The Toxicity of Power in Devil May Cry 5
This article contains spoilers for Devil May Cry 5.
Devil May Cry 5 and by extent the entire Devil May Cry series, is built on the idea that more power allows you to have more fun. This assumption isn’t unique to the series, every game with unlockable skill trees couples progression with gameplay variety and thus the ability to take down enemies in increasingly faster and more diverse ways.
The whole aesthetic of the series has been designed to not only justify, but make it feel good to engage in this activity, from how there are no humans around for whom softer acts such as rescues or conversations would have to apply, no one to comment on loss of life and the apparent hopelessness the destroyed city signifies. Dante, Nero and V are no heroes, as there is nothing to rescue. As such, DMC 5 isn’t interested in upholding the illusion of being a powerful hero so much as a powerful player who receives constant feedback of their performance through vocal appraisals and points. Criticism of the narrative is deflected because characters and settings in Devil May Cry are gameplay vessels – when the only directive is for something to feel as cool as possible and embraces the resulting campiness, can you criticise it? How can you seriously examine the portrayal of power in a game that doesn’t take itself seriously?
A central aspect of DMC’s tone is its character’s awareness of their own strength. Dante and Nero feel emboldened to start each encounter with a quippy one-liner precisely because they don’t expect to lose. It is the behaviour of a bully, and so is the concept to find particularly stylish ways to dispatch enemies, like a cat playing with a mouse. This behaviour goes unexamined simply because the characters turn their skill against nothing but monsters, enemies that when they do manage to speak express no other desire than to kill or rule. They are cannon fodder, too much of a caricature to be taken seriously, and so players engage in little else but an engaging bout of acrobatics with what could essentially be training dummies.
In Devil May Cry 5, a handful of people represent the player and their interactions with the world around them, and these interactions are geared to provide players with anything they desire. Nero, Dante and V vocalise the player’s desire for more power while at the same time staying free of any responsibility – they want more power because the one with the most power wins, and they go up against each other the way players have done since the arcade era – you see someone beating your high score and immediately attempt to reclaim the top spot on the leader board. In games without any narrative trappings, this naturally leads us to want to progress, making this desire the main point of a narrative however, is irresponsible.
In a flashback, Dante’s mother tells him to “be strong, be a man” shortly before she dies. Using this memory suggests that this has been his goal ever since and still guides his actions. The message is as simplistic as it is clear: real men are strong, and exhibiting that strength is fun. You can further see how DMC 5 is designed for male enjoyment when you look at the role women get to play. Nico for example is a strong woman in every respect, a brilliant mechanic and engineer and a hell of a driver, but she only uses those talents to support Nero. At one point Nero points to the arms she builds as his primary source of strength, but he never acknowledges her as part in his success. The way both are habitually unpleasant to each other might have been a way to express affection in high school, as an adult it makes me wonder why a woman clearly capable of taking care of herself would spend time with a man who treats her the way Nero does.
For all that Nico is strong and independent, she turns into a fangirl once she meets Dante, the man everyone, including dedicated players, acknowledges as the hero, for what the term is worth in this context, which is likely also why playing him, you immediately feel very accomplished.
Trish and Lady don’t appear in the game except for some gratuitous objectification, making Devil May Cry 5 a game in which the men leave the women alone at home to go out and have fun because the only thing these women did when they had the chance to pull their weight was get kidnapped and then made use of. Failure robbed them of all agency.
The only thing Nero is after is not to rescue Dante, it’s to prove that he’s not dead weight, which Dante calls him at the very beginning of the game. His resentment fuels the desire of more power, in other games this would have been the villain’s origin story.
Later in the game we learn that to attain real power means to let go of humanity. Vergil did so in order to become a powerful demon, creating V. Vergil’s humanity is thus actively portrayed as a weak human being. Similarly, Dante habitually lets go of his humanity by impaling himself with a sword in order to become a demon. V as Vergil’s humanity is a necessary component to making him weaker, containing the demon and making him a beatable foe.
At several points Nero is actively mocked by enemies for being human, and so is his decision to show Vergil mercy. As Dante tells him repeatedly, “you don’t send a kid to do a man’s job”, and so the big showdown belongs to Dante, leaving Nero’s accomplishments unacknowledged.
Devil May Cry 5 teaches players both through its narrative and its gameplay that without strength you are nothing, while strength allows you to take what you want. It may look like simple-minded fun, but the scores suggest there’s a right way to play the game, going ever faster. It hardens audiences to anything that isn’t designed to their benefit, with an entire world becoming collateral to an endless fight.