We begin with the protagonist being arrested, drugged, beaten, and accused of unknown crimes by a corrupt police force.
Players are quickly asked to sign their name to a confession, without knowing what they’re confessing to, let alone whether they’re actually guilty. A butterfly tells you that you are the only hope for humanity, but that your chances of victory are slim to none. In these opening scenes, Persona 5 quickly paints a world that is upsettingly familiar, despite the dream casinos and Jungian minotaurs; a world where the powerful abuse their position to prey on the weak, where anything different is deemed a threat, and where failure against overwhelming odds is almost guaranteed. Along the course of the story, very bad men receive their comeuppance, traumatised teenagers are allowed to get revenge on sinister adults, and the world is saved from destruction.
While it’s loud about about injustice and corruption, however, Persona 5 tells a quieter and altogether more compelling tale about empathy.
First, it’s important to understand that Persona 5, and its updated, shinier version Persona 5 Royal, are very similar versions of the same game; they’re also extremely different. Royal adds a number of mechanical improvements, some extra challenges, more of that beautiful music, but in terms of the narrative flow it is superficially an identical copy of the original game with a bit of additional story as an appendix.
In the original game, Joker and the rest of the Phantom Thieves confront the God of Control, Yaldabaoth, and fight for the future of humanity. Persona 5‘s big late-game twist is that at the base of Mementos—the collective unconscious of all of humanity—everything is being controlled and guided by a powerful entity that forces them to live lives of conformity for their own safety. It’s a physical manifestation of the human desire to avoid conflict, suffering, complexity. The even more uncomfortable follow-up to this is that the very bad people they’ve been taking down throughout the game were souls too ambitious to be held down by the shackles of society. The twisted and corrupt villains of Persona 5 were enemies of the system, just like the Phantom Thieves. It’s a revelation worthy of some deep introspection from-
Fighting and defeating the God of Control with the help of your rebellious friends frees the population from their shackles, and people are once again able to choose their own paths. Which is a very uplifting message for all of us to take away from Persona 5: the system can’t hold you down as long as you have a rebellious spirit and a desire for justice. Everyone conveniently forgets the world ever turned into a Clive Barker hellscape, Joker is eventually cleared of all his supposed crimes, and everyone goes on a fun road trip.
Sorry, what was that earlier about every evil villain in the game being a mirror of the heroes? If the antagonists are an example of systems of control breaking down, are they not a positive example of rebellion? And isn’t rebellion good? Or, if only no-good, nasty, very bad people act outside those systems of control are they actually good and useful systems after all? Persona 5 normally leaves these questions floating on the wind, asked but definitively not answered, allowing the player to soak in their victory over a corrupt society and a god which desires nothing but the stagnation of humanity.
Persona 5 Royal introduces us to Dr Takuto Maruki, researcher turned high school counsellor, who begins as a comically and endearingly goofy adult man friend, another link for the protagonist’s social chain. As the game goes on, we get hints that Maruki has been involved with the same kind of cognitive psience (sorry, that’s what they call it) which allows the main characters to use personas and enter the psychological labyrinths of their enemies. Joker helps Maruki with his research, because they’re friends, and he goes off to get his paper published. Then he uses the supernatural powers he kept concealed to rewrite the rules of reality, creating a world without pain or loss. On the whims of this new character, Royal replaces the ending of the base game with a complex thesis on the nature and purpose of suffering.
More than just tacking on a new ending and adding characters, Royal‘s narrative touches completely recontextualise the plot of the original game. Defeating Maruki is the player’s literal, mechanical task, but the moral and ethical quandaries it digs into along the way force deeper thought about everything that came before. Your real job in Royal‘s new chapter is to listen. To think.
Maruki’s philosophy revolves around the idea that traumatic events and the suffering of otherwise good people should not exist in a just and kind reality; that happiness is something each of us deserve to have, regardless of our circiumstances. That’s actually a very noble idea, and Royal never presents Maruki as anything but altrustic and possessing of good intentions. “People deserve to be happy” is a premise most of us—and particularly all the Phantom Thieves—can agree with.
