The Real Psychology Behind the Persona Games

By Paul Walker-Emig on at

In 1913, renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote a letter to his former protégé that marked a bitter end to their relationship. If you’ve played Persona 4 Golden, that name of that former protégé might elicit a tingle of recognition. That’s because the PS Vita re-release of Persona 4 contained an extra feature in the main menu that gave you the option of listening to a series of lectures on the psychological theories of a man named Carl Jung. Why was this included? What is the relationship between the man Freud had once considered his successor and a series of JRPGs starring high-school students?

The source of Freud and Jung’s falling out was the latter’s deviation from Freudian dogma. Jung started to develop his own theories on psychology and the unconscious, and, decades later, it was those theories that would provide the thematic underpinning for the Persona series. One break – the split between Freud and Jung – provided the inspiration for another as Persona broke away from the Shin Megami Tensei series to chart its own path.

This is not mere projection: the Persona games mirror the work of Carl Jung, and use his theories as a foundation for exploring psychological issues.

The Persona

A key feature of the Persona series is the ability of its characters to summon the power of their “persona” to help them fight in battle. They are described within the games as being a mask that gives the protagonists the power to face adversity. That analogy becomes literal in Persona 5, with a mask appearing on each character’s face when their persona first awakens.

The term “persona” comes from Jung, who also describes it as a “kind of mask.” He says that we use this mask to confront society and the expectations it foists on us. Most of us are conscious of presenting a version of ourselves to other people that doesn’t reflect our true selves at some time or other. That is the persona. Jung describes it as a guise we assume to confront society: it has a protective element in his thought, as in the games.

Jung says that everyone has a persona — it is not something you summon as a source of power. In fact, he says that over-identification with the Persona is dangerous: “a man cannot get rid of himself in favour of an artificial personality without punishment.”

It would be tempting then, to describe the depiction of the persona in the games as a corruption of Jung’s thought, but something else is going on here. In Persona 5 the appearance of a persona signals the moment that a character commits to rejecting the role in which they have been cast, and embraces their true selves. Take Makoto, for example. She initially suppresses her instincts about what is right and wrong to behave as authority figures in her school tell her, with the goal of meeting the expectations her older sister has for her to become a success in life. The awakening of her persona coincides with her resolving to stop blindly doing as she is told against her better judgement, and follow her own principles.

Rather than corrupting Jung’s idea of the persona, the games are inverting it. Both Jung and the games are dealing with a false image that we present to society, and the reconciliation with the true personality that hides behind it.

The Shadow

Shadows are the enemies that you fight in the Persona games. Within the fiction, they are born of negative human emotions. The most significant shadows are those that manifest as shadow versions of “real” characters. These shadow versions represent or amplify the worst tendencies of the character they are spawned from and serve as the games’ bosses.

This fiction almost precisely mirrors Jung’s description of the shadow that he says we all carry in our unconscious. “By shadow,” Jung says, “I mean the ‘negative’ side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide.”

The most straightforward depiction of the shadow-as-described-by-Jung is to be found in Persona 4. In that game, each of the allies that make up your party must confront a shadow version of themselves, born of aspects of their personality that they refuse to acknowledge. Kanji, for example, represses his interests in what are traditionally considered feminine pursuits to protect his masculine self-image, creating an overtly effeminate shadow that questions his sexuality. Chie represses feelings of jealousy towards her popular friend Yukiko, giving birth to a shadow that mocks her for her inferiority.

Jung will tell you that these characters’ refusal to acknowledge the shadow is dangerous for the psyche, because the less the shadow “is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” So it proves to be as each characters’ rejection of their shadow image grants it the power it needs to become a threat and leads to a boss battle. The confrontation with the shadow always ends with the character acknowledging the shadow as part of themselves and coming to terms with what they had been trying to repress. Each of these stories is a perfect fable for Jung’s conception of the shadow, its potential danger, and the way in which “the shadow can to some extent be assimilated into the conscious personality” as a part of positive psychological development.

The Collective Unconscious

Each Persona game has an alternate dimension where your battles with shadows take place and psychological disturbances and distortions are represented through enemies and architecture – the Dark Hour in Persona 3, the Midnight Channel in Persona 4, and so on. These clearly represent the unconscious, the place where the shadow resides in Jungian psychology.

