“Well, if you put it that way, it’s an old problem,” said Leibniz. “Descartes saw straight away that Mechanical Philosophy might spell trouble for free will, in that it led to a new sort of predestinationism – not rooted in theology, like that of the Calvinists, but rather growing out of the simple fact that matter obeys predictable laws.”
-Neal Stephenson, The System of the World
“I chooseth this fate of my own free will.” -The Contract, Persona 3
Look it’s my website and if I feel like doing my research by quoting from fiction that did real research, that’s my prerogative. Just don’t tell my wife, she used to teach MLA citing.
Persona 3 is a game about many things, but perhaps most of all it’s about free will.
On the inside, the game is a story about a teenager who’s chosen, as they always are, and a lot of his story is about his exercising the ability to choose within the story that’s been laid out before him. On the outside, though, the game is about players, and what they’re free to do within the framework of playing a game, this game, itself.
Well known as one of my favorite titles, Persona 3 is not perfect. Though it’s interesting to me that some of the things we view as problems actually reinforce this theme that ties the game together. Let me back up for a second, though.
Given that, even in the US, Persona 3 has seen three different versions, we could spend a lot of time arguing over which is best (they all have their merits!). One thing, though, that I feel strongly about is that the original title sequence is by far the strongest.
Memento Mori, baby.
There’s a lot of reasons for this, and if this was an article about comparing versions, I’d get into them. But I’m focusing on the liberal use of quotations from Descartes. The opening to Persona 3 Portable, which has much more lavish production values, chooses instead to quote from Nietzsche, and while still appropriate, per se, c’mon. Who hasn’t quoted Nietzsche at this point? It implies, in its own accidental way, a game far lazier than this one actually is.
(Speaking of, me and my guys are gonna go ’round back and take swings at Xenosaga with tire irons this afternoon, you want in?)
Descartes spent a lot of time focused on “dualism,” which is to say the mind-body problem. Now, we all know today that he fucked it up, because he felt that the mind and soul resided in, or were connected to the body through, the pineal gland. But the fact that he understood that there was a problem with greater understanding of mechanical processes, and how this would affect “the free will problem,” is pretty significant for a game like Persona 3.
The way that Persona 3 goes at free will is as much about a player who understands the mechanical processes of playing a game as it is about the teenage heroes of the game’s narrative, who largely face their own conflicts with the nature of free will. The fact that they do not know that they are in a machine designed to test them, but the player does, is what creates the tension.
That this is at least somewhat intentional can be tracked back to how the relationship between mind and body has always been an integral component of the Persona series. It doesn’t take a trained Psychologist to recognize the dominance of Jungian imagery here – the butterfly’s name is “Philemon,” for God’s sake – but what that stuff amounts to in practice is that the unknown parts of our own mind are often considered the enemy. While this might most obviously be on display in Persona 4, it’s as true in the earlier iterations of the series: in the first Persona title, you are judged based on in-game decisions you made by your “other self,” who while looking like the protagonist is sitting down to play a video game when you come across him.
The Opening Act
“Now if you want to proceed, please sign your name there. It’s a contract. Don’t worry, all it says is that you’ll accept full responsibility for your actions. You know, the usual stuff… No one can escape time. It delivers us all to the same end. You can’t plug your ears and cover your eyes.”
-Pharos, the opening cutscene
“You led it to us, Akihiko, so I’m afraid you’ll have to fight.”
“Like I had a choice!”
-Mitsuru Kirijo & Akihiko Sanada, April 9th, in-game (just prior to the first combat gameplay)
Just before your character heads up to the meeting room on the dormitory’s fourth floor to hear the exposition which will explain much of the game’s plot and purpose, you can turn on the TV in the lounge. In fact, it’s pretty much the only interactive thing you can do in that moment, before the meeting begins – aside from saving your game, or maybe purchasing a healing soda can from the vending machines on the second or third floor. If you do so, the screen shakes and your controller vibrates, and the news on the television reports that there’s been an earthquake. This is optional and doesn’t change anything in the game. All the earthquake does is serve as a reminder to your protagonist that some things just can’t be controlled.
