Right Here, Shadow 10 o’clock Direction Seize the Moment, Destroy the Nation! The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 5-Plot and Themes

Part 1-Intro

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Presentation

Part 4-Setting

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

Yeah, so, as it turns out, a combination of my limited schedule and my desire for variety in what I write leads me to not move through these long-form projects quite so quickly.  But you know what?  Time is on my side.  As long as we keep moving forward, we’ll get to the end eventually.  One of the perks of being functionally immortal.  So let’s get to the next step of our Persona 3 retrospective.  Today, talking about the plot.

PLOT

Persona 1 had a pretty barebones plot.  Persona 2 gave it a lot more focus, but still had it second to the gameplay.  In Persona 3, the plot eclipses the rest of the game.  At the time, this was really rare, the gameplay is structured around what’s going on in the plot, rather than vice versa.  The pace of the plot progression controls the way the gameplay develops.  And you can tell that the story is where more importance is placed.

So it had better be a darn good one.  

Also, be mindful, I am dropping some spoiler bombs here.  Some absolute spoiler nukes.  If you haven’t played the game yet, and you still want to don’t read the rest.  

So, normally, I wait until the end of this to talk about themes.  Give you a sense of what the plot is, in itself, before we jump into talking about the hidden meanings in there.  And we’re going to do that.  But let’s lead off, as well, because there’s one theme that’s absolutely pervasive to this game, and I feel you absolutely need to know that going in to get a second-hand handle on this plot.  

Death is central to this game’s story.  Most of your player characters have survived the death of a loved one, or have lived lives otherwise defined by the death of a major fixture.  This game features a significant body count, and unlike most stories, deals significantly with the trauma and aftermath of most of them.  The embodiment of death itself lives inside your main character, and is alternatively both a mysterious ally to you as well as your ultimate adversary.  One of your social links is dead.  The whole time you’re talking with him.  Memento Mori, a reminder of your mortality, is a common line throughout the story, and there’s a big chunk of time when you and all your friends are convinced death is imminent.  And, of course, your main character just straight dies at the end of it.  So keep that in mind as you’re going through this summary here.  The ominous pall of death is cast over every element here.

It’s not just literal death, however.  Remember, Persona has a really strong tarot motif, so it’s really fitting that it would work the tarot meaning of the death arcana in there, as well.  Change and upheaval.  The end of things and new beginnings. The reversed arcana of stasis and adherence to the old ways fighting against the upright arcana of transformation and the need to embrace the new.  And this sense shows up all over the place in the individual character arcs.  All the social links have to deal with the loss of their old ways of life and learn to face their new lifestyles.  All of your characters have their old habits and conceptions shaken, and they have to live lives that are abruptly different than they were before. Society as a whole is stuck in the reversed arcana of death, collectively wishing for the literal application of death, and it’s up to your team, a force serving the upright arcana, to save them from it.  Moreover, the game even puts you, the player through that, posing certain expectations to you throughout the story, only to completely upend them partway through.

So, if you have the FES version of the game, the main portion of the game, disregarding the expansion, is called “The Journey”, at least in English.  Referring to the Fool’s Journey, which is what you get if you put all the major arcana of the tarot in order and apply the story structure of the Hero’s Journey monomyth to it.  Normally, you might think that’s just a pretty cool reference, and not expect much more out of it.  After all, as fun as it is learning about various world mythologies and folklore, the SMT franchise doesn’t usually wield its subject matter with a whole lot of nuance or accuracy past the surface level.  Here, though, they actually put some thought into it.  You can totally map out Persona 3’s Journey to the steps in the Fool’s Journey.  Check it:

First step of the Fool’s Journey is the Fool, so termed because he is naive to the world and innocent of anything he will encounter in it.  The Fool gathers his possessions and embarks on an adventure.  We start Persona 3 with our protagonist, the Fool, on a train ride to the new home he’ll be living in. He passes by several notable characters without taking any note of them, and is drowning out the rest of the world with his headphones.  He actually enters the Dark Hour without particularly noticing it, and makes it all the way to his dorm without being bothered by any of its dangers, thus reflecting the Fool’s naivete and innocence to the world.

Next the Fool encounters the Magician, who opens the Fool’s eyes to his internal power and all the myriad possibilities available to him, sparking his creativity. Upon entering the Iwatodai Dorm, the protagonist encounters Pharos, who, in the future, we’ll learn is the embodiment of Death that’s been sealed inside him.  Pharos has the protagonist sign a contract, that he “chooseth this fate of [his] own free will” and unlocks the power of the wild card persona in him.

