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I think that every gamer has a game that they’ve played but found one thing that puts them off the game enough to never get through it. Whether it infuriates them, hits a pet peeve, or makes them genuinely uncomfortable, gamers have a game that the love/hate dichotomy may be strong enough that they’ll speak well of a game despite being unable to deal with it themselves.

There are some games that have come close to this myself – Arcanum’s Black Mountain Mines came close to making me quit that personally! But the game that I’m going to talk about today falls more into the last category – a game that, while I liked quite a bit about it, made me personally uncomfortable.

While the game is a bit older now, it helped its series breakout in the West and got a special updated edition and a port to handheld. In fact, it is now available for streaming on the Playstation 4, and somehow avoided moral guardians – perhaps because it’s a Japanese RPG rather than a shooter.

As the title indicated to you, I’m speaking of Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 – and its FES and PSP editions. While Persona 3 isn’t as well-known as its sequel Persona 4, it was the one that introduced the simulation aspects to the game and helped bring the whole series to larger appeal. The addition of cross-genre play with the simulation aspects helped add new parts to this spinoff series and brought in new eyes to it.

Persona 3 has its share of issues – however it isn’t a mechanical issue that was behind my inability to finish the game. No, it had nothing to do with dating sim stuff, repetitive dungeon levels, or annoying fetch quests. It has nothing to do with the philosophy of the game … well that’s not quite true. It definitely touches on it and the themes of it to some degree, and the Shin Megami Tensei series is often full of philosophical references and musings.

In all Persona games you summon forth a being of your mind known as a persona. Each game has its own method and here is where Persona 3’s issues for me began. In Persona 3 you use a gun shaped device known as an evoker to summon the persona. To utilize the evoker you point it at your head and pull the trigger, which creates a sort of emotional trauma or damage to the user that allows persona users to summon their persona. It requires an acceptance of death, or perhaps more accurately, an acceptance of mortality – a theme that runs throughout the game.

When discussing this on occasion with others in the past, they’ve remarked it’s somewhat uncomfortable for them but it didn’t interfere with their enjoyment of the game. Given Persona 3’s commercial success it seems that is likely to be a common experience, as was the understanding that the use of the gun was symbolism rather than a literal gun. It represents putting yourself on the line and bringing a sense of terror, death, and mortality to the user, allowing a persona user to summon their persona. Almost all persona users in Persona 3 are mentally scarred in some way, and I theorize may be part of why they are persona users.

However, for me it was something that while I coped with for a while, it eventually led to me walking away from the game. It’s not that I dislike Persona – I beat 4 and am looking forward to 5. It’s not that I don’t like heavier themes – as I find analyzing and discussing themes to be something fascinating. Instead the issue for me was the symbolism used there and what it represented to me. All of us have our own struggles in life – and mine personally have, and still include, fights with anxiety and depression.

In the interests of being a bit clearer of why that particularly troubled me, that has included issues with suicidal thoughts on occasion – though not in years thankfully. For me, the evoker was perhaps too evocative as I do fear death, but perhaps even more though, I fear the loss of control that can happen if I don’t retain a hold on my emotions. In Persona 3, the evoker is meant to evoke psychological damage, fear, and mortality… things that accompanied with the action of pointing a gun-shaped object at one’s head were very uncomfortable for me.

I appreciate a lot of the themes Persona 3 brings up – in fact I believe more games can benefit from exploring deep themes whether it’s a large part of the game or not. However, that doesn’t change the fact that for me, the actions with the evoker too close to comfort for me. This is despite the fact I’ve never touched a gun myself in any situation – I’m a Canadian after all, not a yankee!

While I won’t use a screenshot from the game, there is thankfully a nice part of the movie loaded up on Youtube that shows how the evoker works and the first time the main character uses it..

Now in this case, there are a few other things that appear weird here and go into the symbolism of the game. Without going into everything in the game – as that would be a long discussion in and of itself – we can break down this clip some and discuss elements of it and how it relates to my feelings on Persona 3, what fascinates me with Persona 3, and why I can’t finish it.

At the start of the clip, you see Yukari standing forth in front of the blue haired male (the protagonist), and holding an evoker. Yukari is the most afraid of death of all the characters in the group and perhaps the largest desire for a ‘normal’ life. Her emotional baggage relates largely to her father dying, and her mother subsequently effectively abandoning her. As the game goes on, more is revealed about her father’s work with Kirijo Group and research into Tartarus and Dark Hour. Her refusal to accept death as something that comes to everyone is a key part of Yukari and can be a strength at times, but it is also a weakness when it leads to self-deception, causing issues to summon her persona. As we see here, she is unable to summon her persona because of that and her fear of death.

