In its opening minutes, Persona 3 requires players to sign a contract obligating them to "accept responsibility for [their] actions"—failure to execute the contract means failure to progress. It is as if the game requires any player who wishes to proceed to promise that they will see Persona 3 through to its ultimate conclusion. Three months ago, I signed that contract, and only last night did I finally fulfill my promise by beating the final boss. Now that I've fully discharged my contractual duties, I am left somewhat satisfied but with a lingering sense that my 100-hour ascent to the peak of Tartarus (the game's 264-floor dungeon) was perhaps not worth so much time and effort. Though Persona 3 delivers a stylish, often mechanically engaging experience alongside sometimes thoughtful explorations of death and human connection, it suffers from a number of structural problems that undercut its central message that life derives its meaning from social bonds.
Given the current widespread popularity and influence of the modern Persona games, it may be difficult for some to appreciate just how radical Persona 3's game design was at the time of its release. Whereas many of its JRPG contemporaries adopted a traditional RPG gameplay loop of combat and exploration, Persona 3 splits its gameplay loop between long bouts of dungeon-crawling and social simulation, and the result, despite some shortcomings, is surprisingly compelling. Typically, the decision to divide a game's mechanics vertically between two distinct genres entails enormous risks. Juggling two distinct gameplay genres successfully requires developers to distribute an already limited pool of development resources between two radically different sets of mechanics such that both components of the gameplay loop remain separately engaging while still combining to form a cohesive whole. It is difficult to imagine two genres more diametrically opposed than dungeon-crawlers and social sims (both mechanically and tonally), so the risks Atlus faced in combining these genres in particular in Persona 3 were exponentially higher. That Persona 3 manages to have such a cohesive vision while embracing two unique genres is, as a result, highly impressive.
To be sure, Persona 3 does suffer in some respects from its split-genre approach. Had Atlus not needed to spread its development resources thin between both dungeon-crawling and social-linking, perhaps the dungeon-crawling mechanics could have been deepened, or the social simulation elements might have been expanded. As it is, both Persona 3's dungeon-crawling and social link mechanics are fairly rudimentary. The randomly generated level designs on each floor of Tartarus quickly become repetitive, as does the routine of attacking new enemies with every elemental skill until discovering their weakness and commencing an all-out attack. Only when players encounter bosses and a handful of late-game shadows does the combat become truly challenging, and a few of these battles only become challenging due to questionable decisions made by the party members' AI at inopportune moments (I grew to hate reading the words "Marin Karin" and "Wind Break" by the end of the game). The social simulation mechanics are similarly simplistic—dialogue options in social links never lead to branching storylines, for instance, and raising the player's charm, courage, and academics fails to open up unique dialogue options, as occurs in subsequent Persona games.
However, although neither the dungeon-crawling nor the social simulation mechanics would be complex enough to sustain an entire game on their own, they combine to create a game mechanically greater than the sum of its parts. Much of the success of Persona 3's genre combination derives from the way it capitalizes on the differences between the two genres to create a natural flow between its two styles of gameplay. The challenge and tension of the dungeon-crawling offsets and balances the more subdued and comfortable social simulation mechanics. And because Persona 3 allows players the freedom to engage with the dungeon-crawling mechanics largely when they see fit, players may take as long or as short of a respite from the risk-versus-reward dungeon-crawling as they need (within certain reasonable limits—each section of Tartarus must be completed before the next full moon arrives in-game). The gameplay loop also benefits from a few key mechanics that serve to connect each vertical slice of Persona 3's gameplay: collecting and fusing Personas in Tartarus has the additional benefit of advancing social links more quickly, while advancing social links allows players to earn additional bonus experience when fusing new Personas. These mechanics entice even those players who are interested primarily in only the dungeon-crawling or the social-linking to engage with the other half of the game more deeply, thereby helping to lessen the apparent incongruity between Persona 3's disparate genres.
Although Persona 3 handles its genre-straddling gameplay loop effectively, the game is clumsier in handling its themes, as the gameplay and story offer inconsistent messaging on the theme of human relationships. Perhaps the most oft-repeated theme in Persona 3's main story and its many, many subplots is that life derives its meaning from building and maintaining social relationships. This notion appears prominently throughout Aigis's storyline—initially an emotionless machine with no internal sense of purpose other than killing shadows, Aigis, after forming bonds with the protagonist and his friends, declares by the end of the game that the "joy of living comes from those who care for you."
