Good fantasy stories can get you involved within their world. Great fantasy stories get you involved in your own. Persona 3 does exactly that, and in a most novel way to boot*.
If there's anything positive about my being unable to play Persona 4 just yet, it's that it has gotten Persona 3 on my mind. In my mind was a question, "What was that whole thing with 'The Journey' and 'The Answer'"? Even having devoted ninety-odd hours of my life to the game, I hadn't quite bothered to learn why, too busy following a guide to maxing out my social links**.
Indulging my curiosity, I realized just how expertly Persona 3 handles its mythical grab-bag. In fact the personae themselves are the most shallow examples of the game's use of references***.
As pretty much everyone knows, each social link in the game is associated with a major arcana, the "trumps" found in a typical tarot card deck. The real kicker, though, is that the arcana, placed in a certain order, make up "The Fool's Journey", a tarot-based metaphor for life and the search for identity. Even the boss encounters and various plot details, ordered along different phases of The Fool's Journey, each of which (you guessed it) is associated with a given card.
It'd take me a few thousand more words to describe every social link and its various interpretations, so I'll just be addressing the arcana mentioned by the final boss, and the lines he spouts as he shifts between them during the battle.
WARNING: The rest of this contains spoilers for many social link events in both campaigns, as well as several major plot points.
Keep in mind that this is highly subject to personal interpretation and insight, and that I am no expert whatsoever in tarot or esoterica.
"The moment man devoured the fruit of knowledge, he sealed his fate. Entrusting his future to the cards, man clings to a dim hope. Yes, the arcana is the means by which all is revealed."
The avatar of Nyx begins in The Fool arcana, which the protagonist shares. You might think "The Fool" may not be the most flattering association, but it's actually very fitting. For one, The Fool's card number is ZERO. Like the emptiness and void zero represents, The Fool is the blank slate, representing the malleability and potential of the innocent, pure mind. The Fool is ultimately free, ready to become whatever he wishes. The Fool is the silent protagonist and by extension, the player. In gameplay, The Fool is the player's unique feature, namely the "Wild Card" ability, the capacity to switch between any persona, and fuse many more within the Velvet Room.
The Fool's Journey begins in an encounter with The Magician:
"Attaining one's dream requires strong will and unfailing determination."
In the game, The Magician is the first shadow you see, though only shown in an animated cutscene, as the persona Thanatos rips it apart on the roof of your dormitory. The Magician is also Junpei Iori, a fellow SEES member, as well as Kenji Tomochika, a classmate. The Magician represents commitment, strength of will, the wisdom of taking action and doing what needs to be done. If nothing else, Junpei embodies these aspects in his unfailing effort to bond with Chidori, an aloof member of Strega, a rival group of persona-users. For Kenji, The Magician is his undaunted quest to act upon his romance with Emiri, his teacher. Though the romance was, in the end, a self-delusion, he picked himself up, having the will to move on, knowing there were other fish in the sea.
From The Magician, The Fool meets the The Priestess:
"The silent voice within one's heart whispers the most profound wisdom."
The Priestess is unconscious knowledge and the deepest understanding of oneself, a creative environment in which one can display potential. The Priestess is your first "real" boss shadow, and against it, you shows off both the determination of SEES' mission and the versatility of your Wild Card ability, manifesting what you gained from The Magician. In the case of Fuuka Yamagishi, your social link, her interactions with you help her rediscover that deep understanding of herself, the better to act on it. At the end, she draws up the courage to found a technology club, reflecting her true passions and interests, rather than changing herself "just to fit in".
And as The Priestess gives way to The Empress, Nyx encourages The Fool to:
"Celebrate life's grandeur, its brilliance, its magnificence..."
Which is exactly what Mitsuru Kirijou asks you to help her do, having you escort her around the strip mall, sampling the street food and ramen she was always curious about, but always afraid to try alone. The Empress is the desire for novelty, new stimulation and sensual awareness, new views of one's surroundings, new sensations, and of course, the ability of indulge in them.
And as The Empress embraces, The Emperor imposes:
"Only courage in the face of doubt, can lead one to the answer."
As the voice of order and rule, none other than Akihiko Sanada fits the bill. Achievement through action is The Emperor's style, but his downfall lies in vanity and self-centeredness, as what happened to Hidetoshi Odagiri, vice-president of the student council and your social link. His unsubtle wielding of authority didn't endear him to his fellow students, and only in realizing the benefit in taking a careful approach did he really get the needed results.
The Fool learns of the wider world via The Hierophant:
"It is indeed a precious gift to understand the forces that guide oneself."
Shinjiro Aragaki, former member of SEES, is The Hierophant of Persona 3. His rejoining with the group reveals the greater mysteries surrounding the shadows and Tartarus, as well as helping to identify new threats and challenges. And through Bunkichi and Mitsuko, a wizened couple running the local bookstore, you learns more about the history of the school and what it means to the people around it (and not just those traipsing around inside during the Dark Hour). Education and insight is the calling of The Hierophant, and both of its in-game representations deliver.
Personal bonding lies within The Lovers' heart:
"There is joy and wonder in coming to understand another."
Who else could The Lovers represent but Yukari Takeba? There was that whole shower scene, after all, plus those events from the summer vacation trip. The Lovers, however, stand for more than just what Kotaku calls "Maximum Risky". The Lovers care most about forming bonds with another. A bond Yukari is almost instantly formed, rooted in your commonalities as orphans, squad members, classmates, and persona-users. Also important to The Lovers is restoring bonds broken, such as Yukari's bond with her estranged mother, and in the epilogue campaign, with the now-absent protagonist.
