seven – or eight? – many weeks (I’ve lost count) since the quarantine started in the UK. And what’s better than playing video games to ease the boredom? Well, actually there are many better things to do. But the game I’ll talk about is really special. I had started playing it months ago, way before Covid-19 was a thing. But this series is notorious for its lengthy gameplay. Yes, as the title said, we’ll talk about Persona series, the third entry in particular.
For those who may not have heard of this series before, Persona series started as a spin-off of another game called Shin Megami Tensei, which is also another great series. The story of Persona series always revolves around the life of high-school students in Japan and has different themes in each game. Since Persona 3, the game is not just about exploring dungeons and defeating bosses, but also building relationship with friends and people in the city. You’ll get to know various background stories of every character, including the non-playable one and to date one of your party members.
The series is so realistic in a sense that you’re given limited number of ‘virtual’ days to finish the game and limited number of activities you can do in a day. So you have to pick carefully and efficiently what activity you’re going to do that day. It can be hanging out with your friends, working part-time, playing mini-games, or even studying to increase your stats. Some activities are locked until you reach a certain level of Knowledge, Courage, or else (I can’t remember specifically what are the stats in Persona 3).
In this game (I played the PSP version), you play as an orphan who move to a city and then stay in a dorm with other high-school students/kind-of-spies. At the beginning of the game, you’ll see some people called the Lost which essentially are mysteriously infected people who wander around the town and not being able to communicate. Your mission is to uncover the mystery surrounding why these people get infected.
Alright, enough for the introduction. From this point onward, there will be spoilers to the story. I’d recommend you play the game to really enjoy the story. But if you have no time, there are four-parts movies which supposedly tell the same story.
Spoiler alert – Stop reading if you don’t want to see
Persona comes from a latin word which in this game is often referred to as our other self. There’s a famous Japanese saying that says “everyone has three faces/masks, the first mask it the one they show to public, the second mask is the one they show to people they’re close to, and the third mask is the one they only show to their self”. Sometimes we don’t realise the existence of the third mask. So Persona games is derived from this concept. Each character has a Persona which gives them skills to fight monsters called Shadows.
You may notice that this game is about death when you see that the way the character draws power from their persona is by committing suicide with a gun. Hang on, don’t be too surprised. First of all, it’s not a real gun. Secondly, I might have been exaggerating a bit. So each character has a gun-shaped tool called Evoker which has to be pointed to their head and triggered to draw the power from their Persona. This is to symbolise that only a person who’s not afraid of death is able to draw the power.
Going back to the main story, you play as a high school student who just transferred to the city. There are some incidents in the city known as Apathy Syndrome. People who are affected, are called the Lost. They can’t do anything apart from wandering the town or being coma in a hospital, but their heart still beating. In some sense, they’re still alive, or are they? I think that’s another message that the game wants to show, are we alive simply just because our heart still beating?
The Lost are supposedly affected by Apathy Syndrome because they were outside during midnight. At midnight, there is a phenomenon called Dark Hour, a time anomaly that lasts for an hour. If normal people are trapped and their psyched (soul?) gets eaten by Shadows, they’ll become the Lost. Apart from that, there as a tower called Tartarus (some kind of hell in Greek mythology) which only appears during Dark Hour. The origin of Shadows, Dark Hour, and Tartarus is mysterious at this point. So the forthcoming goal of the team is to explore Tartarus and fight Shadows. Occasionally, they’ll face powerful Shadows. Obviously, there are always bosses in any RPG.
This team called SEES are supervised by a guy named Shuji Ikutsuki. He gives advice occasionally but most of the time he’s not there. It turns out that he was part of the team who tried to collect Shadows in the past so that they could turn back time and reset history. He believes that people have done many wrongdoings and turned the world into a void, thus the world needs to be reset. However, he’s not the main villain, not even close. Apparently, he’s just a person with a god complex who wants to reset the world because he thought humanity had messed up.
SEES are supposedly the only one who can use the power of Persona. Later in the game, you’ll see there’s actually another team called Strega which members are children who were subjected to Shuji’s experiment in the past to gather Shadows. In contrast to SEES’ goal to eliminate the 12 powerful Shadows, Strega aims to gather them and wait for the end of the world. Since they believe that death is not to be feared and they will be saved in the afterlife. Takaya and Chidori (depicted below) are two of three members of Strega.
