Deep reads #5.3: Getting personal with Persona

My post focusing on the Persona series is finally done. I still have more to go in this set of posts, though. Hopefully the next one won’t take three god damn months to write. A couple of general plot trends and minor spoilers in here, particularly about one confidant link in Persona 5, but aside from that, you can read without fear since this post deals generally with the modern Persona games, their themes, and how I’ve related to them. Sorry for getting so personal this time (that title isn’t just a dumb joke even if it looks like one) but I’m also interested in how you’ve related to these games if you’ve played them — the comments section is always open.

As before, I’ll also let you know that this is the third part of a series about Megami Tensei. If you want more context for this post, you can get it from the first part, but it’s not that necessary to understand what I’m talking about here.

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I don’t think it would be any shock to regular readers of this site if I admit that I’m not a very social person. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought my extreme introversion up before, in fact. It’s something I’ve mostly gotten past purely out of necessity, but I still much prefer to be alone most of the time.

Partly for this reason, my feelings about the Persona games are a bit complicated. On one hand, they provided my way into Megami Tensei as a whole — Persona 3 back in 2007 was the first MegaTen game I played, and I was hooked from my first time stumbling into the Dark Hour with the P3 protagonist up until today. Over the last 14 years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Persona 3, 4, 5, and their expansions alongside the mainline SMT games and other spinoff series I’ve explored. On the other hand, the Persona games alone among all the other MegaTen titles, starting with 3, combine the traditional demon-fighting JRPG mechanic of the series I like so much with a social sim, introducing extra depth and story for the characters along with some weird pacing issues that the series never had to deal with before. Persona wasn’t the first game series to take this approach, but it’s definitely been the most visible and commercially successful one to try it out, and this dungeon crawling RPG/social sim hybrid setup is now a series standard.

It didn’t start that way, though. Fans often acknowledge the 1994 Super Famicom title Shin Megami Tensei if… as the spiritual predecessor to the Persona series, since it was the first to take place in a high school setting and focus on a group of students. Like SMT if…, the first three actual Persona games, Megami Ibunroku Persona in 1996 and the two parts of the Persona 2 duology in 1998 and 1999, were more or less straightforward JRPGs. However, they did put a lot more emphasis their characters and the relationships between them than the mainline SMT games, which mainly focused on the broader story and had pretty thin character development.

Persona 3 inner cover art by Shigenori Soejima

This trend continued with Persona 3, which came out in 2006 in Japan and 2007 here in the States. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Megami Tensei or any of its already massive 20 year-long catalog, even though I was already deep into some JRPG series at the time. My future favorite game SMT III: Nocturne had been released in America a few years before but apparently without much commotion. But I did hear Persona 3 talked about around its release, probably because of its novelty over here as a hybrid RPG/social sim. Of course, back then people were calling it more of an RPG/dating sim, which was a pretty big simplification if an understandable one — the game does feature a dating mechanic, with five of your female classmates available for you to romantically pursue in the original game.

But although the dating might have been the flashiest feature in the game, there was a lot more to its social aspect than that. Persona 3 takes place in the city of Tatsumi Port Island, a nice seaside spot that’s been stricken with a condition called Apathy Syndrome, which causes its sufferers to sit around not caring about doing anything even to the extent that they can starve to death. The protagonist, a transfer high school student, soon learns that this strange condition is connected to the Dark Hour, a “hidden” hour that takes place at midnight every night and corresponds with the appearance of a giant tower called Tartarus that just happens to be at the same site as his new school, Gekkoukan High. Protagonist’s new dormmates are all in on the secret as well — he and they are some of the few who actually experience the Dark Hour, with everyone else suspended in time for that period and therefore left unaware of it.

You also all happen to possess the power of Persona, magical representations of your alter egos that have the ability to fight and defend against both human and otherworldly entities, up to and including gods. To me back in 2007, this was where the game really stood out. From the very beginning, when your unnamed1 main character enters his new dorm late at night and is approached by a mysterious ghostly boy who asks him to sign a shady-looking contract, there’s a strange, heavy atmosphere around the place. P3 doesn’t waste much time getting to the point — the protagonist is special; not only does he hold the power of Persona, but he’s also a “wild card”, meaning that unlike his friends, he can summon any number of Personas to fight for him.

“When you’re done with class today, do you want to get together and fight some shadow demons in the nightmare world only we can access?” “Sure, sounds good.” (Source, CC-BY-SA)

This all fits into the usual setup of Persona collection in battle and fusion in the Velvet Room, mechanics taken straight from the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series and adapted into this new format. However, Persona 3 adds that social aspect on top, allowing your protagonist to create bonds with his fellow students and certain people around town who are sorted into different Tarot Arcana categories that the Personas are also grouped into. By leveling up these “Social Links”, the player is able to make progress in battle through bonuses in fusion to the corresponding Arcana.

These links are often made with people you might not normally expect. Many of them are with your teammates and other school friends and colleagues, only natural considering that you’re all going through the horrible ordeal of high school together (and especially natural in the case of your fellow Persona-users, who also have to juggle school and social lives with fighting shadow demons in that nightmare world of Tartarus.) As you progress through the story, your bonds with your teammates in particular get stronger thanks to all the dangers you’ve gone through together trying to defeat the growing menace of the Dark Hour, but the same is true even for your bonds with other friends who don’t realize what you’re going through.

