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This paper aims at providing a critical analysis of the video game Persona 3, examining the resemiotization and intersemiotics involved, in order to construct an intricate narrative, and build a new world. The plethora of cultural elements, and mythologies from all around the world, in combination with Carl Jung’s psychoanalytics, and the complex game-play, provide a unique experience for the player that can be analyzed in depth under the light of semiotics. This video game could work as an example to illustrate and explain different notions of semiotics; beyond that, this paper could be the basis of further research that will, hopefully, contribute in the field of Semiotics of Video Games.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES is a video game released in 2007 (2008 in America and Europe) by Atlus Developer Company. The game follows, controlled by the player, a teenage high-school boy protagonist transferred to a new school in Iwatodai (a fictional city) in Japan. After his arrival, he finds himself in his new home, a dormitory close to school, and meets the rest of the tenants. After the first peaceful days, a night attack in the dormitories by weird-looking creatures awakens the hero teen’s ‘Persona’ for the first time, while proving that he has the ‘Potential’. 

The protagonist is what they call a ‘Persona-user’; they are individuals who possess the power of invoking different deities and mythological creatures that live within them. However, the fascinating thing about him is that while other people who share the same power can summon only one persona, he has the potential to evoke at least 170 different ones. 

‘Persona-users’ use their abilities to fight ‘Shadows’ during the ‘Dark Hour’. According to the explanations given during the game-play, the ‘Dark Hour’ is the “hidden” twenty-fifth hour of the day, a period that people who do not have the ‘potential’, do not experience at all. Instead, they get ‘transmogrified’ into coffins. During this ‘Dark Hour’, wild, weird creatures called ‘Shadows’ are lurking in ‘Tartarus Labyrinth’, a construction that rebuilds itself each night, and is located in the exact same spot of the school the protagonist and his friends attend. Soon after the protagonist’s arrival to Iwatodai, however, stronger Shadows started to wander around the city and attack civilians. Thus, him and the rest of the shadow-fighting squad (all of them high-school students and dormitory residents) started their battle against this dark unknown power, and their investigation of what created the ‘Dark Hour’ gave birth to ‘Shadows’ and gifted them their unique powers.

A key person in the game for the journey of the protagonist is Igor. He is the master of the ‘Velvet Room’, a place in a parallel reality independent of the spatiotemporal rules that govern the reality of Iwatodai, which can only be visited by the main character. Igor, as well as his assistant Elizabeth, and the ‘Velvet Room’ are covered under a veil of mystery and are never fully explained; however, they play a crucial part in the development of the game. In this special room, the protagonist can receive quests that he needs to fulfil in order to gain some reward, “fuse” ‘Personas’, and register them in the ‘Compendium’, that is, an inventory of all the ‘Personas’ that have emerged from the main character’s soul, or acquired during the fight. 

In one of the first meetings with Igor, he also explains the significance of ‘Social Links’ and bonds that the protagonist creates with people surrounding him. 

When you use your Persona ability you must channel your inner strength. The ability evolves as you develop your social Links… your emotional ties with others. The stronger your social links, the more powerful your Persona ability. (Atlus 2008)

Finally, it is important to note that ‘Shadows’, as well as ‘Personas’, belong in different categories, represented by the tarot cards of the Major Arcana. Each category has its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. ‘Social Links’, that is, people that the main character interacts with, also represent each Arcana. This explains why Igor advised the protagonist to advance his connections with others in order to increase his Persona ability. With every individual, he creates a bond and gains a better understanding of their personality. Through their stories and life struggles, he understands what they represent, in addition to understanding himself even better; this leads to the enhancement of his abilities and powers.  