Close to the end of the game, it is clear that during the experiment 10 years ago, the most powerful Shadow, Death, was isolated in the body of our main character by Aigis, a robot built to fight Shadows whom I’ll explain later why she plays an important role in questioning the meaning of life in this game. While Death trapped inside the main character body, he’s learned to treasure friendships and human life. Although, he knew from the beginning that once he awakens, another Shadow called Nyx will come to Earth and kill everyone. Later on, due to his conscience, he offered a deal. Killing him to prevent Nyx from coming with the cost of all their memories up to that point erased or letting him live and waiting to be killed by Nyx.
This part raises the first big question, would you rather losing your memories of your friends and be alive or risking your life to keep those memories intact? Since it’s just a game, it’s kind of obvious which answer we should take. So, I’ll rewrite the question. Would you rather have a long life without meaningful memories or a short one with lots of meaningful memories?
Spoiler alert, we should take the first option for the story to progress, otherwise you’d get a bad ending.
After the team decided to face Nyx, Strega who looks forward to the coming of Nyx formed a cult and recruited followers. They spread rumours that the end of the world is nigh and try to antagonise SEES by blaming them for causing all of these. They also tell that only people who believe in Nyx will get salvation after their death. Although, nowhere in the story Nyx ever state that. She simply comes to kill everyone. Mitsuru, the earlier leader of SEES, has something to say about this cult.
There’s a scene which also nicely depicts the reason some people believe in Strega’s cult. Those people believe in what Strega has been preaching just because of peer pressure. They feel stupid for denying the rumour as everyone in their circle believes it. Again, there’s a big question here, do we believe in whatever we believe due to the peer pressure or because we know and understand what we believe in?
Back to the main story, some members of SEES were initially afraid of facing Nyx, but after some thinking time, they’d rather die trying than simply give up. Our ancestors might have been survived because their fear had kept them away from danger (I watched/read this somewhere, I can’t remember exactly the source). But as Fuuka, a member of SEES, said when she decided to face Nyx heads on, “I don’t think you can truly live if you’re always running away from danger because you’re afraid”. So by facing our fears, we can sometimes be truly alive.
Before facing Nyx, the team made a promise to each other that they’d meet on the roof of School building after the graduation if Nyx is defeated. At that point, they didn’t know if Nyx could be defeated, but as the player, you’d know it’s going to happen anyway. Long story short, you’d realise that Nyx is neither hostile nor malevolent. She was brought to the world by the sorrow, depression, and apathy of humankind, believing that humans were tired of living and thus, it is her duty to end their lives.
After successfully defeating the Avatar of Nyx, kind of her soul, Nyx’s physical body a.k.a the Moon descends to Earth which supposedly destroys everything. Apparently, only the protagonist that is immune to the effect of her descend, so only he can fight her. Using his soul and his friends’ will to live, he seals away Nyx. As long as humans aren’t tired of living, Nyx won’t be back. However, the sealing has cost the protagonist his life. He will die after fulfilling his promise to meet with his friends on the rooftop of the school building. So yeah, the good ending of this game is the protagonist dies protecting the world. It’s kinda sad really.
If there’s only one thing Persona 3 can tell us, it would be that the journey is more important than the end. Although the protagonist dies in the end, it doesn’t make our journey exploring his friendship with others be less essential. Sometimes in life, we care more about the end or what might comes afterwards than the journey of our life itself. What I’ve learned from Persona 3 is to live our life to the fullest and make as many memories as possible with people close to us. Nobody knows exactly what comes after the end, if any, so why don’t we enjoy the time we have now and spend it wisely.
Character Stories and Social Links
Apart from the main story which I just briefly explained, Persona 3 also has lots of interesting dialogues between the protagonist and SEES members and NPCs. There won’t be enough space and your attention if I’m going to mention all characters. I’ll only mention some characters that caught my attention because of their immersing story or dialogues and start with the party members.
Junpei is the first person to become a friend of the protagonist. He’s an immature, perverted, outgoing, and cheerful person who always wants to be a hero and couldn’t care less about his education. If you want to know what he looks like, look at the image of Chidori above, the guy with her is Junpei. The only reason he joins the team is to become a hero, although at some point he complains that no one would recognise him as a hero since no one knows about the Dark Hour. How would people see him a hero if they don’t know what he’s fighting against or doing? He’s also a bit jealous with the protagonist because he thought he was a more suitable leader.