The Fool leaves the Magician and meets the High Priestess, who serves as the Magician’s opposite counterpart.  The High Priestess focuses on the Fool’s unconscious whereas the Magician was the conscious, the potential in the future against the power right now, and quietly guides the Fool to sort through the options that the power the Magician awoke him to presented and make his own choices about where to go from there.  The protagonist meets his new dormmates, all of whom are members of the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (S.E.E.S.), a school club devoted to slaying Shadows and investigating the Dark Hour.  At one point, the dorm itself is under attack by a massive Shadow. Yukari, one of those dormmates, tries to keep him safe, ends up being the last S.E.E.S. member able to fight it back, pulls out her evoker to summon her Persona, but is unable to muster the resolve needed to force it out.  The protagonist watches her doing this, her actions guiding him through what needs to be done, and he unconscious knows what to do, calling his Persona by name even before knowing what the hell it is.  Saving all their lives in the process, of course.  Moreover, this initial summoning does show him that he has options in this power, as his relatively weak initial Persona, Orpheus, gets taken over by the fearsome Thanatos partway through.

From the High Priestess, the Fool finds the Empress, a motherly figure to him, that cares for him deeply and helps him explore the nature of his new world, with a focus on growth and development. After he summons his Persona the first time, the Protagonist finds himself in the Velvet Room where he meets Igor and Elizabeth, who explain to him how the Personae work and how to grow and develop it further through Persona Fusion.  

Next step is the Emperor, a fatherly figure who teaches the Fool about structure, order, and rules.  The older members of S.E.E.S., Akihiko and Mitsuru, as well as the schools principal, Ikutstuki, all spend the next while introducing the protagonist to their operations, how things work, where they get their resources from, the systems they’ve built for navigating Tartarus, etc.  They also continually establish the rules for the group as a whole, putting limits on when and how S.E.E.S. can progress in Tartarus.

On the next step, the Fool meets the Hierophant, who teaches the Fool many things, especially about the nature of groups and communities.  You go to school.  You have your education.  You start connecting with people and learning how your social links work.  S.E.E.S. also has a new member join, Junpei.  You and Junpei get along rather well, but Junpei often feels the need to act out and compete with you out of insecurity of his placement within this new community, leading both of you to explore it further.

The Fool falls for a woman, and they become Lovers.  This teaches the Fool the importance of being a fulfilling half of a relationship, that doing so feeds you as much as it does others.  You start getting deeper and deeper into your social links, and as you get a few levels into them, they start being incredibly valuable to you gameplay-wise.  S.E.E.S. also recruits a new member in Fuuka.  Fuuka was horribly bullied by others in your school, but turns the other cheek and becomes very strong friends with her former bullies after awakening to her Persona, giving her a relationship that ends up being incredibly meaningful to her.

The Fool begins encountering enemies. Seeking help in overcoming them, he seeks advice from the Charioteer.  The Charioteer instructs the Fool to focus on his goals, even beset by enemies, and to pursue them assertively.  So bolstered, the Fool begins overcoming his foes and revels in his new, victorious nature.  S.E.E.S. encounters Strega, another group of Persona users serving as a dark counterpart to them.  They revel in the Dark Hour, and enjoy the power that it gives them.  Faced with another group seeking a counter purpose to them, one seeking the opposite of their aims, S.E.E.S. reconsiders, then reinforces its commitment to its goal of ending the Dark Hour.  

In his travels, the Fool encounters a woman facing down a lion fiercer than he’d ever seen before.  He is shocked, unable to step in against something that even in his spree of victory he knows he cannot over come.  The woman has no fear however; she steps forward and shuts the lion’s mouth with one hand.  He asks her how she did it, and she responds that she simply asked the lion to do so, and it did, responding to and respecting her inner Strength. So does the Fool learn the values of inner power, particularly tolerance, patience, and generosity.  There’s a couple of parallels we can call on for this in the Persona 3 story, depending on how flexible I get to be with jumping a couple of steps in the timeline.  At this point in the story, S.E.E.S. goes to visit Mitsuru’s family’s beachfront property. One of the days there, Junpei, Akihiko, and the Protagonist embark on one of human civilization’s most storied, revered, and honored pasttimes.  They call it Operation Babe Hunt.  After everyone strikes out miserably, which is an important part of any young man’s development and one I’ve unfortunately never experienced, the trio come upon a beautiful young woman, really an advanced anti-Shadow android unbeknownst to them, who declares that she wishes to be by the protagonist’s side forever without him saying a word. Because she was drawn to the avatar of Death within him.  The War Machine became his, because of his literal internal power.  However, jumping ahead, you can tie this same story element to a bunch of the other upcoming S.E.E.S. members, too.  The next party member to join is Koromaru, an orphaned dog that took down some Shadows on his own.  Akihiko and Aigis both connect with the power he has inside, which draws him into the group. Also, more a long term development, but at one point Ken Amada, noted stupid punk kid that I hate so much and so do you, joins S.E.E.S.  You’ve been periodically running across Shinjiro, a former member of S.E.E.S. and current dropout delinquent with a heart of gold that your party members are frankly scared of.  Shinjiro has some history with Ken, being that Shinjiro’s Persona accidentally killed Ken’s mom when he lost control of it.  Akihiko has been spending all game trying to get him to rejoin, but it’s Ken finally being a part of S.E.E.S. that ends up connecting with him.  Shinjiro, the fearsome beast of a man that half of S.E.E.S. are afraid of, becomes an ally because of the group’s internal development.

