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June 30, 2016

Shower Thoughts with Persona 5

So Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is finally out.  Say what you will upfront about its choice to dive headfirst into idol culture (or the Japanese entertainment industry at large), but you know what?  Can we just take a minute to appreciate the fact that it even came out at all?  True, it’s not the game anyone expected when a cross between Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem was announced -- and we’ll always be left wondering “what could have been” if the collaboration truly mashed the two together.  On the other hand, this is a game that’s not only trying to say something on its own terms, but also something that -- given its style and content -- could’ve stayed chained up within Japan’s borders.  Let’s count our blessings here.

As of this post -- or this paragraph, specifically -- I haven’t played Tokyo Mirage Sessions just yet.  I will soon, though.  It’s kind of ill-advised, given that I still need to beat Xenoblade Chronicles X, and poor Tales of Zestiria is basically howling at the moon every night.  But I suppose at least a quick look won’t hurt.  Besides, we’re still a ways out from Persona 5; if anything’s going to ease the sting of waiting for THE MOST STYLISH GAME IN HISTORY, then it might as well be Persona Lite.

With that said, I’ve been thinking about Persona 5 a bit recently -- and not just getting swept up by the visuals.  Or at least trying not to.  But again, we’re dealing with THE MOST STYLISH GAME IN HISTORY…which also includes a Kamen Rider girl.  Be still, my heart.


I’ve made it no secret that I’m a fan of the later Persona games, and a handful of other Atlus titles too (like the Devil Survivor games and Etrian Odyssey, to name a few).  If I ever made a list of my top 10 favorite games, there’s a good chance that Persona 4 would show up somewhere on there.  That’s not to say that Persona 3 wouldn’t make the list; differences and preferences aside, I’d put them both in the same relative tier of quality.  Granted I wouldn’t say either game is perfect -- plus I also know the pain of Mitsuru’s less-than-stellar AI -- but hey.  Forgive and forget. 

It’s thanks to those two games that lead me to believe that Persona 5 is going to be another winner.  The groundwork is there.  The devs have got to have a solid grasp of combat mechanics by now, with the necessary updates and thematic flourishes added as needed.  Even if the game doesn’t tap current-gen hardware to the fullest, the presentation is enough to turn heads.  And of course, the battlefield is set for the next stage of waifu wars.  From what I can gather, there’s a lot of ground swell for glasses girl Futaba.  Can’t imagine why.

But the question I’ve been mulling over is a simple one: what the hell is the game about?


Okay, sure.  Plot details have long since started coming in; the MC and his pals will switch off between being high school boys/girls and thieves who dive into parallel worlds to impact the hearts of wicked adults.  The trailer suggests that things aren’t going to go well for our heroes, and it’s possible that they’re not even heroes at all based on a couple of ominous lines.  Maybe they realize too late that they’re becoming just as warped as the adults and society that belittle them?  Or, if we go along with the “you are a slave, want emancipation” line from the outset, then maybe giving in to the darkness within helps our new crew find solace…at a price.  The MC’s nasty smirk during that cutscene doesn’t exactly look like the sort of face a mild-mannered hero would make.  So maybe he and the others are getting corrupted in every sense of the word.

That’s just a theory of mine, obviously -- and I’ve been wrong in the past, for sure.  I kind of hope I’m wrong, because I’d love for P5 to take me to some extremely interesting places.  Or, more specifically, I want it to take me to some unexpected places.  Go anywhere, do anything; use its characters and ideas to explore plot points, and ultimately make an open-ended statement about the human condition.  That’s what plenty of stories do, for good or ill.  I see no reason why P5 should be any different.


Still, there’s a dark part of me that’s scared by the prospect of P5.  It’s been a long time since P4 came out, after all; it’s possible that the team behind it lost their touch, or had some creative differences that’ll jeopardize the final product.  Alternatively, they’ve lost sight of what helped Persona become such a popular brand -- largely because it is a brand now, and that means the pressure’s on to deliver more, more, more.  Even if it’s at the expense of quality, but that’s a small price to pay to get Yu Narukami into every medium imaginable.

The narrative that I’ve spun in my head is that Persona, the devs, and Atlus at large have risen up.  The underdogs won through perseverance; with their effort and talent, they became a major blip on the radar -- and they didn’t have to resort to the usual AAA shenanigans of burning through millions of dollars, or a marketing push so strong it could shove Mars out of orbit.  They’re the heroes.  But as the saying goes…


In any case, I think we can all agree that Atlus and the Persona team have a handle on the battle system (though it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll handle SP management in dungeons -- if at all).  What’s going to set it apart from the competition, besides the stunning visuals, will be the story.  Content is king, after all.  Still, as critical as it is to have a good plot, I’m looking for something more out of P5.  Should we all?  That’ll vary from person to person.  But for me?  I’m eager to see some thematic heft.  I want to see how the game handles the weight of some of its big ideas.

