昔者莊周夢為胡蝶，栩栩然胡蝶也，自喻適志與！不知周也。俄然覺，則蘧蘧然周也。不知周之夢為胡蝶與，胡蝶之夢為周與？周與胡蝶，則必有分矣。此之謂物化。 — 庄子
I dreamt I was a butterfly. I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming. But when I woke, I was I and not a butterfly. Was I dreaming that I was the butterfly, Or was the butterfly dreaming that it was me? Even if there’s a difference between the butterfly and I, The distinction isn’t absolute. And there is no relationship of cause and effect. — Zhuangzi
Such were the words that flashed across the screen during the original Revelations: Persona‘s iconic opening sequence. Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher, posed questions in his writing that went on to become central themes in the game series: “How do I know that enjoying life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death we are not like people who got lost in early childhood and do not know the way home? . . . How could any one stand by the side of the sun and moon, and hold under his arm all space and all time?”
As a tribute to Zhuangzi’s influence, the butterfly symbol has went on to become an icon of the Persona series. Ten years later, the philosopher’s writings are condensed into a simple theme with complicated repercussions:
Time never waits. It delivers all equally to the same end.
A blue butterfly flits by as the words appear on screen. Ten years since the genesis of the series, Persona 3 is released with a unique “Social Link” game mechanic. In playing the game, no longer was the player presented with a mere urban-themed RPG; the player was now thrust in a world where their decisions had consequences. Indeed, a central theme in both Persona 3 and the subsequent Persona 4 emphasizes the importance of sticking with the outcomes of various decisions in a limited span of time.
The introduction of “society” as a game mechanic brings with it a number of other thematic considerations aside from the consequences of one’s decisions. Two prominent ones appear in Persona 3 and 4: the importance of being socially aware and the importance of realizing that one is not alone in society.
As a testament to just how vast these themes are, both Persona 3 and Persona 4 assert these same concepts in profoundly differing presentations. As someone who recently completed both games and thoroughly enjoyed their thought-provoking nature, I was inspired to compare the different approaches each game took to convey its respective message. In order to fully assess each title, the definitive versions of each game was used in this comparison with a consideration made to avoid detailing spoilers as much as possible.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
The opening video in Persona 3 FES is an interesting affair. As noted by the "FES" addition to the original game's title (short for "festival"), Persona 3 FES is a celebration of its parent game's success and reception. As such, the opening video used in this version opts to focus more on footage from the game itself rather than animation created specifically to set the mood for the game's story. This brief detour through the fourth wall does not take place twice however, as the original game's opening sequence dutifully plays upon encountering a "game over" sequence. It can be assumed that such a choice was made as a result of the developers feeling that the original opening did the game's tone far more justice than the new "celebration" sequence, but opted to keep both sequences for the sake of drawing attention to both the game's universe and the impact it had made on the jRPG real-world "universe."
In both cases, a blue butterfly is briefly shown on the screen.
To be sure, the vanilla opening video does a masterful job at setting the tone for the game. Utilizing a unique abstract style to tactfully incorporate various symbolism from the story, the animation does an excellent job at visually depicting the confusion and inner turmoil that the characters in the game end up experiencing. To further this notion, the characters displayed in the video are often shown left by themselves with the abstruse imagery surrounding them. However, though the fact that the characters are depicted as faceless silhouettes in the sequence only serves to further this theme, one also cannot help but notice the gentle thought-provoking contradiction in the game's presentation: for a game where society plays such a major role, why are the characters so alone?
Despite being centered in a bustling urban environment, the game decides to overlook the doubtlessly numerous individuals in the city to instead focus on a person's capacity (or willingness) to acknowledge his or her surroundings. In the city, while riding on public transportation to school or work, one is able to simultaneously stand next to others while being completely excluded from their lives as well. The people who repeat this daily commute can almost be likened to glassy-eyed robots going about their own personal routines-- never stopping to acknowledge the people around them except to assert their personal space.
Apathy. While the above example is a mild one that is typical of urban life, the game chooses to magnify this propensity as a central plot point.
Apathy of ones surroundings. Apathy of one's job. Apathy of the direction of one's future. Apathy of life.
In Persona 3, "apathy" is presented as a literal disease afflicting humanity-- such widespread indifference serves as the basis of the game's climax, the coming of Nyx. On a smaller scale however, the members of SEES themselves also have to grapple with apathy by facing a set of dilemmas influenced by their personal reasons for wanting to resist the Shadows at all (many of which are touched upon in "The Answer" in FES). As the game progresses, the question on the back of their minds creeps closer and closer to the surface: Should they continue fighting or should they ignore everything and live their lives as normal high school students? Once again, Persona 3's original opening does a phenomenal job at alluding to this dilemma by constantly flashing the words "memento mori" throughout the video. "Remember your mortality," in other words, a note of caution to think carefully about the decisions you make in your life.
The ability to make choices with consequences attached to them, a hallmark of the Persona series, is able to serve the game's tagline only too well. The Social Link aspect of the game too is able to further the apathy notion of the story by letting the main character slowly become aware of some of the people around him; the people he meets opens up opportunities to meet even more individuals, each with their own sets of concerns. Interestingly, despite being able to help and form social links with numerous strangers on Tatsumi Port Island, the main character is unable to do so with some of his friends in SEES-- a testament to the more internalized struggles of the Persona 3 cast.
However, despite the fact that "Social Links" and "Personas" serve as benchmarks for the characters' maturities (as is especially evident once a character's Persona evolves), these two attributes are also directly tied into their battle abilities. As the story progresses, the members of SEES strengthen their resolve to fight against the Shadows after sorting out their inner demons and accordingly become stronger during battles. As a nice touch to illustrate this advancement, the party members eventually are able to fire their Evokers with less hesitation and call out their Personas with more confidence when fighting.