By this point, the Fool has spent a good, long while on his adventure, largely taking things as they’ve been, putting no further thought into it.  This has gotten rather overwhelming to him, so he retreats from the world, and, in his new Hermit lifestyle, instead travels more methodically, examining the things he comes across, and questioning the ‘why’ of it all.  Rewinding a bit from where we jumped ahead in the last step, in this part of the story, just after the group encountered Aigis, they also meet Mitsuru’s father, who explains to them the backstory and the reasons behind what they’re doing, that it was the Kirijo family who started the Dark Hour by means of studying the Shadows in order to develop a way of controlling time, that Yukari’s father was a researcher there that caused the accident starting the Dark Hour in the first place, and that the only way to end the Dark Hour was to defeat all the full moon Shadows.

The Fool’s travels give him a broader perspective, analyzing the way the various parts of the world work together, interrelate.  The Wheel of Fortune becomes more apparent to him, that force moving the world along its own lives, all the parts interconnected like a great tapestry.  Again, the previous explanation of the Dark Hour fits here.  You also start seeing some more interactions between the members of S.E.E.S at this point, outside of what’s running through the protagonist.  Yukari and Mitsuru, whose relations have always been tense, make up and start getting along.  Akihiko takes responsibility for ensuring Ken’s safety.  Aigis starts displaying even more of an odd connection to you, hinting at something more going on.  At this point, the various pieces of the world begin coming together.

In his travels, the Fool meets a blind wise woman, whom two brothers are each arguing a case in front of.  She makes a decision neither brother is happy with, but will serve both best in the long run, and so delivers Justice.  This opens the Fool’s eyes to the nature of cause and effect, and he begins making decisions more carefully.  Shinjiro finally makes the decision to rejoin S.E.E.S., at Akihiko’s prompting.  Later events will delve deeper into the cause of his prior refusal to continue on with them, as well as the effect such events had on Ken.

The Fool, intent on finding his spiritual self after that experience, rests beneath a tree and seeks to empty himself.  After days of doing so, he inexplicably gets the urge to climb the tree and hang upside down from his legs, becoming the Hanged Man.  His possessions fall from his pockets, and he lets them go, sacrificing them.  His world has turned upside down, but he finds himself finally at peace.  Ken brings Shinjiro to a secluded location, intent on killing Shinjiro in vengeance for his mother’s death, sacrificing himself to do so.  This is interrupted when Strega attacks.  Shinjiro instead sacrifices himself to keep Ken safe from then, finally feeling peace as he redeems himself for his part in Ken’s mother’s death years earlier.

Hanging himself from the tree brings the Fool near to death.  He gets down, and starts walking on, only to find the figure of Death before him.  Asking if he has died, Death confirms he has, although his death has been more metaphorical than physical.  Death teaches the Fool that for new things to come, the old must pass away.  The Fool understands that this is how transformation happens.  Shinjiro passes on.  This is a shocking event for S.E.E.S.  Most of its members spend a long time in self reflection.  This ends up being foundational for their further development, and many of the members, after this time, end up learning more about themselves, overcome some of their weaknesses, and get upgrade their persona.

Travelling onward, still in the zone between life and death, the Fool next comes across an angel with a number of jars in front of him.  The angel (representing Temperance) picks one jar up and pours fire from it into an empty jar before him. Then, the angel pours water into that jar.  The two elements mix, and create a third, complete different substance.  The Fool expresses his wonder at that, and asks if that can be done with any opposite.  The angel confirms that it does, requiring only the right proportions, the right vessel, and the right faith, to make opposites come together to form something else.  Stuff happens, S.E.E.S. beats the final full moon Shadow, and Aigis unlocks her lost memories. This leads her to relate her past how she defeated the Shadow of Death years ago and locked it inside a nearby living creature, that being the protagonist as a child.  The mixture of those opposites, Death and life, ended up creating the Wild Card, a whole new and expansive way to use the power of persona.

