When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
1 Corinthians 15:54-55 (ESV)
Persona 3 is a game overflowing with death. The imagery, the events, the relationships; death is a central theme surrounding the characters and is something that is immediately communicated upon starting the game. Watching the opening cinematic, you almost immediately read the words “memento mori,” a Latin phrase that translates to: “Remember you must die.” The concept of death hits you square in the face. But how is treated? What is the understanding of death that this game is trying to portray? And how should a Christian interact with these ideas?
Persona 3 was released on the PS2 in 2007 in North America for the PlayStation 2, with two updated versions released in the form of Persona 3 FES and Persona 3 Portable. It was the first Persona game on the PS2, with the previous entries being on the original PlayStation, and the beginning of what many people consider to be “modern Persona.”
Persona games did not originally have the simulation aspects that the series is famous for now. Persona and the duology of Persona 2 were originally much closer in tone and gameplay to the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, which is to say they were fairly standard JRPGs at the time. Persona 3 is the first game in the spin-off series that popularized the life simulation events and visual novel elements: living day-to-day according to the calendar: attending school, going out on the town, undertaking part-time jobs, and building relationships with others as depicted by the “social link” feature.
Of course, much like the SMT franchise, combat and dungeon exploration also plays a huge role. You spend the majority of the game climbing the tower of Tartarus during the “Dark Hour,” a hidden hour that exists during 12:00AM only experienced by a select few. Your task is to climb to the top and vanquish the monsters that appear during the full moon phases of each month. The mechanics involve straightforward turn-based combat, and the gameplay loop of exploring the tower during different parts of the month is a rhythm that you settle into, much like life itself.
Death & Regret
Throughout Persona 3, death is alluded to and shown often. From your closest confidants to the people you interact with on the street, death seems ever-present and time seems to be pointing towards an end. This is figuratively seen in the calendar and the reality of the running clock. Every minute of the game is spent on daily tasks, winding down towards an end of some sort. You choose your activities wisely because time is precious. Much like life, there are only so many hours in the day, so what are your priorities?
Within the character dynamics, death seems common. Throughout the story, your closest friends will share their own experiences, usually involving the death of someone else, whether a family member or loved one. This opens them up emotionally and helps you understand their motives and actions better, thereby forming deep bonds with them. But we know that these bonds can’t last forever, right?
One of the more controversial parts of the game has to be the way the main characters summon their Personas. Within the game, “Personas” are physical creatures based on someone’s subconscious (loosely based on the concepts popularized by psychologist Carl Jung). They take monstrous appearances, usually based on cultural mythology or folklore, and are used to fight other creatures or people. Personas are summoned in this game using what are called “Evokers,” objects that are – for all intents and purposes – guns that the Persona users utilize by pointing at themselves and pulling the trigger. The name is fitting because they are essentially “evoking” the image of suicide to put them in a mental state needed to summon their Personas.
Make no mistake: it is a frightening image to see the characters functionally shooting themselves in the head for combat reasons. Yet it is the acceptance of this reality – one of inevitable death – that allows the characters to keep on fighting. Being continually reminded of this prospect creates a sobering atmosphere, one that modern people are shielded from thanks to scientific and medical developments. Persona 3 reminds us of this truth, even if it is coming from a decidedly non-Christian worldview.
With death comes regret. The lost time. The unfinished tasks. The memories not made. Anybody who has lost a family member is familiar with the bitterness and regret that comes with it. What were my last words to them? Did they know that I loved them? Why couldn’t we have one more day together? Why were they taken from me?
For the world, there is no hope after death. For the Christian, however, that is exactly the hope that Christ instills in us: the hope and conviction for “things unseen,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it. In many ways, the existence of a game like Persona 3 is like our own memento mori, an object that brings death to mind. It reminds us of our mortality and the importance of spending our time well here on earth; however, we can go beyond that message and understand that it is exactly because of Christ that we are able to have our hope in a greater reality, beyond even death. We do not need to fear it or dread it, nor do we need to accept it as a finality of all things. As Randy Alcorn puts it, “Death is merely the doorway to eternal life” (Heaven, p. 466-467). If the concept of death leaves us in despair, we can remember that Christ is the one that defeated death.
“It is better to go to a funeral than a feast.
For death is the destiny of every person,
and the living should take this to heart.”
Ecclesiastes 7:2 (NET)