This is a copypasta from my old blog on 1up.com. It was the first I ever wrote and remains the most important as well. Today marks the seventh year since I lost my closest friend in the world, and the subject of this blog. As I now write occasionally here on Destructoid, it feels like this piece should exist here as well. As ever, thank you for reading.
Living in this day and age tends to burden our lives with a lot of questions, many of which will go unanswered. Yet we will sometimes find answers to mysteries we would never have solved on our own in the most unique, but fascinating ways. Sometimes these moments come from others, words of wisdom, movies, books or art. I had one such connection from a video game.
That game was Persona 3 Portable.
For those of you familiar with the game, I'm sure you are wondering what I learned that was such a revelation. For those unfamiliar, Persona 3 Portable is a remake of Persona 3 that streamlined some features and added a playable female protagonist. It is a game about a Japanese teenager who moves to town and quickly becomes the center of a supernatural story that holds the entire world in the balance. Well written, with an extremely strong emphasis on characterization, Persona 3 devotes a large amount of game play to building meaningful relationships with a well realized cast of characters. The well loved cast start as cliched tropes of the JRPG genre, but quickly become personalities all their own fleshed out with solid voice acting and a battle system that is empowered by the strength of the social bonds that you develop throughout the game. The metaphor here is plain and clear, but still a strong message on the power of friendship, and how the support of others is what helps us to be at our very best. While the story deals with a host of macabre and supernatural elements, building real bonds with the characters that inhabit the world gives the task of saving the universe a stronger weight than most. It really feels as though there is more at stake than simply your party members. All the characters that you have come to know far beyond your playable party members now feel like potential casualties. The conflict has a bit more weight than your typical RPG finale because of those lives in tow, because of the time you've taken to know those characters. You are fighting for your friends.
Spoilers follow, so you have been warned.
The epilogue for Persona 3 portable is one of the most fulfilling among any video game I have ever played, in that the player is given a chance to explore the world in the wake of all their actions in the story. All those characters that you took time to form bonds with and to help turn their lives around, are now living a happier, more meaningful existence. From helping an elderly couple find peace with the death of their son and his memory, to establishing an up and coming young food critic each bond you took the time to shape is shown changed and reformed. The world is a better place because of the time you spent in it, talking to all those who live there. There is a feeling of satisfaction that no matter what may happen, everything will be okay. It is a strong feeling of peace and serenity. There is satisfaction that though the story is over, everything will end well. Everyone will be all right.
And then you die. Your character has made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that life goes on, unbeknownst to you that you have been doomed since the final boss was defeated. Your character sacrificed their own soul to keep the end of the world at bay. For some this was a moment of anger, and for others a moment of sorrow. For still others it may have been a predictable moment and filled with apathy.
For me, it was a deeply emotional epiphany.
Six years ago the closest friend I had in all the world passed away. He died of a rare cancer growing out of the optic nerve and brain that he had been fighting for four long years. Like all those we lose to the myriad of diseases that we call cancer, it was a painful battle that took a toll on all those who cared about Nate. All the promises of a bright future fresh out of high school, all the life moments waiting down the road were suddenly doors that were slammed shut. While loss is something that we all struggle to cope with, it is particularly wounding when it comes at the cost of so many years yet lived, and so many dreams not yet realized. I watched as the bravest person I had ever known somehow managed to keep smiling in the face of a grim and painful death. He managed to retain his cheer and kept a smile on his face in spite of it all. He was never concerned for himself, only for the pain that his loved ones were suffering while watching him slowly fade away. He was never concerned with being missed, only that we would lose ourselves in the wake of the day he died. Nate was looking after all those who were supposed to be looking after him.
