For those new to the series, plural protagonism is based on this article I wrote for PopMatters. Plural protagonism occurs in a game when there is no individual main protagonist leading a group: the group itself becomes the hero. Each individual maintains their identity while contributing to the narrative in equal measure. Moreover, they are all controlled equally by the player and coordinate as a collective consciousness to overcome the challenges facing them. This narrative technique appears most prominently in JRPGs and this series investigates different JRPGs that feature plural protagonism in interesting ways.
Persona 3 isn’t really the best instance of plural protagonism. In fact, it doesn’t really fill any of the qualities I’ve been talking about as necessary or even typical of the narrative device. Persona 3 has a clear leader of the ensemble, members do not equally share importance in the story and they are not coordinated as a united whole by the player. However, the game’s treatment of the group interested me enough that I wanted to discuss it at length and this ongoing series gives me a place to put it. Persona 3 offers a thought-provoking—if not entirely fitting—addition to this series because, while it may not began as an instance of plural protagonism, it embodies a journey toward it.
As mentioned in my recent Medium Difficulty article (“I Am Many: Multiple Identities in Persona 3.” Jun 18 2013), the protagonist of Persona 3 is a blank slate that creates different selves—different personas—for each situation he’s in. He is privileged as a non-entity: he has no private personality and he is not an individual: he is a cluster of interchanging identities that exists to undo the evils of his world. It isn’t just the protagonist with fluid identities either: the more identities a character can adopt in the world of Persona 3, the better equipped they are to survive it. However, Persona 3 is not a story about the strong surviving to protect the weak, this is a game about improving the collective.
I named Persona 3’s hero William Scully and, for the sake of convenience, I will henceforth use that name to refer to him in this article (and because, goddammit, this crossover fanfic writes itself). Persona 3 is a game that follows a young man (or optionally in Persona 3 Portable, a young woman) in a yearlong quest to improve himself through others. The game is a process of discovering plural protagonism, of characters beginning as isolated, disorganized and alone and moving into a cohesive, singularly guided collective.
The game is glacially paced, which drove many of its prospective players away (Noe, Greg. “How Persona 3 destroyed my love for Japanese RPGs.” The First Hour. April 15 2010). But the game is necessarily slow to establish and build on the relationships of its cast. Every NPC in the game is somehow related to every other character. William Scully’s first sidekicks, Yukari and Junpei, have various public roles and relationships before the player meets them; the social links around town are all members of organizations or they have a place in a family; even the various townies like the girl with a crush on Mitsuru or the couple that lunch in front of the movie theatre are all set up as having some relationship with another character. In short, everyone in Persona 3 is a part of a community.
Persona 3 is centred on how people are able to relate to one another. Indeed, the motto for the school at the center of the world is “two in harmony surpass one in perfection.” Beneath the Lynchian dreamscapes, the Cartesian philosophy problems and the identity psychodynamics, the game is all about people in a community. Scully, with his multiple selves, is at the centre of the game’s community. He acts as the communal psychoanalyst that helps the members of his community function more healthily so they can band together when they’re threatened. It’s only when Scully has healed the people in his town that individuals are able to function as a group adequately enough to take on the game’s real plot.
Jung and the Coalescing Selves
Scully’s goal—his very purpose in existing—is to create harmony between the people of Iwatodai. Among the major allegories that Persona 3 draws on, Jungian psychoanalysis is perhaps the most important. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s model of the mind depended on an understanding of archetypes—images and figures in a story—that are called up throughout life to create a context for a person’s challenges at a given life stage. The goal of a healthy mind, according to Jung, is to avoid complexes and achieve actualization by unifying the disparate archetypes in the unconscious into a story. Someone develops a complex when they’re fixated or trapped by a single archetype; a person that acknowledges and understands all of the different archetypes in their unconscious becomes an actualized individual. The world, to Jung, is a story, and mental health depends on understanding the complete version of this story.
When the evil force in Persona 3 awakens during the so-called “dark hour,” it releases shadows (a Jungian archetype for the self composed of a person’s negative unconscious traits, often but not necessarily personified as an evil foil for the heroic self). These shadows wander through town and drain people’s minds, effectively zombifying them. The more power that Tartarus—the epicentre of the dark hour—builds, the more people become removed from Jung’s story of archetypes and are therefore robbed of their humanity.
At each full moon, Scully’s party (called SEES) take on the task of tracking and destroying a larger, more dangerous shadow around town. Each of these shadows represents a single arcana of the Tarot story. Much like Jung’s archetypes, each arcana is an image or figure in a story that represent trials and conflict in a life phase. Each arcana of Persona 3’s Tarot is an archetype. The big bad every month represents a fixation on a single arcana, a complex that halts the town in its current life phase (more accurately, the phase of the year, which is often a model for the life span: “spring chicken” and “winter years” and such). When the party defeats these Big Bads, the townspeople recover their minds and return to their everyday lives. Each lunar monster represents a single arcana, a single archetype that torments the town. When SEES defeat it, the community overcomes their complex, they move closer to an actualized self: people return to normal and life picked up where it left off. This shows in the waking world as well.