Various social links also repeat this message—Akinari, for instance, struggles to find a reason to live in the face of certain death from a genetic condition, but by the end of his social link, he resolves that what matters in life is "what others think of [your] life or what [you] are able to do for [them]" and states that "people can't survive without help from others. ... We all depend on one another." Many mechanics even support this theme—for example, the developers apparently decided to implement AI control of party members specifically to enhance the thematic message that one must rely on one's social bonds to conquer the fear of death (see pg. 302 of the Persona 4 strategy guide for further explanation: https://archive.org/detail...strategy-guide/
). Persona 3 thus elevates the formation of social relationships into one of the most important facets of human life—doing so is necessary, as Akinari says, to "survive."
However, there is stark irony in Persona 3 delivering this thematic message when players must spend upwards of 100 hours (or a little less, if skipping The Answer, the game's very long epilogue) alone in front of a TV before they can reach the ending of the game. Playing Persona 3, as well as most JRPGs, is an inherently solitary activity, and it goes without saying that time spent playing enormous single-player games is time spent not socializing—seeing the cold, dead-eyed, slightly sweaty reflection of yourself in your television screen, sitting alone, during every loading screen is a grim reminder of this fact. Every time Persona 3 repeats its reminder to the player of the importance of building relationships, that player must reflect on the fact that the very act of playing Persona 3 to completion prevents building social bonds in real life. Perhaps this is a strange point to make, as it is a criticism that could be directed at numerous single-player games and, indeed, even at works in other media, like very lengthy novels, but the unshakeable feeling I had while playing Persona 3 was that its length and solitary nature heavily undercut its core themes. When I play Persona 3, I am constantly reminded via the themes of the narrative and the social links that my time would be better spent talking with my parents while they're still alive, reuniting with old friends before we drift apart into our own separate lives, or striking up new friendships with other lonely people. Instead, here I am playing Persona 3. To be clear, I am not critiquing Persona 3 for its thematic reminders of the importance of friendship—its message is an undeniably healthy and laudable one—rather, I am critiquing the conjunction of this message with Persona 3's absurd length. Had Persona 3 been considerably shortened, it could have made a much more poignant story of social connection, one that could have left players more time to focus on building social relationships of their own in real life rather than advancing the fictional bonds of their blue-haired protagonist.
Perhaps, some might say, the value of Persona 3, despite its length, is that it is instructive in how to build social relationships, i.e., players who are chronically alone may be able to learn from the game how to approach forming friendships. But this theory is undercut by the way the game presents the minutiae of social interaction. Throughout each of the social links, players are presented with social situations that resemble simplistic multiple-choice problems and must choose the "correct" dialogue option to advance the social link. This simplistic ludological framing of friendship hampers any didactic appeal that Persona 3's social links might have had. Beyond its oversimplification of social interactions into multiple-choice guessing games, the social link system frequently rewards players for "people-pleasing," or simply choosing the dialogue option that the character would feel least threatened by, rather than the one that reflects the player's honest thoughts. The optimal way of advancing Hidetoshi's social link, for example, is to pick dialogue options that fail to challenge his stubborn hardassery in response to a cigarette found in the school bathroom, while the optimal way through Kenji's social link is to encourage his immature pursuit of a teacher many years his senior. Other examples abound elsewhere (Tanaka's social link stands out as an especially egregious example of rewarding players who choose passive, non-threatening dialogue options), and each instance undercuts Persona 3's thematic message. Lasting social bonds in real life are rarely built on lies or half-truths, but they frequently are in Persona 3.
With little didactic utility for players in real life, the social link system begins to resemble a mere form of escapism. The very same players who may have stood to gain some friendship-building know-how from Persona 3's social link system instead may turn to the game as a means of avoiding the much harder task of making friends in real life. In many ways, Persona 3 presents an ideal escapist fantasy for the social recluse: its social situations are all easily navigated with a few quick button presses, dozens and dozens of characters all simultaneously want to befriend and date you merely because you have good grades and drink pheromone-laced coffee, and, best of all, you are completely and utterly alone while playing it for its full 100-hour playtime, meaning that you will never have to confront any real-life consequences for any social interactions gone awry while playing your virtual friend simulator. This unintentional result seems antithetical to the very message Persona 3 presents at its core—the game's narrative was never about running away from building real-life social relationships (quite the opposite), but its design principles have allowed Persona 3 to become a perfect tool for doing exactly that.
Ultimately, this awkward disconnect between Persona 3's game design and its core message left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Though I believe Persona 3 is undoubtedly a good game
, I am unsure that I can label it good art
due to its conflicting structure and messaging. Its mechanics are engaging, its gameplay loop is unique, its characters and story and soundtrack and art design are top-notch across the board. But the impact of Persona 3's themes is heavily blunted by the realization that your time is better spent off the couch outside, talking with friends, instead of losing your hundredth hour to the towering mazes of Tartarus or your hundred-and-first to advancing the protagonist's fictional friendships at the expense of your own.