Persona 3: Reload is out now and, if you’ve played a video game at any point in the past 7 years, chances are you’ve heard of the explosively popular turn-based RPG and social sim series of games from developer ATLUS. If you’ve ever played a Persona game, chances are you know that they’re a wildly more popular spin-off of ATLUS’s Shin Megami Tensei series. If you’ve played any Shin Megami Tensei games, not only are you a real one, but chances are you probably know that these games are an evolution of the Megami Tensei games; which is why hardcore fans use the term “MegaTen” to refer to titles under this wide umbrella.
Even if you’re aware of all of this, what you probably don’t know is that the first games in this franchise are based on a series of books from the 1980s called Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, and that each and every one of the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei games in this series still draw inspiration from these books today!
These books are the origin and future of the Persona franchise, and if you want to know about where they’ve been and where they’re going before starting Persona 3: Reload, you need to know about Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei.
The DDS: Megami Tensei books are light novels; a form of young adult fiction in Japan that started to appear in the late 1970s, which derive directly from pulp magazines.The protagonist of these light novels, Akemi Nakajima, is a brilliant but misanthropic and bullied student who creates a computer program that can summon demons. While he can initially control the supernatural creatures, the demon Loki becomes too powerful and he has to defeat this demon overlord. With the help of the loyal demon Cerberus, a secret society with advanced technology, and a girl who just so happens to be the reincarnation of the goddess Izanami; Akemi inherits a flaming sword possessed by a god and uses it to slay Loki.
Not only will fans of Persona recognize some of these familiar names and plot points, the themes and atmosphere perfectly align with the most recent Persona titles.
Based on comments and interviews from DDS: Megami Tensei’s author, Aya Nishitani, over the years, we can learn a lot about how integral these books still are to the franchise. You don’t have to read much of the novels before realizing that their darker atmosphere and themes of advancing technology giving rise to the occult are present in titles like the original Persona, Shin Megami Tensei V, and especially Persona 3. But on the other side of the coin, these books are also the genesis for a lot of the narrative criticisms of the Persona games, which are unlikely to be addressed as the series continues — outside of band-aid fixes to the most egregious of material.
Nishitani, now a university and vocational school professor, started penning the Megami Tensei novels while working at an electronics manufacturer. Despite creating the MegaTen approach to science-fiction, he was less involved in the creation of the games. In a Famitsu interview, he states that he had a kind of consulting and advisory role on the first Megami Tensei game, but as early as the first sequel he “switched from creator to player and greatly enjoyed it.” Nishitani goes on to say, “even though I am the ‘parent’ of the Megami Tensei series, the ones who ‘raised’ it are solely the game makers. Makes me think ‘Ah, yes, they did a good job…’ (laughs).” Nishitani also remarks in the OST notes for the second Megami Tensei game that, “everyone knows that II takes place in a world completely separated from the original story. However, I still have the feeling this game has the same ‘image’ as the original, since it feels like the flow of one will through the world of the present.”
ATLUS developers don’t talk about these original books much, either. The most extensive remarks on them comes from the director of the original Megami Tensei and Persona games, Kouji “Cozy” Okada, in an interview with Japanese outlet 4Gamer.net. In a rough translation of this interview, he describes that the games largely diverge from the novels, but that core elements like the main characters and summoning demons in battle come directly from the books. This dynamic might explain why the books are so hard to come by and why ATLUS calls so little attention to them. There are no official translations of the Megami Tensei light novels, and the best way to read most of them now is through the DDS Translation blog; which sadly stopped updating in 2007.
This lack of acknowledgement is a shame as the best part of the DDS: Megami Tensei books — their dark and moody atmosphere and the ways in which modern technology has brought humanity closer than ever to the occult and supernatural — are the backbone of every single MegaTen game. Persona 3 directly lifts the secret society and sci-fi technology aspects of the books, in the forms of the shadowy Kirijo Group and the gun-shaped Evokers used to summon characters’ supernatural powers. Persona 4’s “TV World” is clearly inspired by how rapidly expanding telecommunications and the proliferation of related media affect shared culture; and Persona 5’s Metaverse and app based access is clearly influenced by the rise of social media.
