Note: Like my Nier blog, this piece ended up longer than I thought it would, so I’ve decided to split it up into two parts.
Another thing that bothered me was the trend of the main character always being portrayed as someone special — a legendary warrior, for example. It was the equivalent of saying you can’t succeed unless you’re from a wealthy family, and I just couldn’t stand that. I wasn’t born with special genes, and I’m sure most other players weren’t either. No matter who you are, if you’re given a chance and have the guts to try your best, you can become a hero… That became the concept of Megami Tensei.
These words, spoken by Kazuma Kaneko in a 2004 1UP interview, are often seen as perfectly summarizing the Shin Megami Tensei ethos. I’ve often seen them quoted as praise for the series, but that overlooks the fine line this ethos asks its creators to walk. They contradicted that spirit as early as Shin Megami Tensei II (whose protagonists are specifically engineered to bring about change in the world), and even if the creators hold true to the idea, venerating the average person presents its own dangers to avoid. Still, judging by games like Shin Megami Tensei If… and Persona 2 (and to a lesser extent the later Persona games), Atlus has successfully managed to tread the line for the past 25 or so years.
It wasn’t until the 2016 release of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE that Atlus definitively violated that spirit. As far as I can tell, not many critics or reviewers have really dug into this point. I’ve heard a few whispers here and there, but broadly speaking, the game sits at a comfortable 80 on Metacritic and as of this writing is absent from Critical Distance’s archives. (There is a discrepancy between Metacritic’s review scores and its user scores, but knowing the history of this game, I can say this has nothing to do with players grappling with what the game is.) If pressed to explain all this, I would say it’s because:
- The game sold itself as a crossover between two popular franchises: Persona and Fire Emblem.
- The game met all the formulae that were expected of it (including its initial promise).
- Nobody thought to look past these aspects of the game’s design.
Despite my long-standing affinity for both franchises the game was built on, I struggled to find anything in Tokyo Mirage Sessions worth defending. Looked on its own terms, the game is downright cynical. Its hollow conservatism not only values catering to what the market wants over any meaningful personal expression; it also covers up this act with equally hollow spectacle. Looked at alongside other Persona games, the themes of self-betterment feel panglossian and myopic in light of the game’s unconditional embrace of the entertainment industry as an absolute good. And in the context of a decades old franchise, Tokyo Mirage Sessions manages to contradict the Shin Megami Tensei ethos by occupying both extremes at once.
Before I go into how the game has failed, I feel I should first explain how the game was supposed to work in the first place. The narrative premise doesn’t stray far from the Persona template: otherworldly creatures known as Mirages are causing trouble in Shibuya, whether it’s through mass abductions or by silently feeding off human Performa (a kind of life energy). After being roped into the conflict themselves, it’s up to high school age performers of Fortuna Entertainment to enter the Idolasphere (home of the Mirages), use their own Mirages (major characters from the Fire Emblem series) to combat the Mirage threat, and to solve the mystery behind the Mirages’ sudden appearance. This larger plot is broken up with moments from the cast’s day to day lives as entertainers at Fortuna.
One of the most notable differences between Persona and Sessions is the change of focus. Where the former deals with general ideas like self-betterment and the strength of the human will, Sessions concentrates those ideas through fiction and its ability to enact change in the world. Far from being a minor change in nuance, the effects of this shift ripple outward and touch every aspect of the game’s design, both big and small. Because fiction isn’t bound by the rules of the world we live in, Sessions argues, it’s in the perfect position to challenge the rules that world operates on. We see that from a psychological perspective: the good Mirages serve as larger than life figures who guide their Mirage Masters on the path to becoming a better version of themselves. (Hence their more talkative nature compared to Personae: they’re not silent manifestations of our innermost selves, but archetypes who maintain their independence even after being ripped from the world of fiction.) We see that at a more worldly level, at least initially, as the characters are willing to push back against an exploitative entertainment industry that sucks the life out of you for its own insidious purposes.