Continuing his journeys in that zone of existence, the Fool finds a Devil, overseeing a number of people chained to the earth by their worldly desires.  The Fool, having overcome worldly desires himself, knows the Devil has no hold over him, and states as such.  The Devil looks at him curiously in response, stating that these chains come not from him, they come from within the people.  Staring at the heights of the nearby mountain, he states that these people are trapped by their material desires, but others have used those same desires to reach the top of their mountains and achieve great things.  It is not the desires themselves that bind people, but their ignorance in using them, and their ignorance in the very fact that they are bound in the first place, that does such.  They could easily free themselves if they were only aware.  The day after they destroyed the last full moon Shadow, S.E.E.S. prepares a celebration of their victory over the Dark Hour.  When the Dark Hour occurs regardless, they come to realize their assumptions regarding its nature is incorrect, that they were fool the whole time by Ikutsuki.  They become aware of their ignorance.

Leaving the Devil, the Fool encounters a familiar Tower, one that he had helped build at an earlier stage of life, when he desired to leave a physical mark on the world. Before his eyes, however, the Tower is struck by lightning and destroyed.  The Fool is shocked at one of the things that had been a great part of his life struck down so easily, and feels lost.  Left behind, however, is a foundation, to build another life anew.  Ikutsuki reprograms Aigis to capture the other members of S.E.E.S., and take them to the top of the tower, where he reveals that he, along with the researchers that caused the original Dark Hour, were in fact working to bring back Nyx and with her, the end of the world.  Ikutsuki had altered the tape Yukari’s father had left behind to make them think he was behind the accident and that destroying the full moon Shadows would end the Dark Hour, when, in fact, destroying the full moon Shadows freed the components of Nyx and allowed her to rise again.  Everything they understood about the Dark Hour, everything they had been doing to end it, everything they had been doing the entire game, crumbles down around them.  Ikutsuki moves to execute them, but is stopped by Mitsuru’s father and Koromaru.  Mitsuru’s dad and Ikutsuki end up killing each other, but Aigis manages the break through her programming and the group is saved.  They’re shaken down to their foundation, however, and have to build anew from there.

Sitting on the wreckage at the tower’s site, his mark on the world lost, night falls on the Fool.  He looks at the Stars, and lost in life, he wishes for a guide, someone to come and give him some direction. He looks down from the Stars, and notices a beautiful woman next to a starlit pool.  He goes to talk to her.  In the course of conversation, she ends up urging him to look at the stars, each of them representing possible futures full of hope and inspiration, pick one, and follow it.  So does the Fool find himself with direction thus more.  After the incident with Ikutsuki, S.E.E.S. doesn’t really have a direction any more.  They’ve accomplished everything they thought would help.  They overcame Strega, and they slew all the full moon shadows, but that ends up only bringing the end about.  There’s more Tartarus to explore, but there’s no indication of anything that’ll give a hint as to how to end the Dark Hour.  They overcame their mysteries, and they know whats ahead of them, but they have no clue how to get there.  They don’t have a direction, real hope, or inspiration.  And a new kid, Ryoji, starts showing up at school.  He ingratiates himself with members of S.E.E.S., and eventually, reveals to you that he is in fact Pharos, the creepy kid that’s been appearing to the protagonist and the embodiment of Death itself.  He’ll be transforming into Nyx, to come and destroy the world.  He’ll be absolutely unstoppable, death is coming for them all no matter how hard they fight, but he gives them a choice; if they kill him before he transforms, he will take the Dark Hour and all their memories of it with him, and then they can live in peace until Nyx returns to destroy it all.  And in doing so, this once more gives S.E.E.S. direction, albeit not a very constructive one.

The Fool follows his Star.  The full Moon rises, illuminating a flowing path for him, which he follows.  He begins to feel disoriented and bewildered, and as he passes directly underneath the moon, he finds himself in a different area entirely.  He has passed through into the world of the spirits.  He wades through a salty river, and all around him are mysteries and primal powers.  Spiritual wolves hunt along the banks of the river.  The Fool finds himself terrified as anxiety takes a hold over him.  He spots a boat on the bank of the river, which has no oars or means of steering, and realises he has a choice.  He can stay where he is and lose himself to this spiritual land, or he can get in the boat, and let it drift where it will, trusting in powers beyond his control.  After Ryoji puts the choice to them, whether to live knowingly in fear or ignorantly in peace, he gives them a month to decide what they want to do.  Each member of S.E.E.S. goes on a sort of individual personal journey, working things out for themselves.  And they are all, with the possible exception of Koromaru and the protagonist, absolutely terrified as they work things out for themselves.  However, the decision they’re working with is not quite the one Ryoji framed for them, it’s whether to submit to the seemingly inevitable destruction of Nyx and live out the rest of their days peacefully, or spend what may be the rest of their lives sacrificing themselves in the fight against the encroaching doom.

