subquest in which Melchizedek says that the “seraphim” (the archangels) were all originally servants of the god Baal? Not to mention, why do Abdiel and Ichiro bother heeding the voice of Lucifer anyway? Isn’t Lucifer the same being that Abdiel previously denounced as a “contemptible snake” and “vile serpent” and hence dismissed his words as lies? Wasn’t the whole point of Bethel to keep opposing Lucifer even after he defeated God? Wasn’t the whole alliance built on the premise that Lucifer had lied about God’s demise?
It’s all just such nonsense. This entire setup seems constructed simply to subvert the traditional expectations of the Law alignment, and I suppose it does, but only on a superficial level. It almost reeks of the tired old dogma that Law and Chaos are actually just two sides of one monistic coin, a trope that also played into some of the worst writing on display in Apocalypse, a game in which all outcomes except Neutrality are delegitimized in this way. But what does it really convey here? Again, I argue that this is not the departure from absolutism that some strive to suggest. Instead, absolutism is the order of the day. It is the nature of the order desired by Ichiro, and fulfilled through Abdiel and the order she enforces (in fact Abdiel explicitly said that God is absolute), it is the nature of the sense of faith cultivated by Ichiro and Abdiel, and it is present in the sacrifices, transformations, and even transgressions that they are willing to undertake for the sole sake of the preservation of order and their own victory. That is the core of the Law alignment as it is present in Shin Megami Tensei V, and it is hardly less absolutist than in previous games.
And while we’re still on the subject of absolutism, let us address the claims made by some that Abdiel is merely a more extreme case in an otherwise more benign angelic faction. It is claimed that this game’s angels want to create a world where order does not exclude the presence of free will. Having played the game, I have not encountered any evidence to support that claim. None of the angels object to the absolutism and determinism of Abdiel’s worldview. There’s not much reason from their perspective why they should, anyway. Only one angel, Camael, objects to Abdiel’s actions, and that’s just because she didn’t kill the player on the spot for being a Nahobino, not because she didn’t believe in free will enough. All of the angels believe in executing God’s word and will without leniency or laxity, all the angels stand with Abdiel by the final stretch of the game, and all of the angels see Tokyo’s destruction as simple destiny as handed down by God, to be accepted and even upheld without objection. In fact, during the demonic invasion of Jouin High School, the angels explicitly state that there is no mercy to be reserved for “evil”, including humans who become possessed by demons. It would not matter if you were a demon or merely a victim of possession, they would smite you anyway. And they say this regardless of whether you choose to prioritize killing Lahmu or helping Sahori, the girl sought after by Lahmu. Further, before you enter the invaded Jouin High School, an angel explicitly instructs you to kill any students that can’t be rescued along with the demons. Exactly how are the angels in Shin Megami Tensei V supposed to be more benevolent and tolerant compared to previous games?
Not to mention, there’s a question relevant for Ichiro in particular. Ichiro repeatedly argues that it is best that everyone just leave everything to God and all will be well. Besides the obvious theological problems we could get into, the obvious problem, within the context of the game’s story, is that God is dead, and has been dead for quite some time, just that Abdiel and the angels have been denying it. Indeed, Ichiro never seems to address this situation directly. Perhaps we can assume he just goes along with Abdiel’s opinion that God is not actually dead, but that would be passive and he never actually takes a stance on that, nor is he ever challenged to confront the reality of God’s death. In fact, doesn’t it seem strange that Ichiro was there for the Bethel summit and saw the other Bethel heads say that God is dead, and never had anything to say about that? It seems to me that Ichiro doesn’t have an answer to any of that, and that might be because Ichiro at heart cares less about the existential question of God and more about whatever is most capable of “bringing order” in the abstract, which he connects in his mind to saving Tokyo from demons.
Anyways, and so we come to the point in the game where you choose between three alignment-based outcomes. Choosing to uphold God’s order sees you siding with Abdiel and Ichiro, and thus represents the path of the Law alignment. Doing so also grants access to two subquests exclusive to the Law path. One of them, “The Seraph’s Return”, features the archangel Michael, who along with his compatriots was imprisoned in a statue in the course of Armageddon. If you complete the subquest “The Holy Ring” with Melchizedek, you can find Michael at the end of the Temple of Eternity, having been set free by Melchizedek. If you took the Law path at this point before entering the Empyrean, Michael, though not pleased about you being a Nahobino, thanks the player for helping Melchizedek free him and praises you for choosing to uphold God’s order. He then sends you to go and defeat Belial at Arioch’s former castle, and joins your side upon you doing so. Of course, if you took the Chaos path before entering the Empyrean, Michael opposes you instead and you have to defeat him. There’s s catch, though: if you chose the Law path but were not sufficiently Law-aligned beforehand, Melchizedek will ask you to pay him 666,000 Macca to earn the trust of the angels. Yeah, that’s a thing in this game, for some reason. Another subquest, “The Compassionate Queen”, is unlocked if you took the Law path and have gained the Seed of Life by achieving 75% completion of the Demonic Compendium. In it you see Maria, a kind of/sort of/not really Virgin Mary expy, who challenges you upon acquiring the Seed of Life. She describes herself as a mother goddess whose form and role changes depending on place and time, and awaits her disappearance with the creation of a new world. If you’re Law-aligned, Maria acknowledges your desire to preserve the world as it was, and faces you as herself. Winning the resulting battle unlocks her as a fusable ally
Once you resolve yourself to uphold God’s order, you fight and defeat the other two Nahobinos that stand in your way, namely Tsukuyomi and Nuwa, and then fight Lucifer, neither of whom seem to have any commentary on why it’s bad that you’ve chosen to side with Abdiel and restore the order of God or why you should have sided with them instead (not that you ever get to take sides with Lucifer). And then, you get to activate the throne of creation to usher in the restoration of God’s order. What does this mean in practice?
Well, for starters, you don’t actually get to see the newly created world or the effects of your rule in the ending sequence of the game. All you see is the player walking towards a big white ball of light that looks suspiciously like Kagutsuchi from Nocturne, while the four archangels (Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael) are seen suspended in mid-air in all different directions. I suppose at least the presence of the archangels tells you that this is the Law ending after all. But from the narration of Goko, the Buddhist monk seen throughout the game up to the final stretch, we can get an idea of what we’re supposed to expect. The player creates a new world in the image of the previous one, restores Tokyo and resurrects its inhabitants, who are then completely unaware of that this is all a recreation of the Shekinah Glory that was previously established by God. The world is composed of only one truth, one justice, one single order, no diversity. Goko suggests that those who easily lose their way will find unwavering faith in this world. In the world of Law, the newly resurrected humans do not think for themselves, and live to show devotion to God. I can’t quite tell if that means the original God or you, the new ruler of the throne.
Throughout the Shin Megami Tensei series, the Law alignment has been defined primarily by a single goal: the realization of the Thousand Year Kingdom. The Thousand Year Kingdom is a state of paradise on earth governed by God and/or his agents, in which the believers in God can inhabit and enjoy a world of ultimate peace, harmony, prosperity, and order under the aegis of a strictly hierarchical and dictatorial society which compels its subjects to trade freedom for total security. And, of course, only the believers are allowed to live in it. Everyone else is either cleansed by God’s judgement or simply cast out and left to die. It’s a concept that appears by name in the original two Shin Megami Tensei games, and recurs if not in name throughout the rest of the series as I’ve explored in “Ideologies of Law in Shin Megami Tensei”. Yet in this game, there’s no real hint of the Thousand Year Kingdom here, at least ostensibly. It’s neither mentioned by name nor hinted at in substitutes such as “millennium of order” as uttered in the previous duology of games. So is there no Thousand Year Kingdom in Shin Megami Tensei V? On the surface the answer to that would be yes. But here’s the thing: you can infer many of the same components of what makes a Thousand Year Kingdom in what we get from the ending sequence. People live in prosperity and ostensible peace, but they do not think for themselves, and exist mostly to devote themselves to God (again, that could be either the old God or the new God for all I know). We can also bear in mind the underlying Christian base of the concept of the Thousand Year Kingdom, and point to the Last Judgement in which the souls of the dead are resurrected, and then either led to paradise or damned to hell. In the Law ending, those who died in Tokyo are resurrected and restored, and all get to live in the “paradise” you create. There are only believers, though perhaps that’s not because you’ve cast out all unbelievers, but rather because believers are all that you have left, your resurrected humanity has been remade as true believers. But of course, if this is meant to be the old order restored, and the Thousand Year Kingdom an ideal state to be realized and pave over the present world, I suppose the Law outcome in Shin Megami Tensei V doesn’t quite follow the base trope of the Thousand Year Kingdom, except may in spirit to a small extent.
Thus, we have established the nature of the Law alignment in Shin Megami Tensei V. It is an ideology centered around preserving, or rather renewing, the status quo of a monotheistic cosmic order, one defined by the absolute concentration of power into one God, who rules as an absolute dictator, brooking no dissent until his death. As usual, this is to be accepted on the promise of security and order, off the back of absolutism. Being Law-aligned then is about the desire for the supreme being and the willingness to have and observe its order at the expense of your own freedom.
Turning to our next subject, the Chaos alignment is a little trickier to define than the Law alignment, and that mostly comes down to the same basic question: who represents the Chaos alignment in Shin Megami Tensei V? This is complicated to some extent by the fact that, as I’ve established, the Law and Chaos dynamic in this game seems to shift to some extent. There is, though, a common theme in the Chaos side. The Chaos faction(s) in this game seem to be defined largely by a desire to challenge or overturn God’s order, and in doing so regain the power of divine identity. In this sense, the Chaos faction(s) represent the gods of old, the demons who were desecrated by God through the loss of their “Knowledge”. But that takes more than one form in Shin Megami Tensei V.
It bears repeating that for the majority of Shin Megami Tensei V the dynamic of Law and Chaos is defined principally by the conflict between the forces of order, represented by Bethel and the angels, and the “demons of chaos” who oppose them, and you do not get to choose to take the side of the demons over the side of Bethel. In this sense, we should begin our analysis of the Chaos alignment in this game by examining the forces of chaos that you don’t get to side with.
From the beginning of the game, we are introduced to demons as beings who were originally gods, or Nahobinos, but were debased through their disempowerment by God depriving them of their “Knowledge”. Demons, then, are in the strict sense fallen gods. With their former “Knowledge” now spread out across the human species, the demons seek out humans for the purpose of regaining their “Knowledge” so that they can regain their divine identity and the power that came with it, and that’s why demons go hunting for human souls. This premise is repeatedly reasserted throughout the game’s story, but the first wholesale story arc devoted to it comes with the arrival of Lahmu, a desecrated god based on an apotropaic spirit from Babylonian mythology. Although classed as a Vile, which is traditionally a Law-aligned demon clan, Lahmu is one of the three Vile demons in the game (so basically half of the Vile clan here) who are actually Chaos-aligned instead of Law-aligned. For story-based reasons, that’s no accident.
