In Defense of Persona 3’s Bleak, Uncompromising Dungeon

Persona 3's purposeful Tartarus found itself entrenched in deep Greek mythology.

Minor Spoiler Warning: While there are no explicit plot details below, I do discuss the identity of the final boss in the game (in the primary campaign, not from the epilogue The Answer).

And there, all in their order, are the sources and ends of gloomy Earth and misty Tartarus and the unfruitful sea and starry heaven, loathsome and dank, which even the gods abhor. - Theogony, Hesiod.

The clock has just struck the Dark Hour when you first lay your eyes on the Tartarus in Persona 3. Like a living organism, the Tartarus sprouts out of your high school, contorting as it twists its way to immense heights. The Tartarus is gnarled and alive, like a mutated beanstalk. You stand at its gated entrance alongside your friends, beholding its wonder. For some of your friends, the Tartarus is old news; they’ve seen it, infiltrated it. They’re just bringing you up to speed on the Dark Hour’s grim influence. And you’re like Jack, left to your own vices as you slowly climb the beanstalk. But to surmount the towering, labyrinthian Tartarus is a year-long journey. As you scale the disorienting skyscraper floor by floor, block by block, night after night; apprehensively awaiting the dreadful God that awaits you at its peak.

In Greek mythology, the Tartarus is a representation of hell. But the Tartarus of myth doesn’t ascend—it descends, burrowing into the abyss of the earth. It’s where titans are imprisoned and souls are served judgment to suffer. It’s not just a place, but a deity itself; an organism that can breed and a formidable entity with only a whisper of its name. Over the course of history—from mythology to Christianity—there are many more depictions of the specificity of the Tartarus beyond its initial origins. Yet they all mirror the same imagery: it’s dark, forbidding, and boy, you do not want to be cast down there.

Tartarus, as seen in one of the Persona 3 animated films.

And yet, here are our emo-haired teenagers, willingly entering it. Our hero, empowered by their bonds with friends (gamified as Social Links), is stronger upon reentering this hell repeatedly, fending off shadows for the greater good. The gaggle of friends are the fabled Chosen Ones of sorts, armed with special powers and a doomed fate to save the world, as with any grim apocalyptic JRPG. Battling endlessly, their group named SEES (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad) scale the impractical skyscraper’s 264 floors.

The Tartarus, as described in Hesiod’s 700 B.C. poem Theogony about the birth of the Gods, is topographically complex to an incoherent extent. It has walls, depth, pillars; its residents are titans and mortals alike. But as Hesiod weaves its structure, we’re left wondering its plausibility as a pit of hell. “Tartarus provides a secure and permanent prison for the defeated gods and for the dead—the latter a function not only melancholy but also soothing to the living, who so often fear the power of the dead,” writes David M. Johnson in the journal “Hesiod’s Descriptions of Tartarus.” “At its margins the underworld contains an image of the beginning of things, separation, much as it houses the gods and morals of the past.”

During our time spent in Persona 3’s Tartarus, its inconsistency in structure is an essential aspect to the structure’s terror. The dungeon itself is procedurally generated: never the same when you reenter it. You always know that upon exiting, you’ll be bidding adieu to the Tartarus as you once knew it, and on reentering it you’ll readjust to its newest twists and turns. Persona 3’s vision of Tartarus, despite its verticality, is an authentic adaptation of the mythical hell in Theogony; as an ominous thing described in so many ways, that it’s impossible to pin down, and only possible to talk about with emotional platitudes.

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The Tartarus, as we find, is a procedurally generated series of floors, aside from its occasional static level. It makes sense, too. As the Tartarus technically sprouts anew out of Gekkoukan High School every evening after midnight. It doesn’t appear with a blink: it grows with a long stare, reborn nightly. Yet the Tartarus can feel repetitive. All the halls are vacant, narrow, with blobby shadows lurking around every corner. The entrance has an enormous clock, likely counting down the time until The Fall when the god Nyx will descend and the world will likely end. (You know, typical JRPG shit.) Blood sometimes stains the ground. Other times the color palettes of blocks change slightly. The Tartarus feels like a grind, and that’s because it is.

Tartarus, as seen in the Persona 3 manga.

But life is a grind. In Persona 3, you plod your way through school and a social life: whether it’s joining clubs, muscling through exams, all while shouldering the burden of long nights spent in the Tartarus. In Persona 3, you strive to establish a sense of normalcy and routine, all while wrangling the whole end of the world thing. It’s a direct reflection of the exhaustive tasks we carry on our backs every day: exhaustion and responsibilities coupled with mental illness and stress that hinders progress. But we try to keep on, as best we can. And the Tartarus mirrors that real-life terror as you weather another claustrophobic corridor, or another drably decorated room.

Nyx—the God at the tippy-top of the Tartarus—is the catalyst for all things bad in Persona 3. Nyx is the personification of death itself, and when she descends to instigate The Fall (that is, the apocalypse), it’s game over for humanity. In Greek mythology, Nyx bears a similar reason for existence. She was borne of Chaos itself. She is the personification of the night, and with that, essentially in Persona 3, she is the personification of the ominous Dark Hour.

Just another hallway.

But even before Nyx descends, the depressing reality of life itself plagues humanity. It’s why all the characters in Persona 3 are suffering, beyond intangible supernatural weirdness in one way or another. Like our nameless orphaned protagonist, or Aigis, the android searching for her purpose beyond her programming, or the local elderly bookstore owners forever enraptured in grief for their late son who died in an accident. There’s also the nagging phenomenon of Apathy Syndrome, where people fall into a vegetative state as the result of shadows gnawing away at their psyche around a full moon. And the only light in anyone’s lives is the bonds they form with one another.

That very emphasis on friendships and bonds has always been what sets the Persona games apart from other RPGs. Where in other RPGs, you grow closer to your battling pals solely through the long, tumultuous journey you jointly undertake. Whereas in Persona, your friendships grow via mundane means. Whether that’s sharing a meal at Wild-duck Burger, or hanging out elsewhere. It’s like when Sora whined, “My friends are my power!” in Kingdom Hearts, only taken quite literally: your friendships boost your in-game Arcanas, and they are the source of your power, up until the very last boss fight.

The Tartarus is where these bonds are brought to task: they test your strength, your will, and if you’re able to keep living. They’re your barrier for entry and progressing. They’re what’s cheering you on through it’s tediously grindy, never-ending dungeon, knowing there’s a friendship to blossom patiently waiting on the other end of the night.

In Persona 5, a Tartarus-like dungeon reappears in the guise of Mementos. Mementos digs itself downwards, like the mythical Tartarus. It’s an incessantly shifting representation of the mass public’s distorted hearts, whether they’re maliciously evil or slightly less so. Mementos, traversed by your cat-like team member Morgana’s makeshift “catbus,” is littered with shadows waltzing along its maze-like subway tracks, with the occasional sub-boss waiting to pontificate their bad deeds at you. Mementos is a gentle nod to the Tartarus’ procedurally generated, infinitely dim hallways. Yet more importantly, it’s a callback to the purposeful dungeon that helped redefine the series forever.

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