I can remember sitting in his bedroom while he was under hospice care after he had lost his sight. I can still remember him smiling, even as we both knew that his death was coming soon, that he was on his final days. I could never understand how he could still manage to smile after the painful fate that he had been dealt. I felt it was some kind of cruel injustice on the part of fate, god, or whatever other force kept the universe running. He was closer to me than a brother, and the bond I felt was the strongest I have ever felt for a friend in my life, and I was having to sit here and watch him die. All the while having him tell me that it would be okay, that everything would be all right. It was an impossible thing for me to believe. I was watching the person who had pulled me out of a trashcan, fist fights, bad grades, emotional ruin, and countless other struggles tell me I would be fine, while I couldn't tell him I believed it. It was a moment of utter helplessness, depression and sadness. It was also the last time I saw him alive. His father told me that he died with a smile on his face, telling his parents that it would be okay. I used to wonder if it was faith or delusion and it was something I struggled with for years. I didn't feel like smiling, I felt pain and sorrow at every memory. My life nearly fell apart in his absence, and I couldn't find the words to tell myself it would ever be the same.
Six years later, it's very different. I now live in my own apartment with my fantastic wife, we have an adorable cat and a life of our own. I have incredible friends who stood by me through my darkest moments and greatest fears. Through the strength and support of my friends and my wonderful wife to be, I've been able to find the road that leads ahead. There is life after loss, though it is certainly a very different life from the one I had imagined years ago. Everything is better now, and true to Nate's words, I'm doing well, and everything has turned out all right.
What does this have to do with Persona 3 though?
The entire premise of the ending is a feeling of departure. Throughout the epilogue, the protagonist is tired, world weary, and feels ready to sleep and move on. Much like we as players are going to depart the world that the narrative took us through, the protagonist fades from existence in the aftermath of their tale being told. The game fades to white as the character you developed a bond of love with holds you in their arms and thanks you for everything you have done. The world washes to white after you find out that everyone will be safe, and that everything will work out for the characters you have come to know and adore. With that final scene complete, the credits roll and the story is over. Though there was an expansion to Persona 3 it does not continue the story of the character you were, only the battle of your friends. The story of the character you were is over, and though it felt like the character passed on early, it also has a strange feeling of being complete.
The entire epilogue is a sort of montage of the lives that your character has made better, and the friendships forged along the way. Everyone is doing better and their lives are on the right track, their futures are all bright. In that epilogue I found a strange sentiment of truth. It was just the smallest bit of understanding for how Nate might have felt. It opened my mind up to the idea and the very notion of being at peace with death in such a way. A game about Japanese teenagers fighting supernatural monsters in their high school managed to shape a moment of such incredible and brilliant narration that it opened my eyes to the idea that perhaps Nate felt in some small way similar. Perhaps he saw in his friends and family all the love they had felt for him, and in caring for us was able to know that we would be okay without him. Perhaps he was able to die with a smile in much the same way because he knew that those he loved most were all the better prepared for life because they had been a part of his.
How Nate really felt about his death and how he managed to face it will never be something I will be able to entirely understand, but I have a read on it now that I never had before playing a particular video game. That is a true testament to the power of the medium being able to give us an experience that we become a part of. The stories we interact with in a video game have the power to invest us in the story in a way that no other medium can manage. The stories are complete with our interactions and the choices we make. Every character in Persona was a choice I made to find out more about them and help them grow as characters. They may have been friends of my player avatar, but only because I wanted to be friends with them. Those fictional lives were changed because I took part in the narrative and that gave them a meaning that simple observation of another medium never could have. The ending might have worked out, and it might still have been touching to see the protagonist end up with so many friends and changing so many lives, but it never would have felt personal. That feeling of serenity at protecting your friends would be lost.
Knowing for only a moment what it means to die a meaningful death so that all your friends will live happily ever after, is a story that could only have been told by a story in which we ourselves take part. It is a story only able to be told in a video game. Such a story is a sign to me that the hobby we so adore still has so much to teach us. As we grow, so will the medium. Every day it grows with more depth, creativity, meaning and it will become far more than numbers on a scoreboard or flinging birds at pigs. It will become the only true interactive fiction, and that is a day I look forward to.