Tuesday, October 28, 2014

[BoRT October 2014] The Mask of Sanity: Persona 4 as a Psychopathy Simulator

            “The surface of the psychopath…shows up as equal to or better than normal and gives no hint at all of a disorder within. Nothing about him suggests oddness, inadequacy, or moral frailty. His mask is that of robust mental health. Yet…nowhere within do we find a real cause or a sincere commitment, reasonable or unreasonable.” – Hervey Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity

            “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me... I simply am not there.” – Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

            As the train arrives at Inaba station and the silver-haired young protagonist steps off, I am gripped by an immediate realization: there is something terribly wrong with Yu Narukami.

Yu Narukami, psychopath?
            Call it something in the eyes. Something in his calm, placid expression which belies an inner emptiness. He is not a teenager stepping away from his city life and into a strange new town. He does not carry a beloved stuffed animal or pictures of his old friends and family. Nothing in life up until now has left a mark on him, externally or internally. He is an enigma, an empty set.

Most readers are probably familiar with Persona 4 – whether from the original game, the remake, the spin-off games, the manga, the anime, or from its popularity as an objet d’cosplay. However, if you have not played Persona 4 and plan to in the future, here there be spoilers.

            Persona 4 is the story of Yu Narukami’s search for the truth behind an urban legend: if you look at a powered-off television on a rainy midnight, it will show you your soul mate. As Yu and his friends research this phenomena, they discover that the “Midnight Channel” does not show your soul mate, but rather the future victims of a serial killer.

These victims have been literally pushed through the screen of a television into a parallel world. If they are not rescued from the TV world, they will be killed by “Shadows,” monsters which are born from human hearts. Each person who enters the Midnight Channel is confronted by their personal Shadow, a dark double that exhibits repressed aspects of their personality.

Rise's Shadow Self
These shadow selves are able to assert their existence against the conscious mind which tries to repress them in the parallel world. For example, Rise, a burnt-out celebrity, is confronted by her repressed “public persona,” a cloying teenage nymph. Kanji’s Shadow is a mincing homosexual stereotype which expresses his fear of women.

The originals are trapped in the Midnight Channel with these doppelgangers, these visible representations of all that they fear about themselves. Naturally, the originals hate and fear these shadow selves since they represent painful, repressed feelings. Worse, the shadow selves are performing the worst possible version of these feelings for the audiences watching the Midnight Channel.
Rise's Monstrous Shadow

            These shadow shelves do not become physically aggressive until the original shouts “You are not me” (or something to that effect), cutting themselves off from the subconscious. At that point, the shadow self transforms into a monstrous, violent form. Rise’s monstrous shadow self is a neon stripper performing on a strip pole. Kanji’s is a feminized “Macho Man” surrounded by flowers. This monstrous shadow attacks the protagonists, and the game enters a turn-based battle.

Throughout the process of imprisonment in the Midnight Channel, the victim is not simply put into mortal danger, they are reduced to an object. Their physical forms are objectified via the violence of the killer, but their internal selves are also reduced to objects of amusement for the viewers of the Midnight Channel. Once the battle is won, the victim accepts that “Thou art I and I am Thou” and the dangerous shadow self is transformed into a helpful Persona.

Himiko, Rise's Persona
This Persona is a “light” version of the shadow self. While the shadow self is visually unsettling, the Persona is a positive expression of the repressed emotion. Rise’s Persona has antennas that link it to her media self, but it is elegantly dressed instead of stripped nude. Kanji’s is solely masculine, without the feminizing elements which he fears. In the English version, these Personas are described as a “façade used to overcome life's hardships.”

In other words, the Personas are useful masks, aspects of the self that can be called upon to help face the outside world. What began as a dangerous aspect of the self is transformed into a useful tool. Once the passive victims have been rescued and come to terms with their inner selves, they become active party members - participants instead of objects.

            This pattern holds true in an inverted form for the villainous characters of Persona 4. Kubo’s monstrous shadow self reflects the video games he uses to hide his emotionally stunted inner self. Namatame’s monstrous shadow self reflects his messianic self-delusion. Kubo does not reconcile with his shadow self, so it cannot become a positive Persona. Namatame identifies too closely with his monstrous shadow, and so, once defeated, he loses the ability to summon a persona.

Whether victim or villain, each person who enters the Midnight Channel has the worst aspect of their inner selves personified and displayed for the entire world to see. Even Adachi and Namatame, who supposedly received the same powers as Yu, both have their internal selves exposed and objectified for the audience.

Everyone except Yu Narukami.

Izanagi, Yu's Persona
            Yu starts out with a Persona that was never a monstrous shadow. Izanagi is simply a suit of armor in a coat. Yu is never truly victimized, never truly powerless, never reduced to an object. The closest he ever comes is in the ‘true’ ending, where he experiences ego death at the hands of Izanami. But even then, he does not have confront and accept a monstrous shadow, an evil doppelganger. Instead, he is rescued from ego death by his bonds with the other characters.

