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.  

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The Battlegrounds Right Here: Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 4-Setting

Part 1-Intro

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Presentation

Part 5-Plot and Themes

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

Nailing down the setting of Persona 3 can be a little difficult.  There’s a bit going on here.

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As is traditional for an SMT game, Persona 3 takes place over a much smaller geographic area than most other rpgs, in this case limiting itself to a single city, Iwatodai.  Iwatodai is a large coastal that is a major area of operations, although not the headquarters, for a major business megacorp, the Kirijo Group.  Much of the city’s landmass is made up of an artificial island, Tatsumi Port Island, that I would guess the Kirijo Group played a major hand in constructing.  It comes complete with all the major amenities you’d expect a large city to have; schools, shopping centers, train stations, residences, etc.

The Kirijo Group seems to have their hands in half of everything that goes on in Iwatodai.  They own the school, your dorm, the shopping mall, tons of businesses, probably your dog, some of the residents might be their slaves in disguise, it’s hard to draw the line there.  And we’re going to get into spoiler territory from this point forward, so watch that.  The Kirijo Group used to be a part of the Nanjou Corporation, of which one of your characters from Persona 1 and 2 was part of.  They went independent some time ago, but still maintain a pretty close partnership there.  Perhaps because of this connection, they became aware of the supernatural, particularly the persona that your crew use and the shadows that are newly introduced this game, and were experimenting on them, their owner eventually seeking to use their powers to create a ‘time manipulation device’.  Not a time machine.  A ‘time manipulation device’.

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Of course, as with every experiment ever conducted, this went wrong and almost destroyed the world.  Well, in this case, it ended up creating the whole dark hour deal that we mentioned earlier.  Whatever time manipulation magic they had going on there ended up inserting an extra hour into the day between midnight and midnight o’ one.  The experiment was conducted in what would become Gekkoukan High School, so, as that’s the epicenter of the event, it faces the most drastic transformation, becoming the dungeon tower Tartarus during the dark hour.  Everywhere else gets bathed in a sickening light, gets inundated with bloodstains, and sees monstrous shadows prowling all over the place.  So yeah, dark hour, not exactly pleasant times.  Although, you know, you can just stay in your dorm and get an extra hour of sleep.  So, on the bad side, people are either dying or having their desires consumed and becoming one of the Lost.  But on the good side, you get to be better rested.  So I’d say it’s really a wash.

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Lets talk about the Shadows a bit.  Persona 2 introduced Shadows already, although these are quite a bit different.  Like the Shadows from Persona 2, these Shadows were created by the collective unconscious, but that’s where the similarities end.  The Shadows fit a lot more fully into the Jungian Psychology mold the game series has been using, being manifestations of the parts of the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that people don’t want to acknowledge.  In Persona 3, they gather in the collective unconsciousness, clumping together until they take some monstrous physical form.  Which is then vulnerable to pummeling.  Most people will transmogrify into a coffin during the dark hour, which is apparently a defensive instinct, them playing dead so the Shadows will ignore them.  Not everyone does, though.  Some keep their form, and serve as prey for the monsters, their minds being eaten and forced into Apathy Syndrome until our heroes beat the big shadow boss at the next full moon, and temporarily drive the shadows back.  Some will endure the dark hour until they get taken over by their own Shadows, their physical form dissolving and being replaced by a Shadow themselves.  And some just do fine, there.

There’s not a whole lot in the game to dictate why people enter into the Dark Hour without transmogrifying.  I can make some conjecture, though.  Survival instincts can be simplified into being one of fight, flight , or freeze.  Transmogrifying into a coffin would be a pretty freezy habit.  It could be as simple as those who don’t transmogrify simply have another instinct take its place.  As Persona 3’s expansion, The Answer, and Persona 4 indicate, a Persona is a Shadow that’s been mastered and is able to fight against them.  So the Persona-users who don’t transmogrify would do so simply because they have the ability and the will to fight the Shadows.  Their survival instinct falls into the ‘fight’ category, so they don’t ‘freeze’ into coffins.  Those poor souls without that power who end up falling victim and becoming the Lost could well be those who are more given to flee than to freeze, whose instincts tell them to get out of dodge rather than hide or wait for them to go away.  Since running away hasn’t proven to be very effective against the shadows, it doesn’t typically end up well for them, as far as we can see.  Some people are able to calmly enter into the Dark Hour once they’re aware of its existence, and for those, I’d assume it’s because they don’t feel the need to trigger any of their survival instincts at all.  For that matter, we do see at least once that persona-users are able to get people out of their coffins and into dark hour awareness, although we’re not given much in the way of an idea as how they can do that.  I could theorize within the framework I’ve already established, but I’ve probably conjectured away from the base enough.

