Persona 3 Movie – Developing the Silent Protagonist

Title CardPopular guy. (source: pixivid 79378)

As a gamer, and as a masochistically idealistic gamer, I see games as being potentially the storytelling medium of our age. Interactivity has a way of capturing the imagination, like it did for performing arts long ago. And when a game gets adapted back to a non-interactive medium (say, anime), I see it as a good opportunity for a case study.

It is in this context that I want to talk about the second Persona 3 movie, the whimsically named Midsummer Knight’s Dream. Spoilers ahoy.

For those of you who have played the original game, do you remember the scene where they are holding memorial for Aragaki Shinjiro at school? And you’re sitting behind some classmates who trash on Shinjiro’s memory? And you’re given a conversation choice? This scene, right here.

Hands up if you picked ‘shut up’.

I had been picking really noncommittal conversation choices up until that point, because an apathetic hero fighting Apathy Syndrome amused me. But after many hours of ‘whatever’, this seemed like the right time to snap.

Some people describe the protagonist of Persona 3 (Makoto Yuki, Minato Arisato, what have you) as being emotionless, or a blank slate. This is not entirely true. Yes, much of his personality comes from the player inserting himself into his role, but that is always shaped by the context of in-game character interactions and available conversation choices. The PSP version of Persona 3 actually gives you the option of playing as a female protagonist, and she’s a very different character because she ‘talks’ with her peers differently.

So the game gives you ‘Shut up’ as something the Protagonist can say in that scene, and it’s by far the most worked up he has and will ever get. It becomes a realistic choice, though, because the player is also guided towards feeling worked up as well. Shinjiro was a cool guy, and the weight of the loss was reinforced by the gameplay—has was also a really good fighter. Powerful physical attacks, no weaknesses! He’d be top tier if not for his Aeris Gainsborough defects. I missed his party presence. And his equipment.

Midsummer Knight’s Dream is not first person though; Makoto Yuki is his own person, not and avatar for the player (viewer, whatever). So they need to make Shinji’s death ‘personal’ in a different way, especially since we don’t have a lot of movie time to develop him compared to game time. It is almost a given that a fair bit of original writing will need to be done to accommodate these differences. I generally approve of such changes if they are done for the purposes of preserving the spirit of the original in a different medium. In this case, the effect of Shinjiro’s death needs to be conveyed within a limited movie, and that can’t be done by just mimicking the game.

One advantage the movie has though, is that now that the Protagonist is no longer part of the audience, they are under no compulsion to frame him as some ubermensch. So Makoto Yuki is allowed to be more flawed. So Shinjiro’s death is now in a way his fault, and affects him on that level. It also builds upon the themes of the first movie—Yuki, having found a place to belong, is now afraid to lose it. Yuki may have seemed a bit robotic before, but insecurities help flesh him into more of a person. Perhaps more importantly, his insecurities allow him to take the role as a sort of tragic hero—it is his own flaws that lead to his downfall. Afraid to lose his newfound friends, Yuki hesitates, but his hesitation results in him losing one of his newfound friends. Hurray, irony!

Isn’t it interesting (well, to this nerd at least) how the game manages to get away with being rather minimalist with regards to its protagonist, while the movie needs to do all this extra writing. I think it’s a neat demonstration of the differences between the media. And here’s the thing: there’s nothing stopping the game from adding extra writing like the movie does, but it doesn’t really have to. It has other tools at its disposal, and Persona 3 only uses a few of them. See the potential of games as a storytelling medium? There’s so much more they can do.

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