By MajorMitch 7 Comments
Despite playing Persona 4 Golden over three years ago, I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot over the course of 2016. This has proven to be a introspective year for me in general; after a handful of ups and downs, and big life shake-ups, I’m at noticeably more stable place in life. That stability provides me with time to reflect and consider where I want my life to go next, what kind of person I want to be, and who I want to share it all with. Not simple stuff mind you, but worth tackling nonetheless.
So what does my personal soul-searching have to do with Persona 4? In a lot of ways, Persona 4 manages to be more “human” and “real” than most JRPGs, if not most video games in general. By couching its setting and narrative in familiar, real world terms, its themes of being true to yourself and of being a good friend, come across more naturally. Sure, there are fantastical elements: the bizarre nature of the TV world, the mystical powers you inherit while inside, and the outlandish creatures you battle there. But in its most important moments, Persona 4 is about going to school. It’s about studying and doing your homework. It’s about the friends you meet along the way, and nurturing those friendships through various ups and downs. It’s about learning who you are, and how you fit into this thing called life. Given that, perhaps it’s no wonder my mind has gone back to Persona 4 during these introspective times. And since my mind has been going there anyway, I thought it would be worth taking a deeper look at just how Persona 4 manages to be so relevant to my current position.
It begins with the game’s very human characters. Every single character in Persona 4’s large, varied cast has some issue or insecurity they deal with. Yosuke has a need to be liked by a lot of people, and feels limited by living in a small, country town. Rise feels like she’s always forced to wear a “mask” due to her fame, and doesn’t know what her “true” self even is. Kanji struggles with his sexuality throughout the entire game. One of the most interesting dynamics to me is the one between Chie and Yukiko. These two best friends have known each other forever, and yet they are both jealous of what the other one has. Chie is the easy-going tomboy who works out a lot to stay strong, while Yukiko comes from a wealthy, respected family, and is so attractive she can’t keep the boys away. In spending so much time together, Chie feels like she is unattractive and destined to go nowhere, and secretly wants some of Yukiko’s classic good looks and family ties. At the same time, Yukiko feels a lot of pressure, as if her entire life is already laid out before her, and she secretly wishes she could be as carefree and as strong as Chie.
There’s a reason I spent a paragraph quickly describing the insecurities of a small fraction of the game’s characters: these are real issues. How many of us have either had issues comparable to these ourselves, or know someone who does? This isn’t “end of the world” stuff, per the traditional JRPG, but instead speaks very clearly to things we struggle with every single day. These characters struggle with them too, and seeing them all unfold throughout the course of the game is one of Persona 4’s biggest strengths. You see these characters face their fears, admit what scares the crap out of them, and grow closer as they come to understand each other better. For example, as Chie and Yukiko reveal their jealousies of each other, they both realize that they actually do have some things going for them, and their friendship becomes even stronger as a result. Opening up and being honest reveals that they both have great traits that also complement one another. They can stop wishing they had it all, and instead accept and make the most of what they do have, with the knowledge that they have a great friend who has their back the rest of the time.
Persona 4 is one of the most socially conscious games I’ve played, and these thematic elements are only the start. What’s even more important is how these social themes are woven into the very fabric of the game’s mechanics, and influence how you play. When I first played Persona 3, the most striking part of it was how you spend maybe half of your time dungeon-crawling, in the traditional JRPG sense, and the rest of your time on seemingly mundane tasks. You play as high school students, and that means you spend a lot of time in school, and all that entails. This forms the simulation side of the game: you have guide your character as he studies, goes to class, and takes tests. The simulation isn’t limited to academia though, even if that is a big part of the game’s grounded, “real world” appeal. The simulation focuses even more on the social side of school. You can join clubs and sports teams, make study buddies, go on dates, or even have lengthy chats after class with the old widow who hangs out by the river. As weird as it may sound, this is the rare video game franchise that puts a lot of focus on simply hanging out with people. And that same basic structure is perhaps even more effective in Persona 4, thanks to its more grounded writing, characters, and setting.
