Ferris Bueller's Day Offing HimselfSep 25, 2007 · peterb · 5 minute read
It is a disturbing and compelling image. The young man is wearing his school uniform and a slim pair of headphones. He reaches into a pocket with his right hand and pulls out a gun. He flourishes, twirls the gun, and points it at his own temple. There’s a sharp report as he fires, and a fountain of glittering shards spray out of the other side of his head.
It is a compelling and disturbing image. In the course of a game of Persona 3, it is an image that will assault you thousands upon thousands of times.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is a game that exploits this transgressive – and powerful – image to the fullest extent. There are complex in-game explanation as to why the teenagers in the game are not really blowing their brains out, but those are post-facto explanations. Fundamentally, the game was developed as an excuse to use this provocative image.
That Persona 3 is a Japanese game makes the suicide theme all the more disturbing. Japan has had an alarmingly high suicide rate for some time, and it has been increasing dramatically lately, especially among children. One could try to view Persona as a meaningful commentary on this situation, but that reading isn’t reasonably sustained by the game’s narrative or leitmotif. It feels to me at best crudely insensitive, and at worst a cynical attempt to profit from the phenomenon. Persona 3 is troubling not only because of the subject matter, but because of its reimagining of suicide as a heroic act. The game’s introductory video, for example, makes it seem downright romantic:
The Shin Megami Tensei (literally translated: “True Reincarnation of the Goddess” or “True Goddess Metempsychosis”) games have always been transgressive and edgy. It’s not clear that this game’s suicide theme is substantially more grim than the themes of previous outings (“You turn into a demon and destroy the world,“) or indeed of other games. What is different is the riveting nature of the game’s central image.
In the US market the game has an “M” (“mature”) rating, giving the publisher plausible deniability in the event of lawsuits. Despite that, the game is aimed firmly at high school children. Without going into too much detail about the game mechanics, the parts of the game that don’t involve shooting yourself in the head involve becoming popular at high school. This portion of the game plays like any number of Japanese games in the “dating sim” genre. I view this as another indication of the target audience of the game: teenagers. The game also has a brutally punishing save system where you have to slog ahead for a long period of time in order to reach a save point. Only people without responsibility – kids – can tolerate such broken save systems. So this is a game labeled as being for adults which is really intended for children. The world already believes that all videogames are for kids. We don’t need this sort of mislabeling helping the idea along.
Some may argue with my assertion that the game is intended for the teenage market. But the alternative hypothesis is that Atlus believes there is a huge desire in the 18-24 demographic for a game where players get to pretend to go back to high school and be popular. That, if true, is disturbing on a completely different axis.
The game is liberally larded with Jungian jargon, retrofitted into Japanese pop culture giant robot sensibilities. (This is a fairly common occurrence when East meets West; think of it as the inverse of Edward Said’s conception of Orientalism. Western cultural notions are often appropriated for anime for exotic flavor, e.g., Christianity is often used whenever a plot calls for a gothic milieu.)
In game terms, the protagonists fight (given-as-evil) “shadows” through a power called “persona”. When battling a shadow, the characters may take out a gun and shoot themselves in the head (extinguishing the ego?), thus summoning a masked spirit, or “persona”, who then whacks the shadow on the head a few times, or burns it, or freezes it, what have you. I’m only a few hours in, so I don’t know how the game’s plot will play out. In purely Jungian terms, the objective of the game is a bit perverse. One would properly describe the persona according to Jung as an outward-facing construct, while the shadow is a part of the self that exerts control subtly, albeit pervasively. Interactions with one’s shadow can be complex, but most would say that trying to simply overpower it by whacking it over the head will more likely lead to constant unhappiness, rather than self-discovery.
Self-discovery, though, seems less a concern of Persona 3 than does style. Teenagers have already grabbed on to Persona 3’s irresistable combination of high school angst, OCD collectability and guns with both hands: you can already find Persona 3 hentai (mildly or deeply pornographic comics) all over the net. I suppose I should be glad that the sexism in the game itself, while present, is not quite as bad as it could be.
Persona 3 is problematic commercial art. To be blunt, if I lived with a depressed teenager (aka “any teenager”), I would do everything in my power to prevent him or her from even learning of Persona 3’s very existence. That such an exercise would be futile is beside the point.
Difficult, challenging, or transgressive art is not something to be reviled. Just because I am troubled by the game’s central image is no reason to denigrate it. But whether the game’s creators intended it as challenging art or merely the cheap exploitation of grief is not a tangential question. It is the central question. I can admire love as an abstract ideal, and still be repulsed by the 30 year old man who gropes at a high school student. I admire the boldness and stark power of Persona 3’s visuals, but see behind those visuals a carelessly groping hand.
A hand that doesn’t care who it hurts on its way to your wallet.