Persona 4 saved video games.
Er, let’s back that up a bit. Persona 4 is a good video game. Persona 4 is a great video game. Persona 4 saved video games. For me, I mean. Sadly, I cannot claim that Persona 4 saved video games at large until all video games are roughly as good as Persona 4. I doubt that day will come. If we’re lucky, maybe Persona 5 will keep the streak going. Maybe it will save video games for someone else. Maybe, just maybe, it will save video games at large. Whatever the case, I eagerly anticipate Persona 5. I mean, look at this damn game, how could I not?
July 10th of this year marked the seventh anniversary of Persona 4‘s Japanese release on the PlayStation 2. It would be the second-last MegaTen RPG release for home consoles (with Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon releasing a short three-months-and-change later that same year) to date. Persona 5 will be the first MegaTen release (barring Persona spin-off fighting games, in the unlikely event that you want to count them) for home consoles in seven years, should it be released even a day later than October 23rd, 2015. Atlus has since been steadily churning out handheld titles to keep their venerable mega-franchise alive (and well!), but seven years is a long time. I wish I could say I’ve been waiting for Persona 5 for the past seven years. I have been waiting since 2013. We will not begin our tale in the year 2013. Instead, we venture to the long-past, long-lost year of 2009.
Chapter 1: From the Sea of my Soul, It Came. (An All-Too Personal History.)
2013 was, all things considered, a bad year. It was not my worst year, but it falls within my worst stretch of years. That other years within that span were worse does not preclude 2013 from being a bad year. A lifetime of intentional isolation and introversion throughout my formative years had somehow fallen to the wayside when I began pursuing higher education (against all odds—I literally failed my senior year of high school!) at a nearby university in 2009. I can’t trace exactly how, but I stumbled into a fairly sizable group of friends. We had good times. I remember being content during that particular school year. For once, I’d found within others a sense of belonging. I was driven, positive, and started to feel pretty good about myself. Good times, sadly, never last forever. In 2010, familial tragedy struck. I’ll spare the gory details, but over that particular summer break my mind found itself wandering to ever-darker places. Self-motivation, for me always a chore at best and a challenge otherwise, became an impossibility. Self-respect, still an alien concept, one that I hadn’t found a proper sense of ownership for in the prior year, went out the window and left me to curl up into the smallest ball I could manage on the floor in the cold dark.
Doing things became a distant dream. Self-love (or a simpler self-appreciation, or even self-tolerance) seemed to exist on a distant shore. Thus began a cyclical period of on-again, “off”-again (in the sense that I was at least capable of occasional moments of joy) depression that my previous experiences with the matter (now’s as good a time as any to mention that I failed my senior year of high school because I often could not will myself to leave my bed before noon!) had ill-prepared me for. Daily life went from being a chore to being a burden too great to bear. School will fix it, I thought, school will fix it. How could it not? I had friends waiting for me. Not the three-man posse that had gotten me through my teens, but an entire network of people that I could rely on in these most-trying times. School will fix it.
School didn’t fix it. My network of friends dwindled, torn apart by strife and the usual undergrad dramatics. None of it had anything to do with me—everyone would always look directly at me, moments after venting about how much they hated so-and-so, and tell me that I’d always been an angel. “No matter what happens,” they’d tell me, “we’re still cool.” In a sense, the hard choices fell to me. The lines had been drawn in the sand—everyone had sequestered themselves in their smaller cliques—and I was left to dance betwixt them. It’s hard enough to try and juggle so much when you don’t spend every day wishing you’d never been born, to say nothing of my own clumsy and inelegant dance throughout those awkward semesters.
No matter how many times someone tells me something isn’t my fault, I invariably find a way to blame myself anyways. If I’d been twice the man I was, this wouldn’t have happened, I’ll think to myself. Such was the case back then, with my friends and with my family. Other bad stuff happened too, the usual sad matters of the heart. Self-respect— that ugly migrant alien that I’d only barely known—removed his mask and revealed himself to me in a much more familiar form, self-loathing.
