How Persona 5 Changed My Heart

“We’re gonna get along as troublemakers”

Content notification on depression

It’s September 2017. A young man in his early 20s has just collected his degree from a post office irritatingly located an hour away from his home. One which he seldom wanted to leave for the past few days. The young man didn’t particularly enjoy his stay at university, having graduated in absentia after missing the email inviting him to the ceremony. At the same time, these pieces of paper and cardboard only served to remind him of some of his darkest times. A terrible sleeping pattern, failures to make any meaningful friendships, poor dietary habits, and a general contempt towards academia were the only things he could recall from this ill-fated stint.

Upon returning home, he glances at the living-room mirror, and dismayed at the rotund visage that greets him, goes upstairs to his relatively untended room to sleep. After much study, he’d arrived back to the home he left with such bright-eyed optimism only three years ago, now feeling downtrodden, without a job or clear direction ahead, and with depression. Although he was unaware of it at the time.

I feel it’s increasingly obvious that I’m the young man in this story.

So, why have I included this snippet in an article about Persona 5, a game about highly fashionable Japanese high schoolers navigating people’s innermost thoughts and forcing wrongdoers to rethink their dastardly ways? Well, coming from yet another year in which video games were once again blamed for appalling acts occurring around the United States, as well as them being wilfully misconstrued as an evil medium by those with ulterior motives, I wanted to provide a personal account of the positive effects games can have. This article, at its core, is about the ‘good side’ of games. Specifically, how they were there for me when I needed them the most.

See, having not really made any close friends at university and having been in significantly less contact with those back home, all the while continuing to wake up each day with very little purpose, my state of mind wasn’t at its greatest. Moreover, my physical condition – weighing 256 pounds at the time – was not exactly ideal either. I knew something needed to be done. I knew that if this lifestyle persisted my problems would proliferate. But I didn’t really feel as if I knew what to do or even if I knew what I wanted to do. Until I stumbled upon a dusty, untouched, unopened copy of Persona 5 that I had purchased some time ago.

So I took the plunge. I opened the case, plopped in the disc and began the journey that would have a profound effect on my life. A game like Persona, which centres on its protagonists changing someone’s heart, coincidentally, had the unintended consequence of doing the same to me. Persona 5 stole my heart. For someone who had been so crestfallen, by playing as a self-insert character who would tackle his problems day-by-day – whether that was by taking on grounded issues such as helping people or improving upon themselves and their relationships, or sensational ones like taking down mobsters and corrupt politicians – I was stirred to take small steps to triumph over my own issues.

Through little actions like furthering your friendships, completing tasks to improve your character or even fun, heart-warming banter with a talking cat (who is the best by the way), the game began to influence my worldview.  From a story structure and game design standpoint, Persona 5, despite being one-half day-to-day school sim and one-half artistic fever dream, is quite possibly the best game to help someone break out of a rut. Thematically, structurally and intrinsically the game is built around inspiring people to unshackle themselves from the mental and physical constraints that have been imposed on them.

Persona 5 implicitly indicates that growth is related to social development

This is accomplished through the overarching messages of the narrative, the stylistic flourishes applied to the characters and its world, and even the masterful score composed by Shoji Meguro – all combining to motivate the player and deliver on the title’s core theme: freedom. From the stance of structure, by growing with your companions, exploring various hobbies and activities, and interacting with your confidants as part of the social stats system, the player character is afforded passive buffs and the ability to complete otherwise inaccessible tasks.

Persona 5 implicitly indicates that growth is related to social development; stat progression being heavily reliant on the menial self-improvement tasks you perform outside of combat. This not only serves to incentivise the player to experience as much of the game as possible, but also as a comment on how social activity is imperative to a well-balanced life, something I couldn’t help but notice as I kept finding new activities to take part in during these digital routines.

The game’s soundtrack alternates between soothing and scintillating, often using these tracks to punctuate the emotional beats of its narrative.– manic and upbeat in the game’s rousing moments when storming palaces, while passive and peaceful during the mundanities of regular life. Tracks like ‘Life Will Change’ or ‘Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There’ are enough to provoke action in almost anyone, whereas melodies like ‘Beneath the Mask’ and ‘Butterfly Kiss’ render it impossible to not feel relaxed. Almost all of P5’s tracks are stimulating and helped focus me whilst working – whether that be listening to the tranquil tracks that I used to help me write, or the motivational anthems that helped push me through my exercise regime.

During my playthrough, these elements aided in breaking down the protective, impassable wall which I had propped up between myself and the real world, pulling me out and compelling me to engage with the game’s world, and my own, even further – consequently sending me further down the Persona rabbit hole. The central theme occupying Persona 5 is freedom. This game is about freedom from oppression in all its forms, and in my case, it was about freedom from the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. It provided me with a small, but substantial nudge towards improving my quality of life. The narrative, as well as the characters populating it, resounded with me so greatly that, like them, I also aimed to cast the figurative chains off myself…even if some were self-imposed.

The characters you encounter along the way all at some point demonstrate a dogged determination and desire to be better (and often succeed with help from those around them). Advance far enough through their social links and you’ll find that they all possess admirable traits that most of us would do well to emulate. They embody ideals that I believe many of us strive towards.

Ryuji’s relentless positivity in the face of adversity, as well as his refusal to let the wrongs he had suffered hinder him, struck a chord with me. “I’m only thinkin’ about the future now! That’s what we’re gonna do—build the future! We gotta think positive thoughts, brother!” he says, encouraging Joker and I to push forward.