All the Thieves have been through some sort of unjust trauma which knocked them off their path to a happy life. Makoto was raised by a sister ruined by grief after the death of their father; Ann, in an attempt to help her friend, is sexually assaulted, and the friend attempts suicide; Futaba watches her mother die in a staged car accident, and she spends years locked in a bedroom. All of these characters would—and do—readily accept Maruki’s version of reality, where the people they love still exist, and the awful events that tore apart their lives never happened.
Royal‘s narrative impetus, the reason for fighting back, is more about the logic and implications of the villain’s plan, rather than its mere existence. Instead of a clear cut case of powerful corruption, players are given an antagonist that they fundamentally agree with in principle, while disagreeing with the methods involved. And even that disagreement is half-hearted, with many moments in Royal‘s plot dedicated to a discussion of whether Maruki’s reality might actually be a good idea.
Earlier I stated that the God of Control reveal changes how we view the villains of Persona 5, forcing us to parse that they were a symptom of the problems in society rather than the cause. The fight against Masayoshi Shido—the base game’s main human antagonist—even hints at some of this twist. It seems apparent to everyone that Shido’s populist rise to power and the general disinterest in the Phantom Thieves’ exploits is abnormal, so it feels correct when the actual enemy turns out to be a society rife with apathy and devoid of hope. Maruki’s arc is a direct answer to this question: you can’t simply fight against the powerful and corrupt, you need to build something better.
Maruki’s purpose in Royal isn’t to win, of course. The heroes win. Instead, by encountering Takuto Maruki and battling his philosophical ideas, the Thieves and the player begin to consider whether there are alternatives to their modus operandi. The dark and terrible men taken down by the Phantom Thieves undoubtedly deserve to face justice for their crimes, and beating the absolute hell out of their intellectual shadow clones until they break down and cry is a deeply satisfying way to make that happen.
But now we’re thinking about empathy and context. Now we’re considering that if the God of Control (existing as a metaphor for human apathy and passivity) was hindering the development of humanity, we have a significant reason to doubt the methods we’ve been using to reform society. Perhaps justice isn’t enough.
What does justice do for Goro Akechi? Superficially, it is ‘just’ to punish a psychotic killer for his crimes. In the original plotline, while Akechi does make up for his many, many murders with a last minute heel-turn, his victims are given traditional justice through his ironic death at the hands of, well, Goro Akechi. A cognitive copy of the unhinged detective prince which exists as a loyal servant inside the mind of his secret father, Shido, shoots him dead off screen. His final act is to allow the Phantom Thieves to escape, before succumbing to the twisted, ironic nightmare of his own poor self image. In the base game, Akechi is a tragic figure brought low enough to be more or less irredeemable, but just gasping for enough air to be endearing. He was a bad person, and now he’s gone. Please don’t think too hard about the parts of him that weren’t actually that bad, his positive qualities, or the circumstances of his existence. It’s sad that he’s gone, but it’s also the only destination any villain reaches in Persona 5: you either live on in soul-destroying guilt and sorrow, or you get shot in the face by Goro Akechi.
Royal presents us with a strong alternative to this philosophy. One of the first signs that Maruki’s reality has superseded the normal timeline is Akechi suddenly turning up on Christmas Eve, extremely alive, and willing to confess to all his crimes. In this reality, Maruki has altered things so that Akechi never got involved with his father’s schemes, and therefore never had cause to be eliminated in the palace. Exactly how this all works isn’t important; the vital part is that Maruki seeks to give Akechi a life where he at least has the opportunity to be happy. Maruki knows that Akechi was denied the chance at being a functioning human being by his father, and his philosophical view is that if Akechi has that chance then he deserves a path away from his (undeniably terrible) crimes. After all, they didn’t happen in his universe, so how does it make sense to mete out punishment?
That’s the secondary radical idea the Marukiverse puts forward: even people who carry out anti-social and harmful acts are worthy of compassion and, in some cases, rehabilitation, and this should come before any desire to find justice. Because this new world recognises that justice is a meaningless concept if it fails to take into account the human actors present within that justice. All too often the punishment of the guilty is considered to be an end to the process of fixing injustice; if you can just make criminals pay, for example, then you’ve wiped as much of the crime away as you possibly can. It’s hard not to see a parallel with the ideas behind prison abolition, particularly with Persona 5‘s many, many metaphorical jail cells. Essentially, the theory in game is that if you can assist in healing a broken person then they are far less likely to cause more harm and suffering in the future, and that’s far more valuable than punishment and incarceration, even if it superficially steals some ‘justice’ from the process. Persona 5‘s base story implicitly agrees with this line of thinking already; we see the villains imprisoned in the Prison of Regression, incapable of growing or changing, cuffed by the shackles of justice rather than improved by them. Given that the game makes a big deal about not resorting to murder—even when the person deserves it—it’s not a wild leap to think it also views the lives of those villains as still being worth something to society.
