Time, Death, and Persona 3

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An essay about Persona 3. It’s about time.

Persona 3, at the time of writing the only game in the series I’ve played, left a strong impression on me. I’ve long been a big fan of Japanese Role Playing Games (sometime in the future I’ll be covering several JRPGs in depth), so it seemed like an obvious choice for me. I’ve never been a huge fan of dungeon crawlers, but this game really did it for me. Excellent characters, a setting unique among JRPGs, compelling mechanics, and a bumpin’ soundtrack all contributed to my loving the game to itty bitty pieces by the time I reached the credits. It’s also absolutely ripe for my particular brand of literary analysis.

In Persona 3, the main character is a high school student in the fictional Japanese town of Iwatodai. Every night at midnight, the Dark Hour hits, and Gekkoukan High School transforms into Tartarus, a towering dungeon crawling with grotesque monsters. The hero and his dormmates are the only ones who can combat the monsters- called ‘Shadows’- by summoning monsters of their own called ‘Personas’. Personas are summoned by firing a gun-shaped ‘Evoker’ at your own head, and the strength of Personas are increased by strengthening your ‘Social Links’, your connections with other characters in the game’s world. In other words, this is a game in which high school is literally hell, and it can only be survived by making friends. Mix in themes of experimenting with new identities and just a dash of ripped-from-the-headlines teenage gun violence and suicide imagery, and this oughta be a literary analysis slam dunk!

Which is why it might be surprising for you to now learn that I’m not going to be discussing the game from that angle. I wanted to dive a little deeper, and find an angle on the game I hadn’t really seen discussed yet. I also wanted something that I could use to meaningfully compare Persona 3 to other games- not only games from the same genre, but all games. I wanted to use Persona 3 as a case study to explore a broader examination of games. I think I’ve found a topic that will allow me to do that. So, without further dressing of the set, let’s get right down to it.

Anyone who has played the game already ought to be able to tell me what the game is about, thematically speaking. Persona 3 is about death. Death hangs over the plot from beginning to end, death figures prominently into the backstories of nearly all the characters, death is even a physically present character assuming various forms throughout the game. The game is about how these characters respond to death, the inevitability of death, the meaning of their lives in the face of certain destruction, and so on. At least, that’s a part of what the game is about. I’m here to posit that the game’s fixation on death is merely a facet of the game’s much broader theme: time.

Allow me to be more specific. Persona 3’s plot is all about death, but the game’s mechanics are an exploration of time in video games. The relationship between time and death is explored, appropriately, through the interplay of the mechanics and the narrative. If we accept my thesis that the overall theme of Persona 3 is time (which is explored through the gameplay) and a subset of that theme is the theme of death (which is explored in the game’s narrative) we can also draw an interesting conclusion about the relationship between the mechanics and narrative of a video game’s story (that the narrative is necessarily a smaller part of the mechanical whole, and that true storytelling in games is dependent on what your game’s mechanics communicate,) but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk a little bit about time in video games.

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I want you to try a little experiment in your head right now. Hell, you could even do it for real if you have the necessary ingredients. Fire up a new game of Final Fantasy VII, and once you gain control of Cloud, do nothing for ten minutes straight. What happens? Nothing. Once you gain control of Cloud, you can stand on that train platform from here till Doomsday and nothing will ever happen. Now, fire up a new game of Sonic the Hedgehog, and once you gain control of Sonic, do nothing for ten minutes straight. What happens? Sonic will suffer a massive cardiac arrest and die instantly, that’s what happens. Why the difference?

Well, one answer is that these are two different types of games. Final Fantasy VII is a plot heavy role playing game, while Sonic is more about arcade style platforming. In other words, FFVII is more of a narrative delivery vehicle, while Sonic is mostly about gameplay. For this reason, both of these games handle time wildly differently. In fact, the manner in which time progresses at all in these games is representative of the two schools of time-passage in gaming which I’m now proposing.

