Recent Persona games have become cult hits thanks largely to their gameplay framework — traditional Japanese RPG leveling mechanics reframed around personal improvement, social relationships and the concept of the self.
And though it's about the lead character's ultimately linear story arc, this framework subtly becomes about the player's self, too.
Persona 3 and Persona 4 largely share the same main core gameplay concepts. Players begin as a nameless, faceless protagonist, and conduct that character through the events of a story as it unfolds across the calendar school year. The activities the player chooses in the simplicity of daily life come to bear on the gameplay just as much as more conventional dungeon runs and battles - if not more so.
Perhaps most characteristic of the series, though, is the way that the gameplay subtly encourages players to enter the protagonist's shoes, to take on the lessons of his experiences, and to turn the lens on themselves.
The Malleable Protagonist
To some extent, this open-ended character experience is part of the established function of the silent protagonist. These heroes tend to possess few defining characteristics of their own, and the player selects each and every thing they say and do. The lead character, then, simply acts as a medium for the player's own interaction with a game's character and world.
But the recent Persona games take the silent protagonist a step further. In both games, the lead character is a teenage boy - that's not the unusual bit. With his classmates, he uses alternate "selves" called Personas to fight an encroaching evil. This boy learns from the beginning he's special - unlike his fellow Persona-users, he can employ not one, but many different Personas. In other words, he has a nearly-limitless number of possible "selves" he can select at will.
The ability to change Personas is a functional part of the core gameplay. The advantage in battle of being able to change out what essentially translates to combat skills for different ones, or stronger ones, is simply part of the game mechanic.
But thematically, the game's lead character is an individual with an infinite number of faces. He's told his ultimate nature, and the course of his journey, will depend largely on the choices he makes and the bonds that he forms. It's true for the character - but even more so considering he's at the behest of a player who will decide what sort of "self" the character has.
The idea that the silent protagonist will shape himself is illusory, of course - that's the player's job. But along the way, the game subtly demands players reflect on their own selves, too.
Three Versus Four
Although Persona 4 makes just about every appropriate iterative improvement on Persona 3's design that one could ever ask for, many stalwart fans prefer the "darker" vibe of the third title, with its inferred undertones of suicide, depression and sexual deviance. P3's distinctly forbidding feel, though, comes mainly from its almost negative take on the concept of the persona.
There's a very subtle difference — P3 employed the multiple-persona concept to suggest a character who wore many different masks, but kept his heart hidden. Success in the game's social relationships usually depended on telling characters precisely what they wanted to hear - even if it wasn't the right thing, and even if it conflicted with beliefs and behaviours you chose to express with other characters. Underlying message? Starkly nihilistic in its own way, suggesting that all others ever really know of your "self" is the mask you choose to show them.
By contrast - and with a lot more clarity — P4 presents the idea that an individual may have many different "selves," some public, some private, and yet the individual's encouraged to embrace and accept them all, even when it's difficult. In fact, in P4, denying one's alternate self creates a mortal danger. A facet of the self that's repressed can become a dangerous dark side - and that's true for real-life humans, too.
P4's social relationships are more complex and more genuine, too, and while this lightens things up a bit in contrast with P3's darkness, it often encourages the player to do a truthful self-evaluation and to make an emotional investment - thereby building immersion, and making it more possible to adopt the protagonist's journey as one's own.
A Moment Of Reflection
Persona 4 also has an ingenious way of encouraging players to visualize relating to themselves within a video game. The game's story hinges on the concept of the Midnight Channel , an odd TV show that can only be seen at midnight on rainy days. Initially an urban legend bolstered by the rising spread of rumour about it, it's soon revealed to play a central role in the game's story.
As the player watches the exposition of Persona 4 unfold, waiting to be drawn into the events on the screen, the protagonist is also being drawn into a television screen — literally. Early on, the character learns he has the power to enter the TV - to be immersed - in order to address its dangerous portents.
One of the most fascinating moments of the entire game is watching the protagonist's first experience with the Midnight Channel, as part of the game's introductory period. On a dark night, the protagonist approaches the smooth, black frame of his television set and stares into it, waiting for the show to begin.
At first, all he sees is his own reflection. The screen is dark enough that if your own TV screen reflects at all, you'll be able to see your own reflection at the same time. Depending on where you're sitting, your mirrored face may even transpose directly onto the protagonist's.
You're watching yourself watch your character watch himself in a TV screen, a superimposition as briefly dizzying as the spiraling, black and white transition that fills your own screen whenever the character enters his TV.
Seek The Truth
At the same time, one of Persona 4's central narrative themes seems to be that because reality's created by belief, one can never wholly trust what the eyes see. The protagonist and his companions become truth-seekers, of a sort, in their attempts to solve a murder mystery and figure out the Midnight Channel. This also becomes a central theme for the gameplay throughout, as the player is always rewarded for investigating beyond the visible.
The climax of this immersive marriage of gameplay and narrative is actually in the game's closing sequence, after the central conflict has apparently been resolved. Without spoiling anything, the game's optimal ending can actually only be achieved if the player picks up on a few unanswered questions - and then repeatedly defies and ignores the customary in-game text and menus to try to resolve them.
In that way, players of Persona 4 are always being asked to do the very same things, consider the very same big-picture choices, that its heroes are simultaneously confronting. The story is about a boy discovering his alternate selves - and who then becomes the player's alternate self at the same time. Who says there are no good gameplay-narrative mergers?
What do you think your "Shadow self" would look like? What kind of Persona would you have?
[ [Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, reviews games at Variety,and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]