Teenage Suicide and the Extinction of Identity in the Persona Series

Sometimes growing up can feel a little like killing yourself.

A teenager putting a gun to his or head and pulling the trigger is a provocative one, stark and extreme.

It is also an image repeated regularly throughout Persona 3, as the “gun” is actually something called an “evoker” and the means of summoning beings called personas to empower the various members of the player-character’s party of heroes in the game. This image of self extinction becomes emblematic of “putting on” a persona that can add to the power of these kids. Suicide becomes an image of extinguishing some former part of the self, leading to the empowerment provided by adopting a persona.

Now, the Persona games are, of course, JRPGs, in which the player controls a party of characters that are concerned with the kind of things that heroes of RPGs generally are concerned with: crawling dungeons, fighting monsters, and facing down powerful bosses. However, this is what the high school heroes of Persona 3 and 4 do at night. During the daytime, the game is focused on what really seems to be its chief interest and selling point: crawling the dangerous hallways of high school by exploring the twisty pathways of the social world that that entails.

Both Persona 3 and 4 begin with the introduction of the protagonist of the game as a new kid at a new school. In turn, he is introduced to a danger that is threatening the world, which will require him to crawl the aforementioned dungeons on a deadline. However, he is also introduced to a more immediate threat, the problem of navigating social spaces, establishing an identity for himself, and making friends. Thus, while half of the game’s action is played out through traditional turn-based combat in dungeon settings, the other half is spent joining clubs, joining a sport, or hanging out with the individuals he meets and wants to get to know better. In game terms, by doing so his own personas grow stronger. In essence, he is building images of himself that make him more competent and capable socially in the mundane world and heroically in the world of monsters and demons (the latter of which still sounds to me a lot like high school).

All of which seems to me to make a lot of sense within the context of that image of a boy putting a gun to his head, extinguishing his former self and adopting a persona. That’s kind of what the transition between pre-pubescent childhood and post-pubescent young adulthood is all about, extinguishing a former self and attempting to adopt a new sense of the self, a persona, to survive a more complicated social world. Self extinction is often part of that process.

The mythos of the Persona series is grounded on Jungian psychology, adopting Jung’s Collective Unconscious as the source of the personas or archetypes that the player character and his friends will put on. The gods and goddesses, angels and demons that represent the personas in the game are intended to represent universal human qualities (as is often the case in religion and mythology, our tendency as humans towards war is Ares, to preserve life is Vishnu, etc.).

In Persona 4, this Jungian construction of identity formation is made explicit through the means necessary for the protagonist’s friends and fellow party members to gain access to their empowered personas. Each of the protagonist’s friends and fellow classmates have to face their Shadow. The Shadow is that part of the identity of an individual that Jung argued represented that which the conscious mind does not want to acknowledge or recognize, the ugly traits that we pretend don’t exist in ourselves and we certainly would hate to expose to others.

Thus, as each of the characters come to acknowledge the existence of their Shadow, they gain access to their persona’s true powers, the power as it were of the mask, but a mask that will eventually become an authentic social self. For example, after she comes to accept her Shadow in Persona 4, Rise, a pop star, sex symbol, and high school student, who has been struggling seemingly between the public self created by her celebrity and her mundane existence as a student, actually declares that she has no “real self” at all, allowing her — as she now adopts her persona — to begin crafting an identity of her own making.

While acknowledging what she has been is part of the process, like the gun, the adoption of her own persona is also an extinction of a former self, one that has been fabricated but has also been a performance of self that she has been trying to live up to (or maybe into). However, like the child that no longer wants to be defined by what his or her parents expect them to be or see them as, it is time for her to start shaping a persona of her own.

When discussing how children learn to speak, the rhetorician Walter Ong said that children learn to become speakers by pretending to speak. In other words, they hear older children and adults making noises at each other, which they begin trying to make as well until they eventually begin to adopt an authentic speaking self. (I actually remember this quite well when my daughters were growing up. Having no real grasp of English, they would babble with an intense purposefulness at me and my wife. Eventually, this babble became actual purposeful words, demands, and requests — in other words, actual communication.). Ong’s observation might be applied to much of how we learn most things. Pretending, or performing, as “someone else” allows the individual to begin to become someone else themselves.

How did I learn to teach college? Well, more or less, I got up in front of a classroom and pretended to be a teacher. Eventually, all the babbling that I was doing, all of the performing that I was doing, began to become an authentic performance of myself, my persona as teacher. In doing so and in order to gain the authority necessary for my students to believe in my performance, I had to extinguish parts of my prior identity. I couldn’t be a student anymore. Not that I had to give up learning, but I could no longer maintain the persona of a student within the social system of a classroom. My student self had to pull the trigger.

The image of teenage suicide is a provocative, painful, and powerful one, but what it seems emblematic of, becoming someone new, someone different than our former selves, is a provocative, painful, and powerful experience, especially during our formative years. It is a process experienced not quite so rapidly as the process of pulling a trigger, but it is a process that contains both profit and loss, regeneration and extinction. Persona simply represents this process in a way that acknowledges that the experience can be as jarring, horrific, and one that might feel a little like killing ourselves.