Friendship is predicated on at least a hair-thin amount of self-respect. You can’t expect or even wish for people to like you without being able to imagine people liking you. A period of sustained self-loathing will slowly but surely eat away at your friendships until you have none left. I have lost many friendships to this process. As my lost years crept on, my issues only worsened for this very reason. I grew increasingly lonely and isolated in a time when that was the last thing I needed to be. In the sense that I still fear growing attached to people and needing to rely on them, I would say I haven’t yet fully recovered from these early days of my sickness. Maybe I never will. Maybe its just a scar that needs bearing. So here I am, baring it for The Internet to see.
The relationships that managed to sustain themselves (or, perhaps, to be sustained by the people I share them with—lord knows I was doing none of the work) during this period feel, to me, invulnerable to further harm. They are bonds that shall never be broken. As this became increasingly clear to me—a distant light slowly approaching from the end of a lengthy tunnel—I became aware of other holes that had formed within me during the lost years.
Chapter 2: Not a Whole Lot Goin’ On and On and On. (Video Games are Dead.)
I was growing more and more comfortable in my own skin. I was increasingly able to visualize a version of myself—not too far removed from reality, even—that people could maybe appreciate. I moved out of residence and into what I will describe as a boarding house in a neighborhood typically rented out to students at the nearby school. This granted me total independence: a frightening prospect for someone who, at the time, would liken himself to a sniveling child unfit yet to walk, much less live, but it was an important first step. I was no longer bound and chained to my family, and could start to distance myself from their problems—eliminating the crippling sensation that they were also my own. I transferred schools and was able to effectively shed a lot of the baggage I associated with the old one. Bridges were burned, but the ones that survived the fire remain standing to this day. I felt more and more prepared to face the day.
But even if I was facing it, how would I fill it? Anytime I tried to read a book that wasn’t attached to a mercilessly-expensive university course would get dropped in fifty pages or less. Even most of the ones that were attached to courses typically ended up unread. I’d sometimes get dragged along to see a movie, but never found myself compelled to watch one otherwise. Music became less a thing to experience and more like white noise that I’d subject myself to if I was going somewhere, or had something repetitive to do. Worse yet, I woke up one day and realized I hadn’t completed a video game (that I had not finished before, in my past life) in over three years. The one activity I’d always relied on to get me through the days, and in my haze I had even lost those.
As much as my situation had improved, it slowly became clear that I had not yet fully rid myself of my sickness (not to suggest that I have, or even know that I ever will). All the effort and desire I could muster up within myself, in their thinness, could not will me into doing the things I’d used to enjoy. Days, weeks, and months passed me by and although I’d stopped dreading the moment I’d wake up from my nightly reverie, I was often still wasting the time I spent awake. As I grapple with a looming future in which I have less time to devote to video games, I silently curse the years I lost.
So began a lengthy period of desperate attempts to get back to completing video games, to reclaim one of many lost loves. It did not go well. No matter how much I could appreciate how well-crafted a game was, how much thought had gone into its many designs, it would invariably get dropped. If I was lucky, I’d get a single-digit number of hours out of it, and I didn’t have much interest in games that could be completed in that time. Trying and failing repeatedly to do a single, simple task is already a draining exercise on one’s mind and spirit, but it is exacerbated to an extreme degree when the penalty for failure is another wasted day, spent staring idly at your walls, your ceiling, or your computer screen, wondering what on Earth has become of the person you used to be.
This was largely how I spent my alone time (which, for the record, was most of my time) during these years. Video Games were dead until June, 2013.
Chapter 3: “> You finished your job and went home.” (Fortuitous Retail Therapy.)
In June of 2013, a good friend of mine was hospitalized. It was for an operation he volunteered himself for—my understanding is that it was more an operation of convenience than of life-saving urgency—but he was still laid out in a hospital bed for a good long time, drugged out of his mind. Fun stuff!
Recall for a moment how much my past experiences had made me value my friends to know that, although this was all-in-all a good thing for him, it bothered me to some degree that he was going to be in pain in a hospital in Toronto for a good long while and that he wouldn’t be around to hang out with. For reference, this particular friend lived across the street of the boarding house I took up residence in at my second school, and we’d hang out an average of twice a week to shoot the shit and play some video games (or, in my case, attempt to). So it was a fixture in my fragile life that was going to be on hiatus for a bit. Bummer vibes for all involved, except perhaps the doctors.
