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Is Persona 3 a modern-day Memento mori? I reflect on how the game's interconnected systems of choice and time progression turned a quirky JRPG narrative into a compelling and memorable playing experience — maybe even a more genuine "life" simulator.

Flynn Espe, Blogger

March 18, 2013

12 Min Read

"So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking, racing around to come up behind you again." -- Pink Floyd

As I get steadily older, and as I become further poor of it, my time becomes an increasingly valuable commodity. It seems no matter what I do or don't do, all of my goals and aspirations outpace my ability to reach them. It's not often that I think about death itself, but I do think about approaching middle age. As pointless as it may be, I sometimes worry now about the regrets of what I might not accomplish in five, ten, or even thirty years time—assuming I'm fortunate enough to have them. What's wrong with me, right? Just get out there and live!

I remember when The Sims came out in 2000. It was a fun little game (a great game, really!) about the pursuit of happiness—from a decidedly first-world perspective. Create a person or a family. Tell them when to bathe, when to be social, when to practice a musical instrument. Take care of their needs and hopefully watch as they progress through the ranks of their respective careers. And above all, help them to buy and decorate their house with the coolest stuff. The Sims was genre-pegged as a life simulator, but I'm not so sure what that means. I think it's a game that has more to do with socio-economics than with “life”—at least in the grand sense of the word. Where was the drama, the everyday anxiety of existence?

End of School Daze

In 2007 I stumbled upon an entirely different sort of game, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. It was just on a fluke that I played it. Somebody gave me a hand-me-down Playstation 2 that hardly worked. As sort of a starter kit, the person who gave me the system also let me borrow this absurd looking Japanese role-playing game. The first thing I noticed about it was its sleek anime art style, but I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The game centers on a band of Japanese teenagers who—as with every other band of JRPG teenagers—must contend with a dark and powerful, world-threatening force. Unlike other JRPGs, Persona 3 doesn't send you wandering all over the planet or parading around in big flying boats. Nor does the final battle take place on the moon. It actually takes place on the roof of your school.

Something is strange in the city of Iwatodai. Each night starting at midnight, the moon turns a sickly green color and just about everyone transforms into a coffin—literally. The students' high school morphs into a massive fortress known as Tartarus, and a bunch of shadow monsters start wreaking havoc. For some reason, this Dark Hour does not affect a select group of individuals, including the main protagonist, a newly arrived transfer student. These gifted individuals are the only people who realize the Dark Hour even exists. Worse yet, this strange phenomenon seems to be causing an ominous outbreak among the population known as Apathy Syndorme, whereby people suddenly fall into a numb, vegetative condition. As such, the protagonist joins forces with his dorm mates who form the Specialized Extracurricular Extermination Squad (S.E.E.S.). The group's members have dedicated their nights to hunting the shadows inside Tartarus, hopefully to vanquish the Dark Hour from existence.

The most interesting aspect of the game is its structure. Events in the game take place over a one-year period, with the days and weeks counting down to some kind of hinted doomsday. Daytime segments play out like a social simulator. During the weekdays, the player character attends school, then spends the afternoon either hanging out with friends, attending a campus club, or doing some other activity around the town before retiring to the dorm. Then, on most nights, the player has the option to form a party and go fight monsters at Tartarus. This is the combat portion of the game, one enormous grind of randomized dungeons, turn-based battles, and periodic boss encounters.

It Is So Choice”

To say that Persona 3 takes its time is an understatement. As the game goes on, various plot twists formulate. New story clues come to light. The members of S.E.E.S. undergo their various trials, both individually and as a team. But most days are just regular days, with the player deciding how the protagonist will spend his free time. And it's within this limited freedom that the game truly shines—as a game. The choices available to the player present themselves in a largely scripted fashion. As the hours tick by from early morning to mid morning, from mid morning to after school and onward, there are moments that come up. Some mornings the game's focus will narrow in on a classroom lecture, during which a teacher will be going on about some subject. If the teacher pops the protagonist a question and the player answers correctly, that protagonist's popularity rating will increase. Sometimes the game will give the protagonist the option to take a nap during a lecture. Whereas doing so temporarily improves the character's physical condition, paying attention to the lecture will result in a permanent increase to the player's academic ranking.

A similar choice presents itself during most evenings. If the player decides not to go battle during the Dark Hour and retreats to the dorm room for the night, there will generally be the option to either stay up studying or got to bed early. These studying opportunities can be valuable for gaining those academic skills. But getting rest is equally important for preparing the body for battle during the Dark Hour and for preventing sickness.

The most interesting choices are the ones that involve social interactions with other characters, sometimes forming social links. During my play through of the game I befriended a fellow track athlete, an eccentric old couple who ran a local bookstore, a drunken monk at a nightclub, an MMO computer game player, a little girl in a park, some of my fellow S.E.E.S. members, and more. Some of these social links are more difficult to access than others. Certain options will not appear until the protagonist has reached certain benchmarks in academics, charm, or courage points. Others are available only through exploring particular areas of the city at a certain time and day of the week. Each of these relationships forms a social link that, when leveled up, allows the player to create more “persona” characters, which are used like summonings during battle. Some story branches lead to other story branches.

