Burn My Dread: Anxiety and Persona 3

“Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already … Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit … that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” ~ G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909)

Or, as famously paraphrased:

“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” ~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2004)

Important Warnings

So I’ve talked before about my struggles with anxiety, but this is my first attempt to do a long post where I delve into the topic in detail. Content warning: This post will contain some vulnerable talk about anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, and some dark stuff.

And no, let’s just get this clear up front: You do not need to worry about me.

Before I go into this, I want to offer an important caveat here: I have an anxiety disorder, for which I am in counseling. I do not currently use anti-anxiety medication, though a) I might at some point, and b) maybe I should? Anyway, nothing in this post should be construed as in any way questioning the use of said medication or any other medication. We all live different lives and cope with our struggles in different ways. Do what you gotta. I support you regardless.

If you, dear reader, are anxious or depressed or struggle with ailments such as mine or otherwise, please know this: if we know each other or if we have never met, even if we never will, whether we be friends or the farthest from, we are together in this. I love you and support you and I wish you all the best.

If you continue reading, great, and I entirely understand if you don’t. Take care of yourself.

Also, this post will contain significant spoilers for Persona 3. I mean, the game is over 10 years old at this point, so honestly you should have played it by now, if you’re a JRPGer, and I highly recommend you do. I’ll try and mark the really spoilery stuff, in case you haven’t yet played it.

What is Persona 3?

Oh, only one of the best video games ever made, and one that has had a profound impact upon me.

This post has been a long time in the making, including 100+ hours of video-gaming in which I played perhaps one of the least likely games one might expect an anxious person to play: Persona 3 FES, which is principally about saving the world from an impending doom whilst desperately building relationships with the damaged people around you, and also about depression and dread.

It is a fantastic and powerful story that brought me to tears multiple times, and if devastating emotional roller coasters whilst fighting monsters born of the collective unconscious is your thing, I highly encourage you to check it out. The digital version is available on the Playstation Network, and I’m given to understand Atlus is currently creating current gen console versions of both Persona 3 and Persona 4 (which is considerably lighter in tone, but no less powerful–I might be doing a follow-up post about that game). And of course, there’s Persona 5, the game currently on top of Atlus’s releases, which is utterly fantastic and you should be playing it.

Persona 3, specifically the PS2 FES variant, is the subject of this post. There is also a Playstation Portable version of the game which allows the choice between a male protagonist or a female protagonist, which may have some impact on what I say below. I haven’t played the PSP version, though I’d like to some day.

Also note that this blog post is not intended to be a dissertation on this masterpiece of a game, which would no doubt consume volumes. I suspect I could write a whole book about Persona 3, and if one already exists out there, I would like to read it. 🙂

Anxiety and Storytelling

If my 15+ years as a professional author have taught me nothing else, it’s that fiction often emerges from an anxious mind. I know of very little fiction that does not have, as its parent, some sort of pain, uncertainty, or doubt. Which is to say, in my experience, fiction is the byproduct of dread. Dread is the fuel that produces story.

Why do we tell stories? I’m sure the answer varies widely, but for me, my stories are an attempt to assert myself. To express myself. To forge connections with those far beyond me, whom I may never meet. To put my thoughts out into the world to be interpreted and considered. To move, to provoke, to edify.

Why do I do this?

Because I am anxious. Because I doubt myself. Because I have known for some time that I am mortal, and my life is finite. I will die someday, and the stories I have within me will be lost like dust in the wind. The truths I know, the feelings I have experienced–the only way to convey them is to commit them to stories. This is my truth, and I think it’s a truth that every writer must either embrace or grapple with or both.

I do not mean to speak for every writer. Your mind may function very differently from mine, and that’s fine. Perhaps you do not have to deal with anxiety. That’s cool. I’m a bit jealous. (OK, more than a bit.) But this is what writing is to me: a necessary consequence and byproduct of my anxiety.

The Basics of Persona

Like most of the mainline Persona spin-off games from the Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona 3 is half slice-of-life high school drama, half JRPG battling monsters in a metaverse constructed of people’s souls. It’s essentially like playing an anime.

