The Shin Megami Tensei series is unique in that it combines the common tropes of Young Adult literature with something only video games are capable of: it places the player in a situation and asks them what they want to do. Some of the series’ games tend strongly towards the mundane (Persona) while others go off the deep end (Nocturne), but they all feature regular people in insane realities.
Devil Survivor, though, manages to blend the tropes of YA post-apocalyptic literature and the Megami Tensei series’ twisted view of the mundane. You embody a normal high school kid, and the game tells you demons are real, the city of Tokyo is locked down, and you’re going to die tomorrow. It tells you that and watches how you react.
At its heart Devil Survivor is about those reactions: children, simple people, reacting to the possibility of their own deaths. You, however, are unique among its characters: you have agency. Every day you receive an email that lists who’s going to die and where; you’re given demons and are told, “You can stop this.” So you do what any video game player is accustomed to: you overcome the odds, you save yourself, and you become paragons of virtue walking in a dead city. You feel a little bit like David Tennant as Doctor Who: “Just this once, everybody lives!” To hell with predestination: you’re heroes.
When I first played the game, I was immediately struck with this theme, and I followed it through to its logical conclusion. Atsuro, your best friend, has a plan he reveals after you save yourselves for the first time. All the demons in the city, he reasons, are summoned by a server that acts through your odd DS shaped device; if we controlled that server, there’d be no threat from the demons and the lockdown of Tokyo would be lifted. “Nobody dies!” I yelled, and I went after it gung-ho. Devil Survivor knows you’ll feel this way. Atsuro’s is the only ending hinted at on the second day, and it’s got a clever card to play with that one.
That card’s name is Keisuke.
Keisuke joins the party on the third day of the game. He helps you fight the first macguffin boss, a superlatively difficult encounter. Keisuke begins as Atsuro’s friend, but he’s gone through hell with you, so he feels like yours, too. He likes the server idea, and he wants to save everyone.
Then, on day four, you get an email stating that the girl he’s into is going to be killed by an angry mob. Keisuke flies into a rage. Despite your best efforts — “We’ve saved absolutely everyone so far” — he doesn’t relent. He leaves the party and creates a major hole in your team. Atsuro, as a developer written analogue for the player, begins to question Keisuke’s motives, but they’re still strong. You still believe in yourself. Even an hour later when Keisuke becomes a boss, summoning a terrifying arbiter of justice through sheer willpower, you still believe. “We can still save him,” you tell yourself. “Nobody dies today.”
The next day, you get an email. Keisuke will die today. At noon thirty on the dot. But you’ve done this before. You’ve lived this situation. There’s a battle, you win it, and everyone survives. So you proceed with business as usual. You save another woman from a creepily posed vampire. High fives are exchanged. Then you go, not a half hour later, to save Keisuke from his own demise.
Before you can react, he’s murdered by one of your other friends, Kaido, who’d summoned his own demonic superweapon a day ago, who had sworn in event upon event that he would murder Keisuke. And he does. As someone dies, the illusion of invincibility — an illusion shared by so many high-schoolers — is shattered. Atsuro is livid, and he gives up on his plan, because if Keisuke dies then somebody has to die today. His ending becomes permanently locked, and the player is left adrift in the game, unable to fathom how to properly respond. By failing to foresee that the world can change in an instant, you’re left anguished by the thought of a world without your friend.
This moment of desperation and anguish is Devil Survivor’s greatest triumph. In a game where everything else is pretty straightforward (if you visit someone when they’re supposed to die, you’ll either have to save them or talk them out of dying), this one situation requires a roundabout approach. Furthermore, it locks you from achieving the most visible non-bad ending. With Keisuke dead and Atsuro unmotivated, the player is thrust into the bigger game being played between demonic superpowers; by necessity you’re forced to consider options that sound much less ideal, much more mixed than Atsuro’s. The tone of the plot shifts from one of conquest (nobody dies) to one of compromise (some people are going to die, and there’s not a lot we can do about that). The game stops being about achieving a perfect score and, instead, becomes about making the best choice out of a few very difficult ones, a theme sent home by the game’s seven endings, none of which appears more positive than the others. All you can do is make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt, that you’ve dealt yourself.
Of course, you can do something about Keisuke dying. A complicated song and dance allows you to distract his murderer and knock sense into him first. And it’s perfect this way. I missed it until my third playthrough of the game, because it’s so capably hidden. And yet it doesn’t feel like a secret, just as nothing in the game feels like a choice: it’s just something that you have to do to survive.
It’s this core feeling of necessity that really powers the game. Despite being one of the least linear Japanese games around, everything feels like it’s something you have to do. Everything is just something you do to survive, to help others to survive. There’s no grand wheel of choices where everything comes in different colors, just quick, punchy scene after quick, punchy scene. You’re forced to make choices not of whether to be good or evil, but instead of what you’re able to do with your time, which produces a much more intense sense of entrapment and weakness. Even when you’re completely overpowered there is an overwhelming sense of desperation, that you have to go all out because someone, anyone could die, not because you aren’t strong enough but because you aren’t quick enough. And, with Keisuke, someone does, unless you’re quicker, smarter than you think possible.
Tom Auxier writes about games, stories and narrative from the snowy confines of Western Massachusetts. He is Features Editor at Nightmare Mode, blogs about fiction and music on his own site and can be followed on Twitter @trueaxiom.