Persona 4’s Wondrous Magus!

Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die
I can’t fear death no longer
I’ve died a thousand times

All video games are about death.

I just had one of THOSE moments. You know the type – a seeming “act of God” scenario that suddenly destroys hours of work for no apparent reason. A scenario you could never predict stops you in your tracks like a freight train. An inevitable conclusion arrives at a situation for which you could not possibly prepare, yet here comes the end of your life.

Meet this little fellow, the Wondrous Magus:

Wondrous Magus

 

The creature looks so innocuous, doesn’t it? Looks can deceive. In that black robe and blue mask lies a being of pure evil that does not like you, your friends, or your family. Why does it hate you? Shadows don’t know why they hate. They just do. And they hate you.

Perhaps you might find yourself merrily jaunting around a Steaming Bath House, looking for Kanji Amagi in the Midnight Channel. Maybe you’re just wandering around the lower levels of a giant demon tower named Tartatrus. Maybe you wandered down a dark alley, and that will seem like a poor decision in retrospect.

When you see the glowing shadow begging for your attention, you might think “hey, I’ve got a good handle on this battle system. I’m level twenty or so, I can handle what the game calls ‘difficult”. Just exploit their weaknesses and kill them fast. I know this game.” Let me warn you:

NO YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO PLAY PERSONA 4. PERSONA 4 KNOWS HOW TO PLAY YOU. WONDROUS MAGUS SEE YOUR DESIRES FOR LOOT, MONEY, AND NEW PERSONA FORMS. RESIST THE SIREN SOUND OF THE FLASHING ENEMY IN THE STEAMING BATH HOUSE. RESIST!

Once you enter combat, my warning will make sense. If you failed to hit them in the back, you just started a game of Russian Roulette with all the chambers full. The three Wondrous Magus waited for this moment; the designers laugh in glee as they go first, destroy one or two of your characters in an instant, and then make it impossible to recover. Don’t have an AoE resurrection spell? Tough luck, buddy, not that you’d have that at this point in the game anyway. Wondrous Magus only cast Agi and Zio spells, which two of your party members hold as a weakness; prepare for them to die. Your healing spells do not heal fast enough, and the “Escape” command may as well be a taunt. Let your character die last as a cruel joke, and watch several hours of your life melt away as the Game Over screen appears.

I won’t lie: I sat there in disbelief for a moment, wondering what strategy could possibly work against these crazy foes. Delightfully, spending your time figuring out their weakness is a total waste, since they’re not actually weak to anything. Apparently Tentarafoo will function particularly well against a team of spell caster; still, two question: how would I know that, and would it work out well if I don’t go first? The Wondrous Magus gives you a test with no right answers, especially if you didn’t bother cheating. Seriously, how unfair is this? Does anyone else agree with me? What a load of crap.

As the initial waves of rage hit my brain like a particularly poorly built breakwater, one wonders what I did next. I yelled at the game for approximately five seconds, and then continued playing. Sure, I vented my disdain for Atlus’ poor design decision and how I died in such a dumb and unpredictable way, but I did keep playing. What else am I supposed to do? Stop playing? You already sucked ten hours our of my life; I may as well give you sixty more, Atlus!

Every gamer experiences this at least once. You either resign yourself in digital defeat, leaving the game alone for the rest of the day (or forever, as the case may be) or persevere until the end. Frustration and anger apparently make us better at games by sharpening our focus and allowing us to concentrate. I do not feel certain about that particular conclusion, but an unfair death does provide motivation to continue for the most counter intuitive reason: revenge (the good kind).

It doesn’t matter whether the game killed your unfairly or not. There’s always that tiny person within saying “that isn’t me. I am better than this”. The game will not conquer you, it’s only a game. I call it a form of delayed gratification. You tasted the bitter nectar of failure, and now you desire the sweet bliss of victory. Imagine how much more the desire rises in a JRPG! Crawling through that dungeon for at least another hour to receive another crack at it agonizes. But when you do return, and you know the stakes, that extra knowledge and skill applied to that same obstacle will (hopefully) yield victory. And even if we fail again, we try again and again and again until we win. Unless you’re a loser or something. Are you a loser? ARE YOU?

Nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to die. That continual threat of death, and that need for the internal validation of the game via a new story sequence, item, ability, or just a “You Win!” screen, enraptures most video gamers. Games rewards you for living, punish you for dying. For a brief, shining moment, you lose awareness of your bodily self and pursue the clearest goal that life ever gave you in the video game: don’t die.

