Status Effects and Illness in Shin Megami Tensei
While touring the desolate caverns of Naruku, the first dungeon of Shin Megami Tensei IV (2013), I ran into a strange demon. It’s a blonde, androgynous head propped on stilts, staring off into the horizon as flags wave proudly behind it. On its head is a mitre-like hat, much like a bishop’s, with a cross sitting atop it. Its name is Wicker Man, as in Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror movie of the same name, and it certainly lives up to its moniker with an arcane, druidic aura.
Wicker Man ambushed me, but did little more than use a skill named “Pandemic Bomb” before its turn was over. It missed everyone in my party except for my Pixie. Down on the touch screen, her portrait turned a sickly beige and is marked with a moaning face. I wasn’t really sure what this ailment did. We finished the battle much like any other.
But when I entered a new battle, something strange happened. I was out of Dis-Poisons, which cure both the Poison and Sick ailments, so Pixie was still Sick. But now it had spread to Vodyanik, and a turn later, to me. Pixie was slowly transmitting her Sickness to the rest of the party. This shocked me—rather than portraying Sickness as a static, isolated incident, much the way temporary paralysis, poisoning, or even curses are portrayed in Shin Megami Tensei and other RPG franchises, illness is portrayed as a threat to an entire cohort. Unless treated, the Sick ailment will spread to your entire party in SMT4, rendering your combined stats significantly lowered. In this way, the Sick status effect presents a huge problem to more global concerns of labor. Even if Pandemic Bomb misses all but one of your active party members, it soon endangers the group as a whole.
Elsewhere in the franchise, in Persona 3 (2006), status changes are divided into effects, which only apply when in battle, and conditions, which are more persistent and carry over the course of several in-game days. While battling in Tartarus, the game’s primary dungeon, party members are at risk of becoming Tired or even Sick. When characters grow Tired, they struggle to connect hits, have their defense stat lowered, and may even be unable to recover from being knocked down. The Tired condition is pretty easy to fix: remove them from the party and don’t force them to battle for a day or two. If the protagonist gets tired, he can easily fix this by going to sleep earlier than normal.
When neglected, the Tired condition morphs into Sick. Sickness works similarly to how it does in SMT4, and is something of an exacerbated form of the Tired status effect. Sick characters struggle to do much of anything, and if you return to the entrance of Tartarus, they’ll actually say they’re unable to keep exploring with you and return to the dormitory for the night. Characters, including the protagonist, will also get sick at random times throughout the school year; these bouts of illness can last anywhere from a few days to a week. There are a few things the protagonist can do to speed along the process, but if the protagonist is Sick, their social life will suffer. They’ll be unable to study at night, and refusing to properly care for them will keep the status around much longer.
While this can be a frustrating mechanic, it adds a modicum of realism to an otherwise unbelievable premise. The playable cast of Persona 3 is composed of several completely normal teenagers. We might not take umbrage at teenagers in a fantasy world plowing through mobs of monsters without breaking a sweat, but a real teen balancing stressful school life, clubs, and managing relationships would be unable to do the sort of thing Persona 3’s cast does every night. That’s exactly why they’re incapable of doing it frequently. Persona 3 posits grinding and exploring as an act of labor, for which there are material consequences that carry over into the cast’s more tangible other life.
Though Persona 3’s iteration of disease isn’t infectious as in SMT4, it represents a natural challenge of life as a roadblock that can be overcome by proper self-care and recovery time. There’s a once-a-playthrough item you can obtain that can cure a Sick character instantly, but other than that, you have to ride the full course of the illness out. There’s no brute-forcing it. As opposed to SMT4, which views illness as inherently transmissible and an immediate threat to any cohort it passes through, Persona 3 handles it gently—we can only assume the characters are responsible with their illnesses and properly isolate themselves so it doesn’t pass through the cast’s shared living space.