One of the submissions for Critical Distance‘s October 2014 Blogs of the Round Table feature comes from The Rev 3.0. The article is one of my favourite kinds of criticism; that is, it really digs into a deep playthrough of a single game — Persona 4, in this case — to analyse how a mechanic holds meaning. The article discusses how Persona 4’s main character, Yu Narukami, is a psychopath (in the diagnostic sense) in that he has no personality of his own: his emotions and responses are false imitations that manipulate the people around him for his own good. Thus, Yu Narukami is just a mask, or a series of masks covering an identity-less figure (“The Mask of Sanity: Persona 4 as a Psychopathy Simulator.” Oct 28 2014.).
I haven’t played Persona 4 (I found it at a record store for $16 and it’s waiting for a long, quiet weekend for me to dive into it) but I have played and had similar thoughts about Persona 3 (“I Am Many: Multiple Identities in Persona 3.” Medium Difficulty. Jun 18 2013; “Plural Protagonism Part 5: Persona 3.” bigtallwords. Jun 20 2013). Persona 3 celebrates the multiplicity of the protagonist’s identity. As discussed in The Rev 3.0 article, Persona flows when the player-character helps the town and the people in it work through the emotional roadblocks barring them from maturing. To do this, the PC has to work them through events and conversations by choosing the right thing to do/say. The Rev argues that this betrays the hero’s psychopathy because the character is not tied to an emotional trauma, does not develop a single personality-based power and can participate in some of Persona 4’s content only by manipulating the emotions of others, not in building an honest emotional connection.
The author makes a strong case, but I find it interesting that these same traits are celebrated in Persona 3. For one, the protagonist (who I named William Scully because I am hilarious and insightful) has no individuality to speak of, but they are only capable of applying that lack of individuality to helping people. When interacting with people around town, there are conversation options that the PC’s friend wants to hear most, just like in Persona 4, but even in not selecting them, the relationship still grows, just not as quickly. The game rewards the player by interacting with characters around town. Granted, there is a “proper” way to interact with them and a response they “want” to hear, but the only consequence of not delivering what they want is a slower building friendship. In the end the friendship is still there.
In essence, the player’s lack of identity is a way of listening to others. The PC doesn’t express their own emotions—and indeed seems not to have any—but this lack of emotionality isn’t dangerous or harmful. So long as they interact with others, the player will become more powerful and competent. The game only punishes isolationist behaviour.
Also, similar to Persona 4, the PC of Persona 3 is able to swap out and combine different personas, rather than—as the case with their allies—rely on a single persona that becomes stronger as they mature. Again, this reflects his own lack of identity: the PC is not tied to a single self. There is not a single mythological figure of power tied to their personality, rather there is all myth (or at least material drawn from many myths). The PC is not a single consciousness, they are a collective consciousness. Just as in the waking world, the player is not tied to a single identity, they are more mask than individual and that power is used to connect with others.
Just as “Persona” itself is the Latin word for mask, and refers to the Jungian archetype for the public personality, the PC in Persona 3 has nothing beneath their public personality, but unlike Persona 4’s Narukami, this is not used to exploit people, it’s used to help them. Persona 3’s protagonist is a supernatural other, a messianic figure capable only of departing from their own realities and connecting to the feelings of others. The PC is a series of masks, but these masks are more than a costume for others to look at, the PC is a reflection of those that speak to them, the masks look outward and see the world in different ways. The PC’s masks are the source of their divine empathy.
I enjoyed the article on The Rev 3.0 because it illustrates how the “silent protagonist” figure of neutral affect can carry a sinister undertone. It was of special interest to me because just one game earlier in the Persona series, that same motif was used to express an opposite meaning. The player-character in Persona 3 is just as neutral as the one in Persona 4, but that emptiness is used as a way to connect to others, not to deceive them. Even though these games use the same tropes and figures, the subtle differences in their practice direct them to completely different conclusions, each with a myriad of separate conclusions.
Further reading: Beirne, Stephen. “A lovely look at videogames through Persona 4.” Destructoid. Nov 13 2011.
Hughes, Will. “Length as Storytelling.” Necessary Information. Apr 26 2011.
Kim, Matthew. “Persona 4: A New World Fool.” Twinfinite. Dec 13 2012.
Harper, Todd. “Reach Out to A Particular Contextual Version of the Truth.” Stay Classy. Jul 31 2013.