Persona 3 is strangely sparse on details of the Dark Hour.  Which is a little strange, given the series.  Personas 1, 4, and 5 were very clear on where their alternate world comes from, and 2 had everything taking place in its own world, and so didn’t need to bother with it.  3’s just not explicit.  Although the series has gone to the ‘collective unconsciousness as a physical location’ well before, and will do so again, that’s not the case here.  The Dark Hour is explicitly related to the existence of shadows in some way, and specifically related to Nyx, the shadow embodying humanity’s desire for death.  Perhaps it’s for that reason the death and blood imagery is all over the place during the dark hour, and that the dark hour is so draining to everyone within it.  After all, the depression and anguish that would be embodied in the dark hour would be rather draining.  It’s not explored whether the dark hour is a local phenomenon, or something that happens world-wide.

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Like much else, Tartarus, the massive tower that your school turns into during the Dark Hour, is super symbolic and representative of the game’s themes.  In this case, it’s representative of the theme of the developers desire to have a place for you to grind.  And that’s about it.  Really, as much as I will go out of my way to connect poorly arranged pieces of a puzzle in a story, I can’t find a fit for this one.  Tartarus is barely connected to the plot, doesn’t really seem to have a thematic fit outside of its reaching for the moon, and doesn’t really seem to deliver anything narratively.  It’s where you go to fight shadows when you don’t have a plot-related mission or anything to do.  Akihiko considers it a training ground, and we could say, given that it’s growing out of the spot where shadows were unleashed into the world, it’s a hive or nest for shadows.  Mayhaps this is where the new ones emerge into the rest of the world from.  It’s established that time flows differently there, as Fuuka was trapped in Tartarus for days, yet felt only a few hours passed.  It’s also the spot where Nyx is destined to make her descent.  Otherwise, it’s mostly a Macguffin.  It’s something the story tells you is important, but doesn’t really do all that much to establish it.  It does serve, however, as a massive call back to Persona 1’s Snow Queen quest, being a big tower made out of a school named Tartarus that has Nyx at the end of it.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Iwatodai, outside of all the supernatural stuff and hidden magic conflicts and stuff going on there, is the people in there.  Overall, it’s a pretty dour, selfish group.  And that comes through a lot.  This is a community that largely just leaves the Lost, people who have overall lost any ability to take care of themselves or do anything, completely alone, as long as they’re out of the way.  We don’t see them do much to help out the invalids right in front of them.  Moreover, this is also the same community that readily organizes into doomsday cults given little provocation and actively takes part in murder requests once the rumor gets out that they work.  Missing students get ignored.  The fact that the hospital can hold people against their will on behalf of the Kirijo Group is forgotten.  Students will whine about going to classmates funerals.  Scam artists can proliferate there with little reprisal.  The horrible things the town and the people therein are going through end up treated as little more than gossip to most.  Even in your social links, oftentimes you’re running across people completely self-centered, thinking only of their own path through life and not how they pave over others.

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And yet, even then, there’s glimpses of good in people.  Starting with your crew, who through all the traumas they’re going through, still keep their eyes on the common good and willingly sacrifice themselves for others, up to and including their very lives.  Many of your social links will see people come to a realization of just how self-centered they’re being, and turn around to make amends and improve other’s lives.  And, in the end, all your friends do come around for you, too.  It’s small, in the wake of the self-centered juggernaut that is the town as a whole, but you can find lots of people with real gems inside of them, you just need to brush off the dirt to get there with many of them.

Shadows of Mass Destruction. The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 2-Gameplay

Part 1-Intro

Part 3-Presentation

Part 4-Setting

Part 5-Plot and Themes

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

At this point in the Persona series, gameplay has truly become only part of the full experience.  Persona 1 and 2 had plots too, and a lot of characterization, but they were still as much gameplay delivery engines as any other game out there.  Starting in Persona 3, they put a lot more depth and content into their plots and characters, to the point where the gameplay is not the only selling point they have.  And for a lot of people, the gameplay is not even the main reason they get into the game.