Lahmu is first seen speaking to Sahori Itsukishima, a girl who’s first seen in the game getting bullied by other high school students. Sahori is tired of being bullied by others, tired of being powerless against them, and tired of not being left alone. In comes Lahmu, who whispers into her head and offers her the power to get her revenge. Some time after this, Lahmu busts his way into the miracle-based Tokyo to hunt for the Magatsuhi (some kind of life force here) of humans as well as find Sahori, who is Lahmu’s “other half”. Sahori is the human whose body contains Lahmu’s “Knowledge”, and so Lahmu intends to fuse himself with Sahori in order to become a Nahobino, regain his former divine glory, and challenge the order of God. He naturally hates the forces of Bethel, blaming them for the sealing away of his former divine self. Lahmu also leads the demonic invasion of Jouin High School to get to Sahori, while other demons make off with high school students in the hopes of getting their “Knowledge” one way or another.
Although ultimately incidental to the broader dynamic, it’s worth spotlighting the Sahori arc to illustrate missed opportunities created by the lack of an alignment break here. As you make your way into the invaded Jouin High School, you see Sahori tremble before and eventually embrace Lahmu, and later on you find her embarking on a rampage of revenge against her bullies with her newfound demonic power. Her classmate Tao tries to get her to stop, and the girls who bullied her yell the same pleas for mercy that Sahori once did. Sahori confronts her bullies over precisely that fact, that they attacked her and destroyed her possessions before, and now beg for forgiveness and mercy as she turns her wrath towards them, now that she has the power to deliver vengeance to them. Sahori’s sentiment is a perfectly admissible one, perfectly understandable, and arguably justifiable. If you were bullied all your life in high school, and you got the chance to get even with them, would it truly make sense for you to turn the other cheek for them when they never did the same for you? Is it really wrong for you to throw their shitty behaviour back in their face when you get the chance to do so? This is a legitimate response to being constantly bullied, and if the game developers wanted to “sympathize with the troubles of the current era” they could have included the option to at least agree with Sahori’s actions, or even if not that at least her thought process. But the game never lets you actually sympathize with her, much less take her side, in any meaningful way. In fact, Sahori demonstrates a remarkable lack of agency throughout the game, such that even her embrace of Lahmu’s power isn’t even meant to be taken as a meaningful choice.
The connection to bullying is not incidental to the Chaos alignment. In fact, it’s your first introduction to the Chaos Hero in the original Shin Megami Tensei, and I think this is worth revisiting for a moment. In that game, the Chaos Hero is bullied by Ozawa and his fellow gangsters for being a nerd with an interest in the occult, and throughout the first half of the game his main interest is in gaining power and getting stronger so that he can stand up for himself and get revenge. To that end, the Chaos Hero joins the player and his party in order to get to Ozawa and defeat him, but Ozawa slips away when you find him and the Chaos Hero doesn’t yet get his revenge. After survivng a nuclear apocalypse by being transported to Kongokai and then being hurled 30 years into the future, the party meets an older Ozawa and the Chaos Hero gets another chance to get his revenge, but the party is overpowered by the might of his demon ally, Take-Minakata. This results in the Chaos Hero deciding to fuse himself with a demon from your COMP in order to become the strongest and most powerful he can be by transcending his human limitations, which allows him to defeat Take-Minakata and finally get revenge on Ozawa.
Since it must be remembered that I’m supposed to be talking about the ideological contours of the Chaos alignment in Shin Megami Tensei V, what I’m trying to say is that there is s connection in that one of the most important aspects of Chaos is being able to take matters into your own hands. For the Chaos Hero in the original Shin Megami Tensei, this means getting as strong as possible so that no one can pick on him again. For Sahori, taking on the power of Lahmu means much the same: gaining the power to make sure no one picks on her again. But the difference between the two games, besides being nearly 30 years apart, is a fundamental difference of agency afforded to the two respective characters, and the legitimacy given to their actions as can be supported by the player. In the original Shin Megami Tensei, the Chaos Hero has agency, indeed agency is the thing he strives to maximize in his quest for strength and power, he acts on his own terms with his own coherent motives and goals in mind, and his actions are legitimate enough as far as the game is concerned that the player can support them within the game, ultimately to the extent that you can take his side for the final stretch of the game as a fighter for the forces of Chaos. For Sahori, the exact opposite is the case. You are never allowed to actively support Sahori’s actions against her oppressors, you can never disagree with Tao or your masters at Bethel about the legitimacy of her actions, and Sahori can only exist as someone whose vulnerability is taken advantage of by Lahmu, who is only supposed to be the villain in all this. Even Sahori’s embrace of Lahmu’s power is preceded by Lahmu forcibly apprehending her, there’s almost no conversation between them that might lead to her embracing his power entirely on her own terms, out of a desire to stop being bullied, and after she gets her revenge she abruptly pivots and no longer wants any part in Lahmu’s plans and is abducted. But then when you find her at the far north of Shinagawa, she starts asking questions as though she wants to know more about becoming a Nahobino, but she never understands or forms a coherent response before being possessed by Lahmu again, and then killed by the player, thus “saving” her, after she almost killed you and killed Tao, under Lahmu’s possession of course (it’s not clear if Lahmu actually became a Nahobino).
It appears that Shin Megami Tensei V only recognises two legitimate outcomes for Sahori: to be a victim of bullying, and to be “saved” from her victimizers by Bethel. I suppose the only other legitimate response is for Tao to try and reach out to her and tell she’s there for her, maybe, as much as “The Saint” can be there for her. For Sahori to stand up for herself in some fashion, for her to take matters into her own hands, for her voluntarily embrace Lahmu’s power and become a Nahobino, and for you to take Sahori’s side in such endeavours, are all forbidden by the game’s narrative. Thus what could have been a credible Chaos-aligned response, consistent with traditional themes of the Chaos alignment, and from there perhaps an early alignment split that might have had significant effects on the overall story, are entirely closed off, ruled out by the story, since that would mean questioning and opposing Bethel’s ideals, indeed really going against them, before the anointed hour in which the game decides you can oppose God’s order. Of course, there are points in the story where you can tell Koshimizu you don’t want to do what he wants, you can tell Aogami that you hate Bethel’s guts, and you can even take a subquest in which you get to actively defy the orders of Bethel. But these are all contained, isolated instances, and have no actual affect on the story or your place in Bethel.
While we’re still on the subject of the forces of chaos that you don’t get to side with, your trip to Chiyoda has you contending with Surt, Ishtar, and the demon king Arioch, in that order. If you take Ishtar as the original divine form of Astaroth, as the series regularly hints, then these represent three of the four generals of Chaos from the original Shin Megami Tensei. Surt may not have much to say, being too busy burning Ginza, but the other too at least have something to say. When you face Ishtar, she monologues about how God deposed all the other gods, viewing even the Queen of Heaven beneath him, warning that no matter how much faith you have in God it will never be enough for him. When you defeat her, she tells you that she believes that change is coming and the gods must side with chaos to defeat God’s order. As for Arioch, his explicit goal is to seize the throne of creation, with its former divine ruler now dead, and reclaim the “Knowledge” of old in order to recreate the world. After you defeat Arioch, he beseeches the player to use your power as a Nahobino to overturn God’s order and recreate the world, and he stresses that only freedom born from chaos can nurture the world.
Arioch and Ishtar, like Lahmu before them, aim to regain the divine identities seized from them by God, bring an end to God’s order, and recreate the world. Bethel opposes this because its leadership considers the idea of any Nahobino other than God occupying the throne of creation to be a blasphemy and a threat to the order of the world. Where the forces of Law represent the order of a monotheistic cosmos, the forces of Chaos appear to consist of deposed gods from ancient, pre-Christian polytheism, as well as the demons of Hell, all seeking to restore their lost divinity. This set-up is not unfamiliar to the Shin Megami Tensei series. In fact, it’s in many ways a return to the original Shin Megami Tensei, which featured an assortment of polytheistic gods and the legions of Lucifer against God and his allies, seeking to defeat God’s cosmic tyranny, restore the gods of old, and bring about an age of anarchic co-existence between humans, demons, and the old gods, buttressed by the belief that chaos is the source of life and freedom and can liberate the world. The difference, of course, is that you can’t decide for yourself that Ishtar and Arioch are correct and take their side instead of Bethel’s side. You only get to tell Arioch that you know that God is dead, but you still have to oppose him anyway because Bethel is still your boss for most of the game. And yet, by the time you defeat Arioch, that all suddenly changes.
Turning away from the main plot, though, we should once again discuss the binary alignment-based subquests. Previously I talked about the Law-aligned subquests, but now it’s time to talk about their Chaos-aligned counterparts in greater detail.
Somewhere in Shiba you can find a Leanan Sidhe who wants to build a society where all subjects can be free to realize their own unique potential, which seems to mean that she gives those who join her side, or at least those she considers worthy, the power to magnify their latent talents in order that they might fulfill their individual dreams. However, this comes with a price. Leanan Sidhe gives demons power in exchange for shortening their lifespan. Her companion, Ippon-Datara, became a master craftsman in exchange for a shorter life, which he considers to be better than only having enough to scrape by in a normal lifespan. So from this vantage point, the choice between Leanan Sidhe and her opponent Apsaras comes down to whether you’re happy with being provided for by a munificent authority which only gives you the minimum to survive or if you’d prefer to unlock your individual potential at the cost of leading a shorter life. Of course, Apsaras argues that Leanan Sidhe is merely deceiving the weaker demons and making them unaware of their own powerlessness, but Leanan Sidhe believes that even if you are still powerless, what matters is that you have been true to yourself and used your potential to lead a worthwhile life. In this sense, we kind of see a brief recollection of the way Law and Chaos were handled in Devil Summoner 2, in that Law and Chaos were more personality types and how you imagine that you should be, with Chaos representing an ethos of following your desires and being true to yourself without heeding the dictates of authority versus Law representing an ethos of living in harmony with society and abjuring ambition for order and duty. Thus, Leanan Sidhe’s “The Water Nymph” is Chaos-aligned and sees you defeating the Law-aligned Apsaras.
At Shinagawa Pier, you can find a group of Lilim who are seemingly hiding from stronger or menacing demons. The Lilim say that if they go to Tokyo (again, the miracle Tokyo, presumably) then there won’t be any demons, but an angel working for Bethel is stopping them from being able to go there. The Lilim claim that they have no intention of killing humans, and that they only intend to take small amounts of energy from them to survive, only to still be refused entry to Tokyo by the angel. Thus the Lilim ask you to dispatch the angel so that they can go to Tokyo and quietly live among humans, and promise to join you if you succeed in completing their subquest, “Those Seeking Sanctuary”. This quest seems to correspond to the Chaos alignment for the obvious reason that you’re defying the orders of Bethel while siding with demons in their quest to inhabit Tokyo.