The first act of the game (for those following along at home, that’d be roughly from the time the game begins until you join an athletic team) spends a lot of time giving and taking control. When you’re allowed free movement, when you’re allowed to fight, even when you can access the menu, it’s all tightly regulated and slowly portioned out to you in careful drips. On the one hand, this is to acclimate you to a game that has a number of things going on, but more than that the game is conveying to you that your avatar, the silent (and narcoleptic) protagonist is trapped in a system that is much larger than he is. Even as you strain against the boundaries of what the game will let you do in the earliest days of the in-built calendar, your avatar is being watched when he sleeps, is talked about constantly when he cannot hear – not only by the dormmates who have him on the closed-circuit, but also classmates spreading rumors about the protagonist and possible love interest Yukari Takeba.
(Even the pop culture reference that serves as the game’s structural underpinning is a framework that feels like a cage at first: your protagonist, an initial introvert with his headphones and his arrival by train, bears a more than passing resemblance to Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion, which isn’t accidental. Persona 3 was designed from the bottom up to be a more approachable title than previous games in the Megami Tensei franchise, and attaching itself to the cultural phenomenon is one of a number of ways in which it does this. But rather than recycle those ideas thoughtlessly, it views them as a pattern to eventually be broken from, as we’ll see when we approach the final act.)
On a plot-only level, this feeling of being “trapped” serves as foreshadowing. The protagonist has a life force quite literally trapped within his body, and it is that initial trapped presence that serves as the impetus of pretty much everything to happen subsequently in the game’s narrative. Consider Pharos, the creepy little boy who asks you to sign the contract that lets you play the game at all – he wears the black-striped coverall of a prison inmate!
As the game finally relinquishes virtually all of its overt control to the player, you’ve been left with multiple reminders that your actions will carry consequences, and to carry the knowledge of those consequences with you as you progress. Everyone who makes a choice during the time when you cannot – Akihiko and Yukari being the most obvious – already comes face to face with the consequences of those decisions. By entering your name at the game’s opening, you are signing a contract that you will similarly deal with the consequences of those actions. Your protagonist and you as the player sign the contract in tandem, by design – you will both be implicated in different ways for that decision as the game goes on. Already the game has made clear that while you may not be able to fully inhabit your avatar, you and he are both strung up by the game design – trapped in a system.
The Social Links
Most of the game follows a pattern, where you spend your days interacting with the people in the city of Iwatodai, and you spend your nights climbing the labrynthine Tartarus, slaying Shadows.
It’s the interactions with the people that makes this more interesting, as it’s what makes Persona 3 particularly different from other games. You advance your social links in order to fuse stronger Personas, making battle easier.
This is the fundamental and most identifiable instance of the game’s dance around the subject of free will, as it pertains to the relationship between you and your protagonist avatar. When you are asked questions by the people who have formed social links with you, what is your response? Do you say what you believe? What you, as a role-player, feel that your character believes? Or what you think is mostly likely to be what they want to hear? And if it’s the latter, are you doing it for their benefit, or in order to advance the links and gain more power? Persona 3 isn’t an overly easy game, and (particularly in its earlier iterations) there are a number of checks and balances in place to prevent you from level grinding too heavily. But if your social links keep moving, and you keep fusing stronger Personas, the game moves quite fluidly without a great deal of grinding at all. Is that worth the price? And if you don’t surrender yourself to the narrative enough to care, then do you actually care much at all about advancing through the game itself?
There are other places where you can engage in dialogue with your party members, social links, and other NPC’s. On trips, in the lounge, around the halls. Oftentimes, though not quite always (and this is an area where later iterations improve), those questions are of the usual RPG ilk – an exposition or atmosphere tool in which you can repeat the dialogue and try the opposite response if you so choose. To the extent that you don’t know the difference, it prompts you to be more careful when you speak in all cases. To the extent that you do know the difference, though, it reinforces “the system,” the set of rules which governs the gameplay – rules that reinforce your freedom in other areas.