In the first school, time is progressed by the player. This is where Final Fantasy VII falls in the above example. Despite the fact that hours or years of real time are passing, no time passes for Cloud unless the player progresses time by choosing to advance the story. Time is recorded and measured in plot events- time will advance if Cloud defeats the two ShinRa soldiers and talks to AVALANCHE deeper in the Mako Reactor, but if Cloud just mills about on the platform, no time passes. Cloud can even perform actions which, in reality, would require the passage of time- like moving around- but without progressing the plot, Cloud cannot move forward in time. This is the same reason Cloud and his party can stay at the inn as many times as they like and never advance to the “next day”- the progression of time is dependent on the progression of the plot. JRPGs typically depend on player-progressive time models. Strategy RPGs, turn based games (even, arguably, games as simple as chess, in which “time” doesn’t advance until a player has moved his or her piece), and non time sensitive adventure games also typically depend on player input for the advancement of in-game time.

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In the second school, time progresses automatically, or is progressed by the computer. This is where Sonic the Hedgehog falls in the above example. For Sonic, one second of in-game time will pass for every one second of real time that passes. Failing to pass the goal line within ten minutes of real time results in a lose state. The automatic passage of time is also the reason Sonic will drown if he spends too much time underwater, or why he will steadily lose rings in Super Sonic mode. Games that are dependent on player skill or dexterity tend to have automatic or computer determined time progression. Platformers, first person shooters, time sensitive puzzle games (Tetris et al), and fighting games all tend to use an automatic or computer dependent time progression model. These games tend to- but don’t always- use the passage of “too much” time as a loss state. Sonic failing to reach the goal of an act in under 10 minutes results in a Time Over, spending more than two hours exploring the mansion in D results in an automatic loss, allowing time to pass without player input in Tetris results in an inevitable loss, etc.

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Now, obviously, not every game can be neatly dumped into one of these two categories. Games in which progression of time is linked to progression of the plot can contain time-sensitive elements. In Final Fantasy VII, for example, you only have a limited amount of time to deduce the password to the safe containing the Huge Materia on Rocket Town’s eponymous spacecraft (note that the seemingly time sensitive Great Glacier segment, in which Cloud is in danger of collapsing if he spends too much time faffing around, is actually based on distance travelled, not time elapsed.) Less fondly remembered adventure games from the 80s and 90s were infamous for including time-sensitive arcade elements in otherwise time-agnostic games. Games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill combine both models by having time overall progress based on plot progression, but having the game’s individual discrete areas progress time automatically (in other words, once you gain control of Jill you can stand around in the Mansion’s lobby until the cows come home and never advance time one second, but if you stand in a room containing a zombie, it will advance towards you as if time is moving normally.) Broadly speaking, though, these are the two models by which games communicate time.

So, where does Persona 3 stand in all this? Conventional wisdom and a cursory glance would suggest that as a JRPG, Persona 3 stands comfortably in the player-progression model of time. As you might have already suspected, though, it isn’t really that simple. Persona 3 is, like Resident Evil, a game that uses both models of time progression. Let’s take a quick peak at the rhythms of play in Persona 3, and attempt to parse how time progresses.

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Your main character attends his high school classes Monday through Saturday, with Sunday off. On any given weekday, the main character will attend classes during the morning and afternoon, and will have leisure hours after school and in the evening. At various points through the year, he gets time off, and will not have to attend class on weekdays. At midnight, the Dark Hour hits, and the player can choose to explore Tartarus. If the player chooses to explore Tartarus, the next day begins when the player returns to the dorm- otherwise, the player advances to the next day by going to bed.

Here’s where it starts getting a little wibbly wobbly. Persona 3 is split between what I like to call “Iwatodai Time” and “Tartarus Time”

During Iwatodai Time, the progression of time is player dependent, and is largely represented by calendar dates. Time is passed in classes by listening to (or sleeping through) lectures, and lectures only progress if the player presses the confirm button to advance the text box. During the character’s leisure hours, time is progressed by selecting an activity to engage in- spending time with a classmate, whiling the hours away in a restaurant or arcade, etc. Selecting one of these activities will automatically advance time one major increment- from “afternoon” to “evening”, for example. If you choose to leave your main character standing ramrod stiff in his homeroom after class, time will never progress- progression of time is dependent on the player’s decision to advance it. Ending a day is also dependent on the player’s choice to go to bed, and advances the game one calendar day.