At Ginza you can find Black Frost, who calls himself the emperor of Ginza and says he was formerly the emperor of Kabukicho. He plans to become the ruler of Ginza by getting rich through loaning money to poor demons, then cashing in on extortionate interest rates, and running high-end nightclubs and making money off of them. Besides some surplus cash, all he needs is alcohol to run the clubs, but Dionysus stands in the way by regulating the alcohol supply to ensure everyone gets a drink. Basically, Black Frost is trying to be the top yakuza of Ginza, and taking the subquest “Black Frost Strikes Back” sees you trying to seize control of the alcohol supply from Dionysus, with Black Frost joining your party as a reward. This subquest seems to correspond to the Chaos alignment, at least in the sense that you’re supposed to be disrupting an orderly arrangement.
Finally, at Umayabashi, you can meet Adramelech, the fallen angel who seems to have a problem with the god Futsunushi for his seemingly “old-fashioned” attitude. He views Futsunushi as “block-headed” for saying things like “Tokyo is our land!” and not coming to the view that justice is decided by the strong, and asks you to defeat Futsunushi. His subquest, “The Raid on Tokyo”, corresponds to the Chaos alignment and in, ironically enough, a very old-fashioned sense. If you choose to fight Adramelech instead of taking his subquest, he doesn’t question it, since from his perspective you are only doing the same thing he would, and after you defeat him, he criticizes Futsunushi for being hypocritical, since he too relies on force despite claiming to want to talk to him. All in all, he’s at least consistent enough that perhaps he can claim to have won the battle of ideals.
As far as these subquests give us a sort of microcosm of the Chaos alignment as a whole, the main consistent thread is that all of them involve you taking the side of the demons in some fashion, whether that means going against angels or going against other gods. This is done on behalf of the freedom to realize your own potential, even at your own expense, the freedom of the demons to co-exist with humans, some kind of might makes right philosophy, or just the selfish ambitions of one lovable yakuza wannabe. There’s definitely a bit of diversity here. One thing I should note, though, is that, as far as this game’s Chaos alignment is concerned, any notion of “might makes right” actually seems to be limited to one or two subquests. So far, the forces of chaos that you fight as part of the main plot don’t seem to advocate any kind of Social Darwinism, and neither do the Chaos faction that is to be discussed next.
So far, we have touched on the forces of chaos that you spend most of the game fighting, without any recourse to take their side instead. However, after you defeat Arioch, you come to a point where divisions form within what was Bethel, the Japanese branch declares independence, and you eventually get to decide between whether or not you want to continue fighting for what Bethel at least claimed to stand for or if you want to see a new world. As Bethel is revealed to just be an alliance of gods and angels cobbled together by Abdiel, and as the gods realize that God is dead and his order no longer reigns supreme, the possibility of replacing the order of Law with a new creation opens up. What does this mean in the context of the Chaos alignment? To understand this, we should start by turning our attention towards the leader of Bethel’s Japanese branch: Hayao Koshimizu.
As the director of Bethel’s Japanese branch who also happens to be the Prime Minister of Japan, Hayao initially answers to his superiors at Bethel, which, for most of the game, means Abdiel and her angelic minions. However, over the course of the game, he slowly starts to act more independently from his Bethel superiors, beginning with his decision to send the player and Ichiro off to Chiyoda to join the assault against Arioch and his forces despite instructions from above to not participate. After defeating Arioch, Hayao announces to the player and his classmates that he intends to break away from Bethel, turn the Japanese branch of Bethel into an independent organization run by him, and install a Nahobino on the throne of creation. Why? Apparently because even though you defeated Arioch, Tokyo is not safe: God’s order as manifest through the Shekinah Glory is fading away and Tokyo is set to be destroyed anyway. Because of this, Hayao determines that the only chance Tokyo has of not being destroyed is to recreate the world and thereby rebuild Tokyo. This means seating a Nahobino on the throne, and since this entails going against everything Bethel believes in, Hayao concludes that it is necessary to break away from Bethel. Although apparently grateful to God for protecting Tokyo, suggesting that his cooperation with Bethel was not quite for nothing, the knowledge of God’s death means that Hayao can no longer be bound to Bethel’s will, since Bethel’s whole purpose is to protect God’s order. And since Abdiel has made clear to Hayao in the past that Tokyo’s destruction is simply the destiny of God, then the only way to save Tokyo from destruction is to defy God’s will. Thus the Chaos path in Shin Megami Tensei V can be understood as the path of secession, independence, and “heresy” that is undertaken for the purpose of your cause, namely the cause of protecting Tokyo, even if God’s order has failed to do so and even if his servants refuse to do so. In this sense, part of the Chaos path means defying God’s order so as to create a new one.
The other important angle to it, of course, is that Hayao Koshimizu is actually Tsukuyomi, the Shinto god of the moon. Yes, in this game the Prime Minister of Japan is actually a Shinto god taking human form. Why Tsukuyomi of all gods is something I don’t quite understand, but the important part for the story is that Tsukuyomi is one of the Amatsukami, the heavenly gods who ruled Japan from the land of Takamagahara. In the Shin Megami Tensei V’s story, Tsukuyomi is actually one of the only Amatsukami left, since most of the others appear to have been vanquished in the battle of Armageddon. Tsukuyomi believes that entrusting the world to one God, who he refers to as a despot, was a mistake, and his stated goal is to create a new world in which a multitude of gods roam free and once again preside over and illumine the world. This would mean that Tsukuyomi cooperated with Bethel in part because of the assumption that God was still protecting Tokyo for a time, and also because most of his fellow Amatsukami fell in Armageddon. Once Tsukuyomi figured out that God has been dead the whole time, he could begin acting upon his true goals against Bethel. Thus taking the throne, in the context of the Chaos alignment, means reshaping the world by restoring the world of myriad gods.
Those who might have intially assumed from leaks that there was no Chaos ending in the game appear to have overlooked the context established from the beginning in the original Shin Megami Tensei. The original representatives of the Chaos alignment in Shin Megami Tensei, the Cult of Gaia, were defined heavily by their adherence to a polytheistic belief in the return of the gods of old, and establishing a state of anarchistic co-existence with the gods and the demons, albeit with certain might makes right ideals thrown into the mix. In fact, whenever the Amatsukami were not their own demon clan in the games, they did appear as Chaos-aligned demons, particularly within the Kishin clan. Certain Amatsukami, such as Take-Mikazuchi, Hinokagutsuchi, and Futsunushi (although not listed as an Amatsukami in the games except for Majin Tensei 2, Futsunushi was an Amatsukami in the original Japanese myths), appeared as Chaos-aligned Kishin alongside their Kunitsukami rivals in certain games. In the Sega CD version of Shin Megami Tensei, even Amaterasu was Chaos-aligned and classed as a Gaian for some reason.
Another familiar theme from the original Shin Megami Tensei can be discerned in Tsukuyomi’s role as Hayao Koshimizu, director of Bethel Japan and also the Prime Minister of Japan. Early in the original Shin Megami Tensei the game features two factions representing Law and Chaos. Representing Law is Ambassador Thorman, the US ambassador who is actually Thor, the Norse god of thunder who for some reason is on the side of God. Representing Chaos is Gotou, a general of the Japanese Self-Defence Force who is also a member of the Cult of Gaia. Gotou wanted to open up the demon world in order to summon an army of demons, which he dubbed ancient gods, capable of opposing Thorman’s plot to nuke Japan out of existence as part of the will of God, and Gotou, as a Gaian, professed a belief in reviving ancient gods to resist the tyranny of God and usher in a state of co-existence between humans, gods, and demons. Hayao Koshimizu, or rather Tsukuyomi, has much the same goal, and his appearance as the Prime Minister of Japan feels very familiar to the role played by Gotou. Given that he is a god taking human form, he almost seems like what Thorman would be if he were Japanese and had very similar goals to Gotou rather than being a servant of God.
That said, whenever the Amatsukami did appear as their own demon clan in the series, they were Law-aligned, in contrast to the Chaos-aligned Kunitsukami. That includes Tsukuyomi. Perhaps this may have contributed to the idea that there was no Chaos path in Shin Megami Tensei V. But the Amatsukami also represent the ruling deities of the Japanese pantheon of gods. In Shin Megami Tensei V, this serves to more broadly represent polytheism from the standpoint of the Japanese cultural and religious context. Just like in the original Shin Megami Tensei, this indigenous polytheistic context that is juxtaposed against the Christianity that comprises the context of the Law alignment. In the original Shin Megami Tensei, a Law faction heavily inspired by a Western “Judeo-Christian” background clashes against a Chaos faction heavily inspired by Japanese Shinto-Buddhist polytheism, in some way representing cultural tension between Christianity and Japanese religion. That dynamic returns in Shin Megami Tensei V, with Law defined by a Christian context represented by God’s order as upheld by Abdiel and the angels on one side, against Chaos defined by the context of polytheism and especially by indigenous Japanese religion on the other.
Before we move along with the story, you may have noticed that although the Kunitsukami are summonable allies in Shin Megami Tensei V, the Amatsukami are not. Well, all but one anyway. The so-called “proto-Fiend”, Aogami, the entity responsible for the player’s transformation into a Nahobino, is actually Susano-o, who is counted among the Amatsukami in this game. Aogami seems to be an artificially-created demon, built by Tsukuyomi to inherit the power of Susano-o, who presumably is one of the Amatsukami gods who fell in the battle of Armageddon, to ensure that he and the other gods of Japan could still fight despite the events of Armageddon. Aogami is Tsukuyomi’s effort to restore the Amatsukami as the autochthonous protectors of Japan, perhaps to ensure that the Japanese gods can rely on themselves rather than the angels. Tsukuyomi thus seeks to recreate both the world and his fellow gods; in Lucifer’s words, he seeks to rebuild the world as he rebuilt his divine kin.
Tsukuyomi intends to become a Nahobino, and to do that he needs the human who possesses his remnant “Knowledge”. This is where we get to the other Chaos representative: one of your classmates, Yuzuru Atsuta.