At this point, it is noteworthy to mention that most of the following information regarding the plot of the game and its structure is gathered through a personal research and experience of the video game.1

Persona 3, as already presented, uses an intertextual frame (Eco 1985:5) within which it creates a new mythology. Based on already known and recognizable archetypes (in the sense of re-appeared and already established narrative elements), folk stories, deities and mythical creatures that can be found in cultures around the world, along with tarot cards and Carl Jung’s psychoanalytics (for reference, see Jung et al. 2014), a new narrative is created. Persona is an original series of games which mash up all these elements with the typical characteristics of a Japanese role-play game (JRPG). An RPG is a video game in which the player controls a main character with a given appearance, acting as him and making decisions on his behalf. These decisions are evaluated through a system of rules within the game; a choice the player makes can be beneficial or damaging for the main character (Tychen et al. 2006). Japanese RPG is the same, only the game is adapted to the Japanese cultural context and particularly following the style and aesthetics of manga and anime.

Electronic RPG games, or in other words, platform games, originate from TRPG games, an abbreviation for Tabletop role-playing games, first introduced in 1974 by Dave Arneson, creator of Dungeons and Dragons. This new type of game was a mixture of pure gaming, battle tradition in board games, and narration (Cover 2010:8). Thus, it can be said that even the genre of Persona 3 is a form of adaptation.

Presenting a game so rich and complex that takes an average of approximately 80 hours to complete merely the main story (How Long to Beat), resulted in the creation of many online communities. These communities attempt to — and still do, after all these years — to interpret every symbol of the game, and point out hidden connections between ‘Shadows’ and ‘Personas’, or the stories of ‘Social Links’. They also evaluate the appropriateness of each representation, and mainly help each other to complete the game to its full potential, by providing hints for accomplishing quests, and recipes to fuse all the available ‘Personas’ for the main character. 

These adaptations can be examined under the prism of resemiotization and intersemiotics, while the emergence of communities of fans that actively participate in the longevity of this narrative, and keep Persona 3 alive, will be analyzed under the notion of “experience”. Persona 3 is a playground for semiotic research with many fascinating elements that can be studied, analyzed, and examined in the future. In my opinion, it can provide a very inclusive example of many notions of cultural semiotics and analysis of art. The aim of this text is to point out the semiotic elements of the subject of study, evaluate the appropriateness and methods of its construction, and build a foundation for further research on the sub-field of Semiotics of Video Games. 

According to Rick Iedema in his article in Semiotica (2001), resemiotization is the process of transposition: 

An important point to make [here] is that each resemiotization transposes meaning from one semiotic mode into one which is different. Each semiotic will have its own specific (systemic) constraints and affordances […] Transposition between different semiotics inevitably introduces discrepancy, and resemiotization is necessarily a process which produces not exact likenesses, but which represents “a multi-channel set of directions; that is a (semiotic) metaphor. (Iedema 2001: 33) 

Essentially, resemiotization is the intersemiotic process of translation, the transposition from one medium (or mode) to another. Intersemiotics is a term initially introduced by Roman Jakobson in his “Essays of General Linguistics”, where he presented different types of translations. According to Jakobson, intersemiotics is the deciphering of linguistic signs and their representation by non-linguistic elements. Following that definition, Goerges Molinié, stated that intersemiotics is a “study of semiotic treatments of an art in the materiality of semiotic treatment of another art”, broadening the term in a way that can be applied to the translation from one non-linguistic text to another. (Molinié 1998: 41) 

Persona 3 is the total of a multilayered resemiotizational process, intersemiosis, with the first layer being the resemiotization of the genre of the game itself. Undoubtedly, the transposition from the aforementioned TRPG to RPG, and more specifically JRPG, is something that occurred long before the existence of the specific game. However, it is an adaptation from one medium with specific affordances and modalities to another. The logic behind playing Dungeons and Dragons might be similar to the one of modern console video games, although the modalities and, in continuation, the overall experience of the player is different. In TRPG, there is a player with the role of ‘Game Master’, who narrates the story, and reacts accordingly to other players’ choices and decisions based on the given plot and the rules of the game. In video games, this role is absorbed by the console and the algorithms that run in the background of the game’s visuals. This transposition, like any other, has its advantages and disadvantages. While TRPG might be more direct, comprising the element of human interaction and the possible improvisations (or at least a more lenient abidance to the rules), RPGs offer a multimodal form of entertainment, with amusing graphic designs and engaging plots. This does not require the participation of other players, giving the individual the ability to play at any given time.