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If the player chooses to explore Tartarus, the game switches over to Tartarus Time, in which the progression of time is automatic, and is represented by hours rather than days. This is discreetly communicated to the player in two major ways. First, the arrival of the Dark Hour is heralded by the appearance on screen of a giant clock, which strikes midnight before falling apart. The automatic progression of the hands of the clock indicates that time has begun to move on its own, and the collapsing of the clock indicates the destruction of the previous model of player-dependent time progression. Second, the entrance to Tartarus proper is through a door embedded in a massive clock. The clock represents the thematic “minimizing” of time- from Iwatodai’s days to Tartarus’ hours- and symbolizes that unlike in Iwatodai, in Tartarus every minute counts.

(There are also several more subtle examples of the game suggesting that time moves differently in Tartarus, or that Tartarus’ time is measured in minutes and hours instead of days and months like Iwatodai Time. For example, in the opening cinematic, the main character is staring at a large clock when he experiences the Dark Hour for the first time, and the transition from Iwatodai Time to Tartarus Time is marked with a shot of the character’s MP3 player, which measures time in mere minutes and seconds. The FMV introducing Tartarus also reveals that the structure itself is covered in several large and sometimes irregularly shaped clocks, although it can be difficult to make out since the scene is so green. Shinegori Soejima’s concept art clearly depicts Tartarus as being decorated with at least thirteen massive clocks. You can also get a taste of the two time streams colliding if you go on a date with Elizabeth. The Velvet Room is governed by Tartarus Time, as evidenced by the giant one-handed clock looming over Igor’s desk, but Elizabeth can actually leave the Velvet Room to explore Iwatodai. Choosing to go on a date with Elizabeth will not advance time, even though selecting an activity is how time is advanced during Iwatodai Time. Elizabeth is governed by Tartarus Time, so her progression of time is automatic- just because the player has selected an activity, and in so doing has explicitly decided to advance time, that doesn’t mean anything to her. So, you get to engage in an activity without progressing time, thanks to the presence of Elizabeth.)

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So, during Iwatodai Time, the player must choose to advance time, while during Tartarus time, time progresses automatically. Topic discussed, done and dusted, slap a bow on this conversation, it’s over, right? Hahaha, of course not. See, if that were all there was to it, the player could coast through Persona 3 and never surrender control of time to the computer. By choosing never to explore Tartarus, the player could choose when he or she damn well wanted to progress to the next calendar day, and would never experience the dangers of Tartarus, and everything would be fine forever. That’s not the sort of game Persona 3 is.

You see, in addition to being divided into Iwatodai Time and Tartarus Time, Persona 3 is also divided into what I like to call “Ordinary Time” and “Plot Time.” These two categories are sort of plot-dependent metatimes that are activated upon reaching certain points of the narrative. The majority of the game is spent in Ordinary Time, which can be broadly described as those periods of the game during which interaction with the Dark Hour is totally optional. Sometimes, though, the Dark Hour comes whether you want it or not.

This actually starts early and occurs pretty frequently. Early in the game you’ll be treated to a few cutscenes of the dorm members spying on your main character in his sleep during the Dark Hour. Whenever Pharos shows up to have a jaw session, Plot Time is temporarily activated. Most spectacularly, though, Plot Time is activated during the regularly occurring missions, which fall on full moons during the first two thirds or so of the game. Plot Time doesn’t even necessitate a non consensual trip to the Dark Hour, either. Sometimes you’re merely whisked away somewhere against your will and without your approval- visiting various characters in the hospital throughout the game, or being told that your character is going to take the day to rest before an important mission. Your character even sleeps through an entire day towards the end of the game.

So, finally. During Iwatodai Time, in Ordinary Time, the progression of time is dependant on the player. During Tartarus Time or when Plot Time kicks in, control of the progression of time is taken over by the computer. That’s all well and good, but what does it add up to?

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Here is where the broader theme of time in Persona 3 dovetails into the sub-theme of death. I mentioned above that while the narrative in Persona 3 is about death, the mechanics are about time, but the two are capable of commenting on and reinforcing one another. Here is where that’s going to take shape.