The spiky blonde’s story is part of the reason I finally bit the bullet and started running two miles almost every day. The other part of the reason was that I was fat, and these runs sucked. I wanted to stop many times throughout, but I refused to. I constantly reminded myself that I wanted this – that this was beneficial to not only my physical well being, but my mental one as well. I understood I didn’t have to stew in self-pity, and that if I pushed myself, I could build the foundations of a joyful future. Witnessing a teenager who had to endure the torment of an abusive authority figure, ostracization from both his social group and passion, and the emotional baggage of a broken home, still charge bullishly towards a better life helped me register that even If I was struggling, I needed to at least attempt to improve my circumstances.

After I’d finished panting out a lung and cursing any deity that would listen, I felt great. The runs gradually got easier, and after a slow two weeks, the weight really started to drop off. I felt better than I ever had and vindicated every time I finished a jog. I coincided these runs with playing Persona 5 and attempting to improve as a person (reading books, eating healthier), and I don’t know if it was the increased levels of serotonin, but I quickly found that not only was I enjoying Persona 5, it had become one of my all-time favourite games – at a time where I felt gaming was lost to me. By about the three-month mark, through this routine combined with an active part-time job, I’d lost approximately 30 pounds – dropping from 256 to 227lbs.

“For now, I just want to keep improving, one step at a time. That someday down the line, I’ll be able to look at myself with pride. Hopefully people will see that confidence, and draw strength from it.”

Onto Ann, whose pursuit of her dream and efforts to attain it helped me recognise that I too wished to pursue my passion. Progressing through the plot, I’d realised that sitting around doing nothing ultimately solves nothing. At this point I was running and working, but not in the career I had wanted. Exploring Ann’s character through her social links, I saw a genuine drive to break into a dream profession, something which I had long since cast aside and deemed unfeasible. Like much of Persona 5, it helped me to reflect on my own life and realise I wasn’t where I wanted to be.

You can also read: Persona Can’t Do Women Justice Without Fixing Its Conservatism

Through Ann’s confidant missions, I grasped that a crucial part of growing in your field is to model yourself after those who have ‘made it’. As a result, I got into contact with a family friend of mine who not only acted as a mentor, but also helped solidify my belief that a career in editorial was what I yearned for. Since then, I’ve had interviews and made serious strides towards this goal, and when ruminating on my past, this was progress I would never have made otherwise. I’ve recently been accepted onto the Journalism MA programme at one of the UK’s best journalism schools, as I look to improve upon my skills. I’ve also undertaken work experience for my local paper, having several articles published and gaining much-needed insight into what it takes to be an editor. I may not be there yet, but I’m going for it.

“If I only act for my own sake, I can’t put my full effort into it anymore. But when I remember my friends… and you… it’s like I’m tapping into some kind of unknown power!”

Another notable figure who resonated with me was Futaba, whose isolation I could certainly relate to. One of the few characters whose heart you had to change within the story who wasn’t an amoral swine, Futaba suffered along as a recluse due to her mother’s tragic death. Referred to as the Hermit by Persona’s Arcana classification, a big part of her character arc was letting people in, and fittingly, coming out of her shell. To do so, she needed a helping hand from those around her. The Phantom Thieves. Her friends. While I had never been completely out-of-touch with my friends back home, returning from uni, I had drifted apart from them significantly. Between the beginning of school and after graduation, I would go months at a time without talking to them, essentially going radio silent and neglecting a hefty chunk of my support network.

Soon after playing through this section, I felt encouraged to reach out to them. Upon doing so, I was promptly greeted with a slew of welcoming messages like “where have you been mate?”, “it’s great to hear from you!”, “LAD! LAD! LAD!” and “do you wanna play Overwatch?”. Despite fears of possibly being rejected due to a lack of communication, I was greeted warmly by people I consider true friends. Nothing had changed. They still remembered me for who I was, and I was still their mate, and it meant a lot (though I’ve never told them this for fear of being teased). For that epiphany alone, I’ll give special thanks to Futaba for prompting me to reach out. The given examples were obviously not the only instances of learning a lesson from Persona 5’s cast, but they were undeniably the most memorable.

The key underlying message of Persona 5 is that you must endeavour to keep a positive outlook, and I took this to heart.

Suffice to say, Persona 5 gave me a much-needed kick in the arse. It presented me with a group of young idealists, who despite all their baggage, rejected their unenviable positions and banded together to change their lives and the world around them. It was an inspiring tale of youthful rebellion, set in a fantastical world that had no true footing in our own. But that’s not true. For me, the key underlying message of Persona 5 is that you must endeavour to keep a positive outlook, and I took this to heart. By placing the player in the shoes of a protagonist, who alongside his cohorts, improve themselves and their world bit-by-bit, Persona conveyed to me that even small actions can be pivotal when confronting a negative state of mind. Truthfully, at the time, that was something I really needed.

Unlike the accusations of debasing young minds often levied at video games, I found Persona 5 to be uplifting and frankly healthy. It sparked a change in me to the point where I devoted myself to exercising, actively sought to rectify a detrimental lifestyle, began pursuing my goals anew, and reconnected with friends – who over the course of my study – I thought I had lost.

Life has changed, and it has changed for the better.

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