The Persona franchise is a mixed bag—a blend of gameplay styles that make it part turn-based dungeon crawler and part social simulator. You spend your days studying, making friends and balancing that around battling monsters in the evening.
This breadth of focus stems from the series's muddied origin story. Originally part of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, the Persona name carved out its own niche. Each title was very different until the launch of Persona 3, which introduced a number of the core themes, including the titular #Persona. Which, as it turns out, have a surprising degree of psychology behind their creation...
The Psychology Behind The Persona Franchise
Persona were a focal point in the work of the psychiatrist, Carl Jung, whose work came to prominence in the early 1900s, dealing with a number of topics that run parallel to the events in-game. Namely:
- Shadow & Ego
- The Quest For Wholeness
- The Anima
- Collective Unconscious
Jung went into detail about a number of other topics, but to avoid going too deep down the rabbit hole, we'll be sticking to these core points.
Persona & Shadows
A Persona is the physical manifestation of certain aspects of a character's personalty, described by Igor as a mask you use to protect yourself against various hardships.
Jung described the human persona in a similar way, "a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual".
In-game Personas are used to battle Shadows, a main foe throughout the series. Shadows are born from negative human emotion, and prey upon humans. Most likely due to a desire to be accepted—similar to the personal quest for wholeness, a core theme of Jung's work and something we'll discuss later on.
This theme plays a large part in Persona 4, where party members need to come to terms with their "shadow self". Jung describes the shadow as the repressed and suppressed parts of yourself that you wish to cast off. In the game, accepting this part of themselves is a right of passage the characters must undergo to access their Persona.
The games create an additional link between the Persona and Shadows, citing the Persona as a Shadow that has been mastered by the ego of the user. Referring to the psychological 'ego', a mediator for our base instincts.
The Quest For Wholeness
There's an overlying theme within Jung's work that relates to the quest for wholeness, or basically a sense of fulfillment within yourself. Jung argued that if someone merely plays the part of their Persona, this would eventually take a toll upon them and that in order to truly live people need to juggle multiple Personas.
Perhaps this is why in the games, the protagonist is the only person who doesn't have to face their own shadow. They've accepted themselves for who they are, and thus have access to the power of the 'wild card', which means they can summon multiple Personas.
The Velvet Room And The Anima
The Velvet Room is a key location throughout the series, described as a place that "exists between dreams and reality, mind and matter". Which is why each guest—in this case the protagonist—sees the Velvet Room differently.
We can consider the Velvet Room a part of a person's unconscious mind and thus its residents embody part of this. We're going to focus on the female attendant, who would be the anima; the unconscious feminine component within our male protagonists.
Each game has a new attendant, whose growth can be likened to the development of the Anima, which is split into four stages:
Eve is the first stage of the anima—the objectification of man's desire. Eve can be compared with Elizabeth from Persona 3, who abandons her post as part of her commitment to the protagonist.
Helena, the second stage is categorized by her intelligence, insightfulness and self-reliance. Attributes echoed by Margaret from Persona 4, whose interactions are more mature, but lack imagination. At the end of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, she steps down as Igor's assistant to discover her life's purpose.
This growth suggests our next assistant will take on the traits of Mary, the virtuous state of the anima. This is reflected by the childlike appearance of Justine and Caroline in #Persona5.
The Collective Unconscious And The Individual Unconscious
The collective unconscious is part of the unconscious mind shared by members of the same species. It can be split into instincts and archetypes; an instinct is something we know innately not to do and an archetype is something we considering universally recognizable.
These unconscious states are represented in Persona 4 by the TV World and Midnight channel. The personal unconscious also influences this world, since a lot of the levels we play through are created by the unconsciousness of the characters.
As you can see—that is unless your head hurts to much right now that you can't, mine sure does—there are a bunch of Jungian themes present throughout Persona; a lot of the character development revolves around the idea of accepting yourself and facing your inner demons.
Were you shocked to find out how much in Persona is based on real world psychology?