Would You End All Suffering if You Could?
Persona 5 Royal’s final boss encounter explores this question, prompting me to reflect differently on the struggles of 2020
Due to the overwhelming number of high quality, AAA titles released this year — combined with my own societal obligations — there was one game that I was forced to drop when it originally came out, having only picked it up again just a few days ago.
The game in question is Atlus’ Persona 4 Royal, a revised version of the highly successful 2016 JRPG, which puts the player in the role of a teenager who is falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Forced to move to a new city where he meets a makes several new friends, he awakens to a hidden power that guides him and his friends on a path to reform society.
I had played the original a few years ago. And I knew that while it may seem like a light-hearted, anime-style game, it’s actually anything but. Persona 5 tackles many heavy themes, from abuse and depression through to murder. The main character — Joker — is a typical silent protagonist, although the player can decide whether he will end up with few or many social connections (given that some are enforced to ensure the core story can progress smoothly).
There aren’t many differences between the original version and Royal. The most notable changes for me were the introduction of two new characters. One is a first-year student at Shujin Academy (the school the main protagonist joins), Kasumi Yoshizawa. There’s also the new school counsellor, Dr. Takuto Maruki. My meetings with Dr. Maruki were especially interesting, as he always seemed to have insightful things to say. He would ask me what I thought was the source behind others’ pain, and what could be done to end their suffering. He often made fair points, I thought.
If you haven’t played Persona 5 and you want to dig into the story without spoilers, I recommend you don’t continue reading.
It bears explaining that in the world of Persona 5, the main characters have the ability to actually change the cognition of corrupt people around them, forcing them to have a change of heart and confess their sins and crimes. In this sense, it’s not so much that you’re outright vanquishing foes or destroying them. You are, instead, reforming them, and helping them come to terms with the underlying drivers of their dangerous behaviour. This emphasis on reform — rather than punishment — is quite telling, and the game suggests that reformation at the individual level is required to affect broader societal change.
Earlier, I mentioned Dr. Maruki, the school counsellor. It turns out that he’d been doing some of his own research into this “cognitive world” and was, in fact, on the cusp of releasing his results to the public. Unfortunately, the results of said research came into direct conflict with the goals of a powerful political figure — Masayoshi Shido — who was on the verge of becoming Prime Minister by abusing the “cognitive shortcomings” of those around him. Essentially, any reform that caused people to have a change of heart for the better was something he bitterly opposed, given that he benefited from corrupted hearts and minds. Shido’s intervention ensured that Dr. Maruki’s research would be abruptly shut down without warning.
This sudden shock — combined with a tragic accident that left someone close to Dr. Maruki in a vegetative state — awakened a hidden power inside him. It’s a power that enabled him to take people into a world of their own desire, where they can live happily ever after. This power is akin to setting off a nuclear love bomb, having the effect of wiping out memories of life prior to this transportation into “the world of their own desire”. In the end, only Joker and his chief antagonist — Goro Akechi — retain their knowledge of the previous world.
Joker and Akechi confront Dr. Maruki. He explains that if he can rid people of their pain and sorrow — and give everyone a world where their heart’s wishes can be awakened — then this is worth sacrificing his own life. Dr. Maruki is the final boss. But unlike most bosses, it’s clear that he has no malevolent intent; in fact, his actions are entirely selfless. He even goes out of his way to resolve the matter peacefully by giving Joker and Akechi time to explore — and adjust to — this new world he has created. At this point you can actually visit the rest of the team. They begin to come to the realisation that this isn’t actually their own world, which prompts you to take the obvious course of action (and, in fact, the only path that can be taken).
The doctor’s actions are, of course, understandable. He has experienced almost unimaginable pain. This is a strong motivator; it made him want to spare others from experiencing such horror. If you had the power to spare your loved ones from such grief, surely you’d want to do so.
Ultimately though, that’s not our choice to make. Our lives and experiences are our own; they cannot be lived by others. It’s up to us to deal with these hardships and hopefully come out stronger at the other end. We face obstacles of all kinds all the time, and yes, we might occasionally fail — but hopefully those failures are also learning experiences for next time.
The world that Dr. Maruki tried to create for all people may sound appealing at first blush. But this “perfect world” is devoid of all variation — this includes accomplishment and effort, and the value of going through and overcoming challenges. If everything is simply handed to us just because we wish for it, then we’re likely to feel empty and hollow — the absence of shade arguably dims the light, too. We’ll always want more, and we’ll always want better, unable to find satisfaction with what we have.
The entire world has been experiencing a shared pain throughout this year — mainly due to COVID-19. There are lessons to be drawn from that experience, too, both on a societal and personal level. It may seem like a long bow to draw, but playing Personal 5 Royal keenly reminded me that there’s a difference between how I would like the world to be and how the world is. It is tempting to think of the current challenges as only being painful experiences, rather than also considering the value and importance of actually working our way through those challenges such that we might grow.