Complete with uniforms (Art by Atlus)

It takes a lot of cues from both Carl Jung’s psychological concepts of the self, the persona, and the shadow. (Note this post is not intended to be an explanation or defense of Jung. That’s a whole other topic.) Every member of the heroes controls a Persona, which is the realized power of their personality taken magical form as a summoned spirit based on a mythological figure, and they spend their time fighting Shadows, spawned from the darkness in all of humanity.

It draws as well from the classic Tarot, even having its own series version of the Tarot deck with iconic art. Every Persona and Shadow is represented by a suit of the major arcana of the Tarot, and the concept of progression through each suit (the Fool’s Journey) is a significant structural element of the game.

Your protagonist has the Wild Card–the Fool Arcana, which is rank 0–and thus the special ability to wear various masks of various arcanas. The other characters have Arcanas associated with them as well, though each of them has a particular set Arcana, which informs their personality and their role in the story.

That’s a very, very brief overview of some of the concepts of the Persona series, and you can read more about it elsewhere. (For instance, I wrote another blog about my Persona tabletop campaign, which goes into this in more depth.) But generally, I wanted to talk about the real meat of the game: the social links.

Taking Power from Social Links

I said the game was half-battle, half-social, but that’s not strictly true. The battle system is very JRPG, with a turn system and attacks or summoning monsters born of your personality. And as fun as it can be, it gets pretty repetitive (the term is “grindy”). You may spend as many hours grinding for XP and loot as you do socializing, but I guarantee you’ll remember these stories and characters better than the fights.

You see, in Persona 3, you arrive, a transfer student with no friends, no social skills, and no particularly memorable quality (other than, I guess, looking fairly cool? I dunno, blue-haired emo boy, sure). You get quickly caught up in some shenanigans fighting Shadow creatures in the metaverse, and things become increasingly dark and dire as you advance, and that’s all well and good, but it’s the social links that make the difference.

You start to make friends, and you develop your relationships through these little scenes with them: learning about their problems and helping them deal with them. Doing little favors for people, spending time with them when they’re lonely, and helping them make sense of the pain they’re dealing with. Their stories are given a good amount of time to unfold, even if the scenes themselves are short and to the point, but you get a very robust view of them as characters.

These can be as mundane as a boy at school who has a crush on a teacher and interprets their private lessons to be dates, a shy girl who’s wrongfully suspect of stealing class money she was entrusted with, or a troubled little girl whose parents are getting a divorce. They can also be as deep and harrowing as a young man dying of a terminal illness, railing against the injustice of the world, and trying to write a story in order to express himself, or a school friend who’s pushing himself to excel in sports despite the stress it puts on his leg, because he’d rather risk injuring himself for life than let down his family.

Equally and probably more powerful are the social bonds you form with your team. With Fuuka, helping her learn to cook and encouraging her even when her attempts are terrible. With Yukari, who’s struggling to have a relationship with her mother after her father died long ago in an accident. With Mitsuru (my favorite of the companions), who stifles at the expectations placed on her from her wealthy/aristocratic family. Or in the case of Aigis, the anti-shadow weapon, you teach her to be human.

In my head canon, Mitsuru and Yukari remain

(Of course, all the female characters fall in love with you and the culmination of their social link is romantic, but that’s another blog post. Interestingly, in the PSP version, you can play a female protagonist, which allows you to form social links and romances with the male characters in your party instead. Akihiko = best boy, fight me. Subsequent Persona games railroad you toward love somewhat less, and allow you to be platonic friends with potential romantic interests.)

You see, all of these characters are struggling. They are all of them touched by tragedy in some way, and the game shows us the many ways people cope with grief and loss.

And along the way, just as you help them, you grow as a person.

Your heart expands, even if you’re not aware of it at first.

