Friday, February 10, 2017

Dissecting Dagda



"Role-wise there was a discrepancy in the game with the generally transmitted image of a good, food-loving god, so I broadened the definition." -Masayuki Doi, from Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse Official World Setting Collection + Journey Towards the World of Mythology 

This was Doi's initial comment describing Dagda's Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse design. And what was the first thing mentioned? A "discrepancy."

I myself glossed over the juicy implications of this quote while editing Dijeh's translations of the artbook contents, as this was before the release of SMT4A's English version and with it the definitive information about the game's "broadened" version of Dagda. Still, it was right there, plain as day, and from a key member of the development team, no less! So just how profound must the differences be if even Shin Megami Tensei's new main artist has to admit right off the bat that SMT4A's take on Dagda is at odds with the mythological version? 


[For clarity's sake, this article will distinguish between two Dagdas: When I refer to the original Celtic deity I'll use the modern rendering "Daghdha," and when I specifically talk about 4A's version, I'll of course just call him "Dagda." Also note that the big D often carries the definite article in source material, i.e., "the Daghdha"; I probably won't use it but it's bound to pop up in quotations.]  

Who is Daghdha? 


"There was a famous king of Ireland of the race of the Tuatha Dé, Eochaid Ollathair his name. He was also named the Daghdha, i.e. good god, for it was he that used to work wonders for them and control the weather and the crops."

We have a detailed picture of Daghdha's character from Celtic myth thanks to surviving texts. First, because I'm holding it in my hands, we'll take a look at what the book Celtic Mythology by Dr. Proinsias MacCana has to say about him (the quotes that follow are from MacCana). This book is fairly old (1970), but reliable. Some bullet points

  • Daghdha is the "chief god of the Irish."
  • Daghdha owns magical treasures including a cauldron, a club/staff, and a harp.
    • The cauldron is described as "the characteristic vessel of plenty of the Celtic otherworld 'from which no company ever went unsatisfied.' Its possession identifies him as lord of the otherworld and its eternal abundance, and it was no doubt in this capacity that he was reputed 'to control the weather and the crops.'"  
    • The club/staff "killed the living" with one end and "revived the dead" with the other, "and when he dragged it behind him, it left a track as deep as the boundary ditch between two provinces. It corresponds to Thor's hammer and the vajra or 'thunderbolt' of Indra, and it also suggests a comparison between the Daghdha and the Gaulish Sucellos, 'The Good Striker' (?). In battle it strewed the bones of the enemy upon the ground 'as numerous as hailstones under the hooves of horses.'"  
    • Daghdha's harp, Uaithne, can fly to his hand and, when played, has power over the bodies and minds of others; it also has control over the seasons. 
  • Daghdha has a tryst with Boann, wife of Nechtan (or Elcmar), conceiving the god Oenghus/Aengus; to hide the pregnancy, Daghdha and Boann "cause the sun to stand still for full nine months, so that Oenghus is conceived and born on the same day.
  • Daghdha is also the father of the goddess Brigid, who was appropriated by Christianity as St. Brigid
  • During the events leading to the crucial myth of the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh, the corrupt rule of Bres causes Daghdha to be "reduced to digging and building a fort for Bres and Oghma [and] fetching firewood." 
  • Later in the chronology of the Mythological Cycle, Daghdha assigns sidh (fairy mounds) to the chiefs of the Tuatha De Danaan, whom have descended underground after bequeathing the above ground to the invading Gaels, the ancestors of the current inhabitants of Ireland. 

Some of the more detailed information about Daghdha from the book is worth quoting directly: 

"The Daghdha, literally the 'Good God,' was [the Tuatha De Danaan]'s doyen and king and was known also as Eochaidh Ollathair, 'Eochaidh the Great Father.' He was credited with much wisdom, and another of his names or titles describes him as the Ruadh Rofhessa, 'The Mighty One of Great Knowledge.' It is fitting therefore that he should also be qualified, as he is on several occasions, as a god of druidism...

"The Daghdha provides a striking instance of the ancient tendency to treat gods and father-figures as objects of fun and ridicule. Though short garments were the mark of the churl and the vagabond entertainer the Daghdha's tunic barely reached as far as his rump. And if his dress was uncouth, his behavior at times was even more so. Before the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh he was sent by Lugh to spy out the enemy position and to delay the engagement. The Fomorians granted him a truce and prepared for him a prodigious porridge--'and this was done to mock him, for he had a great weakness for porridge.' They filled the king's cauldron with eighty measures of milk and the same of milk and fat, and to this they added goats and sheep and swine. When the contents were boiled, they were poured into a hole in the ground--an effective caricature of the cauldron of abundance--and the Daghdha was ordered to eat the lot or be slain. So he took up his ladle, 'which was so big that a man and woman could have lain together in it,' and began to eat; and when he was finished he scraped the gravelly bottom of the hole with his finger and then dozed off to sleep. There follows a humorously grotesque account of his love-making with the daughter of one of the Fomorians, as a result of which she promises to turn her magic arts against her own people. This parallels an earlier episode in which the Daghdha goes on a tryst with a woman on the feast of Samhain. He finds her standing astride the river Unius in Connacht, washing, and has intercourse with her, and she promises her assistance in the coming battle. The text identifies her as the Morrighan, the goddess of war, but in any event it is already clear from the circumstance in which the Daghdha finds her that she is in fact the war fury, here in the familiar guise of the dead female who is seen before a battle washing the mangled heads and limbs of those who are destined to die.