Now, what is it that is attacking her – these are shadows. While personas are controlled manifestations of a person’s subconscious, shadows tap the collective subconscious of humanity as a whole for form. Not everyone can awaken a persona… and there’s a reason a lot of this is given in expositional bursts over an 80 hour game and not in a tutorial! This focus though on the subconscious mind with both personas and shadows is key to understanding as controlling one’s mind and understanding it are a large part of what fuel the game and the evoker.

The evoker is left somewhat vague in exactly how it works. It basically helps a person pass the natural barrier that they might erect themselves. There are all things we don’t like about ourselves, we lie about or refuse to consider. The evoker helps a persona user break through the last levels using a targeted burst – that’s why when summoning a persona there is the glass breaking animation in my opinion. However, the more barriers a person erects, such as with fear, or refusing to accept parts of the world like death, the harder job it has to do and the more likely it is to fail.

All of the natural persona-users in Persona 3 have dealt with death in one form or another. Yukari’s was with her father, and she wants to find out why he died and what he was doing. Her attachment to the main character grows as they find that out and he helps her through a rough stage later in the game – and it is possible for there to be a romantic relationship. Yukari’s refusal to accept death permeates through the game to some degree is heaviest here in this scene… and in the playable epilogue The Answer where it comes to the forefront again.

In simplest terms what happens next is she panics, dropping the evoker and a young boy appears. The boy, known as Pharos as you’ll find out later, has spent some time living with the character, and is presently amnesiac. As the plot goes on, and you continue, his memories begin to come back, and he eventually recalls that he is the avatar of Nyx, but those 10 years spent living inside a human changed him to be more human. A character who spent years with death in their subconscious and has lost both parents has no issues accepting the reality of death. In fact, for the protagonist, this perhaps explains why he has the wildcard ability in many ways as his acceptance is there and thus he can express different parts of himself as there’s less for the evoker to break through.

In this case though, he uses it, utters the quiet per-son-a and summons his first persona. The shadows then transform into more tangible shapes in parts as they engage – becoming more solid. Instead of blobs of subconscious thoughts of humanity they coalesce into specific representations. It may be that they are picking up parts from whom they are fighting in part to gather that more specific alignment.

Even in what is basically a 3 minute cut scene taken out of the game with ignoring bits there is so much to take apart and analyze here. This is part of what I love about Shin Megami Tensei – that while on the surface there’s a lot to see, there’s also a lot below the surface. Sometimes it explains it; sometimes it lets you put it together.

There are a lot more themes and parts to Persona 3, and the series as a whole. Even with that short scene, looking through it from where I got (which was pretty far into the game), there’s numerous other angles that could be looked at and analyzed. That however can’t overcome my personal fears and issues with the evoker being too evocative for my comfort. Perhaps because it is such a perfectly shaped part for the themes in the story it carries extra weight with me compared to something more general. I suspect in many ways I’m closer to Yukari there with it, and shy away from thoughts on death and mortality when they relate to myself as it is too close to home.

Are there any games that you have failed to complete because they made you uncomfortable? Games that you share a love/hate relationship with? What are your thoughts on Persona 3?

Don Parsons

News Editor

I've been a gamer for years of various types starting with the Sega Genesis and Shining Force when I was young. If I'm not playing video games, I'm often roleplaying, reading, writing, or pondering things brought up by speculative fiction.

  • Robert Grosso

    Reading this makes me want to play Persona 3 again, although I don’t think I can stomach the boredom of Tartarus again, man it was a slog.

  • Demetirus

    While I don’t feel the same way, I can understand why that was hard for you, mate. Moreso, I appreciate your efforts to try as hard as you could to give P3 as fair of a shake as you could, and admitted that the issue was on you, not the game. You have no idea how refreshing it is to hear that sort of statement these days. I could love this article for that alone.

    However, I really feel that you got the core of the beauty in that game, even if you didn’t finish it. Reading your article, I really get the sense that you gave your all in trying to understand it and see it for everything it was from as many different angles as you could. For me, Persona 3 helped shaped part of the way I view the world currently (along with other sometimes uncomfortable series, like the Fionavar Tapestry) so I’m always kind of heart warmed when I see someone give it a fair shake. It feels like they’re trying to understand me, you know?

    Anyway, great article! Really enjoyed the read and hearing your thoughts.