The second layer of resemiotization can be broken down into many sub-categories, which are far more complex in the process. The first sub-category (layer) would be the intersemiotic translation of the multicultural elements, including, as mentioned already, deities, mythological creatures, historical figures, etc. The second sub-category includes the intersemiotic translation of Jung’s psychoanalytic, while the third one is the intersemiotic translation of Tarot Cards and Arcanas. The Final sub-category is the intersemiotic translation from the written plot of the game into the actual videogame, including characters’ design, landscapes, maps, voice-overs, dialogues and subtitles, special effects, and a complete list of all the possible reactions to player’s decisions.

The first ‘Persona’ evoked by the main character is Orpheus. Orpheus (Ορφέας) originates in Greek mythology. The place of his birth, as well as the identity of his parents, varies from one version of the myth to another. Orpheus was a great poet and musician, who was always depicted holding his lyre, his preferred instrument. According to legend, when his wife Eurydice (Ευριδίκη) died, he went to the underworld and performed with his lyre for Hades (Άδης), the lord of the underworld, hoping to musically move Hades so Eurydice may return to him in the world of the living. Indeed, Hades was mesmerized by the sweet melody and let the couple escape with the only condition that Orpheus should not turn and look back. Impatient as he was, when he set foot in the world of living, he turned to look at his beautiful wife that he missed so much, but she was still in the underworld. Eurydice then vanished forever, and Orpheus could do nothing anymore (Steryopoulos 2000: 7-9).

i Orpheus depicted in an ancient Greek vessel    

   ii Orpheus in ‘Persona 3’

The aptness of this intersemiotic translation should be pointed out. Orpheus, as a ‘Persona’, carries a lyra, or more precisely, has the iconically associated instrument bodily attached to him. At the same time, he is portrayed in a modernized version. Suitable and fitting not only to the aesthetics of the game and the overall style of the design team but also to the general form of JRPG and Japanese artwork in manga and anime.

Apart from the appearance of the ‘Persona’ and the visual elements, Orpheus is an appropriate choice as the first ‘Persona’ evoked in the game, context-wise. The main character enters the ‘Tartarus Labyrinth’ for the first time, carrying inside his soul Orpheus; Τάρταρα or Τάρταρος in Greek is another word for the underworld, where the souls of sinners suffer in eternity. As mentioned above, Orpheus went to Tartarus to rescue his wife, and when he looked back, he lost her forever. The protagonist enters ‘Tartarus’ during the ‘Dark Hour’, losing his prior self forever while starting a journey to discover the truth and rediscover himself.

Apart from Orpheus, there is a plethora of other deities, mythical figures and creatures, and historical people that have been included in the game in a very meaningful and apt way. Consequently, this enriches the story by adding more symbolic layers to the narrative. For instance, there are Dionysus, Athena, Hermes, and others from  Greek mythology ‘Personas’. Many examples also appear from Norse, Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese mythology. Apart from them, there are ‘Personas’ that come from Christianity and Buddhism too. The player can read information about each of them in the ‘Compendium’ of listed ‘Personas’ in the ‘Velvet Room’.

iii Screen-shots from “Persona 3” – Vishnu

Persona 3, as well as the whole series of games under the umbrella of ‘Megami Tensei’ and the merchandise, film adaptations, and manga that followed the successful video games, are all based on the theories of Carl Jung. It could be said that these video games are an artistic and poetic metaphor for his theories.

According to Jung, ‘Personas’ are manifestations of the psyche, and Shadows are rejected sides of the individual’s personality, created in the subconscious. More specifically, persona is:

[A] complicated system of relations between the individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual. (Jung 1996: 192)

While shadows are:

[T]he “negative” side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and contents of the personal unconscious. (Jung 1996: 66)