"These incidents are a testimony--perhaps an unconscious one on the part of the redactor--to the status of the Daghdha; paradoxical as it may appear, it is by virtue of his seniority that he is made a figure of fun. In the eating episode there is obvious comedy in his making a pleasure, if not a virtue, of necessity, and this the redactor has pointed up neatly, but in the light of the evidence for ritual over-eating in other parts of the world it can hardly be doubted that the Daghdha's voracity derives from myth and not from some monastic storyteller's fertile imagination. His tryst with the Morrighan is still more significant. She is the goddess of slaughter who prefigures and in certain measure decides the outcome of battle, and by his physical union with her he ensures victory and security for his people. Nothing could more clearly underline his role of father-figure among the gods."  

Daghdha also features in other stories, including: 

  • How the Dag[h]d[h]a Got His Magic Staff/Club: Daghdha borrows the implement from three lads, giving it a test drive in the process
  • The Wooing of Etain: Includes the aforementioned episode of the conception of Oenghus with Boann, plus Daghdha's mediation when Oenghus tricks Elcmar out of possession of Brú na Bóinne; however, in another version of that story, Oenghus tricks Daghdha out of its possession. Daghdha also helps Oenghus claim the hand of the eponymous Etain for his foster father Midir, by manipulating the land and sea.
  • The Book of Invasions: Details the death of Daghdha, which came as a result of a wound received in the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh: "Eighty to The Dagda, till he died of the gory javelin wherewith Cetlenn gave him a mortal wound in the great battle of Mag Tuired." "...in spite of which he finally dies of wounds that have been inflicted upon him in the second battle of Mag Tuired – 120 years before!" "Over him did the men of Ireland make the mound of the Brug..." 

S
o that's what Irish traditions have to say about Daghdha. I'll sum up the crucial aspects of his character:


Daghdha illustration from a Japanese myth book
  • He is called the "Good God," not because of his upstanding morality but because he is "good" at everything; however, much of what Daghdha did was still for the "good" of his people. So if he's skilled at just about everything, that means he's a Mary Sue, right? Oh my god, Celtic mythology is such garbage!
  • The Daghdha's status as a father god, reflected in his name Eochaid (or Eochu) Ollathair, shows his age and high status within the Tuatha De. This elder status carries with it his role as a god of wisdom, a benefit that can only come with age; Daghdha uses his wisdom as most patriarchs in myth do, either to settle disputes within the community or to outwit enemies. Similarly, Daghdha's magical cauldron, club, and harp are symbols of power and prestige
  • However, just because he's wise and good at everything doesn't mean he's perfect; in fact, Daghdha is occasionally outwitted himself, as evidenced by the version of Oenghus' story when he tricks Daghdha, in Magh Tuiredh when the Fomorians successfully tempt him with porridge, and when Bres emasculates him with menial tasks.  
  • Daghdha is DTF. What else is there to say about that
  • Speaking of Daghdha getting some, the guy basically stopped time so that Oenghus could be born in a day. But even if it's not a temporal matter, he still displayed dominion over the sun, the most important celestial object. And, later in The Wooing of Etain, Daghdha levels the earth and draws in the sea, completing his trifecta of influence over the natural world.
  • Lastly, The Book of Invasions accounts that Daghdha eventually dies. However, that text, like most of what survives of ancient Celtic myths, was compiled in a Christian Ireland with an agenda to make illegitimate the indigenous mythic past. Because of this, Daghdha's death may be a result of euhemerism.  

If Daghdha were to manifest into our world right now, how would he act? He would basically be a stereotypical older dad, but one who could beat you at any game of skill unless you thought outside of the box. He would eat a lot and then doze off in a corner. If he were to get horny, it would be advisable to exit the county or state, just to be safe. He might be analogous to Alan Arkin's character in Little Miss Sunshine. Overall, he would be quite a character but a pretty nice guy, so long as he was part of your family. 

And that's Daghdha in a large nutshell. With that out of the way, it's finally time to move on to Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse's Dagda and the alleged discrepancies. Puh-lease. I mean, just how different could they be?

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse's Dagda


"Known as the 'Lord of Great Knowledge,' this demon made a contract with Nanashi and forced him to unseal Krishna.

Despite his involvement in the unsealing of Krishna, it is unknown what Dagda's relation to the Divine Powers is." -SMT4A's log entry on Dagda 
The story of SMT4A’s Dagda follows the usual cliché: Demon kills boy, boy meets god, god revives boy, boy and god fall in love and secure the home of their dreams with a low interest rate mortgage. Stale, but a classic yarn all the same. Hallmark Channel movie adaptation coming soon.