At some point in there, you also all had a shared dream about a dance competition one night. And yeah, this is part of the canon as far as I know.

As a result, the Persona games feel a lot more personal to me than others in the overarching Megami Tensei series. Like mainline SMT, they take place against apocalyptic backdrops with demon and shadow invasions of the human world and all that, but they also feature stories about individual struggles and the power of true friendship and love that help us break through them.

So then what’s an embittered, world-weary jerk like me doing enjoying games like this with such positive approaches to life? There’s a lot about the Persona series I like, and part of that has to do with its acknowledgement that even though the power of friendship can be great, life can also be profoundly, remorselessly, and unbelievably shitty. In fact, I think that’s part of why they emphasize the importance of forming bonds with others so much. Life doesn’t always work out in these games: broken bonds between characters aren’t always perfectly fixed, dilemmas aren’t always sorted out nicely by the end like they are in old sitcoms. And when a character dies, with a few major (and controversial) exceptions, they’re dead for good. So sometimes, there’s no happy ending — the resolution to a social link story might only consist of a character accepting and coming to some kind of peace with a less-than-ideal situation.

That’s something I can appreciate. As embittered as I am, I still don’t believe that humanity is all shit, that it’s just naturally evil or corrupt. I think this is a stance too often taken by hack writers and artists who think being dark automatically means you’re being deep. It’s both inaccurate and intellectually dishonest — it should be clear to anyone looking at it with a more honest approach that human nature isn’t nearly that simple. For the same reason, the other extreme of false optimism feels just as dishonest to me. Because yes, maybe life really is a wonderful gift that I should cherish. Yes, I know it only happens once,2 and I get that it was incredibly unlikely that it was going to happen to me, that I’d be given this opportunity. I can tell myself that all day, but it doesn’t change the fact that life sometimes feels like complete dogshit, a burden that I have to carry rather than a gift that I should be thankful for.

The social link rank-ups help, though.

I see a lot of this false optimism in the society I live in. As a way to cope with the hardships of life, I completely get it — if telling yourself all of the above really helps you make it through the day, I can’t criticize that. To me, though, that approach ignores a lot of the negative aspects of life that really cannot be overlooked if you’re trying to write personal stories like these. For the most part, the side stories that the Persona games tell strike a nice balance between these two extremes.3

And yeah, I am taking the tonal differences between the modern Persona games into account when I say that. Persona 3 is generally considered much darker and more pessimistic in tone than later Persona games, and that’s a characterization I’d agree with. However, even the later games feature some side stories that have somewhat sad or bittersweet endings. While there are probably better or more obvious examples to use here (the links with the terminally ill young man in Persona 3 and the widow in Persona 4 both come to mind) the one standout figure in this sense to me is Yuuki Mishima from Persona 5.

Mishima is one of your classmates who you meet during the game’s first story arc. He quickly becomes a devotee of the Phantom Thieves, the secret team the protagonist and his friends create when they realize they have the power to make criminals have changes of heart and confess their crimes through the typical Persona-using methods. He also figures out pretty early on that the protagonist and company are in fact the Phantom Thieves, after which he sets up a fan site where people can express their support and even suggest those who might need a change of heart. In this way, Mishima feeds the protagonist new target info while maintaining a “wink and nod” attitude about his secret identity.

All this is well and good, but a few scenes into Mishima’s social link, it becomes obvious that he’s starting to go on a power trip, taking some liberties with his influence as de facto leader of the Phantom Thieves online fan community. After he starts insisting that you target a popular male celebrity he’s jealous of, you and your friends decide to track down and give Mishima’s shadow self a visit. Finally, Mishima realizes he’s been an asshole and sincerely apologizes, maturing a bit and becoming somewhat more secure in his identity.

Even so, Mishima doesn’t exactly get what he wants by the end. What he really seemed to want was to be the protagonist himself, or at least a very visible hero of some kind. By using his newfound power, he tried to take the lead and have his own way and to achieve his own selfish ends, and he ends up getting rebuked for it. Mishima’s feelings are very understandable, at least to me — the character comes off as an outsider, a guy who’s seen as nice and pleasant enough but also a bit obsessive and irritating to others. He’s also something of a doormat, and this seems to be the source of his power trip, which starts when he feels he finally has some control and isn’t just being pushed around by everyone else. By the end of his social link, Mishima has grown a bit and gained some real backbone, but he’s still behind the scenes and hasn’t become the hero he wanted to be.

But that’s okay. Mishima accepts his place and commits to becoming a better person, even if he can’t have exactly what he wants. A lot of the other social link stories in the Persona series proceed along the same lines, ending with resolutions that aren’t usually totally happy for those involved but at least involve some new understanding and growth. I’ll admit that a few of these links fall flat, with characters who don’t feel very realistic or just aren’t all that appealing or sympathetic, and a few others that resolve themselves a little too neatly, but in general, they feel pretty satisfying in this sense.

