Spoilers for Personas 3 and 4!
When I was a child, I, as I’m sure many of you did, enjoyed playing make-believe. One day I was a wizard, the next a king with an enchanted sword. Sometimes I ruled over a mechanical planet populated by Digimon tamers, and sometimes I was on the run from a villainous, demonic sorcerer. I also populated the real world around me with mythological meaning, making the nearest grain silo into “the Grain Queen’s castle”, and the nearest radio tower into “the blinking star”. These imaginary memorabilia from my childhood still carry meaning for me today; remembering them takes me back to a time when the world seemed easier to sort out, and when dreams held as much weight as anything real life threw my way.
Recently, I started reading James Joyce’s works, beginning with his short novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was told to pick up a guide to help me understand Joyce in general, so I picked up Mythic Worlds, Modern Words by that wacky stenographer of myth and avowed Jungian, Joseph Campbell. In the introductory essay, Campbell talks about a thing called “affect images”, images that are physically represented but carry symbolic weight. A picture of a Pikachu, then, may make you think of joy, while a picture of an Abra may fill you with frustration (just get in the Pokeball, dammit!). Campbell goes on to say that so often nowadays, the images we produce and consume carry no such symbolic weight. A dog is a dog is a dog. He blames this on the trend in Western Culture to literalize events and images, linking said images to historic events or mass appeal rather than to something we feel as individuals experiencing separate emotions.
A great example of this is the History Channel show, Ancient Aliens. The show often takes myths, stories about gods and heroes, and tries to make them literal, explaining that our ancestors saw aliens as gods and worshipped them accordingly. This, however, robs those gods and heroes of the meanings they have for us as individuals today. In Latin class, you learn about Heracles, and reading the stories of his deeds often inspires a feeling of empathic perseverance in students who understand what it’s like to feel hardship. If you say that Heracles actually existed and his deeds are historical, they no longer purely represent human emotional drama, and as such lose some of their impact on individual readers.
Shin Megami Tensei does the same thing, in its game world. It creates a universe where all gods and monsters exist, having actually done the things they are said to have done. The rituals of their religions were carried out to actually appease them, and not to alleviate a symbolic need we, as human beings, have. Rather than representing the forces of Law and Chaos we all struggle with every day in every decision we make, YHVH and Lucifer only truly represent themselves, beings that are, in the SMT universe, actually real. They are not affect images, but actual images, in that universe.
Here’s where Persona comes in. In the first few Persona games, your protagonist is still fighting demons. The difference is that these demons are physical manifestations of mental phenomena. Instead of YHVH and Lucifer, you have Philemon and Nyarlathotep, beings that are not real by themselves, but are actually representations of different parts of the human mind. The battle between these two plays out in the physical realm, sure, but the beginnings of this battle lie in the mind of every individual human alive in the Persona universe. Personas 3 and 4 take this a step further by creating spaces that represent this battleground, outside of physical reality. Tartarus and the TV World are not in the waking realm, but in something outside of it: what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung would call the Collective Unconscious, or the place where all dreams and affect images originate.
In Persona 3: The Answer, you find out that Nyx only attempted to subject humanity to apathy syndrome because of humanity’s own subconscious desire to forget about its mortal reality. In Persona 4, Izanami tells you that she only wants to shroud the world in illusory fog because of humanity’s desire to escape the parts of themselves they fear/hate. These motives lie in the minds of individual humans, and deeper, in the human Collective Unconscious. Both Nyx and Izanami are not real in the Persona universe like YHVH and Lucifer are in the SMT universe, but are instead affect images representing humanity’s drive to destroy itself.
But back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post: as a child I liked to play make-believe. The fun in make believe is that you can do anything you want that you can imagine, and the things you do while imagining continue to carry weight throughout your life. So what if you never were a king, or a wizard, or an astronaut? Didn’t it feel cool and give you confidence when you pretended to be one? Did the lack of a real castle, or a tall tower, or space ship take away from the joy you felt in imagining? Persona, in my opinion, does a better job at getting at this notion. So what if the characters of Personas 3 and 4 fought battles in the Collective Unconscious and not in the real world? Does it make these battles less important? No. What it does instead is provide a story and a game that is more relatable to us in the world outside of the game, and that harkens back to the battles we made up for ourselves during childhood playtime. We fought those battles, and we won. Persona affirms that these battles were important. That is why I prefer the Persona series to the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series.