Persona 5

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The PS2 cycle of Persona games, for all their angst and psychosexuality, tend to have a clear-cut morality to them. The authorities in those tales (schools, the police, adults in general) could be clueless, inept, even staffed with the odd turncoat, but the values they espoused still had legitimacy. Good was good, bad was bad, and the teen heroes had to defeat the bad as it intruded upon society. Persona 5, however, presents the world itself as having gone insane: administrators overlook student-diddling psychopaths to maintain prestige and the cops and prosecutors exist to shield elitist cabals jockeying for power. The ordinary people these arcane conspiracies gobble up don’t even merit a first thought. Apathy is the order of the day, served up by a media keen to avoid any uncomfortable questions. Dropped into the center of this madness is another quiet misfit, saddled with a juvie record for pissing off the wrong plutocrat. Despised and labelled a crook by the Tokyo prep school he’s shipped to, there’s a sense at the beginning his prospects are zero. Naturally, when he and some other teen outcasts gain the series-standard Persona abilities and access to human desires made manifest, they jump at the chance to lash out as self-styled “Phantom Thieves.”

This twist on formula pervades everything. Dungeons are constructed around infiltration, maneuvering around obstacles, and lying in wait to ambush a patrolling Shadow. Persona are no longer the friendly spoils of war, but the (willing?) subjects of your enemies. You have to batter and coerce them into seeing the error of their ways. Train up enough, and you get the option to talk them down with a silver tongue or fire a warning shot near their heads. The relationship sim aspect of the game remains primarily shonen-flavored visual novel, but spikier personalities have found room among the dorky children, troubled teachers and quirky enthusiasts. Wrack up good enough stats, and you’ll find yourself befriending an ex-yakuza who needs you to get around the cops. Interact often with the bullied dork running your fan page, and you get an alarming window into how the slightest (imaginary) amount of power can warp someone towards spite and cruelty. There’s a real sense you’re fighting, impossibly, from the brink.

The Strength of Heart Required to Face Oneself Has Been Made Manifest

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.