I visited my friend in the hospital a couple of days after he was able to see visitors. He seemed barely-conscious, but happy to see me—along with a childhood friend of his who’d driven a much longer distance to visit, whom I’d never met previous. It gave me a weird sense of satisfaction to be somehow equal to someone he’d known for a much longer time—like I’d maybe, for once in my life, been an overall good thing to happen to somebody else.
We made the best conversation we could, which meant some amount of it was spent talking about video games. The rest was about the peculiar side-effects of morphine. At one point in the conversation, my friend asked me if I’d started any new games. “No,” I said, “but there’s a couple game stores around here. Maybe I’ll poke around after I leave here and pick something up.”
When I say “game stores,” I mean those of the “independently-owned used games” variety. A recent gambit in my quest to appreciate video games again was to stop trying to force myself to like “current” games, because I had no evidence that I’d ever enjoyed those to begin with. I had to go back to the source. As a result, I’d taken up combing through used game stores for, well, old-ass video games that I’d either wanted to own, wanted to play again, or wanted to play for the first time. Initially I started with games for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and had gotten a couple fun playthroughs of Super Metroid (for the record, my favorite game) out of the way, along with a couple other well-worn classics of that era. With regards to my quest, I would not be content until I’d been totally enthralled and absorbed, until completion, by a game that I had not yet played. The widening gyre of SNES game prices slowly drove me away from trying to find my “dream game” on that particular console, so I started to branch outward—particularly, to the PlayStation 2, since I already owned one and had it kicking around at my place. More money saved. If the early 90s constitute a “golden age” for video games, then the early 00s handily constitute a silver age. I was sure I could find the “dream game” somewhere on that system—and if I couldn’t, it was simply time to give up the ghost.
As I parted ways with my friend in the hospital, feeling better about the whole thing after having seen him, I went on the prowl—the desperate search for silver age nirvana began anew, renewed. The first store I went to had what I’d needed. A reasonably-priced copy of Donkey Kong Country and the first copy I’d ever seen in the wild of Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, a game that I’d often sought out as a high schooler—to no avail—and half-forgotten about by the time I had a credit card and could have bought it online. I felt good about my haul—maybe Zone of the Enders would be The One, or maybe Donkey Kong Country would be a temporary reprieve from the search, and I’d at least have a silver lining to being without my friend for the next few weeks, but I gave the racks one more look-over, hoping to complete the set.
I eyed a game I’d often considered checking out. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, by Atlus. I’d written the Persona series off when it’d been more relevant—a mixture of insecure teenager and the cursed words “dating sim” whispered anytime anyone seemed to talk about it. As I’d grown increasingly insecure about larger and more significant elements of my begrudgingly-continued existence, I found I’d had less time to be insecure about getting caught playing a “dating sim,” especially if it was attached to a JRPG that had, over time, built up a significant word-of-mouth reputation as one of the best in the genre. I mean, fuck, the Giant Bomb guys played the whole damn game and loved it—that was endorsement enough for me to not watch their playthrough until I’d played the game myself.
I grabbed Persona 4 off the shelf, figuring that the worst thing that could happen would be that I was now free to watch the Endurance Run.
Chapter 4: Turning Misery Into Meaningfulness. (Video Games Are Back.)
When I got home, my first order of business was testing to make sure the games worked. Donkey Kong Country checked out—saves were intact and everything. I wiped them clean and moved on—I’d beaten Donkey Kong Country more times than I could count, it was ineligible to be The One. I hooked up my PS2 and popped in Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, the game that got away. How could this not be it? High-Speed Robot Action as overseen by Hideo Kojima himself! I was initially turned off by the awful voice acting. How could a series so closely tied to Metal Gear Solid have such a shoddy localization? I played the first forty minutes or so of the game. It was not The One. It was definitely not a bad game—if I’d played it when I’d first sought it out, I’d have enjoyed it thoroughly. Playing it maybe a year later, I did in fact enjoy it thoroughly. However, for now, it was another game for the pile—good games that didn’t have the teeth to crack my lethargic shell.
