Sunday, November 2, 2014

BoRT Followup/Response to "Masks Upon Masks"

Previous: [Oct. 2014] The Mask of Sanity

Readers (and I say that now that there are people who have read this blog instead of just me and the spam bots), I am feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Earlier this week, I submitted a post for Critical Distance's October Blogs of the Round Table feature. Critical Distance is a great site for keeping up with games journalism/criticism, and I have a lot of respect for what they do, but I submitted my post mostly as a lark. October's BoRT had a fun topic ("Masks"), so I wrote a response for fun, purely for kicks. Please, understand when I say that I had purely the worst of intentions. I certainly never expected for anyone to really read it, let alone write this excellent response piece by Mark Filipowich.

Mr. Filipowich has put me in an awkward position of having people actually read something I wrote. Prior to his response piece, most of this blog's visitors were most likely confused ESLs looking for pictures of Mickey Mouse. Alas, now I am confronted by humans who intentionally visited the blog.

Incidentally, according to the traffic statistics, if you are reading this blog, there is a 30% chance that you are in Canada. Or possibly masking your IP address to appear Canadian. Or possibly using Google Canada instead of your own national Google for some reason.

Ok, that's enough about Canada. Let's talk about Persona 3.

By way of disclaimer, I haven't finished Persona 3. I started it, but there was an incident and my copy was stolen at a point just far enough in to make restarting it too painful. However, as Mark points out in his article (Masks Upon Masks: Layers of Identity in Persona 3), its Player Character (who I will also refer to as "William Scully") does not seem nearly as psychotic as Yu Narukami.

Now, Mark claims that the "empty state" of Scully is celebrated in Persona 3, and I would agree. However, it is also celebrated in Persona 4 to perhaps an even greater degree (once again, I haven't finished 3 and I've played through 4, like, three times). Narukami's ability to be without an inner self is presented in the context of being a "chosen one," a nigh-messianic figure of redemption.

Even if Scully is also a messianic figure, there are two main reasons why I think Mark is right to situate his (or her is FeS) as an example of positive growth and healthy social flexibility rather than a psychotic shell without an inner self.

First is the method by which the two main characters summon their Personas. Scully summons using the "Evolver," a gun-shaped device which literally "blows his brains out" in the form of a Persona. This clearly situates his Personas as being truly rooted in his inner self. He may develop new Personas and powers through his interactions with others, but they truly become a part of his inner self. He can use them as masks, but they are masks born through internalization.

Narukami summons his Personas via Tarot cards, which makes them relatively distant. Granted, all of the other characters also use Tarot cards, but their Personas are clearly situated in the context of a humanizing personal trauma and growth. Lacking this personal trauma and growth and receiving his powers purely from external factors makes Narukami seem more divorced from his inner self than Scully.

This leads us to the second point: Scully has a clearly defined personal trauma (dead parents) which is integral to the game's story and to which he responds in a very human fashion. He starts out as a moody longer, but learns to open up to others as the game goes on. Interacting with others is recognative - it causes both parties to open up and grow. Narukami's affable blandness takes on an almost sinister tone in contrast.

Scully's lack of a strong identity is both rooted in the character's personal history and give him the ability to truly grow. His lack of self opens him up to others - as Mark says, "that emptiness is used as a way to connect to others, not to deceive them."

If I had to take a guess on why Atlus decided to write Narukami the way they did (a dangerous proposition at best), I would guess that they were shooting to build on the success of Scully. "If a mostly-empty character is good, a completely-empty character will be better." If players can use Scully to carve out a new identity, a character who is even more of a blank state will allow them to identify even better with the main character.

Maybe Atlus was right - Persona 4 is making money hand over fist, to the point where it has allowed Atlus to revive the cast of Persona 3 for an anime and a mash-up game with Persona 4. I certainly enjoyed the crap out of 4. The subtle vibe of unease with its main character did not become a full-fledged creepiness until I saw the anime version - saw what it looked like for a human to treat other humans in this way from a third-person perspective. After all, my Narukami did have an internal emotional consistency - even when the game punished me for it (*cough* hospital scene *cough*).

Persona 5 comes out next year. Its teaser trailer promises a theme of chains and a classic game trailer cryptic phrase: "You are a slave. Want emancipation?" It's way to early to speculate what direction Atlus is going with this, but it will be interesting to see if its main character (who I am preemptively naming "Bojangles Morimoto") will be emotionally centered or adrift. Will Atlus take a new direction for Bojangles or just more of the same? Is it even possible to create a character more empty and mask-like than Narukami without having the narrative break down? What slavery is Atlus challenging us to liberate ourselves from - the chains imposed on us by recognizing others, or the slavery which binds us to an emotionally sterile self?

It's too early to speculate, but whatever direction Atlus takes, I for one will be rooting for Bojangles Morimoto.


Next: [Nov. 2014] Lebensraum and Ichsraum

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