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Alas, poor Isabeau

September 12th, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in video games

Isabeau, Shin Megami Tensei IV

In a few days we’ll be playing Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Well, I say we, but really I’ll have to wait a bit as I’ll be out of the country for a few weeks. So it’s actually everyone but me, and I think you’re all jerks.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is one of my favorite role playing games of all time. It may well be one of my favorite games of all time. It’s not perfect, but I never asked it to be. I bought it expecting a fun and hopefully engaging adventure. I ended up with one of the most unexpectedly profound narrative experiences gaming has given me.

In spite of its actual flaws — a confusing map screen, unclear objectives, repetitive side quests — it’s a work of hideous beauty. It’s a dark, dismal meditation on free will, on identity, on the very concept of progress, both in the game and in reality. (The more advanced society, ironically, is the backward one.)

It also has one of the all-time great gaming soundtracks, so even if you don’t want to think you can sure as hell rock out.

Impressively, its most significant — and rewarding — plot twist comes at a very early point in the game. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll know it when you get there, and it’s a very brave thing to play your trump card so early in a long experience. A lesser game — or team of artists — would have saved the reveal for a more structurally climactic moment. Shin Megami Tensei IV lets you get just comfortable with what you think the game is, then plunges you into something very different, leaving you, like the character you control, to wonder what the fuck, exactly, you’re doing.

There are also a few perceived flaws in the game that, for my money, actually enrich the experience, and help Shin Megami Tensei IV to make its point in ways it wouldn’t be able to if things were ironed out. Two of these “problems” are interlinked, at least in a thematic sense. First, it’s the hamfisted characterization. Second, it’s the game’s odd approach to determining your alignment.

The characterization thing is bunk. The alignment thing is…less bunk, so we’ll deal with that second.

When people point fingers at the characterization in Shin Megami Tensei IV, they’re pointing at Walter and Jonathan. Those are two of your companions throughout most of the game. They pop up to give advice, to express their feelings about certain decisions, and to help you fight. Beyond that, they serve as little more than a devil and angel on either shoulder, suggesting what your next move should be.

And people say that their characterization is flimsy. They’re both right and wrong. When they’re right, however, they’re missing the point.

Neither Walter (Chaos) nor Jonathan (Law) are nuanced characters, but they also shouldn’t be. They can’t be. That’s not their purpose, and adding nuance would only interfere with their purpose.

They need to exist in order to show you the extremes of the two alignments. That’s what they’re there for. By giving Walter second thoughts about betraying the samurai code, or some such thing, you’d be dismantling him as a signpost for Chaos. By allowing Jonathan to concede that the social structure of his home kingdom is unfair, unsustainable, or untrustworthy, you, as a player, would then need to doubt his devotion to the Law path.

Walter and Jonathan both represent flawed individuals in the sense that they are steadfastly, unthinkingly, innately devoted to their paths. There’s not a rulebook that Walter doesn’t tear up and Jonathan doesn’t respect. This idea is reinforced over and over again, with neither of the two being painted in particularly flattering colors.

The odds are good that you’ll agree with Jonathan’s peaceful solution in one case, and find it frustratingly naive in the next. You’ll side with Walter one time that he suggests that someone can’t be trusted, but wish he’d shut up about it the 50th time, when he has no particular reason to doubt that person’s intentions.

You’re supposed to know who they are, and you’re supposed to get angry with their reluctance to give. Softening Walter or educating Jonathan wouldn’t allow that to be possible. If either of them struggles with internal conflict, there’s no reason for you to struggle with them externally. They need to be devoted entirely to what they believe in, because they need to stand in stark contrast to you, the player, the individual, the actual breathing living human being who can’t possibly side with either of them all the time.

You want nuance? You are the nuance. You are the deeper character, trapped between two poles of natural, eternal conflict. Which, hey, when you think about it, is the entire theme of the game. What do you know? Maybe that choice of simple characterization was deliberate and meaningful after all.

(Also, it’s telling that complaints about characterization ignore the mass of non-companion characters that do have deep — if only oblique and suggested — backstories, drives, and desires, such as Hope, K., Fujiwara, Hugo, Tayama, Aquila…hell, even the towns you visit have unspoken histories that unfold detail by detail the more you dig and explore.)

Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t deepen Walter and Jonathan because it doesn’t want to. It’s not that it can’t; other games in the series (and especially in its celebrated spinoff series, Persona) have characters that are large, that contain multitudes. That fact — and the presence of other rich characters in this game — is your clue. If these characters are not deep, it’s because there’s a purpose to their shallow natures.

And that purpose has to do with your alignment.

It’s up to Walter to side with the forces of Chaos every time. It’s up to Jonathan to be unflinchingly devoted to the Law. But everyone else in the game, including those anonymous residents you’ll meet in the most hellish places imaginable, is somewhere in between. You see those who live in relative comfort, which is only possible because they’ve allowed themselves to adapt to Chaos. You see those in low places, lost, without hope, who yearn for the chance to build up the exact same kind of Lawful society that collapsed and damned them in the first place. You see one particular character who seems to exemplify Law, until you find out he’s addicted to the pleasures of Chaos, and sends you repeatedly out for forbidden artifacts just so he can indulge in private.