As I’ve already stated, the characters in this game are all struggling with or against death. The main character’s parents are deceased, and an embodiment of Death was lying dormant in his body most of his life. Yukari is struggling with the death of her father. Junpei is forced during the game to deal with the death of Chidori. Akihiko feels guilt over the death of his sister, Mitsuru’s father dies during the game, Ken’s mother, Koromaru’s old master, etc. Every character’s arc is somehow linked to a death that either informs their backstory or takes place during the narrative (with the arguable exception of Fuuka, whose arc is mostly about dealing with gaining and then losing Natsuki as a friend. Aigis’ arc, I would argue, is about dealing with the inevitability of the death of the main character.)

The crux of most of these arcs is the lack of control over death, the loss of agency in the face of death. Yukari was only a child when her father died, and the memory of her father is manipulated (in the form of the modified audio recording the chairman uses to trick the group into killing the Major Arcana Shadows), robbing her of her control over that grieving process. Akihiko’s single minded obsession with training is how he copes with his perceived “lack of strength” that prevented him from saving his sister. Shinjiro is seeking punishment for his accidental murder of Ken’s mother, and Ken is happy to give it to him. The characters are not only informed by death, but the lack of control they felt or feel in the face of death. Keep this in mind while we move on to our next point.

Time and death are, naturally, connected. Nevertheless, Persona 3 makes efforts to deliberately conflate time and death, to collapse the two of them into one thematic entity just to really send the point home. At the arrival of the Dark Hour, people without the Potential are Transmogrified, taking the form of coffins, creating a bridge between the passage of time and the arrival of death. Ken attempts to kill Shinji on the anniversary of his mother’s death, creating a thematic link between that specific time and that specific death. Ryoji forces SEES to make their decision whether or not to kill him to save themselves on December 31st, thematically linking the end of the year, the end of a distinct period of time, and the end of a life. Most interestingly, the game mechanically links time to death in Tartarus, where spending too much time on any given floor will cause the Reaper to appear and, in all likelihood, kill you. So, if the game has gone to this much effort to make sure that time and death are thematically linked, what then can we extrapolate about the game’s use of two disparate time progression models?

Put simply, in Persona 3, control over time is equal to control over death. During Iwatodai Time, the player is in no danger, and can choose to avoid danger by refusing to explore Tartarus. But death comes for us all. By entering Tartarus, the player surrenders control of time to the computer, and in so doing loses his or her control over death. Similarly, during Plot Time, control over death is stolen away from the player. By allowing the player control over time and death a certain percentage of the time, it heightens the lack of control experienced by the player during Tartarus and Plot Time. When it matters most- when the gameplay or narrative are at fever pitch- Persona 3 wants you to know damn well that you do not have control over death. It makes the player feel the helplessness of the characters. By stealing agency away from the player when it matters most, it makes the player, like the characters, aware of his or her lack of control in the face of death. In the words of the inimitable Egoraptor, “you don’t have to empathize with a character on a screen, the feeling happens directly to you.”

So, the game’s mechanics (concerned with time) and narrative (concerned with death) combine in such a way as to make the sensation of death personal to the player, allowing him or her to experience that fear and that loss of control personally, as opposed to through simply empathizing with the characters. How much more intimate can this game get with its player? How else does Persona 3 invite its player to really emotionally participate in the struggle against time and death? Let me take you on one last journey.

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We’ve already established that time and death are, as presented by Persona 3, essentially one and the same. Time is representative of the inevitability of death. Death is representative of the end of time. How else is this expressed in the game?

Time in Persona 3 is measured in several distinct units. We’ve established that in Tartarus Time, time is “measured in hours and minutes”, but we’re never given a specific hour/minute time to set our watches to. Similarly, during the day we’re never told what the specific time is, merely given blocky descriptors like “morning” or “evening.” For these reasons, I’m positing that the smallest unit of time in Persona 3 is a day. The game starts in April, takes place over several months, and the narrative ends in March of the next year. A major plot-important moment in the game takes place on New Year’s Eve. So, our basic units of time in Persona 3 are a day, a month, and a year.