Persona 3 encourages and rewards the player that befriends various NPC social links and helps them work through their own problems. Significantly, many these NPCs are struggling with a feeling of being trapped in their current place in life and by the roles that they’re given. Scully’s way of helping them through their problems is to fulfill the trials associated with that stage in the Tarot. More accurately, the player helps that social link overcome their archetypical complex. The player works each social link toward self-actualization. By working each individual character, and the town as a whole, through the archetype they’re fixated on, Scully becomes a Jungian psychoanalyst working the world and the people in it toward self-actualization. The goal of doing this is to create a sense of plural protagonism for the game’s final battle.
As William helps his community by working the town and the people in it through their complexes, the main party begins to function better as a unit and the game begins to display the features of plural protagonism. After every major mission and every plot point, character grow closer together and begin acting more like a team. It’s a process that’s difficult to notice as it happens, but one that’s significant. When the game begins, the party is more disjointed and unorganized than most JRPGs.
At the game’s onset, Scully is a charmless, wimpy slacker in a new social ecosystem. Like the player, he doesn’t understand what’s happening in the world, why it matters or what he’s supposed to do about it. What’s worse, everybody seems to bear down on him at once, pressuring him to do several things all with a limited amount of time. The player as William Scully must choose a club, meet new friends, go to Tartarus regularly, study for exams, manage the team’s items, equipment and finances, identify the mysterious boy that’s been haunting him and don’t forget to rest up occasionally or you won’t be equipped to handle all your duties. The first twenty hours of the game are both overwhelming and routine: there is so much to do and progress is so slow that little seems to amount from it. The game intentionally isolates poor Scully while demanding more and more out of him.
However, the further into the game the player gets, the more identities Scully masters, the more people he’s helped through their problems, the freer the game becomes. By playing Jung to everyone in his community and integrating more selves into his whole, Scully becomes far more equipped to deal with the mounting challenges the game throws at him. The dorm fills out with new party members, more personas are available for him to fuse, social links maximize one at a time and his personality stats reach their peak, freeing up his day. By the time Scully face the true antagonist of the game, he and the player are remarkably better suited to the world because they aren’t alone anymore.
One of the best features of the game is one of its most criticised. In battle, party members act independently of the player and behave according to their personalities. Junpei is direct and cocksure, so it makes sense that he favours direct weapon attacks; Mitsuru is elegant and cerebral, so it makes sense that she prefers to undermine enemies with status-changing spells. The problem is that characters don’t behave according to the most efficient battle plans; their personality driven attack patterns are sometimes as disruptive as the enemy’s own activity. It doesn’t matter if the player wanted to keep a shadow off-balance for strategic reasons, Junpei will run up and smack it while it’s down because he likes direct, blunt problem-solving; it doesn’t matter if Mitsuru could just use an ice blast to finish a shadow off, she’ll try to charm all the opponents at once because she’s prone to overthinking things. The team doesn’t always do what the player wants because the player isn’t the source of their thinking and strategising in the way that they are in most JRPGs.
It’s important to remember that even the most mature members of SEES are still high school students—they aren’t hardened drifters like Wild Arms 3‘s cast or experienced soldiers of an army like most games that fit the Shining Force trope (Filipowich, Mark. “Plural Protagonism Part 2: Wild Arms 3;” “Plural Protagonism Part 3: The Shining Force.” bigtallwords. Apr 11 2013; Apr 26 2013.)—so it makes narrative sense that they don’t fight well as a unit. Furthermore, in the beginning of the game they aren’t coordinated and they aren’t a cohesive unit: they’re kids caught in their selfish complexes. However, after half a year of growing together, under Scully’s subtle therapeutic guidance, they start acting much more like a team.
Each successful mission opens a new tactics option that improves the strategic repertoire of the player. The player gradually becomes able to dictate how their party fights. The personality flaws of each member that used to bleed into combat disappear when the player changes their team’s tactics. SEES becomes more disciplined and they start fighting more and more like an actual team. As Michael Peterson writes in his excellent essay on the game, “Yeah, Mitsuru leans too heavily on the infamous “Marin FUCKING Karin” charm spell, but if you give her actual orders, tell her to focus on doing something, she uses that skill a lot less.” (“Persona 3 and Free Will.” Project Ballad. Jan 31 2012). The further into the game the player gets, more refined orders become available.
Giving teammates orders filters their combat behaviour to the point that, even though the player isn’t actually controlling them, they function as efficiently as if they were: the protagonist becomes pluralized to the whole squad. Teammates learn to function in ways outside of their personalities. They still need they player as Scully to guide them by giving the order, but they gain the ability to fight in the most effective way possible. They become stronger as a group.
As important as Scully is to the story, as much as he is—initially—clearly the hero and separate from the collective, the game is ultimately about effacement of the self for the benefit of the group. Characters learn to overcome themselves for the sake of the many. It’s a slow process, certainly a grind, but one that follows a nameless orphan defined—privileged, really—by his otherness slowly forming a community with the divergent threads of people strewn all over town.
Plural protagonism in Persona 3 isn’t a means, it’s the goal of a lengthy process of self-improvement. It’s both an everyday therapy and the unbeatable strategy the team enacts to defeat evil. However, where most JRPGs display it from the outset, Persona 3 makes it an ultimate end to gradually strive for.
Further reading: Yorski, Austin. “Persona 3 on Freud, Jung and the Inevitability of Death.” Blistered Thumbs. Jun 2011.
Lee, Patrick. “Time, Death and Persona 3.” Game Theory. May 3 2013.
Gordon, Robert. “Party On: The Import of the Group Within RPGs.” New York Videogame Critics Circle. Oct 10 2013.