And throughout, you, quietly, make your decision.

You’re neither Walter nor Jonathan. You can’t be, because they’re unrealistically dedicated to their definitive solutions to trickier problems. You’re a human being. And you see the way other characters in these tragic civilizations live. Those who manage to survive, those who don’t, the tragic circumstances that define each of their existences.

And you try to determine how you’ll make things better, whatever that may mean to you.

At least, you think you do. Ultimately, the game makes your decision for you, based on your actions.

And, yes, I admit that it does so in a pretty frustrating way.

Choosing to side with Walter’s suggestions of how to proceed will gradually shift your alignment toward Chaos, and choosing to side with Jonathan will tip it toward Law. That’s easy and clear enough.

But there’s a third path. The path of Neutrality. Which is, essentially, the right path. It’s when you land directly in between the two extremes. You anchor them. You keep them both in check.

And it’s an extremely hard path to get.

In some respects, that’s okay. The best ending should be the most difficult to get. But it requires you less to adhere to a truly Neutral doctrine than it does require to you flit back and forth between allegiance to Walter and allegiance to Jonathan, which makes the Neutral path feel more like the Indecisive path. It also involves a lot of guesswork in figuring out the right way to proceed, because the Neutral personification, Isabeau, tends not to speak up.

Yes, there’s a third personified alignment on your team. And she’s why I’m writing this.

Isabeau is a great character. Not because she’s more realistic, exactly, but because her struggle is an exaggerated version of your own. While you can often find yourself in agreement with either the caustic Walter or the cautious Jonathan — and are many times forced to side with one of them — Isabeau never bends to either side. She sees both points of view, but doesn’t exactly accept — or dismiss — either.

She’s there. In the middle. Not knowing what to do. Deferring, often, to you, not only because you’re the player character, but because you are a lot like her. You also have some difficult choices to make, and there often isn’t an answer you agree with. The only difference between you and Isabeau is that you have to choose something anyway. Isabeau is always in a state of limbo.

I liked Isabeau. I also liked Walter and Jonathan, and many other characters. But it was Isabeau I felt something for, something a bit deeper than the default affinity you feel for a party member that doesn’t actively upset you. This was probably because she was the only character who seemed to lack agency. (She didn’t really; she’s just quick to surrender it.) But whatever the reason, the game delivered a terrible gut punch toward the end, when I had to kill her.

Characters die in games. Characters that we like. Characters that we’re invested in, either in terms of our time or our emotions. Heroes leave to conquer, and not all of them come home. We know this.

But we don’t often have to kill them. Especially those we agree with. And yet Isabeau, if you end up on either the Chaos or Law path, must die by your hand.

Suddenly the opaque restrictiveness of the Neutral path, the monumental unlikelihood of finding yourself there, makes sense. You’re supposed to fight her. And it’s supposed to hurt.

This may not be the decision you’d like to make, but it’s one you have to experience. It’s something the game wants to put you through. Maybe, just maybe, so that the next time you’ll play it, you’ll work so much harder for the Neutral path, just to avoid having to do it again.

Isabeau isn’t a difficult opponent.

She barely even fights.

You encounter her as you set off on your game-ending journey to buoy either the forces of darkness or light.

She can’t abide either.

She never could.

And now she stands in your way. Not because she expects to win. Not because she wants to fight. Not even because she wants you to fail.

But because she has to. Because she’s opposed to both Chaos and Law, and if you’re either…well…she knows she needs to die by your hand, because she can’t bear to watch you go down those paths.

It’s not a pleasant scene. It hurts to witness. It feels wrong to push the buttons that tip the fight, turn by turn, even more steeply in your favor. When you also have to fight either Jonathan or Walter later — depending on who you sided against — the emotions involved are not as complex. They each represent, after all, by design, the polar opposite of the path you’ve chosen. (Again…deliberate characterization, as this wouldn’t work with shades of grey.) They’re also each bolstered by supernatural strength, and they put up incredibly demanding fights.

Isabeau isn’t, and doesn’t.

Isabeau falls.

She’s nothing special.

She has no tricks up her sleeves.

The only time she’ll hurt you at all is when she slumps over, half-dead. Her portrait appears, bloodied by your sword.

She has something to say.

She never wanted to fight. But you chose a side. And this is what had to happen.

No matter which path you pursue, innocents will be hurt. You know that. Those are the main stakes of the game. You’re reminded of that at every juncture.

But those innocents are collateral damage. They die, whoever dies, in the service of what you’ve decided is a greater good. They choke on fallout. They’re injured by debris. They’re mowed down by the force of cosmic war. They die indirectly.

But Isabeau, the most pragmatic, rational, respectful character in the game, is the one you must slay face to face. Hers are the eyes you must look into as she dies, her blood staining your weapon.

The Neutral route is so difficult to find because you have to see this first.

You have to see this.

And you have to ask, “What the fuck, exactly, am I doing?”

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