It’s said that in the earlier days of gaming, before “freedom” was a buzzword in game design, the most interesting things that gamers would do were the ways in which they attempted to break free of whatever system was in place. This is arguably still true, but oftentimes now systems are so open (in major releases) that there’s less cause to get “clever.” In Persona 3, a game in which you are deliberately shuttled into a routine, the gasps of freedom become more deliberately noticeable. You can ruin your relationships with almost every link, if you want. You can choose to play as that character. What you’ll be faced with, though, is dire consequences in battle. Is this free will? For that matter, since we’re on the subject, does freedom in gaming always have to mean the freedom to be a fictional asshole (or in the case of online gaming, a decidedly nonfictional one)?
It’s this push and pull between the fictional reality and the gamer’s reality that serves as the backbone for Persona 3. Your choices are being judged, not necessarily by a vague “morality system” that outputs a good-evil ending, but instead by the structure of the gameplay itself – judgment that invariably causes you to weigh your own damned choices, and consider what it is that you want.
Freedom, and Letting Go
Here’s a few characters from Persona 3 who feel trapped in one way or another – for some, it’s minor, and for others it’s major, some are social links, some are party members, and some are NPCs, showing a partial spectrum:
- Akihiko and Shinjiro are trapped by their guilt; it’s dictated their every action since they were children, but especially the few years leading into the game.
- Maiko, appropriately enough for the arcana of The Hanged Man, is trapped in a situation that she literally cannot change: her parents’ divorce.
- Bebe lives at the whim of his uncle, who has power over even what nation Bebe will live and learn in.
- Mamoru has been held back by his family’s poverty since the death of his father, and the younger siblings that he has to care for.
- Ms. Toriumi has been miserable at work of late and is feeling lonely, and funnels her feelings into things like gaming and, worse, drinking.
- Mr. Ono feels trapped by his school’s curriculum – the only thing in history he has passion for is the Sengoku Era of Japan.
- The Owner of the Antique Store can’t seem to escape her past, which was tangled up with that of the Kirijo Group, and provides aid despite seemingly wanting a normal life.
Everyone is probing the edges of their own prisons, as we all do. For some, the right decision is to resign themselves to their fate. For some, it’s moving on from the past. Not every ending resolves in what we’d call “freedom,” but many of them deal with the nature of free will and choice, as much by their own decisions as by the decisions you make in responding to them. But the game is trying very significantly to impart another lesson, as well, which was part of the speech that Pharos made when he asked you to sign the contract – the same speech that you hear when you fall in battle.
“Time,” he says, “delivers us all to the same end.” Everyone dies. Everyone has to let go, everyone has to say good-bye. Every social link, and every party member’s struggle, is also about partings. You have to say good-bye to many of them, and they often have to leave someone or something behind themselves. For one thing, death is inevitable, so it’s what we do now that matters – whether that means living to the fullest, or doing the moral thing. For another, it’s the importance of sacrifice: taking responsibility even if it means giving things up. The inevitability of death and the importance of sacrifice are pretty fundamental parts of the Free Will question. If we often argue that free will is the ability to do something bad, it’s just as much the ability to do something selfless. Free Will is making the choices, regardless, and taking the consequences.
Eros vs. Thanatos
So, about those romantic social links. Sure is unfair that you can’t maintain platonic friendships in Persona 3. If you max each link, you’ll soon find that you are, well, trapped in “harem” anime that the visual novel / dating sim style gameplay of the social links, and your very arrival at the dormitory in the game’s beginning, suggests.
Look, I agree with you. Like I said, the brilliant game is not a perfect game. If nothing else, for the sake of the game’s gender politics alone, you should be allowed to form platonic friendships. This was an area where the decidedly messy Persona 4 did something right, actually improved the formula.
You know, you could make the case for your party members initially being “trapped” in their manga/anime archetypes, and slowly, over the course of the game, evolving as best as they’re able to escape those forms and become more rounded characters. Platonic relationships could only complexify the characters involved, and it would help support such a reading. Although, honestly, Mitsuru and Akihiko’s character designs in the semi-sequel P4U suggest that the growth that we did see is going to be scaled back as it is so whatever let’s talk about the actual game we’re talking about dammit.