Feeling discouraged, like I’d wasted every minute and dollar I spent outside my friend’s hospital room that day, I put Persona 4 into the PS2, just to make sure it booted up. It did. I watched the intro cinematic. It oozed style and charisma. I had not yet surrendered myself to anime hell, so the very obvious parallels to a typical anime opening (from the one-by-one cast introduction right down to being exactly 90 seconds) were totally lost on me, but the music was groovin’, the characters looked stylish, and the overall aesthetic was equal parts noisy and pretty—cut-up lyrics in broken english flying by in the background as brightly-color-coded silhouettes struck poses. Already I could tell that I should’ve played this game when it had come out.
Zone of the Enders‘ rough English dub still fresh in my mind, I decided to subject Persona 4 to one more test. I’d start a new file and see how I felt about the game’s voice acting. Thumbing my way through the game’s gorgeous title screen—not too quickly, being sure to admire the sight—I started a new file.
The first voices you hear are those of Igor and Margaret. They were hard to judge, because Igor’s voice is so obviously cartoony on purpose, and Margaret’s is so obviously cold and lifeless on purpose. These are two strange people with two strange voices. I punched in my name and pressed onward. Next thing I knew, my fictional uncle was picking me up and joking about how he’d seen me in diapers with a voice that seemed quite natural and believable. I was somewhat shocked that this niche publisher had managed such a superior English dub of a game that was obviously much larger in scope than a Zone of the Enders title.
I had an awful long time to be shocked. Persona 4‘s opening is gargantuan, and introduces a whole boatload of characters, most of whom are confidently-voiced by actors who, if you dig deep enough, are in damn near every other game you’ve ever played (though you do not need to dig very deep to find Troy Baker). What had started as a simple test, borne of mild curiosity, became a curious wager—how long can this intro possibly go on? If I stop now, will I ever find it in myself to watch it again? There’s no cutscene skip. Should I just ride this out until I can save? Persona 4 brute-forced its way past my usual tendency to drop a game in forty minutes or less. If I’d quit at forty minutes, it’d just mean I needed to watch the first forty minutes of Persona 4 again.
By the time I could finally comfortably save and quit, the walls were already partially torn down. The game had charmed me. I wanted to dig deeper. This game was supposedly, like, a hundred hours long. I’d have a whole lot of time ahead of me to drop it and never return and get back to being a depressed sack of shit. I was in no hurry.
The events of that night are a hazy blur. I’m still not sure, exactly, how it happened. All I know is that I played Persona 4 until the sun was starting to rise. The walls were gone. It had grabbed hold of me in a way no video game had done since I started university. Persona 4 was The One. It was, in this sense, my Dream Game. I didn’t want to admit it, but the facts were there. When my head hit the pillow, my last thoughts were of Persona 4. When my head left the pillow, my first thoughts were of Persona 4. I didn’t shower, I didn’t eat—I rolled out of bed and booted up my PS2. I hadn’t even done something like that in 2008. I hadn’t been this taken by a game since I was a literal child (rather than the figurative one I am today).
Now’s as good a time as any to reiterate that I was on summer vacation. I was working part-time in an auto factory two-to-three days a week, but otherwise had all the time in the world to do whatever the fuck it was I’d been doing the past few years. But, starting that June, the multiple days I had to myself were spent doing exactly one thing. I would wake up in the morning. I would boot up my PS2. I would play Persona 4 for some number of hours. I would either take care of whatever few errands I had, or keep playing Persona 4, depending on the day. When I was done with that, more Persona 4. I’d turn and check the time—holy shit, 8:00pm—and realize I hadn’t eaten all day. I’d order some garbage—pizza, KFC, Chinese food, you name it—and eat while playing. Since I was ordering food every night anyways, I stopped going grocery shopping—basically the only errand referred to above other than cigarette runs—and just ordered soda (the lesser of my addictions, though one that’s been more or less lifelong) with my food. I started chain-smoking a pair of cigarettes on my breaks so that I spent less time traveling between my TV and my front porch. Less time spent outside the house, more time spent dungeon diving or hanging out with the gang. Every night, I’d go to sleep as the sun rose, and wake up ready to do it all over again.