The Looming Fall

Throughout the game, Shadows–the darkness born of humanity’s Thanic urge for self-destruction–feast upon unsuspecting humans caught out during the Dark Hour who have not transformed into coffins to await the regular flow of time. They don’t *kill* people, exactly, but instead drain them of their interest and will to live.

We are left, throughout the game, with the zombie-like remains of humans–often fellow students–who linger at street corners and slump in alleys, moaning and saying nothing coherent, however much you try to interact with them. Their minds and souls are gone, and they are Lost. More and more of them show up as each Full Moon approaches, because on those nights, your Shadow-destroying SEES team finds itself face to face with a powerful Shadow, each of an escalating suit in the Arcana, climbing toward Death.

I interpret the Lost’s lack of drive to exist as a removal of their understanding of mortality and life. They are no longer anxious, because they have encountered death and already lost that which they stand to lose. They see no reason to take any action of any kind, and so they waste away, speaking in monosyllabic moans only when spoken to. Walking corpses.

And as I was playing it, I thought: Is… is that what humans would look like without anxiety?

As is made clear eventually in the game, an event is coming wherein all humans in the world will become like the Lost: drained of life and will, listlessly wasting away. And that is the great doom you must face… but to do so you must fight an undefeatable enemy.

Death itself.

This is Thanatos. He’s Death’s Persona.

Time and the Appriser’s Terrible Choice

As you play Persona 3, you come to realize that however much you grind and however powerful you become, you will always live at the mercy of time. Days pass at an unstoppable pace, sometimes in short bursts that begin to feel like gut punches. You need to use these days to develop your 20-odd Social Links, and the game intentionally makes it extremely difficult to do this.

Between limited days when people will be around, making sure to have the right Personas to maximize how much people like you (that’s a thing in the game, which is a little psychopathic, anyway, see Further Reading), and occasionally steep social requirements for getting them to hang out with you (such as being, I think, max courage for Fuuka, max charm for Yukari, and academics for Mitsuru), and it becomes very difficult to get a max Social Link playthrough. You get to a point where you despair of a day where you didn’t rank up with someone, or you misspoke so whoever it is doesn’t get the maximum points for that day. (Seriously, use a guide.) On my playthrough, I managed to maximize all my social links, but only just at the last second. Literally, Aeon 10 was the day before the final battle.

But I digress.

Time is the limited resource in the game. Time is fleeting. In the paraphrased words of the contract you sign at the beginning of the game, it delivers all unerringly to its end. No matter what you do, you cannot get more time, and so you squeeze every second you can out of what’s available.

Except at the moment you’re given the choice.

Yes, toward the end of the game–the end of November/beginning of December, specifically–you’re given a terrible choice by an entity called the Appriser. It has come to serve as the harbinger of Death, and only through a quirk of fate do you have any choice at all in what comes next.

And so you have to make a choice. Kill the Appriser–death taken human form–and all your memories and worries fade, and you can live out your normal lives for a short while before the Fall inevitably dooms the world. Or spare him, despite his pleas and threats to the contrary, in which case you retain your memories and live in constant dread

And that is the counter-intuitive choice. If you accept the Appriser’s bargain, you falsely believe that you’ll get more time. But in truth, what you get is an ending to the game. It accelerates 2 months into the future, implying that you had more time but it was empty. Meaningless. All your memories of the bonds you forged are gone, so you are once again basically alone. Defeated.

If you refuse, you get another month in which to prepare. To spend more time with people you’ve come to love and cherish. You all suffer together with the dread of the inevitable end.

Dread of the end–or determination to do something about it.

There’s a reason the song that plays during this phase of the game is called Living with Determination. The Fool Arcana turns to the Judgment Arcana, representing the end of the journey, and you henceforth must prepare for your inevitable defeat in a vain effort to protect the world. And that is what our heroes must do: protect the world, even if they are not going to see it continue living.

The Demon that is Anxiety

In the Persona games, your starting Persona and the Personas of your companions are, generally speaking, some figure from mythology or folk hero from history. They all hold some particular significance to that character, representing some deep urge or impulse within them. To some extent, this is true of the main characters, too, who start with particular Personas but (generally very quickly) end up with a different Persona, since they are able to hold multiple Personas.