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Yet, no matter how good your story, setting, characters, etc. are, if the game side of your, you know, game, isn’t up to snuff, the game as a whole won’t be good.  It’s been tried, and good plot really doesn’t make up for bad gameplay.  So even with the Persona series running head-first into the story-based wall, let’s start by taking a look at where you’re actually going to be spending most of your time when you’re actually playing the game.

By this point, we’ve already had two, but three, but really two, games in the Persona canon.  That’s enough to establish a pattern, right?  Although both of those games are rather distinct from each other, there’s still some common design elements that we can pull out here.

So, what is makes a Persona game, and how do those elements relate to Persona 3?  Well, thus far, to make a Persona, you take the typical for the time Shin Megami Tensei design, strip out a bunch of the more unique to the franchise and complicated features to simplify gameplay a bit and make it more accessible to the typical JRPG fan.  And then you come up with some crazy and experimental features that few if any other games in the genre are doing and make them absolutely central to the whole experience.  And then, of course, there’s the whole plot and themes making heavy use of Jungian Psychology personified, and the main characters with the variable stats and ability loadouts, the butterfly motifs, the vast sum of humanity summoning their own demise, multiple endings but not really, etc. Etc.  There’s lots of stuff in the recipe for a Persona, and it all carries through to this game.

And I suppose this is a good time to mention, for pretty much this entire retrospective, I’m going to be basing it off the FES version of the game.  For those not in the know, there was the original Persona 3, then, less than a year later in the US, Persona 3 FES which was basically Persona 3 with a bunch of DLC before DLC was a thing that you had to pay for, including a separate playable epilogue that we won’t get into here just yet.  Then, years later, there came Persona 3 Portable, which incorporated all the gameplay updates from Persona 4 into Persona 3, gave you a choice in the gender of your protagonist and with that vastly increased the amount of content, at turning a lot of segments from more directly interactive bits into visual novel scenes in order to fit it all on the PSP disc.  There’s a lot of discussion on which is better.  I roll with the FES version because… well, that’s just the one I have.  As much as the games industry obviously hates me for it with the remakes and rereleases and updates and Hyper Fighting Championship Editions Turbos they’re putting out, I make a practice of not buying games that I already own.  So, sorry, P3P fans.  Just going by what I have available to me.

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BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY! The Persona 3 Retrospective! Part 1: Introduction

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Presentation

Part 4-Setting

Part 5-Plot and Themes

Persona Retrospective Introduction

(Revelations:) Persona

Persona 2:Innocent Sin

Hell yeah!  We’re back with this!  It’s been, what, four years since we did the last entry in our much vaunted Persona Retrospective?  You thought I gave up on it, didn’t you?  And look at how much a fool you are now!  No, you gave up on me!  You think four years matters to one such as I?  I never forgot.  And I never quit.

Well, maybe I did.  Sort of.  You may notice that rather than finally doing the second half of Persona 2, I’m coming right in your face with Persona 3.  That’s true.  And I’m sorry.  I’ve actually tried a couple of times to get the next step in this retrospective going with good old Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, and I just can’t.  I was halfway through the game when I made a big cross-state move and life transition, and couldn’t keep up with my usual playtime in the aftermath.  Then, sometime later, I picked up Persona 2: Innocent Sin again with the intention of getting background on that for the eventual Eternal Punishment analysis, but frankly, although the Persona 2 duology does a lot of really unique things and is a very interesting game in all, its design has aged a bit.  Not as poorly as many other games, but I found, with a lot of things I was going through then and continue to go through now, I just didn’t have the patience for it.

So we’ll skip it and come back to it later.  For now, it’s Persona 3 right up in your grill, suckers!

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Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh Aether, you sexy hunk of pure genius, isn’t your time already very full?  And didn’t you just start another project where you’re going to be reviewing all the Godzilla movies?  Are you really going to be able to keep up with another commitment?”  And sure.  That would be what sensible people would think.  But I’m to busy being awesome to be sensible.  I’m not one to let fear of failure or fear of commitment stop me.  I’m going to bite off more than I can chew.  And then I’m going to chew it.

In case you haven’t noticed, I like talking about the thing that I’m going to be talking about for a good while before I really get into talking about them.  But let’s get into that now.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3

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Okay, up until this point in the subseries, Persona games have been all about taking the ethos of the greater Shin Megami Tensei series and making it more familiar, more accessible, and more character-driven, while also experimenting the hell out of it.  Shin Megami Tensei has been very WRPG-influenced, and the Persona subseries takes that and fits it into a JRPG shell, creates room for a hell of a lot of character exploration, then adds a whole lot of new, wild, and largely unpolished features onto it.  Persona 3 follows on in that progression.