From an outside perspective, this probably sounds horrific. Disgusting. Like I was a man possessed. I pray that anyone I’m ever romantically involved with never reads this. Think about it, a grown-ass man devoting every waking hour to a video game, alone in his room, eating nothing but junk food, until the sun rose. Doing this every day for a stretch of days. How could that possibly be a good thing? This is the reason I’ve aired so much of my dirty laundry here, in the hopes of convincing people that this was a good thing. To prove that this was, in fact, a major turning point for me—an incredibly life-affirming moment in which I reclaimed some part of the person I’d used to be, an important second step in the process of rebuilding myself after a complete meltdown (rest assured—I’ve spared you the goriest details). I am completely, utterly convinced this was not just a good thing, but was The Most Good Thing, but I need to try and convince others that this was the case before it can be an honest-to-god truth.
Persona 4 had to take one noteworthy break, when I went back to my hometown to work for the weekend. When I returned to my rented room on Monday, I was possessed yet again, and I completed the game not long after. That previous weekend, I spent each shift thinking intently about Persona 4. What my game plan was for my Social Links, how I’d organized my party, how to better optimize my “deck” of Personas, and, most importantly, how to express in words exactly what this game had given rise to within me. I wanted to express how, exactly, Persona 4 saved video games. To really dig into the game, figure out what makes it tick and why it made me tick. The personal sob story stops now. It’s taken me a couple of years, and I’m still not sure I’m up to the task, but I’m going to try and explain anyways. Let’s figure out how Persona 4 saved video games.
Chapter 5: Trapped in a Maze of Relationships. (The Chicken or the Egg?)
To start with the obvious: Persona 4 offered me a substitute for actual friendships when I probably needed it. I mean, let’s be honest. The rate at which I went from having no friends, to having lots of friends, to having (at least what felt like) no friends gave me a severe case of social whiplash that’s still got me reeling in some small way. I’d kept a couple friendships alive, against all odds, though I didn’t feel I’d earned or deserved their continued existence. I’d kept a few embers burning, waiting until I was ready to blow on them again. I’d made a handful of connections in my new environment. It was all a strange patchwork that I couldn’t figure out how to navigate, and it felt in some way inadequate. There was still a very real feeling of loss, and an unwillingness to replenish. I’d forgotten how easy it can be to be friendly and receive the same treatment. Friendships were, in my mind, a strange blessing that were entirely coincidental or accidental, and I didn’t trust that they wouldn’t just up and vanish as all the others had. It’s a difficult sensation to express. I needed something that could reset my brain and drag the rest of me, kicking and screaming, out of its dark recesses. Something that could remind me that I’m an active participant in my own life, and not a bystander or a victim.
Moreover, there were more-immediate and less-insidious holes in my social life. As previously mentioned, a close friend was temporarily unavailable. Temporary as it was, I needed something to fill the gaps left in his absence. Lord knows I wasn’t ready to just go out and try meet new people to do just that. I didn’t believe enough in my own ability to not-annoy people to spend more time with whoever else was available. They’d get sick of me and leave too! I needed a substitute. Something safe, that wouldn’t threaten the fragile barely-human’s fractured sense of earthly belonging nor be able to get annoyed with his shit. Something totally empowering and able to supplement my need to better understand individuals over time.
Persona 4 satisfied both of these requirements. It’s an intensely-empowering game in terms of social relations. Everybody wants to be your friend. Everybody wants your help with their problems, and everybody wants to tell you how positive an impact you had on their lives. An entire half of the game (i.e. all of the time spent outside of dungeons) is devoted to reminding the player how good it feels and how important it feels to positively connect with other human beings. I’m sure there’s a lot of media that could have done this for me, but I’d been a man with a mission, even if it killed him: I needed to learn to love video games again. It could only be a video game that taught me this, and Persona 4 evidently was the game that would do it. On the second requirement, it gave me an easy, fun, carefree way to pass the days until my friend was all better and I could ramble incoherently about how much time I sunk into Persona 4 while he’d been out and how exciting it was.
Of course, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here that I don’t feel qualified to offer a definitive take on. Was it Persona 4‘s intensely positive outlook on human relationships that helped me overcome my own negative outlook on that topic? Or was it simply that Persona 4 allowed me to reclaim some long-lost piece of my identity, made me feel whole again, and subsequently allowed me to feel more comfortable around others? Did it teach me to love others, or did it teach me to love myself—thereby facilitating my latent ability to love others? Was it just a coincidence that the game that helped me make one small step in the ongoing quest to “fix myself” happened to be so earnestly about how rad friendship can be? Maybe it was a combination of the two.