The Fool steps into the boat.  It drifts down the river, he knows not where.  He falls asleep, and awakens at the shore of a lake, back in the material world, the Sun shining bright overhead.  A boy appears before the Fool, and cheerfully demands the fool comes with him, excitedly showing him all manner of things.  Horses and bugs and flowers and everything else that shows up on the card depending on what deck you’re using.  The Sun illuminates everything, and the Fool finds himself fully aware of the fullness and goodness of the world and all in it.  The Fool asks the kid who he is, and the child declares he’s the Fool’s inner light.  The Fool, realising this, feels the kid’s vitality, and is reassured that his journey is the right thing, that it is leading him to where he needs to go.  As the month goes on, all the members of S.E.E.S., independently come to the conclusion that they’d like to fight.  They determine this is a world worth fighting for, and reach the conclusion that no matter how supposedly unstoppable Nyx is, they and their friends have the strength to overcome it.  As they do so, they leave the fear behind, and find assurance that they are doing the right thing, and capable of overcoming anything.

The Fool leaves the garden of the Sun.  As he does, he gets the sense that his journey is nearing its end, but there’s still one thing holding him back.  He looks to the Sun for guidance, but finds there an angel of Judgement instead.  The angel tell him he cannot complete his journey until he lays his past to rest, and hands him a trumpet.  The Fool blows it, and his past selves, good and bad, rise up.  The Fool faces them, forgives them as they, in turn, forgive him, and learns from them.  As he comes to understand them, they rise up, leaving the world behind.  The Fool finds himself reborn, and the past no longer constricts him.  S.E.E.S., having made their decision, meet with Ryoji again.  All their history comes into account as they choose to reject his offer, knowing all the struggles they have gone through has given them the strength to defeat Nyx.  So resolved, the final block of Tartarus opens up and they ascend it.  Strega, who represent much of S.E.E.S. past, being not only past adversaries but also being created by the same people behind S.E.E.S., rise again.  S.E.E.S. not only defeat them, they manage to turn them over to their side.  Finally, they reach the top, and begin the battle with Nyx.

The Fool finds himself, coincidentally, back where he started.  He has wandered around the World, and gained much in that journey, integrating all various parts of himself.  Through his accomplishments, he has reached a new level of understanding, and with it, fulfillment.  So complete, the Fool reenters the World with much more to offer it.  S.E.E.S. faces off with Nyx.  Nyx is a 14 stage boss fight, with each of the first 13 representing the steps of the arcana up until Death, and calling back to the full moon boss fights you’ve had representing them.  After defeating Death, the protagonist summons up the feelings of all his friends, and sacrifices his life force to seal the unkillable Nyx away.  In the epilogue, you get a brief scene of everything largely reset to where it was before all the Dark Hour conflict, as all your comrades have lost their memories of anything metaphysical, going through normal school life on the last day of school, until everyone remembers a promise that they made back near the beginning, to all meet on the roof at the last day of school.  Everyone, their memories returned, rush up there to find Aigis and the protagonist, just as the protagonist dies.  As the Answer would reveal, if we were to give that the retrospective treatment which I’m not sure I want to so we’ll talk about it here, the protagonist leaves his life, so his soul can be used to seal Nyx until the World has reached the point where it no longer has the desire for death that draws her to it.

Bam.  The whole plot of Persona 3, largely matching the structure of the classic Fool’s Journey.  Kind of interesting, how much thought went into that.  Rarely do you see tarot motifs used with this much depth.  

Speaking of using Tarot motifs with a whole bunch of depth, let’s talk about the Shadows for a bit.  In Jungian psychology, which forms the basis for much of the Persona series, shadows are the parts of ourselves that we repress, the negative feelings, thoughts, traits, actions, etc. that we don’t wish to acknowledge in ourselves.  We’ve seen hints of those, at least as they’ll be used in the future, in the Persona 2 duology with the Shadow Selves of various PCs, although those are less embodiments of bad feelings and more evil selves created by the reality-warping rumor system when the protagonists had too strong of personalities for rumors about them to change them.  Here’s the first time they’re used as the enemies du jour of the game, though.  And frankly, it’s rather fitting, given the Jungian base; having Shadows, your repressed negative feelings, be the enemy out to harm you while your Persona, being the personality you develop to protect yourself from the world, being the tool that you have for your defense.  It’s all good.

Persona 3 itself doesn’t give a whole lot of insight into the nature of the shadows themselves.  About ten years ago, they were discovered by the Kirijo Group, who contained and performed experiments on them in the pursuit of time juju which went wrong and created the Dark Hour.  You don’t see a whole lot of where they come from, aside from the odd bit of advanced Apathy Syndrome sufferers melting into a Shadow, but there wouldn’t be enough of those to supply all the Shadows you face in the game, nor the Shadows encountered before the Dark Hour became a thing.  Personally, because I’m the type of player that does this, I add my own explanations for them, looking either into the future of Persona 4, where the collective unconscious is a physical place wherein the Shadows spawn, or back to the past, where they embody a lot of the same concepts that Nyarlathotep did, and could well be tiny little parts of him, broken up.  Or both.  They do fit together.