Looks like someone needs a Snickers
If only that were the long and short of it. Take another gander at Dagda’s log entry. What’s noticeable about it? Besides the fact that it doesn't say a whole lot. What is its focus? Instead of providing information about Dagda as a mythological being, it’s about his role in the unfolding drama. No, that’s not an object of criticism; the other demons in the log are described the same way, and you need look no further than their compendium entries for the mythical profiles (one of which Dagda DOES actually have; we’ll get to that). However, the log entry nonetheless represents a microcosm of 4A’s approach to the "Good God": Plot first, myth last.

Dagda's Character, Ideology, and Motivation


The quintessential Dagda
Normally it would behoove me to begin with the design when talking about an SMT demon. But Dagda is a special case, as it will become apparent that his grim frame was informed primarily by his personality and role in the game. Speaking of his role, let's briefly review (for real) what purposes Dagda serves in the narrative and, to a lesser extent, gameplay:
  • The protagonist is killed by Adramelech and sent to Japanese hell. Dagda is there for some reason and offers to revive him, but at a price: becoming Dagda's Godslayer, essentially turning him into Demi-fiend 2.0. Dagda will also revive the player after any gameplay death at no cost. (You can hear the sound of Flynn snapping his finger and saying, "Gee willikers!")
  • Dagda is ostensibly the replacement for Burroughs as navigator.
  • A voice of extreme dissent, Dagda exists in the story mostly to be the sole representative of his destructive ideology and does so by deprecating everyone and everything around him. But this is exactly how he intends on ending the war between Law and Chaos unfolding in Tokyo: Wiping out existence itself.
  • Dagda has a further agenda that's revealed much later in the game: YHVH gave humans the ability to observe their environment and create gods based on natural phenomena; Dagda wants to be free of these confining god-shaped "shells" and return to nature.
  • After the protagonist kills YHVH and ascends to his tyrant's meat seat, Dagda spirits away, satisfied (at least on Anarchy/Genocide).
First, I suppose it would be best to discuss Dagda's character and personality. And...look, I can’t even muster a sarcastic response here: Dagda doesn’t resemble Daghdha at all! This is the very essence of Doi’s original comment about a "discrepancy." There are absolutely no traces of a god who would want to destroy the universe in the original myths—if anything, Daghdha was a symbol of fertility who reveled in the pleasures of life! As shown in the previous section, these pleasures manifested for Daghdha in feasts and liberal sex; he had access to an abundance of the most basic human needs, whether carnal or alimentary, and would simply be too satisfied on either front to develop an adverse disposition, to say nothing of his symbolic significance to Celtic societies. 

A categorization that's
"Light" on internal consistency
Unfortunately, Dagda’s nihilistic tendencies end up consuming his entire character. He’s there to disagree with what everyone else does and owns a superiority complex which he uses to fire off smartass quips to anyone in range. As a result, he’s more of a personality than a character. Normally that’d be something I’d defend as appropriate for SMT because demons shouldn’t change or grow as humans should, but in this case a negative temperament is entirely inappropriate for the god chosen. It's especially laughable that Dagda is categorized as a Light-Neutral Deity when his alignment should be Dark, at the very least.

Shuichi Ikeda and Xander Mobus
Irritatingly, Dagda’s personality also underwent a slight change in localization. As another translation from Dijeh proves, the language of English Dagda is a bit more juvenile than Japanese Dagda, who retains an older, more authoritative tone. This change was probably made to account for the 40+ year age difference between the two regions’ voice actors: Shuichi Ikeda was born in 1949, while Xander Mobus was born in 1992 (apparently; I can't find a definitive source that says so, but I'm inclined to believe it). I guess that Irish accent was a priority over an age-appropriate voicewhich is not meant to slam Mobus’ fine performance!

Being tech-savvy =/= wisdom (though I guess you could
argue he'd be "good" at fixing cell phones, so whatever)
SMT4A appears to get one thing right, in that it calls Dagda a “Lord of Great Knowledge.” While that’s certainly reflective of Daghdha's wisdom, what actions or decisions of Dagda’s are construed as wise or knowledgeable? That he tells you that friends are worthless? Because he tells you to kick in the faces of other gods? Or because he had the foresight to revive YOU, the reincarnation of significant personage Akira? Maybe the last one has some validity, but isn’t there some inevitable player bias packaged along with it? Whatever, I’ll give it to ‘em. They deserve at least one gold star for the new skill affinities and revised Smirks!

What a wiseguy!
Still, none of these examples are what traditional wisdom figures are about. Daghdha is wise because he’s old. With age comes experience. Wisdom is that experience. There are very few wisdom gods in myths that are portrayed as young; one of the few may be Gnosticm’s Sophia, the very personification of wisdom, who is among the youngest of the emanations of the Godhead. However, Sophia’s “fall” and the subsequent birth of the Demiurge—her “mistake”—is the catalyst of the mythical drama and presumably she learns from that mistake, never to make it again. But, in general, characters in myths defer to the older, wiser gods when they are in predicaments precisely because they have lived longer and therefore may have been in the same situation and can offer an instant solution; this is meaningful to human societies because it parallels our relationships with parents or grandparents. Daghdha was sought just for those reasons in the example of Oenghus tricking Elcmar given above. A more famous example of wisdom in Western culture would be that of King Solomon and his decree to cut a baby in half to solve a quarrel between two would-be mothers; he knew the real mother would rather give up the baby than see it harmed.

