I’ve just finished a JRPG about high school teenagers fighting inner demons. Let’s jump after the cut together to find out more about this amazing game. Warning: Spoilers afoot!
One of the characters you meet is Yumi Ozawa. Yumi is a bit bitchy, a bit stubborn when you first meet her at the Drama club. She’s this thin waif of a chick with a stylish bob who likes to be the centre of attention. When she talks to you, you don’t really know whether she’s flirting or not. Anyway, you join drama club cause you think she’s hot or cool or whatever, and for the first few weeks all is peachy. She praises you for your great acting. You feel chuffed, so you decide to go some more.
Until one day, she doesn’t show up. So you’re like WTF, and you go look for her. Turns out she went to the hospital. You ask her what she’s doing there. And unexpectedly she opens up, telling you about how many years ago her dad abandoned her and her mum for a younger woman. And that same asshole of a dad just recently showed up again out of the blue now that he’s on his deathbed. Yumi is angry at this man, thinking it unfair that he can choose when to waltz in and out of her life – and yet she is frustrated that she can’t carry out her anguish in full, because well, the guy is dying.
Then you learn the reason she’s been taking acting lessons is to get better at hiding her anguish behind a mask.
Fuck, and here I thought I was escaping real life by playing this video game.
She’s not the only one with problems in this little town out in rural Japan. There’s a hero struggling with his homosexuality, a glamorous celebrity stricken by loneliness and isolation, your younger sister has abandonment issues, a girl lives in the shadow of her more attractive and popular friend, and your best friend can’t get over the death of a girl who didn’t love him back.
Here is a JRPG that wrote stories differently from everything else I’ve played. You’re not exploring brand new worlds in a spaceship or traversing fantastical lands on horseback. You’re not saving the world and/or a princess from total annihilation. You’re saving a small town, you’re saving your friends, and you’re saving yourself.
These are a bunch of sixteen year olds worrying about what sixteen year olds worry about – their future, mortality, sexuality, dating, family, purpose, ennui and everything in between. I don’t know about you, but the subtle maturity of the writing in Persona 4 sure beats most of the infantile superficial narratives pushed by most blockbuster games churned out every year. These are the sort of human problems that you can identify with. It’s also why Persona 4 is so addictive a game, because it presents a sort of hyper-reality of life.
You go to school, you choose what club activities to attend, you hang out with friends, do the odd townsfolk request, go shopping at the only convenience store and armory in town, eat at the same Chinese ramen shop, go into an otherworld via a TV to fight literal inner demons, and then it’s back out again just in time for school exams. And then repeat.
The routine never gets boring, even when there’s an actual calendar that tracks the passing of each day. There’s always something going on, but more importantly, the growing familiarity with a single location and a small set of people immerses you more in the narrative. Everything is happening in your adopted home, so you’re going to give a shit about the people in it.
I guess part of also what makes this game so addictive is that it gives you a taste of suburban Japanese life. If you’ve ever had a fascination with Japanese culture, this is as Japanese as it gets. It’s also heart-warmingly funny when it wants to be, and heart-wrenchingly emotional when it wants to be.
It is not a perfect game by any means, and frankly speaking, I haven’t played a lot of JRPGs, so I could be hyping about how great Persona 4 is when there are other titles out there like it. But from personal experience, I’ve never played anything else quite like this game. If I had to say what the game could improve on, it could do with a lot less grinding. But I am aware that this is a traditional JRPG in that sense. Also, sometimes the pacing is horrendous, like the 3-hour on-rails opening. But bear with it, and the game opens up into something incredible.
It’s no coincidence that every time you beat one of your virtual friends’ literal inner demons and you watch as they gain the courage to accept his or her flaws, that you might pause to take stock of your own. Suddenly the guy you thought was a douche really isn’t one, he’s just fighting back in the only way he knows how, or that shy girl who earlier hardly made a connection with you suddenly tells you she wants to study hard so she can become strong and independent enough to leave town. How do you interact with other people, how do you deal with your flaws, how do you go on with life in the face of adversity?
Persona 4 is a game about traveling into a TV world so high school teenagers can fight inner demons. You playing Persona 4 is you traveling into a video game world about traveling into a TV world so high school teenagers can fight inner demons. The question is whose demons?
Note: I played this game on the PS2, but there’s a HD remake on the PS Vita known as Persona 4 Golden.