Even if the books are largely glossed over in ATLUS’s latest titles — outside of the occasional wink — the foundational elements endure. At their most distilled, the Persona games are about how technology and culture intermingle, and how people can affect the world those two forces create. That’s also what Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei is about, and it’s clear that these novels have been an intrinsic part of their success and are likely to be a continued influence as the Persona franchise grows. Which is great if you’re a fan of the ambience of games like Persona 3, but a problem if you were hoping for the series’ social politics to evolve.
Better writers than I have pointed out that the latest Persona games have not handled queer or women characters particularly well. Some of these issues might seem harmless until placed into a broader pattern of behavior, like how Persona 5 ogles and objectifies characters like Ann, even though her story heavily involves escaping sexual abuse from a male teacher. There are also more eyebrow raising choices in these games, like both Persona 3 and Persona 5 having scenes where main characters have to escape from queer predators. But then there are the more overtly baffling and sexist decisions, like the team behind Persona 3: Reload deciding not to include the female protagonist option present in the P3P version of the game. In an interview with Waypoint, Director of Personas 3, 4, and 5, Katsura Hashino, is also on the record saying that “it’s not worth it,” to put time and resources into putting a gender select option into his games. A perplexing statement given how popular the female protagonist is within the Persona fandom.
Unfortunately, these conservative politics can also be traced back to the Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei books. Even with their striking atmosphere and enticing world, these are pulpy science-fiction novels from the 1980s that are first and foremost a power fantasy for young, male readers. The reason protagonist Akemi Nakajima is bullied is because he’s in a gifted and talented program and other students are jealous of his intellect. The books even make a point to note that Akemi’s teachers don’t punish the bullies because they feel bad for their more limited prospects. The way Akemi keeps the demons in check shortly after summoning them, is by offering the creatures women teachers and students to sexually assault, and he only reneges on this deal when Loki says he wants to have his way with the girl Akemi likes. While Akemi certainly suffers while fighting against the demons he brought to the world, he never really apologizes or makes amends to the people he hurt. In fact, his suffering is framed as a noble thing he’s doing for the good of humanity, and this is reinforced when it’s revealed that he’s actually a divine being and the reincarnation of the god Izanagi.
While the Persona games are obviously less misogynistic than the Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei books, the novels are too big a part of the Persona games DNA for these issues to ever go away completely. Women characters being sexually objectified in the latest Persona games is a direct consequence of women only existing to benefit men in the DDS: Megami Tensei books.
In the Megami Tensei books, like the Persona games after them, prominent female characters are often defined by their attractiveness, or are victims of sexual assault. Even when their stories are interesting, the books undercut them by designing these women to principally titillate a presumed male reader. The Persona games treat their heroines similarly today, with Ann’s story of escaping sexual abuse being followed up with her having to be a reluctant nude model, or Persona 4’s Rise being deeply uncomfortable with how her body is sexualized as a public figure, only for the game to further sexualize her in a supposedly comedic hot spring scene and by other male characters. Just like the novels, the games presume that the person experiencing this media is a cishet man who sees women as a means of gratification before viewing them as people.
These frustrating politics are more of a feature than a bug, and are as thematically foundational to the broader MegaTen franchise as summoning demons or the blending of supernatural and science-fiction genres. Which sucks if, like me, you’re a queer person who loves these games and wishes you could enjoy them without you or people you care about being belittled.
Persona 3: Reload has already done a lot to address the dated elements it inherits. For one thing, it has a new voice cast that replaces Vic Mignogna, who faces numerous accusations of sexual harassment, with Zeno Robinson in the role of Junpei. Even the original Persona 3 has a more nuanced approach to its storytelling, focusing on a lead who overcomes the trauma of losing his family by forming new relationships rather than wallow in self pity for the duration of the story like DDS: Megami Tensei’s protagonist.
However, at this game’s foundations are beliefs and ideas best left in the past. Thankfully, though, the Persona games are now big enough in their own right to inspire other titles free of the baggage that comes with its legacy. This is why I’m as excited to play the upcoming, Persona inspired, Demonschool by Necrosoft Games as I am Persona 3: Reload. If you also find the politics of these games frustrating, I’d encourage you to broaden your horizons and check out other titles as well because, for better or worse, the themes and politics of Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei will forever be at the heart of the Persona series.
Lucas DeRuyter is a freelance writer for IGN.