And perhaps most interestingly, we see that in how Tokyo Mirage Sessions plays. Again, the base remains unchanged from Persona: Mirage Masters face off against Mirages in turn-based battles, each side exploiting elemental weaknesses in an effort to dogpile on their enemy. The most notable difference is the emphasis on spectacle. Special effects abound, colors loudly announce their presence, and any moment of quiet is immediately drowned out with voice samples and music. If pressed to summarize how battles feel, I’d describe them as a fusion between idol concerts and wrestling matches.
At least in theory, that’s precisely what makes the battles work on a thematic level. Both pop idols and wrestlers are a kind of performer, meaning that in presenting themselves as such, the protagonists empower themselves by understanding themselves and their current situation as pure fantasy. Doing so allows them to exceed their limits even as they approach them. Moreover, treating reality as a larger than life performance (as the spectacle suggests) disarms enemies of whatever threat they might have otherwise posed, allowing the protagonists to tackle them head-on. All the little inflections from Persona and Fire Emblem only further bolster that message: the former with Sessions (a system that allows attacks to chain off one another, creating co-operative performances) and the latter by making Sessions a universal truth.
Looked at along these lines, it’s hard to see what the problem is. Persona’s optimism (and the modifications made to it) leave Sessions well prepared to enter the much larger conversation Japanese media’s been having about the role fantasy (particularly fantasy taken from the media we consume) should play in our everyday lives. The game should be able to defy Watamote’s pessimistic realism, collapse Nier’s deconstructive arguments, and exceed Chuunibyou’s enthusiastic embrace of anime fantasy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Despite my attempts to situate the game in a larger cultural context, the game’s failures all stem from a stubborn ignorance of any larger cultural context; more specifically, the context of modern capitalism. To illustrate the extent of that failure I turn to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, an essay from their 1944 book Dialectic of Enlightenment. For them, there are two key points to understanding the modern world: first, capitalist culture (and with it, concepts like industrial power and mechanical reproduction) controls every aspect of modern life. Second, the culture industry is an industry like any other, existing in a complex network of power relations and concerned first and foremost with the mass production of goods. It’s hard to think of anything that these two simple premises don’t significantly impact.
Consider how this affects the arts, where market forces supercede artistic expression. Because art must serve industrial interests above all else, storytelling finds itself reduced to formulae and stereotypes made to pacify audiences. The formula replaces the work, and the effect replaces the form. Adorno and Horkheimer have quite a few things to say about this arrangement:
- “The universal criterion of merit is the amount of ‘conspicuous production,’ of blatant cash investment. The varying budgets in the culture industry do not bear the slightest relation to factual values, to the meaning of the products themselves.”
- “In the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals the latter’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy.”
- The entire paragraph beginning with “Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types”
The point being that art (insofar as it’s a product of capitalism/the culture industry) has been neutered of any ability to challenge the status quo. The criterion by which it’s judged are the quality of its effects and its ability to conform to and reinforce the value of the accepted formulae, criteria which don’t necessarily have to engage with reality.
Likewise, individuality ceases to hold meaning because “individuality” in this system is entirely dependent on one’s ability to participate within that system. Hence people’s separation into consumers: the role allows them to identify with the products they’re provided, making it more likely that they’ll buy said product and uphold the system that made it. That’s the only function they have as consumers.
Producers are the only ones with real agency. All the consumer is expected to do is “accept what the cultural manufacturers offer him.” They’re not even meant to make what’s offered them their own in any way; just to accept the stories and meanings that are given to them. What does the consumer get in return? Mental relaxation, for one. Having just been provided a specific meaning (rather than arriving at it themselves), they’re freed from the burden of thinking. More specifically, Adorno and Horkheimer see capitalism as instilling in people a desire for work and pleasure on capitalism terms (IE on terms that benefit the industrial giants). Because mass entertainment fulfills that need, there’s no reason for the consumer to question that entertainment. One might also note that because pleasure is akin to work, these mass produced cultural products train consumers both to participate in the capitalist system and to justify that participation.