In the narrative, ‘Personas’ are the entities that ‘Persona-users’ carry inside them, which help the users to adapt and fight in an environment unfamiliar and hostile. This is especially true for the main character, who can evoke many different ‘Personas’, as said already, which gets more powerful by his understanding of others (‘Social Links’) and himself. His true nature is a vessel containing all these entities, which are created as he continues his journey towards the answers that the squad is trying to discover. ‘Shadows’ (as explained near the final stage of the game) are suppressed human thoughts and negative emotions rejected by people, resulting in their evolution into a physical form. The most powerful ‘Shadow’ of the game is Nyx, the sum of all ‘Shadows’, also known as ‘Death’. During the final fight, Nyx says to ‘Persona-users’:

Then you must already know. What people fear the most… What they try to ignore… That is what I am. (Atlas 2008)

Tarot Cards, well-known to people as a deck of cards used for fortune-telling, were originally a plain set of fifty-two playing cards. The deck evolved through time, and around the fifteenth century, it started to acquire its symbolic elements, telling a story of the individual’s journey through life. There are over four hundred different decks today, with most seventy-eight cards (twenty-two consisting of the Major Arcana and fifty-six cards of the Minor Arcana) used for divination. The origins of the deck had been debated for many years, however, dedicated research on the topic proved that Tarot Cards originate from Northern Italy of the 15th century, although their usage for foretelling and presage seems to begin around the 18th century (for reference, see Semetsky 2011). Persona 3 uses both the Major and Minor Arcana, but also utilizes, in a fitting way, the four categories of Minor Arcana: the coin, the sword, the cup, and the stave.

iv The four categories of the Minor Arcana – “Persona 3” (Shuffle Time)

Major Arcana cards are represented by the different ‘Social Links’, which are the people the main character interacts with, while both ‘Personas’ and strong ‘Shadows’ belong in a specific Arcana. By improving the protagonist’s relationship with these key individuals, the player is able to create more powerful ‘Personas’. Minor enemies belong in the Minor Arcana, and they bear a number on their mask, while after (almost) each battle, the player gets the opportunity to win money (coin), health (cup), weapons (sword), or luck — an increase of the gained experience – points (stave) during the ‘Shuffle Time’.

v The Major Arcana – “Persona 3”

Mr. Edogawa (the eccentric teacher of the game, who is an occult enthusiast) explains the Tarot Cards, as well as their symbolism inside the game, while the protagonist is at school attending a lecture. The teacher explains how the story of the individual begins with ‘The Fool’. The first card of the Major Arcana, which is numbered ‘0’, signifies the point of departure and infinite possibilities. The last card is ‘The World’, representing knowledge, awareness, and completeness. At the end of the journey, the individual has all the answers. Accordingly, through the struggles and challenges, he has rediscovered himself, embraced his nature, understood his place in the world, and figured out the meaning of life. 

Finally, another interesting note is that the art for the cards is designed from scratch to fit the affordances of the medium and the aesthetics of the JRPG. This is apparent, as all visual elements are coherent and appropriate, creating a very pleasing-to-the-eye result.

The resemiotization of the initial idea of the plot is very similar to any other artistic process, although arguably, with the difference being that a video game has many extra steps (technological and computational parameters), especially a game as complex as Persona 3. Starting with a storyboard, the design team guided by the art director Shigenori Soejima, the artists started to create rough sketches of the main characters, enemies and landscapes (Megami Tensei Study Guide).

vi “Persona 3” – Official Design Works

Every detail was meticulously created, starting with the colours and their symbolic meaning; the online user Zamkusen, in his video on YouTube, has beautifully analyzed the dominance of the colour blue in Persona 3.2 Additionally, colours can give hints to the players about the weaknesses of the ‘Shadows’. For instance, red usually represents fire. Thus, it is a safe assumption to attack with ice, the opposite power. 

The decision on behalf of the creators to choose guns as the “tool” that ‘Persona-users’ employ to evoke their persona was again very symbolic, emphasizing the ongoing theme of the whole game: death cannot be avoided, but should not be feared since it is just a transition. ‘Persona-users’ “kill” their ‘conscious ego’ (for reference, see Jung 1958) to give place to their ‘Persona’ to rise. Furthermore, the movements of each member of the squad while shooting their gun are different, and the body language of each one is completely fitting to the personality of the individual. Little details like that are the key elements of a successful intersemiotic translation, where there is no need for natural language to transmit the message to the receiver.

