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Josh Tolentino
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The Colorless Mask: Insight or Insult?


The always-intellectual Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogame Land and Gamasutra put up a great feature on Kotaku the other day entitled "Persona 4: Reflecting The Self". It contained some deep thoughts about Persona 4, and you know I likes me some deep thoughts 'bout Persona.

In a nutshell, it reflects on how the series exploits the potential of the silent protagonist to encourage the players' introspection, allowing their own natures to impress themselves upon a story that is otherwise unalterable, and ponders some of the differences between Persona 3 and Persona 4 in that respect.

It's quite a good read, and I won't do it an injustice by attempting to paraphrase it here, but one point in particular struck me:

"...many stalwart fans prefer the “darker” vibe of the third title, with its inferred undertones of suicide, depression and sexual deviance. P3’s distinctly forbidding feel, though, comes mainly from its almost negative take on the concept of the persona...P3 employed the multiple-persona concept to suggest a character who wore many different masks, but kept his heart hidden. Success in the game’s social relationships usually depended on telling characters precisely what they wanted to hear – even if it wasn’t the right thing, and even if it conflicted with beliefs and behaviors you chose to express with other characters. Underlying message? Starkly nihilistic in its own way, suggesting that all others ever really know of your “self” is the mask you choose to show them."

She had made an observation that I remembered a user on the GameFAQs message board had also made, though of course with more eloquence and less vitriol. The GameFAQs user had brought it up during an argument about whether the player character in P3 was actually the villain of the story.

And here's where the title of this post comes in. Don't worry, there are no spoilers here. The Colorless Mask is a special item awarded to the player for completing a game with all of the social links raised to their maximum level in one playthrough. The item enabled the summoning of the most powerful and customizable persona in the game.

If you've read the above, the Colorless Mask is a fairly obvious reference to the, the idea that the player could choose whatever masks he wanted. Some, including that GameFAQs user, regard that implication as somewhat negative, and in its most extreme interpretation that the game was essentially insulting you, turning the selfless hero into an opportunistic villain.

That raised an interesting cultural point in my mind. Is the Colorless Mask a badge of pride or a mark of shame?

In my estimation, the answer seems to depend on your social values. Western societies greatly prize individualism, and revere the character that holds on to his or her identity in spite of everything that happens. Countless works of fiction and games follow the course of a character finding out who he or she "really" is, and using the strength that results from that revelation to defeat the enemy and save the world. As a result, being called "plastic" is regarded as a terrible insult, that the insulted is a cipher, a nonentity, without weight, worth, identity or influence.

But what about other, less individualistic cultures? For example, Japanese society seems to put value in compromise, being able to put aside selfish personality traits and work in harmony with others. While being called a cipher is still pretty bad, being a bit "plastic" every now and then could be considered a positive.

By that tack, one might think that the Colorless Mask isn't so much a sign that the player has no identity, but that the player himself has reached the end of The Fool's Journey. Such a person can make any and all relationships work in harmony, achieving the greatest power, and in this case saving the world. This might not sound humanly possible, but then again, attaining ultimate self-knowledge usually involves transcending one's humanity.

It isn't just Persona 3 that seems to emphasize this "colorless" state. I'm no expert, but as I understand it, an egoless state is a part of gaining enlightenment and achieving Nirvana. On a related note, is it any surprise that The Fool's number is zero, and that the ensou, a circle, is strongly associated with Zen Buddhism?

Again, it really depends on the viewer. It's kind of funny, considering how our cultures and beliefs can "color" our interpretations of the Colorless Mask.

Note: I'd compare this to P4, but Ms. Alexander already did that in her article, and I'm not even a quarter into P4, so I can't make a good judgment. Also, please don't spoil P4 for me.
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About Josh Tolentinoone of us since 9:23 PM on 02.07.2007

When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh serves as Managing Editor for Japanator, Dtoid's sister site for the best in anime, manga, and cool news from Glorious Nippon.

Crowdfunded games backed:
Pillars of Eternity
Star Citizen
Xbox LIVE:unangbangkay
PSN ID:unangbangkay
Steam ID:unangbangkay
Mii code:6258-3610-4242-3684


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