Yuzuru is a peculiar case where he looks a lot like the Chaos Hero from the original Shin Megami Tensei, with his glasses and his haircut, but never once acts like him. Whereas the original Chaos Hero was rebellious, despised authority, and wanted little more than the freedom and power to stand on his own, Yuzuru seems to be the honor student of your class, and he appears to respect authority, not merely the power to back that authority. For a character who goes on to be the main human representative of the Chaos alignment in contrast to Ichiro representing the Law alignment, there’s almost nothing throughout the game that suggests Yuzuru is meant to develop in this way. The only thing you hear him talk about is how much he wants to protect Tokyo and his classmates, and you never see him question the whims of the angels or the ideals of Bethel. That’s until Tsukuyomi/Hayao Koshimizu has him stay in the Diet Building while you and Ichiro participate in the raid against Arioch. After you return to HQ and it’s revealed that Hayao Koshimizu is Tsukuyomi and he intends to break away from Bethel, Yuzuru, although initially surprised, never seems to question Tsukuyomi’s actions or intentions nor challenge him on why it’s worth leaving Bethel, and almost immediately signs onto Tsukyomi’s vision of replacing the rule of one God with the governance of many gods, and the game gives us absolutely no idea of how he came to the conclusion that this is the right thing to do. While Ichiro gets a whole full-motion cutscene dedicated to showing us his transformation into a zealot of the Law alignment, Yuzuru only gets a brief and not even voice-acted scene at Shinobazu Pond where he bigs you up as a Nahobino and basically tells you that Tokyo means everything to him, of course, that he too is going for the throne of creation, and that he will compete against you if you do not share his cause. Absolutely no attempt to discuss why he came to the conclusion he did.
At least Tsukuyomi tells us that God’s order isn’t worth following anymore because God’s destruction of Tokyo is seen as inevitable by the angels and that Tokyo obeyed God only to still be destroyed. But with Yuzuru, there’s nothing. Just like Ichiro, he is practically only motivated by the blind fixation on the base mission of protecting/saving Tokyo, with little thought process of his own regarding the surrounding conflicts and contradictions that affect Tokyo’s fate. If you play on the Law ending path, Yuzuru argues to Ichiro that God’s grip has stifled the world and that Ichiro’s beliefs are motivated by him having stopped thinking for himself, but with no exposition regarding how Yuzuru comes to believe what he does, we are left to assume that Yuzuru ultimately is simply going along with whatever Tsukuyomi wants. Given that Yuzuru spends the whole game up to the final stretch just going along with what Bethel wants, respects Tsukuyomi’s authority and attendant reputation as the director of Bethel’s Japanese branch, and stays behind with Tsukuyomi so that he can tell him gods know what (we are never shown exactly what Tsukuyomi was doing with Yuzuru by the time you’ve departed for Ginza), it is logical to conclude that Yuzuru has arrived at his conclusions not through independent thought but through the advice, or even instruction, of Tsukuyomi, who as a respected figure of authority leading the mission to fight chaos and protect Tokyo Yuzuru would be inclined to listen to. Frankly, it is my opinion that had Tsukuyomi/Koshimizu not decided to break away from Bethel and do his own thing, Yuzuru would still be obeying not only him but also, by extension, Bethel, and thus he could have wound up as the Law representative instead of the Chaos representative.
All of this has me come away thinking, without any hesitation, that Yuzuru is the worst, the flattest, the emptiest Chaos-aligned character I have ever seen in the entire Shin Megami Tensei series, due to his fundamental lack of motivation and him simply being uniquely self-defeating from a conceptual standpoint. The fact that he ultimately arrives at his path through deference to authority is an affront to everything that Chaos has represented for the last nearly 30 years of games, since it demonstrates a lack of the values of independence and rejection of authority that have come to define it.
But enough about Yuzuru. This is a path that’s all about the myriad gods, so we can’t spend too much time talking about it without mentioning the other gods, the gods of Bethel. At the summit, you meet Khonsu, Zeus, Odin, and Vasuki serving as a proxy for Shiva, all of whom are convinced that Bethel’s time is up, with God dead and unable to support his order, and that it is time to create a new world. There seem to be some differences between what the gods want now that God is dead. Zeus and Odin go off and find the humans with their “Knowledge” in order become Nahobinos themselves and take the throne of creation, though what they intend to do as rulers once either of them get the throne is left unexamined. Khonsu, however, has no interest in the throne, but does seem interested in gaining the power of the sun god in order to become Ra. His rivals in this quest include Amon, Asura (as in the Asura Lord from Shin Megami Tensei), and Mithras. Vasuki, as a servant and mere proxy of Shiva, cares only that Shiva’s ambition to destroy and recreate the world via the Rudra Astra is fulfilled, and neither Vasuki nor Shiva seem to be interested in claiming the throne.
Shiva actually seems to be an interesting case on his own. He is referred to within the game’s story, but makes no actual appearance in the main plot. Instead, you can only see him after you defeat Vasuki and claim the Key of Austerity, but even then, meeting him is purely optional, and you only have to do it if you want to take on his subquest, “A Universe in Peril”, and fight him in a gruelling superboss battle. As for what Shiva wants, he has no intention of claiming the throne of creation, and believes that those who do contend for it in order to create the world in alignment with their will bring nothing but corruption. Thus Shiva believes that it is not right that the world should be created or recreated by its inhabitants, rather that the beings that inhabit the world should be created by the world alone, and to that end Shiva will destroy the universe on behalf of the god Brahma so that it can be created again. For a Chaos-aligned deity of the Fury clan, the worldview Shiva talks about seems to me like it would actually make for a pretty creative expression of the Law alignment. Traditionally, the Law alignment tends to stress alignment with the order and will of things usually couched in terms of divine law, and if that’s not the order of God as expressed in the traditional Order of Messiah style Law ideology, it can be something more generic such as “harmony with the world” as in Devil Summoner 2 or something more abstract such as the way the Reasons all work in Nocturne.
A Shin Megami Tensei game seeking to present a Law path not defined strictly by the Abrahamic context might seek to pursue Law as defined by a belief that it is the world, or universe, or even a more trans-cultural expression of the Great Will, that bears the sole right of creation and dominion, while opposing any notion of you or anyone being able to create on your own or establish your own order. This can be drawn from multiple contexts, though an easy way to meld both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic contexts would be an abstract “Will of Heaven”, deriving from the use of the term in Confucianism, as the principal agency of Law, of which God and his minions as well as non-Abrahamic gods. It might seem weird talking about this in what is supposed to be the Chaos section, but it is one of the myriad gods expressing this idea, and on that note, it also kind of underscores what I consider to be another wasted opportunity. When I saw Zeus, Odin, Khonsu, and Vasuki being revealed as representatives of Bethel from different international branches, keeping in mind the impression that Bethel was going to be the Law faction in the game, I thought that perhaps we might be seeing a return to Law and Chaos as inclusive absolutes in the way that they were in the original Shin Megami Tensei and Strange Journey. But that turned out not to be the case. Instead all Bethel amounted to was a cooperation pact between gods and angels, which the gods only partook in on the assumption that God was still alive and the Condemnation was still in effect.
But in any case, we come now to the final stretch of the game, at the end of the Temple of Eternity, where the final alignment break occurs and you must choose between three paths towards the end of the game. Choosing “Recreate the world and save Tokyo” is the Chaos path, and puts you on the side of Tsukuyomi and Yuzuru in their quest to bring Japan back under the governance of the Amatsukami and the world under the governance of the myriad gods. A little reminder of just what side this entails, on your way through the Empyrean you can find Ongyo-Ki, a Chaos-aligned Brute demon, who tells you that he and his kind have set aside their differences with the Amatsukami in order to realise the common goal of restoring the world of the myriad gods.
As was the case in the Law path, taking the Chaos path unlocks two subquests exclusive to the Chaos alignment. The first of these is “The Red Dragon’s Invitation”, which requires the completion of “The Holy Ring” to access. It involves you meeting the demon Nebiros in the Empyrean, who invites Chaos-aligned players to come and see Belial at the castle once ruled by Arioch. Of course, if you somehow aren’t sufficiently Chaos-aligned by this point, Nebiros asks you to pay 666,000 Macca before letting you see Belial. When you meet Belial he praises you for your power to defy the Condemnation and considers you as an ally in the goal of destroying the order of God, or the world of order. This reinforces the demons of chaos you fought before and the polytheistic gods you now side with as sharing the same goal: overturning God’s order and gaining the power to recreate the world. Belial then has you go and defeat Michael, who you previously had a hand in freeing, so that Belial will lend you his aid. Of course, if you took the Law path, Belial will instead oppose you and you will have to defeat him. Another Chaos-exclusive subquest is “The Wrathful Queen”, in which the goddess Maria, awaiting her disappearance with the creation of the new world, transforms into the goddess Inanna upon seeing that you have the Seed of Life and intend to “craft a world unlike any that has come before” (seems a tad ironic considering you mean to restore a multitude of gods). Defeating Inanna grants you the right to fuse and summon her.
After defeating Abdiel, Nuwa, and then Lucifer, the last of whom you’d think would join your side on this path considering he is the Lord of Chaos after all, you usher in the recreation of the world as planned, to bring about a world where many gods reign and gods reside in everything that exists. Essentially, you’re supporting a cosmos that is polytheistic and seemingly animistic as well, much like the Shinto cosmos and several Pagan cosmoses. Once again you don’t get to see what that world looks like, all you see is a big white disco ball and the gods Zeus, Odin, Khonsu, and Shiva suspended mid-air in different directions so as to indicate that this is the polytheistic cosmos of the Chaos path, and all you have to go on is Goko’s narration. You remake the world into one governed by a multitude of different gods, and its inhabitants offer their faith equally and live in a diverse, ever-changing society. Supposedly this life is difficult at least for those who lack conviction of their own, while those who think for themselves come together and do great things. Apparently irreconcilable differences in ideology result in constant conflict, and the world is now filled with strife, but to choose and to be able to choose is better than to be chosen for, and those who choose for themselves are responsible for their own choices.
At this point we should note that, between the Law and Chaos endings, the narrator inserts what are the apparent feelings of the protagonist. In the Law ending, Goko tells us that the protagonist is pleased with his work, while in the Chaos ending, Goko tells us that the protagonist is sad but holds to his beliefs anyway. This is unusual for a Shin Megami Tensei game, arguably contrary to its overall spirit, since the whole point of Shin Megami Tensei’s protagonists being silent protagonists is that this gives the player to insert their own values, emotions, and thought process into that character. Here, however, it’s suggested that the story decides how the protagonist feels about certain outcomes, when the whole point is that in Shin Megami Tensei, as Kazuma Kaneko once said, everyone has their own criteria for victory. Not to mention, why should the protagonist be pleased with his work when creating a world where nobody can think for themselves and people mostly just exist to have faith in God, and why should the protagonist be sad to have created a world where diversity means everyone disagrees with each other? It makes me suspect that the game’s narrative implies a bias in favour of the player governing a new world in a dictatorial fashion, or at least in favour of ordered consensus maintained through unitary divine authority, and against any outcome that entails that humans have to fight for what they have and figure things out amongst themselves.
