[Originally posted on Medium Difficulty]
Ever notice how most fiction treats a breakdown of identity as just about the worst thing that can happen? Oedipus’s tragedy stems from not knowing who he “really” is, Mad Men is all about characters creating and escaping their “real” selves, Philip K. Dick asked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because identity is not concrete even while we live it. There’s an implicit understanding that identity is static and controllable—after all, we each have a lifetime of experience having one—and it’s uncomfortable when that understanding is challenged.
Arguably, a challenge to identity is most uncomfortable in a video game, where the line between player and protagonist is blurred. Players expect a game to be honest with them about their protagonist’s identity; the world must present a reliable set of rules and the player’s place in that world must be apparent and consistent. When a player-character does not have a handle on their identity, it’s usually a disaster.
Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud goes mad when he learns his identity is a product of PTSD and mad science; the outcome of Knights of the Old Republic depends on how the player-character reacts after discovering the Jedi order had been hiding their personal history; the whole world in Bioshock Infinite is affected by how Booker chooses to interpret himself. These games exploit the existential terror of viewing the world through too dark a mirror; when a game strips a character’s identity it’s usually in an attempt to destroy them, and when they survive it’s usually an indication of their resolve or strength. They return to their body, complete and whole and somehow a greater individual than they were before.
Y’know a game that doesn’t do that? Persona 3. Persona 3 suggests that identity is not concrete, it champions a divided identity.
In Persona 3, the player character is empowered precisely because of his fluid identity; his multiplicity elevates him. There are a number of versions of Persona 3 floating around in North America: the original game, the FES redux that adds a few new features and an epilogue chapter (which is the basis of this essay), and a PSP re-release that further adds the option to play as a young woman—which certainly adds an interesting new dimension to the experience of the game. In any case, Persona 3 follows the story of a 16-year-old transfer student (I called him William Scully, a name I will use for the rest of this article in an attempt to make it canon1) to Gekkoukan High School in Iwatodai city, a fictional town on the coast of Japan.
In the first weeks of his stay, Scully learns from his dorm-mates that a hidden hour exists after midnight and that, during this time, a tower called Tartarus rises and releases shadows, monsters that roam the city and suck out people’s minds while they’re vulnerable. Of the few that remain conscious during the so-called dark hour, only a handful of high school students are able to use “personas” (the Latin word for mask) to defend themselves. The persona-users of Gekkoukan High take it upon themselves to explore Tartarus at night in search of a way to destroy it while balancing their everyday high school lives.
So there are two versions of the world: the real one—where students go to class, create and maintain friendships and live out their ordinary lives—and the dark hour—where people are transmogrified into coffins in their places, rivers of blood pour through the city and the familiar is warped into the absurd abstract of Jung’s shadow. This is the most basic way that Persona 3 segregates identity: the world is broken into distinct pieces, a waking world and a nightmare world. At the center of the nightmare world is Tartarus, which is the Greek and Roman underworld where the gods’ enemies were imprisoned and tortured for eternity. During the day, Tartarus is the high school.
In the dark hour the high school mutates into both an ancient concept of hell and the JRPG concept of hell: a randomly generated dungeon that sprawls apparently forever, with few changes or checkpoints. High school, in Persona 3, is literally hell, and the entire point of it—in both realities—is to grind through incremental self-improvement until the experience is over. It does end, but while you’re in it, it doesn’t feel like it.
However, there is more to the story. Gekkoukan and Tartarus aren’t the same. It’s clear which one of them is the “real” world and the purpose of the game is to eliminate (or at least bury) the false, “shadow” version of the real school. At this level, Persona 3 is just another instance of identity as a discrete concept that must be kept whole. However, the only way to survive Tartarus—and high school—is to adopt and rotate several identities, as we see in the most successful students in the player’s party.
The party, going by the name SEES, are only able to fight by accessing power held by their personas, an alternate self. In order to access that power they have to use a device shaped like a pistol to shoot themselves in the head. Their power comes from destroying themselves and giving themselves to a separate entity. Magic in Persona 3 is not just calling up a power that someone commands, it’s a symbolic suicide that grants another agent control over the fighter’s body. Compare this with the magic of the Final Fantasy series, where magic belongs to some force, either the cetra, the guardian forces or the espers and is accessed by a castor. Alternatively, look at the mages of Dragon Age, who are oppressed because a flinch away from their regular identities could invite demon possession. Magic may come from a separate consciousness but in most games it’s used either as a tool or at incredible risk.
