The Politics of Persona 5, Part 7: Take the World

<< Part 6: Rivers in the Desert

ASH: Akechi is not the only “traitor” in the game, and Shido is not the final boss. In Shido’s absence after his defeat society fails to change; the loss of a replacement figurehead, and the return of the knowledge that a powerful man had abused his power, causes a void in the world. The people cry out for a new replacement and Mementos or “Everyone’s Palace” begins to grow and take over the city. Mementos now features a bleak apocalyptic landscape, in which everyone lives inside of cages they actively fight to remain in, arranged into a huge Panopticon centered around the Holy Grail. It is extremely Banksy but, as I’ve said before, I think in its complete bluntness lies its strength, built as it is on the back of the nuance it has laid out to reach this point I feel it is an earned aesthetic. It isn’t hard to unpack: the point is pretty much being yelled out, but is itself more subtle than its presentation. The Holy Grail openly defines itself as being the manifestation of everyone’s desire to be kept in their place and led by someone who will understand and operate power for them. It is everyone, and is powered by everyone, but as an entity it is effectively the God of taking the easy route. It rewards the closing off of hearts and the belief that nothing can change, that everything is much too big for anyone to deal with and happiness and safety can only be found in locking oneself away in the roles provided for them. Every major antagonist in the game features here as a meek prisoner acknowledging their misdeeds as mistaken belief that they could ever rise above this station, everyone else is pushed further into their prisons by watching the Thieves strike down stand out figure after stand out figure, as after all, if powerful people like Shido cannot escape the nature of humanity then why should they be able to?

ash: Therein lies the flaw for the Thieves, they were able to knock down, but they have as yet been unable to build anything of their own. This isn’t presented as an indictment so much as a failure to reckon with how they are truly seen. As punishers, they were always in the right, but when their existence was boiled down to that aspect and that aspect alone, the powerful were able to transform them into a tool and undermine them. Similarly, the Grail argues that all they’ve achieved is to make society fear and loathe them and to believe that all humans are at heart of the same calibre as the Shidos they put down. The Thieves have failed to undo the mass identification with the powerful that society is inflicted with, and as a result, they have summoned the concept of repression itself to soothe them.

ASH: The Grail is more than just society’s Persona, however. All game something has been “off” with the Velvet Room – the place in which Personas are managed across all the installments in the series. As it turns out, the room’s steward, Igor, has been kidnapped and replaced by the Grail itself. The Grail has not only been framing the plot for the player from the very beginning , but even had them agree to the game’s preamble that all events are merely fiction and do not reflect reality. The Grail invited the protagonist and the player in to play out a fantasy world, a place where oppression is confronted and ended by their own powers, and in doing so reframes those concepts as mere childish fantasy. Taking it a step further, the fantasy itself has been engineered to see the heroes of it crushed by the full force of society’s “truth”.

grail scaled

PRZ: The Grail calls itself “the God of Control,” “administrator of reality,” and Yaldabaoth – the false demiurge of Gnosticism. It’s the next best thing to the antagonist just flat out being the Christian God, and that ends up being the thrust of the narrative in any case. The false god cloaks itself in the form of a kindly helper, and claims to be the only means by which the ruin of humanity can be avoided – but it is also the Grail itself that resolves to bring this ruin when its twisted games fail to have the result it desires. It really is the highest expression of an ideology of social control – wielding accusations, sin, punishment and, when those fail, every possible degree of violence to ensure the perpetuation of the social order it embodies, one based on submission to authority and accepting the world for what it is, forever unchangeable and predetermined. That it has been created by the desires of the masses may not be strictly how I would have written it, but I think it works out – the people have been yearning not for someone to lord over them, but rather, for some kind of cosmic reason or explanation for their suffering and subjugation, an assurance that all this injustice exposed to them by the Thieves has a point – because if it doesn’t, then the pain and indignity of that knowledge is just too much to bear in silence.

ASH: The Grail seized control of the fabric of the narrative from the beginning, much as Akechi plays to the broader audience and the idea of being a character to be consumed. The Grail uses the power of narrative to push the players and the protagonists into the conclusion it already believes inevitable. To the Grail, and thus the collective unconscious, the purpose of storytelling is to reassert commonly held social beliefs and strengthen the ideological glue holding the cognitive version of reality together, while also asserting it upon cognitions that exist outside its scope. Within that framework it manages to turn the Thieves into mere agents of limitation, a force that exists to draw the lines of possibility that is to be disposed of in much the same manner as Akechi’s value to the conspiracy. At their lowest point, failing to defeat the infinitely regenerating force of social repression, the Thieves find themselves literally disappearing from reality as it is proved to society that people like them cannot exist. The fansite poll about belief in the Thieves and their goals appears on screen and ticks down to 0%, as they literally evaporate from the world, now wholly based upon the enforced mass cognition of what a human society is.

