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July 17, 2017

Persona 5: Waifus All Night (Part 1)

I know this is a controversial opinion, but I think Persona 5 is a great game.  Shocker, I know.  Feel free to skewer me with your pitchforks at any time.

There are many, many, many reasons as to why Atlus’ latest show-stopper has found the fanbase it has now.  The visual flair; the incredible soundtrack; the satisfying story; the snappy gameplay; there’s so much here that works, I feel bad for any other developer who’s even dreamt of jumping into the JRPG ring.  But it’s not like anyone cares about that stuff.  As we all know, the true measure of a game’s worth is the quality of its waifus.  And thus, I stand here today -- well, sit here today to give my thoughts.  Who is, without question, objectively, undeniably the best girl that Persona 5 has to offer?  Who among the cast shines bright as a Cadillac of womanhood?

*shrugs* I dunno.  But I’ve got to play up this bit somehow.  So let’s talk waifus…WITH SPOILERS, of course.  But mostly waifus.

So after clearing Futaba’s Palace -- I told you there would be spoilers -- the Phantom Thieves head to Hawaii as part of their school trip.  Shenanigans ensue, up to and including an absolutely golden moment where Yusuke walks into frame from out of nowhere with a lobsters in both hands.  (I wonder if he named one of them Pinchy.)  It’s just one of several unforgettable moments throughout the game.  Still, the one that sticks out to me comes a bit later on.

There’s a moment where Joker -- who I ended up naming “Joe” in my playthrough -- is in the hotel room with Ryuji and Ann.  As these things tend to go, the conversation shifts to them wondering what kind of girl Joe likes.  A girl with a hot bod?  A smart girl?  A mysterious girl?  So I’ll go ahead and be honest: that right there was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in a video game.  Admittedly I overthought it because it came off as some sort of soul-probing investigation of the player’s soul -- a means to have him/her face their true self, as per the canon -- but from what I can gather it’s a lot less complex.  It seems as if it’s a way to help decide which scene you get next -- one with Ann, one with Makoto, one with Kawakami, or one with Hifumi. 

But I didn’t know that going in.  So I reasoned my way into thinking that “a smart girl” was the choice for me, which put me on the path to a beach date with Makoto.  In hindsight, I suspect that being asked point-blank to choose your waifu is even harder than admitting to your tastes.  And/or harder than pulling an airplane by your earlobes.

At that point in my playthrough, I only had two options pop up: go on a date with Makoto, or hang out with Ryuji.  The pressure was…notable, to say the least.  Both back then and right now, I’ve got no problems declaring that Ryuji is my favorite character in P5, and I’m itching to use him if (and when) Persona 5 Arena ever becomes material.  He’s more than just a husbando; he’s a bro.  And as you know, bros triumph over all -- waifus included.

On the other hand?  Makoto is so freaking cool that it’s not even fair.  I’m not just saying that because she’s basically a Kamen Rider (which I love with all my heart, plus the hearts of everyone in a three-mile radius).  I’m saying it because she’s a good character to have around, and someone who transcends from being a mass of polygons and tropes into someone deserving of your love.  I didn’t want to miss a chance to hang out with her, and especially didn’t want to hurt her by hanging out with my bro when she specifically called for me.  So in the end, I chose Makoto.  It was a move that gives me twangs of regret -- forgive me, Ryuji -- but her coolness ended up securing her victory.

Said coolness should be well-understood by now.  For obvious reasons.

But to reiterate, I didn’t want to miss out on Makoto -- mostly because I didn’t want to miss out on romance in general.  See, I’m kind of weird in the way I play video games; for as much stress and weight I put on the importance of good characters and the relationships I forge with them, I’ve never actually gone out of my way to do the forging when given the chance.  To put it a different way?  I didn’t romance a single person across three Mass Effect games.  Oh, sure, I did loyalty missions and talked with my crew all the time, but my Shepard never got to feel the love of outer space.  Or in outer space, I should say.

Pretty much the only time I ever go for those intimate moments -- in a manner of speaking -- is with the Persona games, and with a fraction of the passion put into it by other gamers.  In P3 I started a relationship with Yuko and only Yuko, because A) she asked me first, and B) I didn’t want to engage in polygamy even if the consequences were minimal.  It was the same with P4; Yumi was the first of the ladies I boosted my Social Link with, and since the option to start a relationship with her popped up -- and because I didn’t want to hurt her with a rejection -- I went down that path with her.  It put me in a bind when Yukiko gave the signal to become her boyfriend in turn, buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I’m not too hung up about it.  I wasn’t then, and I’m not now. 

