Mental Health in Video Games: Persona 5 – REVISITED

This article contains spoilers relating to Persona 5’s Fourth Dungeon and the gameplay that immediately follows.

My last post on mental health in video games looked at how Persona 5 addressed mental health in the form of the isolated, agorophobic character Futaba. This article highly praised the game for its approach, however as the game progressed I realised that this good work is quickly undone by the subsequent approach to helping Futaba aclimatise to life outside her bedroom.

When she first spends time outside of her room it is apparent to everyone in the Phantom Thieves that Futaba struggles to engage with people in conversation, particularly around topics she is not interested in. The way the Thieves address this is to talk about Futaba as is she is not present and to discuss how to socialise her, without her input. Futaba is treated like a broken object that needs fixing rather than a severely emotionally traumatised person who is working out how to live a more normal life.

After the beautiful way that Atlus explore Futaba’s mental state in her entombed pyramid palace, with the Phantom Thieves having to allow Futabato open up the palace herself, it feels jarring to have this undercut by the first things the Phantom Theives do once Futaba joins the team.

One bit that caught me particularly off-guard and emphasised how inappropriate this was, was a scene where Futaba is encouraged to work at the coffee shop both Joker, the lead character, and her guardian Sojiro, work at. Sojiro, aware that she is a social shut in, asks her why she is now coming out and putting herself in these situations she finds uncomfortable. Being given a dialogue choice at this point I said that it was her idea, believing that she had, despite the poor way the party spoke about her in her presence, agreed to this process. Futaba then calls me a liar. She is not happy to be here and is only here because of peer pressure exerted by her new friends. That felt super uncomfortable.

This discomfort is increased as the gang are determined to turn this hikikomori from a social shut-in into a bikini wearing beach-goer within a week. They set out an invasive, demanding and non-consensual timetable which ends up being successful despite this being very far from the real result you would be likely to get from imposing so much pressure on someone who suffers from severe social anxiety.

As many of you will be aware, social anxiety takes time to overcome. For individuals that suffer from social anxiety having friends who are willing to help them push their comfort levels is a good thing, but there is a huge amount of responsiblity on those friends to respect their friend’s boundaries, and ensure that they do not end up in over their heads. Some people when they are overwhelmed are unable to express themselves and so will appear to be quietly compliant, as harmful experiences and emotions build up, increasing that persons ongoing aversion to social situations. Learning to overcome anxiety takes time and there are set backs in real life that make the process take longer.

For a game that gets so many other things right, particularly when addressing the issues of mental health, it feels particularly jarring that this situation, which is a central plot point, is dealt with so indelicately.

I really love Persona 5 and it is easily one of my favourite all time games, which is why I hold it to such a high standard when I look at it’s story and content critically. I can only hope that future Persona installments can avoid having these uncomfortable moments, leaving us with nothing but 24 carat JRPG gold.

Mental Health in Video Games: Metal Gear Solid V

This article contains massive spoilers for the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Metal Gear Solid V is a mixed bag of a game.

It has excellent, polished gameplay, offset by cut content and erratic storytelling. But that does not prevent the finale to this iconic video game saga from moments of heart-wrenching storytelling brilliance.

The theme of the game is in the title, ‘phantom pain’. The sensation of feeling something you have lost. The experience of living after trauma and the scars that you bear as a result.

This is represented physically in the loss of Snake’s arm, but goes so much deeper in the storytelling than that.

Trauma

The game starts in Ground Zeroes with a rescue mission. You have to save a child soldier, Chico, and an enemy spy, Paz, from a US military base situated on Cuba, which is a representation of Guantanamo Bay in all but name.

ground zeroes

If you have played Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker this opening is particularly impactful. These are two characters that were an uplifting and friendly presence throughout the game, as you built up Militares Sans Frontiers, and your Mother Base. Right up to Paz’s heel turn at the end of the game they are friends, and even then Paz seems forced into her betrayal, wanting to spend just one more day with the new family she has found.

Snake goes in to rescue them, and finds them horribly broken and abused, victims of sexual violence and torturous surgical procedures. It is the darkest Metal Gear Solid has ever been and it is deeply upsetting and uncomfortable to see, bringing a jarring level of grittiness to always slightly wacky Metal Gear continuity.

You manage to rescue both and exfiltrate the black ops site, ready to return home. But then the real horror sets in. Paz has a bomb stitched inside her and the support team and Big Boss have to perform emergency surgery to remove the bomb whilst still in transit. No anesthesia, no antiseptic, just blood and pain.

paz

The bomb is removed successfully, but what awaits the rescue team on their return is nothing but further horror. They come back to Mother Base, the base you the player built in previous games, to find it under attack and burning. A surprise assault, and everyone was caught off guard. Everything you built is being destroyed. As you try to escape the onslaught, Paz awakens from her pain-induced stupor. ‘There is another bomb!’ In a panic she gets up and runs to the helicopter door. ‘Somewhere, you wouldn’t look,’ she says darkly, as she jumps out of the helicopter to save you, but it is too late. Paz explodes a few feet out of the helicopter, sending it and you crashing into the sea.