I’ve even lightened up on my feelings about Marie a bit. Not much, though.

Most of the villains of the modern Persona games also fit pretty nicely into this framework. This is at least true for those who act as foils to the games’ protagonists. There are a very few other Persona-using characters who possess the same wild card ability as the protagonist, but typically they differ in that they use their powers for evil rather than good. That might sound pretty standard and boring, but I think there’s more to it than simply the “hey, I’m the story-appointed bad guy” stuff you’d expect from RPGs like these. The wild card ability carries great potential, represented by the protagonist’s place in the Tarot Arcana as the Fool, the card denoted by the number zero — here not a negative but rather a positive, meaning the protagonist can become anything he likes and use his ability to achieve things others can’t.

But not without the help of his friends and colleagues. This is the major difference between the Persona protagonists, who build relationships of trust with the people around them, and the antagonists who possess the same wild card ability but decide to reject these relationships, either because they’ve been burned in the past or because they feel they’re not getting their proper due from society. So they give in to feelings of bitterness, and ultimately they can’t achieve what the protagonists can for that reason.

At least that’s how I read it. Again, all this is a bit strange for me on a personal level, because I feel like I can identify with these antagonists sometimes a bit more than I can with the protagonists. Maybe it’s only natural, after all: I’m also a bitter person with an extremely skeptical view of society in general, and there’s nothing in the world I’d like to do more than escape from it all. But then again, that’s really not an option, and I have to admit that the antagonists in these games are selfish assholes — and as bitter as I feel sometimes, I never want to become one of those.

I can’t even bring myself to kill shadows or demons when they beg for their lives; that’s how soft I really am.

So despite what some people say, Persona isn’t all style and no substance, not even close. There is a whole lot of style to the series, though. A big part of this has to do with the music, which I already touched upon back in my first post. Shoji Meguro is the composer responsible for most of the music in these games. Aside from just generally writing excellent music, Meguro writes each soundtrack with its own character, so that one doesn’t sound much like the rest. Comparing the three mainline modern Persona games alone, Persona 3 has a strong rap sound with a lot of pop mixed in, Persona 4 is much more pop/rock-sounding, and Persona 5 goes heavy on 70s style funk and jazz. My personal favorite is 5 just because I’m into that style the most, but they’re all fantastic.

And then there’s artist Shigenori Soejima, who has done just as much as Meguro to define the feel of the modern Persona games. Soejima is one of my very favorite character designers, with a style distinct from Kazuma Kaneko’s but that still fits pretty well with Kaneko’s original work on the games’ many MegaTen demons. Even if you’ve never played Persona before, you may have seen Soejima’s work, since he’s also responsible for the art and character designs of Catherine and its PS4 expansion Catherine: Full Body. Though I can’t say I prefer one style over the other, I love his art — I don’t own both his artbooks for nothing.

The English versions of Soejima’s artbooks (left) seem to be extremely hard to find and expensive now, but used Japanese-language copies (right) are still going cheap on eBay. On the plus side, the Japanese copies are a bit nicer and sturdier, with protective transparent dust jackets that the English versions lack. At this point, if you’re interested, I think you’re a lot better off going for the Japanese ones even if you can’t read the text in them.

As for the shipping and waifu wars the modern Persona games have inspired thanks largely to that dating mechanic I mentioned, I don’t have anything to say about those. Have fun fighting on Twitter or Reddit over that dumb shit if you really feel like doing that. Not me — I will maintain as I always have that Aigis is best girl, not just in Persona 3 but throughout the part of the series I’ve played, but I respect your tastes completely no matter what they are. Even if you like that alcoholic journalist from Persona 5 the best. Yes, even Ohya is a fine choice. I’m not one to judge.

I also like Lisa Silverman a lot, but I haven’t finished Persona 2: Innocent Sin yet so I can’t make a definitive call on her yet.

And that’s really all I have to say about Persona, even though there is a lot more to say about it. I could write an entire set of posts dedicated to this spinoff series alone, or even to one of the games in it. But that’s not my goal here. Others have gone into great depth about Persona already, and I’m not sure I have that much more to add at this point, except to say that it’s a series worth getting into.

So next time, we’ll take a look at issues raised more by the mainline SMT series, specifically with matters of the divine, the human, and the very weird and complicated relationships between the two. Will I be condemned forever for my bizarre heresies? Probably! All the more reason not to follow my example, if reading this post didn’t convince you of that already. 𒀭

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1 The protagonists of these games do have official names, one taken from the manga adaptation and usually a different one for the anime and for later spinoff works. However, in true Megami Tensei fashion, Persona lets you name your protagonist whatever you want, so there is no official name at least as far as the games themselves go.

2 Unless you believe in reincarnation, and there are hints throughout Megami Tensei that it does exist in-universe, at least in a few cases.

3 I’ve seen it argued that Persona 5 leans too much towards the optimistic side, even more than the relatively bright and cheery Persona 4 does. I don’t think P5 goes too far myself, but I can understand these arguments, especially considering how easy it seems to be for Joker and co. to resolve their friends’ problems by changing people’s hearts in Mementos. I wouldn’t be surprised if Persona 6 takes a slightly darker turn again for that reason.