Persona 3, on the other hand, treats the source of its characters powers as living, conscious entities that are actively helpful, not just tools and not internal threats. Each member of SEES refers to their persona in the third person rather than a power they wield or control, they sense emotions and thoughts from their personas that are separate from their own, their personas are even often differently gendered from the user. The members of SEES are able to survive Tartarus because they more than a single identity. But SEES’s multiple selves have important and beneficial implications for their waking lives as well.
During the day, they are heads of many different organizations and take on many roles in their high school’s community; they are many people at once. The team’s leaders are the student council president and the regional boxing champ. Among the junior members are the captain of the archery team and a prominent member of one of the culture clubs. Furthermore, nearly every member of SEES is a strong student. Each member of the team is an active member of a wide variety of organizations through the school. These characters are made out as figureheads of a host of different aspects of high school life. Logically, their priority ought to be saving the world, but they nonetheless live and succeed in many lives at once. Indeed, it is their ability to adopt different roles (one might say, take on different personas) that makes them suited to their gifts. Their power is drawn from their multiple selves.
Granted, not every character takes on multiple roles in the waking world, but those characters also have limited access to their powers. Junpei and Aigis, respectively the team’s resident slacker and a cyborg designed to hunt shadows, are generally inactive in the waking world. Junpei is largely defined by his apathy toward school, he does not join clubs, he does not score high grades and no one asks him to be more than he is until late in the game. However, his single identity is expressed in his narrow combat role. During battle, Junpei will largely favour direct attacks with his weapon over using skills, which does not summon his persona. Out of game his personality is the most singular, which shows in his straightforward approach to combat. Furthermore, Aigis, the cyborg, has as much personality as almost every other cyborg in fiction, but—unsurprisingly—the player is told when he meets her that it would benefit both the team and Aigis herself, if she learned to behave more human. She later masquerades as a student and develops the mental schemata to function in society as a member, not an observer. The player participates in her creation of a broader, more nuanced sense of self. However, no member of SEES has as malleable an identity as the protagonist.
Where most citizens of Iwatodai are trapped in the dark hour, the members of SEES are able to fight back because of their ability to access another self. Of the members of SEES, Scully is vaulted into squad leader because of his unique ability to balance several personas at once. Unlike the already special members of SEES, he doesn’t depend on a single alternate identity; he can maintain many personas at once and fuse obsolete ones to create greater forms. This makes Scully the most effective member of SEES. Unlike his fellows, he’s not chained to a set of strengths and weaknesses, nor is he limited to a single combat role. He alone can rotate through different abilities because he’s able to rotate through different identities.
Scully is able to thrive because he is not caged by one identity. The key to succeeding with Persona 3 is mastering persona fusion, and thereby creating hybrid RPG classes and making personas as efficient and adaptable as possible. In comparison, Yukari will always be the team healer, Shinjiro will always be the bruiser, Akihiko the glass canon, and so on. During the dark hour, most of the world is frozen or defenceless while the members of SEES are limited to a set of strengths and weaknesses. Scully, though, transcends both: the more fluid the identity, the more apt a person is to survive the dark hour. But that’s just during the dark hour, the “shadow” world that the team aims to eliminate. The power of multiple identities carries over into the waking world where it is similarly beneficial.
The ability to master multiple identities allows one to thrive in the real world as well as in the shadow world. Scully has a reciprocal relationship with a number of people in Iwatodai, where his mastery of multiple identities allows him to help them mature through their identity complexes. At the same time, by working out the identity crises of the people around him, Scully expands his own mind around even more identities, which makes him more effective in both game worlds. In Persona 3, numerous NPCs are hanging around town waiting for a friend to help them through their problems. Should the player meet and befriend these NPCs (called social links), they’ll be able to create more powerful personas. It’s important to stress that most of the social links are high school students: they’re teenagers near the end of childhood struggling to secure an identity before emerging into the adult world. But even those that aren’t teens are still defined by their struggle with identity.
