Futurity in the End Times: How Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne Taught Me to Deal With the Apocalypse

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” — Antonio Gramsci

It almost goes without saying, but the end of the world has been on my mind a lot lately. Between political and social unrest, a deadly pandemic, and unmitigated economic decline, I doubt I’m the only one concerned with the end times. That said, if there’s one advantage to sitting inside for 9 straight months, it’s that I’ve had a lot of time to play video games.

I’ll be the first to admit that no shortage of games stage apocalyptic scenarios. But few do so with the thoughtful grace of Atlas’ 2003 classic, Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. Whereas most games feature the end of the world as a preventable event, Nocturne instead asks how an apocalypse shifts ordinary people’s values and priorities. Its cast of characters, forced to look ahead in a world with no future, explore the game’s core themes with a level of depth even modern titles struggle to match. And with its HD rerelease set to hit western shores in 2021, there is no better time to assess Nocturne’s meditation on apocalypses.

Nocturne’s original NA cover.

Of course, no sum of Gramsci quotations and pretentious thematizing will actually explain the story of Nocturne. However, before dropping an abrupt and confusing synopsis on your lap, I’d like to emphasize the unconventional style of Nocturne’s plot. The narrative is more akin to Waiting for Godot than Harry Potter. Sure, the game features boss battles, cutscenes, and a mostly-linear sequence of events culminating in one of six endings. But beyond these medium staples, Nocturne bears less resemblance to an epic than a tone poem. The second-to-second story developments take a back seat to atmosphere, mood, and immersion. Nocturne, above all else, strives to ground the player in its world. And when judged by this metric, the title’s true value becomes clear.

I bring this up because, on the surface, Nocturne’s plot is threadbare. The player character is a high school student visiting his sick teacher at a Tokyo hospital. Along the way, the protagonist meets up with two classmates, Isamu and Chiaki; and in the hospital, they meet a cult leader named Hikawa. After speaking with your teacher, the world unfurls into a hellish state known as the Vortex World. As this occurs, Lucifer drops a demonic bug in the player character’s eye, prompting him to awaken in this post-apocalyptic landscape as a human-demon hybrid known as the Demi-Fiend. If it seems like I rushed through my synopsis, it’s only because these scenes cover the first twenty minutes.

The Demi-Fiend, in all his glowing tattoo glory.

The Demi-Fiend spends most of his quest navigating the Vortex World and coming to better understand its purpose. He soon learns that Earth moves through an infinite cycle of destruction and recreation known as The Conception. In these Conceptions, a few surviving humans set out to find a Reason: maxims or general principles that will reshape the world to come. However, as a half-demon, the Demi-Fiend cannot create his own Reason. So, if he wishes to influence the next world, he must instead align himself with another surviving human and their Reason.

Because of the Vortex World, I have seen the end. Who knew it would be so full of sand?

All of this is to say Nocturne is about choosing which of your friends you’re willing to fight and kill to bring about your ideal version of Earth. Even in a world with only four and half remaining people, predation and cruelty come to define the survivors’ lives.

I find Nocturne’s apocalypse compelling because it avoids many aesthetic devices often associated with the end of the world. Earth’s destruction isn’t violent or chaotic; the process is instead fast, purifying, and almost beautiful. In this case, a one minute clip is far more useful than anything I could type out.

Also of note is how the text refers to its apocalypse as The Conception. In Nocturne, creation and destruction are metaphysical processes intimately tied to one another. The birth of the new is dependent upon the destruction of the old. And as the Vortex World sets the stage for a new Earth, so too does it reshape those who lived in the past world. Because while the planet’s destruction was a thing of ephemeral beauty, its recreation via Reasons is uncomfortable at best and brutally violent at worst.

Even I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, but I hate it.

The process by which characters struggle to enact their Reason ties into the Vortex World itself. The sandy remnants of its urban landscape serve as a mirror to the casts’ innermost desires and values. Even the Demi-Fiend, someone incapable of creating a Reason, still participates in the world’s brutal gauntlet to shape the future. As such, everyone in the Vortex World pays for the future with their little remaining humanity.

Nocturne’s depiction of normal people losing themselves to sheer brutality is compelling. However, only the game’s endings offer the final and most important points of thematic lucidity. I say endings because Nocturne has 6. Although a few are better than others, each has something to say about how we live in the face of total destruction. Moreover, these vastly different endings are unified by a single theme: no matter what you do, the Demi-Fiend and the world he inhabits cannot both be restored to their prior, unvarnished state.