SMT's MonsterVision
On motivation, what is Dagda’s actual reason for wanting to bring everything to nothing? No, besides the bit about Observation and the shells—literally ANY god could be written to be mad about that. Instead, what would personally drive a party animal like Daghdha to such extreme measures? Well, the game never actually says. In fact, Danu implies he may have been created this way when she is repulsed by how she "could give birth to such a horror.” Demons should rarely change in character, anyway, if they are based on the identities given to them at “birth” by their home cultures, or, within SMT4A’s own logic, by what Dagda says about the confining limits of Observation. In conclusion, we just have to assume that Dagda has always had a universe-sized chip on his shoulder.

One fewer thing to be angry about, I guess
The Dagda-themed entry from SMT4A’s special pre-release topics does offer one possible personal motivation: The “conversion” of his daughter Brigid to Christian sainthood. However, this is never brought up in the game and, if we are to assume he was "normal" Daghdha before that event, such a comprehensive change in character should be theoretically impossible either by SMT’s general rules (aside from an evolution into a different deity) or by SMT4A’s Observation. Interestingly, Shin Megami Tensei IV proper does have a quest where you must retrieve Dagda’s cauldron and bring it to Brigid, who eagerly anticipates the revival of Danu and the Tuatha De Danaan--meaning she's very much a Celtic deity in the SMT4 universe. The circumstances stacked against the idea, it’s little wonder Dagda never mentions Brigid in the game.

Dada Dagda
Further, the game goes out of its way to portray Dagda’s ideals as illegitimate by being, in no uncertain terms, biased towards the Peace/Bonds path; from mechanics to narrative, everything in the game, besides Dagda himself, supports themes of camaraderie. The Bonds path even goes so far as to replace the “old” Dagda with a “new” Dagda, since the old was being uncooperative, a wholly contrived concept that really doesn't need to be analyzed further. On the other hand, Dagda’s Genocide path ends with you brainwashing Flynn and sitting on your sovereign pastrami throne, looking into the camera with a smirk and the gleam of yellow, evil eyes. Unsubtle, one might say.

Main character concept,
with his strange left arm
Now for the big question: Why is Dagda so different compared to Daghdha? I would say the simplest answer is that the story and character were written before the identity of the main god was chosen. The game’s apparently immutable premise demanded the protagonist die and be revived, and in this second life he would essentially be a slave to this god’s nihilistic machinations. The number of gods with both traits is effectively zero, only because there are no figures of traditional world myths who could raise the dead and also want to erase all of existence. There are certainly villains and antagonists in nearly all pantheons who are responsible for corrupting the earth or inflicting worldwide-scale calamities, but…they’re obviously bad guys; none of them would have vivifying powers over life, just the putrid hand of death. Reciprocally, there are myriad deities of health and medicine, though relatively few that can resurrect the dead (Asclepius, the goddesses involved in Okuninushi's revivals, and of course a more famous example that wouldn't work given the game's conflicts). Another god from Celtic myth that could have worked in a healing capacity is Dian Cecht. Dian Cecht is most noted for crafting an arm of silver for Nuada, the first king of the Tuatha De Danaan, after he had lost his in battle. In fact, there may be some evidence in SMT4A's concept art that Dian Cecht may have been considered for this role: The alternate, adult design for the protagonist features an inorganic, metallic-looking left arm distinct from SMT4's gauntlets, but, unfortunately, speculation is really all we have. 

However, by virtue of their benevolent mythological roles, these gods have no desire for life itself to cease. I can’t help but think they wrote themselves into a corner with the scenario concept and couldn’t find exactly what they needed, but because Nozomi’s presence in the game meant Danu would appear, Dagda was a convenient choice that would satisfy one out of the two needed traits, even if they had to invent an "anti-bonds" intra-pantheon conflict. Honestly, if they absolutely, positively had to treat the final scenario concept as gospel, Dagda was probably the best choice they could have made—but that doesn't absolve the rotten core of poor planning and writing.

Excerpt from one of Dagda's
term papers (100% real quotes)
Because he has no believable motivation for his bleak goals and doesn’t evolve in character throughout the story (even the “new” Dagda on Bonds doesn’t so much change as just shut up), Dagda ends up being nothing more than a shallow personality attached to a D- undergraduate paper about Nietzsche; this is one of Apocalypse’s biggest flubs, as far as playing with the mythological source material goes. Despite this critical flaw, it may have been possible to tell largely the same story with Daghdha, even with the drastically different overtones and motivation: Boy dies, but Daghdha revives him to be his warrior-servant as the Tuatha De Danaan fairy folk brace themselves for the coming war. Daghdha could also provide ample, in-character comic relief by expressing his desires to eat Katakirauwa bacon and shag Nozomi. Further, there'd be no reason to get rid of the Divine Powers (though one of them would have to be the Genocide replacement; see also the following paragraph) or, really, anything else, notwithstanding needed improvements in certain final chapters. This malleability may be an effect of what little actually happens in Apocalypse!