ASH: It’s here that the narrative of resistance reaches its conclusions, as the Thieves have to rescue one another from their own cognitive prison cells. Each of them in turn must overcome the reemerging social narratives within them: that they are valueless and that the only good one can do is to work past the things that make them stand out. Their salvation has to arise from helping one another believe that, in the face of this overwhelming social power, they weren’t wrong to stand up for the weak; that ideals aren’t childish things to be grown out of; and that the things that mark them as outsiders aren’t flaws to be overcome for the sake of other people’s comfort and power. This is naturally a great culmination for the game’s focus on victimisation and the forces that both cause and make it invisible – but it is also where my greatest (but unsurprising) disappointments seep in.

futaba scaled

ASH: In a game that has mostly overlooked actual marginalised identity when it isn’t making the odd cheap joke about it, this whole aesthetic rings a little hollow. In the context of the characters, these were affecting moments for me, but here more than any other part in the game, the questions of why the characters aren’t free to explore marginalised identification becomes impossible to overlook. While the answer to “why?” is obvious with a glance at the company’s track record at handling queer themes in general even within this game itself, I think it bears focusing on how close this game feels like it comes to doing something better. With characters like Ryuji and Yusuke (and Yosuke if we’re moving outside this game) in particular, it’s hard not to read a gay narrative into them regardless of whether or not it was intended as bait or not. Whether the writers wanted to touch on these stories with sensitivity and were hamstrung by directorial or managerial input, or if they were never intended by anybody, the fact remains that the game is significantly weakened by so aggressively presenting its commitment to the outcast and the victims of conservative adult ideology and then giving in to those very things at the last hurdle.

ASH: A story where finding support for one’s victimisation and building upon that to find not only the strength to move forward is a great thing. To take it further into uplifting others and taking the concept of prevention right to the uncovering and fighting the heart of society itself is even greater. A story with all of these focuses, and even a whole plotline based around childhood isolation and grief, that still fails to use its increasing scope to highlight the most common victims, is a story that fails to live up to its own ideals. In the spirit of the Thieves overcoming the constructed video game narrative, the Grail manipulates them so that the only choice left to fans of what the game had to say is to make the story their own: to insist the world is in fact a place they can exist, without the support of the canon of the story that worked so hard to say those exact things, but stopped short.

PRZ: In particular, when you break Ann out of her mind prison, what gets her back up and fighting is the thought of Shiho – to whom, in her rank 10 confidant scene, she declares her love. It’s really not even subtext anymore, but rather a wholly disingenuous pretense: yes, she’s gay, and yes, this is what she’s willing to stake everything on, but we’re going to need you to act like that doesn’t actually matter. This is hardly even a subversive reading anymore so much as the text itself opposing what’s being imposed on it, a contradiction so stark and plain that it can’t possibly be overlooked. Even within a story that ends up trying very hard to erase its queer possibilities, at least one of the characters is very visibly fighting back, making it impossible to believe in some kind of canonical reading where all the women are only there for the player/main character’s consumption. And if we follow the logic of everything else up to this point, and stay true to the ideals of the Phantom Thieves, we will be well equipped to spot these contradictions and attempts at erasure wherever they arise.

gabriel scaled

ASH: While entirely accidental, this echo of the Thieves’ fight at least allows us to take the lessons of the game beyond its own scope and impose our own final one. Rotten adults cannot be trusted, even when they themselves are telling you so. Allowing one’s scope and imagination to be fitted into the confines of a neatly wrapped up story is always something to be resisted, because power does not stop operating merely by being under a spotlight.

ASH: All that said, I think outside of this admittedly huge failure the game’s conclusion is a fantastic ride that does a lot of work to satisfying wrap up everything else it has touched upon. I have little to say about it beyond revelling in the aesthetic of another extremely over the top climax, but any game that represents fighting the embodiment of society’s othering and limitation of possibility as climbing up to the sky slaughtering through the entire host of biblical angels and defeating the creator god by summoning Satan to shoot him in the head simply has to have my support on some level.

Hey, god. Foolish humans are prayin’ down there. They’re prayin’ there’s no place for someone like you in this world!