In any case, Shadows do have physical forms and arcana that determine a lot of their traits, but from a narrative perspective, there’s not a whole lot to read into there.  Save for the boss shadows, the Full Moon Shadows.  Those are all based on the perversions of the Arcana they represent.  Visually, they reflect reversed or corrupted versions of traditional tarot cards, such as the High Priestess, who in card is normally standing tall and looking upward, being sprawled on the floor her entire existence.  A lot of people online say that mechanically and narratively, they represent the reversed version of those arcana as well, but I don’t think that quite holds up, as the reversed arcana have very distinct meanings in tarot.  Rather, they represent the opposite of the upright arcana, e.g. the Hanged Man, which can represent self-sacrifice, instead sacrifices his allies for his attacks on you, or Lovers, which represents close relations, forces S.E.E.S. into incredibly shallow and meaningless relationships with each other.  

Similarly, your personae are also relatively unexplored.  Later games, particularly Persona 4 and to some extent, the Answer, do shed a bit of light on how they’re applied here, but that’s making things too easy.  Let’s theory craft here, too.  “I am thou… thou art I.  From the sea of thy soul, I’ve come.”  These words, or something very similar have come to be very emblematic of persona as a whole, and it all starts here.  Orpheus speaks them for the very first time in the series when you summon him in the game’s second cutscene.  Which, again, reflects the nature of the personae as the manifestation of the Jungian concept of the parts of yourself you develop to interface with the world given a personification and physical form.  Those words didn’t exactly originate here.  Rather, they call back to something Philemon said to you if you choose to punch him at the end of Innocent Sin, only to find your own face underneath his mask.  “I am you.  You are me… I am always within you, watching over you.”  Your personae may not come from Philemon’s boon anymore, but it seems they’re still connected with him, somehow.

Speaking of which, the personae you don’t get from Philemon operate somewhat differently from those that you have.  The wild card ability you get in a pretty similar way, it being granted to you by another extraordinarily powerful resident of the collective unconscious, so it’s rather fitting that it works like an expanded version of the old personae system.  What’s less clear is how the others got their persona ability.  Again, the Answer expands upon it a bit, but it seems they all awoke to it independently of beings from the collective unconscious, it responding to their own danger and trauma, and most of the time it happened off-screen.  It does seem that, to have it arise naturally, some degree of detachment from one’s caregivers and a level of independence is required, as all the natural persona users you see are orphans and/or estranged from their parents, to the point that they effortlessly adjust to living in the dorms by themselves, even as a teen.  It also takes a level of self image to have a persona in the first place, going by the explanation that if Aigis were made into anything other than a person, she wouldn’t see herself as a person and thus wouldn’t be able to muster a persona.  Although apparently dogs can have personae too.  So… that’s a thing.  

Personae can be artificially created as well, although control over those are imperfect.  The Answer reveals that personae are tamed shadows, which later games in the series will run with, so… it makes sense, given that the Kirijo group seemed to have some control over the shadows in the first place, as part of their experiments.  But eventually lost it.  Much like the artificial persona-users would.  In Persona 3, outside of rare instances, an evoker is required to summon a persona.  The evokers are basically persona guns.  You hold it up to your head, and shoot the persona out.  Obviously, they’re there as a big visualization of suicide and part of the omnipresent death theme of the game, but also representative of the emotions needed to muster to summon a persona.  Apparently, to force your persona out, at least in this setting, you need to stare the concept of death down and force yourself through it.  They’re supposed to be very difficult, emotionally to use, hence why Yukari struggled with it in the beginning.  However, the protagonist, who had been living with death for years, was able to use them naturally, while Takaya, who’s already accepted his death due to needing to take the toxic suppressants to keep his persona under control, was able to summon his persona without even using an evoker.  Evokers have a Plume of Dusk inside, which are both the game’s most powerful healing item and the only one able to bring back your protagonist from a KO and part of the mechanism that makes Aigis sentient.  Not only that, the artbook reveals that they are fragments of Nyx herself, so you’re carrying hunks of Shadow and death inside those machines.  Given the Plumes of Dusk are what gives Aigis a personality, and reaching way into the stretchy canon of Persona 4 Arena, have also shown to implant extra personalities in people, it could be something related to their personality giving traits that make this work.  