Who then, exactly, assigned
Dagda this phony role?
But if we’re going to spout off pie-in-the-sky coulda-shoulda-wouldas, the fundamental flaw to Dagda’s portrayal is that his character is defined by philosophy, not mythology. And which beings in SMT are usually defined by their individual philosophies? The human characters and/or alignment heroes. While the Bonds route has copious amounts of human representation in the game, Genocide only has Dagda—and probably would have been elevated in legitimacy if it had a human representative. After all, wouldn’t it be wholly believable if a human character, confined for so long to Tokyo’s putrid conditions, was affected to espouse such a spiteful, misanthropic worldview? On the other hand, it’s hard to bear much sympathy for demons, as, ontologically speaking, we can’t relate to their collective condition: They appear in three different places at once, they die, they get fused and appear again—but they never change. It then comes as little surprise that Dagda’s unauthentic philosophy comes off as the wet dream of a teenaged antitheist. Even the game thinks so!


With only a few minor alterations,
Dagda could just as well pass as Cronus
But if we confine our search for a Dagda replacement to the mythic realm, who would have made for a better Killjoy Godslayer-maker? Which figures of mythology would actually want to destroy everything, but could reasonably have sway over life and death? Well, there’s always Lovecraftian deities like Nyarlathotep or Yog-Sothoth. Who knows what deceptive shape-shifting antics and untold destruction they could get into? But a better example yet would probably be Cronus. He would have a reason to be angry, after being defeated by Zeus and subsequently chained in Tartarus. How would the protagonist become a Godslayer? Cronus could swallow him or something—who knows exactly what happens in a divine being's stomach! This is a perfect example of an ambiguous situation that provides flexibility without undermining the mythological character.


Lastly, let's bring things full circle, to in-game descriptions. Digging for hidden treasures within Apocalypse’s game files will yield an unexpected bounty: An actual compendium profile for Dagda, one separate from his log file. It’s found along all the other demon profiles in the game, so it could suggest he was meant to be a summonable ally at some point during development, even fairly late if they went to the trouble of writing him one! Check it out, along with a rough translation:
ケルト神話に登場する神であり、トゥアハ・デ・ダナーンの最高神。その名は「善き神」を意味する。お粥が好物の大食漢であり、性格は温厚。武芸にも秀でていると言われ、破壊と再生の両方の力を持った巨大な棍棒や天候を自在に操る金の竪琴、無限に食料を供給する大釜を持っているとされる。

"The supreme god of the Tuatha De Danaan, from Celtic myth. His name means 'good god'. He has a good-natured personality and loves to eat porridge. It is said that he is exceptionally skilled in the art of combat. He also owns three magical treasures: A club with the power to both take away life and resurrect the dead, a golden harp that can freely manipulate the weather, and a cauldron that never goes empty." 
As you can see, this profile is trying to pass off this character as Daghdha! Humorous as this is, it’s not without precedent, as some of SMT4’s guest demons also had profiles that contradicted their given artwork. For example, whatever the crimson, bony monstrosity that was Asmodeus was trying to accomplish, his profile instead described his “normal,” multi-headed form from the Goetia. Whoever at Atlus writes those things must be especially dedicated to the myths, passive-aggressive, or both!

Designing Dagda 


With all that silly character business resolved, the spotlight turns back to Doi and how he "broadened the definition" of Dagda for Apocalypse's design. However, I wouldn’t hold Doi responsible for the mistakes made. We know, thanks to Apocalypse’s artbook, that he initially attempted to make a Daghdha instead of, well, a Dagda!

Definitely a good god.
Doi’s initial Dagda concept depicts a stout, bearded figure brandishing a giant club. It’s about as simple as can be but is nonetheless an appropriate image of the mythic figure! It’s not too hard to imagine this Dagda distributing advice, getting drunk, or wandering around the woods looking to score with random goddesses. It’s the kind of design you wish you hadn’t seen, because it just makes you wonder what managerial fuckwit is squandering Doi’s potential.  (coughYcoughAcoughMcoughAcoughIcough)

Good Dagda, with Good Danu
Alas, it’s likely that Good Dagda was never to be part of Apocalypse anyway, due to Dagda’s dour personality and ideals. As shown in the adjacent image, attempting to marry Dagda’s nihilistic nature with a portrait that resembles a Celtic Santa Claus would be severely incongruous. Sure, Good Dagda only exists in a rough sketch and maybe he could have been given Angry Kirby eyes or even a scowl, but an irritated expression offers no real visual correspondence to Dagda’s given character. Doi really had no choice but to design the most un-Daghdha-like Dagda he possibly could!

Compared to the discussion on Dagda’s character, there’s far less to say about the design itself. I can’t deny that “ginger skeleton face” is an appropriate look for the Dagda they chose to portray, but it’s astonishing just how little it resembles anything about Daghdha. Sure, he’s got a red mane and neckbeard because of Irish stereotypes, absolutely. He’s got the triskelion motif on his belt. That’s great! But there’s little else to remark about it, because it’s evident what their direction was for the character. There was simply no place for a belly that shook like a bowlful of jelly, magical cauldrons, or any human features at all.  

