High school is tough and Persona 3 did a masterful job capturing the complexities of student life. Easily one of the best JRPGs I've played, the game gave players an extremely difficult choice near its end that still haunts me.
With 2018 here and my stint as co-guest editor ending for the weekend, I thought it'd be interesting to revisit that choice and all its life-shattering implications.
Every time the New Year comes around, I think a lot about the choices I made in the previous year, while at the same time wondering how the days went by so fast. The whole experience of playing Persona 3 was similar to that feeling. A JRPG with social simulation elements that came out in 2007, it actually reminded me of the two years I attended elementary school in Seoul, Korea back in the late 80s. The exams were really hard, we had to study all the time, and there was even school on Saturdays, which I hated. Persona 3 takes the best elements of academic life and distills them into a fast paced experience revolving around forming social links and playing the role of secret saviour by night.
In many ways, my journey to being a writer was cemented in those days. Because I'd grown up in America and didn't know the Korean language well, I often felt estranged, having very few friends. That's how I came to spend most of my free time playing games and writing quaint stories about a band of warriors fighting for freedom. For me, Persona 3 represented the school life I wished I'd had. I've written before about how much I loved the friendships I formed in Persona 3 with the other SEES (Specialised Extracurricular Execution Squad) members. That includes fellow students like Akihiko and Mitsuru who can also summon the Personas by shooting themselves with evokers through their own heads. It's a symbolic suicide, dying to oneself to be reborn with new powers as all of them find meaning within the ranks of SEES.
Their mission is to fight against the temporal aberration called the Dark Hour, a mysterious wedge in time taking place between midnight and the following day. People are turned into coffins and a massive tower called Tartarus cannibalizes the school, building a labyrinthine structure in its place. Metaphorically and physically, a malaise overwhelms the citizens of Iwatodai in a monotonous daze of indifference and nihilism. For them, it's the end of the world and they really do feel fine.
This makes the actions the SEES members do all the more urgent. They're the only ones actively trying to make a difference in the fate of the world. A stunning betrayal hits them hard, a rival group tries to defeat them, and monstrous shadows launch an assault every month. Their relationships grow stronger, bonded both by adversity and ridiculous situations that are as authentically awkward as the ones I remember from my own student days. Probably one of the most gruesome scenes is their crucifixion following the defeat of the 12 Shadows, a scene dripping with religious iconography and symbolism. Though they are rescued, this sequence leads to the tragic final act.
Burn My Dread
Sacrifice is a motif that pops up repeatedly in Persona 3, as in one of the most difficult dilemmas I've faced in gaming. Throughout your journey, a young boy named Pharos comes to mysteriously greet you at night, speaking in astrological riddles. The bond you establish with him grows and grows until one day, he vanishes.
A short while later, a transfer student named Ryoji makes his first appearance. He too forms a strong relationship with the characters, joining Junpei in his escapades to flirt with other female students and various other shenanigans. What's disturbing is that he bears a resemblance to a younger Pharos and Aigis even cautions everyone that he is dangerous. She is right. Ryoji is a fully grown Pharos who is both a harbinger for the Fall and an Appriser for Nyx, Nyx being the Avatar that will bring about the destruction of the world. In a flood of reawakened memories, Aigis recalls their battle a decade before when her actions and a desperate attempt to defeat Death resulted in many of the events that happened in the game.
Ryoji himself did not realise initially and when he does, he is horrified at the revelation of what he represents. But he isn't a classic villain, twirling his mustache and being driven mad by the knowledge. He takes the opposite route and implores the others to make him a sacrificial lamb, killing him before the cruel Nyx wipes them out for their sins. The end of the world is inevitable, but if the main protagonist, who's connected with him through a seal created by Aigis, terminates him, the team members can buy a little extra time as well as voluntary amnesia. This is the idea of "ignorance is bliss" taken to an extreme. Ryoji's voice acting is deeply sincere and he sounds like he's going to break into tears any moment. Never had I experienced a main antagonist begging the heroes to execute him. I felt so bad for him, even though he was describing the destruction of everyone I held dear. It was clearly his concern for his friends that led him to argue passionately for them to kill him. But it also made me wonder, if the end of the world was inevitable, would it better to close your eyes to it and forget it was even happening?
In many ways, it's symbolically a dilemma I face every day. How do we react to the challenges we face? Confront them head on, or try to forget them and live life in forgetful bliss, trying to dismiss our sorrows in a million substitutes for amnesia? These problems aren't limited to the end of the world; most are deeply personal, ranging from the financial to the political. For me, I try to find expression in my creative bouts as I struggle to figure out how to deal with seemingly strange and discouraging obstacles. Last year had its fair share of extreme ups and downs. In many of those valleys, I had no idea how I was going to get through.
In Persona 3, if players choose to terminate Ryoji, they receive the first of two endings in which they live out their lives oblivious to what awaits. Even then, there's an air of casual indifference in their conversations, drifting without direction that's even more bleak because we, the players, know it's just a facade of happiness.
But even if players decide to let Ryoji live, it's not like things suddenly get better. If anything, the entire mood of the game shifts dramatically for the worse. The music becomes a somber jazz, there's a sense of hopelessness and destitution that marks the dialogue of the characters, and even the shopping centres are marred by graffiti and trash. The atmosphere oozes despondency.
What's ultimately so engaging about the game is the sense of agency. You can actually determine the fate of your characters, choosing to ignore the impending apocalypse. Very few games up until then gave players that kind of decision. The consequences are devastating as Nyx, through Death, was going to ravage the entire planet. And I was conflicted because I didn't want to kill Death as he was fused with my friend!
The ending battle against Nyx is sublime, eloquent, and poetic. Friendships and social links can temporarily stave off Death, even if Death can never be truly overcome. Great stories transcend culture, transcend their medium, transcend even the time they were written in. As we all move into 2018, I think about that choice a lot and hope that I can always act with that same type of courage no matter what the odds.