If a villain is worth sparing, then one can argue they are also worth saving. Indeed, in Takuto Maruki’s world, everyone is worth saving. Every broken person can be repaired. You can see these same ideas fighting for air in Persona 5‘s sequel game, Persona 5 Strikers, where each antagonist is deconstructed emotionally to reveal the understandable catalyst for their descent into evil. While it’s not nearly as subtle as Royal‘s approach, there is an undeniable desire to lead the Phantom Thieves toward a modus operandi that strongly considers the contexts of their enemies’ actions. That everyone deserves the chance to be saved is the Persona 5 universe’s driving opinion, even if some might reject the opportunity.
Maruki’s reality construct is flawed, of course. A world where no suffering exists is impossible for two main reasons: first you would need to police every individual mind present in that reality to make sure they were not experiencing suffering, and second you would necessarily have to remove free will from the equation. The Phantom Thieves rightly point out to Maruki that he is only imposing another form of control on the population, even if it comes from a good place. You can witness a physical representation of those shortcomings in the map you need to traverse to reach your final confrontation with Maruki. In using his persona abilities to rewrite reality, the counsellor snakes cord-like tentacles into the existing structure of Mementos and repurposes it to feed his own plans. It’s telling that the only way Maruki is able to build his perfect world is by using the flawed and corrupted structures of the past; this is why it retains the same moral and ethical problems as Yaldabaoth’s prison.
Akechi says as much in his response to all of Maruki’s machinations. Having lived a life where other people controlled his course, and violently broken free of that, he has no desire to return to being powerless, regardless of the utopian setting. Akechi willingly chooses non-existence over subservience to Maruki’s wills, and correctly diagnoses the problem with this manufactured world: it exists mainly to satisfy Takuto Maruki.
It’s important to remember that this is still the Akechi we know from the rest of the game, as well; despite the alteration of his past, the person shaped by that past remains, and could never be satisfied with the cognitive dissonance. We are each shaped a thousand times a day by the environment we live in, by the events around us, and simply transplanting that person into a new version of reality does not change who they are. The only way Maruki can build his version of the dream is to trick the minds of the participants, and the end result is all of the Phantom Thieves rejecting the changes. Because they didn’t get to become new people, they were simply their old, scarred selves in a packaged smile. To truly make Maruki’s reality function, you would need to wipe away everything people once were, at which point it becomes difficult to argue this is for the benefit of those now-dead intelligences.
But the flaws that break the simulation support the philosophy nonetheless. In his role as both teacher and villain, as counsellor to the main characters and their greatest enemy, there’s no better example of the value of his ideas than Maruki himself. The conflict between the Phantom Thieves and their friendly counsellor circles Maruki’s inability to accept a world that contains any suffering at all.
This denial, and the belief that he can fix any problem, is a result of his own unresolved trauma. Maruki is being altruistic, genuinely believing in his plan to help the people of the world find true happiness; but his plans are tainted by the way his own pain has twisted his outlook on life, and his refusal to deal with what happened to him and his fiancée leaves him incapable of recognising the contradictions in his visions of reality. The Thieves, conversely, became more well-rounded and stronger people for facing their trauma head on, which eventually becomes the key to their breaking free from the seductive power of Maruki’s reality.
At the very end, it’s the Phantom Thieves learning about a different approach from Maruki that allows them to save him. In seeing the all-encompassing power of Maruki’s cognitive world, the protagonists are exposed to the possibilities of a universe that values the experiences of every person on the planet, not simply those who require immediate justice. By teaching them that empathy and compassion are more important than the desire to inflict pain as a reaction to pain, Maruki leads the Thieves down a new path, where they can slowly, carefully make the world a better place, rather than just fighting to stop the corruption.
Without a God of Control to force humanity into placid, regressive little boxes, it’s only empathy that can make a difference. Otherwise you’re just building more prisons.