But in any case, the cosmos presented to us in the Chaos ending makes a lot of sense when observed in terms of the cosmoses that we often see in polytheistic belief systems. In a cosmos consisting of multiple divines, divinity cannot be a unitary thing. A singular supreme being, therefore, in the strict sense does not exist. The closest thing to that would be the king of the gods, and in Greece and Rome we see that some philosophers, such as the Stoics, developing towards a more monistic or monotheistic worldview, would sometimes lean towards Zeus, as the king of the Greek gods, as the logical representation of the supreme divine principle, but even the king of the gods is not usually an absolute ruler, he occasionally meets challenges to his authority, and his power is not capable of overriding the fate that is immanent in the cosmos. Sometimes this king also answers to something greater than he, such as Zeus himself who seems to answer to Nyx. But in any case, the consistent polytheist cosmos brooks nothing like monotheistic notions of God, and there isn’t the same notion of a supreme being. It’s interesting that the Chaos ending implies a kind of anarchy, in the classical colloquial sense communicated by the ceaseless strife of a headless society. The etymological root of the word anarchy is in the Greek word anarkhia, which means “without a leader” or “without a ruler”, the word “arkhos” meaning “ruler”. Another similar Greek word is “arkhe”, which means “beginning” or “origin”, can be interpreted as meaning “first principle” or “dominion”, and in ancient Greek philosophy denoted an original principle from which all else originated, which was central to what would become a quest to define the single, supreme principle underlying all things, perhaps presaging an eventual philsophical turn towards monotheism. The polytheism of the Chaos path is anarchy two sense; it is anarchy in the sense that it is without a single ruler, and it is anarchy in the sense that it has no supreme principle. There is no arkhe, there is a diversity and multiplicity of divines, principles, values, that live amongst each other, and occasionally clash with each other. But this in many ways is more consistent with Chaos in Shin Megami Tensei’s traditional context than anything. It is the cosmic fufillment of its most consistent goal: co-existence involving demons and the gods of old, boundless freedom, no supreme ruler. In fact, I would argue that this state of things could be the chaos that Arioch alluded to, from which true freedom is born. Chaos, then, is a state of affairs in which there is no supreme principle ruling the cosmos, as well as the strife that apparently accompanies it. Ironically, however, nearly all of the gods shown here, except Shiva, are officially Neutral as members of the Deity clan (all of whom are Neutral).
Thus, we have established the nature of the Chaos alignment in Shin Megami Tensei V. It is an ideology centered around the destruction of the current order of things so as to replace it with a cosmos with no supreme ruler and a multiplicity of overseers. The headless nature of this cosmos implies not just diversity but limitless possibility and freedom, but it is to be taken that this leads to strife, uncertainty, and disorder. Being Chaos-aligned, then, is about being willing to accept the strife and disagreement that comes with the freedom of the headless cosmos.
We have established the Law alignment as represented by angels seeking to preserve and/or renew the monotheistic order of God, and we have established the Chaos alignment as represented by a multiplicity of gods and demons seeking to recreate the world and regain their lost divinity. So what is Neutrality between these two options? Who represents the Neutral path here? There are multiple characters who are Neutral in a very strict sense, in that they don’t formally align with either the Law and Chaos factions. But Neutrality, in the Shin Megami Tensei sense, is not merely a lack of affiliation between both camps, but an ideological stance that is defined in its explicit rejection of Law and Chaos. What does that mean here?
We are introduced to the Neutral path pretty early on in Shin Megami Tensei V, as soon as you enter the Diet Building. There you meet Nuwa, the Chinese goddess who created mankind, who is seen having just slaughtered an army of angels. Given that you’re introduced to the angels as essentially the forces of order or Law, your initial impression may have been that Nuwa represented the Chaos alignment, and as a Chaos-aligned Lady that would make sense, but the game soon makes it clear that this is not the case. After you “defeat” Nuwa (or more accurately whittle her HP down to half), a man named Shohei Yakumo, who calls himself an “exterminator of demons”, appears to interrupt your battle, and initially intends to kill you. When Nuwa persuades Shohei to spare the protagonist, he relents, and you have the opportunity ask who they are and what they want. Nuwa explains to you that Bethel is their enemy because they serve the same God of Law that stole the “Knowledge” of the other gods and turned them into demons, and that she also considers many of God’s opponents to be no better than him, calling them “opportunistic cretins” who only seek chaos to fulfill their own selfish desires. Thus Shohei’s self-appointed mission is to kill both the forces of Bethel and the demons of chaos, and he will oppose you for as long you seem to work for Bethel at least.
It is important to bear in mind what we already established when discussing the Chaos alignment. The forces of chaos that Nuwa is likely referring to are the demons who seek to reclaim their lost “Knowledge” in order to regain their divinity and destroy God’s order. These are concrete goals, not reducible to wantonness, and as a goddess who herself was one of the gods whose “Knowledge” was confiscated thus leading to her desecration, one would assume that she would have a common goal with those demons. But instead, Nuwa’s opinion is that the demons seeking to restore their former divinity, albeit through violent means, are equally as bad as the God that she describes as having stolen her “Knowledge” and enforcing tyrannical absolute rule over the cosmos. It’s like a kind of cosmic centrism.
Much later on, Shohei reappears in Akihabara, in the Chiyoda area of Tokyo, slaying demons and angels left and right, and prepares to confront the protagonist. Here Shohei and Nuwa are shown to disagree with each other. Nuwa appears to see something in the protagonist, it’s not exactly clear what, while Shohei hates you for ostensibly being content to fight for Bethel in spite of your strength. Once you defeat him, though, he begins to change his mind after being sufficiently impressed by your strength, as the one who previously defeated Lahmu, but is still baffled that you seem to still work for Bethel. He views demons as parasites who manipulate and corrupt any human they set their sights on, declares that they are a blot that must be cleansed, and rhetorically challenges you to prove that demons are worth fighting for.
There’s a pretty obvious problem with Shohei’s militant anti-demon attitude. His companion throughout the game is Nuwa, who by the game’s terms is a demon, a being who lost her divinity because of the Condemnation established by God. Thus, she too is one of the desecrated beings that Shohei pledged to exterminate. Apparently Nuwa is the demon who has been with Shohei since he was young. But when Shohei was young, a demon possessed someone and killed his whole family, and that’s his primary motivation for wanting to exterminate demons. Why then was Nuwa not one of the demons he sought to kill? As it turns out, they have a common goal, one that will be explored in good time.
After you defeat Arioch, Shohei appears again to congratulate you on slaying the demon king, who he describes as an “ugly sore”. He thinks that Arioch’s defeat will lead to humanity being on even footing with the demons, since humans are able to not only fight demons but also pit demons against each other. Aogami then interjects, saying that only a few people can fight off the demons, whereas most people can’t and will die as a result. To Aogami, this doesn’t seem good for humanity. Shohei, however, will have none of it, and refuses to listen to Aogami on the grounds that he is an artificial demon, a “Bethel construct”, a “slave to his programming”. He then seemingly justifies the possible sacrifice in human lives by asserting that those who cannot fend for themselves are better off dead, since their will to live is meaningless without the will to fight. He further asserts that those who “give in to temptation” and “betray one’s fellow man” should never have been born in the first place.
Those who played Shin Megami Tensei V and got to that point were probably taken aback by how cruel and cold-hearted Shohei’s philosophy is. In fact, it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that Shohei is basically saying that it doesn’t matter how many humans die in their ceaseless war against demonkind because the weak, that’s what Shohei is referring to, are better off dead and those who were going to be weak-willed and incapable of asserting strength shouldn’t have been born. In Shohei’s worldview, the weak don’t deserve to live. This is a Social Darwinist worldview, albeit somewhat toned down compared to other games in that the criteria seems to be mental strength and the will to fight rather than physical strength and the ability to exercise brute force. This has led many to assume that Shohei is actually Chaos-aligned rather than Neutral, despite the obvious problem with that being that Shohei’s goals are undoubtedly consistent with traditional Neutrality, upholding the sole agency of humanity against God and the demons.
An important thing to note about Social Darwinism in Shin Megami Tensei is that, although typically associated with Chaos both by fans and within the games, the idea that Chaos equals Social Darwinism is, as I have established before, actually sort of a deeply-ingrained myth. While Shin Megami Tensei, Strange Journey, and Shin Megami Tensei IV all have a Chaos alignment that has some kind of might makes right component to their overall ideology, it is generally if not entirely absent in the Chaos alignment as featured in Shin Megami Tensei II, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, Devil Summoner 2, and, as I have elaborated here, Shin Megami Tensei V, as well as the New Chaos route in Strange Journey Redux. So for at least half the series Chaos had barely anything to do with any might makes right ideology, and the extent to which it commits to that changes and varies from game to game. The most consistent thing about Chaos is that it’s all about wanting the most freedom possible, being willing to defy God or the Great Will to realize it, and the will to live with such a world consisting of strife and disharmony. Meanwhile, some extent of Social Darwinism is not exclusive to the Chaos alignment. In Strange Journey, the Three Wise Men, representatives of the Law alignment, say that the “spiritually enlightened whose wills are strong” will get to live in the new world while “the fallen humans whose wills are weak” will be destroyed. Only the strong will live, while the weak will die, but this is predicated on will rather than brute strength, so in that sense it’s not altogether different from Shohei’s philosophy of life except that God is in the equation. In Nocturne, we see three Reasons that are all different visions of a Thousand Year Kingdom as constructed under the auspices of Kagutsuchi, an avatar of the Great Will, and the Yosuga Reason, which I must stress is supported by the angels, is a Thousand Year Kingdom that selects membership based on a concept of “beauty” that is defined by power and brute strength. Even if not predicated on a might makes right style of selection, the Thousand Year Kingdom has always had a sort of elitist undercurrent to it, with its emphasis that only a chosen few get to live in it. So in this sense, not only is Social Darwinism not the exclusive item of the Chaos alignment, it has also been seen to some extent in the Law alignment, and now Shohei Yakumo represents the series coming full circle where Social Darwinism, if anything the same kind seen in Strange Journey’s Law alignment, has been represented as an expression of Neutrality.
Shohei’s Social Darwinism does not come from some vague Hobbesian argument about how too much freedom or the abolition of the state will result in a brutal war of all against all (as is frequently implied for the Chaos alignment) or from a belief in God’s salvation being predicated on strength of will as applied to faith resulting in the exclusion of the weak as defined by their proclivity to temptation (as is occasionally seen in the Law alignment). Instead, Shohei’s Social Darwinism emerges from his exterminationist crusade against the demons, who he thinks are parasites that need to be cleansed from the world. Although Shohei doesn’t ever establish why he opposes Bethel or God’s order in particular, it seems reasonable to assume that he views Bethel and the angels as just more demons, more parasites to be cleansed from the world. His crusade demands strength of will, defined by the will to fight and not be influenced by demons, including angels. If many people die as a result, then that is to be considered acceptable on the grounds that the weak will fall while the strong will prevail, and that those who can’t find it in them to fight the demons and reject their promises don’t deserve to live. Thus, we see a Neutral Social Darwinism, for the first time in the series.