One thing of particular note about this game’s plot is just how much it mirrors that of the Snow Queen half of the original Persona.  In the Snow Queen quest, your school transformed into a series of towers.  Your most trusted faculty member of the school turned against you.  You had to face of with Thanatos, Hypnos, and Nemesis to advance.  At the top, you fought Nyx, with the towers ultimately fading into oblivion upon her defeat.  In Persona 3, your school transforms into a single tower.  Your most trusted faculty member turns against you.  Thanatos, Hypnos, and Nemesis are present, as Pharos/Ryoji’s persona/monster form, one of Strega’s personae, and Ken’s persona, respectively.  At the top, you fight Nyx, with the tower and the Dark Hour as a whole vanishing upon her defeat.  The key elements are general enough that it wouldn’t be hard to make the case that the new team behind Persona 3 wasn’t really meaning to call back to the original so directly, they were just pulling from the same mythology and had a similar base concept, which given that they’d be using somewhat of the same design process, it’s not out of bounds that they’d wind up in the same place.  On the other hand though, they’d be familiar enough with the source material that all this should be jumping out at them at least as much as it does to the rest of us.  I’m kind of undecided on how deliberate it is.  Even as they softly separated this game from the Persona 1/2 storyline, they still had a number of references back, but if they were deliberately taking inspiration from the original Persona on this one, I would have expected them to be making references to it more strongly.  Outside of a few bits that pertain more to the sequel than the original, you don’t get much in the way of call backs.  On the other hand, c’moooooooon!  It is rather blatant.  

The plot as a whole is very character driven.  In a really focused way, too.  Your party members comprise the vast, vast majority of the major characters that take action that move the plot forward.  Outside of them, really, the only active personnel in the games plot are the 3 members of Strega, Ikutsuki, and Mitsuru’s dad.  This is a really strange place for a game, in that there’s more plot actors who are player characters than who aren’t.  As a result of that and the character-driven nature of the plot, things are entirely dependent on your characters to move forward.  The world of Persona 3 is essentially in stasis without you.  You’re not fighting to prevent an end from happening and there’s no imminent catastrophe, aside from those your player characters inadvertently cause.  In the main plot, you and your party members are the only proactive characters.  Everything else is entirely reactive to you.

Then, this gets flipped on its head in the social links.  Almost every social link forms its own ten-part side plot, usually unconnected to whatever you and the rest of your party are doing.  In these, your protagonist is a confidant and a source of emotional support to the subject of the social link, who serves as the true protagonist, but it’s rather rare that they have any action to take on their own part.  Oftentimes, the big things that move the plot forward in those happen completely off screen.  The dynamic there is flipped on its head, your protagonist is almost completely passive, it’s the person at the center of the social link that really has to make things happen for themselves.  They dynamic between the two really works, it’d get the world feeling too small if the protag and crew were doing everything, while it’d make the main characters seem useless if the whole game was told the way the social links are.  Giving you time with both sides allows them to cross both paths without going too far in either direction.  The social links are just as character driven as the main plot is, perhaps even more so, it’s really the resolution of character development rather than the triumph over events that you’re looking for there.  Honestly, it’s a real triumph of the creative team how personal they’re able to make these feel, how you can care about people’s average simple problems even while the world-ending cataclysm is nigh.  Social links are typically tied with the tarot arcana they represent in some way, utilizing some of the aspects the cards can indicate very heavily in each given story, either as a background element or as a direct character development.

And you know what?  I think that’s about all the words I have to say about the plot directly.  Lets move on to the theming.

THEMES

DEATH

We already went over this one.  This game will hit you over the head again and again with death.  Both in the literal and the tarot motifs.  Death is the first character you encounter upon gaining control of the game.  Death is the final boss.  Death lives with you in between.  Many characters die.  The Reaper chases you if you take too long in any give level.  To give you death.  A handful of your social links center around the death of someone close to them.  Most others center around the arcana meaning of loss of the old to create the new.  References to death show up all the time in language, as well.  We talked about all this at the start of this section, and I’m not going to repeat myself here.

Digging into it a bit more, however, we’ve got some more layers to work through.  One particularly notable thing about the literal deaths presented in this game is that it’s all very meaningful death.  Usually, in works of fiction, a character dies in some sort of conflict or other, and you’ll get a brief time of aftermath, and that’ll be it.  Here, though, every single character death leaves a lasting impact.  Shinjiro’s death kickstarts a series of soul searching on your members behalf that leads to several of them upgrading their personae and their combat abilities, and is the only reason Ken is still alive for the rest of the game.  Ikutsuki dies having successfully fooled S.E.E.S. into bringing about the endgame.  Takeharu Kirijo’s death is what means your party still survives to that endgame.  Every single member of Strega ends up meeting their end saving the life of someone in S.E.E.S.

