This piece contains spoilers for Persona 3 and Persona 4, as well as open discussion of depression, and suicidal thoughts.
“You don’t need to save the world to find meaning in life… Sometimes, all you need, is something simple, like someone to take care of.”
~Aigis, Anti-Shadow Suppression Weapon
A girl’s cries can be heard under the sound of her running tap. She sits against her dresser, on the floor by the bed, her entire body trembling. It’s hard to get a good look, the camera angles are obtuse, the editing cutting back and forth between the bustle of life outside and the whimpering of the girl in her room, different worlds so close yet so far apart. And as you watch, you know something terrible is about to happen, but you don’t quite know what. Until it becomes clear: the girl is holding a gun to her head, and she’s desperate for the strength to pull the trigger.
This is where Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 opens. The imagery is charged yet ambiguous, immediately laying out the themes the game will be trading in, and the manner it will be framing them. It is an opening of conflicting dualities: life and death, mundane and supernatural, personal and private. And yet, despite being an incredibly successful introduction, there is a dishonesty to the way it presents itself. Imagery of suicide is shown without context, without build up. It is used to shock the (presumably unsuicidal) player, to provide narrative suspense in the first few hours, which will eventually be proven false. An intimate moment is presented with uncritical voyeurism, the girl’s apparent suicide attempt a moment that is othered, not understood.
After a few hours, we learn the truth. The gun is not a gun, it is an evoker, a device used to summon demons from within your soul. The girl is not suicidal, simply afraid of being too weak to, well, summon demons from within her soul. This is not to say the game’s use of suicide as fantasy imagery is empty; Persona 3‘s central thematic thrust is that in order to find a reason to continue living, one must make peace with death. The game is willing to be about suicide and depression, but it is not willing to engage with the responsibilities of invoking real illnesses that exist outside the scope of its metaphor. This is the conflicting duality at the heart of Persona 3.
Creatures known as shadows haunt the area of Tatsumi Port Island, and it’s up to the members of SEES to fight against them. For the first half of the game, this set up is flimsy and arbitrary; you are given the goal (kill all 12 major shadows) but none of the context behind it. All you know is that the shadows are somehow responsible for what’s known as Apathy Syndrome, a mysterious illness that’s causing people to cease functioning, to lose the will to live, During this half, much of the plot structures around the internal conflicts of SEES, around how sure they are of their actions, and whether continuing is worth it when they don’t know what they’re fighting for. From the start, it is a game concerned with the why of things: why are we here, why is any of this happening to us and why should we carry on?
The fight against the shadows comes in the form of Tartarus, a seemingly endless dungeon that stretches up into the sky, accessible only during The Dark Hour. The fight through Tartarus is remarkable in its mundanity – every floor is a randomly generated mystery, but every building block is the same. You run down the same corridors, fight the same monsters, exploit the same weaknesses and use the same tactics for hours on end. It’s a drag on your time, an unavoidable part of the game that’s there to be dealt with, to place character interactions in context, more than it is there to be enjoyed.
It’s easy to argue that Persona 3 presents Tartarus as a broad manifestation of the struggle against depression and suicidal thoughts, something you must consistently fight to keep in check, something unknowable and endless, yet intimately familiar at the same time. Fighting through Tartarus is draining, as you hit every floor you realise it’s the same as the floors previous, every victory rewarded not with catharsis but the ability to keep seeing the sights you’re already sick of. Before long, you will also be asking yourself: why should I carry on?
Persona 3‘s answer can be found in other people. Once you’ve reached the gate in Tartarus, and can go no further for the month, you’re given free time to interact with people as you see fit, finding out more about them and levelling up their social links. It is your connection with them that keeps you coming back to the game, for without them to care about, those nights fighting in Tartarus would be an empty grind, they exist to give the game meaning and purpose. Yet it takes this a step further; as your connection with them grows stronger you’re rewarded with extra XP when fusing personas of a given arcana. If one reads Tartarus as the player’s interaction with depression, the game is arguing that not only do connections with others give you a reason to carry on, but they make the fight to do so more manageable in a quantifiable way.
These social links all have the same basic setup: you meet somebody, who opens up to you with their personal problems, and by the end of their short story, they are able to reach catharsis with your support. For as much as they can be, these relationships are played as symbiotic – you are instrumental in their development, and each time you emotionally bond, you receive the next level of fusion bonuses. Persona 3 rewards you not for emotional intimacy, but emotional dishonesty. You tell each person what they wish to hear when they wish to hear it; the game punishes you if you attempt to play a character with a consistent worldview and value set. After all, your character is a blank slate, able to adopt multiple Personas in battle and in life.
This idea is integral to the series, Persona 4 especially, which goes far deeper with its examination of the sociopathic nature of these social mechanics, casting Yu and Adachi as on some level reflections of each other. But Persona 3 has loftier ambitions: it wants to be a commentary on the struggle to find meaning in a world that can be cruel and hopeless, it wants to be grand, it wants to inspire. It is content to allow its dissonance to exist, rather than to examine it, to make its dissonance a core thematic focus.
And yet, pushing on uncritically is what allows Persona 3 to commit as singularly as it does to its ambitions and themes. It is what allows it to be a game of hope rather than a game of cynicism, but it is also what causes it to alienate when it needs to be at its most empathetic. Every single social link reaches its catharsis, every single character finds their reason to live in the end with your support. The subtext becomes text as the game’s villain is explicitly referenced as a physical manifestation of humanity’s collective suicidal urge to give up. Hell, instead of engaging with the subject honestly, they invented a fake mental illness to convey people who can no longer find their reason to carry on and went ahead and called it Apathy Syndrome.
Every single one of these belies an inadvertent disrespect for those struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. The portrayal of suicide as an inherently apathetic act, the idea that to commit suicide is to ‘give up,’ is one of the most harmful cultural ideas for those struggling with mental health issues. Conflating the intense pain and trauma that suffering can be with apathy serves purely to erase those affected and place the guilt upon them. Throughout the game. the narrative refuses to acknowledge that there are those for whom the pain is too great, regardless of how many friends they may have made along the way. It is not a game interested in speaking to those who’s lives are affected by suicidal thoughts, but taking those ideas, taking that imagery and placing it into a broad, culturally normative narrative about the power of friendship.
None of this post should be too surprising, even though much criticism hasn’t been written onPersona 3‘s approach to mental health, Persona 4 is a game that’s been studied far more, and much of the criticisms around that game’s approach to gender and sexuality are similar. Between the two games, it’s clear the series is in a spot somewhere between using certain non-typical cultural contexts as window dressing to give the game’s high school story some edge and a genuine engagement with societal constraints and the struggles of living in a world that won’t accept your sense of self. Ultimately, they only trip up so badly because they try to step into areas that shouldn’t be so unexplored in the more commercial spaces, but unfortunately are. So these games become valuable, for me, for others, because the alternatives either don’t exist or (the actual truth) are difficult for people to find. So I’m not able to put a conclusion, to wrap it up, to decide which side of the conflicting duality comes out on top.
Because in all honesty, as in all things Persona, it’s both at the same time.