My protagonist, for example, had an interesting love life. After going out with a fellow athlete for a while and maxing out that social link, he started following a link with a shy girl from the Student Council Club. When I realized this character was forming a crush on my character, I decided to stop pursuing that social link. It was a tough call, especially knowing that by spending time the girl she was beginning to overcome her self-confidence issues. Oh well. I had my own goals. Closer toward the end of the game, as my character's stats began to reach the higher echelons, I suddenly found myself with the option of pursuing all three women in the protagonist's dorm—a pretty satisfying reward for his persistent leveling. Of course, social dynamics played a factor. The girl whose friendship I abandoned started awkwardly avoiding me. And dating multiple women at the same time would have led to other trouble. There was only sufficient time to pursue one of the three girls.

But I really kind of admire how the game stayed true to this rigid design throughout the game. Unlike so many RPGs that give the player so-called freedom to explore every last quest and side story to their neurotic content, here is a game that forces actual choices. A year is a long time, but not long enough for everything. If the player chooses not to participate in certain holiday festivities, those social opportunities and potential memories will be lost for good.

I think this resonated most when it came down to the small daily choices—when to sleep, when to study, when to go battle. It's something I relate to every day when I come home from work. What is the best use of my time? Is it in writing (boosting academics)? Going for a run (combat training)? Spending quality time with my wife (improving my social links)? This is territory that The Sims had ventured into several years earlier, of course, but it did so in a vacuum, with no consequence outside its dollhouse framework. Devoid of any narrative context, its daily open-ended activities served to fulfill little more than the replenishing of a constantly evaporating happiness reservoir. If only life were so simple!

Persona 3 kept me focused on a larger picture. It asked me to think about the longterm goals I wanted to achieve—the life I wanted to live—as my allotted days slowly diminished.

Just Shoot Me

The game's opening cinematic makes multiple textual references to “Memento mori,” a Latin phrase that translates to something along the lines of “remember your mortality.” It also refers to an artistic theme popular through classical and medieval European history. Painters would depict still-life images of skulls and skeletons to reinforce the message—remember that you too will die! Is Persona 3 a modern-day Memento mori?

Interestingly, the opening animation juxtaposes this textual reference with the game's most iconic image—attractive characters shooting themselves in the head! This is actually the animation that happens whenever a character in combat summons a persona. They do so by aiming a pistol-shaped device called an Evoker at their noggin and pulling the trigger. The characters don't even keel over, but the wispy particle substance that emanates from the other side of the head is clearly meant to resemble something much more violent and permanent.

Is this supposed to be symbolic, the stark reminder of death implied in the “Memento mori” reference? I imagine that's a part of it. But wouldn't an image of suicide sort of contradict the implication of that very reference? I suppose one could argue the game is engaging in a form of psychological reverse engineering, inverting a dark and highly suggestive image of giving up in a way that it becomes a much more positive representation of fighting back. I imagine it's also an exercise in being subversive for subversive's sake. If anything, it's provocative, an interesting way to illustrate the undercurrent of teen angst that flows throughout the game.

Time to Kill

I think there's an even greater irony that relates to the entire Persona 3 playing experience. For a game that does such an effective job reinforcing the seize-the-day outlook, it does an even more effective job sucking away one's otherwise productive hours. Persona 3 is the longest game I have ever played. While I managed to spread it out over a six-month period or longer, I'm pretty sure my final play through clocked in at over 120 hours (I made sure to erase the save file from existence as soon as it was over). I remember being just stunned as the hours continued on past the 50 or 60 mark and just … kept … climbing. It got to the point that I had to ask my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) for a day of solitude to complete the game. I don't think she took the request very well, but it did the job. I spent probably an entire weekend to wrap it up, and I still had to stay up quite late to do so.

As I mentioned once already, one of the game's optional side stories involves the protagonist playing an online role-playing game. It's bordering on metafiction. In doing so the protagonist befriends a player who goes by the name Maya. It's kind of a fun story segment that involves selecting the dialogue options, which the player types to his online companion. Maya, in turn, types back a bunch of playful comments, mixed in with all manner of chat abbreviations and emoticons, and there's a flirtatious little relationship that forms between the two. It's later revealed that the anonymous Maya is actually your character's homeroom teacher, who gets like totally embarrassed when she finds out she fell in love with her student. Persona 3—like so many Japanese games—has its cheeky moments, little bits of nerd fantasy indulgence. But the funny thing about that social link is that the option is only available on the weekends. And by playing the online game, the protagonist spends his entire weekend playing the game, thus eliminating the possibility of doing any other activities.

I swear the game developers at Atlus must be aware of this ridiculous setup they've created. Here I am, whiling away my own precious hours role-playing as a make-believe Japanese teenager who is flirting with a make-believe online game player—to the point that I have to seclude myself from my very real girlfriend to keep playing the make-believe game! Obviously, this optional story was one small dish to a sprawling narrative smorgasboard, but it does sort of put things in an interesting perspective.

Looking back, I think my time playing Persona 3 was time well enough spent. Not that I ever want to go back! This was five years ago when I was knee deep in a very stressful, life-sucking career as a newspaper reporter. It was a job that drained so much of my time and energy, and playing Persona 3 was for a time my mode of escape—not so different from the protagonist taking a deserved break from his own exhaustive battle against the Dark Hour to unwind with a video game. Abnegation, at times, does have its merits.

If you really think about “Memento mori,” there are two ways of responding to the message. One day you will die, so get out there and do something with your life while you still have time! On the other hand, no matter how important you think you are, and no matter how great or small your individual accomplishments, you too will one day die. So what's the point in worrying about everything so much? I'd like to think there's a balance to be found in between the two, and that there's a perfect time for everything. I could spend probably a lifetime trying to find it.

A previous version of this article appeared on the Knee Deep in the Game blog

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