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LONG BLOG

Persona 3: Death & Living with Determination

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I finally decided to write a blog about something I like or really just wanted to talk about more in depth--That something, happened to be Persona 3 since I believe people have talked their share about Persona 4 I feel I would like to share why I really love Persona 3. First of all, it was my entrance into the series, it was the game that really opened me up to JRPGs, but Persona is quite special because it does a lot of things differently than most JRPGs. To say that it breaks with conventions would be an understatement and others will probably say the same about all the games in the series, if anything, they'll say it about Persona 4 as well. It's ability to craft incredibly relatable characters, the setting and particularly the well-realized step-by-step recreation of mundane Japan in the form of a authentic high school setting scenario. The concept for the series sprung from the well received reception of Shin Megami Tensei If with its high school setting and characters.




One of the most important things about Persona, however, is how well the story is told. Persona really resonated with me in a lot of ways-- I keep hearing people say how the Persona games helped them, in some way, with getting through their own lives during tough times. It affects people in a really good way, which is actually something director Katsura Hashino, had hoped would happen whenever people would finish his games. From my point of view, I really get the impression that he's a guy, who just want to make sure people have a good time, and they can take something he has to say with them into their own lives. It's a refreshing breath of air on top of all the "DLC-fueled-pre-order-now" drivel you get from a wide amount of AAA publishers of today.

In contrast to Persona 4, Persona 3 is my favorite because of its stronger storytelling and darker tone. Both games are among my favorite games of all time but there's just something Persona 3 does so well that not even Persona 4 can beat--even with its enhanced version "Persona 4 Golden". Ultimately what holds Persona 3 back when up against 4 is the fact that it's "incomplete". The best parts of the game are split between 3 different versions That's of course the sad truth--the female protagonist being a particularly noteworthy example as she's my favorite Persona protagonist. It's in no small part due to how she's characterized, through her dialogue, the chemistry with the cast, and her social links being vastly more interestomg

Her upbeat disposition also brings a nice contrast to the otherwise grim nature of the game, and her past, to boot. It hints at something deeper, that she's fighting her inner demons and despair all alone which only draws concern from Akihiko and Junpei alike. I really liked that part of the story.

Although it is but one among many other aspects that compliments teh Persona 3 experience. I want to move on to the deeper aspects of Persona 3 for a bit.

Shin Megami Tensei has always been a series that has dealt with more mature subject matters, in comparison to most JRPGs, in the vein of discussing morality, the storytelling being grim, and usually have the setting be that of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The Persona series depth stems from its success at keeping that familiar dark tone from SMT alive with the elements of Jungian Psychology into its narrative. But also its discussion on topical stuff like the meaning of our existence, gender roles, abuse, neglect, identity etc. Personas and Shadows are literal, physica, beings taken shape in the form of monsters of myth, legend or fiction much like in reference to how Jung described some of his sessions with patents. They'd describe their dreams to him that would consistently talk of the presence of monsters that would look familiar, and it would drive him to discuss the idea of a collective consciousness shared among the dreamers (something that also channels the workings of Persona's lore). The series is also lauded for how it incorporates elements of simulation games with that of gameplay mechanics from a traditional MegaTen JRPG--There's a lot of thought put into it, you really get the impression that you're experiencing the life of a mundane Japanese high schooler, coupled together with that of the surreal and dark elements of Shin Megami Tensei.

As people have probably deciphered by now. Persona is riddled with symbolism, underlying messages, stories and themes of identity, the self and references to real life philosophy, religion, myths and psychiatry. In 3's case we can largely summarize some of its themes as: death, apathy, life.. and of course the concept that binds all of us on the journey from life to death... Time.
It is also factored into Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi's writings which has since also been quoted in the very first Persona game. The details he shares on the "butterfly" as that of a spiritual companion has largely influenced Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung's own writings and thesis on "Personas" and the "Shadow" to that of which the game is based on. 

