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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Game Theory: Persona 4, Nietzsche, the Self and its relation to the game's ending

Theory by Matt S.

Game Theory is going to be a regular column in which I take the opportunity to take a truly great game, and discuss some of its more philosophical underpinnings which are, to my mind, what truly separates these games from their peers.

For the first one, I figured I might as well start with one of the most complex and innovative games ever made, Atlus' Persona 4. Specifically, I'm interested in how it relates to the great German philosopher, Nietzsche, and his concept of self.

It goes without saying that in order to properly discuss these themes there are going to be spoilers. And it would probably help to have played the game before reading on anyway to make sense of some of the references I'll be mentioning.  

Nietzsche is often attributed to nihilism, which in simplified terms is a philosophy that argues life is ultimately meaningless. Certainly some of his writings appear to support such an analysis, but Nietzsche also argued many other things through his career. Not least of which was his argument on the concept of the knowledge, and understanding, and how that pertains to the notion of the self.

In 1873, Nictzsche, in an essay titled Of Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, wrote the following:

"The pride connected with knowing and sensing lies like a blinding fog over the eyes and senses of men, thus deceiving them concerning the value of existence. For this pride contains within itself the most flattering estimation of the value of knowing. Deception is the most general effect of such pride, but even its most particular effects contain within themselves something of the same deceitful character."

He is, of course, referring to the capacity for human beings to assume that they know something, and therefore assume that their knowledge of that thing must be complete. Elsewhere in the same essay:

"...if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing."

This is a philosophy that Persona 4 adopts right to its very core. Nietzsche’s concept of the fog of pride finds a literal representation in Persona 4 as a fog that blankets both the real world and also inhibits a person's ability to explore a separate, alternate universe that can only be accessed via a TV. When in this TV world, characters can use special glasses to allow them to cut through the fog and see reality for what it is. Characters only obtain these glasses after coming to an acceptance of who they are (more on that soon), and so these physical objects are a representation of the character's desire to understand the world beyond themselves better.

It is only after obtaining these glasses that these characters are able to start coming to the truth about the world around them. However, first they need to confront an uncomfortable truth about themselves, and fight against a grotesque manifestation of that horrible truth. In beating it, they symbolically come to a better understanding of themselves, and the heightened sense of self-realisation opens their eyes to also understanding the fog concealing the truths in the world around them. Mechanically in the game this translates to the character earning the pair of glasses that allows them to move forwards towards an enlightenment about the game and its narrative (in the instance of Persona 4, 'enlightenment' means 'solving the murder mystery').

As Persona 4's fog turns deadly and starts to threaten the real world players are confronted by a single, serious moral question, and it’s at that moment that the game fully realises its Nietzschean sense of morality that it had slowly and subtly built up of the course of the game’s 80 or so hours.

It is this closing act that demonstrates that games such as Persona 4 are in a unique position to deliver philosophical themes that film, painting and literature couldn’t hope to emulate. Persona 4 has three possible endings. Two are directly determined by a player's answer to the Big Moral Question. The first ending, while unpleasant, provides closure but no answers. In the kind of Nietzschean world that demands players find answers, it is this fact that determines it to be the "bad" ending. It's not "bad" because the characters took it onto themselves to cause the death of the supposed villain by throwing him into the TV. It's not that the young Nanako dies. Rather it's the lingering sense as the credits roll that there are too many mysteries left unsolved; the character's return to normal life with the tacit acceptance that they knew enough to solve the mystery that leaves us, as players, unfulfilled.

The second ending yields an epic final fight, and then the game experiences a conventional ending which does answer almost all the questions raised through the game. This is where the game has a Nietzschean trap built into it; experiencing this ending is very much a secretly "bad" ending, a criticism directed to the players for not fully opening their eyes and demanding all the answers to all the game's problems. How do we know this? Atlus built in a third ending. This is the ending that provides players with the only opportunity to have the most pertinent questions answered. And it's an ending that only can be discovered through more investigation after the second "false" ending. In fact, the game goes out of its way not to mention this third ending even existing. Players discover it by themselves, or they don't learn of it at all.

Many won’t even necessarily care that this ending exists; the fact that the big bad monster has been dealt with in the second ending will be enough for them. But this is the precise point that Nietzsche was making in his commentary about the fog of pride (or complacency), and the dangers of thinking you know something; we don't fully know anything so long as we have the arrogance to assume we understand the world around us. As long as we, as players, accept that we "know" a game finishes when we complete the set of criteria that the game lays out for us (such as what is clearly an "end boss"), we can't properly understand Persona 4.

As this theme plays out in the game, we, the players, are experiencing Nietzschean philosophy first hand. No other creative media can make its audience a direct part of the theme in quite this way, and it's a major reason for why I believe Persona 4's narrative, and games in general, deserve greater academic analysis than they're currently receiving.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Game Theory: Persona 4, Nietzsche, the Self and its relation to the game's ending
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