Maybe I’ve got a rosy view of the last couple of Persona games, but I’d like to think that you can’t go forward from those past releases without staring the drama in the face.  And I’m okay with that.  On a larger scale, P3 was about dealing with death, inevitability, and the sense of powerlessness justifiably birthed from facing impossible odds (or just reality in general).  P4 was about forcibly taking an introspective look at who you are, maybe even more so than “reaching out to the truth”; failure to accept your unique circumstances in relation to your place in society and (more importantly) who you might be regardless of (or because of) social pressures means death.  If not physically, then certainly metaphorically.


Again, that’s a rosy view of the Persona games.  It’s been a long-ass time since I’ve played P3 or P4, so I can’t say with 100% clarity if they hold up.  Likewise, I can’t confirm that either game was 100% successful in exploring its ideas, themes, character drama, or social issues.  On the other hand, I think it’s at least worth appreciating that there actually was effort put into it.  The devs actually tried to do something beyond “teenagers turn out to be ultra-special badasses who go on to save the world”.  Did they succeed?  That answer will vary from person to person.  But they did try, and I hope nobody takes that away from the games.

Maybe the best part about the games is that even if what you get out of it varies, that variance has a huge range.  Inference and interpretation can lead to Person X being disappointed, but Person Y might see what’s on display as a revelation -- a set of circumstances brought to digital life, and lent tons of credibility thanks to the high execution.  And of course, there’s always the matter of personal life experiences; not everyone has been through the trials and troubles of the Inaba Investigation Team (battles against the hordes of darkness aside), but those that have might walk away with something that truly touches them.

So.  Let’s talk about Kanji Tatsumi.


For those unaware, Kanji is one of the core members of the P4 cast.  Gameplay-wise, he’s one of the heaviest hitters thanks to his beefy Persona, Take-Mikazuchi.  Story-wise, he’s a burly, surly punk with a short temper and a reputation for beating down anyone who crosses him.  Despite his delinquent style, the crux of his story arc revolves around him being forced to confront his sensitive side -- including what many read as a question of his sexuality.

I’ll go ahead and apologize in advance if anything I say here comes off as narrow-minded or insensitive.  Now, in all honesty, I think that the game did try to give an honest look (to the best of its ability) into Kanji’s inner struggle.  He says near the end of his arc that it’s not so much about “liking dudes” as it is about him not wanting to be alone; still, maybe it goes further than that.  Prior to finding out that she was a girl -- which should’ve been obvious the moment she showed up in trailers or even official art -- did Kanji want to hang out with Naoto because he could see himself becoming best bros with the blue-haired detective?  Or did he feel an innate bond that he wanted to explore, even if it meant getting romantic?


Based purely on memory and my interpretation, I think Kanji’s in a sort of gray area.  That kind of seems like a cop-out, sure, and I wouldn’t mind if he flat-out accepted or announced that he was gay.  I’d welcome it, even.  On the other hand, it’s fine for him to be undecided; Kanji is Kanji, no matter who he likes.  Moreover, his problems are as much a question of his sexuality as they are about his masculinity.  He’s a big guy who beat up a bunch of punks!  He’s not supposed to like fuzzy animals or sewing!  He should like skulls, and leather jackets, and fighting, and muscles!  And he does, ostensibly, but he has tastes beyond the punk aesthetic -- and maybe that’s the root of his problems.  What do you do when you’re one thing, but society assumes that you’re something else?  What do you do when it expects you to be something else?

That’s not exactly easy to reconcile, especially when you’re still in high school (whether you’re jumping into alternate dimensions or not).  But lo and behold, that’s something that P4 tried to deal with over the course of its 80-ish hour run.  It’s a thematic through line ripe for exploration in P5, but for what it’s worth, its predecessors have already tried to offer their own answers using its characters.  That’s the way it should be, really.  Characters create opportunities -- and more importantly, you can’t spell “character” without “care”.  And yes, you can empathize with and care about characters beyond your waifu of choice.


Kanji had to deal with some heavy stuff during his section of the game.  It’s debatable whether or not he evolved throughout the rest of the game (outside of his Social Link), but there’s at least something to gnaw on with his character.  He’s not the only one, of course.  Naoto had to deal with the frustrations of gender politics and the glass ceiling barring her from being a full-fledged and fully-respected detective.  Rise had to deal with life in the entertainment industry, and the toll it could take by virtue of inevitable (and enforced) sexual objectification.  Teddie had to deal with…well, pretty much being forced to figure out how to be more than just a hollow batch of attributes.