At some point, he saw Chidori making sort of an abstract painting. He initially didn’t know that Chidori was a Strega member. He was just trying to get her attention by claiming that he’s the leader of SEES in which leads to him being kidnapped by Chidori. However, this event turns out to be a turning point for Junpei. SEES manage to capture Chidori and put her in a hospital after rescuing him. Later on, you’d see that she was quite suicidal and refused to talk to any SEES member, apart from Junpei. Junpei made her talk by keep showing interests to her paintings which led her to start opening up to him. Unfortunately, this relationship didn’t last long. Junpei was shot dead by Strega when they met later on, and Chidori used her power to revive him in change for her life. This event somehow has brought a revelation to Junpei, it made him realise that life isn’t just about being a hero. He stopped thinking about being recognised by people for his effort of defending the world. That was not the point, he thought.
How many of us would think the way Junpei had thought, doing something good to be recognised by others or to expect something in return, either it’s something physical or not? Have we ever done something good just for the sake of doing good?
Apart from the character development, this story of Junpei and Strega also shows the difference between them. Both are not afraid of death, the difference is Strega members were really looking forward to it, hoping that they’d get a better life after the death. Consequently, Strega members do not seem to enjoy the life they have. They thought their current life was not essential and worth living. Therefore, they may seem suicidal. On the contrary, despite not also being afraid of death, SEES members see (no pun intended) their life more highly and argue that it is important to fill the life they have with good things and memories with their friends, just like what Yukari said below.
The next and the most important companion in this game that we’re going to see is Aigis, an android who always question human behaviour and think that she’s not really alive. Is she though? At the time of this writing, there’s no known robot who successfully mimics human behaviour, but why do we always say that they are not alive? What makes them different to us? Those might be the questions that this game tries to push by introducing Aigis as a character.
From her introduction to almost the end of the game, Aigis has never felt actually alive, despite her behaving like a human. She kept questioning herself what are things that made her different from human. Apart from that she also has interesting observations on human behaviour, for instance, she thinks it’s human nature to always wonder about the other options they could have taken. I’d say her observation on this matter is quite spot on. Everyone always has something that they wish they’d have done differently. The difference between each of us is just how we handle those wishes.
Aigis cannot help but wonder why humans are afraid of death, as she thought she would not be dead, just stop working. She believes that death is a natural occurrence in the cycle of life. This idea is in line with what Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher, has. He argued that death is simply a change in life, just like babies becoming toddlers, toddlers becoming teenagers, graduation, and so on. Zhuangzi said that if we celebrated our birthday, graduation, and other life-changing moments, why would we not celebrate death? But, what about the death of loved ones? I’m pretty sure no one would celebrate that.
We mourn the death of loved ones as death causes us to lose the connection between us and our loved ones. However, as Aigis said below, life is finite and farewells are inevitable. The only constant in life is change itself, and death is simply a part of the change. So, should we not mourn then? My answer is I don’t know. People have different ways of coping with loss. Zhuangzi thought that mourning was selfish as he saw death is a going-away party for a grand journey. Others may see mourning is just a phase before the acceptance.
So if death is inevitable, what is the point of having a long life? What makes you want to stay alive? Some people would say that their life has a purpose. But who gives the purpose? Do our lives have a meaning at all? A story of a non-playable character named Akinari seems to revolve around this matter.
Akinari is a dying teenager. He knows he will die soon due to his rare disease. He accepts the fact that he is gonna die soon, but he did not see the point of living his life and became suicidal. Throughout the conversations with our character, he decided to write a story about his struggle about finding meaning in life so that everyone who reads the story may learn something from it. This activity then turned out to give him a spirit to continue living, helping others to find the meaning in their life. Although he eventually dies, through writing his story, he realised that the meaning of our lives is something that we make but we won’t be able to see it. In this case, he doesn’t get to see if his story will actually help people. But by believing that this activity may help others, it gives him a sense of purpose. Akinari just created the essence of his existence on his own. So, does existence precedes essence or the other way around?
That’s all the character stories I can afford to write. There are more stories which are not less interesting. But I haven’t got enough time. Even the stories I wrote above may not cover the full view of the problems shown in the game.
NB: This post is dedicated to my uncle that has passed away a few months ago. Thanks for being such an inspiration.