If there’s one claim you can levy against Dagda’s design it’s that it resembles a persona more than a demon, because it takes one trait and exaggerates it. This one trait of Dagda’s, his disdain for life in general, is expressed through his Skeletor skull face and carcass-like body of an earthen hue; he doesn’t just wish for death, he is the figure of Death itself. There are spikes on his shoulders because they weren’t doing anything else, apparently. Though his skull looks to be a reasonable facsimile of a human’s, Dagda’s bare hands are something else entirely, not quite skeletal but more like those of an articulated wooden figure or puppet, which doesn’t make sense because he is the protagonist’s puppet master! He also has those nonsensical orbs inlaid in his body like some of the SMT4 guest designs had, which are presumably for accentuation and contrast (or parity with the final Danu design, which also has them), but also serve to emphasize how inorganic he appears. Lastly, some  billowing rags complete the look.

The total Dagda package, replete with his crossed arms and piercing gaze, is actually an imposing figure, even in silhouette. It would probably even look “cool” to most people, which was probably a priority for the design. With that attitude in mind, imagine if Dagda looked like the Good Dagda design instead—and this fat, red-headed barbarian fellow swinging a club was emblazoned on the game’s boxart and promotional materials. Would that image really sell the game to its target audience(s)? Revulsion or bewilderment don’t sell video games, but exuding that intangible, invaluable coolness factor might just earn a second glance, even if the result, a design with “dark” or “mysterious” visual motifs, is achieved by the most hackneyed methods used in the industry (or, they could have just NOT placed Good Dagda on the cover, just sayin'). To me, this is yet another example of Shin Megami Tensei “selling out” its design heritage in an attempt to cast the widest net possible.

Like a psychopomp who never
lets you cross the river Styx!
Though there's practically no reason to defend Apocalypse's portrayal of Dagda, a common apologetic I nevertheless see for his Fiendish figure is that he’s a “god of death.” But as the extended discourse on Daghdha showed, and if I may repeat myself here, he’s a god of life and abundance! Just because he has a magical implement that can instantly kill living things with its pointy end doesn’t mean that is his defining characteristic (also, said implement, the object with the actual death power, was not seen to be important enough to be incorporated into the final design, making the death associations even more spurious). Of equal or superior significance to Daghdha’s magic club is his cauldron, which provides endless life-giving sustenance. Daghdha’s harp controls emotions and weather, which are mostly distinct from fertility and death, so let's call this one a wash. But based on two out of three of Daghdha’s magical possessions, the majority of their functions sustain life rather than deprive it.

Our Doi-Boy did his best with Dagda. Sadly, the circumstances were stacked against him from the very beginning, in no small part from an apparent lack of clout in the production process. But one feature of Dagda's design I haven't mentioned yet may be a cognizant commentary on Doi's part:

A big, fat question mark right between the eyes, one that boldly asks, "who the hell is this guy supposed to be, anyway?" Not exactly a vote of confidence. Mitra-Buddha is another example of Doi not knowing what to do, by being given something that doesn’t exist: A Buddhist version of an ancient Iranian god that also incorporates aspects of its dissemination from East to West. In his own words, he had to defer to other staff members to understand how to approach the design: "I used Maitreya as a base and collaborated on finding a design for Mitra with the staff that was more well-versed in mythology." While Mitra-Buddha may have been another demon design flop, it's only because the other, supposedly senior staff members at Atlus don’t know how myths and gods work. You know, the things the series is about? 

Scourge Me with a Shillelagh


Despite his myriad inadequacies, I don’t think it would be a stretch to call Dagda one of Apocalypse’s more popular characters. Even if he's a living Sour Patch Kid, Dagda’s personality provides a stark contrast to the rest of the cast, who, if you aren’t into their bonds shtick, cast a suffocating paling of anime stereotypes over the rest of the game. Yes, the other characters are so bad they make Debbie Downer Dagda seem like a breath of fresh air in comparison. That’s quite a feat!

Flat, but with a distinctive trait? Hmm...
Dagda is also representative of a different trend for character development in fiction, in that being rounded or fully developed isn't a prerequisite for a character’s popularity. A character could be flat as a board but have one or two easily digested traits that have appeal to a particular audience and an attachment to them will still grow. These traits could be personal interests or hobbies, behavioral tics, catchphrases, or anything else that individualizes them without lending authentic character depth of the kind gained from a character’s actions and choices within the context of the narrative.

For instance, Dagda's popularity seems to hinge on examples like talking about Lucifer’s balls, to the latter’s face, and emoting the more cynical player’s thoughts when the other cast members begin to climax over the power of friendship. However, these speak to personality traits, not character depth or growth. Now, again, I would of course defend this “flat” approach as appropriate for a demon under most circumstances, but Dagda has been given central story prominence to an extent that very few other demons in the series have been afforded, reaching a point where you could argue that having such a major, static presence harms the overall narrative. This returns to the suggestion of transplanting Dagda’s personality and philosophy to a human character actually capable of change. 