Stuff like that did get me wondering, though: am I asexual and didn’t even know it?  Possibly, but I doubt it.  There’s probably a good reason why I keep talking about improbably buxom women -- by which I mean definitely.  But that’s a miniseries topic for another day.

In any case, it’s weird that I’ve never been one to passionately defend or prop up a waifu before…except for that one time, but only because of a Destructoid writing prompt.  I do kinda-sorta have one in Makoto Sako from Devil Survivor 2, but she’s a pretty uncommon example and no matter how much I like her, she was never someone worth getting whipped into a fever over.  Not a lot of characters are, at least in theory.  But P5 offered a chance to change that way of thinking -- to challenge me, and force me to forgo my apathy and preference for the bros of the franchise. 

There were high hopes from the moment the game was officially announced; the fact that it took WAY longer to reveal most of the female party members than the rest -- like Yusuke, for example -- makes me think that the devs knew what people wanted to see, and how to build up hype.  Speculation, I assume, ran wild.  Who would we be seeing this time around?  What would they bring to the proverbial table?  How much could any given gamer possibly love them?  I guess now we have some definitive answers.

Nobody is wrong for glomming onto the girl of their choice, main party or otherwise.  The choices are vast and varied, with something for everyone -- which to be fair is a staple of modern Japanese media, given how much stock Japan puts into peddling female characters as masses of attributes and archetypes these days.  But for the sake of this post, I’m going to focus solely on the main cast -- because before the game came out, I decided that I would put in a stronger effort to romance them, and see story aspects I would have gladly overlooked in games prior.  Who did I end up choosing in the end?  Who is my one true waifu?

Guess what?  It’s not Makoto.  But we’ve got to start somewhere, so let’s go ahead and go with Little Miss Kamen Rider.

Makoto actually starts out as something of an antagonist -- and a smug one at that.  As the student council president, she’s tasked with sniffing out the Phantom Thieves on the principal’s behalf.  She actually succeeds (which to be fair isn’t that hard, because they’re really bad at keeping a low profile).  It reaches a point where she forces them into a deal: steal the heart of a mostly-unseen crime boss, or get ratted out.  But Makoto’s foibles -- her impulsiveness born of passion, her meekness in the face of authority, and her sense of uselessness when confronted with reality -- end up making her turn from manipulator to manipulated.  Her only hope?  Join the Phantom Thieves and serve justice…even if that “justice” does involve brainwashing and distorting free will against the target’s consent.

In hindsight, I kind of like Makoto as a rival to the Phantom Thieves.  She’s got the moral high ground at some points, and no leg to stand on in others; she’s eager to call out Ann for not helping her pal Shiho deal with Kamoshida’s abuse, but Ann argues right back that Makoto could and should have done more than nothing.  That puts her in an interesting position, casting some shades of gray on the cast and their situation (something that may or may not be missing in general, but let’s save that discussion for another time).  Still, once she joins the Phantom Thieves as a proper member, she brings a different dynamic to the group and the game at large.

Makoto mellows out tremendously once she starts putting on her mask (and ripping it off her face as messily as possible, as per the game’s standard).  You could say that the same applies to Yusuke and Futaba once their initial arcs are over, but in Makoto’s case she becomes the backbone of the team. She’s the team mom for a group that, at times, seems like they’re in desperate need of a babysitter.  She’s smart, she’s reasonable, she’s responsible, she’s always trying to keep the team focused -- so yeah, she’s a real peach.  Also adding to her motherly image: I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed this, but good googly moogly Makoto’s got some hips.  She could handle a marriage to Paul Bunyan if it came down to it.

In any case, what’s cool about Makoto is that she has more going on in her life besides being a Phantom Thief.  That’s true of most characters in this game lucky enough to have portraits by their dialogue boxes -- and, you know, the Confidant system that lets you go on dates with your pals (for fun and profit, I think!).  Still, it definitely manages to apply to Makoto.  Her Confidant route has her realizing how narrow-minded she’s become by focusing solely on her studies, and wants to break out of that habit to become a well-rounded individual -- someone who exists as more than just a puppet for the adults around her.