Another important part of the process is the voice-over and the composition of the original soundtrack of the game. These elements are vital for the video game to be complete and provide a multimodal experience to the player. Every character is designed as an individual with very specific characteristics and personality. Thus, it is important that the voice actor has a suitable voice and is able to transmit the right emotions regarding the character, using nothing but sound. Again, the affordances of the medium are setting more rules and requirements since the voice actors, both in the Japanese voice-over but also in English, had to act in a way that fits the Japanese anime standards, which means being more dramatic and intense, aiming for an exaggerated and over-the-top performance that would strongly appeal to emotion. 

As demonstrated by the analysis of the previous chapters, Persona 3 is a meticulously designed and complex video game with a plethora of elements, a specific metalanguage that the player needs to get familiar with and a variety of decisions that the main character has to make that affect the outcome of the game. However, this intricacy does not seem to become an obstacle that stops gamers from enjoying and appreciating Persona 3. Therefore, its effectiveness should be examined closely to understand the structure and the methodology behind everything.

Both the emergence in the storyline and the active participation of gamers who formed and continuously participate in online communities can be analyzed by the notion of “experience”. Ruggero Eugeni, in his paper “A Semiotic Theory of Media Experience” (2011), introduced a method of analyzing media experience, breaking it down into joints of articulation and explaining the differences between experience and media experience. 

vii Model of Media Experience by Ruggero Eugeni (2011: 10)

Applying this model to the subject of study enables the analysis to dive deeper into the units, or to use Eugeni’s terminology, the joints of the video game and the experience it offers. Starting with the “Sensory Scanning” (Eugeni 2011: 9) at the top of this, almost pyramid-like, schema, the player enjoys an audiovisual product that, in contrast to film, is interactive, not only by enabling the gamer to make the decisions on behalf of the main character but also use his/hers own tactile sense to move the character via the controller. Next, there is the “Narrative sorting of the indirect world” (ibid.); here, the player dives into virtual reality and a fictional world by acting as the protagonist, walking the streets of Iwatodai, interacting with classmates and creating bonds. At the beginning of the game, the player gets to name the main character, while the affordances of this specific genre of video game, that is, RPG, and the aforementioned element of making choices that affect the outcome of the story contribute to the further emergence into the game. 

Third on the list is the “Narrative sorting of discourse” (Eugeni 2011: 9). Unravelling the plot as the days go by, the player collects valuable information that brings him/her closer to the answers of the mysterious veil covering the ‘Dark Hour’ and ‘Tartarus’ (among others). In addition, the user gradually gets more and more familiar with spatio-temporal information, such as the maps of Iwatodai, the maps of Tartarus, and the calendar of the school year, including the actual Japanese festive days and the phases of the moon that play a significant role in the plot. Apart from these elements of the plot, the player also learns to adjust to the gameplay and schedule all the actions he/she wants to make based on the periods of time that the main character has the ability to act or interact. There are three times within each day (apart from Sundays) that the protagonist is free to take action: after school, in the evening, and late at night. Also, according to the lifestyle the player chooses for the protagonist, and depending on the level of pressure he/she puts on the character, he may end up getting a cold or feeling fatigued, which affects the character’s general performance 

Continuing with the model by Eugeni, there is the “Narrative sorting of the direct world” (2011: 9); this is about the real world that the player also experiences while playing. Days may come and go in fictional reality while the gamer is playing during the night time, or in other cases, days might go by in real life while the player is stuck on the same (fictional) day, trying to fight the ‘Shadows’. 

Another “joint” in the articulation of experience, based on the model, is the “Relational tuning with the subjects of the indirect world” (Eugeni 2011: 9). As the protagonist interacts with people, developing his ‘Social Links’, and learning their sad or even in many cases tragic stories, fighting among friends to save the world and defeat ‘Death’, the gamer develops a sense of empathy, not only with the character he/she controls but also the people around him. Persona 3 is a game that aims at an emotional response from the player, with a plot that is not only intriguing, but also a plot which transmits moral lessons about the importance of friendship, of knowing and understanding the ‘Self’; facing head-first every challenge, instead of running away and taking the easy way out. 

