How Persona 5’s Mechanics Handle Depression Better Than Its Story

Persona 5 has taken its toll on me. I put in about 50 hours before eventually just taking almost two month off and playing something else. When I finally came back this past week, I decided that I had to finish it so I could move on to other titles on my PS4 backlog.

Finally finishing it is something I’m not sure I would have been able to do a year ago. I have a long history of not finishing things, then not getting anything else done because I tell myself that I have to finish the first thing. It’s lead to a lot of conflict in the last year with my parents and created roadblocks in applying, let alone getting offers, for jobs. It reached a head midway through last year that inevitably lead to me seeing a psychiatrist, and then being diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

It’s because of that that picking up Persona now, while I’m working to overcome those disorders, was rather timely, because Persona 5, in particular, not only portrays a character with both severe depression and social anxiety, but also presents a method of tackling depression through the game’s own mechanics.

Spoilers for Persona 5.

A Direct Portrayal 

Persona 5’s direct portrayal of depression is far from subtle, and because of the way the Phantom Thieves change hearts, isn’t exactly overcome realistically.

The setup for the fourth palace is that the owner, Futaba Sakura, anonymously blackmails the player into changing her own heart. Over the years, she’s slowly cut herself off from the outside world, and her social anxiety has grown so great that she retreats into her room at the first sign of someone she doesn’t know.

As you explore her palace, you start understanding the intricacies of her mental state. How she blames herself for her mother’s death, and believes herself to be a terrible person. Her palace takes on the form of a pyramid– a tomb she should be buried away and die in. She blackmails the player because she feels that she deserves to be punished, and views the Phantom Thieves’ change of heart as that punishment.

But, if it wasn’t obvious from the beginning, the deeper into the pyramid you get, the more it becomes apparent that her problem is not that she’s a terrible person, but that her perception of herself is so distorted because of her depression that she has essentially blocked out the memories of her mother’s love for her in favor of those that support her belief that her mother blamed Futaba for her troubles and her death.

With all that in mind, the solution the story reaches isn’t as much Futaba coming to terms with her depression and trying to tackle it, as much as it’s the Phantom Thieves magically breaking into her mind, defeating the monstrous image of her mother that has warped her cognition, making her come to the sudden realization that someone else was to blame for her mother’s death, and essentially curing her depression overnight.

Obviously, that’s wish fulfillment and in no way reflective of how actual personal growth comes about. And really, it’s a little bit of a problem with Persona 5’s “change of heart” portrayals as a whole.

Because of how the Phantom Thieves change hearts, characters of whom they target come to terms with their misdeeds and try to find atonement without any of the work that comes with actually trying to better themselves. This is fine for the villains, whom the main characters essentially pass off as deserving of a lifetime of guilt and sorrow over what they’d done, but becomes a little problematic in a story sense when it’s a protagonist that needs a change of heart.

The worst instance is probably the character Mishima, whose heart you have to change in Mementos during the course of his Confidant conversations. He goes from being so caught up in his self righteousness to a “redeemed” character at the drop of a hat. His entire Confidant could have focused on character development that got him from point A to point B, but instead it jumped straight to the payoff without putting in the work that makes his change feel like genuine growth.

That’s essentially the same problem Futaba’s change of heart has, except to a much less dissatisfying degree– and the weirdest part about how the game fails to portray that growth is that the very mechanics of the game itself demonstrate an excellent way to actually work through an issue like depression.

A Method in the Mechanics

Persona is half roleplaying game, and another half, an exercise in time management. Every day is split up into two periods: “After School” (or “Daytime”, on an off-day) and “Evening”. Players are only allowed to spend those periods doing a single activity, and there are a lot of options to choose from.

You can read, play video games, watch a DVD, do laundry, see a movie, go to a café or a restaurant, work out, or, among other things, hang out and get to know other characters. Each opportunity allows you to gain something from it, whether it be items, ways to improve your personal stats (Charm, Knowledge, Guts, Kindness, and Proficiency), or increasing Confidant Ranks, which can allot you, your team, or other party members different abilities that apply to the RPG side of the game.

Now every period isn’t free. Certain days will be taken up by events in the story, and every once in a while, you’re given a deadline to complete a palace. In doing so, the game limits the time you have to work with, forcing the player to try to figure out the best way to spend their time to most efficiently improve themselves or their relationships. Often, especially in regard to Confidants, the decisions don’t lead to an immediate benefit, but work to make that benefit appear if you keep at it.

It was after a session with my therapist that I started playing the game again and realized this format was, in essence, a baseline to fighting depression. The next appointment, I showed up with a schedule of my week, split up into “Morning,” “Afternoon”, and “Evening”– each listing the activity I had designated to tackle over that period. Sometimes it was work, sometimes it was writing, sometimes it was hanging out with friends.

Often over the past few years, I’ve lost a lot of time because I sat down with nothing to do and let the hours pass me by (notably, laughing at internet memes for 5 hours is not an activity you are capable of doing in Persona 5). But by trying to map out how I wanted to spend each day has really helped me work at being more productive.

And that’s not the only thing that Persona caused me to do that I wouldn’t have expected. Whenever a deadline was given for stealing a treasure, I might have spent a few days doing other activities first, but the second I got in to the palace, I immediately got as far along as I possibly could. There wasn’t a single palace that I spent more than three in-game days on before securing a route to the treasure.

Meeting deadlines can be hard with depression, but in an effort not to waste time, I ended up starting on the palaces early and essentially finishing them long before they were due (something I really could have used when writing papers back in college). In the past, I’ve often had a hard time starting projects early due to not being sure where to start and getting a little anxious. However, once I start, sometimes out of necessity, I’ve found myself extremely capable of handling the entire project much faster than I would have thought beforehand.

What this lead to in my actual life is making a list, alongside the schedule, of things I need to get done at any given point. Doing this has helped keep errands and projects on my radar, no matter how big or how small they are, and reminding me to get to them as soon as I can. Deadlines can sneak up on you, so having a constant reminder, every single day, is a great way to stay on track.

Additionally, Persona made me keep a list of things I’ve accomplished to look back on at the end of every week. One of the most satisfying parts of Persona 5is the moment you exit a dungeon, where the game presents you with a growing list of everything you accomplished in the dungeon since you entered. I can often get down on myself for not being very productive during a given week, but when I actually go through everything I’ve done and lay it all out in a list in front of me, I realize that that usually isn’t the case. The satisfaction that brings is an excellent motivator, and really helps with self-esteem.

At a certain point, even the running joke around the character Morgana constantly telling the player that they should go to sleep felt a bit like it was talking directly to me. One of the first things my therapist suggested to help me with my depression was to get to bed at a reasonable time, every night, and put myself into a consistent sleep schedule. I certainly wouldn’t mind a talking cat making sure I stick to it.

As the player works more and more on the other parts of their life, eventually more time opens up that can be taken advantage of. If you work hard enough, you can even overcome the exhaustion that overtakes you after visiting the Metaverse, opening up evenings that you would otherwise not be able to be productive during.

Now, of course, this isn’t a step-by-step process to overcoming depression. They are, at most, a base to start from. One that must be used as stepping stone, with effort, to get yourself where you want to be.

And despite all that, what I find exceedingly ironic about Persona 5 is that despite portraying a character magically overcoming depression, as well as mechanically demonstrating techniques to help overcome depression, the game itself is actually pretty detrimental to someone actually trying to manage their depression.

I mean, spent 97 hours on this game. Do you know how much I could have actually gotten done in that time?

Originally published as Tackling Depression in Persona 5 on Elite Review. Republished with permission of the author.