This itself ostensibly springs from another motivation, at least as recounted by Nuwa. Supposedly his harsh philosophy of life, particularly his willingness to leave the weak, “those who’ve given up”, to the wolves is motivated not out mistrust for his fellow man but precisely because of his love for humanity, and his belief in the potential strength of humanity. Nuwa explains that Shohei was born into a family whose men were all law enforcement officers, while his mother was a medium who helped the souls of people who were troubled by “dark spirits”, one of whom possessed a man who then slaughtered Shohei’s family. She then says that those who have neither the desire nor capacity to redeem themselves, and will only ever know violence and evil, should simply be struck down without hesitation, stressing that “pretty words” are not enough to save the world. This is the context in which Shohei comes to form his cruel worldview.
Another important contour of Shohei’s Social Darwinism concerns human potential. Those who give up on themselves are people who abandon their potential, specifically their potential to fight demons, and are thus undeserving of life. There is a philosophy in real life whose ideology seems to align with Shohei’s worldviews to some extent. Its adherents refer to it as “longtermism“, and its basic premises are surprisingly mainstream. Longtermism is basically the philosophy which holds that the long-term potential of the human species is the most important ethical value there is. Under this philosophy, the loss of life in itself matters less than the potential that disappeared with that life. It also means that even the worst effects of climate change and the devastation and death that comes with that is all just a blip so long as mankind manages to recover their “potential”. The Social Darwinist implications of longtermism manifest for some of its adherents in the idea that the lives of the rich, or people in rich countries, should be prioritized over the lives of the poor, or people in poor countries, because supposedly the wealthier countries have more innovation and their workers are more productive, thus the poorer and less productive would be left to die in a world run by longtermist principles. Swap rich versus poor with strong versus weak, and what emerges is the idea that it is better that the strong continue to live and better that the weak either die or not even be born, since the strong (of will, at least) carry more long-term potential than the weak (again, of will at least). That idea is at the heart of Shohei Yakumo’s worldview: the weak, “those who give up”, “those who give in to temptation”, they are bad because they abandoned what could have been their potential as demon exterminators who lead a world meant for humans and only humans. That longtermism should focus squarely on human potential should make it no surprised that it seems to make its way to a Neutral character.
Towards the final stretch of the game, when you reach the end of the Temple of Eternity and the forces of Law and Chaos are arguing with each other and showing their hands, Shohei appears abruptly, interrupting the conversation to announce his own plans for the throne of creation. His plan is to destroy the throne, believing that doing so will allow humanity to shape their own world. And if you take his side and resolve to destroy the throne, that is what you will do as well, and so begins the Neutral path. This also leads to you losing the favour of the Goddess of creation, and it’s here that we briefly mention her role in things.
Tao Isonokami, your classmate, died in the fight against Lahmu. After the Bethel summit, Tao reappears as the Goddess of creation, who seems to literally be the Megami in Shin Megami Tensei V, come to accompany the Nahobino in creating a new world after the fall of God and the disappearance of the Shekinah Glory. Taking either the Law or Chaos paths sees you reshaping the world by assuming the throne of creation, whether that means recreating the old order set by God or creating a new divine order entirely, and so the Goddess supports this. Destroying the throne, however, means denying the process of creation, which according to the Goddess means denying the will of the universe (that will being creation, of course), and she cannot support that, though for some reasons he makes no attempt to stop you from thwarting the literal will of the universe.
Anyways, there is something a tad peculiar about the ethos of Shohei’s quest to destroy the throne. He claims that it will mean humanity will shape their own world, presumably meaning without the demons or the gods, and in this regard we see a kind of humanism that is broadly consistent with the ethos of Neutrality as present in the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei series. But the peculiarity arises in the premise of shaping your own world. In the strict sense, both the Law and Chaos paths involve you, a human, albeit a human that is now also a Nahobino, shaping your own world. Nuwa certainly considers you human enough, at least in that you share his humanity, and, as Goko says, by assuming the throne of creation, your ideal world takes shape in the manner that you choose. In that sense, Shohei’s stated aims are surely already fulfilled in the act of creation, right? Well, the problem for Shohei seems to be that you ostensibly do not shape the world alone and as a human but rather co-create the world as a Nahobino alongside either the angels or the old gods, and it would seem that this renders the process of creation unacceptable in Shohei’s eyes, no doubt since to him this means cooperating with the demons and “giving in to temptation”.
And yet, this objection is ultimately hypocritical. On either the Law or Chaos paths, Shohei and Nuwa interrupt your ascent to the throne, to stop you from assuming the throne so that Shohei can destroy it. Shohei declares that this is “the end” for gods and demons. But how does he try to bring this about? Why, by fusing with Nuwa in order to become a Nahobino, of course! Keep in mind that Shohei opposed the player for being a Nahobino on the grounds that this meant him being a demon. In fact, he’s so sure that Nahobinos are demons and therefore enemies that he proclaims “and you are no exception!” when ranting about this being the end for god and demon alike. Yet for some reason he’s quite content to be a Nahobino himself or help Nuwa become a Nahobino. So if you happen to oppose him towards the end of the game, all that talk of not needing gods or demons ends in Shohei not only depending on the power of a demon/god but also becoming a Nahobino in order to try and defeat you. In this sense, Shohei really can’t complain about humans depending on demons/gods, let alone co-creating the world with them, since at least half of that is what Shohei ends up doing himself, or really the entire time if you want him cooperating with Nuwa for basically the whole game. To be honest, though, I think the whole setup is just constructed in a way so that it arbitrarily matches the dynamic of the Reason boss fights from Nocturne. Just as Hikawa, Chiaki, and Isamu all summoned the gods of their respective Reasons, gain new demonic forms in which they seem to have physically merged with those gods, and then you fight them depending on which ending path you took, the same thing happens in Shin Megami Tensei V for Ichiro fusing with Abdiel, Yuzuru fusing with Tsukuyomi, and Shohei fusing with Nuwa, but in a much more condensed and contrived fashion.
Only one exclusive subquest is unlocked in the Neutral path, and that is “The Noble Queen”. Here the goddess Maria, yet again awaiting her disappearance with the creation of a new world, transforms into the goddess Danu upon seeing that you have the Seed of Life and intend to “have humanity live for themselves”. Defeating Danu gives you the right to fuse and summon her. Curiously, Danu is the only Lady in the game who is Neutral instead of Chaos-aligned.
So, you progress through the Empyrean, Shohei dies trying to fight Abdiel (he’s rather embarassingly killed by the gust of air that flows from Abdiel becoming a Nahobino, and so does anyone you side with before the first Nahobino fight in any path in the game for some stupid reason), laments that he failed to fight for the future of humanity, and Nuwa survives to plead with you to succeed where she and Shohei failed. After this you defeat Abdiel, and then Tsukuyomi, but you don’t get to fight Lucifer at all for some reason, in fact Lucifer doesn’t bother to show up at all to tell you what he thinks about you destroying the throne. Instead, after defeating Tsukuyomi, nothing happens except you fly up to the throne of creation, and then shatter it. Goko trembles in shock and horror as the process of creation is denied, and laments that chaos will continue to grip this world.
And what happens then? Once again, you don’t really see anything except a big white disco ball, and this time your classmates, Hayao Koshimizu, Abdiel, and Goko all standing upside down in mid-air. Goko narrates that the battle of the gods came to an end, but its victor relinquished his right to rule creation, resulting in the denial of creation and the continuation of the current status quo, which means the “agents of chaos” continuing to run amok. The human species somehow survives and finds a way to combat the demons, but forces the demonkind are still overwhelming, and many people are expected to die in the neverending war. We are assured, however, that humanity will definitely find victory somehow, because they have the power of knowledge and creation on their side. The player is left to observe the disarry of things, and is pleased not by the outcome but by the thought of what is yet to come; in other words, the player is kept going by the long-term potential of the human species, which no doubt cushions the thought of all those sacrifices you set into motion.
I’ve made numerous comparisons to Nocturne throughout this essay, and I don’t intend to stop now, because this ending is essentially the Demon ending from that. Not the True Demon ending introduced in the Maniax edition, but the original Demon ending, in which defeat all of the Reason bosses, but you don’t get to fight Kagutsuchi as the final boss, and because you either rejected all three Reasons but lacked courage or tried to support too many Reasons at once, Kagutsuchi leaves in disgust, the process of creation is denied, and the Vortex World remains for a thousand years, thus leaving the world in a limbo state teeming with demons. One difference, I suppose, is that in Nocturne’s Demon ending you’re the last man alive, and the only other humans that survived the Conception were either killed by your hand or sacrificed, whereas here there seem to be some humans left that we don’t know about, given that once again all of your classmates and human allies are dead (which, to be fair, happens no matter what path you take anyway). Interestingly, this ending, rather than the Chaos ending, is the ending in which we are explicitly told that chaos in the sense of the lack of order is present in the world, presumably meaning that, in the Chaos ending, there is ironically still some order, just that there is no supreme, absolute order, but refer a multitude of orders, just that there is strife between them. But whereas, as Pierre Joseph Proudhon might have put it, anarchy seems to be prove to be the mother of order in the Chaos path, in this Neutral path, there is neither anarchy nor order, only the silence of creation and the desperation of mankind viciously struggling against demons, maybe forever.
And yet, in the eye’s of the game’s narrative, the real tragedy of destroying the throne is not so much the lives lost in the ceaseless between humans and demons but rather the fact that the potential to create a new world has been denied. When you begin your mission to destroy the throne, the Goddess laments that you carry the potential of an entire world and yet do not want to use it, and thus declares that you must not proceed to the throne. Goko’s panic and disappointment stems from the same thing: you have elected not to use “the potential of a world”, and thus the process of creation is denied, thus the world will not be reborn, it will not be “saved” from conflict by a new God or absolute ruler. The longtermist premise that it is the “potential” of humanity that is more valuable than the life of humans in itself is thus present not only in the worldview of Shohei Yakumo, but also in the agents of creation themselves who Shohei might have opposed. Every path you take except this one validates the process of creation and thus means you use that “potential” instead of abdicating it, thus the Goddess and Goko approve of the other paths. They do are concerned ultimately and principally that the long-term potential of the world or of humanity is fulfilled, made manifest through the act of creation.
This is where the “Destroy the throne” path ends. But, this is not the only Neutral path in the game, and thus it is not the end for our discussion of Neutrality in Shin Megami Tensei V. There is in fact another Neutral ending. A “secret” ending. The “good” or “true” Neutral ending, at least according to some. It does seem to be represented by a shining star when you get it in a clear save file, unlike all the others, and it has somewhat more exposition than the other paths, so clearly it’s supposed to be special. But what is it, what the goal of that path, and what is the outcome of it in the final hand?