Mikey also told me to contract
type 2 diabetes, but I didn't comply
I’m fully aware of the fact that shallow, yet popular, characters are nothing new. Multiple generations of kids have grown up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and probably most have a favorite turtle based on completely arbitrary reasoning. Mine is Michelangelo, not necessarily just because he’s the “party dude” (though that’s still important), but because to me he was always the most consistently excited about constantly eating pizza—a trait I shared with him. Pizza was (and is) the event meal, no matter how many times a week you ate it or how mediocre Ellio’s cheese-and-cardboard slices were.

Thus, I'd also say that very few people would be completely immune to these superficial attachments, though, by the TMNT example, it stands to reason that they develop mostly within younger demographics, towards entertainment primarily aimed at kids or teenagers (which Apocalypse definitely is). These properties usually don't have lofty or even moderate narrative goals, and this is especially true if the franchise harbors the ulterior motive of moving mass merchandise. As someone formerly between the ages of 16-21 who played Japanese RPGs heavily during that epoch, I know from first-hand experience that I liked characters primarily for what types of weapons they used, how cool their designs were, or how "powerful" they were. I also know that no amount of criticism could have convinced me that [X] Final Fantasy character was dramatically weak, because personal preferences and projections were involved. I would imagine it’d be the same for others as well.


The Original Revolutionary
That's also not to suggest these attachments can't happen as you grow older: I have an adult-sized love for the Kool-Aid Man and, while I would be loath to call him flat, he’s nothing but a walking, demolishing catchphrase. But the difference between the Kool-Aid Man and Dagda is that one was only ever meant to be an advertisement mascot, while the other is a main player in a fictional narrative. Both have different purposes and sets of expectations. Could you adapt the Kool-Aid Man to fit into a traditional dramatic structure? It wouldn't be impossible, but you would basically need to "broaden the definition" of the character, so to speak; he would, in effect, stop being the Kool-Aid Man, a personality best suited to simple stories about rescuing baseball-playing kids from the clutches of evil thirst monsters or going back in time to meet Benjamin Franklin. But if the Kool-Aid Man, as-is, were to appear in a Shin Megami Tensei game in a major role, part of me might be squealing in delight but I would eventually have to admit that a giant, talking pitcher filled with red fluid would not optimally augment the story being told. And so the same could be said of Dagda, a shallow and largely invented character ill-suited to SMT's narrative needs.

Anyway, the topic of character development in modern media, Japanese character archetypes, fan expectations, etc. is so complex and expansive it really deserves its own spotlight someday. So, in closing, I hope you enjoyed this comprehensive analysis about why a single character from a video game is completely terrible. Like, they got almost nothing right. It’s kind of amazing, even impressive!

But I kid. The actual reason why I went to great lengths to dissect Dag(h)d(h)a goes beyond mere amateurish writing in a video game aimed at Japanese kids: It’s a matter of advocating culture and learning. Because Shin Megami Tensei incorporates figures of religion and myth from around the world, concepts Atlus didn’t create themselves, it’s essential they get them right; respect is involved, sure, but there’s also the consideration that SMT will be the introduction for many people to any number of obscure deities or folkloric heroes (something I could definitely claim), so the series serves a pedagogical function as well. 

We hope you do for Shin Megami Tensei V!
The importance of this function cannot be understated, as engaging with cultures beyond our own can change how we perceive our tiny, shared world; the potential danger of cultural disengagement is that humans tend to grow intolerant of others if they consume media exclusively to confirm biases or conform to myopic perspectives. Shin Megami Tensei is suited to this task in ways relatively few video game series are, through its design work, portrayals of characters from civilizations past and present, and their incorporation into a larger narrative. That's why it makes no sense to have a proprietary, Final Fantasy-like "Dagda" character in one corner and a host of actual Celtic deities in the other; the series can't be noncommittal like this and expect to foster a distinct identity. I'm not saying SMT will create world peace, nor is it a replacement for a good book, college course, or an immersive homestay abroad, but the potential it has to introduce an audience to different modes of thinking is worth preserving over characters with one-dimensional appeal and zero cultural relevance.

Special thanks to Soren for some keen suggestions. 

UPDATE 2/11/17: Also thanks to Soren for informing me that Ellio's Pizza is regional to the Northeastern United States. I have now embedded a link in the article for those unfamiliar with the brand. I regret the omission.   

8 comments:

  1. For me, one of the biggest things that bothered me about Dagda from a narrative standpoint was, like you mentioned, just how big of a strawman he was. A straw individualist especially.

    And seriously, it feels extremely disheartening to me that this series that I grew to love managed to screw itself over in almost just one generation. After this game, I dread that the series will never recover to what it once was. And what's worse is probably that this degeneration will make the series more popular, and will result in just further decay.

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    1. And I didn't even really scrutinize his philosophy and how he presents it, either!

      But you should send me a message on Tumblr, as I have something to show you I can't share publicly. It's something I definitely need help with, if you'd be willing to participate!

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    2. If one where to scrutinize that, it would probably end up a full article in and of itself about how not only Dagda is full of straw, but so is everything else not aligned with Danu. Me having a nack for literature and being something of an armchair philosopher (as well as being a real-life Nihilist and Individualist) kinda pick up these types of things at the drop of a hat.

      And while I might not be as knowledgeable in mythology as you are, even I could immediately tell that this Dagda had been turned into a caricature for the sake of expressing an easily defeatable shadow to win an ideological argument that the writer would most likely loose otherwise.