And that is, fundamentally, why video games need to be about death. They can do something no other entertainment medium can: viscerally describe and detail, through engagement and immersion, the very reality of death. Film cannot do this, and movies cannot do this. We cannot vicariously experience this most Christian of ideas: to die, and then suddenly to live again, given a second chance for no reason other than the benevolence of the designer.

Here, start. GO. Try again.  Game Over! Continue? As the blinking light of an CRT asks you for your monetary contribution, a thought might occur: when will I run out of tokens for this machine?  Who’s giving you your lifeline?

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

John 11:25-26

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Robert Miller

    Persona 4 is one that I’ve been interested in playing, but it’s also one of those games where I ask myself, “Is it really okay for a Christian to play this?” When you have the ability to get “Satan” and “Lucifer” as Personas, and when I look at the covers of the other SMT games that I own and notice the pentagram that is clearly part of their label, I wonder if this is something inappropriate for a Christian to play. Then I have times where I think it’s “just a game”. I have a copy of Persona 4 for the PS2 that I haven’t touched, and I would like to get Golden for my Vita (poor thing has sat on a shelf for a year). But I keep having that debate in my own mind, and although I want to push those thoughts away and just play the stupid game, I keep remembering that Paul wrote that anyone who eats and has doubts condemns himself, which makes me think that I need to be 100% certain, and not just suppressing my thoughts. It’s the dumbest thing, and I would like to hear your thoughts on it as a Christian and as someone who is obviously playing Persona 4.

    As for the article, it’s an interesting point you make. I will confess to not having read it entirely in-depth, as Tales of Xillia was sitting in the background just waiting for me to start, but the conclusion of the article was definitely something I didn’t see coming, and for that I say, “Well done.”

    • Zachery Oliver

      Thanks for reading! I’m always glad to see feedback.

      So here’s my take on this issue:

      1. SMT, and most Japanese games, emerge out of an entirely different social context. Christianity is the religion of choice for less than 1% of the population. Still, Japan was influenced by Western powers during its modernization period, America especially. In that sense, they’ve taken symbols from all aspects of Western cultures and reinterpreted them in light of their worldview. This might look offensive from our perspective, but that’s merely their view on the subject. SMT, in particular, takes a rather agnostic stance towards all religions, assuming them all to exist in a fantasy world.

      2. Given that, I’m just not that offended. First, because they don’t really know any better, and second because they’ve taken the symbol while infusing it with different meaning. This means that, while they use familiar words and imagery (pretty sure YHWH appears in some SMT game somewhere), it’s not really the same thing in intent. It’s the difference between the form and the content. I could just throw up my arms and say “I am offended!”, but that would not be very understanding on my part. I should also note that I’ve been playing JRPGs since I was very young (and going to church!), so all of this may just be a function of my familiarity with it.

      3. Of course, what is most interesting is that the pentagram was originally a Christian symbol that represents the five wounds of Christ, most notably in the Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It later became associated with magic in the Renaissance, and that’s where our modern understanding of the pentagram as a “pagan” symbol emerged. Same goes with crosses (not used in Christianity until the 4th century, very earliest) and upside/black crosses (originally a symbol of Peter’s upside-down crucifixion, now a black metal fixture). Christians have taken symbols, infused them with meaning, and then new cultural contexts have transformed them again. This may explain Protestantism’s iconoclastic streak, as symbols tend to turn into something other than their original intent.

      4. Still, if you have reservations about it and feel uncomfortable, don’t play it. The best approach is to avoid it if you feel it won’t be helpful to you.

      • Robert Miller

        I think a large part of my problem is that, even though I want to play the game, and even though I rationally feel like it’s “just a game”, I worry about, “What if I’m wrong, and it really is a sin to play it?” I know it sounds absurd. I mean, it’s a video game, nothing more, nothing less, right? And it’s supposed to be a good video game, from what I understand. I liked what I played of Persona 3 (I have a terrible habit of not beating games), at least.

        • Zachery Oliver

          Again, if it doesn’t seem helpful to you, I would still recommend not playing it. It’s not absurd at all to think otherwise; it has much to do with your personal beliefs and whatever else comes with that,

          With that said, I am merely explaining why I can play it without many reservations. Seriously, don’t feel bad about having hangups about it. Everyone has different things they are not comfortable with, and video games are no different in that regard.