This article contains significant plot spoilers for Persona 5
Persona 5 is a game that I have quite a bit to say about. In the pipeline I am planning on publishing articles giving my impressions on the game as well as a deep dives into how they explore concepts of identity.
I have not yet completed the game, but it is already overflowing with interesting things to write about.
Last night I was streaming Persona 5 and the game took its own deep dive in to a pretty intense topic. You are asked to help a girl who suffers from extreme social anxiety and depression.
The Set Up
For those unfamiliar with Persona 5, it is a game where you take on the role of the Phantom Thieves; a group of teenagers who can jump into the subconscious of truly twisted people, and ‘steal their heart’, forcing them to undergo a severe personality change for the better. For a gaming analogy think of a slightly more dramatic system of the heart-healing mechanic of Ni No Kuni.
Up to this point in the game you have stolen the hearts of an abusive school teacher, who sexually abused female students and physically abused male students; an organised crime boss, who blackmailed and stole from people for his own financial gain; and an artist, who stole the work of his students and claimed it as his own, allowing a particularly talented student to die so that he could get away with his scheme.
All of your targets up to this point are evil people who harm the world. The concept of ‘twisted desires’ is very obvious when it comes to these kinds of people; they are the archetypal villains for stories. You enter their subconscious, steal their treasure, and it causes a change of heart. They feel remorse for their actions, hand themselves into the police, and allow victims to begin the healing process. A classic heroes tale.
But then the Phantom Thieves are recruited by Futaba.
Futaba is a girl who suffers from extreme social anxiety and depression. She is a hacking expert and traces down the Phantom Thieves, and blackmails them into stealing another heart. Her own.
She wants to be free from her anxiety and depression, and she knows the Thieves might be able to help her with this, so she sets herself as their target.
Entering the Heart of Darkness
The subconscious desires of regular people do not have a significant impact on the subconscious world the Phantom Thieves can enter, known as the ‘metaverse’. When someone has truly twisted desires though, these dark desires shape the metaverse into a palace. The palace of each person reflects how they view their ‘domain’. The teacher’s palace took the form of a castle located at his school. The crime boss’ palace took the form of a bank located in the central business district. The artist’s palace took the form of a museum located over his studio.
Futaba’s palace takes the form of a tomb, and is located at her home.
It is more ornate than a regular graveyard; Futaba’s palace is a great pyramid located in an almost endless desert. It is huge, it is grand, and it is utterly isolating. Throughout the pyramid are traps and walls designed to keep people out. Although Futaba has asked for help, her subconscious tries to kill the Phantom Thieves. She wants help, but her heart fights the introspection.
As the Phantom Thieves explore her palace they see glimpses of what ties her heart into this tomb.
Her mother committed suicide in front of her.
She blames herself for her mother’s death. She remembers times when she felt that she was a burden on her mother, a drain that led her to killing herself. These memories form murals on the pyramid’s walls. The Phantom Thieves slowly break into her subconscious and encounter these deeply intimate and painful memories.
It is an intense experience to play through.
Opening the Door
At the end of the palace is a door.
A door that cannot be opened by the Phantom Thieves. A door that requires them to meet Futaba in the real world. The subconscious door represents her hearts deepest layers. It appears as her bedroom door.
If Futaba does not believe anyone can get through this door, it is impossible for anyone to get through the door in her subconscious.
Only Futaba can open this door.
The Phantom Thieves go to her house and wait outside her door for her to invite them in. She needs to take action to address the issues in her heart. She can’t rely on others to fix her. She needs to not only say she wants help but also open herself up to the help that is offered.
She has to confront her extreme anxiety.
She has to let people in.
Which she does. Futaba invites the Phantom Thieves in to her most vulnerable place, where she hides from the world, and in so doing allow the Phantom Thieves to access to the inner sanctum of her subconscious.
The Phantom Thieves steal their way through her inner sanctum to find Futaba’s treasure. They find a sarcophagus. The treasure is held therein. But before the Thieves can open it they are attacked.
They are drawn into combat by Futaba’s mother. Or to be more accurate, a dark, twisted representation of Futaba’s mother. Futaba’s subconscious has created a monster out of her mother. It takes the form of a great sphinx, which keeps its distance, it is aloof and hard to hit, spewing hateful things about Futaba. The Phantom Thieves cannot beat it.
That is when Futaba enters her subconscious world.
The only way that this demon can be beaten is by Futaba realising that it is not her mother. Futaba has to remember the truth. How loved she was. She has to differentiate between the lies and the truth. That her pain has warped her memories. Hurtful things she was told by family members that blamed her for her mother’s death are not true.
As Futaba faces her own heart and comes to understand how her heart has warped her memories and created a tomb for itself she becomes able to provide the key to defeating the demonic representation of her mother.
Once the representation is defeated, Futaba leaves, allowing the Phantom Thieves to complete their task.
But the sarcophagus is empty.
Futaba has already left.
She was the treasure all along, and she had to find herself, hidden behind layers of hurt, pain, and warped perceptions. She had to look at the truth hidden behind the lies, and remember who she was, and who her mother truly was.
And with that discovery the palace begins to collapse…
Mental health is a difficult topic to address. Every person’s experience of mental illness can be radically different, and can stem from completely different experiences. This makes it hard to talk about, particularly in media where mental illness can so easily be trivialised or glamorised.
This Futaba story arc is not over, but getting to where I am in the game was a powerful and personal experience for me. I joked several times on stream that I would love to have an app that could give me access to the kind of breakthroughs Futaba experienced in an hour and a half of gameplay. Months of cognitive behavioural therapy condensed into mere minutes.
But the world is not as easy as video games.
Art reflects life, and this story arc was powerful because there is truth in the story it presents about the human experience of mental illness. Help is available, but it takes work to address. There are no easy fixes, and resolving issues can take you to painful places. But if twisted perceptions are not confronted they can create demons, which are even harder to put to rest.
There is no ‘YAY MENTAL ILLNESS IS SOLVED!’ at the end of this article. It is a real problem and if you struggle with it, I recommend getting help.
Exposure to this story arc is the kind of thing that helps me contextualise some of my experience of mental illness and give pictures and words to emotions and thoughts. I am very much looking forward to continuing to explore what Persona 5 has to offer.