Each social link, like most characters in Persona 3, is defined by a sense of being trapped (Peterson, Michael. “Persona 3 and Free Will”. Project Ballad. Jan 31 2012) but their imprisonment is a self-imposed one based on their efforts to crystallize an identity. Their only hope is for a mute, blue-haired orphan with multiple personalities to pull them through their complexes. The reward for maximizing the different social links (other than experiencing the side stories of some genuinely interesting characters) is an experience bonus for each new fused persona. Thus, Scully’s power lies in his mastery of other selves, and the most efficient use of that power is in connecting with actual, other people who are in the midst of an identity crisis.
When Scully meets them, most of the social links are trapped by a rigid understanding of identity: Kaz is trapped by his identity as an athlete and role model to his nephew, Yuko is trapped by her identity as manager of the school’s athletic team, the owners of the bookstore are trapped by their identities as mourning parents. These characters are all locked into one interpretation of themselves, but by the time Scully has helped them with their problems, they come to accept a degree of plurality to themselves. Kaz relaxes his self-destructive determination and finds other ways to inspire his nephew, Yuko uses her natural charity to motivate her through a school system she never felt she fit into, the owners of the bookstore choose to remember the good that their son did with his life rather than the sadness brought on by his death. The resolution of all these smaller plot threads involves characters trapped by one identity accepting and including other, greater versions of themselves into their whole without dismissing their original selves.
The mechanical challenge in interacting with each social link is to deliver the answer that they want to hear. They may be interesting people with believable problems, but every interaction can be reduced to guessing what response will yield the most friendship points. To do this, the player must make Scully into the ideal friend for each different social link, which means that the player must behave like a new Scully for each new friend, adopting a new personality—a new identity—each time. The Scully that is straightforward and blunt with Hidetoshi and Matatsu is laid back and understanding with Kenji and Mamoru. The goal in balancing these different friendships is to adopt the personality trait that will most likely satisfy the needs of whomever Scully is talking to.
While it’s certainly possible for a person to have a handful of seemingly contradictory personality traits, the hero of Persona 3 is a different person with every new classmate he meets. Each social link offers little crossover from the last: Scully doesn’t look for one type of friend with certain traits or interests. Everyone is fair game: the student council treasurer, a little girl at the shrine, an online gamer, an exchange student in the fashion club and, really, anyone else in town undergoing an identity crisis. Again, somewhere in reality there’s somebody with just that disparate a set of friends, but it’s unlikely for one person to keep such a varied group, especially considering that no one in Scully’s group has a relationship with anyone other than Scully beyond a passing acquaintanceship. Moreover, Scully’s set of responses available to the player doesn’t indicate a consistent person, it suggests someone adopting a new self for each new friend.
Dialogue responses to the social links almost never exceed three options and are generally personality neutral. Eventually a pattern emerges: the social link with a sense of humour will always prompt a humorous response and the social link with low self-esteem will always generate a supportive response. The player can only create the personality of their hero through their dialogue options and every option is tailored to the social link. There is no version of the hero that is a humourless jerk: the only versions of the hero that can be created are the helpful one, the very helpful one and the very, very helpful one. If Scully had his own identity, it would, eventually, fail to mesh with someone. Scully should not be able to instinctually narrow the possible responses to someone’s problem down to three after only a single meeting. But his many selves are in constant flow, and there is always a self to don for every social link, he can relate to and understand anyone. Scully doesn’t carry a single identity from one friend to the next, rather he becomes who that new friend needs him to be. The game not only rewards the player for forming a new identity around each new encounter, but it structurally eliminates the possibility of doing anything but. This is especially significant given Scully’s silence.
Silent protagonists are not unique to Persona 3 but Scully’s silence does create a unique effect. The ingrained assumption about the silent protagonist is that they are a player-inserted cipher that is meant to create a greater sense of empathy between the player and their avatar (Young, Shamus. “In Defense of Silent Protagonists.” The Escapist. Jun 4 2013). However, it’s important to note that silent protagonists do have separate personalities that are expressed nonverbally (Dickinson, Kevin. “Does Silence Speak in the Loudest Voice? Misconceptions about Silent Protagonists in Video Games.” Feb 8 2012. PopMatters). Crono of Chrono Trigger or Ryu from any of the Breath of Fire games express themselves through their body language. The player can read their emotional reactions in their gesticulating mannerisms. Similarly, in The Legend of Zelda series, Link’s silence does not liberate him from a personality: no matter what the player’s interpretation of his silence, Link will always act like a hero.
