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?