While great care was taken in crafting the way Persona 3 presented its themes about death, apathy, and internal conflict, the same cannot be said for the FES addition. Even though the additional content does in fact shed light on some of the characters' internal bases for maturing, the overall feeling of "The Answer" is that of hastily tacked on DLC for the sake of making some extra money. Aside from the unnecessary grinding required to progress, the primary reason for this impression is the sudden unyielding attachment the party members seemingly develop towards the main character. The reason that this attachment feels misplaced is due to the apparent rigidly morose personality of the character and the fact that he hardly interacted with the other characters on a personal level except to date them. Interestingly, the female main character in the non-canon Persona 3 Portable adaptation was written with a less standoffish personality and was largely better accepted than the original male lead.
Nevertheless, there is absolutely no denying that Persona 3 is art. Everything from the subtext, to the music, to the graphical style, and even the game's mechanics is beautifully blended together to present an atmosphere conducive to the world Persona 3 takes place in. A world with such life as the one presented here is the only way a game about choices can do justice to Zhuangzi's ponderings and went on to inspire a similarly vibrant storytelling style for the title's successor-- Persona 4.
Persona 4 Golden
When the Golden iteration of Persona 4 was released, the update not only supplemented the original's story a la Persona 3 FES, but also seamlessly included numerous additions throughout the game to enrich both the characters and the atmosphere of Inaba. While the new scenes, Social Links, characters, mechanics, and endings absolutely work to further flesh out the game's presentation, the sheer amount of new content is also able to subtly clarify the focus of the game in case there would be any doubt in realizing it.
Indeed, the feature of Persona 4 is a little bit tougher to discern than the more traditional "save the world" plot of Persona 3. While at first glance it would seem that Persona 4's major focus is its "murder mystery", the revisions that Golden makes to the original game's presentation respectfully suggest otherwise. Persona 4 Golden asserts that the mystery facet of the game is merely a plot device to put into motion the true purpose of the game-- making the most of one's limited time with his friends. Because this aspect was intended to be the focus of the game, players who missed this point felt somewhat cheated by the game's conclusion and were very quick to denounce the game's magnitude as not being as "epic" of a story compared to previous Persona games.
Unlike Persona 3 FES, Persona 4 Golden opted to completely replace the original game's opening video with brand new animation. Instead of the original's more serious, noir-esque intro, Golden's video opens with a colorfully nostalgic harmonica followed by a similarly toned montage of the main characters (along with the blue butterfly icon). With hardly any focus given towards "fighting" or the mystery at hand, the animation opts to provide more focus towards the individual characters, peppering the background with brightly colored symbolism about their personalities and memories. By the end of the video, the player can almost tangibly feel the sense of friendship and the bonds shared between the characters they will soon get to know in game.
Such is the tone that Persona 4 Golden worked very hard to engender, and accordingly made a number of subtle (and more overt) changes to achieve this. The default battle theme is changed to a song called Time to Make History. There are more story events centered around spending time with your friends (such as the scooter scenes and the concert at Junes). The game's events are expanded to Valentine's Day. And perhaps the most important addition-- a heartwarming new epilogue where the character returns to Inaba during late summer to witness just how much his friends can change in such a short span of time.
In short, Persona 4's holistic presentation, along with all of Golden's additions, points toward the undeniable fact that life goes on. Friends support one another, friends grow up, and each individual's life changes over time. As pure and humbling such a sentiment is however, Persona 4 interestingly uses this notion to drive the overarching theme of pursuing the "truth." Whereas the "apathy" motif in Persona 3 dealt with humanity's disillusionment from continuing to live, Persona 4 deals with the drive within people to cope with painful events and to continue onward in life. In an interesting bit of wordplay, the story makes an assertion that the "truth" that many people accept to feel better in certain situations is often whatever is least painful to believe. In this sense, the game focuses on the numerous layers that concrete truths are often buried under and accordingly presents the story's mystery plot in the same way. Naturally, Persona 4 takes full advantage of this structure and one's tendency to continue pursuing a truth until he or she is satisfied by offering a number of endings with subtle differences that are enough to unsettle the player-- indications that something is not quite right with the "closure" being given. To drive the point home about just how difficult it is to penetrate through these layers, the game actively works against the player to hinder them from solving everything in the first play-through (though it is still possible). Unlike in Persona 3, attaining an ending sequence other than the "true" ending is almost planned for.
Story-plot aside, this unique layered presentation also serves to further the main assertion of the game-- the time spent between the main character and his friends. Because the investigation team slowly digs through each layer of the "truth" and trudges through the mystery in a stepwise manner, the player is exposed to the characters' thought process. In gathering around the table at Junes and discussing each portion of the case, the characters' bonds with one another strengthen over time; somehow being able to watch the group of friends open up to one another makes the character-development scenes much more meaningful.
"You are not alone"
It is the message that is displayed when someone responds to your distress call in Golden's new SOS dungeon feature. A small addition, but one that cannot capture the theme of the game any better. Such is the intricacy of Persona 4's presentation. A masterful synthesis of various "ordinary" concepts-- friendship, nostalgia, personal problems, close-knit communities... simple concepts when looked upon superficially, yet staggeringly complex when one peels back the layers. While definitely not as "epic" or "Hollywood" as Persona 3, the game's simplicity lends credibility; the game has at least something the player can relate to on a personal level.
The characters have profoundly human problems. The countryside of Inaba fosters a living, breathing, atmosphere. For these reasons and more, I implore prospective gamers on the Clubroom page of this blog, "Don't simply play this game. Live in it with your entire heart."