The end of a day is punctuated with the arrival of the Dark Hour. During the Dark Hour, ordinary people are Transmogrified, taking the form of coffins, a signifier of death. This links the end of the day with death. The end of the month- or near enough- is usually punctuated with a full moon and a plot-important mission. These missions take place during the Dark Hour, already associated with death. Furthermore, the month-end missions concern battles against powerful boss Shadows, heightening the likelihood of a defeat for the player and the death of the character, resulting in a loss state. The end of the month, then, is even more intensely linked with death than the end of the day. At the end of the year, Ryoji asks the characters (and the player) to decide whether or not they will kill him. Refusing to kill him marks the passage into the final leg of the game, and heralds the impending arrival of Nyx the Annihilator, who will bring with her the End of the World. Whether the player chooses to kill Ryoji or not, the end of the year is linked even more closely with death than the end of the month. Depending on how the player makes the decision on New Year’s Eve, the end of the year can even effectively mark the End of the World, and the death of all life on Earth. So, in Persona 3, the endings of distinct units of time are characterized by symbolic links to death.

But, there is one measurement of time in Persona 3 even greater than the length of a year. A measurement that transcends Iwatodai Time or Tartarus Time, Ordinary or Plot Time, and that is governed by neither player-dependent progression of time nor computer-dependent. The ultimate measure of time in Persona 3 is the length of the game, and its duration is measured in real time. The end of the game, then, is linked symbolically to the death of the hero, and is thematically representative of the death of the player.

This isn’t even just me being a nutcase. In Persona 3: Official Design Works the game’s director, Katsura Hashino, states as much in an interview. “The game doesn’t actually state in any clear terms that the Hero dies at the end of the game, but it is safe to say that his story is over and done. However, the player is not dead. So, by playing the game, the player is sort of experiencing death by proxy.” Note that even now, when he is clarifying some of the thematic elements of the game, Hashino doesn’t explicate whether the main character actually died- instead, he allows that the end of the game is symbolic of the death of the main character, in the way that endings have been linked to deaths all throughout the game.

(For what it’s worth, there is textual evidence that the main character dies at the end of the game too, not just namby pamby thematic metatextual evidence. The game ends with the main character being cradled by Aigis, slowly becoming more and more tired, before finally closing his eyes and having the screen fade to white, which is highly suggestive of a peaceful death. Also, the “ultimate” Persona is Messiah, and Messiahs are traditionally speaking expected to die for the benefit of mankind.)

Hashino also provides some evidence for my above mentioned theory that the purpose of the game was to imbue the player with a personal sensation of the fear of the inevitability of death, accomplished through a masterful combination of the death focused narrative and the time focused mechanics. He continues, “It is my hope that by playing this game and realizing the true inevitability of death, the player will take a moment to think about life and death in the real world after turning the game off.” I think it’s fair to say that you kind of nailed it on that one, mate.

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At the risk of signing off an a hopelessly gloomy note, I’m going to take the analysis one step further. When you boot up Persona 3, you doom the main character to death by the end. The end is written into the beginning. The day ends with the Dark Hour. The year ends with the apocalypse near on the horizon. The game ends with the death of the Hero and the proxy death of the player. Fair enough.

But the end of the Dark Hour is met with the beginning of a new day. At the end of the year, the members of SEES strengthen their resolve and become the Nyx Annihilation Squad. And like Hashino said, although the character has died (at least symbolically), the player lives on. In fact, Persona 3’s hero lives on in his own way. Those Social Links you spent the entire game making, they didn’t just have a mechanical significance. Sure, making friends was the only real way to survive the hell of high school, but if you stand back and allow yourself to appreciate the full picture, they were worth so much more. If we follow through on the game’s logic that the end of the game represents the end of the character’s life, then that one year he spent with us, the player, represents his entire life. And those Social Links, his friends? They were what made it possible for him to get through his life. The connections the main character- and the player- made with the various S-Links didn’t just provide strength for his various Personas- that unbreakable bond granted the Hero a kind of immortality. Hashino says it best himself- “By cultivating Social Links, the Hero gets to hold on to the fact that even if he dies, he’s left his mark on the world. The various relationships he shared with the other characters take root and act like evidence that he did exist. Maybe the reassurance that you’re leaving some kind of legacy behind makes the thought of death easier to accept.”

Persona 3, then, is a game that uses its mechanics and its narrative in tandem to communicate something very visceral, very important to the player. High school is literally hell. You have absolutely no control over the flow of time. You are powerless in the face of the inevitability of death. And yet, with good and many friends, you can survive your greatest hardships. Your friends will give you strength. Your friends will make life worth living. And if you play your cards right, through your friends, you can even survive death.

Memento Mori. And see you next time.

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