If you’re anywhere near New England (which most of you are, if Social Media is correct), I hope you’ve been enjoying the lovely weather! Honestly, I prefer today’s 60-ish to last weeks 80-ish, but it’s been beautiful nevertheless.
My last blog from a couple of weeks ago mentioned that I was just about finished with my play through of Persona 5, a game I had been looking forward to for nearly a decade. It’s predecessor is easily in my top 5 video games of all time, and I still find myself thinking back fondly on it. Persona 4 is the only game, besides Final Fantasy 10, that I’ve played through more than twice.
So, Persona 5. Now, I’ve checked myself to try and insure I approach this from a narrative standpoint, not that of a fanboy, as ostensibly, this is a blog about writing, and arguably that’s why you’re all reading this.
In each of the 3 main Persona games to really take hold stateside, you play as a near-silent protagonist plucked from his home and dropped in an unfamiliar place. Persona 3 and 4 were more realistic in their portrayal of this, with Persona 3 being set in and around a prestigious boarding school, and Persona 4 being set in a rural town where your uncle lived, who would be your guardian while your parents were working overseas.
Persona 5 is set in Tokyo. Your character has been sent there on probation, to live in a sort of single-residence halfway house above a café after being falsely accused of assault while protecting a woman from an attempted rape. Yeah. I hadn’t gotten past the opening cutscenes and already the game was that convoluted.
From that point onward, you are strung along through an increasingly chaotic and unengaging plot told through a series of flashbacks. I can see how this could be done well, allowing you to put the pieces together bit by bit, but it never happens. The world is so poorly explained that when you reach that point in the game, you still have no clue what’s going on.
That said, this is a minor complaint in comparison to my true issue. Theme. Any good narrative, in any medium, explores one or more themes. In Persona 3, it was Death (more on that later), and in Persona 4, it was Truth. In Persona 5, the theme is Rebellion. This is reflected in both the macro and micro stories in the world, and one of the most engaging aspects of the Persona games.
With Persona 3, the series took a hard departure from the core Shin Megami Tensei games that they were spawned from with the addition of Social Links – a page taken from the (much more popular in Japan) genre of Simulation games. The games are split between these two halves – your real world relationships which by investing time into you could strengthen, and your adventures in some mystical world that generally represented some dark aspect of the human psyche. Because of this, the stronger your bonds in the real world, the stronger your character in the cognitive world (which is in fact what they call in in P5).
Persona 3, with it’s major theme being Death, was understandably dark. The social links your character associated with were all in some way touched by some kind of death, be it actually dying of a terminal illness, or the loss of those things which gave their life meaning. It was a somber game, but still very engaging. It was probably the darkest game I had played at that point in my young life.
Persona 4’s theme of Truth was reflected primarily in identity. Your teammates included an idol (Japan’s unique pop star concept – they’re model, musician, actress all in one) who had grown tired of the life, a self-styled punk who was questioning his sexuality, and a young detective who hid the fact “he” was in fact a she, as she feared being ridiculed for pursuing a “man’s” profession. Despite these deep subject matters, Persona 4 had a much more upbeat feel, and the connectedness of the cast allowed their troubles to be explored and processed with kindness and humor.
Persona 5 chose Rebellion as the theme, and styled your crew as Thieves, who stole people’s distorted desires and forced them to confess to their crimes. It was a legitimately intriguing concept that made for unfortunately very unappealing characters.
A bit of background is necessary here. A lot of notes I’ve seen about the development of P5 stated how they intended to synthesize the best bits of each previous game which continuing to innovate on the series. That’s great, every game company should try to do that. What Atlus (the company responsible for the franchise) chose to pull from P3 was the tone. From P4, they chose…also the tone? While the action components and certain parts of the social links got progressively better as the series went on, like not having to date every female character after P3, and social links giving additional game bonuses in P5, the attempt to fuse the dark tone of P3 with the humor of P4 created something altogether unlikable. What you ended up with was a cast of characters who, on the whole, had very serious issues they were facing, and yet treated them with resignation or cavalier disregard. Then your team stepped in and swiped the heart of the problem adult (this was another recurring theme, and not an implied one – get rid of the horrible adults who are incapable of changing) and made their problem magically disappear.
Persona 3 and 4 were about helping people grow. Persona 5 ended up being a game about resignation, and treating serious issues with nowhere near the level of gentleness required. It was unrealistic (even for a JRPG, which all require a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief) and abrasive, styled as cool and edgy. In doing so, it went backwards on a number of social issues and made for a game that just felt cynical. Remember how I said that P4 had a character questioning his sexuality? The only gay characters in P5 are a pair of middle-aged, lecherous and effeminate stereotypes who it is heavily implied molest two of your friends, for laughs. And yet, one of your first teammates is reeling from being sexually harassed by the school’s gym teacher for much of the game. This level of inconsistency is rampant throughout, and the series as a whole suffers for it.
In summary, consistency of tone is important. Don’t try to do anything just because that’s what you think people want. Do what makes sense.
Thanks for reading,