Living With Death In Persona 3

In this new nameless and shapeless feature, an editor will dissect a game-related topic in greater detail than they could in reviews or podcasts. New columns go up every Thursday. Fair warning: this first editorial contains major spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and its expansion, The Answer. 

There’s this one moment in Persona 3 where everything falls apart.

Actually, that’s not true. There’re a lot of moments in Persona 3 where everything falls apart. The game’s based on a strict sense of routine and time management. It’s a dating sim where you forge more friendships than romantic partners. And yeah, every night you go out with your dorm full of classmates and fight demons. You slip into this entertaining but dreamy haze where you set goals and achieve them, be it small or large. It’s a comforting game, and one that feels oddly nostalgic even mid-way through.

But everything just keeps falling apart.

Persona 3 and its sequel take a lot of cues from modern Western influences, namely stories where the innocent and the deadly are in stark contrast (things like Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer spring to mind). The thing that’s most notable about the game is how it distorts that structure into something much different: subtle, raw, and incredibly important in the scope of video game storytelling. In the end, Persona 3 isn’t a game about fighting death. It’s a game about accepting it.

But let’s dial back a minute to an especially paralyzing part of this game. You have been told that the apocalypse is an inevitability, but you’re still presented with a choice; you can proceed to the end in agonizing knowledge of your demise, or have your memory wiped and become blissfully unaware. Either way, you’re dead. This is a moment where everything falls apart.

This is also one of the first times that the game’s true moral is revealed. Fighting Nyx (the final boss) would seem to be impossible, but this is more than just a standard JRPG “insurmountable odds” quandary. The choice isn’t about Nyx, it’s about you and all your friends dying. Games have an unhealthy fascination with reducing death to some kind of binary fail-state and never exploring it beyond that. Persona 3 attempts just the opposite.

Suddenly this sunny routine: wake up, go to school, hang out with friends and maybe drink some patented “Pheromone Coffee,” carries a much different significance. You’re no longer burning time ’til the next significant story moment or boss battle. Instead, you have to start managing the time that’ll surely be your last. It’s such a jarring transition of tone that I very literally had to stop playing when the choice was revealed.

And let it be known that Persona 3 largely sticks to its guns. At the end of the game, the silent protagonist seals away Nyx with every last bit of his strength, and slowly gets weaker and weaker in the ensuing days. Every character in the game has had their memories temporarily wiped, but they all spring into action upon recalling a promise they made to meet on the roof of their school on graduation day. As the character’s friends and partners rush up to meet him, he dies in self-aware robot Aigis’ arms.

Yeah, it’s a little bleak.

Bleak, but certainly not without purpose. This inevitability was pretty heavily foreshadowed through that choice I was talking about earlier. Is it better to die aware of your demise or ignorant of it? Even though he can’t say much at all, the player gets a distinct sense that the protagonist knows what’s coming, and has made his peace. It’s a startling and fitting conclusion that needs no elaboration whatsoever. But elaborate they did.

The Answer was released as an expansion to Persona 3, one that takes place about a month after the climax of the base game. Upon first glance, there was only one thing I thought this expansion could mean narratively. Obviously the gang would find a way to bring back the protagonist, finally bringing peace to all the characters I’d spent 60+ hours caring for. I should’ve known not to underestimate this game.

In reality, The Answer serves as an arduous grieving process, for both the characters and the player. Situations don’t change over the course of the expansion, but characters do, and a lot from Persona 3 is clarified in an elegant and thematically relevant way.

And things still fall apart, like they do at around 2:43 in the video below.

A little context is due here; the characters are faced with a choice (one that’s quite similar in some ways to the main choice in the base game) to either go on with their lives or open a door to the past, before the protagonist died. Whether or not he’d be saved is unclear, but everyone could at least say goodbye properly. Yukari Takeba, widely viewed as the canon love interest for the game, is obviously in favor of returning to the past, and breaks down when she realizes she’s powerless to control the decision.

It’s an extremely blunt and honest scene, especially for video games. Nothing here is cut with a standard, grandiose JRPG filter. In fact, when Mitsuru kneels down to comfort her with some stock sentiments, Yukari spits them back at her with a candor that’s at once heartbreaking and cathartic. Getting over the death of a loved one isn’t nearly as easy as such platitudes might lead one to believe. These characters do manage to come to terms with the death of their friend, but it takes more than a Hallmark card.

Essentially, the main threat of the base game, Nyx, wasn’t really ever the threat at all. Nyx is neither malevolent nor benevolent; she lies entirely dormant, and has done so for a remarkably long time. The characters thought that the protagonist needed to seal away Nyx, which isn’t quite true. He needed to stop something worse, a catalyst, from getting to her. This catalyst is a manifestation of every single person’s secret longing for death. And if that catalyst hits Nyx, it would send her into a frenzy, and bring about the destruction of everyone and everything.

To summarize: everyone in the world, and everyone in the game, was bringing this upon themselves. Still kinda bleak, no?

So no, the protagonist can’t be saved. People would have to stop being, well, sad, and that’s not going to happen. But even though their friend is still gone for good, the characters of Persona 3 can move on. They know what happened to him, and they know why it has to be this way, and they’ve accepted it. There’s still no magic potion or spell that’ll make everything better again, and that’s exactly the point.

Sure, everyone gets depressed. Some people might wish for death. Others might be unable to acknowledge their own mortality. There’s no switch someone can flip to make all of this go away. The best a person can do is try and be happy, and make the people around them happy too. The characters in Persona 3 reach a happy and encouraging place through individual reconciliation. The world was in danger, but that felt almost secondary to their personal anxieties and difficulties. By the end of the game and its expansion, you have a satisfying conclusion to both arcs that never once lets these problems be resolved neatly or quickly.

Persona 3 is a game about life in the face of death. Things keep falling apart, but that’s okay.