That said, things aren’t much better for those who participate directly within the culture industry, IE actors and writers and producers etc. Those who find success in the system are specifically groomed to uphold the system’s practices. As far as the industry is concerned, they’re not so much persons who express themselves as much as they are resources for the industry to use. And any rebellion against the system – any improvisation, any creation of a new aesthetic – is immediately adopted into the fold, either to mitigate a potential threat or to capitalize on a trend that may be profitable. Granted, Adorno and Horkheimer were writing in 1944, but their words still hold relevance today. The work of doujinshi groups in Japan, for example, have been instrumental in the formation of Cool Japan and everything associated with it. If Tokyo Mirage Sessions wants to demonstrate the value fiction has in enacting change in the world, then this is the reality it has to confront.
Yet the game can never bring itself to do this. From the beginning, it assumes the inherent virtue of the entertainment industry. More than that: it identifies with that industry. Character portraits are rendered as trading cards, like they’re tradeable commodities instead of people. Likewise, the Mirages they wield are archetypes bathed in generic convention: the otome protagonist, the otome heroine, etc. All of this leaves Sessions with the unenviable task of enumerating all the problems in a system it’s all too eager to defend. Here we see the source of many of the game’s problems.
On a general level, Sessions feels empty, like it’s lacking an existential dimension that was present in other Persona games. This is because Sessions tries to replace the much wider world perspective of its predecessors with the more insular domain the entertainment industry represents. In one sense, it’s become a sort of religion: idols and media personalities take the place of gods (an easy substitute, given the similar veneration of youth and beauty), and we worship them by participating in fan culture; watching their shows, buying their albums, playing their games, attending their events, etc. Hence why the overworld map design looks like something taken from a shopping mall: to remind the player that the setting is a place designed not to facilitate life, but to facilitate economic consumption.
And in another sense, the game presents the entertainment industry as a hyperreality; one that not only blends together fantasy and reality, and not only encourages us to do so, but actively closes out any semblance of another reality to establish its claim to the real. For example, why does it never occur to the characters to involve the police in their investigation, even when such help would prove useful? Because Sessions would like us to believe the world outside the entertainment industry doesn’t exist.
Conversely, I never once got the sense that the game was willing to question any of the systems it represents. If anything, it’s more concerned with both naturalizing those systems and constructing a reality that locates their problems somewhere else. Never once does Sessions entertain the possibility that the industry’s abuses may stem from its very nature as an industry with specific motives and practices, as every conflict in the game stems from the Mirages. They’re an otherworldly force that imposes itself on an otherwise helpless industry (thus allowing that industry to explain all of its problems as the result of outside interference). They abuse the system and take it to extremes it was never meant to approach (suggesting there’s a healthy version of the entertainment industry; presumably the one that exists outside the game).
Sessions’ defenses reach peak absurdity in one of Tiki’s side quests, where after finding out that Tiki doesn’t have as many fans as she once did, Itsuki (the game’s protagonist) comes to the conclusion that Mirages must be behind this drop in popularity. It can’t imagine that people who were once her fans would move on and explore other interests, because the implications from that would prove too threatening to the game’s outlook. It suggests there might be a world outside this specific fandom, a world that’s worth exploring in its own right. It hints at an imperfection in the fan/producer relationship, since the former now expresses needs the latter can’t fulfill. But above and beyond any of this, the possibility that Tiki’s fans might have moved on of their own free will contradicts Sessions’ habit of locating agency only in the entertainment industry. Its ideal relationship between fan and producer is very similar to the idea of video game fanboyism, where fans are encouraged to see themselves as having a deeply personal relationship with a company that knows very little about them, and to express their devotion by consuming the company’s products and participating in a culture engineered for that purpose.
