Identify Cultural Reference in Persona 5’s UI Design, and Why It Immerse Gaming Experience


Persona 5 is a Japanese role-playing game produced and released by Atlus in 2017. After its release, it received critics’ and gamers’ acclaim, especially in term of its user interface (UI) design. Using Persona 5 as the case, the essay explores the cultural references used in Persona 5 using the Peircean model of semiotics, and further investigate how cultural references in UI design can add to the immersive experience of gamer by employing the conceptualization of hybridization, affordance of digital media, and general study of user interface.


The user experience design (UI) is an emerging and multidisciplinary technology field involving semantic studies, graphic design and cognitive psychology in the field of human-computer interaction. When interfacing users, UI allow users to give instruction and providing means for them to interact with computers. Such exploitation implies that the effectiveness of UI design heavily relies on the perception of users to be recognizable of an interface’s functions, which presupposes social-cultural factors in users’ abilities to interface.

Video games, naturally, is one of the field that depends on high-quality UI design to upstaging gaming experience. While gamers are subject to the immersive exposure to completely artificial settings, culture background plays an integral role in affecting how they will perceive and recognize the game world. This essay will discuss how developers integrate cultural factors into game UI design and how it effects the gaming experience using mainly Persona 5 as the example to conduct the investigation.

Why Persona 5? An introduction and justification

As Sony PlayStation introduces,

“Persona 5 is a game about the internal and external conflicts of a group of troubled high school students – the protagonist and a collection of compatriots he meets in the game’s story – who live dual lives as Phantom Thieves…Ultimately, the group of Phantom Thieves seeks to change their day-to-day world to match their perception and see through the masks modern society wears.” (PlayStation)

Persona 5’s success has been well testified by its sales and criticisms. Its production company, Atlus, has announced that by December 2017, Persona 5 has sold out 200 million copies including digital and physical ones, which was an incomparable success compared to the gross sales of its antecedents, Persona 3 and Persona 4. (Newstex) The famous gaming media, Game Informer also gave it a rating of 93 out of 100, adding the comment that “You become a resident of Persona 5 the more you play it, and it has the rare ability to transport in a way few games can.” (Game Informer) The top-notch sense of immersion is what draws gamers to dive in and empathize with the story and gameplay, and a huge part of it comes from its UI design, which corresponds perfectly with other aspects of the game. One of the well-known video game media, Polygon, claimed that the game is “sleek and meticulously polished, from the gameplay to the menu UI.”

It is worth mentioning that many opinion articles about Persona 5’s UI design has spoken highly of the popular culture influences it use in its UI design. Rhan, a columnist at, has detailed some of the popular design in Persona 5. As a renowned video game specifically acclaimed of its UI design, and also as a game using many pop cultural references, studying Persona 5 can grant us insights into how the cultural references are implemented in UI design and how its efficiency can be explained. (Rhan)

In-depth analysis of pop culture references in Persona 5

Any further insights of Persona 5’s UI design cannot be obtained without digging into examine Persona 5 as a whole. The plot of Persona 5 is carried out around rogue, a concept running throughout the name of the protagonist’s coalition, the main storyline and the major in-game fighting mechanics. In the game, rogues are the hidden occupation of protagonists and his companion in the underworld and their ethos of fighting injustice: by stealing “treasure”, a concretized desire of corrupted individuals from their “palace” formed by their distorted libidos in the cognitive world. Only by theft rather than killing cognitive individuals inside palace can villains confess their crimes and rehabilitate instead of dying to psychosis. Therefore, the underworld costume of the protagonist is a typical rogue design: long coats, long pants, red gloves and most significantly, white mask, to translate romanticism into the design of a polished, determined protagonist look. (Biaustein, 26)

