Friday, January 2, 2015

[Idle Speculation] Persona 5 and the Red Book

                In an interview with Persona Magazine, Persona 5’s Director Katsuro Hashino said that the ‘theme color’ for the upcoming game would be red, as Persona 4’s theme color was yellow and Persona 3’s was blue. Now, I don’t want to engage in irresponsible speculation or anything, but this may be the most exciting choice in video game narrative ever.

                Let me tell you why.

                It’s no secret that the Persona games draw heavily from Jungian psychology, starting with the term “Persona,” which is kind of a thing in Jungian psychology.

                I don’t want this post to devolve into a regurgitation of Jungian psychology. There are people (and Wikipedia pages) way more qualified than me to do that. Still, we can probably spare time for a quick recap: Jung believed that all stories, myths, and religions could be traced back to subconscious Archetypes. Human stories (rather, the human subconscious) follow these inborn Archetypal patterns, populating them with archetypal figures (the Shadow, the Light Mother, Dark Father, Anima, and Animus) and patterns (the Joining of Opposites, the Quest, Destroying the Monster).

                One example is tarot cards – the reason they seem to predict the future is that they distill these Archetypes into cards, which, when shuffled and distributed randomly, appear to create a story. The target of the reading can easily project their own past, present, and future onto the cards because they all represent the basics of the human experience. The cards cannot tell the future, but the target’s subconscious can project its Archetypal future onto them.

                The significance of tarot cards is one thing Persona fans will find familiar – the “shuffle” of tarot cards at the end of battle is where you receive your new Personas. From the unconscious, non-rational shuffle emerges specific Archetypal figures drawn from stories, myths, and religions. These base Personas which emerge from the unconscious are then “rationalized” through fusion and become more powerful. The balance of unconscious figures and conscious decision work together to make your character more powerful and give him/her a “future.”

                So why am I so stoked about red?

                In 1913, Jung experienced what would be the first of many visionary experiences. These visions, which included both visible and audible hallucinations, were the real-life personal experiences which birthed Jungian psychology. They were the source material of his theory of Archetypes. Jung did not theorize about the existence of archetypes in his writing; he was describing what he had seen. Much like J.R.R. Tolkien’s real-life conversations with elves, Jung had the rare experience of interacting with subconscious figures while his conscious mind was still awake.

                Jung recorded transcripts of these experiences from the very start, but in 1915 he began collecting these accounts into illustrated leather-bound folio. For around 15 years, Jung worked on transcribing his notes into the form of illuminated manuscripts in a leather-bound folio: The Red Book.

                Jung himself described his visionary experiences and his efforts to record them into The Red Book (aka Liber Novus) as “the most important time of my life…My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me…Everything later was merely the outer classification, scientific elaboration, and the integration into life.”

                Okay, so Jung’s diary was pretty important to him. Why is this so exciting for Persona 5 in particular?

                Unlike Jung’s other work on the subconscious, The Red Book was never published. Jung abandoned work on it in 1930 - about two thirds of the visions described in the original notebooks never received finished versions. It is doubtful that Jung ever intended it to be published. During his life, he only showed it to a small group of intimate friends, and after his death his family denied all requests to view it. A small portion of it, titled Seven Sermons to the Dead, was distributed to certain friends and colleagues during Jung's lifetime but never the bulk of the work.

                Jung’s public work and personal correspondence make mention of The Red Book, and Jungian psychologist have long known of its importance to Jung’s life and work. It is a sort of Rosetta Stone of Archetypes – Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Subconscious (But Jung Wouldn’t Tell You). For around 50 years, the key to understanding the work of one of the most important figures of the 20th century was hidden from public view. Like the Archetypes locked inside the subconscious mind, it was locked away in a bank vault, sleeping.

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."

During this time, Atlus was publishing what I consider to be some of the greatest high concept games of all time. Now, the term “high concept game” is a loaded one. As gamers, we’re used to associating games with big M “Messages” with pseudo-intellectual claptrap (*cough* Metal Gear *cough*) and art school kid games that are needlessly obtuse (*cough* Braid *cough*). Every now and then there’s a
Bioshock that seamlessly blends the medium and the message (its sequels, however, can go straight to hell), but on the whole Message Games are as ham-fisted in their delivery as Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

Booker DeWitt Teaches Stereotyping

                Atlus has consistently dodged these pitfalls. While the Shin Megami series spends a lot of time retreading old ground in terms of game mechanics and plot elements (demon fusion, check; ability to kill God, check), they tell stories that blend medium and message seamlessly and consistently spark meaningful discussion. Atlus may reuse game mechanics, monster designs, and plot elements, but just like the Archetypes they represent, they use these base elements to tell new stories. Each game reshuffles the deck and deals out a new hand of psychologically rooted characters, beautiful art direction, and finely tuned game mechanics. And the last hand they dealt was an indisputable winner.

                Persona 4 came out on the PS2 in Japan in 2008 and steadfastly refused to die. It went on to spawn a slow-building miniature media empire – anime, comics, side games, a remake for the Vita, and a bewildering array of merchandise. It struck a chord, a deep psychological cord which resonated without reference to language or culture. The beautiful thing about the story of Persona 4 is that it could happen in any small town. Sure, references to Japanese culture abound even in the translation, but the psychological Archetypes represented by its characters are universal.

                But in a way, it is unfortunate that Atlus finished Persona 4 in 2008. If they had waited just one more year, they would have had access to the most influential work to never be read.

                In 2009, with the permission of Jung’s family and funding from the Philemon Foundation, a facsimile reproduction of the Red Book was finally released to the public. It is a monster of a book, weighing in at almost 9 pounds and retailing for around $150 US. Still, a few measly hundred dollars is a small price to pay for the book many academics would have chewed their own arms off to get a look at for 50 years.

10 or 20 years ago, Psychologists would have fought to the death to see this image.
                I am now venturing into the realm of pure speculation, but I can only assume that the team at Atlus was just as excited as all other lovers of Jung to gain access to the Red Book. They’ve had about six years now to pour over its contents (a Japanese version of the Red Book is not available, but there is an excellent Japanese reader’s companion). And now, Persona 5 is going to be Red.

                Is Atlus just moving through the primary colors, or is this a hint that Persona 5 is taking advantage of an unparalleled step forward in our understanding of Jung? I don’t know, but I am excited. It opens up a lot of possibilities, from a narrative which draws on the real-life visionary experiences of Jung to monster designs inspired by his lavish illustrations.

"Would you summon me? I'd summon me."
                It may be going too far to claim the Persona series is a Jungian psychology simulator. I mean, the original Persona does open with a group of high school students playing a game called "Persona" that unleashes the repressed powers of their subconscious, but whatever. Maybe I'm reading too much into that. The point is, Atlus has done amazing things with what Jung was available. I can't wait to see what they can do with the mother lode.

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