It’s midnight on the nose. The power is out, and an eerie green light from the moon filters through the windows of a high school dormitory. A lone teenage boy stands at the entrance, watching a girl emerge from the side hallway. Her voice quavers as she asks, “Who’s there?” The boy’s eyes are drawn to a holster on the girl’s hip. Still trembling, she reaches for her sidearm, nearly drawing the weapon, when another student appears behind her and commands her to stop.
The power returns to the building, and tensions ease. The two students introduce themselves to the new arrival. There are several questions on the boy’s mind, but for now he settles on just one:
“Why do you have a gun?”
So asks your character in the opening of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. It turns out the question is more poignant than one might expect. Case in point: One of the basic tenets of the game is that in order to fight Shadows, monsters that plague the minds of humans and essentially turn them into vegetables, you must summon Personas, spirits manifested from your character’s psyche. To do so, you put a gun-like device, called an Evoker, to your head and pull the trigger. Fans of Persona 3 (or P3 for short) know that it’s not a real gun, of course, but to the casual observer, the imagery is unmistakable. Far less offensive symbolism has captured the attention of the national media – a fate which P3 largely escaped.
The question is, then – why take the risk? What possessed the developers of Persona 3 to use such imagery? Surely there must be a deeper reason than to attract attention and boost sales. Indeed, it may have actually limited its appeal.
I have to admit I was one of those people who initially took offense. Without delving too deep into my medical history, I’ve found myself in a similar situation before. It’s not fun, nor is it a scenario that one would think could become a compelling gameplay mechanic. Still, I was drawn to the game more than I was repulsed by what I perceived as a mockery of suicide.
I’m glad I gave it a chance. I found out the true purpose of characters holding guns to their heads – to induce the emotional stress necessary to summon a Persona. Instead of belittling those with depression, I saw it as a possible reversal of what the imagery typically signifies. Instead of self-destruction, it’s self-protection, and it could be a message to encourage those who have such thoughts to turn them around and get help, to make something positive of them.
Of course, there is an in-game explanation as to why the Evokers resemble guns. In the episode “The Answer” on the FES edition of P3 the character Akihiko says at one point : “To tell the truth, I thought that girl [Mitsuru, another character in P3] was crazy until I first summoned my Persona. What was I supposed to expect when you gave me what looked like a gun five minutes after meeting me?” To which the character Mitsuru replies, “All part of the plan. … That was the best way I could think of to get your attention. If I’d asked you to do something like ‘fight for justice,’ I knew you’d never listen.”
Considering some of the themes present within the game – especially those that come up near the end – maybe I’m onto something. After all, the guns of P3 certainly grab your attention in a way that a simple description of the plot never would. As many Japanese console RPG players can relate, plots often consist of “existential retreads” (as webcomic Penny Arcade calls them), waxing poetic about the human condition, babbling on about the “fate of the world” and all that cliché nonsense. However, even though P3 has the trappings of a traditional JRPG, the game explores themes that players might otherwise miss if the characters didn’t shoot themselves in the head.
For example, there’s the Social Link system in the game that keeps track of your interpersonal relationships and how strongly connected you are to your friends and acquaintances. This mechanic is anything but superficial – the stronger your bonds are with other characters, the more powerful Personas you can create. At the end of the game, the characters with whom you’ve made the strongest bonds call out to you and lend you their strength, allowing you to seal the end boss away for good. It’s a life-affirming message: that partaking in society can give your life more meaning – and further improve your mental fortitude – than being a recluse and shunning your fellow human.
There’s also the fact that the main antagonists of P3, the Shadows, most often prey not on the physical bodies of humans, but their minds – as mentioned before, they suck out their victims’ brains (figuratively speaking), leaving them living corpses. It’s peculiar that this would be the M.O. of the main antagonists, especially because the game refers to the victims of the Shadows as sufferers of “apathy syndrome.” At one point, Ms. Toriumi, your homeroom teacher in the game, says that the apathy syndrome is a result of a “hopeless society.” Perhaps it’s a commentary on the mental maladies that plague our modern, industrialized culture.
Persona 3 only briefly mentions suicide itself, however. One of the game’s characters, Fuuka Yamagishi, is a victim of bullying prior to joining your party. When her tormentors lock her in the gym and she disappears soon after, one of her captors suspects that she might have committed suicide. Later, however, you discover that she has the potential to summon a Persona to fight the Shadows; when she is given an Evoker, she instinctively knows how to use it. The Evokers suggest mental defense rather than any kind of death wish. That’s not to say that suicide isn’t a central theme to P3, however; it’s just rarely mentioned outright. Nyx, the final boss, gains his power from a form of suicide – not an individual’s desire for death, but rather society’s apparent paths of self-destruction: crime, poverty, pollution and war.
The aforementioned methods of “societal suicide” can have a very taxing effect on individuals as well, an effect which I have personally experienced. However, each of the characters in P3 finds their own way to overcome their negative feelings to fight Nyx and the Shadows. The theme of overcoming cynicism may seem cliché to followers of JRPGs, but it’s no less important to explore and understand. And in order to get that message across, Persona 3 needed something shocking.
Hence the gun to the head. It certainly got your attention there, didn’t it?
It is in this aspect that P3 brilliantly succeeds where most other JRPGs fail. Its imagery commands your attention; where other JRPGs annoyingly preach from their respective soapboxes and expect you to listen, P3 slaps you upside the head and screams in your ear, “Pay attention! There’s something important going on here!” Many JRPGs attempt a discourse on society, the fate of the world and other clichés of high school philosophy, but P3 actually says something, and says it in such a way that’s both enjoyable and intuitive. This is how P3 earned a following among Western gamers like few other JRPGs have. It offers a message directly relatable to those who have feelings of depression and malaise at the world in general (which everyone experiences at some point in their lives): You’re not alone, but don’t wallow in your own negativity. Get off your duff and fight those feelings.
It took the Evoker to get our attention, but Persona 3 earns its place in an elite category that few JRPGs have achieved: games that actually express something.
Phillip Miner is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.