Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 drops this year, so I’ve been playing through Persona 4 (having only played Persona 3, previously). Atlus’ spinoff RPG series, or at least the PS2 entries which have broadened its popularity, seems something of a meeting ground between the grinding battles and flashy melodrama common to Japanese RPGs and the Choose Your Own Adventure narratives favored in the West. Stories are structured on a daily basis: player protagonists (mostly mute, save for dialog prompts) transfer to a small town and find themselves in a psychological/supernatural high school drama. These elements are then investigated using the power of “Persona, creatures of myth and folklore representing the psychological states of various characters, which can be summoned into battle. Players strengthen their Persona through combating “Shadows” (creatures which exist in another world and threaten people) and by developing relationships in their new surroundings.
Atlus hones in on this latter part, constructing incremental vignettes where protagonists meet students or townsfolk, become friends with them, and help them through some personal turmoil over various encounters. There’s an instructional, aspirational quality to this: protagonists in both P3 and P4 are seen as lonely, introverted types who must reach out. Attributes like “intelligence”, “courage”, and others are built up through rigorous study and practice, often needing to be a certain level themselves before being able to converse with others (while a fine friendship simulator, the gamification of modern living gets a bit queasy when either installment attempts romance[s]). In the narrative, this takes shape as the protagonist and a peer group of students taking it upon themselves to use their special abilities to defeat the Shadows, mainly in secret.
Like the superhero narratives this resembles, there’s a paradoxical mistrust of authority implied here, even as the games promote harmonious social responsibility. Persona 3‘s team are explicitly cleaning up a mess made by their elders (and are betrayed by a mentor) which has left Shadows to secretly terrorize a city for decades. Persona 4‘s, meanwhile, see police as, at best, unable to handle the supernatural nature of the serial murder mystery at the heart of the narrative or, at worst, too incompetent to–though they prove useful in helping gather clues (a young detective who often, inadvertently leaks details of the case to the teens). In both, teachers and principals are quirky, fragmented personalities, often too concerned with their own interests to assist outside of preparing their students for exams.
What makes all this compelling is the momentum. Days progress at a steady clip, often with scripted events and dialogue prompts. Typical RPG elements–exploration, combat, acquiring items–are limited to after school, where players choose whether to go into the Shadows’ world or strengthen their attributes/relationships through scripted sub-events. Similarly choice-obsessed developers like Bioware and Obsidian have typically placed a premium on freedom, allowing players time to make their choices (notably, the Mass Effect series and Alpha Protocol, which break this mold, came well after Persona 3). Atlus forces players to prioritize and manage their time. The system these teens live in may be busted, but they have to operate in and navigate around it to become stronger, more capable.