Endings 1–3: Reason

Nocturne’s first three endings depict the intended cycle of recreation: our world ends, and a new one built around someone’s Reason takes its place. Chiaki wants to create a true meritocracy, a version of Earth where might makes right. Hikawa desires a reality of absolute harmony, stillness, and order. Isamu splits the difference between them, offering a world of independence from the judgment and sympathy of others. Critically, no Reason is perfect. And regardless of who the Demi-Fiend sponsors, each Reason ending moves toward the same type of resolution. The old world ends, but a new one emerges to replace it. And for embracing the cycle of creation and destruction, the Demi-Fiend’s humanity is restored, allowing him to live on in the world of his choosing.

In this regard, Nocturne’s Reason endings reflect the logic of the Conception itself. By offering oneself up to the cleansing process of destruction, the brutality of the world we once knew is wiped away. It’s a happy ending, if you can forget the inhumane price it incurred.

Endings 4–5: Demon and True Demon

In light of how Nocturne embraces choice as a narrative and gameplay mechanic, the game doesn’t force you to support any of these Reasons. Rather, Nocturne allows the player to seek other means of resolving the world’s cycle of creation and destruction. The first alternative involves siding with Lucifer to end The Conception once and for all.

Playing into Lucifer’s plan yields two possible endings. In the former, the Demi-Friend defeats Hikawa, Isamu, and Chiaki; and rather than push for Earth’s recreation, he opts to leave the Vortex World as it is. The fertile soil from which a new world might bloom is left to rot, and the Vortex World will remain the abode of demons for all time. However, in what Nocturne calls the “True Demon” ending, the Demi-Fiend goes one step further in rejecting divinity. Here, he discards his humanity and joins Lucifer in his crusade against God. Although their rebellion will almost certainly fail (in the context of the game, Lucifer’s attempts to overthrow his creator are Sisyphean at best), the True Demon ending highlights a common response to social collapse. If chaos is the way of the world, why not embrace it, even if it means letting go of everything that once mattered to you?

Ending 6: The Path of Thorns

Before proceeding to the final ending, let’s take stock of Nocturne’s previous outcomes. The Reason endings restore the Demi-Fiend’s humanity at the cost of the old world. The Demon endings represent an embrace of his new demonic personage and Vortex World. With this in mind, the final ending asks a question posed all too often these days: can’t we go back to the way things used to be? The answer, as I’m sure many of you already expect, is that we can’t. Or more precisely, even if the world is restored to its prior state, we remain changed by our experiences.

To reach Nocturne’s final ending, the Demi-Fiend must reject every other character’s ending path. If he does so, The Demi-Fiend restores Earth to its state before the Conception. In one of the ending’s final shots, he appears before his friends as a human, and resumes life as normal. Or rather, we’re to understand that’s what he intends. As it stands, this ending has one more surprise up its sleeve. The final scene features a mass of text over a black void, a monologue delivered by Lucifer. The fallen angel applauds the Demi-Fiend’s resolve and ability to craft the world he wanted. However, he also warns that the rejuvenation of an old world conflicts with God’s plan for the Conception; and the player has, at best, only delayed the next instance of recreation. As such, though the Demi-Fiend looks human, he’s cursed to remain part demon until divine retribution eventually strikes. Even when Nocturne permits the player to do the impossible, to break the universe’s eternal cycle, it only does so at great personal cost. You can return to the old world, but you will never find peace there.

This year, we’ve all heard the question more times than we could hope to count: “when will things return to normal?” I’d be lying if said I hadn’t asked that on more than a few occasions, myself. But when reflecting on the social and economic unrest around us, I can’t help but think back to Nocturne. While a return to normality holds appeal, there’s no denying how precarious normality was this whole time. And in the face of unprecedented social and economic devastation, going back to normal might not be possible. It might not even be in our best interest.

If Nocturne has anything to say, I’m certain it pertains to the importance of facing an unclear future. The world and our lives will change, nothing can stop that. And as tempting as holding onto a past way of life may be, in the face of calamity, we stand to gain a lot more from taking the future in stride without compromising our values. We may never return to our old home again, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a new one. It’s simple advice, cliché even. But in spite of that, it’s exactly what I need to hear right now.

Nocturne’s rerelease will hit American shores this Spring. Those who haven’t played the game should pick it up on the Switch or PS4.

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