You awake 9 years later, in a hospital. Your face and body are scarred, a piece of bone-shrapnel is protruding from your head; it was embedded in part of your brain and could not safely be removed. Hundreds of pieces of bone and tooth shrapnel were removed from your body, but it was not safe to remove the pieces near your brain or your heart. Your arm is missing. The representation of the horror you just experienced.

But that is not the end.

You establish a new Mother Base, a new company, the Diamond Dogs, a new life. But the ghosts do not fade. As you explore your new Mother Base you come across an unexpected surprise. Paz is sat in a hospital bed in the Medical Wing. She is happy to see you and apparently has no recollection of the trauma she experienced. “She is experiencing some kind of dissociative disorder” your right-hand man announces as he stands next to you, she can’t seem to remember anything about what happened and seems trapped in her schoolgirl persona.

Suddenly you remember! The bomb was found! She said there was another and the medic managed to remove it in time. The helicopter crashed when it was attacked by a missile launch, not because of Paz exploding, which must have been some incorrect memory, or nightmare.

But she is clearly not well and is suffering from some kind of amnesia. You need to collect photos from old Mother Base staff to show her, to remind her who is really is and what happened.

Paz hospital

The collection of photos seems to bring back recollections but it does not sit well with Paz, leading her to feel increasingly sick and nauseous. And then it happens. You walk into her hospital room one day to see her facing away from you. Blood pooling on the floor beneath her. She turns around to face you and you see with horror she has cut open her belly and is digging through her own intestines as she cries out about there being another bomb inside her. You try to stop her. She is safe. You got the other bomb. And then she pulls it out. The second bomb. Suddenly you are back on the helicopter crying out for her as she jumps from the vehicle only to explode in mid-air. You awaken outside the medical ward to find it still under construction.

She never survived. You never had the conversations with your right-hand man about her. You are suffering from the dissociative disorder. You can hear her voice as she tells you she died long ago, and you need to learn to live with that. She is gone and she cannot be brought back, no matter who you kill or what you do.

The game’s twist ending is that you are not Big Boss. You are the medic from the helicopter, you missed the second bomb and your brain invented a world where you never made that mistake, where Paz didn’t die.

Snake mirror

In your comatose state you underwent hypnotherapy and cosmetic surgery to be a body double for Big Boss, and as the hypnotherapy wears off you remember everything.

Reflecting Real Life

In my life, I have had two experiences that resulted in emotional trauma, which impacted how I perceived the reality of the world around me, and both occurred within a relatively short period of time.

The first was the death of my Grandmother. It was sudden and unexpected, and I was close to her. For months after her death I would dream that she was alive and everything was normal, and these dreams would feel like memories. Being at her house it felt like she was just in another room. The reality that she is gone is one that feels more unreal than the belief that I might see her at any moment. I have had to consciously remind myself that she is dead many times, as my brain tries to hide that painful fact from me.

The second was the birth of my child. I was nervous about the dangers of childbirth, but after some perinatal classes, my fears were more settled. On the evening that my wife was in labour everything was progressing well, until it wasn’t. Unexpectedly my child turned its head and suddenly the doctors needed to rush us to the theatre. I have never felt such an acute sense of the possibility that I could lose the people I love the most dearly in my life, and that there was nothing I could do to help. I was stood there, forced to watch and unable to help as all my horrors seemed to be realised. Thankfully they were not. My wife and child were fine, but the emotional damage was present.

Sometime after the birth we were all home, when I went to go get a drink when I saw a water bottle we had used at the hospital. Suddenly I was back in that hospital theatre, panic and fear flooding my body. I had a panic attack. It felt completely real. I was back there again.

Catharsis

The way that Metal Gear Solid V explores the mental health of Punished (or Venom) Snake, is deep and impactful. It is hard to describe the experience of living with emotional trauma, but the final entry in the Metal Gear saga does it well.

Snake is not the only one left with emotional scars. He struggles with hallucinations and damaged memories, whilst his comrade Miller experiences a massive personality shift, driven by anger and rage, he loses the charming, cheery approach to leadership that he brought in Peace Walker.

In a similar way we all experience trauma differently. It can be hard to look at the pain you have experienced and find a way to process it. But sometimes naming something and experiencing something by proxy can help the process of healing. For me, playing The Phantom Pain has been part of that process. Seeing someone give words and pictures and sound to my experience, has helped me find catharsis.

