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May 1, 2017

The New Age of Villains?! (Part 1)

Not to be confused with the New Age of Heroes, of course.

Okay, all joking aside, I’ll say it plainly here.  This post is going to feature Persona 5, and I get the feeling that that’s a touchy subject.  Not because of the game’s quality or content, but because it’s a treasure trove of spoilers right now (and will be for a while; I’ve taken heat for offhandedly “spoiling” Persona 4 via screenshot four years after its release).  I’m not going to spoil much of anything here, because 1) that’s a dirtbag move, 2) it’s a game that deserves to be played raw, and 3) I’m actually not that far into the game compared to others, so I’m a target for spoilers as well.  So, this is only going to go up to the halfway point of the second dungeon.  If you don’t want to know anything that happens before that point, then leave now.

Also?  Notice that the header up there has more than just the Phantom Thieves.  Meaning that, yes, this is also a post on Tales of Berseria -- however tangentially for now -- which means that’ll involve spoilers as well in the near future.  Why?  Because it’s a good-ass game, and the likelihood (if not reality) that there are people out there that haven’t played it -- or worse yet, are going “what’s a Berseria?” -- fills me with enough rage and sorrow to replace every drop of blood in my body with malice that erodes me from the inside out. 

Plus it’s thematically relevant for the topic, so there’s that.

You know me by now, I hope.  I’m the guy who loves heroes -- everyday or super, real or fictional.  Nothing would make me happier than being able to push out my own stable of created characters into the world, so that people from all over can delight in their heroic exploits, sprawling adventures, and high-caliber spirits.  And by the same token?  For ages now it’s irked me whenever stories -- video games in particular -- have kept trying to push their leading characters as heroes despite them being heroes in name only, if not the outright villains (through malice or stupidity, you decide).

But you know what?  I’m not opposed to villains as a concept or character type.  After all, you can make a hero shine even brighter when you pit him or her against a villain whose umbral advance could blot out the sun.  To take it a step further, I’m not opposed to anti-heroes or less-than-squeaky-clean heroes, either.  There is merit there.  There are routes worth exploring through the art of fiction, no matter the medium.  I just ask something that we should all expect, and naturally deserve: when these villains (or anti-heroes) are done, they need to be done well.  That’s the golden rule, but it’s one that I suspect gets broken all the time just ‘cause.

I think what clinches it for me -- “it” being a personal need for that niche to be filled -- is Kamen Rider.  The back half of 2015 saw promos and introductions for the then-upcoming Kamen Rider Ghost; based on some of the preview videos and cameos, it looked like Toei was setting up the upcoming hero to be a headstrong, prank-loving, selfish asshole.  And I was onboard.  In fact, I came to realize how much I needed an asshole hero in my life.  Granted there are probably other KR installments that could scratch that itch, but this would be the new one.  This would be the proving ground.

It…uh…wasn’t.  From what I can gather, Ghost has taken flak for being one of the weakest installments around.  I don’t think it’s as bad as people say, since there are some standout episodes and moments -- but overall, it’s just too plain and unambitious to rise very far above average, if at all.  Some of that, unfortunately, has to do with its lead; I was hyped for a punk hero who would add some spice to the mix, but he ended up being an acceptable, yet overall generic, protagonist/Hero McHeroson.  I don’t know how you accomplish that when your main character is dead and only has 99 days to regain his life, but here we are.

In any case, 2017 has seen an onslaught -- no, a murder bonanza -- of top-shelf games.  Resident Evil 7, Nioh, Breath of the Wild, NieR: Automata, Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, and more.  That’s a few hundred hours of gaming time right there, so I wouldn’t be surprised if people have actually died trying to clear out their backlogs from this third of the year alone.  That’s not helped by the presence of two heavy-hitting JRPGs.  Tales of Berseria is the latest installment in the ever-trucking Tales series, a prequel to Tales of Zestiria and a game that took yours truly a paltry 77 hours to clear.  I finished it literally days before Persona 5 dropped, and now I’m moving from one huge JRPG to another -- and a longer one, at that -- with less space between them than the length of a flea’s hair.

It really is interesting to go from one to the other.  Different companies, different dev teams, different franchises, different output; yet, even with all of their differences, they have some important similarities in common.  You may play as a scruffy-haired Japanese high schooler in Persona 5 (as is the standard), but the context of your adventure and the slippery slope you’re on make you and your crew a far cry from the peppy heroes of the previous game.  Meanwhile, Tales of Berseria has you playing as Velvet Crowe, who spends virtually the entire game on a destructive warpath of revenge.  And I mean destructive.

I have serious concerns about the virtuousness of the Phantom Thieves in the former game, and I have no problems seeing the party in the latter game as the out-and-out villains.  Probably because the game itself admits, however casually, that they are the bad guys.

