Note: This piece contains spoilers for the entirety of the videogame Persona 5 Royal.
In the world of Japanese role-playing videogames (JRPGs), gods are powerful endgame enemies that can be defeated with the power of friendship and a good supply of healing items. After a long journey through the game chasing after the apparent main villain, the curtain draws back to reveal the real bad guy, usually the god of chaos and destruction. Such is the case in my favorite JRPG, Persona 5 Royal. You spend the majority of the game going after a politician. After you defeat him, you face the god of control, a demon called Demiurge. Demiurge draws his power from the masses’ desire to relinquish control over their own lives. To this end, Demiurge sets the stage for a showdown between good and evil, nominating a representative of good and a representative of evil. The representative of good, the protagonist, forms a team of Phantom Thieves who steal the corrupted desires of highly evil people, making them genuinely regret their actions and confess to their misdeeds. The representative of evil is a murderer who uses the world of desires to act as a contract hitman. In the final showdown, good triumphs over evil, and the protagonist and his team break free from the illusions of the masses, defeating Demiurge and putting people in control of their own lives again.
This final battle is very theatrical. Demiurge attacks with the power of the seven deadly sins. Of course, as the protagonist of a JRPG, you have a superpower up your sleeve. Namely, a special bullet made of the seven deadly sins that you use to shoot Demiurge in the head. While I’ve seen players who distance themselves from their religious households get a kick out of “shooting God in the head”, what I see as worth noting here is that the “shooting” is really taking back control of your life from the illusions of a god of control. Like it or not, we all have a Demiurge in our lives. An illusion, a story we tell ourselves, that someone or the other has us covered, that other people determine how we think or feel. We let ourselves be carried away by circumstance, by what people will think, by our lack of confidence in ourselves to chart the course of our own lives. We may not be superheroes teaming up to fight an evil entity oppressing humanity, but we owe ourselves to be the superhero of our own story. We need to show up to our own lives and believe we can make a difference. Otherwise, there are many substitutes for the position of leader in your own life, which by all rights belongs to you.
What really struck me in the entire narrative of Persona 5 Royal is how the game proceeds past the defeat of Demiurge to the installment of a new god in his place. This new god is Maruki, the school counsellor. He has listened to each of the Phantom Thieves during counselling sessions and knows what they hold dear to their hearts, so when he gets the power to grant desires he immediately places the Phantom Thieves in an illusionary world where everything they ever wanted has come true. The rest of humanity is trapped in this illusion as well, and to prevent this illusion from becoming reality, the Phantom Thieves must confront and defeat Maruki. The first people they need to confront, however, are their own selves. The protagonist, who is at first the only one aware of what’s going on, visits the other Phantom Thieves one by one, asking them if this—the erasure of traumatic events from their lives—is what they really want. One by one, they break out of the illusion and commit to real life, where they may not get back what they lost, but they would, at least, get to be in charge of their own lives. Maruki, who wants to fuse his illusion with reality and save everyone from grief after being unable to deal with his own grief, is determined to fight back.
The natural progression of such a situation is an epic final battle with Maruki. Maruki’s theme song plays in the background as you fight him. In the song, Maruki asks the Phantom Thieves to “throw away their mask”, that is, to shed the superpowers that they used to bring about good in their own lives and the lives of those around them. He asks them to instead place trust in what he wants for them. By telling them that they should be free of pain, Maruki negates all the trauma that brought the Phantom Thieves together to do good in the world in the first place. Maruki’s song makes big promises: no pain, no tears, no lost dreams, all in exchange for letting another flawed human decide what should happen to people. Striving to be free of pain and loss is a basic human desire, yet this is another illusion promised to mankind. Just as Demiurge told mankind to sit back and let him call the shots, giving them freedom from having to choose, Maruki tells the Phantom Thieves, who are the only people to take a stand in front of him, that he will redo their lives as if nothing bad ever happened, as long as they submit to him.
Is this really desirable? A life free of pain, loss, and the drive to choose your own destiny. Why are the masses seduced by these promises while the Phantom Thieves break free of these illusions and resist? The answer is that the Phantom Thieves have mastered the spirit of their own rebellion. Each Phantom Thief’s rebellion manifests as a powerful spirit called a persona that fights alongside them in battle, and each spirit is contained within a mask. It is by the tearing off of this mask that the Phantom Thieves connect with their personas. What are they rebelling against? The unfairness of the people of the world, the injustice in society. Ultimately, they rebel against the illusions and false promises of Demiurge and Maruki. As the Phantom Thieves shake off the fake perfect lives Maruki creates for them, they realize this world was not meant to be a place for perfection. Whether we like it or not, this is a place for striving. Pain and loss have a place in this life.
As a Muslim, it may be ironic that I find so much spiritual food for thought in a game filled with demons. But still, when the stress of grad school was at its peak, I sat looking out the window listening to Persona 5 songs. The playlist went past the usual battle themes and motivational “we will win” songs until it hit Maruki’s song. The lines go something like this:
Don’t let go of your dreams/No more tears shall drop from your cheeks anymore/You won’t need to strive for greatness/Believe in me/That you don’t need to suffer from anything/No more
I immediately began to cry. I had been questioning why I was being put through such a tough time and when Allah would answer my supplications to have my issues resolved. Listening to Maruki’s fake reassurances made me realize how the pain I was going through was a testament to the fact that there is a true God. Seeing the story of a demon and a human man trying to play God and failing makes me even more grateful to have Allah in my life. When I’m going through grief and pain, I turn to Allah. When I am happy, I turn to Allah. When I strive for greatness, I put in the work and ask Allah for the results.
And Allah doesn’t tell me that I won’t need to cry. Allah doesn’t tell me that I don’t need to make an effort to get anything in my life just because He is there. Allah doesn’t say that I will be spared pain. That is keeping it real, keeping it truthful. Keeping it within limits helps me make sense of the world. The world is just as it is meant to be, and trying to change that will break us. As humans, we may play around with concepts in videogames that explore all manners of demons, spirits and artificial intelligence taking a spin at playing God, but that always leads me to appreciate Allah even more. At the beginning of Persona 5 Royal, the player is required to accept that the game is a work of fiction before being allowed to proceed. As a Muslim, I have accepted the reality that Allah has made. That is the only way to live.