One might argue that Izanami is Yu’s monstrous shadow self, his dark opposite. However, he does not defeat her by recognizing her as a part of himself, he denies her nihilism with the power of “truth.” Unlike Teddy, he does not have not admit that these feelings of nihilism are a part of himself. His Persona transforms into its final form without any personal change or sacrifice. Much like the original myth of Izanagi and Izanami, he frees himself by escaping her, not by embracing her.

Moreover, while the other characters are limited to a single Persona, Yu can switch between multiple Personas. In a mechanic familiar to fans of the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona franchises, his Personas can be fused into new, more powerful versions. They are all received from the outside, not born from Yu’s internal self.

As the other party members come to better understand their inner selves by interacting with Yu, their Personas level up and they gain new abilities. While some of these abilities are personal (better attacks, more powerful defensive techniques, etc.) a surprising number of them are for Yu’s benefit. For example, upon reaching a certain Social Link level, other characters will sacrifice themselves to protect Yu from enemy attacks.

While leveling up your Social Link with other characters helps them with their inner emotional troubles, it also allows Yu to summon more powerful Personas. Since he has no Persona or Social Link of his own, Yu can only live vicariously through the emotional growth of others. For the other characters, a Persona is a Mask of Self, a part of their own personality which allows them to face the world. For Yu, a Persona is a Mask of Other which he can imitate in order to face the world.

This is the textbook behavior of a Psychopath, emotionally detached but able to imitate and manipulate the feelings of others. Psychopaths are able to create ‘masks’ out of the behavior they observe in others, making a façade solely “to overcome life’s hardships.” They form social bonds, not because of emotional attachment, but because of the benefits they receive from imitating emotional attachment.

Yu explicitly does not have an internal life of his own. His original Persona is granted by an outside source, not a part of himself which he has come to accept. His subsequent Personas are granted by imitating those around him. While the player may be invested in the relationships formed with other characters, they also have an alternate agenda – making and improving Social Links benefits the player and makes the game easier.

Improving Social Links is an integral part of playing the game
Social Links are improved by making choices in conversations. Some choices will endear you to the target and some will make them dislike you. If the player is seeking 100% completion (or even to level up a Social Link efficiently within the limited game time), honesty is the worst policy. The game does not reward facing your inner self and using it to overcome life’s hardships. It does not reward honest emotional connections. The game rewards callously manipulating the feelings of your partner - saying what they want to hear, not what you want to say.

By encouraging socially manipulative gameplay, Persona 4 actively discourages players from developing a consistent persona for Yu. Unlike Atlus' more recent game Catherine, which encourages the player to answer dialogue choices “honestly” and provides true endings for three distinct paths, making the wrong choices in Persona 4 will end the game early. Making choices that deviate from the “correct” answer penalize the player and can potentially lock off the majority of the game’s content.

This tendency is even worse in Persona 4: the Golden, where most of the game’s new content can only be obtained by sticking to a very narrow band of choices. In this case, the player is financially penalized in the real world for making honest choices. The new dungeons, boss fights, and the full ending are locked away behind the “right choices.”

One does not have to be a psychopath to play and enjoy Persona 4, but one must act like a psychopath to access all of its content. The game cannot be truly won without discarding all internal emotional consistency, manipulating the feelings of others, and using them to create masks of your own. Izanagi, the closest thing Yu has to an actual Persona, is a shell, a mask, an empty being wearing human clothes. Unlike the other Personas, it says nothing about his inner struggle, nothing about his inner life.

Yu’s ultimate attack is “Myriad Truths” but they are all truths he has taken from others. It is an imitation of a self, a mask with nothing behind it. The inner truth represented by Izanami, that life ends in death and not all truths can be known, is mercilessly repressed.

For all of the investigation, for all of the “seeking for the truth” that the game encourages you to do, it never truly explores the truth of Yu. We learn the truth about Yu’s friends and Yu’s enemies, but never the truth about Yu. We do not know who his parents are, what city he grew up in, how many siblings he has, or what his early life was like.

As his friends wave goodbye at the end of the game, the only thing we know about Yu is how well he performed a set calculated of social inputs. A poor performance is punished with a bad ending, a good performance is rewarded by a good ending, and emotionlessly following the script to perfection is rewarded by the true ending. His performance ended, Yu leaves Inaba just as he came – empty, and void of self.

Next: BoRT Followup


  1. I personally felt that the game used that emptiness that you talk about to define the self that Yu had; Adachi, for example, used that emptiness to perform evil deeds, Namatame used it to create a truth that doesn't exist, and Yu used it to perform good deeds and help others find their truths.

    I felt that defined him as a character and helped him find a self, not to mention it works flawlessly when he faces Izanami at the end of the game.

    Excellent review, I'd love to see more Persona-related analysis from you.