August 9, 2007 8:03 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
Much has been made of the role of player choice in games. Choice, after all, not only crafts the experience, but creates an impression of character moreso; after all, there are many games, particularly in the RPG genre, where you’re given a choice of how to respond to questions or in conversation that has little to no bearing on gameplay or plot. Rather, the act of selecting whether to give an affirmative response or an ambivalent one – even when the effect is ultimately the same – connects the player to the character, allows him to express his own feelings through the protagonist.
This is especially true for the so-called “silent protagonist”; the character who has no distinct personality of his own aside from the way the player chooses to have him express himself. This was a nearly omnipresent convention in an earlier, simpler time, when storylines were far more basic and game engines much more limited. As the role of story and characterization in games became more sophisticated alongside the games themselves, the experience became more about getting to experience a character with an interesting destiny, a difficult personality, or some foreign internal conflict we could enjoy vicariously. We learned to become the individual that the game asked us to be, and the silent protagonist quietly became extinct.
Still, truth is often stranger than fiction, as the adage goes, and can often be much more illuminating. In a voiceless protagonist’s silence, we can often hear ourselves. But can that silence actually create characterization? And more importantly, can it create that emotional conundrum that we as gamers so desperately crave – that flashpoint wherein we must choose between power and morality?
The Final Solution
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is a last-gen RPG, bowing in quite a few ways to the conventions of its predecessors. But its leveling system is based less on growing stronger through battle and more on growing more powerful socially – and all of this is accomplished through choice in interaction.
Essentially, the characters do battle by summoning Persona – spiritual creatures that reside in the arcana of the Tarot. Notably, they’re summoned by a self-inflicted shot to the head with a special handgun called an Evoker. The brief and repeated “suicides” of attractive young teenagers are arresting, particularly in the way that each student delivers the Evoker’s shot in a personal way – some to the temple, others to the forehead, or under the chin.
This gains particular resonance against the game’s central plot: in the “Dark Hour” that hides between midnight and 1:00 AM, monsters called Shadows prey on the populace. They inflict not death, but a personality-flattening psychological illness called Apathy Syndrome. Gunshots to the head in a dead hole of night might seem like the victims’ end result, not the heroes’ solution – but it is by summoning Persona that the kids’ team combats the Shadows as they descend to the heart of the mystery surrounding the Dark Hour.
The true character-building takes place in the light of day, though, alongside sunny music and an ordinary school day. During these times, there’s no combat at all – but you grow your Persona by forming relationships with others. As those bonds deepen, corresponding Persona grow stronger. And even though the sun is out, the game’s sinister vibe doesn’t evaporate.
It takes some time, as the in-game days pass, for this to become clear. Soon it’s revealed that you might need to improve yourself in some areas before certain individuals will give you the time of day – become a better student, more charming, more courageous. Staying up late at night, nose in your books, may make you appear a diligent student. But the truth is, you’re trying to gain entry to an exclusive club. You’re not motivated so much by a desire to do well on finals (and the game does test you) as you are by a desire to get close to your lovely, mysterious Senpai.
During your social interactions with other characters, the improvement of your relationship with them is determined by how much they like your answers to their questions. Unlike other “pick a response” scenarios in RPGs, where there’s a “right” answer and a “jerk” answer, the complexity of interaction in Persona 3 raises quite a few challenges for those trained to provide the wholesome answer.
You’re not trying to be a good person. You’re trying to satiate the other person in order to improve your power. This can be fairly benign – from the cute track team captain asking you to confirm that she should eat a second lunch, or that she’s right in blowing off her studies – to a little darker. The track team captain has hurt his knee, but is determined to keep training. In order to maintain his respect, you must discourage him from relaxing.
In the same week that you salve a lonely old couple with your resemblance to their son and play with a child in the park, you encourage a classmate to have relations with a teacher. You join the Art Club, the Track Team, and the Student Council – and spend all Sunday holed up with your room, encouraging the hermetic sensibilities of an emotionally unsettled girl you meet in an MMO.
The overzealous student head of the Disciplinary Committee asks for your collusion in enforcing his irrational rules. When he over-reacts to a bathroom smoking incident, he asks whether he’s in the right. It’s evident to the player that his draconian morality is entirely wrong, and you have the opportunity to set him to rights. But if you want that strength boost for the Emperor arcana to which the disciplinarian belongs, you must concur with him that students shouldn’t have freedom.
Your friends will call you on the weekend or stop by your classroom at lunchtime to ask for your help or your company. But you’ll decline their requests for emotional support because you need more power from another group. The heartbreakingly shy underclassman girl who enjoys reading books with you just wants a bit of your attention – but you don’t need anything from her today, so you blow her off.
Your quiet protagonist doesn’t impose any morals whatsoever on the player – but he takes you to that place with him, the sense of deep duality, of showing a drastically different face to one individual than you show another all for the sake of getting stronger, and it’s deliciously insidious. Of course, all of this manipulation of individuals is for the sake of saving the world, right? But in a strange twist, the story progression gradually reveals that Shadows seem to strike those who manipulate and bully others. You’re placed firmly in a moral gray area, providing a wonderful sense of uncertainty about your fate.
The series’ title, often foreshortened to simply Persona, refers overtly to the battling spirits induced by that morbid headshot. But in the psychology of Carl Jung, it has another meaning: The mask or façade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment and not representing the inner personality of the individual; the public personality. That’s fitting.
The inner personality of the protagonist is the jurisdiction of the player; we can fill him with our own soul, even as the game forces us to use Personae both in battle and in the player’s life. Hard to tell what consequences, if any, the game will levy for your manipulations, but the necessity of manipulating friends who depend on us, even when it may do them harm, provides a dark overtone even to the sunniest school day. It makes us as players really think about those once-boring rote responses in RPGs, and that’s something rather special.
[Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 releases in the US for the PlayStation 2 on August 14th.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer