Thursday, March 4, 2010

Persona 4

Expect spoilers.

I've said before that video games are a form of applied philosophy. Final Fantasy VII takes its queues from Nietzsche and Heidegger to the point of including the latter as a character in its examination of the ubermensch. Super Mario Brothers (the first one) is a direct example of presentist philosophy in that there is no means of going back to the past and forward does not exist until you go there. Still, while philosophy is a fertile ground, psychology is no slouch in game development.

Case in point: Persona 4.

Persona 4 is, like its predecessors, a game in the Shin Megami Tensei universe, treating the demons as aspects of a personality as opposed to literal beings. Suffice it to say, this is what happens if you dip a Japanese high school dating simulation in a vat of concentrated Carl Jung and throw it at a dungeon crawler. The primary difference between Persona 3 and Persona 4 though is that in 3, the main dungeon Tartarus is the product of a scientific experiment gone awry while in 4, the dungeons are instead created by the psyches of the characters themselves.

The quintessential conflict in the Persona series is that of the Persona, representing the ideal self versus the Shadow representing the negative aspects of the self that the ego does not want to recognize. In Jung's findings, a shadow can be positive or negative, in the games the only positive shadow is Teddie. While 3 has a number of persona and interesting characters that have the ability to exist in the Dark Hour, 4 is the closest game to come to Jung's theories in that it shows over and over again the creation of the persona, the acceptance of the shadow and, if the player follows through with their social links, the ultimate rebirth of both the characters and their personae.

The problem, though, with stepping as deeply into Jungian territory as Atlus clearly wanted to is treading with the characters into their personae. Where the two differ is that the Persona can be seen as a deterrent from discovering the true self where in the game, it is a literal form of power, created by the acceptance of the shadows to become a source of power. While Atlus probably could have called this game Self, the use of persona as a literal extension of the characters ultimately allows them to keep the name and therefore the franchise going.

Each of the character follows a twist on traditional character archetypes that require concentrated contact to reveal themselves. Yukiko has to face a future that's been laid out for her, Kanji and Naoto have to come to terms with their sexuality (the former being either bi or gay and the latter doing everything to hide the fact that she's a female) and Teddie has to work out why he exists. In each case, the player is given a plausible reason enough to examine the selves of these characters and how they relate not only to the main character but to the actual player. One's reactions determine one's abilities and social links. Through others, the player learns more about the self. 

However, it is not the psychology of Persona 4 that makes it the stronger literary work. In comparison to Persona 3, a great game by all accounts, Persona 4 has fewer playable but far more fleshed out characters. The use of the randomized dungeons as an examination of the mental state of the characters is a genius stroke which allows for a greater variety of dungeons from an 8-bit styled castle to a secret military underground base to a bath house. This concentration on the characters allows the player to consider who to bring not just based on fighting statistics, but whose personalities were endearing to my own*, a hallmark of great game writing there. Furthermore, there is a murder mystery that requires difficult choices and examinations of the characters,both playable and non playable. The focus on social links, the part time jobs and the friendships and relationships with the game's characters give the game's story an edge in plausibility. 

Because there are so many social links to follow, the ones the player goes along with will no doubt be the ones that correspond best to the player. The individual stories themselves are moving, such as with Dojima and Nanako, and the nurse in the end.Personally, I'm on the second run through to expound on more, which I guess makes me more of an obsessive or a completist personality, but the story is just too good to pass up another round.

*Mine was usuallyYukiko, Kanji and Teddie

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