Another consistent idea in the theme of Persona 5 is punk. Following the same spirit implied by the “phantom thief” idea, Atlus intently added punk influences into its art concept to flaunt the free, edgy persona of the main characters. In its official artbook, The Art of Persona 5, the lead artist specifically talks about his design of protagonist is to “demonstrate the punk-like attitude” on him. When players control him, his appearance and action can surely bring out the inner punk from people participating in the game, illustrating a sense of rebellion against repressive social orders. (Biaustein, 21)

The application of the two cultural references can be observed by relating the visual elements to the cultural reference of rogue and punk attitude. The cultural references are implemented by employing associated elements that serves as a symbol into the visual design. In regard to a methodology of unveiling the relationship between cultural references and visual design, the Peircean model of semiotics can be applied to better interpretation the relationship between icons and meanings.

Two essential terms within Peircean model, simplifier and simplified, are practical to conduct visual analysis of Persona 5’s UI. Inside the Peircean model, A sign that stands for something is the representament; an inference made from the initial sign is an interpretant; an object is something beyond the sign. Also, three relationships can be observed between a representament and its object or its interpretant; however, only the icon/iconic relationship, in which mode the representament is perceived to resemble the interpretant or object, will be used as the conceptualized foundation to interpret the cultural factors beneath Persona 5’s UI. (Chandler, 18)

The image below, the main menu of Persona 5, will be used to analyze the semiotic relationship between the two major cultural references, rogue and punk, to the designing mechanic in the aspects of color scheme, underlying patterns, and typography.

First, the color scheme of Persona 5’s UI is deeply reflective of the punk culture. According to a panel discussion, Atlus revealed the secret behind Persona 5’s UI design: for each of the Persona series, a main colors set is chosen to identify the game. For Persona 5, black and red is chosen to represent the passion and energy of the characters.

In order to express this consistent idea in its design, Persona 5 did not even use other colors except for HP/MP elements to make the black/read color duo as distinctive as possible. (siliconera)

This design, as shown in the picture below, is very effective in recalling the punk spirit from last century. The color scheme is concurrent to what is prevalent among 80’s punk rock band, from the Dead Kennedys to Black Flags to Misfits. (Kim) Therefore, Persona 5’s UI is the representament of past punk icons, whereas the punk culture is an object reflective of Persona 5’s ideology. The semiotic relationship between Persona 5’s UI and punk rock indicates the heavy influence it received from pop culture, and how Persona 5’s UI is reminiscent of the punk culture indicates how well audience can interpret and accepted the cultural reference.

In another aspect, some of the basic patterns, such as stars in the background, exemplify a hypnotic, tricky nature that resonates with “phantom thieves” spirit. To recognize what this repetitive, monotonous pattern represent, the trace of its immediate object, which means the object can be discovered in what is conceived of optical illusion. Optical illusion refers to the discrepancy between what people see and what is reality caused by certain phenomena. (Bach) Typical optical illusion prone image often has dream-like, repetitive but distortive patterns as the photo below. This has much resemblance to the stars lying in the background of Persona 5, which remind audience of rich cognitive psychology backstory and the deceptive nature of the protagonist’s deeds. The optical illusion also serves as a direct object of Persona 5’s UI, and it in turns become an icon for illusion and trickery.

Last, the typography is also an exact reflection of the punk spirit, employing the irregular font and English in menu all at once. The font is highly reminiscent of 80’s punk fanzines. (Rhan) The picture below, a fan-made Sex Pistol zine can directly manifest how much Persona 5 has be deeply influenced by the style of punk fanzines: the irregular, intrusive font is nearly inherited from the font of “Sex Pistol.” The nostalgic punk fanzines are also the immediate objects of Persona 5’s UI, which will make users immediately relate to relevant cultural schema and recognize the reference.

It is notable that in Peirce’s theory, the basis of an iconic relationship between representament and object is on perceived resemblance. This can also mean that to establish an icon, the person must have active perception subject to his past experience and acknowledgement. Such foundation cannot exist without the socio-cultural influence, which further attest to the cultural factors in Persona 5’s UI. (Chandler, 38)

How it immerses Gaming Experience?