  • MusouTensei

    “Are there any games that you have failed to complete because they made you uncomfortable? ”

    Besides being uncomfortably bored or annoyed by the gameplay, no. There isn’t much that could really offend me to the point of quitting a game that I enjoy… ah wait, when I was younger (I’m 32) I quit MGS 2 on PS2 after a certain female character died.

    I do have anxiety issues as well and the thought of suicide went through my head many times, but fictional stuff of that kind just doesn’t bothers me.
    Another example is the recent SJW outrage because you can kill cats and play around with their dead bodies in GTA V now… I love cats, they are my favorite mammals, but this is just dumb.

  • Casey

    I didn’t stop it because it made me uncomfortable, but I quit paper mario and the thousand year door mid-playthrough four times now, and always right around the train section.

    Probably the monotonous backtracking killing it for me.

    Going to the uncomfortable stuff, there was a game for the pc called Creature Shock, and I couldn’t force myself through it.

    I don’t know what the phobia is, and it’s pretty stupid, but I have a fear of being inside another creature. So any movie or game that takes the player/viewer into a body makes me cringe. Bowser’s Inside Story was quite a nightmare to force myself through, but it was such a good game that I did it anyway.

  • The Wind Rises

    I liked Persona 3, but I could never finish it because by the time I had played it, I was already spoiled with 4. 4 is just so much more campy and enjoyable. Rather than a group of strangers, it really feels like your teammates are the MC’s friends. I’ll finish it someday!

  • DukeMagus

    I think you’re going too far with your analysis. I too had the same “voice” in the back of my head telling me ways and more ways to end with my own life and plight when i was younger, guns involved in the plans.

    And i beat the game. I have dozens of complaints about it, but the way the evoker is presented and its symbolism isn’t something related. Actually, it works well with your text to show WHY YOU SHOULD BEAT THE GAME.

    Y’see, in the game it’s shown that when the characters surpass their fear of the “gun”, they awaken to something bigger, and the thing that was making them afraid and unconfortable is revealed as a surpassed obstacle, a self imposed limitation.

    think about it.

  • Guy Montag

    MGS2 almost made me quit but only because of the lame bosses and incoherent story telling.

    P3 or P3P as I played it, was the gravely serious Persona game that made it not so fun at times while putting up a decent challenge. It was an enjoyable overall experience.

    As for The Answer since it got brought up, we could have done without it and I’m grateful that it was cut out of P3P. I wish I had never watched it on YouTube. To end an awesome RPG story with the lamest of all sci-fi clichés would have had me throwing my controller had I played FES.

  • Guy Montag

    Yes, Tartarus is just so monotonous. At least the dungeons in P4 had more detail and different soundtracks.

  • coboney

    Logically I know that honestly – its facing that fear and fighting it off and while I didn’t really go into it in the article here – one of the key things is that while you accept mortality as well you don’t accept fatalism in the game is one of the key turning points (I made it a bit further then that but that’s it). Emotionally though it was draining on me a lot of the time when dealing with that especially if I was having a down day already.

    I may at some point go back and try it again to finish.

    And ya there are issues with tartarus’ design being poor a lot and some other stuff but those I got through and I’ve gotten through worse combat before. I’m willing to put up with some bad game play for good writing, characters, and/or world building.

  • coboney

    It is a flaw in the game for sure – P4 also used shorter dungeons typically with themes to them to help vary it up from P3’s long single dungeon. Each of P4’s dungeons also felt much more connected to a plot point (as they were) compared to Tartarus where it was always ‘reach the next main area’ with the same level design. I think in a lot of places P4 iterated well on P3’s ideas and dungeon design was definitely one of them.

    Of the SMT line Persona is the ‘lightest’ of the bunch and I think Atlus was trying to figure that out especially with adding in the life/dating sim aspects to the game. When you look at stuff like the other SMT lines, Etrian Oddessy and such – in those types of games longer dungeons with minimal differences is somewhat accepted. However different genre blend now, and even in the other ones they generally manage to provide more variance – but then thats where the focus is compared to P3 which was somewhat split.

    You can even see iteration in a lot of the ideas between the different releases of P3 – even if they couldn’t reform Tartarus.

  • Donwel

    Personally I thought the use of the evoker was a bit weird but it never made me uncomfortable, I actually thought it was quite a clever little bit of symbolism on the devs part.
    I can see how it might make others uncomfortable though and if I’m being honest, I haven’t yet beaten the game (playing the PSP version) and it’s my first run through after only having it for a couple of months. I do think that it is an excellent game though.