And honestly?  I think that’s awesome.

In P5 (people who want to dodge spoilers, start running NOOOOOOOOOOOW), your whole shtick as a band of costumed crusaders is to enter the physical manifestation of people’s hearts -- or to be more precise, the embodiments of adults’ distorted, out-of-control desires.  As Phantom Thieves, you’re tasked with infiltrating the “Palaces” that represent their desires (and inlaid cognition) and stealing the treasure inside, which is a manifestation of their heart.  If the Thieves succeed, then they make the Palace crumble, curb those distorted desires, and force a change of heart in the target -- i.e. drives them to confess their crimes.

It sounds like a noble goal, for sure.  Damned if some of these guys don’t need a little persuasion.  The first target is Suguru Kamoshida, a P.E. teacher and volleyball coach who uses his authority (built on his Olympian status and build) to abuse his male students (whether they support him or not) while sexually harassing and/or abusing his female students -- to the point where he pushes one to suicide.  That’s a quick summation of some seven or ten hours of gameplay, but believe me: it’s treated as an “oh shit!” moment in-universe, and I had the same reaction out of it.  The gang has a dilemma over whether or not to go after him, because they risk turning him into a vegetable if they screw up.

Once they see that actual lives are on the line, though?  Suddenly, they’re not so willing to play nice.

I’m not very far into P5, so I can’t say anything with 100% certainty.  Still, I have my reservations, and I can see how things can take a downward turn.  The game goes to great lengths to paint Kamoshida as an absolute piece of shit, and it’s pretty successful at it; not only is he abusive and creepy, but also self-righteous enough to believe his own hype -- largely because the other adults are willing to turn a blind eye.  The problem is that that’s the opening arc of the game.  Where do you go from there, having effectively started with pure evil?  The target that follows is Madarame, an artist who brings pupils under his wing -- and proceeds to claim their art as his own so he can profit via plagiarism.  Abuse is involved again, and suicide is involved again (on top of having him keep his pupils in a rundown shack).

So again, I have to ask: where do you go from there?  Madarame’s already earned himself a lifetime membership for the Piece of Shit Club -- but as bad as he is, it seems as if there are diminishing returns on the characterization.  Are all of the targets in the game going to be conniving crooks that can and will get away with their crimes if not for metaphysical intervention?  I suspect not, because this is only Target #2 and I’ve got literally dozens of hours left.  But it does seem like a possibility.  The boss form of Kamoshida has Asmodeus in his name, AKA the demon king of lust.  If we’re going down that route (and it looks like we will), Madarame will represent Mammon.  And so on, and so forth.  Can P5 keep up the steam with one wretched adult after another?  Can it keep escalating?  Should it keep escalating?

I’m eager to see the game’s answer to my questions.  To be clear, though, it’s already provided a buffet’s worth of food for thought.  Given that the recent Persona games have been bloodstained battlegrounds for the waifu wars for years, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the main attraction is the party you’ll get with each new installment (and to a lesser extent, the Social Links/Confidants you gain along the way).  That’s not a bad approach; characters create opportunities, after all.  They’re what people will identify with and hold dear long after they finish a story -- the takeaway that overshadows themes, technique, and the like.  So given that, maybe P5 isn’t necessarily about how terrible the adults are. 

It might actually be the opposite.  Maybe it’s about how terrible the children -- the good guys themselves -- can be.

From the moment the Phantom Thieves started willingly venturing into the Metaverse, they’ve been skiing down that slippery slope.  True, they’re left with no other option but to steal treasures and change people from the inside out, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re willingly doing some dangerous stuff while playing the role of “hero”.  Are they forcing crooks to reform and confess to their crimes?  Yes.  But read that sentence again; they’re forcing crooks to reform.  They don’t have a choice in the matter; the Phantom Thieves are infiltrating their minds, tampering with their desires, and stripping away a portion of their free will.  Yes, it’s for a noble cause, but the means are sketchy as hell.  Or are we just going to overlook the fact that, if not for a random outburst from Ann, the “reformed” Kamoshida would have killed himself as penance?

This isn’t a clear-cut, good-versus-evil, underdog-versus-empire story.  It has the feel of one superficially, but even at this early stage when the adults are horrible monsters, it’s getting easier and easier to question the nature of our “heroes”.  Three of the four original members of the Phantom Thieves -- Ryuji, Ann, and the nameable protagonist -- are outcasts with chips on their shoulders and fires in their bellies.  They feel like they’ve been wronged by society, especially by the adults around them (which to be fair is pretty spot-on).  Once upon a time, they were powerless.  Now they have the power to do something about it -- and the prospect of it is genuinely scary.

