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.
By now, I’m certain that the points I’m going to make in the following 2000 or so words are points that I’ve harped on in previous places. In fact, I distinctly remember (and when gathering material, caught myself in the act of) discussing these points in relation to Shantae, Retro City Rampage, and Eufloria. So they’re definitely recurring elements in the culture that indie game developers have cultivated for themselves since about 2009. Yet even at this juncture, I still find these points worth discussing. In addition to emulating and building on aesthetic/design sensibilities from the 1990s, many games in the indie space aim for refinement above all else, as if they can achieve some Platonic ideal of the perfect video game. But if the end results of their efforts consistently feel hollow and meaningless, I’m left wondering what good game design is supposed to be.
When I first started playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I ascribed all the problems I kept finding to “design by textbook syndrome.” By that, I mean the game is so focused on replicating the principles you’d learn about in a game design course right down to the letter that it never considers what it’s actually going to do with them. Hence you end up with a game that looks technically impressive, yet ultimately has very little to say. As accurate as these assumptions were, I eventually realized that they don’t sufficiently explain the thought processes the game does operate on, accidentally or not. After all, if Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse can somehow execute good game design principles without being a good game, shouldn’t that make us wonder what we think good game design means in the first place? Once I took these points into consideration, I arrived at a satisfying answer to what it was about the game that I didn’t like. Peel away all the flash and spectacle, and you find a game that not only trains us to participate in capitalist systems, but also to enjoy our participation in them.