      So all that said, if felt quite nice the read the article. Got some nice catharsis out of it.

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  2. That is one of the more jarring aspects of this depiction of dagda. IVA more than any other game was trying to use the gods to depict and often criticize specific things about their religions. Maitreya took the Buddhist idea of not clinging to an extreme, and he talks about what is very obviously meant to be paranirvana. Krishna's goal was everyone uniting into one being as in some forms of hinduism. Yahweh is presiding over a binary of ideas that try to exclude others where you have to ask why he deliberately gives demons power, acts arrogant, and seems exempt from his own rules. Dagda is a rabid individualist atheist skeleton who wants to go back to being wind, and turn humans into individualists who don't have bonds in the process. What? His plan is also described so incoherently and vaguely that many people get through the entire game without even having any clue what ideological concepts they are meant to be deciding between.

    I think the idea of demons and gods not being able to change their soul is stupid too. (aside from it not really making sense). Like sure, we get it they embody ideas so it wouldn't make sense if they had unlimited free reign to just do whatever without a meaningful observation path allowing certain things. But dagda makes it sound almost like the causality is one way from humans to demons. Which if true would make it meaningless to criticize anything demons do, since they aren't really doing it, just living it. They're actually living beings in the world, so their autonomy should be emphasized slightly more than it is. The series tends to downplay demons in general. But that's one of its flaws. And even as regards dagda it is questionable. Something was obviously different about the new dagda. So his personality can obviously be different. Yet they crowbar in the line about how he doesn't really disagree with his old self to try to cram it back to the emphasis on similarity. Since demons seem aware of their nature, for chaos demons especially the idea that they don't have any direct power over their will is bizarre. Like sure, we know that they can always try to change form to embody something new, but even so.

    Dagda's own arc in game doesn't really make sense to have been something inherently part of his nature. Since its not like he would be observed into wanting to kill himself by anyone. And even in nocturne we are shown examples of demons changing their mind about things, like gozou tennoh. The idea that demons can't have arcs of their own is bizarre, especially when humans who become demons still can. (Also, demons who become humans who become demons, like in II?) Which ties into other problems iva has like dagda's ending including a weird part about how humans might be better at being gods than gods are. It comes off distasteful like its weird racism against a fantasy race. Gods need to have at least some of their own autonomy emphasized for them to be interesting as villains. Which since megaten shies away from making human characters major enemies most of the time is usually going to be the case. In the case of the divine powers, the entire thing they were doing was obviously not something human caused. So the flip flop in demons' characterization was more odd in iva than in any game

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    1. Heck of a comment. :) I don't have enough time to give a proper response, but I definitely will during the week sometime!

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    2. Okay, finally I can get back to this one. Sorry it took so long, but immediately after publishing this article I had a lot of work to do elsewhere.

      First, I actually do like the idea that demons shouldn't overstep their boundaries. Since gods have never existed in our real world except in the worldviews of the religious (where they are effectively "real" to those individuals), I'd argue that a work like SMT that deals generally in the subject needs to keep the gods or demons limited to what those sources say, with their given roles or symbolic meaning. It's why it's fucking stupid that SMT4's Michael (and subsequently Merkabah) had dragon or serpent motifs on him, when dragons have the exact opposite meaning in Christian symbolism, of something vile, even though that's a matter of design and not behavior--though of course, as stated, Dagda is a compelling example of failure to adhere to his given purpose. But we probably don't disagree there, and I get what you're saying about the causality of Observation and what demons do.

      Similarly, I'm iffy on demons having arcs. It all depends on where the arc begins and ends in the demon's personal mythological timeline, so to speak. If Baldur begins alive, but then dies and resurrects, that would be fitting. But if Thor's as belligerent as ever but learns to be a peace-loving hippie, then that's not really Thor. And of course, this also depends on what the individual game is going for; there's less wriggle room in a "literal apocalypse," like I distinguished in Identity Crisis, compared to an "abstract apocalypse" like in Nocturne, where the rules are that just about anything goes.

      But do I think they should have a complete lack of agency? Not every demon should act like a robot, even when within their prescribed limits! There are certain characters, like Lucifer, or even Krishna, who seem to have human-like autonomy and you can't say it doesn't fit them given their origins. Even Old Testament Yahweh changes his mind on things, which poses a serious problem to his omniscience, but that's irrelevant here. Semyaza impregnates a human woman and has a kid, which is also totally fitting, and so on. I think humans will always make more compelling villains than demons, because they are more complex and can be molded to fit any particular scenario better than any demon. Still, there's probably a reason the bigger bad guys in the series end up being layered mythological figures like Lucifer and not...Pixie.

      In the end though, we are probably doing a disservice to ourselves by putting so much thought into this poorly written game. :p

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  3. Interesting analysis, I wonder if you're going to make more of them (especially for SMTIVA)

    Do you have anything about Nocturne? I would like to hear your opinion on the plot and characters :)

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    1. Soon, soon. :)

      I do have something about Nocturne...but I don't know when it'll be published. Follow my Tumblr, as whenever I can say, it'll be on there first.

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