What I can say is that Persona 4‘s representation of the Protagonist’s social life was definitely a contributing factor in what made the game so accessible, playable, and memorable for me. So, in that sense, even if were as simple as “Persona 4 was a good game and it renewed my faith in video games and that made me better-able to relate to other people, who are somehow capable of enjoying things on a daily basis without having played Persona 4,” it would not have done what it did for me had it not introduced me to the wonderful world of Social Links.
In Persona 4, you play as a seemingly-average Japanese high school student. You give him a name. He moves to a rural town called Inaba to live with his uncle because his parents left Japan for a year on business. You go to school six days a week (as is the custom in Japan), like any high schooler would (except the delinquents, of course). To this end, the entire game runs on a “calendar system.” Every day, you wake up and go to school. School stuff happens, and then school’s done for the day. You are then free to spend your afternoon however you want: hanging out with friends, working part-time jobs, eating at a ramen place, etc. Then you go home for the evening, and can again spend that time however you want: chatting with your uncle or cousin, studying for the big test coming up, reading a book, working another part-time job, etc. Then you go to bed and wake up the next day, and the cycle begins anew.
Thus, Persona 4 is a game that puts you in the shoes of an average teenager and gives you a certain amount of freedom in how you pass time in his mostly-ordinary life. This would be a pretty boring video game if they didn’t gamify it in some way. This is where Social Links come in. Each of your character’s relationships with another character is represented by a Social Link (in turn represented by one of the Major Arcana of a tarot deck), a ranked progression of ten levels. In hanging out with a friend, a family member, or some other manner of acquaintance, your Social Link with this character will raise in rank. This mechanic conflates the game’s two otherwise disparate halves: social simulator and dungeon crawling RPG. As a social link rises in rank, your ability to create new Personas of the associated Arcana also rises by way of a one-time Experience Point boost at the time of creation.
It gets even more complicated (and thus more interesting) though! To advance within your Social Links, you also need to raise certain “social stats,” indicators of your character’s personal growth. They are Knowledge, Courage, Expression, Understanding and Diligence. Various activities can raise these statistics, but they involve spending the same time you’d otherwise be spending on your Social Links. Thus, time becomes a resource—the most important one in the game, in fact. Adding to this, the game’s dungeon crawling also consumes time that might otherwise be spent on Social Links—and as such, you are encouraged to complete dungeons in as few in-game days as possible (dictated by how much progress you can squeeze out of your HP/SP in a given day, since going home and sleeping will replenish them to prepare you for another day of dungeon crawling, if necessary).
In this, you are just encouraged to live out your Protagonist’s mostly-ordinary life, but rather encouraged to live it out as efficiently and productively as possible. A whole world is out there, waiting for you, but you need to figure out how to grasp at it for yourself. It will not be handed to you. Your life is only as fulfilling as you make it. It’s a compelling meta-game that interacts very cleanly with the more-traditional game it’s attached to. It is very easy to fall into a hole when playing Persona 4, wherein you’ll constantly tell yourself “just one more day” as you repeat the average daily gameplay loop over and over again, finding efficiencies and raising your Social Links.
Each Social Link is accompanied by a short-and-sweet subplot related to that particular character, and it develops as the Link increases in rank. You learn more and more about your virtual friend, as you would a real one, by hanging out with them more—and they gradually open up about the things that bother them or haunt them and it falls to you to help them deal with their unique issues. There’s a refreshing restraint in most of the Social Link dialogues you’re exposed to—the problems these people are dealing with are typically believable, realistic problems, and relatable to boot. Like most things about Persona 4, it’s compelling and effective and smartly-designed. It’s an addictive gameplay loop, explaining how it managed to consume me in the way that it did that fateful June. I was driven to hang out with just one more friend before I went to bed, and after lying down I’d be thinking of how best to optimize the Social Link game when I got back into it tomorrow. It provided an easy way to keep my mind off my troubles. It opened my eyes to a whole new way of game design that had never really occurred to me. It’s one of the many things that contributed to Persona 4 saving video games.
Chapter 6: “I Live For This Part!” (On The Many Virtues of Knocking Things Down.)