In continuation, there is the “Relation tuning with the subject discourse” (Eugeni 2011: 9), in which the gamer has to contemplate whether the plot is coherent and whether it makes sense; if the plot is interesting enough, and if the game gets too complex or difficult that ends up taking away all the fun. This can happen either consciously or unconsciously.

Finally, there is the “Rational tuning with the subjects of the direct world” (Eugeni 2011: 9). This is the “joint” that encompasses all the interactions among gamers. Reviews and critiques, reactions to the plot, or attempts to decipher the sophisticated layers of the symbolism and the hidden meanings inside the game, the exchange of information or the hints to accomplish all the quests, and the advice on fusing different personas lay here. The active participation of gamers even fifteen years after the release of the game is noticeable in many different sites and forums (to list a few: Megami Tensei Wiki, the special forum in GameFAQs, and, of course, the complete list of recipes to fuse any available ‘Persona’ in the game, Persona 3 Fusion Calculator3).

Persona 3 is a unique Japanese Role-playing Game (JRPG) and part of a series of games under the title of Megami Tensei that are created in an intertextual frame. These games build upon archetypes and already-known mythologies to create a new, modern narrative version. Every choice made on behalf of the creators is meticulously designed and executed, and there is a plethora of symbolism and metaphors that enrich the storytelling. The game is experienced as an interactive movie, much like all games of its genre, but its multilayered structure and sophistication make Persona stand out. There are more elements with great semiotic value that could be analyzed and examined in the future, and this feature is why this JRPG can provide a fertile ground for further research. This text presents a short, however substantial analysis of components from Persona 3; the whole legacy of Megami Tensei includes seven (at the moment) video games under the main series and many other platform games, as well as spin-offs, manga, movies, radio dramas, and musicals. In conclusion, “Persona 3” is a great example of a semiotically rich game and a playground for any gamer-researchers who want to dive deep into this world to extract its meanings. 

  1.  88 hours and 30 minutes of game-play ↩︎
  2. Zamkusen 2018. The Blue of Persona 3. ↩︎
  3. For reference, see:  ↩︎

Aktulum, Kubilary 2017. What is intersemiotics? A short definition and some examples. In: International Journal of Social Science and Humanity 7(1): 33-36

Atlus 2008. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 

Cover, Jennifer Grouling 2010. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc.

Eco, Umberto 1985. ‘Casablanca’: cult movies and intertextual collage. In: SubStance 14(47): 3-12. University of Wisconsin Press

Eugeni, Ruggero 2011. A Semiotic Theory of Media Experience. [Presented under the title: Media experiences and practices of analysis. For a critical pragmatics of media, at Amsterdam School for the Internation Workshop of 2011]

How Long to Beat (s.a). Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES. How Long to Beat. Retrieved from: 

Ivtzan, Itai 2007. Tarot cards: a literature review and evaluation of psychic versus psychological explanations. In: Journal of Parapsychology 71: 139-150

Jung, Carl 1958. The Undiscovered Self. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Jung, Carl 1966. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. London: Routledge

Jung, Carl; Adler, Gerhard; Read, Herber; Fordham, Michael; McGuire, William 2014. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung: Complete Digital Edition – Volumes 1-19. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Molinié, Georges 1998. Sémiostylistique: L’effet de l’art [Semiostylistics: The Effect of Art]. Paris: PUF.

Semetsky, Inna 2011. Re-Symbolization of the Self: Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic. Transgressions: Cultural Studies and Education Series, volume 64. Rotterdam: Sense.

Steryopoulos, Kostas 2000. Orpheus’ myth in literature and other forms of art [Ο μύθος του Ορφέα στη λογοτεχνία και στις άλλες τέχνες]. In: Comparison [Σύγκριση], 11: 7-9

Tychen, Andres; Hitchens, Michael; Brolund, Thea; Kavakli, Manolya 2006.  Live action role playing games: control, communication storytelling, and MMORPG similarities. In: Games and Culture, 1(3): 252-275

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