Yukiko had to deal with her perceived lack of agency in her life, built mostly on the idea that she was locked into life maintaining the family inn.  Chie had to deal with the double-whammy of her unsightly jealousy and insecurity as well as her conflict over what it means to be feminine -- and you could make it a triple-whammy if you infer that she’s indecisive about her future.  Even if Yosuke only faced his inner demons as a way to introduce a tutorial boss, he still had to deal with unrequited love and his insincerity over playing the hero.  Or, alternatively, his arc is about how he -- a city boy -- is an outcast in the sleepy burg of Inaba, and resented for being part of a big business that hurts local stores.  I’d think that anyone whose town had a Wal-Mart open up shop can relate at least a little bit to the story.


I guess the question now is simple: what would P4 be like if it wasn’t about using JoJo-esque Stands to fight mindless shadow monsters in pocket dimensions accessible via TVs?  The simplest answer would be that it’d turn into a visual novel -- or more of one, at least, given the Social Link system.  Still, part of the fun of the game -- and presumably, the reason why it and its predecessor became such hits -- is that you actually get to explore something besides dungeons.  You get to be with characters, you get to see a story unfold, and you get to watch as a game opens a door on some heady themes.  The devs didn’t have to do that, but they did anyway.  That’s something to be thankful for.

At least, that’s something I’m thankful for.  Who knows how others would react?  It seems like these days, there’s a counterculture that wants video games to not be political, not explore different avenues of life, and not “push an agenda”.  I’d like to think I’m reaching or pointing the finger at some phantom boogeyman, but there may indeed be people that don’t want video games to be more than surface-level entertainment -- products whose quality is determined solely by how good it looks, how well it controls, or how much fun it is.  The blowback from Kill Screen’s article/review on The Division is still fresh on my mind…as are some of the comments for this article suggesting that maybe turning perennial murder-lord Kratos into a “caring dad” is hard to swallow.  Also, not wanting more out of our games seems like a pretty slippery slope; if we aren’t willing to open our minds or show a little empathy in our fiction, what hope do we have in the real world? 

But I digress.  There are some core questions that still need answers, such as: how do you build on the groundwork laid by long-established predecessors?  What sort of theme or drama do you explore next?  What do you do with P5?


Having suffered through played DmC long ago, it’s not hard for me to see how P5 could go off the rails.  Let’s be real here: the latest Persona games (and the Devil Survivor games, for sure) have put you in charge of a bunch of normal -- if stylized -- young men and women who tap into special powers to become the sole guarantors of the world’s safety.  On top of that, you play specifically as a character that stands a cut above the rest; you can be the smartest, the coolest, the richest, the strongest, and even the luckiest by way of romancing all the cutest girls (or hunky guys, in P3P’s case).  The wish fulfillment aspect is in full force.  And it could only get stronger with the next entry.

It’d be the biggest letdown in the universe if the only takeaway from P5 was “Yo, fuck the man!”  Or “the police”, alternatively.  In the hands of a terrible team -- or, say, a delusional one drunk off past successes and a thirsty fanbase that’ll swallow whatever’s served -- that would be something to expect.  Playing as rebels, or resistance members, or freedom fighters, or anything of the sort has its appeal.  It’s totally valid, for sure.  But it’s about the execution, and even that suffers if it’s built on faulty foundation.  I’m not saying that P5 is inherently off to a bad start, yet with various disappointments behind me, I’m worried that what could be an incredibly dense game could turn into a shallow affair. 

Don’t give me a band of supernatural shadow thieves and leave it at that.  Do something with them.


I’m pretty sure my fears are unfounded, though.  It’s been ages since P4 came out, and the devs have had plenty of time to not only figure out what made that game work, but also how to build/improve on it.  Call me presumptuous, but I’m going to bet that the team isn’t doing a half-assed job with P5.  I’d sleep better if I knew just what they had up their sleeve -- and why they’ve been so cagey about discussing the ninth party member Goro -- but whatever.  I think we’re in good hands.

I like the recent slate of Atlus games because they mix challenging play (and punishing difficulty) with some intriguing stories.  Part of that intrigue comes from a willingness to explore ideas, themes, and drama, even if it does get into some uncomfortable territory.  Really, I kind of hope that the game DOES go into some uncomfortable territory; forcing gamers to confront that stuff not only serves the story, but might also have a lasting impact on their lives.  Games are works of fiction -- of art -- and they’re just as capable of communicating ideas as a good book.  Various Atlus games understood that, and were better off for it.  Now it’s only a matter of time before we all see what P5 will do to open our minds.

I mean, they’ve already basically won by introducing a Kamen Rider girl.  But let’s see if they can win even more.

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