An address was given by Megami Tensei/Persona series creator 岡田耕始/Koji “Cozy” Okada at the University of Tokyo recently, as part of the May Festival, in which he was kind enough to expound in some detail about his thoughts about the excellent Megami Tensei series as creator.
Famitsu has published a very interesting and quite detailed article covering this, and I have prepared a full translation below; this should be of particular interest to Megami Tensei and Persona fans, as well as those interested in the creative processes leading to a prolific franchise which is not only extremely successful, but also highly adventurous and original.
Quoth the article:
The Megami Tensei series began as a part of a mixed media set of works centred on the novel “Digital Devil Story” by 西谷史/Aya Nishitani. The first game, デジタル・デビル物語 女神転生 / Digital Devil Story Megami Tensei, came in 1987, followed in 1990 by another, released by Namco for the Famicon.
Then the maker changed to Atlus, and such works as the “Shin Megami Tensei” series and the “Persona” series came about, with many related works swelling the franchise, and its popularity spread throughout Japan, and, of course, the world. Okada participated in the series from its inception as director, and until resigning from Atlus in 2003 to form Gaia, he was the undisputed authority on the series.
When the first request for a game based on Digital Devil Story came in, Okada was concerned: “With no “You are the Hero” type convention present in the original story, and this absence being a powerful element of that story, as far as possible I wanted to incorporate that into the game.
But that was basically beyond the capabilities of the Famicon. Also, even had we been able to incorporate it, there is the question of a game being a highly interactive medium, advanced by the user; just leaving the novel contents as they were and expecting it to be enjoyable was out of the question”.
The issue of incorporating the “仲魔” (nakama – a Japanese pun on companion meaning instead companion devils) system and the “Fusion” system after they had been decided was also an issue; the game had to preserve the charms of the novel whilst also being entertaining as a game, so choices had to made as development proceeded.
His own judgement on what came of these efforts? “Just a bunch of expansive dungeons were all that was left” he wryly remarks. But the unique game system, and a story which didn’t simply revolve around good triumphing over evil, led to a hit. “Since it sold a bit, we were treated to an original story in the sequel”; from here the series expanded to become a major RPG franchise in its own right, rather than a mere novel adaptation.
Some of the major distinctive features of the Megami Tensei series are the Nakama and Fusion systems, and the prevalence of settings in the present or near future. Above all, in the Super Famicon “Shin Megami Tensei”, we have the story of an ordinary youth living in Tokyo, starting when he is told to go buy coffee by his mother, creating an atmosphere of ordinariness.
Much of the series takes place in Tokyo or the environs. Okada gives the reason: “Tokyo is a rare thing in the world, a city playing out the cycle of destruction and rebirth. There is the Meiji Restoration, the Great Kanto Earthquake, great air raids. Politically and economically there are great shifts in Tokyo as well”. A familiar environment such as “Tokyo” is by no means compares unfavourably to the predominant RPG settings of “(High) Fantasy” or “Medieval Europe”.
The multiple (branching) stories and multiple endings are also a distinct feature of the Megami Tensei series. These stories diverge into the paths of “Order” and “Chaos”; Okada remarks by way of explanation: “Order isn’t always right, and Chaos isn’t always bad”.
“Man has branded them with the word ‘Demons’, but in reality what have they done? I wanted to share the values of Good and Evil with the user through the game” he explains.
In the Megami Tensei series, there are the demons of various religions who make their appearances as enemies, and this led to some severe religious issues arising, though not in Japan. However, in the Persona series some demons had their names changed, and as a result the series experienced some success in international markets.
Okada may no longer be with Atlus, but even now he fields questions from the international media asking “Won’t you make a game like Megami Tensei again?” The overseas markets have, perhaps without realising it, largely accepted such a game as standing on its merits as entertainment, and not only this, they also now have perhaps come to see the ambiguity regarding “Good” and “Evil”, introduced by Okada, as being a universal theme.
Finally, Okada brings his address to a close with some reflection on his own philosophy of game design: “Can you think the game is enjoyable to whoever plays it, however they play it? Can you make games which differ from the norm? If you think that through, I think you can create a truly original game”.