The truth is there are severe limits on those companies’ generosity. If the idol industry truly is synonymous with the world, then there’s no place in this world for anyone who’s graduated from high school. Older characters are typically relegated to ancillary roles where all they can do is support the younger generation. Rarely do they drive the plot forward. One reason why the older characters are devalued may be because of their inability to embody the (understood as) universal ideals of youth and beauty compared to their younger counterparts. However, it’s equally possible that the latter are valued more highly because they’re much easier to manipulate. The youthful and optimistic cast is eager to advertise for even the most mundane things. If you were to believe them, every soda they drink and every meal they eat is the height of perfection that you absolutely must partake of this second.
Even putting aside concerns of ageism, the game is much more authoritative than it lets on. It doesn’t so much celebrate the value people create through artistic expression as much as it does delineate the terms by which that expression has value at all and demand that people conform to this vision. Fan creators (particularly fan musicians like Tiki=Waifu) may occupy a place in the narrative, but that place isn’t at the center. And what of creators whose works directly challenge the major media properties they work with? Or whose works don’t lend themselves to fandoms, or how exist entirely outside this bubble? They don’t show up at all. All we ever see is work that lends itself well to generating a profit, whether that’s an official production or a fan work that prepares its creator to enter the industry in an official capacity. It’s as though Sessions is saying “the stories you tell only have as much worth as other people are willing to give it”, contradicting the earlier premise of their value lying in their ability to change the world for the better. Moreover, it’s an outlook that lends itself well to a particular hierarchy: those with the capital necessary to center the public’s attention on their creative work (regardless of its quality) at the top, the comparatively disadvantaged fan creators at the bottom, and anybody who doesn’t fit into either category dismissed as not worthy of consideration.
That hierarchy is also reflected in the works we see the characters either consuming or creating. They’re all very conservative, both in the sense that they adhere to the accepted formulas and in the sense that they uncritically reinforce entrenched cultural values. The pop songs are all pablum about a vague teenage romance, prizing youth and monogamy (one song ends with the singer in a wedding dress). The movies and TV shows the protagonists act in fall along similar lines: the female characters only play as romantic leads where the male characters play roles that emphasize classical heroism.
And Tokyo Mirage Sessions is nothing if not a perfect fusion of form and function. To cite a few examples:
- The narrative, despite whatever pretenses it may have of directly dealing with everyday life, is quick to embrace whatever formulae are expected of it. Many of the characters neatly slot into some archetype: the stoic protagonist, the energetic sidekick, the romantic female love interest, the stuck up high class girl, the similarly stoic rival who joins forces with you, etc. The plot is also eager to follow suit: Tsubasa is damselled early in the story so Itsuki can play the hero’s part and rescue her. (This continues into the game’s design, where Itsuki gets offensive abilities while Tsubasa is stuck with healing and support.)
- The aesthetic’s committal to popular motifs leaves it feeling completely lifeless. Animation is stiff and artificial, like mirroring gags from anime was a higher priority than making those gags feel in any way natural to the situation at hand. The music does something similar in regards to pop music. It’s designed to be catchy, meaning I had no trouble detecting the bars and melodies in each song. However, it’s for that reason they all blend together and struggle to form identities of their own.
- The battle system perfectly illustrates what Adorno and Horkheimer warned about. In spite of the larger themes about expression and performance, not once does the game present you any real opportunity for performance. Every possibility has been mathematically determined in advance and laid out before you. Your only job is to choose the most efficient path from among the options the game has made available to you. Of course, Sessions has its ways of hiding its deterministic nature. It overwhelms you with conspicuous amounts of spectacle. It distracts from its soulless precision with the addition of randomly determined factors (the irony being that the random factors are just as mathematically determined as everything else). It tries to convince you that this style of play is desirable because it makes your leisure time more productive.
- Of course, the battle system isn’t the only part of the game that’s designed like this. Later sidequests flow into each other, which has the effect of making the player feel efficient and encouraging them to continue playing. Characters are on set paths in terms of their development, reducing strategic thought and closing off yet more opportunities for the player to express themselves in the game.