Sharpening this focus, Persona 4 uses its “social links” to heavily incentivize social interaction. You form different links with different characters or groups, and as you spend time with them and get to know them better, those links level up. Each link is tied to a set of “personas,” which are the entities you use in battle, and leveling up each social link then enhances the related personas. Therefore, by putting effort into things like studying and making friends, you are directly strengthening your dungeon-crawling prowess. It’s an extremely elegant way to weave the game’s excellent writing and characters into the very core of the play experience. Connecting with people in Persona 4 is, quite literally by the game's language, the way to be healthier and stronger. This is most true with respect to your party members, many of whom I mentioned above, and who become your best and closest friends throughout the game. You not only get to know them intimately as you maintain social links with them, but they simultaneously become more capable in battle, and you’ll learn to rely on them to have your back in those tough boss encounters late in the game. It’s all a way for Persona to highlight its narrative elements through raw gameplay mechanics; that's good video game design.
But there’s a big catch when it comes to managing your social links in Persona 4: you can’t do it all. (At least, not without advanced, manipulative knowledge of the game’s inner workings.) Persona 4 understands that time is a very limited thing in our lives, and that we can’t always be perfect friends to everyone. Put another way, contrary to generally accepted video game tropes, you can’t simply grind your way to a perfect social life. Persona operates on a literal calendar, and every day is broken up into a handful of time chunks such as morning, afternoon, and evening. When not in a dungeon (meaning, when you’re in the simulation side of things), you can do precisely one activity per time chunk. So when Yosuke, Rise, the basketball team, and that weird girl who always wants you to skip classes with her all ask you to hang out at the exact same time? You have to choose one, and say “no” to everyone else. It’s a sobering and real manifestation of time management, and goes a long way towards highlighting just how hard it can be to manage all those relationships. It makes you work for those social links, and by doing so, it makes you think about what’s most important to you. I certainly struggle with trying to do everything I want to do in my life, and Persona 4 simulates this surprisingly well through its core gameplay structure. In fact, it’s so good at it, that it makes me realize how much better of a friend I could be in my own day-to-day.
Last but not least, there’s Persona 4’s central dungeon itself. “The TV world,” or perhaps more appropriately, “the shadow world,” is where all of your traditional turn-based JRPG dungeon-crawling happens. The enemies you fight within the TV are called "shadows," and these shadows are, to quote a Persona wiki, “born from humans, and carry with them human emotions, which are mostly negative.” Put another way, shadows represent all the fears, insecurities, and other baggage we all carry around, and in this universe they manifest into grotesque monsters. The more negative and more damaging those emotions are, the bigger and more fearsome these shadows become. You’re not fighting to save the world in Persona 4; you’re fighting to defeat your own personal demons. In fact, the game’s pinnacle boss fights are the shadows of your various party members. As you face down the shadows stemming from Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, and the rest of the gang, they constantly berate and ridicule the person they come from. These shadows say some pretty mean things, and know how to push the right buttons to really cripple each and every member of your party, based solely on the negative emotions they have. But these shadows are also part of that person, which means they can’t just be ignored. Everyone has to face their shadows directly, and while this plays out in the form of boss fights in Persona 4, the message is clear: you have to acknowledge the presence of your shadows before you can overcome them. It will almost certainly be messy, but there’s no shortcuts here. Only once you accept who you are, warts and all, can you get to work on solving your issues, and ultimately become the best “you” you can be.
That’s a profound message, and it’s uncommon to see a video game adhere to it in every aspect of its construction. It’s also precisely why I keep thinking about Persona 4 in 2016. As I’ve been more introspective, looking within myself to try and figure out the truth of who I really am and what I want my life to be, I’ve become more and more aware of the shadows that lurk there. I’m not perfect, and I’m starting to understand just how much work lies ahead of me. But as the gang in Persona 4 shows, those shadows can be defeated. And perhaps most importantly, strong, close friends who know both you and your shadows can provide the love and support that's instrumental in that effort; everyone needs help. That’s one of the first lessons I’m learning on my introspective journey, and as a staunchly independent and introverted person, it may be one of the tougher ones for me to overcome. We often try to hide our shadows from both ourselves and the rest of the world, but you can’t get help with something nobody else sees. Persona 4 understands this, and as I've attempted to examine and dissect in this essay, it's the core on which the entire game is built. The shadow world is a rough place, and we all inevitably have to face it. But maybe with a little bit of truth and love, we can come out of it as stronger, better versions of ourselves.