I think that you can make a strong case for the romantic social links as-is being a case of Eros vs. Thanatos, love and lust and life versus death’s calling. When you consider the rest of the game, its plot, and other thematic signifiers, this isn’t a far stretch. It may have even been intentional, not that such a thing ever matters. But we’re here to talk about free will, and so I want to point something out.
You don’t have to max every link.
This sounds snotty, but it isn’t, honestly. You can advance every female social link up to about the fourth rank without forming any romantic entanglements, and their individual problems don’t usually spring up by that point, and so you just remain friends with nothing specific to resolve. You’ll grow weak in some areas, but you have a number of other arcana available to you, and you should be able to play your cards right (if you’ll pardon the pun) and get through battles without major problems.
When I first played Persona 3, I maintained an entirely monogamous relationship with Yukari. I did so by deliberate choice. It doesn’t make my choice any “better” or “worse” than the player who dated everyone, but it was clearly possible for me to do so.
What we’re really saying, when we have concerns about the maxing of all the romantic social links, is “I can’t get all of the power and be platonic with these girls.” This is still an open topic for discussion – and like I said, speaking generally, I agree with you – but the game’s design does allow you the free will to date one or zero of the girls.
I don’t think this is a trivial point, because in a game in which your behavior within the gameplay system is an examination of free will as a person and as a player of video games, deliberately choosing not to “catch ‘em all” needs to be considered as a gameplay option.
You don’t have to sign the contract at the game’s beginning. It’d make for a two minute, barely interactive game, which might not be worth the money you played, but it is an option. Rather than agreeing to accept the consequences of your actions, you can instead turn the game off. That is free will. If you chose to sign the contract – to play the game as designed – then you chose to accept the consequences of toying with the hearts of every girl in a ten square mile radius of Gekkoukan High School.
Your character is inescapably charismatic by the time you can even talk to some of these girls – that’s an in-built game statistic. But it’s also pretty sensible when you consider what else is going on, which is that you’re carrying the incarnation of death itself – the longing for death, even – within you.
That all of these trapped people keep seeking you out is the fundamental spiritual conflict that informs the plot – more and more people long for Thanatos. That’s why Nyx and Erebus keep getting closer in the first place, remember?
It’s probably fair to expect there to be less of a middle ground – passion or nothing – when the very foe you battle for much of the game is literally causing apathy.
The RPG Trappings
I feel like I need to stop everything in the middle here and make this point super mega ultra very double extra clear, okay?
Direct controlling your party members is not inherently an improvement, it just makes the game easier.
When I hear people saying that Persona 4, a game that I really do love with some terrific characters and wonderful moments in it, is inherently a better game (which it isn’t) because you can now use the “direct control” tactic to make the game more like other, easier, RPGs, I want to crush their head in a vice like Pesci in Casino. If you say you like that better, that’s fine. You’re still wrong, but that’s fine. That’s a preference.
Persona 3 uses a lot of trappings deliberately, and then turns them on their head for effect. I don’t mean that they deconstruct those trappings, I just mean that they use them as tools. The opening hour or two of the game establish that unlike most RPGs, this narrative is not a “fantasy” story, this is, if anything, horror. But the game is never actively very scary, and it never really tries to be. I think that there are moments that one could classify as existential terror, depending upon your temperment, but this game isn’t scary. System Shock 2 is scary. The reason that Persona 3 establishes itself in a vaguely-defined “horror” genre that it isn’t especially beholden to is because that genre has its own expectations and conventions, and those things are more of a fit than, say, the steampunk/fantasy trappings of Final Fantasy VI would be.
The haunted school, the rivers of blood, etc, are horror trappings that define the game not as one you’ll be afraid to play in the dark, but one where (as we’ve said) death is inevitable. Feeling “trapped” is a natural consequence of that milieu, whether it’s a serious dilemma (as it is for, say, Shinjiro Aragaki) or a trivial one (as it is for Mr. Ono, where it’s quite funny).