To get this alternate Neutral ending, you first have complete a chain of subquests before reaching the Empyrean and choosing to destroy the throne. These are often whole chains of subquests leading up to you defeating certain demons as bosses and unlocking them for fusion. You must gain Fionn Mac Cumhaill as an ally, and to do that you must complete the “Fionn’s Resolve” subquest, which also requires you to complete three more subquests – “The Falcon’s Head”, “Root of the Problem”, and “An Unusual Forecast” – before it can activate. You also have to unlock Khonsu, which requires fighting him in “The Egyptians’ Fate”, and then sparing his life when given the option to finish him off. Then you have to complete “Winged Sun” by defeating Asura, Mithra, and Amon. Then after completing all those quests plus “The Falcon’s Head”, you then have to complete “The Succession of Ra” in order to defeat Khonsu Ra (or, as I prefer to call him, Ra) and unlock both him and regular Khonsu for fusion. You also have to complete “A Power Beyond Control” and defeat Amanozako gone berserk, and then complete “The Destined Leader” after getting all three keys to unlock Amanozako as an ally. You also have to complete “A Universe in Peril”, in which you have to fight and defeat Shiva, the main superboss of the game.
Once you complete all of those subquests, when you advance into the Empyrean into the Neutral path as normal, and then defeat Abdiel, Nuwa then reappears after the fight to reveal her true plan for the world. Although Shohei and Nuwa both wanted to destroy the throne, this was not actually their ultimate or end goal. Nuwa says that the real reason they participated in the struggle for the throne was so that they could claim the throne for themselves and use it to create a world where gods and demons no longer existed, thus making the world a “clean slate” for humanity. After defeating Tsukuyomi as normal, the Goddess approaches you from behind to tell you that you have the potential to rule the world, and beseeches you not to destroy the throne. This unlocks the choice between destroying the throne and the fourth path in the game: creating a world for humanity alone. The Goddess understands this as a world rid of both gods and demons, and determines that this too is the right of the ruler of a new world as an act of creation, thus the player can take the throne. This is where the alternate Neutral path begins.
The requirement of completing subquests to unlock the hidden Neutral path is very reminiscent of Shin Megami Tensei IV’s Neutral path, in which you are required to complete a series of side-quests, or Challenge Quests, in order to advanced the plot by putting you at the top of Hunter rankings, thus filling the Chalice of Hope. But whereas Shin Megami Tensei IV required you to do a lot of Challenge Quests to progress in Neutrality, in Shin Megami Tensei V, you only have to do subquests if you want the “best” version of Neutrality, and the Neutral path per se remains open without them. Still, progressing through Neutrality or unlocking one Neutral ending requiring side-quests does seem to be a weird trend for the last couple of mainline Shin Megami Tensei games. This may be to conjure some sense of Neutrality being harder to achieve than the other paths so as to artificially replicate the difficulty associated with Neutrality in older games. In older games, the challenge of Neutrality consisted in keeping your alignment in balance and fighting every powerful demon in your way. But here, you’re just supposed to complete a bunch of subquests. I suppose when you consider the Shiva and Khonsu Ra fights, it’s not entirely a cake walk. But again, the base idea seems like artificially inflating the challenge of Neutrality. Additionally, your alignment is barely indicated within the game and has no effect on you getting a Neutral path.
But let’s focus on the main goal of this path: creating a world for humanity alone, ridding the world of all gods and demons. There’s already a glaring problem with this premise. Why would Nuwa, a goddess demoted to demonhood, accept being erased from the fabric of existence? If you elect to create a world where gods and demons no longer exist, that means the gods/demons who supported you will be erased and disappear from the cosmos. This includes Aogami, who however artificial is still a demon. But Aogami would go along with whatever you wanted anyway, since he only exists to serve the protagonist and lend him his strength. Nuwa, however, is not artificial, and has a will of her own, yet the question of why she would consent to her own annihilation is simply never addressed by the story. She does say that, as a goddess, she is partial to humans as “her own creation”, but this hardly explains why she should want herself and all the other gods and demons wiped out.
The other question, though, is why should you consent to the annihilation of your demon allies, or for that matter the abolition of your own state as a Nahobino? This question harkens to another glaring problem that emanates from the core premise and mechanic of the game. You want to rid the world of gods and demons, but you wouldn’t be anywhere without them. The desire to wipe out all gods/demons is essentially predicated on Shohei’s belief that demons are no good for humanity and will only destroy humans, but the entire reason for your survival in the world of Da’at is that you were found and saved by a demon, albeit an artificial one, then through him became a Nahobino, thus, by the game’s terms, an at least partially demonic being, and then further still recruited, summoned, and fused demons as allies to support you. And not only has your survival depended on the help of demons, but so too does that of your classmates. Both Yuzuru and Ichiro only have a fighting chance in Bethel because they have demons (or angels, as the case may be) on their side, and the classmates who got dragged into Da’at by Lahmu’s minions might have been killed had it not been for the protection of the demons who live in the Fairy Forest. Even Shohei’s whole plan sees him cooperating with Nuwa and the plan outlined by Nuwa is completely dependent on the assistance of a demon/god and the process of becoming a Nahobino, and from there the process of creation, which is thus co-creation.
Speaking of the Fairy Forest, for a game that likes to frame its basic story setting as a conflict between humans and demons, with demons increasingly established as little more than spiritual monsters, you encounter countless demons in Da’at who are friendly enough to you. You encounter tons of demons that just want you to give them items, you encounter Amanozako who is probably the least threatening personality in the game despite being based on a wrathful yokai goddess, the fairies obviously want no trouble for the humans, and there’s plenty of demons simply have no interest in humans let alone their death. Shohei is convinced that demons are all parasitic threats to humanity that need to be wiped out, and this premise is immanent in both of the game’s Neutral ending paths, but you can play through the whole game and ask yourself, is that really true? Do all gods and demons deserve to die because one demon killed his whole family, or for that matter because Lahmu abducted your classmates is shown to be responsible for the deaths of two people? Could you imagine Shohei applying this logic in reverse, to declare that humans need to be wiped from existence because a human killed a couple of demons or indeed other humans? Or is this all transparently nothing more than the reasoning of pure pogromist hatred?
To “create a world for humanity alone” means the genocide of gods and demons, all of whom are non-human lives, which is to say still lives. You are committing genocide against non-human life, for the purpose of creating a world populated only by humans. Of course, the game doesn’t frame it that way, but I’m sure that’s because if it did you would be acknowledged as the villain in the game’s story, and that’s still a pretty polite way to describe your actions. Thus, the act of a Neutral creation echoes some of the omnicidal aspects of traditional Neutrality. After all, it’s not like the Neutral endings of the older games didn’t have you slaughter everyone who stood in the way of your vision, including all your friends and many gods and demons. But even then, you weren’t in the process of becoming a god who could wipe out all gods and demons through the act of creation.
So, anyways, you ascend to the throne, and Aogami prepares to bid you farewell on account of the fact that he, as a demon, will be erased along with the rest, but then Lucifer interrupts in order to interject on the process of creation. Lucifer warns the player that, because humanity inevitably gives rise to demons, his vision of eradicating all gods and demons is destined to fail. And yet, he suggests that it is still possible to make your new world a reality. How? By traveling to “the realm beyond the earth and heavens”, engaging Lucifer in combat, defeating him, and the consuming his “Knowledge”, so that the world can be freed from the machinations of the “Mandala System”. All of this, of course, bears some explanation.
Given Lucifer’s title as the Lord of Chaos, it may be surprising that I did not cover him in the Chaos section of this essay. This is because, in Shin Megami Tensei V, Lucifer actually doesn’t have much to do with the Chaos path in particular, and is effectively absent for much of the game. In fact, his boss data shows that he’s actually Neutral in this game. Early in the game you see him declaring that God is dead and he has killed him and that he has ascended the Pillar Empyrean, before apparently scattering himself across Da’at. He apparently continues to watch over the player, though, and his voice can be heard encouraging the player when you’re about to have your first fight in the entire game. It seems that, after defeating God, Lucifer consumed his “Knowledge” and transcendent to a “higher level of existence”, “becoming more than He could possibly have imagined”, and learned of the existence of the Mandala System. It’s never actually clear what this “Mandala System” is, but it is described bad a “spatial governing phenomenon”, and it is implied, at least in its Japanese rendition, to be the intrinsic, absolute law of the universe. This law seems to be responsible for the inevitable decay and replacement of each new creation, and the overthrow of its ruler by the next. It is, in other words, the cycle of death and rebirth, not unlike as it appears in Nocturne.
Every ending path, except for the “Destroy the throne” ending, sees Lucifer emerge to tell you that no matter what you do your new world will not last forever, that it will eventually end, a new Da’at will eventually appear heralding the destruction of the current world, and you will be overthrown by a new Nahobino. Each time you fight him he tells you that he has found a way to ensure true freedom, which is for you to defeat him and consume his “Knowledge” just as he did for God, and every time you defeat him he disappears into energy after telling you that you ensured that the world will “truly be free”. Strangely, he tells you this even if you defeat him on the Law path. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have anything to say against reinstating God’s order and create a world where nobody thinks for themselves, or for that matter anything to say in support of you creating a world in the hands of myriad gods despite apparently trying to make it so the demons could become gods again. He doesn’t even seem to oppose you wanting to wipe out all demonkind, despite traditionally being the king of the demons, and his only objection is that if you don’t consume his “Knowledge” then the demons will inevitably return, and if you simply destroy the throne of creation he has nothing whatsoever to say. He only really cares that you overcome him and gain his “Knowledge”, and it doesn’t seem to matter to him exactly what you intend to do afterwards. He tells you same thing in all fights with him. The difference is that in the “true” Neutral ending his base level is higher, he has more skills, and the fight is extended.
But in any case, you defeat Lucifer, and with that the process of creating a world for humanity alone begins in earnest. As before, you see a big white disco ball in space, and this time nothing else. And then, after the credits roll, you see something else. You see Tokyo, apparently restored exactly as it was before the events of the game, you and your friends alive again, it feels a lot like the very beginning of the game. There are also two versions of you in Tokyo, one of them has yellow eyes. Goko narrates that the world of man had thus ended (strange, considering your whole mission was to create a world for humanity alone), and a new world order had arrived. This new world is to be like the old world, but altogether different. This new world was created off the back of the desire to be “free” from demons and the never-ending cycle of creation. But, Goko says, all things must eventually come to an end, and the question is asked, could the world truly exist without Mandala?
In other words, you don’t know if you’ve actually changed anything!