Of course, the quasi-dating-sim-minus-the-skeeze aspect of Persona 4 are only half the game. The other half is a dungeon crawler—a subgenre of RPGs that, at the time, I had next to no experience with. Most RPGs feature dungeons, but a dungeon crawler places a much larger emphasis on them, making your progress in a dungeon the key indicator of progression rather than your current location in the world or progress through the story.
It’s kind of a difficult distinction to explain, but to give an example specific to Persona 4, the town of Inaba is largely unchanged as you progress through the game’s dungeons (which are tied to specific spans of time in the game’s calendar—open on a certain date, and if you don’t finish it before a certain date, it’s game over). You never really go anywhere else, outside of dungeons—a cutscene event might relocate your party to another town, or an otherwise inaccessible area of Inaba, but these areas exist exclusively for the event. Otherwise, the Inaba that is available to you after the first dungeon is the same Inaba that’s available after the fourth—you can go to the same places, do the same things. You don’t progress to a new town, you aren’t unlocking new areas of the town to visit. Inaba serves as a sort of hub that you can freely walk around when you aren’t in a dungeon—one with a lot more content built into it than some other “hub worlds” in a dungeon crawler, but a hub world nonetheless.
I still distinctly remember the first time I realized Persona 4 was a dungeon crawler, realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. I was in the game’s first dungeon, exploring a randomly-generated map arranged in a vaguely maze-like fashion, and found a staircase that would lead up a floor. After a few of these staircases, I realized that this wasn’t some Final Fantasy game like I was used to. More traditional RPGs might justify their dungeons by emphasizing a sort of realism—this is an environment with a very specific function that requires it to be as long as it is to maintain its oneness with the world. Maybe it’s some sort of factory, and the dungeon has been designed to give the impression of a factory—it covers a lot of ground, has a lot of conveyor belts, the enemies are evocative of the dungeon’s “character.”
Persona 4 does away with this layer of justification. Its dungeons are almost arbitrary in their design—their length exists solely as a means of pacing, ensuring you are fighting the requisite number of battles (against creatures that largely have nothing to do with the dungeon itself) and finding the requisite number of treasure chests before you encounter midbosses and an endboss on specific floors. There’s a certain layer of justification to each dungeon’s aesthetic—they are all representative of the repressed thoughts of the person within you are trying to rescue—but beyond the aesthetic, everything is arbitrary. Why does a bathhouse have more floors than a castle? Bathhouses aren’t 11 stories tall. The answer is that the bathhouse is the dungeon after the castle, so of course it is larger.
The dungeons are the easiest part of Persona 4 to take issue with because of this level of arbitration. That they are randomly-generated precludes the dungeons from being smartly-designed or having interesting puzzles, and the game’s non-verbal honesty that these dungeon floors exist solely to pad out the experience can be frustrating. There exists, for me at least, a layer of masochism to the dungeon design, however. They may be dull and uninspiring, but each floor is short and non-intrusive enough that it’s easy to develop a “one more floor” mentality, not unlike how the day-to-day gameplay inspires a “one more day” mentality. Each floor you rush through gets you one step closer to an engaging boss fight, and then charming cutscenes, and then a lengthy session of Social Link gameplay. It’s a carrot on a stick, but the dungeons are often over and done with before you know it, and you’ve got your carrot.
The carrot lends some flavor to the dungeons as well. As I previously noted, the day-to-day Social Link gameplay encourages you to play the game as efficiently as possible, and time is the most valuable resource. Doing dungeons efficiently means you finish them in fewer in-game days, which leaves more days open to work on your Social Links. You do dungeons efficiently by progressing through as many floors as you can with your limited pool of secondary resources—you need HP to continue to progress through the game’s combat. If you run low on HP, you can restore it with a limited number of healing items (which can only be restocked once you’ve left the dungeon for the day—guaranteeing you’ll need to come back tomorrow). If you run out of healing items, you can start restoring HP with your SP (the game’s MP equivalent) by way of healing spells, but your SP is even more limited and precious than your HP (because you’ll also need it to cast offensive/support spells). If you’re out of SP, you can replenish that with severely limited SP-restoration items (which cannot be purchased, only found), and if you have none of those you can either pay an exorbitant amount of money in the dungeon’s lobby to replenish it, and if you don’t have the money (or don’t feel comfortable paying such a large percentage of the money you have), you’re out of luck. You need to go home and sleep it off, wasting a day.