In Persona, the butterfly is a literal companion that watches over the main lead of the game--You could say it went on to become a stigma of the series. He asked particularly notable questions that factors highly into the themes of the series, least to say this gam; he would question whether the desire to enjoy life is an illusion, living out your full span years is no better than dying young--There's no real truth to being alive or hating death. It could argued that he chose to value death as much as he values life, as part of the infinite series of changes that is life-and-death. If that's the mindset we choose to stand by then it would only work in the favor of Persona 3. 

"No one can escape time. It deliver us all to the same end. You can't plug your ears and cover your eyes."


Time goes hand-in-hand with death. In fact, you might even say that "time" is also a theme that has been cleverly incorporated into the game's actual gameplay in conjunction with that of the game's narrative--The social links, your daily routines, the visits to Tartarus. The entire game is framed within the confinements of a "calendar" as it takes place over the course of a year, which I think helps make the whole experience feel authentic and impacting; as you draw closer to the end. It makes us really care about everything that we do/have done and what happens in the game. There's a sense of urgency to it all like the countdown to doomsday in Majora's Mask.

 Everything about these events that you choose to do, advances time, and whenever you enter Tartarus, the arrival of the Dark Hour is heralded by the imagery of that of a clock, ticking down to "midnight" and untimely shatters. This is meant to illustrate how the "automatic progression of time" has been broken, and now it's moving on its own accord, whereas collapsing of the clock indicates the destruction of the previous model of player-dependent time progression. The whole tower of Tartarus seems to be embedded by imagery, and sculptures, depicting clocks which I believe is meant to illustrate that unlike in your every day hours of Iwatodai "every minute counts" in Tartarus. It all adds up to the complimentary central thematic factor of the game that I've mentioned. Death -- Although Persona 3's narrative is conveyed around the fundamental relationship its characters has with death, which is also influenced mechanically and narrative-wise by the concept of time, the two are capable of commenting on and reinforcing one another. As Pharos aptly puts it in the quote above -- Our days on this earth are measured by time, how long, how we choose to make of that time, that is up to us, it's all part of the contract the character chooses to sign. Whether we go to Tartarus, telling Kenji how much of a loser he is, or faffing about in Paulownia Mall--It's all up to us.

As mentioned-- Death underlines everything that is going on in Persona 3. As far as back as the opening cinematic for the game you're treated to abstract images of the game's symbolism; All of it meant to showcase the confusion, and inner turmoil of the game's characters in the midst of facing their own mortality, appropriately commented by the latin phrase "Memento mori" (Remember, that you're mortal). Note how they are all seemingly depicted as faceless silhouettes. In fact, this only emphasizes on the other factors of "Death" that comes into play with the game's theme. You see it's not just the physical and literal understanding of death. There are also the fundamentals of loss, loneliness, emptiness or "apathy" if you will. The characters in this game all share a particular mindset that associates with death in some way. This leads me to an interesting contradiction in regards to what I mentioned about the opening cinematic, and the understanding of "Apathy"; disregarding how a game's central setting is an extertive sprawly urban environment where "society" plays at the helm of it. Why do all the characters seem so alone?


I'd argue that there is this sense of emptiness tied between the major characters in your party, and it weighs heavy upon them. They start out as largely introverted, and distant, in stark contrast to their Persona 4 peers. Death fills that void. I believe it has as much to do with the feeling of dying as it is with the feeling of loss, to lose something, but also the feeling that something is missing, and of course the despair that follows along. 

In other words, it all factors into Death in its own way. The main character’s parents were prior to the events of the game, and an embodiment of Death was lying dormant in his body most of his life. Yukari is struggling with the death of her father, which has influenced her struggle to carefully keep other people at a distance. Junpei doesn't have his mother and is thus left all alone, to solely handle his father's "implied" abuse, due to his drinking, which is reflected in his desire to "do something that matters". Junpei discovers his Persona abilities by chance and thus he wants to prove himself "a hero" by challenging the main character's authority. He does this as a result of his own insecurity of feeling like he doesn't matter to anyone. He wants to prove himself to his companions in SEES and others close to him. To me this actually makes him one of the more "stronger" and interesting characters in the game. His growth is punctuated by the loss of a loved one later on in the game as his Persona and resolve is strengthened even further--It's one of the best moments in the game, I'll add. All of the characters share similar struggles, in the wake of "loss" or generally feeling of despair. Akihiko feels guilt over the death of his sister, Mitsuru’s father dies during the game, Ken’s mother, Koromaru’s old master, Shinji's guilt and the fact that he's dying etc. 