Impressions: Persona 5

“Take your heart!”

Persona-5

The Persona series of games is well known in in gaming circles as an incredibly popular Japanese Roleplaying Game. Being hailed by some as the greatest JRPG of all time is what drew my attention to Persona 5.

I have a love-hate relationship with Japanese Roleplaying Games. When they are good, they are incredible, with my first exposure to them being the Pokémon games, followed by the Final Fantasy series and highlights in my experience including Dragon Quest VII and Ni No Kuni. But when they are bad they are long, boring, repetitive and grindy.

Persona 5 is, without a doubt, an excellent JRPG.

The first noticeable thing about this game is the lively jazzy music that accompanies the introduction sequence. The music is upbeat, and sets the dynamic atmosphere of the game so perfectly. The next thing you are introduced to is the beautiful anime art style that is eye catching and matches the music’s dynamic jazzy theme.

If you enjoy high quality anime animation, you will enjoy the cut scenes and art style of Persona 5.

But there is more to this game that music and animation.

The game follows Joker and his Phantom Thieves as they try to make the world a better place by changing the hearts of evil people by ‘stealing’ their twisted desires.  The way this works is very abstract and not the most clear, but in essence Joker and his Phantom Thieves can enter the subconscious world and through this can change the hearts of those around them.

Does it make perfect sense?

No.

Does it work?

Absolutely.

Take your Heart
Calling card of the Thieves…

The game structure takes the form of a series of heists that the Phantom Thieves have to complete as their world becomes increasingly complicated as the stakes and drama escalate.

The game is divided between ‘downtime’ activities where you can level up your personal stats, buy equipment and spend time with your ‘confidants’ who are friends you make along your journey, and ‘heists’ where you try to steal someone’s heart and have to fight shadowy monsters in turn based combat.

Combat works in a similar way to most turn based JRPGs; you have a team of characters that utilise a variety of attacks that have different elemental types, against enemies that have a variety of weaknesses. If you manage to hit an enemies weakness you can stun the enemy, and if you manage to stun the whole enemy team you can hold them up, either to attack them with a massive team attack, or to try to demand money or items from them. Successfully completing a hold up generally ends combat, so it is best to work out enemy weaknesses quickly in combat.

PT
Ready for action!

Your team also have weaknesses to certain elements, which can result in enemies chaining attacks against you. This means that combat can be over very quickly, either in your favour or a by way of a quick TPK.

The system has its ups and downs and combat swings from exciting to boring. It feels exciting when you work out an enemy’s weakness and suddenly have them at your mercy, and certain boss fights have dynamic battle elements that make those battles unique and more interesting. On the downside when you know an enemy weakness, every subsequent battle becomes a mere interrupt from the main exploration screen, because the battles have no challenge when you know an enemy’s weakness.

In an attempt to balance this there are some enemies that have elemental weaknesses but have such a large pool of hit-points that you do barely any damage even when hitting its weakness every turn. I find these fights frustrating as I have had encounters where I know an enemies weakness and spend 5-10 minutes hitting its weakness and holding it up and attacking, only for it to pull out an unexpected move chain that one-shots the party. Then I have to fight the start over with only a minor variation to account for that new move, but the slog of ‘hit the weak point’ makes this process tedious.

My greatest fear is enemies that have no weakness. These are dangerous because you are unable to stun lock them, unless you score a critical hit, but they can stun lock you. But when there is no elemental weakness it does mean you have to bring more strategy to combat, which is a good thing.

These niggles with combat only come out occasionally, and for the most part combat is fast paced and exciting, which adds to the dynamic feel of the game, and makes it exciting to play.

The story the game presents is very interesting. I have already written one article on how it explores anxiety and mental health issues, and have another planned on how the game explores identity and the Japanese concepts of honne and tatemae. There is a lot the game has to say about the human condition, and it is fun to explore these ideas in the manner the game presents them, and I have more articles planned for the future that will explore these ideas, giving them more space than I can offer them in this overview.

I can see why this game is so beloved. If you are not a fan of JRPG’s this is not likely to sway you, but if you are uncertain about the genre, it is hard to find a better example of a quality JRPG that is worth exploring the genre through. Suffice it to say this game is essential playing if you are a fan of JRPGs.

Persona 5 is the first game I played in the series and has a self-contained story, much like the Final Fantasy games. Because of this Persona 5 forms a perfect entry point to the series for anyone who is curious about what Persona has to offer.

I have not yet finished this game and am so excited to see what else this game has to offer. I will be sure to share future thoughts on this game with you, so feel free to follow this site or my twitter if you want to be updated when I post new content.

Do you want to read more of my video-game impressions? Click here to check them out!

Mental Health in Video Games: Persona 5

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.

Facing Demons

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

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.

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