Similarly, this game distorts most of our expectations for how a “JRPG” is meant to be played, and it does so in order to support its narrative and its themes. When it comes to “traditional” role-playing gameplay – that is, the combat and the interface used for equipment and level advancement – the game goes sideways for the primary purpose of establishing that you are a separate being from the rest of your party.
This is a much more unusual idea than it sounds. Many games of this type allow you so much control over the growth of each character that the characters become largely interchangeable, aside from perhaps one specific character quirk like a “limit break.” To use a more recognizable series, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII both operate in this way. Materia and GFs and other in-built parts of the game system make the characters more or less swappable, except for plot-mandated parties. Some characters have better limit breaks, and they’re often defaulted to – or a character is better liked in the story, so they’re used more – but they’re barely individuals on the battlefield. The other extreme, of course, is when the characters are so specialized – like in Final Fantasy X – that each is only good for one thing, and then rotated out for the next character.
Meanwhile, in the menus, and in shops, and other interfaces of that nature, everything is abstracted to the point that characters vanish and it’s just numbers moving around. In Final Fantasy VII, who does the shopping? The team leader, which is usually Cloud? Do they all shop as a large group, piling into the armor shop en masse? What if your party is separated? The answer is generally “who cares,” because the abstraction is just about increasing the numbers so that you can move forward.
In Persona 3, you do all the shopping, and you issue the commands to your team, and you know it at every moment. You have to give the armor, or whatever, to your party member, and you hope they say thank you. You’re the one who stocks up on medicine, and you’re probably doing it on a night when you just want to get to Karaoke, or get back home to study, and when your teammates don’t thank you, because they don’t always, that actually registers. During those periods when I was actively “role-playing,” that is, imagining what it must feel like to be the avatar (one of the reasons we generally play these things, be they FFVII or Skyrim), I felt my protagonist must occasionally feel pretty damned resentful about it.
In battle, these members of your party are always separate beings who act separately from you, and it establishes who you are in relation to them, and how you feel about them, and that you act independently, as an individual and as an actual leader. Some people say the AI for your party members isn’t complex or intelligent enough. I’m not sure that’s true, though it’s certainly up for discussion. Different characters have different patterns, and if you’re constantly varying your tactics based on the enemy – as you’re supposed to – their behavior isn’t 100% the same all of the time. Yeah, Junpei trusts his physical Persona skills over the ones that use fire, but if you tell him to focus on “knock down,” he’ll exploit their weakness if you’ve learned it through analysis. Yeah, Mitsuru leans too heavily on the infamous “Marin FUCKING Karin” charm spell, but if you give her actual orders, tell her to focus on doing something, she uses that skill a lot less. Oftentimes their default patterns tell you about who they are as characters – Akihiko has a tendency to rush right in, even if it’s going to get him killed (which is exactly the personality you tend to see in the narrative) – but he’s not a total idiot, and if he knows the enemy is weak to his affinity, he’ll stand back and pick them off like he’s supposed to.
So why does the game spend so much time separating you from your team?
Well, for one thing, the game’s about you. The character and the player. Spreading your identification around is only going to diffuse the point. It’s true that likely, you can’t “be” the avatar of Persona 3 – but Hell, you’re probably not a half-orc orphan raised to be an assassin, either. At least you can remember being a teenager (or still are one) and trying to figure things out. That sometimes there is a dissonance between what the avatar’s options are for speaking and what you might say given the choice establish that you’re not the same – there’s a reason fans often call him by his manga name, Minato Arisato, and not by their own names – but that’s okay, because what he wants to do and what you want to do don’t have to line up 100% – it’s that Free Will thing popping up again, yours vs. his – in order for you to identify with him.
(That was the problem with Catherine, too, wasn’t it? “Well, I’d never be that stupid.” Yeah, but Vincent is, and even if you wouldn’t have done that stupid thing, you surely can remember doing something very stupid before, because we’re all of us stupid, comes with the “human” label.)