The active employment of Cultural Factors inside Persona 5 can also shed us some light on how this particular approach of UI design can possibly affect gamer’s experience. While some of the positive reaction from gamers can be easily detected, the essay strives to reveal more insight into positive gaming experience by using from hybridization and user interface design theories to offer a conceptual explanation.

The positive gaming experience may come from the encouragement of sociability. The first general idea stems from the affordance of digital media, in which it generally encourages more social participation. To achieve this goal, computer has affordance that invite people to interact in a transparent way. As stated by Murray, “A large part of digital design is selecting the appropriate convention to communicate what actions are possible in ways that human interactor can understand.” (Murray, 48) Appropriate convention can mean accessible icon or representament that cue specific, desired audience to be conscious of and actively participate into the social conversation. In the case of Persona 5, people who actively identify as enthusiastic punk lover can accurately detect the punk convention inferred by Persona 5’s UI design, thus further motivated by their gaming experience and actively shared the experience within the community.

Another insight is obtained from the hybridization nature of digital media as well as user interface, which offers more diverse experience and perceptions for audience. The development of new media technology enables the storage of more data pre-set and more pre-recorded models to be hybrid into new forms of presentation to form “novel combination of media types of new species”. (Manovich, 44) Through the process of reinvention and recombination of different media elements, new ways of representation can be discovered and in turn fulfill and diversity the media space. Meanwhile, it is necessary to note that “the hybrid do not necessarily have to involve a ‘deep’ reconfiguration of previously separate media languages and/or the common structures of media objects.” (Manovich, 189) This statement means that referencing and incorporating pre-existing media objects into the design of new media work can also count as hybridization and can also enrich meanings and representations generated from different media forms. As punk culture and optical illusion prone images are well-established elements, the UI derived from the two cultural phenomena can still be incorporated into UI design to form an exclusive, stylish design that fulfill the context of Persona 5 and in a degree, transcend the traditional notion of UI as it has the potential to develop into a narrative. As Rhan claims, “UI and UX are a part of storytelling, and can reinforce a product’s overall narrative and themes. Designers are storytellers.” (Rhan) When UI becomes a part of the narrative of the game, it has the potential to stand out as a media object that express distinctive value and brand itself, rather than being generic and easily absorbed into other grand narratives.

And the previous analysis leads to the discussion of what Manovich regards as some insights about good graphic user interface design. First, “the new interface should also make use of emotive and iconic mentalities.” (Manovich, 98) Cultural references can be powerful in fully mobilize the two mentioned mentalities of human, as fully exemplified by the punk culture: people will be reminded of the turbulent youth who is reckless, free, motivated and righteous. Specifically, in Persona 5’s UI, the sharp contrast between black and red is effective in elicit intense reaction from users, as is indicated from the object it reflects: punk culture, which means reckless, free, righteous youth. Also, the unique design of the UI adds a new experience of discovery to users. When they are fascinated by the design of the impeccably stylish UI of Persona 5, people will potentially be inspired by it and thus embarking on a new journey of discovery. Manovich make this clearer in his statement, “It is successful because it was designed to help them think, discover, and create new concepts using not just on type of mentality but all of them together.” (Manovich, 219) This proves that good UI design can immerse the experience, emotion and motivation of users and audiences; furthermore, in the case of Persona 5, the emotional and iconic capabilities afforded by its design can enable the users to spontaneously to search for new information and to enrich the Persona 5 context.


Persona 5’s UI design has extensively referred to punk and rogue culture, and its implementation is based on the iconic relationship between such cultural references and color scheme, visual patterns, and typography. The obtained success and efficacy of culturally referred UI design in immersing gamers’ experience can be explained by the digital media’s affordance of social participation, enrichment brought by hybridization, and how user interfaces should be designed to be emotive and iconic.


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