Persona 5 adds another layer that brings it closer in line with Jungian thought and introduces a key pillar of Jung’s psychology: the collective unconscious. Jung describes the concept thus: “the collective unconscious is a part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition.” They are structures of the unconscious mind that all human beings share, because we're human.

The “Palaces” that you visit in Persona 5 represent the personal unconscious. These are the places where the twisted desires of corrupt adults are displayed in their most vulgar and unfiltered form, represented by their shadow and the palace it has built around it. They are unique to an individual, linked to their own personal history, and conjured by their own delusions and obsessions. The content of these palaces are, in Jung’s words, “a personal acquisition.”

Then there is Mementos, an alternate dimension that appears as a dark labyrinthine version of the Tokyo subway and isn’t linked to one individual. It is described in-game by Morgana as “a kind of collective unconscious”, in case you needed a little hint about what it is supposed to represent. This serves the game’s fiction perfectly well, providing an excuse to give you sub-quests and a place to grind, but it’s not an accurate representation of the collective unconscious as described by Jung.

Jung’s conception of the collective unconscious is often misunderstood as a mystical one due to the way that he talks about it being shared, as is the case in Persona where the collective unconscious is connected to everyone. He doesn’t mean that it is shared in the literal way that Persona depicts, however. Jung’s argument is that the brain is a product of evolution and that this means there are common psychological symbols and motifs that are shared by all. We share symbols because our brains all function in a certain way, not because we are connected by some magical force. Think of it as analogous to the atheist explanation for the emergence of religion among different cultures: there must be something innate in how our brains function that creates the conditions for the emergence of the concept of god/s.

Archetypes

Jung’s collective unconscious is an attempt to account for common symbols and motifs that emerge across time and space. He calls these motifs and symbols Archetypes. They not only appear in our dreams, but as recurring character types in mythology, religion, and fiction: the Wise Old Man, the Trickster, the Mother, and one that we’ve already encountered, the Shadow.

Unsurprisingly, you can find a few of these archetypal figures in Persona. A character that acts as a kind of guardian figure in the early Persona games is named Philemon. This is another reference: Jung wrote of his encounters with a guru-like archetype that he also called Philemon.

Then there is Igor, the proprietor of the Velvet Room, who helps guide you in your journey in the Persona games. He has the look of a wizened professor, talks of helping you fulfil your potential, has magical associations, possesses mystical knowledge beyond your understanding, and comes from a place that is Other – all common traits of the Wise Old Man archetype.

When you first meet Igor in Persona 5, he says “Trickster…Welcome to my Velvet Room”. The Trickster is another archetypal figure that Jung wrote about extensively and if you consider the parallels between the Trickster archetype and the protagonist’s role in the story, it becomes clear that Persona deliberately aims to invoke such a comparison. The Trickster is a transgressive figure with a contempt for authority, a rule breaker that disrupts the order of society and tries to re-establish it in a new form. This, of course, is the method and goal of the protagonist and the Phantom Thieves. They embrace a criminal identity to steal the hearts of corrupt authority figures, with the goal of creating a more just society.

You can also spot the influence of Jung’s thinking on archetypes in the Social Link system. Each character you can build a social link with has an archetypal figure associated with them that tends to reflect their personality. Granted these figures are drawn from the Tarot rather than Jung specifically, but Jung argued that the Tarot are representations of archetypes. Indeed, you don’t need to be a genius to recognise the Magician, the Fool, or the Hermit as recurrent figures that appear in myth, legend, and fable throughout history.

Jung advocated something called Individuation, a process of integrating the disparate unconscious elements of a person’s personality through encounters with archetypes to become whole. Each link you build in Persona is depicted as being a source of power, something that adds an extra skill or element to your group to make it more complete. In this sense you can read the Persona games as being about the process of Individuation: the blank-slate protagonist on which you are meant to project yourself serves as the ego, and the relationships you build with each character are then analogous to integrating the archetypes that each one represents. If you buy this interpretation, then your route to understanding that person and their motivations is representative of the process of integrating an archetype — and the revelatory potential such a merger has.

Whether that’s taking it too far or not is up to the individual player. The debt Persona owes to Jung’s thought is clear, even if a JRPG where you hang out with school mates in malls, fight monsters with spells, and scoff down gigantic burgers isn't the most obvious vector for the theories of a long-dead Swiss psychoanalyst. But then that's kind of the point. The Persona games show that when cultures and categories collide – the academic, the popular, the trivial, the complex – something thematically rich, bizarre, and beautiful comes out on the other side.