I came to Persona when I finally went out of my way to get my greasy teenaged hands on a copy of Persona 3 FES in 2013. Persona is a satellite of the Japanese occult role-playing-game series Shin Megami Tensei. Us Americans tend to very sparsely mention the full title of any of these games unless we’re the hardest of vid-con fans.
Shin Megami Tensei itself means something along the lines of “True Goddess Metempsychosis” you can type that into word correct if you don’t believe me. The word references a specific type of theological / philosophical jargon relating to a ceaseless cycle of rebirth, life and death. This philosophy is both true of the core series and also Persona.
I live, I die, I live again.
The Persona series (starting with 3, again) are meant to be social simulators: The player is playing as a version of themselves who’s taken out of the world they live in to become a part of a different one. Our blank slate comes to the world fresh and with no thoughts or feelings, and maybe that’s the way most of us go through life anyway.
The person we are begins with nothing, and that’s important. You only define yourself in the Persona series by your relationships to other people. There’s nothing else you can do: you never have any choice over how you appear or what you think unless someone asks you first. All of the Persona games are set in high school. Extracurricular activities and stuff you do with school clubs are then stripped of any reason the player might want to do them usually immediately – because they are the primary way of meeting new people. You begin each game as a social ghost with no ties to anyone, slowly working their way into every social circle available.
There are people that function like that in the real world: I am one of them. Anyone who spends a lot of time having to meet new people, they’re probably the exact same too. It’s often overlooked, but that’s one of the best ways Persona depicts high school faithfully.
You get more social points by trying to get as many people as possible to warm up to you. There are no dead-in relationships in a Persona game like there are in real life though: the only way to cock things up is to decide not to fuck someone. You can be friends with two people that hate each other in ways that are impossible in life. Just find the most important people.
IN REAL LIFE THOUGH: there are no magic pets that get stronger the more you mine social situations with people for value. This is something I consider a bit of a “bug” and I think the world would be a lot better if some kind of supernatural force would get to work on making it true.
The fact that it’s also double not true of the world in Persona 3 is important. There’s a mechanic in there about the “social links” system and your individual “Persona” you get from defeating monsters in a supernatural dungeon that is the product of a combination existential/cosmic horror at the same dang time.
Everyone else in the cast has a Persona that is tied to their identity which is tied back to the major arcana (The Tower, The Death, etc) that the player has access to. Since you can have a variety of Persona at your beck and call, you become stronger by building bonds with people tied to different arcana.
That gives us the reason for us to inhabit the protagonist as our own Persona: we have access to an ability that lets us strengthen all aspects of our monsters in a way that other people inhabiting this world do not. We can exploit the emotional value of those around us to succeed, ingraining ourselves in their life so that we may climb a tower.
The most negative takes on these games generally stick with the idea of how exploitative the protagonist of Persona games often are. You chiefly have an interest in helping people only because if you can resolve their conflicts it makes you individually stronger.
Being cynical enough about the way the social links system works in Persona will routinely turn up those same critiques over and over again. The game doesn’t really portray how people can be bettered by strong bonds because most change is rote and never takes hold (a-la Persona 4’s way of resolving character conflict) – or like I said earlier is purely based on the protagonist exploiting someone else to become stronger.
I don’t find those criticisms damning enough. The question they present to me is not that how could you make these games into a better social sim, but who are they a social simulator for.
Exploiting people or using their problems as a means of getting close to them is never a good thing to do. Yet if you look at any drama involving the people who make indie games in Seattle, or independent comic creators becoming professional you’ll see those things over and over again. If you want to see both at the same time: look at the kind of people who write about music just so they can see their favorite bands for free.
Persona 3, 4, 5 – they could all easily be lifted out of their high-school settings and dropped into any group of artists or influencers or whatever we call people that make things and can live doing it these days. The puzzle of these games is figuring out the social hierarchy and often using it to solve the mystery at the heart of the story as it’s presented.
Though saving the world is a better end-game plan than using an up-and-coming artist as a way into professional art only to promptly discard them when they run out of social currency, but I digress. At the end of these games the protagonist is strengthened by the people around them – lifted up and given a new way of looking at the world.
Only after they’ve worked their way close to people by using their problems and issues as a way of making a connection. Only after they’ve used feelings like jealousy and love against people to make an invisible number go up.