Every character’s arc is somehow linked to death, be it either through conveying their backstory or influencing their growth as characters. Fuuka being a particularly relevant example -- Her story isn't as much revolved around the literal understanding of death (as mentioned); it instead conveys the feeling on 'Gaining something precious then losing it again' -- This relates to that inevitable feeling we all have to face up to at the end. Eventually, we have to say goodbye to the things we love. The lesson is to learn the value of the things we love, learn to realize how it, be it either an object or a person, helped us grow and say goodbye when that time comes. Aigis' growth also factors into that same inevitability, the inevitable loss of the protagonist peers greatly on her heart, thus the quest is to accept that it happened and learn how one may grow from it. 

Even the villains, like Takaya, is heavily influenced by the despondency of having nothing to live for anymore. His life expectancy is getting cut short by the drugs he's taking to suppress the Persona of which he can't control; That despair, and the jealousy towards SEES' struggle to find meaning, only serve to accentuate on his nihilistic viewpoints; that since he barely got the chance to truly live then no one else should be able to achieve what he couldn't either.


This leads me back to the talk of "Apathy" again-- We've all established by now that Apathy is an element of the many stories that makes up Persona 3, yes? Well, it is even more than that. The game goes as far as magnifying this particular predilection. You see, Apathy is presented as an actual disease in the game, and it consequently plays heavily into overaching themes needed to understand the story, but also draws the basis for the "fantastical" and "world-ending" scenario that comes to light near the end. The existence of Tartarus (door to the underworld) i.e. The coming of Nyx (death). A dilemma born out of mankind's desire for its own death, Sigmund Freud called it "The Death Drive". 

The P3 casts are those who have to come to terms with apathy by facing their own issues meant to influence their respective reasons for wanting to resist The Shadows--the temptations of ending it all and sparing people from the suffering of life's hardships. As you get to the end, the culmination of all your work are coming in to play--The world is ending and that realization is what hits SEES the hardest. The feeling of helplessness that the end has come is staring the characters directly in the face. It effectively breaks them down and leads to some of the most pivotal character moments. We are at a point in the game where all of the characters have achieved growth. They've grown as people through you "as a proxy" and through their own desire for wanting to push forward and keep on living. The characters have gone from casual acquaintances/partners to that of best friends you can really trust. Despite it all, no one could possibly prepare themselves for the arrival of The Fall. This realization bewilders the members of SEE--they are at their breaking point. They are left with the choice of whether they should keep on fighting or they should live out their remaining days in blissful ignorance as ordinary high school students?

The supposed "alternate" ending is actually an interesting "game over" scenario screen that really hits all the right places without actually showing us the transpiring "rapture" that is to come. It's the thought that we know what is coming and the mudanity and harmless scenario we are presented with, that only makes it more sadder than any apocalyptic extravangaze could have ever done. Again, I believe it is all meant to fall back on the line about "Remembering that you're mortal" and to make the player consider every choice made in life with the utmost caution.