At least, it should be scary.  But despite some initial concerns, the Thieves crawl deeper and deeper into the hole.  Ryuji sees it as an opportunity to take down all the “shitty adults”, which makes you wonder if he’ll ever be able to draw a line they’re not supposed to cross.  Ann may seem like a style-savvy teenage girl, but again and again she shows that she might be the most vicious of the group so far (given how close she came to killing Shadow Kamoshida, how she wanted the genuine article to suffer for as long as possible, and how one of her in-battle lines is a chillingly-delivered “You will pay”).  Also, let’s just take a moment to remember that whenever this batch of Persona-users awaken, it’s done like this.

Let’s see here.  Being overcome by rage…listening to creepy voices coaxing you to lash out at anything in your way…enduring torture that makes veins pulse and tears flow…taking on the golden eyes that, in the Persona canon, rarely mean anything good…tearing off a mask and taking a chunk of your face with it…wearing an evil smile as you awaken to the powers of your inlaid, sinister-looking phantom self…having your awakening and first battle set to some menacing (yet fuckin’ sick nonetheless) guitar-heavy tracks…


I feel like this whole game is just a precursor to one of the biggest pop-offs in JRPG history -- where tension builds up under the surface until the most minor, miniscule event triggers a complete disaster.  There’s already one built in to the Phantom Thieves’ procedure; setting aside the implication that someone’s already beaten them to the Metaverse punch, the theory is that they won’t risk having a target lose all of their desires and become a mindless husk as long as they leave the Shadow version intact.  What’ll happen when one of the Thieves is overcome with emotion, and can’t help but slaughter the Shadow in a fit of indignation?  Would they try to justify it?  Could they?

One of the rules for hunting after targets is that the group has to come to a unanimous decision.  What happens if they can’t, though?  The young artist Yusuke does his best to turn a blind eye to Madarame’s crimes, but even before he joins the Thieves he brings up a good point: they’re doing what they do out of a warped sense of self-righteousness.  (Plus it’ll be interesting to see what happens when they force a teen’s legal guardian to confess, and potentially face jail time.)  They’ve been lucky so far to have targets that have been utter dumpster fires in human form, but what happens when a target shows some shades of gray?  What happens when “serving justice” isn’t so black and white?  What happens when there’s justification for unlawful acts?  Would the Thieves be paralyzed over the fact that saving the day isn’t as easy as going “Yo, fuck the man”?

And none of that changes the fact that they’re stripping away choice and free will for the sake of a path -- a conclusion -- that they deem worthy.  Admittedly this crosses over into something that I consider a major taboo, but it’s worth pointing out: free will is an important part of being a human.  Ideas, drives, and thoughts are what make us who we are, and what we can be.  Even if you don’t agree with an opinion or an expression of will, no one has a right to suppress or distort it just ‘cause.  You can coax someone with your own opinions, and you can try to show them a different path, but you can’t just go around bending every will to suit you.  And as benign as it seems, that’s exactly what the Phantom Thieves are doing.  They’re trading the freedom of one individual or group for another.

One of the promotional taglines for the game was “You are a slave.  Want emancipation?”  The Phantom Thieves are doing their best to claim that freedom -- but paradoxically, they’re doing it by endangering the freedom of others.  Because justice.

And can you even call it justice?  Or is it all just a part of some personal vendettas?  Ryuji hates Kamoshida because the Olympian ruined his leg, made him unable to compete, and disbanded the track team on a whim.  Ann hates Kamoshida too, because the “pervy teacher” was making advances on her and treating her best (likely only) friend Shiho like garbage despite earnest attempts to become a volleyball star.  Then you get to Madarame, who Yusuke eventually decides to rebel against because of the plagiarism angle and the disrespect for the very concept of art.  And even though Ryuji and Ann aren’t personally connected, it’s not hard to imagine that they’ve got lingering scars from Kamoshida, especially once both abuse and suicide get involved with Madarame. 

I have a hard time believing that these guys are acting purely out of virtue.  But to be clear, I don’t think that’s a fault with P5 or its writing (yet).  If anything, it’s a point in the game’s favor; the whole concept comes off as a teenage power/revenge fantasy, wherein disaffected youths who’ve been wronged by older people in power suddenly have the ability to strike back without them being privy to it.  Even so, the pieces are all set up; I have faith in the devs and their ability to turn that basic setup on its head -- to probe and deconstruct through the lens of its myriad characters.  There’s no telling what targets I’ll be going up against in the future, but the way things are looking?

Something tells me that the Phantom Thieves aren’t the band of do-gooders they make themselves out to be.  Sooner or later, their virtue is going to be put to the test -- and I’m super-okay with that.

Because even if they are the bad guys in the end, there’s no way they could ever, ever be worse than Velvet and crew.

For the record, this is the nice guy of the group

But that’s a post for another day.  See you then.

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