The initial Persona of the protagonist in Persona 3 is Orpheus, who ventured into the Underworld (in the game, most of your adventures are conducted in a demon tower called Tartarus) to try and reclaim a spark of life and light. In the end–at least in the story that we know most commonly–he ultimately failed. Looked back at the last moment, in his selfishness or anxiety, and it cost him all that he had fought to achieve. (And well, that’s significant to the game, see the next section.)

Orpheus is both adorable and unsettling.

But rather quickly, you start collecting other Personas. Orpheus is insufficient after a time, though he will eventually go into your Messiah Persona (Orpheus and Thanatos, spoiler), and you have to summon more powerful entities. They’re based on heroes, fairy tales, spirits, monsters from mythology and folk lore. And the more powerful ones? Well, this is a Shin Megami Tensei game, and so they’re angels. They’re gods. They’re demons.

I have come to see my anxiety as a demon.

He is me–a part of me–and when the anxiety takes over, I put him on like a mask. Like a Persona. Like spiked armor, but the spikes are on the inside of the armor.

That’s how he defends me, you see: however hard you hit me, it hits the armor and skips off. Because the spikes are already digging into my flesh.

I hurt myself. I abuse myself. And you cannot hurt me more than I hurt myself.

That’s the whole point.

I convince myself that I am a monster. Especially–God, especially if I did something to upset you and you strike back. If I screwed up and now things are awful.

I abandon myself. I have no compassion for myself. I am no longer a human being but a devil.

I deserve this.

I’ve given him a name: Deimos, named for the Greek God of Dread.

All of his powers injure me. They’re a crap defense.

And I can’t get rid of him.

But maybe. Just maybe. I can learn to live with him.

I can learn to use him.

Welp. That looks bad. (Art by Atlus)

(I Will) Burn My Dread

Before I go on….

(HEAVY SPOILERS for the end of Persona 3 HERE)

Honestly, I’m just going through this ending step by step. So if you haven’t played the game, you might want to skip this section. Also I get kind of melodramatic here, but you know, that’s the game.

Still here?


This song, from Persona 3, is the anthem of my struggles with my anxiety: Burn My Dread

It comes from the purest, most powerful moment for me in Persona 3. Our protagonist–henceforth referred to in the second person–has finally comes face to face with the true form of Nyx, the god of darkness and doom for humanity, alone and helpless.

You’ve developed your Personas as far as you can, unlocking (if you’re a completist like me) the Messiah Persona, a fusion of your original Persona Orpheus and that of your death soul, Thanatos, trailing a strand of gleaming white coffins in its wake (Messiah is Death Jesus, basically).

Messiah is Death Jesus, essentially.

The Velvet Room has reached its destination: the end of the journey. Igor has blessed your journey and fulfilled your contract, though Elizabeth remains suspiciously silent. (Since you have become so close, you can practically feel her heart beating faster because she knows you’re going to your death.) Igor grants you one last card–the Universe Arcana–and you leave your companions behind to fly into the heart of Nyx to work your miracle.

Though it should be impossible, Aigis weeps a single tear, knowing she’ll never see you again.

And now you stand alone. All your power–the power of the Universe–has got you to this point. You stand before the true core of Nyx, the beating golden heart in a storm of dread that will consume the world.

The Universe Persona has given you a single power–The Great Seal–and it lists the costs of that power as your full health points (HP) total. To use this power, you must give up your life. There is no one to save you. No one to resurrect you. Your life for one slim hope that the world might be saved.

And that song starts up. That powerful, resonant song about defiance in the face of death.

Burn My Dread

But the worst thing happens: Nyx acts first, and lashes out with the power of Death, inflicting over ten times as much damage as you could stand even at your strongest. (Seriously. You can, at most, have 999 HP, and this attack does 9,999 damage.)

This is it. We have come so far and work so hard and yet we falter. We fail. Death cannot be avoided. Death will have its due.

