Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Devil survivor 2 a case study on doing humor wrong in the post apocalypse

By far my favorite discoveries in gaming in the last few years was finding Atlas a developer and publisher of what in the west anyway are usually somewhat niche games. One of their most prolific series*  is a group of games sold in the west under the brand shin megami tensei. Most games since the times of Nintendo have been pretty shy about depicting sex, religion and just controversial topics in general that other media is free to explore. These games however are like an evangelical Christians worst nightmare, high school students summoning and fighting with demons** magic and its even possible to kill Yahweh in one of the early games. So these games are near and dear to my heart as they not only touch on a while bunch of generally virgin ground but also cover a lot of interesting stories and actually make me care about their characters. However they are not above criticism and that is what I'll be doing today.

 The original devil survivor was actually the first SMT game I played when I first got my DS and is a truely great mix of tactical rpg and visual novel set inside a quarenteen zone. Trapped in this zone by the japanese government you and your high school friends have 7 days to solve the issue of demons being summoned into the zone or the japanese government at the behest of angels from god will solve the problem for you by killing everyone in the zone. It was a serious deconstruction of what if average people got their hands on the kinds of powers you see in pokemon under the stress of disaster and lock down. Things do not go well there is no perfect ending and if you're not careful some of your friends will die. 

The latest addition to the series is a tactical role playing game for the DS that came out a couple weeks ago called devil survivor 2. Devil survivor 2 is not a direct sequel but takes place in a disaster stricken japan after an earth quake and once again people start getting the ability to summon demons as survival once again becomes a big issue. Add in some tough choices and the possible deaths of your friends and this game sounds like it might be just a bit grim. So it should be no surprise especially in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami last year in japan that some effort was made to lighten the games tone with some humor. Unfortunately in my opinion they went over board and this is maybe my biggest problem with the title. 

At various points in the plot there are breaks in the effort to set up tension to show people smuggling to get by and instead you are treated to things like two women arguing about the value of dance, or a woman chewing out one of your friends cause he can't pronounce a mascot's name properly. These event are all set to a piece of music best described as one person put it as a day in Prozac land. 

Unfortunately these scenes tend to be too frequent and absurd which hurts the games attempt to build a sense of tension, urgency or threat. Instead of building on the shadowy group you find yourself helping or the struggles of the average people  and their families you can watch a scene where a guy jokes about using medical supplies to get high. The game has been called a commodity  lacking a soul ( ) but I see the bigger problem as a failure to commit to the setting. 

I can understand in the context of the recent disaster how people might be gun shy about another serious story of survival like devil survivor and want to lighten the mood with some humor. And yes even earthquake aside a story about death and destruction is grim and possibly depressing and in need of some humor to keep things enjoyable. The problem is there has to be a middle ground between the serious and the outright farce the game tends to fall into at times. To be honest playing through this game (about 6/7 through at time of writing) I often find it hard to remember that there are normal npcs struggling to survive. All this might make the game more comfortable and marketable at the moment but I can't help but feel like we lost something great in the long run by resorting to farce instead of addressing the setting head on.

I'd like to hope that we can learn from this in the future and try to push for an emphasis on what is actually needed to set the story and mood while still managing to get in some comic relief.

*Really its a group of loosely associated series that tend to just get lumped together but lets keep it simple.
** in the series everything from christian angels to greek gods or monsters are called demons its a real kitchen soup of gods, spirits, monsters and such.

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