In that sense, being the responsible adult anytime, every time ends up hurting Makoto as much as it helps.  She’s out of touch with people and trends, and approaches everything in a calculating, academic manner -- as if that fancy book learnin’ will solve all of her problems.  Thanks to Joe’s influence, she ends up broadening her horizons as well as deciding on new avenues she can pursue on her own terms.  But the thing about Makoto is that her fundamental personality and traits aren’t necessarily bad things; they can be, sure, but in the end it’s because she tries to play the mother that she saves her new friend Eiko from becoming a stooge in some playboy hustler’s scam.

Even if you don’t go all in with Makoto’s Confidant route, she’s still got more going for her in the story proper.  She’s the younger sister of the steely prosecutor Sae Niijima -- and Sae exerts pressure on her to excel, succeed, and make something of her life so she won’t be a useless burden.  No matter how thick the tension gets, Makoto still loves her sister dearly.  That love becomes so great that -- as the mother of the group, if not the whole game -- she continues being a Phantom Thief to find a way to deal with Sae’s long-established Palace.  You can feel her heart breaking when she sees Shadow Sae’s true form.  That doesn’t stop her from almost literally kicking its ass, but…man, somebody give that girl a hug.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for seeing Makoto as the perfect woman.  I’m actually hard-pressed to disagree.  But then again, I think that that’s the problem.  It’s true that Makoto has her foibles and quirks, and she has an important role to play in the story.  With that said, it feels like she becomes less and less dynamic as the story goes on, even though it could (and maybe should) be the opposite.  The Makoto at the start of the game is as spicy as she is sugary, thanks to her position.  As “Queen”, it’s heavily suggested that she has a scary, domineering force and air about her.  Under the surface, it seems like there’s murderous intent that’s dying to leak out -- at least if her cut-ins are any indication.  My issue is that, relative to the length and depth of the game, there isn’t enough of it.

I’m not saying that Makoto is a bad character, because she isn’t.  It’s just that, for me, she loses a decent chunk of her pizazz as the game marches on.  While there are flashes of more to her throughout -- being a fan of yakuza movies, secretly being afraid of ghosts and/or the dark -- she’s surrounded by some crazy, noisy, bizarre characters that end up overshadowing her mellow, reasonable self.  To put it a different way: she’s the Leonardo, and she has to share screen time with Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo.  It’s kind of a losing battle -- and I say that as a fan of Leonardo.

Finding out about the Niijimas’ reason for going on the straight and narrow -- inspiration and tribute to their late father, who died in the line of duty -- certainly adds some texture to Makoto.  But even then, it’s not quite enough to shake off the feeling that her character arc flattens a bit too much for comfort.  Depending on how you look at it, Makoto’s resolution of the Eiko problem is either an assertion of her personality -- the confidence needed to stick to one’s guns -- or a cycle that negates any gains or struggles she endured along the way.  She didn’t save Eiko by changing herself; she saved her by being the same person she was at the outset.  What a revolution.

It’s the same problem that Superman faces (at least in terms of public perception).  When you have a character who’s smart, kind, reasonable, even-tempered, soft-spoken, serious, and dedicated -- and any number of other positive traits -- then where the hell do you take them from there?  Plenty of character arcs out there are means to pound out the weaknesses that plague said character, after all.  Does Makoto have those weaknesses?  Yes.  But relative to the amount of time you spend with her, there’s not enough progression to keep her from settling too deep into a rut.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I still think Makoto’s a good character, and I’m glad she’s in the game.  And indeed, you have no idea how close of a call it was; if the circumstances had been slightly different, then I would’ve ended this discussion right here and said that Makoto is my waifu.  (Well, the other waifu, since I’m already spoken for vis a vis one Makoto.)  If P5 has taught me one thing, though, it’s that I’m not opposed to waifus that have a little more zest to them.  You learn something new every day, I suppose.

So with that in mind, who is my P5 waifu?  Can you guess who stole my heart this time around? 

I mean besides Yoshida…even if he is the super-secret best waifu.

The answer will (probably not) surprise you.  But we’ll get there eventually.  Tune in next time when I continue to discuss fictional Japanese girls and their potential as romantic partners.

…In other news, I’m pretty sure I’m on several unsavory lists now.

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