Strengthened by bonds formed, The Fool races ahead, driving The Chariot****:
"One of life's greatest blessings is the freedom to pursue one's goals."
That freedom is powered by self-confidence, as were the members of SEES following a string of victories. But with confidence comes the risk of hubris, something SEES learned after being caught in an ambush set up by Strega. Kazushi Miyamoto, a fellow sports team member, faced a similar challenge, willing to permanently cripple himself to fulfill a reckless promise to his cousin. He fortunately changed his mind, but the lesson remains: as The Chariot speeds ahead, someone may get caught under its wheels.
Helping to balance The Chariot's wobbling is the Justice arcana:
"To find the true path, one must seek guidance amidst uncertainty."
Justice represents a spirit of change and meditation, rectifying situations rather than see them ruined by overcompensation. Justice is the arcana of both Ken Amada and Chihiro Fushimi, one consumed by a desire for revenge, the other too timid to defend herself from unfair accusations. Justice is also a time for key decisions and realization, to either decide to abandon old angers or discover hidden willpower.
Engrossed in finding a destination is The Hermit:
"It requires great courage to look at oneself honestly, and forge one's own path."
At its greatest, The Hermit is careful introspection, and at its worst, it's pointless navel-gazing. Thankfully, Maya, the protagonist's online gaming companion, does more of the former than the latter, deciding once and for all to quit bitching and behave like the homeroom teacher her class deserves...and perhaps to impress the quiet, earphone-wearing pretty-boy sitting in the third row (who happens to be a certain member of SEES). At first, Strega member Jin seems one of the most self-assured in Strega's mission, but in truth, he follows Takaya rather than Nyx, for it was Takaya who helped him find an answer to his question of "why?" Why were the Strega members subjected to the experiments which gave them personae and forced their addiction to suppressant drugs? Why did the members of SEES not appreciate their powers to summon personae, seeking instead to end the Dark Hour? With that guidance, Jin served to moderate Takaya's psychotic excesses.
Whirling around The Fool is the Wheel of Fortune:
"Alongside time exists fate, the bearer of cruelty."
Fortune manifests in the epiphany, the sudden knowledge of ignored truths, and seeing the hidden designs of the world. Takaya's knowing of Nyx and the reasons behind Apathy Syndrome and The Fall are the works of Fortune, narrow-minded and malicious his realizations may be. As for Keisuke Hiraga, he understands that he really does want to become a doctor, rather than simply pursuing his artistic talents to distinguish himself from his father.
To bear with the challenges and pressures of Fortune requires Strength:
"Only with strength can one endure suffering and torment."
If there's anyone in the game who's never complained or wavered in his purpose, it's Koromaru the dog, mascot and knife-fighter of SEES. Strength is unrelenting perseverance, which, with your help, Yuko Nishiwaki gains, allowing her to constantly train her little team of schoolkids, eventually realizing that she wants to teach PE.
At times it's better to let go than to keep clinging, as The Hanged Man points out:
"In the face of disaster lies opportunity for renewal."
Mired in defeat and sacrifice, it's easy to miss out on brighter sides of every situation, as Strega member Chidori failed to notice despite Junpei's persistent attempts to connect with her. And what of Maiko, the little girl at the playground, who vowed to run away from home to force her parents to stay together? She learned to accept the change, knowing that they both loved her all the same, in spite of their having to separate.
And finally, there is Death:
"Beyond the beaten path lies the ultimate end. It matters not who you are...Death awaits you."
And therein stands the truth. Contrary to Takaya's fatalistic an imperfect interpretation, Death isn't the end as much as a new beginning. Death represents transition, to close one door and open another. Accepting the inevitable, The Fool bids fond farewell to the past and works to protect the future.
On a final note to this already-overlong piece, we need to address The World, The Universe, and The Aeon:
The Aeon is a counterpart to Judgment, and the arcana of Aegis' social link. The Aeon represents honesty, retrospection and revelations of the past. The Aeon is The Answer, wherein Aegis finally knows what the protagonist gave himself up for, and gains the answer to the question of her existence.
The Universe arcana is actually a fictional one, a stand-in for The World. As Igor mentions, it is infinite possibility, the impossible made possible, enabling the protagonist to enact the Great Seal and protect the world.
And The World? Only one bears The World arcana, and it's Elizabeth, elevator attendant and secret super-boss. The World, as The Universe, is wholeness and ultimate understanding of oneself. Also, it allows her to access your goddamn persona compendium and use it to kick your ass! Two turns for every one of mine?! OMG HAX
And there you have it. With Persona 3, Atlus has managed to weave the typical anime-infused "save-the-world" plotline with an esoteric insight into human self-definition; quite the feat in a genre whose plots are considered by some to be the weakest in gaming. I can only hope that Persona 4 works out just as well.
*This may be old news to some of you esoterica fans, but it's new to me, and this is my blog, so you can go to hell.
**You cheater-haters can go to hell too.
***The visual design and references for the major characters and their personae are a different matter, which I'll get to in the future, for an Atlus fan's greatest joy is to flood a blog or board with fanart.
****Aegis' actual arcana as of FES is The Aeon, but her personae, Palladion and Athena are of The Chariot.
I used this and this as my main references
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