It also makes you care more about the other characters, even if you get pissed at them sometimes (royally pissed!), because they feel like individuals themselves. And that means that in your interactions with them, your choices carry more weight. The fact that Yukari isn’t just an extension of your arm in battle means that when she’s upset, you’re at least marginally more likely to view her as a separate person whose problem requires taking care of. And it’s in considering those choices, as we’ve said, that you and the game do battle when it comes to consequence and Free Will.
I don’t think anyone is supposed to feel surprised by Ryoji Mochizuki’s identity. Death is inevitable, as we’ve said, and his coming was foreshadowed in the game’s first two minutes. If Persona 3 grew deliberately in the shadow (don’t say “shadow!”) of Evangelion, then Ryoji’s arrival had to feel, for those who have seen that program, like the final trap swinging closed.
The relationship between Ryoji and Evangelion‘s Kaworu Nagisa would make for a fair enough article on its own if you included other games that deliberately chose such parallels (the next most obvious choice would clearly be The World Ends With You, as its play with that archetype was the most interesting thing that game did), so let’s not dwell for too long on the subject, but…
Persona 3 established in its first minutes that your player avatar was a Shinji Ikari-like figure, at first. The entire game has been about making him into someone else. Someone who exercised their will, for one thing. Recall that in that anime, Ikari was psychologically incapable of making his own choices for nearly the entire run of the program, until finally making the choice that he does in the concluding film End of Evangelion. Kaworu himself more or less took the decision out of Shinji Ikari’s hands, when it came time for one of them to live or die. So when this exchange student arrives, his behavior may suggest that he’s Kaworu’s opposite, but it’s clear that the framework established early on has finally come to fruition. It’s clear that something has to happen, here, and Persona 3 has established throughout the entire game, not only in story but in gameplay, that one of its main concerns is free will; a choice is going to have to be made. This is the ultimate result of the contract that you signed at the game’s inception.
In many ways, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice, does it?
Well, on the one hand, it shouldn’t, because you’ve spent the whole game (presumably) helping everyone in town, and to sell them out at the end would feel false and stupid. Certainly nobody else on your team wants you to do so – but then again, we’ve established through gameplay that you’re a separate individual from them.
This is a big epic fantasy, and you’re the hero, so of course you want to fight. This isn’t much of a choice. Except that this game is more “horror” than “fantasy,” and you’ve been told that not only is death inevitable, but that you’re going to have to accept the consequences of your actions.
It is, on its face, very easy to see that fighting is the obvious choice, and maybe that feels too easy. But consider how the game has led you to this moment. That “system” in which you’ve been trapped – which the entire first act of the game pounded into you again and again – only now drops away. This moment, this choice, however simplistic you may or may not feel it is narratively, is when that system shuts off. You can make an honest choice here, and your ending will change, and it’s pretty obvious what’ll happen. In the end, only you, as a player, and you, as a character, can make that choice. It’s the first 100% free choice that you can make. Yes, or No. Fight, or don’t fight. Nobody’s making you choose the one that feels “obviously” better.
Maybe it’s a better ending for everyone but Aigis, that “bad ending,” if you think about it. It’s what the world asked for, after all. If you think that’s a bullshit answer, that’s okay, it’s your choice.
But the game has spent all of these hours affirming that you want to exercise your free will in the face of death, in the face of partings and letting go and all that. Valuing life, valuing the connections you make with others.
In that final choice, the one that determines your endgame – whether you even have an endgame – the only choice that argues for free will is to fight, to reaffirm the gameplay and carry it on to the ending. But if there’s only one choice that affirms free will, is it even a choice? Are you being “forced,” or aren’t you?
In that moment, Persona 3 becomes clear, I think. If the game has been about, through its primary mechanic of the social links, the tension between a player’s will and the protagonist’s, this choice that really isn’t one is the period at the end of the sentence. By this point, the tension between the “right thing” and what you as a gamer wants has been made clear to you as a player. It is, in its own small way, a mirror held up to how we play games, and in its own small way, what how we play games means about how we are as people – by showing how we move and exercise our limited freedoms within a closed system.