What I said in the previous paragraph actually brings me to something I really wanted to touch upon as well. If there is something, among many things, I really love about Persona 3's cast; it would have to be how their relationship building feels to natural. I mentioned before how they start out as "acquaintances" to that of "best friends" and I wasn't lying about that. One of the major character developments in the game is Yukari's decision to open up to others, specifically Mitsuru, a close friendship is bloomed through their mutual respect and understanding of one another. This closeness they have is shared among-st all of them, and it is nothing if not perpetuated by the fact that they all live in a dorm together. I'm sure many people who read this have tried living in a dorm, whether it be through college or whatever the equivalent would be in other countries--In my case it was a folk-high-school. You experience every living moment with these people and as a result of that you grow more closer than you ever could in ordinary circumstances. You get to know their quirks, their flaws, their strengths, and they get to know yours. Nothing is truly kept secret and that is what makes you feel so close to them, just as much as it made me feel close to my old mates as well as these characters. The P4 cast are quickly established as close-friends, whereas I feel there's an actual sense of progression to the relationships between the P3 characters. It's what makes these characters so likeable, and why the apex of all their struggles hits so hard--Why I want them to make it through.

Director Katsura Hashino has been quoted on saying in the Official Artbook "It is my hope that by playing this game and realizing the true inevitability of death, the player will take a moment to think about life and death in the real world after turning the game off"--I believe, this is something the game achieves quite well by having its symbolism and themes of death integrated into its gameplay mechanics. Every day always ends with the arrival of the Dark Hour, spending too much time in Tartarus will make the Reaper appear, and every plot-related full moon mission puts the player into a dangerous-life-threatening situation that is out of their control. You might even say, considering everything, that the death of the main character at the end of the year was inevitable, eh? His life truly starts at the beginning of the game and ends at its conclusion. Although the character dies, the player naturally lives on, Hashino phrases the ending as experiencing "death by proxy". Although, even despite this sad outcome it actually works so well with what the game, and consequently Hashino, wanted to do.

If we follow through on the game’s logic that the end of the game represents the end of the character’s life, then that one year he spent with us, the player, represents his entire life. This is only made more apparent through the symbolic meaning of the Arcana, the journey of the Fool ending with the World Arcana (finding the answer). You know the saying in how one finding the answer to life can only be answered when it ends? Well in this context I'd say it make a lot of sense. The real answer we are looking for in life is that we decided to live. The bonds he -and the player- formed granted meaning to his existence. They weren't just convenient mechanics, meant to serve as boosts for the player's combat thrills. They were a mark meant to serve as his legacy, the kind that prints the fact that he was alive--The feelings you inspired in others, the fact that he meant something to others, that was his legacy. The allusions to that of a Messiah figure (with the Ultimate Persona) feels tragically quaint.. Hashino says it best himself- “By cultivating Social Links, the Hero gets to hold on to the fact that even if he dies, he’s left his mark on the world. The various relationships he shared with the other characters take root and act like evidence that he did exist. Maybe the reassurance that you’re leaving some kind of legacy behind makes the thought of death easier to accept.

That's what I believe Persona 3 is about-- Living in the now. It's not important to think about when or even how you die. What is important is how you choose to live.

Hope you enjoyed this blog--Forgive me for any potential grammatical mistakes, I haven't thought that through as much as I did anything else. I'll leave it with this awesome track at the end from the game.











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About FakePlasticTreeone of us since 7:26 PM on 01.03.2016

Something, something, something plastic, something, something, tree, something...Radiohead.

Favorite games(Those I can think of anyway):
Persona 3, 4 & 5
SMT: Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2
SMT: Nocturne
Knights of the Old Republic 2
Silent Hill 2 & 3
The Yakuza series
Catherine
Nier & Nier Automata
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Valkyria Chronicles
Metal Gear Solid 2 & 3
Gravity Rush 1 & 2
Virtue's Last Reward & Zero Time Dilemma
Binary Domain
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
Jade Empire
Mass Effect 1
Dragon Age: Origins
Vampire Masquerade: Bloodlines
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
Zelda: Wind Waker & Majora's Mask
Thief 2
Hitman Blood Money
Half Life 2
Bayonetta 2
God Hand
Deadly Premonition
inFamous 1 & 2
The Jak & Daxter Trilogy
Sly Cooper Trilogy
Ratchet & Clank - PS2 Trilogy
Banjo & Kazooie
Super Mario World
Psychonauts
The Longest Journey Series
Grim Fandango
Monkey Island 1 & 2