But somehow our hero withstands the blow. You endure it, and remain standing with 1 HP.

Fine. Ok. There are Personas that can bring you back with a single HP after an insta-kill attack. This is explicable in the mechanics of the game. Maybe the Universe Persona gives you this power. Hope endures. Hope persists.

But you have no way to heal yourself. You don’t have the HP to spend to cast the Great Seal. The only power that can stop Nyx, and you don’t have the strength to use it.

You have choices: wait and do nothing, or lash out with your pathetic mundane sword, inflicting a negligible amount of damage. You can’t even defend–not that it would make a difference to its next attack.

And Nyx strikes you down again, just as it did the first time. This time, it’s a critical hit that inflicts 9,999 damage, putting you flat on your back. Once again you survive, but you lie there defeated, unable to stand. The camera pans around you as you lie panting in agony, unable to stand.

This. This is the moment when all is lost.

Which is when your companions–the people you’ve spent all of this frantic and fleeting time with–start to speak. You’ve left them behind, and they are only able to watch in some metaphysical way, as you fight for the future of humanity. They can’t help you. They can’t bear the burden for you. But they refuse to let you stand alone.

Ken asks what they can do, Akihiko tells everyone to believe in you, and Mitsuru (best girl, fight me), god, Mitsuru screams at you to take her life if you must.

And you do. You absorb their strength into your own–divine golden light that infuses you with new strength–and partly heal yourself. You drag yourself back up in obvious agony, but also with determination.

Nyx rains death upon you again, but this time it misses. Their belief lets you evade it.

Then the others chime in, including Junpei, the big dope, who refuses to let you die–who asserts that you aren’t alone. You absorb more life energy, until you’re about half full.

This time when Nyx attacks, you block it.

The last of your companions speaks up in support–Aigis asserting that she won’t allow this world to be destroyed–and you are healed fully.

Your silent protagonist speaks, basically for the first time in the game.

“All right,” you say. “Let’s do this.”

You stand up to the personification of dread, and you burn it, whatever the cost.

I think in the end, Persona 3’s story is a story of hope. That humanity can stand in the face of impossible odds and find a way to survive. That sacrifice has meaning. And that to find our truth, we must lean upon those bonds we forge with others–that they are our strength, and they will be there for us in our darkest hour.

And that together, we can persevere.

[Spoilers End]

The Sickness Unto Death

Ultimately, I know I cannot rid myself of anxiety.

Just as the doomed hero of Persona 3 cannot ultimately defeat infinite despair and survive, so too can humans never truly overcome the sickness unto death, as Kierkegaard puts it: the knowledge of and necessity to face our own mortality.

We are mortal creatures. We are finite. We will die.

None of us can escape that anxiety.

But more to the point, I do not want to rid myself of anxiety. Not only would I lose the ability to write, but I would be unable to relate to others. There would be no tension–no healthy self-doubt–and I would become intolerable. I would become listless, with no drive to do anything. I would become Lost.

It is the knowledge that I have only so much time that pushes me to live. I have only so much time to tell stories, to spend time with those I love and cherish, to leave a legacy of kindness and compassion in the world.

But what I can do–what this game teaches me–is hold it at bay. Seal it behind an unbreakable wall of compassion, formed of the very real power I absorb from friends and loved ones. I am not alone. None of us are.

The dread will always be with me, but it doesn’t have to be a weakness. It is my strength. It is my fuel to persevere in spite of the challenges I may face.

I will overcome this.

Further Viewing/Reading:

The Deadly Decisions of Persona 3, by Peter Tieryas (which talks a lot about the Appriser’s choice)

The Mask of Sanity, by the Rev 3.0 (which mentions a bit about that psychopathic angle I mentioned, mostly in reference to P4)

DismArchus’s recording of Persona 3’s final battle (starting with the battle against Nyx’s Avatar, then the final confrontation after about minute 42)

Mass Destruction, P3 movie version (an excellent fight song full of defiance and courage)

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