But it’s also the turning point in it.  See, Persona 4 and 5 don’t carry the same wild experimentation the earlier games did.  Instead, they take the model that Persona 3 built, and polish it further, and further.  And they make beauty out of it.  Persona 3 is a fantastic game.  But it’s like a raw gem.  It’s valuable.  It’s beautiful.  But it needs some rough edges pared off and a lot of polish to really shine.  Persona 3 is a turning point in the Persona subseries.  This is where, I would say, it really hit true greatness for the first time.  And the developers recognized it, and went in the same direction for future entries.

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To really get into Persona 3 and what makes it what it is, we have to talk about another game.  Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.  The first SMT game of the PS2’s era.  And it would represent as much of a shift for the SMT franchise as a whole as Persona 3 is for that SMT subseries.  Shin Megami Tensei games had largely stuck to its classic WRPG influences all through the SNES and PS1 entries, but by the time the 6th console generation had rolled around, frankly, technology had far outpaced that mode.  Even WRPGs themselves were drastically different from the Ultima/Wizardry days.  The technology was capable of so much more than the pure first person grid-based dungeon crawler with minimal world interaction was providing, and the largely 2d and simple visuals those games utilized were growing outright bland in that new world.  So Nocturne brought the series roaring into the new era.  Fully 3d environments, visuals that more accurately represented the urban apocalypse the series brought through, more involved visual storytelling, and a completely redesigned crew of monsters that would be distinctive of the series for years to come, it’s presentation has made SMT what it is every since.  The gameplay updates were no slouch either.  Battles were no longer matters of numbers against numbers, but made much more strategic with the press turn system in which the amount of turns you have were tied to your manipulation of elemental strengths and weaknesses.  Enemy encounters designed so that even basic random battles would test you, requiring so much more than just mashing attack as was standard for most RPGs.  Dungeons built so that the important thing in success is your long-term resource management across hordes of challenges as much as your ability to overcome individual battles.  It created design elements that had ramifications across the entire series.

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And all of that carried through to Persona 3, in some form.  Previously, the SMT series had a more eclectic and varying mix of demons and what roles they held.  Nocturne really codified and brought consistency to the mythological set of demons the series held, and Persona 3 slotted them firmly into the role of your personas.  Your enemies and adversaries were made completely different in both tone and origin, marking the first time the series had such a significant demarcation between persona and enemy.  They use the same visuals for the beasties, too, as do all 3d SMT games from that point further, building and taking advantage from the Shin Megami Tensei trademark design.  The press turn system was imported in a more limited form, with both you and your enemies being able to gain a single extra move for targeting your opponent’s weakness, or lose one if your own are hit.  Tonally, well, SMT has always been about destruction and apocalypse, but Nocturne brought new impact to that in the 3d era, and Persona 3 took that and run with it.  Although it’s not as dire as Nocturne was, it’s still rather oppressive, and it takes that to a more personal level.

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Persona 3 is generally considered the first of the modern Personas, and to many people, apparently Atlus included, the subseries starts here as far as they’re concerned.  This is the first game that has the social link system, where a lot of emphasis is on getting to know and helping NPCs through a sort of visual novel/dating simulator-esque interface, that has become such a series trademark and one of the biggest draws of Persona games.  Although 4 and 5 would make minor updates to it, this is also where they established the game model largely used in everything following.  Whereas previously, every character could use multiple personas, but had some limits on them, and a lot of their capabilities were based on their stats, starting with Persona 3, only your main character could use multiple personas but they had no limits on them and their stats were determine by said persona, making your main character effectively over a hundred characters you could choose from.  These is where you get Lotus Juice and the Jpop soundtrack setting the mood, driving home just how modern this series is in comparison to others of its genre.  The Persona series had been pretty heavy with its theming and storytelling in the Persona 2 duology, but this is the first time the series with so deep in its plot and multi-layered in its themes.  Everything where you have a certain amount of days to do everything you need to do while the plot and conflict progresses on a fixed calendar, where managing your available time as a resource is essential, where basically everything in the combat engine comes from, it all comes from here.  Persona 3 represents not just a paradigm shift in the Persona series itself, it was so utterly different from every other JRPG out there, and yet, for all its experimentation, it still came together in a fantastic form.  Honestly, it’s no wonder this is the model all the rest of the games took after.

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