The tarot meaning of Death, again, losing the old to create the new, can apply to the game as a whole.  The three persona games that came prior all told a contiguous story, referenced each other often, and had a rather different design theology than Persona 3 did.  Persona 3 was built by a largely different team, with most of the returning personnel at new levels of creative control than they were previously, and they largely took the franchise, and completely turned it around.  There’s some definite foundations they continued to use, and they pulled in enough story elements to ensure that you know it’s in the same continuity, but the plot is divorced from the Philemon vs. Nyarlathotep stories that made up the previous three games and the design is completely changed from that as well.  This is the game that leaves the past behind, taking just enough from it to create something completely new.

DEPRESSION AND TRAUMA

This theme mixes with the above Death theme rampantly.  Which is suitable, as they’re pretty cause and effect in real life.  Let’s start with the broadest application; the big threat of the dark hour is that Shadows consume part of a victim, thus infecting them with Apathy Syndrome, a condition that’s poorly understood by the medical community but ends up being rather rampant, in which people lose all their motivation to interact with the world, and stop taking care of themselves.  The longer they spend in it, the more their negative emotions take over, until they become shadows themselves.  They have lost all their will to live. Aside from that last part, those are all very extreme symptoms of actual, real-world depression.  And society mostly deals with it by leaving people alone and largely ignoring those afflicted with it.  Which you could say is the way society as a whole deals with depression.

Going further into it, all those deaths mentioned above, you know what your party members do after one of them died?  They take time off.  They grieve.  Their personality changes in some ways, in reflection to to the events.  They get traumatized by it, and they face that, and they overcome it, although it still leaves its scars.  Heck, a big chunk of The Answer deals with the party members overcoming their trauma and depression following the events of this game.  I cannot think of many other pieces of media that’s engaged with post-death emotional aftermath to this extent.  It comes up all the time.

And of course, there’s more.  The means of summoning a persona, shooting yourself in the head with an evoker, is very evocative of suicide.  The whole reason Nyx is a threat is because of humanity as a whole’s general desire to kill themselves.  All your player characters deal with trauma caused by their upbringings or tragic events in their past.  Some of them never really get over it.  Some of them make incredibly stupid decisions because of it.  Some have to face it all over again during the course of the story.  All of them are struck by it by the game’s ending.  Once again, this is omnipresent.  And yet, you also see people making it through.  Social links overcoming their challenges.  Party members adjusting and moving on stronger.  They get hurt.  They get scars.  But with the help of those around them, they pick themselves up, and they move on.

Part 1-Intro

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Presentation

Part 4-Setting

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

6 responses to “Right Here, Shadow 10 o’clock Direction Seize the Moment, Destroy the Nation! The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 5-Plot and Themes

  1. Death is the card used to foretell someone’s doom – if your an amateur reader, that is. In reality, you would use the Tower card for that. We have Persona 4 to thank for me learning about Tarot cards, and I’ve always found the contrast between the upright and reversed readings to be highly fascinating. I also like how the Social Links all represent different Arcana, though I heard it can be troublesome maintaining them in this game due to schoolmates getting jealous of Makoto hanging around other ones.

    • Yeah, the social links seem as turbulent as… well, real life high school relationships are. Land mines all over. Read the cues wrong, or act like a westerner instead of a Japanese person, and you’re doomed on them. This run, I had a pretty big problem with summer break happening. Given that I was dating a couple of people I only saw at school, I couldn’t do anything with them, and apparently they don’t take to kindly to you, you know, taking a vacation.

  2. I thought Koromaru having a persona was a bit weird — if the persona is a reflection of someone’s identity, that implies a level of self-awareness that I’m not sure dogs have. But I guess Koromaru is special. And then there’s the fox from Persona 4, who was definitely self-aware to some degree. Maybe the thinking didn’t go beyond “we just want a dog on the team.”

    P3 definitely has a lot of links to death, both literally and figuratively. As much as I like P4 and 5, I don’t think it would be so bad for the series to return to a bit of a darker tone with Persona 6. Even killing off P3’s protagonist hasn’t stopped them from bringing him back for every single spinoff game anyway.

    • I always thought the fox was way more than just a fox. Like, one of the mythological figures in Japanese folklore or something. Who wants you to go fishing. For money. But yeah, Koromaru was a really weird inclusion. He’s cute, but it’s not like he’s in a position to be moving the plot forward. Does seem kind of hammered in there, because they want a mascot.

      Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of room for a darker tone. With Persona 3, they handled it really thoughtfully. Persona 5 hit some dark places, but as long as they handled it with the same level of care, I could see them going even deeper than that and still making something good out of it. They haven’t really been looking at continuing the Persona overarching continuity since the fighting games, anyways.

  3. Pingback: Listening/reading log #10 (July 2020) | Everything is bad for you

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