The whole point of this path was to erase the existence of gods and demons from the world, and create a world for humans alone, and that to do that you needed to consume Lucifer’s “Knowledge” in order to break away from the Mandala System in order to make sure your new world lasts forever. But when you actually see the ending play out, it seems possible that you might not actually have exited the Mandala System after all. Goko’s narration all but confirms this. He says, “but all things must eventually come to an end”. Breaking out of the Mandala System means exiting a never-ending cycle of creation, and in theory this should mean that the world you create will last forever. But if all things must eventually come to an end, this means that the world you just created is going to meet the same fate as any other, as though you didn’t consume Lucifer’s “Knowledge”, and the Mandala System might still exist and you and everything else are still in its grip. You have just enacted the genocide of all gods and demons, and consumed Lucifer’s “Knowledge” in order to do so, and yet for all you know, nothing has changed and you haven’t actually freed yourself from the cycle of creation, meaning you erased all gods and all demons for nothing.
This is actually worse than the “Destroy the throne” Neutral ending you might have gotten had you not completed those subquests and chosen to create a world for humanity alone. You went out of your way to clear those subquests, including defeating one of the hardest bosses in the game, you went through an extended final boss fight with Lucifer, and you annihilated all gods and demons through a single act of creation, but for all that, all you get is to see Tokyo exactly as it was, and the assurance that it will come to an end, that humanity can’t live without the Mandala System, and only the cosmos know what’s really going on. Perhaps the demons and Da’at might just come back after all. You did it all for nothing, just because maybe you couldn’t accept any of the other ending outcomes.
Beyond that, creating a world for humanity alone actually seems to play out very similarly to the Law ending. To be sure, you don’t co-create the world with the angels, and you don’t create a world where people only have faith in God and don’t think for themselves, but you restore Tokyo, and seemingly resurrect its inhabitants, things are more or less like the old order that existed beforehand, except for the lack of gods and demons of course, and nobody seems to remember anything that happened. You, of course, are the God of the new world, and the condition of the absence of gods and demons is ratified by your absolute divine will and sovereignty, but you don’t get to do much in your new world except observe things while a clone of yourself apparently lives your life. In that sense, the world for humanity alone can be thought of as the world of Law, governed by an absentee landlord instead of the traditional either God of Law or a similar replacement. In a sense, you have rejected the Law alignment and the Chaos alignment in favour of a somewhat more benign Law ending, sans God.
And what of the objections to Chaos here? No Neutral objections to the plans of Tsukuyomi are ever given. All you see is Ichiro argue that the myriad gods would never see eye to eye with each other and soon devolve into endless warfare and “eat each other alive” in a brutal contest of superiority. If we put aside that the major conflict in the game was started by the monotheistic God of Law, creating a world for humanity alone is shown to never resolve that. Tokyo is restored exactly as it was, which means the Tokyo of this world, the real world in which the game is set. You don’t need a genius to figure out that humans can fight and kill each other just fine on their own, without the influence of God or any demonic agents. Conflict, violence, endless war, these will all continue, and in a world with humans alone, no gods or demons, that all happens with human hands, on human terms, against fellow humans. If the Neutral objection to Chaos is anything like the Law objection in that a Chaos outcome would be bad because everyone disagrees with each other and strife is inevitable, well, with Tokyo restored as it is, disagreement is as common as it is human, and there will always be some discontent, and therefore strife between fellow humans.
Not to mention, in both the Law and Chaos endings, you fight and defeat Lucifer, and Lucifer says that with this the world will surely be free, just as he does in the “true” Neutral ending. Lucifer interrupts both the Law and Chaos paths in order tell you that your new world won’t last forever and invites you to fight him so that you can claim his “Knowledge”. Surely the Law and Chaos worlds too involve breaking out of the Mandala System? But these endings don’t discuss that the way the “true” Neutral ending does. Why does breaking out of the Mandala System only factor into one of the Neutral endings, and not the Law and Chaos endings where you do basically the same thing? But then I’m sure it wouldn’t matter in the end if that weren’t the case since you can’t even say you’ve broken out of the Mandala System anyway.
Neutrality in Shin Megami Tensei V is empty in a way that it truly never has been in any other Shin Megami Tensei game. Like all other expressions of Neutrality, its central basis is in the sort of humanism that echoed out from the basic impression of the scientific worldview presented by Stephen Hawking and/or similar atheistic figures, as understood by a Japanese audience of course. Here, though, godhood is the fulfilment of this humanism, thus divinity is embraced alongside its own repudiation. The demon-haunted world is vanquished by the power of a God forged in the flesh one who transcends the boundaries of human and demon. Godlessness is established by an absentee God, who once again eliminates all rivals to his uncontested power beforehand. And for that, the status quo is effectively restored. Or, alternatively, it is the rejection of two possibilities of creation in favour of realizing human dominance through constant violent struggle against demonkind. Both are guided by the belief that the potential of humanity outweighs the life of either humans or non-humans, meaning that bloodshed, sacrifice, and genocide all have no moral impact so long as it means mankind assumes and uses the potential at its disposal.
So, in summarizing the picture of the ideological dynamic at play in Shin Megami Tensei V, let’s recapitulate the three alignments one more time in succession.
Law is the ideology that upholds the idea of the necessity of a single cosmic ruler, and of an order of the cosmos and human civilization predicated on a hierarchy that revolves around the will of this ruler and the inscription of divine design, whose goal for the creation of a new world is simply the reproduction of a single ultimate truth that organizes human life in absolutism and on the basis of one faith.
Chaos is the ideology that upholds the idea of a cosmos that lacks a unifying supreme law, being, or “ultimate truth”, and a multiplicity of orders and gods, which prioritizes a freedom sourced from the lack of the hierarchy of God, whose goal for the creation of a new world is to abolish the old order of the God of Law in favour of a society where people must choose for themselves the gods they worship.
Neutrality is the ideology that upholds the idea of a cosmos that privileges humanity to the extent that humans are the only sentient beings meant to live in it, and where the “potential” of humanity to attain cosmic mastery is the paramount ethical value, which is to be acheived either through the denial of the process of creation, or the assumption of creation so as to wipe out all non-human intelligences that might compete with or exist alongside humanity.
As I have hopefully showm in certain ways Shin Megami Tensei V derives its alignment dynamic from the traditional Law and Chaos dynamic that emanates from the original Shin Megami Tensei, in certain ways it deviates from many conventional aspects of the Law and Chaos dynamic as presented throughout the Shin Megami Tensei series, and in certain ways it seems to bowlderize and simplify that dynamic. All taken together, it presents us with a dynamic of Law and Chaos is presented to us as though spat back out, regurgiated in what could have been construed as an an attempt to reimagine the core dynamic, resulting in a new product that seems to follow Goko’s description of the world created for humanity alone: akin to the old, and yet altogether different.
In my Postcriptum on the Chaos alignment in Shin Megami Tensei (linked at the bottom of this essay), I expressed the hope that, following the Redux edition of Strange Journey, the Chaos alignment would shed the might makes right conceits that were attendant to it in previous games (well, half the series more accurately) in favour of a radical recentering of Chaos ideology in alignment with an ahierarchical, anarchic co-existence with demons, predicated on a freedom born of the lack of a supreme authority over the universe, among many other things. I think that although co-existence with demons isn’t a strong theme in this game’s Chaos alignment, I think the pluralism displayed in the polytheistic diversity of the Chaos ending seems to suggest that, though it bears a great deal of expansion just as everything else in the game needs. Ultimately, however, even the Chaos ending is a disappointmnet, for the simple reason that a disembodied and alienated narration is the only expression of it, with no actual presentation of the new world, and this is the case for almost all of the other endings.
There is one final elephant in the room to discuss when it comes to the game’s story-world as it relates to the way the alignments are presented by the end of the game: the Goddess, that is to say the Megami in Shin Megami Tensei V. The Goddess seems to be partial to the use of absolute power to establish absolute order. When you reach the end of the Temple of Eternity, the Goddess appears in a vision of the Tree of Knowledge in which she proclaims that the Nahobino can reshape the world as they so choose, encourages you to become the divine architect, while also encouraging you to “show no hesitation” to those who want to “usurp your newfound reign”. This is to some extent reflected in the explanation of the three keys needed to open your way to the Empyrean: the Key of Harmony, the Key of Benevolence, and the Key of Austerity, each won by defeating one of the heads of the former branches of Bethel. These represent the virtues and expectations that the ruler of creation is meant to fulfilll. The ruler of creation is expected to preserve harmony, “be prepared to act for the sake of his people”, uphold the “power of benevolence”, “be willing to hear the voices of his people”, and most crucially “uphold austerity”, “show no leniency”, and “expect none in return”. The player is supposed to take God’s place as a “benevolent” dictator, establishing order through absolute power and will, brooking no opposition, perhaps under the presumption that you will be a more benign dictator than the God of Law was.
This reflects in the way the respective endings are treated in Goko’s narration, or more specifically in how he portray’s the player’s emotional response to this. In the Law ending, where you create a new world in the image of God’s former order and a society where no one thinks for themselves and exist only to have faith in God, Goko tells you that the new creator is pleased with his work. In the Chaos ending, where you abolish God’s order and create a new world consisting of a myriad of co-ruling gods, Goko tells you that the new creation is sad at the apparent strife that pervades the new world, just that he holds firm to his beliefs anyway. The “bad” Neutral ending where you destroy the throne has Goko tell us that the player is pleased with the thoughts of things yet to come, from which we can infer the new creator is not necessarily happy with the outcome he brought about. The “good” Neutral ending sees him looking forward to creating a new world with no more gods and demons in it, observing as its new absentee ruler. The paths which see the player take the position of omnipotent ruler of creation, even if in a non-interventionist sense, are to fill the player with gladness, hope, and/or contentment, while the paths in which the player either relinquishes absolute power or presumably shares power with other gods are to fill the player with doubt, sadness, or at least the prospect that it will all be over in the future. This appears to be the bias of the game’s narrative, and it privileges the potential of absolute power over any other conception of power and its distribution.
And with that, I conclude this essay. I hope that you have derived a good understanding of the various ideological contours at work in the story-world of Shin Megami Tensei V, and also that you have had a Merry Yule before reading this essay and continue to have a fun holiday season, as I certainly plan to.
Ideologies of Chaos in Shin Megami Tensei: https://mythoughtsbornfromfire.wordpress.com/2021/05/20/ideologies-of-chaos-in-shin-megami-tensei/
Ideologies of Law in Shin Megami Tensei: https://mythoughtsbornfromfire.wordpress.com/2021/06/08/ideologies-of-law-in-shin-megami-tensei/
Ideologies of Neutrality in Shin Megami Tensei: https://mythoughtsbornfromfire.wordpress.com/2021/06/19/ideologies-of-neutrality-in-shin-megami-tensei/
Postscriptum on Chaos in Shin Megami Tensei: https://mythoughtsbornfromfire.wordpress.com/2021/06/23/postscriptum-on-chaos-in-shin-megami-tensei/
Shin Megami Tensei V: a fun but middling Nocturne sequel: https://mythoughtsbornfromfire.wordpress.com/2021/11/22/shin-megami-tensei-v-a-fun-but-middling-nocturne-sequel/