Most silent characters can still be understood by the emotions and actions that they communicate wordlessly. In Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Mario is still able to communicate with NPCs (in about the most intentionally goofy way imaginable), indicating that he has a consciousness and he is trusted in his role as hero. But Persona 3’s hero doesn’t offer any such consistency. Scully doesn’t react emotionally to anything, except in a way that his conversation partner would approve of. Scully has no private personality, occasionally the game will tell the player “you are tired,” or “you decide to go back to the dorm,” because, when there is no one around, Scully has no one to base a new identity off of. There is no logical process to his decision making when he’s alone because he has no private identity that encompasses his many social identities. Alone, his identity is erased so that he can swap in an new one needed just as he swaps personas in battle. It’s appropriate, then, that the game leans so heavily on Tarot symbolism; Scully is the only major character not assigned a place in the Tarot because his fluid identity makes him a master of the deck’s story.
Each of the 22 cards in the Tarot’s major arcana depicts a scene in a story. Each persona and possible social link of Persona 3 is associated with one of the major arcana in the Tarot. If Scully spends time with any of the social links while he controls a persona of the matching arcana, the relationship matures faster; in turn, personas that the player creates become stronger when they’re associated with a stronger relationship. Therefore, the player is encouraged to match their combat personas with their social relationships. As the player reaches the apex of one relationship after the next, managing waking world schedules and surviving dark hour encounters become easier. The more identities that Scully and the player master, the more able they are to succeed in both Gekkoukan and Tartarus.
The Tarot makes for a good blueprint on which to lay a narrative that celebrates diverse identity. As mentioned, the numbered major arcana cards of the Tarot form a story, one that traces a heroic journey from naive childhood to enlightened death, focussing on the character of the fool (the numberless or 0 card). The fool journeys across the stages and trials of life, encountering new figures represented in other cards of the deck. Characters in Persona 3 are locked into representing a single arcana—a single card—and are defined by the trials of that figure (SEES themselves represent the fool card). But Scully supersedes the Tarot story, he doesn’t fall into any one aspect of it: his power lies in being in every place of the story at once, zeroing in on different chapters when they become important.
Each social link is trapped in the trial of their matching arcana. Scully’s role is to move each social link through their current life trial, accept the outcome of that arcana, and move onto the next trial. Without Scully, the social links would remain trapped in their struggles, their fragmented identities. But where most characters are locked in their current place in life, Scully can move freely through each stage, understanding them as someone likewise trapped in that stage while also being keenly aware of the stages leading in and out of it. In this regard, Scully is more the witness of the story—like the player—and experiences it indirectly. A Tarot reader lays out cards for a person, using knowledge of the story to interpret their client’s situation; Scully is this knowledgeable figure that interprets his peers’ problems through the lens of the Tarot story and helps them through their identity complexes. Scully is the fortune-teller figure that can see the obvious challenges that everyone else is ignoring. Furthermore, Scully’s knowledge of the entire deck and of all the identities therein, is what enables him to help draw each of the social links out of their problems.
Persona 3 begins by exploiting the—very natural—fear of losing oneself. After all, the danger the shadows pose is in how they erase people’s minds. But the solution that Persona 3 offers is to endorse multiple selves, not to cling tighter to a single, preconceived identity. The game offers power to those that accept that they aren’t just a single, consistent, concrete identity. The game celebrates those that celebrate their masks and the knowledge of when and how to wear them. In the greater context, where fiction treats the self as a divine singularity to be protected, it’s meaningful that Persona 3 is able to break from that and distribute value across the many selves of its heroes.
1How Scully’s son came to live in Japan and why he’s eight years older than he should be aren’t really all that big of problems when the original texts are so liberal with the rules of space and time.
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Further reading: Carpenter, Kyle. “Ars Demonica: Shin Megami Tensei and Conversing with Daemons.” Medium Difficulty. Mar 2 2012.
McKinnon, Hari. “On Avatars: Creating Another Self.” Medium Difficulty. Nov 15 2012.