A few days ago, I finally managed to complete the main section of Persona 3 FES, "The Journey". I have been playing this game quite a long time, and the final part of the game was fantastic, so I am quite happy. Now that the game is complete, though, I may as well write a bit about a topic I have been meaning to address since I first started the blog: the story role of Persona 3's main hero.
It is quite clear that Persona 3's game designers wanted to let the player control the identity and personality of the main hero as much as possible. Other than the few voiced lines the hero speaks when summoning Personas in battle, he is a classic "silent protagonist", and every line he speaks in the story (when he even speaks at all) is presented as a conversation choice for the player. The player can choose to have the hero be kind, rude, quiet, or anything else. In theory, this should let the player give the hero whatever personality he wants, but in practice this does not work out very well at all. Important factors in this are the vagueness and completeness problems that are almost pathologically inherent to the conversation choice system. Half the time, it is just hard to figure out how characters will react to a particular choice, and the other half of the time the given choices never really seem to cover how you really want the hero to respond. Beyond this, though, there are two problems that are particularly glaring in Persona 3: advantageous conversation choices and a lack of any permanence for the player's choices.
In Social Links in particular, it is simply to the player's advantage to just say whatever the person he is talking to wants him to say. In almost every conversation choice presented to the player during a Social Link event, there is a single "correct" choice, and selecting that choice will (quite visibly) help build up the affinity between the hero and the Social Link character, making it easier to build up the Social Link to the next level. Since there it is to the player's advantage to build up these levels as quickly as possible, it means that in all of the conversation choices presented in Social Links (the lion's share of all conversation choices), the player is strongly encouraged to say what is advantageous for him to say (usually what the Social Link character wants to hear), rather than what the player wants to say or thinks should be said. This sabotages any possibility of characterizing the main hero in a coherent manner, since the hero is encouraged to act like a carefree goof-off when talking to carefree goof-offs and act like a driven workaholic when talking to driven workaholics. At times, it can feel like the game is encouraging the player to make the hero act like an insincere brown-noser, which is hardly the kind of character I want to play in a game like this.
The other major problem is that, other than Social Link level and affinity between characters, the game doesn't seem to actually make a record of what choices the hero has made. Almost any dialog choice made by the player will only affect a few sentences' worth of game dialog, before the conversation possibilities converge again. Whether you do something to make someone happy or do something to make that person angry, five lines later the dialog will continue the same way regardless. In the longer term, even if you do nothing but be rude, spiteful, and insulting, the characters in the game will never start acting accordingly, and will just act like the hero is a generic nice guy. The game simply does not give the player any feedback for giving the hero a consistent personality, and as such there is really no reward for doing so. No matter what the player does, the hero will be just as generic and undefined at the end of the game as he was in the beginning as far as the story and characters are concerned.
With all of that criticism said, I should be a bit fair by saying that the impermanent, undefined, and necessarily inconsistent personality of the main hero does actually fit with some of his limited characterization and the mechanics of the Persona system. Unlike the other characters, who have a consistent personality and a single Persona, the hero has an ever-changing identity to match his ever-changing array of Personas. Personas are supposed to be a reflection of a person's identity, and the hero has over a hundred and seventy of them, more than a hundred contradicting reflections of his "true self". The game even supports this idea by giving you a bonus to Social Link growth if you have a Persona of the same Arcana as the Social Link you are trying to build up, and thus have an "identity" that is compatible with the Social Link character. I actually have to applaud the way the game designers managed to make story and game mechanics compliment each other in such a way, but I think that the failings of the current system are too great to be outweighed by such a small benefit.
The main hero may be portrayed as having nearly infinite flexibility in characterization, but that just means he ultimately is never developed as a character at all. At no point can the player really do anything to turn the main hero into someone they can identify with or empathize with. For example, you can have him say to other characters that he has a reason to fight, but you are never allowed to establish a particular reason for him to fight as a fact within the game. I can make the decision that the hero is fighting to end the Dark Hour for Yukari's sake in my own head, but I can not have the hero act on that decision in any way, even though the question of "what are you fighting for?" is central to the themes of the game. It may simply be a limitation of the conversation choice mechanic itself, but ultimately, the player only gets to decide what the hero says, but not what the hero is thinking or what the hero believes, so any characterization made by the player is shallow and short-lived.
Finally, I should at least briefly mention that the one system the game actually does provide for characterizing the hero, his Academics, Courage, and Charm attributes, is fatally flawed in its own right, for similar reasons to those I described above. To illustrate this, in my last playthrough I played a hero who started with maxed out Academics, so the hero aced every test at the top of his class without ever needing to study once, but still needed to go to Summer School because Mitsuru was worried about his grades falling behind because of too much time spent as part of SEES. There are so many inconsistencies and flaws with that I can't even begin to get into it all, but the main problem is that what the hero does, what the hero is capable of, and what the other characters think of the hero are all disconnected from each other.