Thus, doing dungeons efficiently requires you to win battles efficiently, and the battle system is where Persona 4‘s dungeon crawling starts to shine more than its randomly-generated dungeon floors have any right to.
Combat in Persona 4 works as follows: You have four party members (selected from a possible pool of seven, though the nameless Protagonist needs to be your leader, so you’re choosing three of six). Some number of enemies will be on the field. They might all be the same enemy, or they might be a selection of different enemies. Both your characters and the enemies have elemental weaknesses and a fixed pool of abilities. Yosuke is weak to electricity, and casts wind spells. One enemy on the field might be weak to wind, and another one might cast Electricity spells. If Yosuke exploits Enemy A’s wind weakness, it is “knocked down.” If Enemy B exploits Yosuke’s weakness to electricity, Yosuke will also be knocked down. Critical hits from physical abilities will also cause knockdowns, but are less reliable for obvious reasons.
If a participant is attacked again by their weakness(es) or hit with a particularly strong attack while they are knocked down, they will gain the “dizzy” status and lose their next turn. Some enemies (particularly those with a lot of HP and low in number) are best dealt with by trying to inflict dizziness as much as possible, to limit their ability to attack you.
Larger groups of weaker enemies, however, are dealt with a different way: by knocking all of them down by attacking their weaknesses, you will be prompted to carry out an “All-Out Attack,” wherein your party members (the ones who are not knocked down, dizzy, or otherwise incapacitated) will rush towards the group of enemies with a cute little attack animation [link to AoA attack video], dealing a reasonably-large chunk of damage to all the enemies for free. This is the key distinction: by spending your SP wisely (by using it exclusively to exploit weaknesses) you are not only getting a bonus to damage inflicted by way of elemental weakness, you are getting a secondary bonus of totally-free burst damage that should, generally, end the fight immediately.
There is another mechanic that ties into the battle system’s theme of weakness-exploitation, wherein after any battle participant successfully exploits a weakness (or lands a critical hit) they will be immediately granted an additional action for their turn. This can then be chained by exploiting multiple weaknesses in a row, allowing a single character to knock down all enemy participants (the enemy can also do this to you). You cannot, however, inflict dizzy on an entire group of enemies, as inflicting dizzy on a previously-knocked-down enemy will not grant the additional action.
However, all of your characters are limited in what spells can be cast—except the Protagonist, who is able to switch between multiple Personas (each carrying its own weaknesses and skill set which is then applied to him), although only once per turn (not per action). This is an interesting design decision because it simultaneously makes the Protagonist your MVP in battles, but also means he is often the one at greatest risk of blowing through his own allocation of battle resources—and because you can only have three other participants in a battle, he will always be needed to cover the gaps in your party’s offensive abilities. Managing your Protagonist’s resources is an even more involved process than managing those of your party’s, but it comes as the cost of him also having more combat options.
Persona 4‘s combat is sometimes decried as being too simplistic, but I find the way it feeds into a larger metagame is what makes it interesting. Maybe I just like resource management a lot more than most people (I probably do!). The game gives you enough tools that just finding the most efficient way through each encounter becomes a game of its own, and it does a lot to take away from the tedium of the dungeons in which these encounters reside. The way that Persona 4‘s best systems (Social Links and its battle system) feed off of each other only serves to make both of them shine even more than they would otherwise, and this is why, in hindsight, I find the sorts of derisive, sneering comments about Persona 4 being a “dating sim” that I might have made as an insecure teenager to be woefully misinformed and a poor representation of how legitimately excellent Persona 4 is as a video game. It is so much more than that. “Dating sims” are a veneer beneath which Persona 4 hides its cold, calculating, merciless and addictive mathematics, and what a veneer! Everything is in sync and in tune with everything else. Everything that exists within the game exists for a reason. That is not to be discounted.
Chapter 7: “That Song Ran Through My Head Day and Night.” (Or, Many Days and Many Nights.)
I would be remiss not to spend some time talking about Persona 4‘s music, composed by Shoji Meguro with some support from Atsushi Kitajoh and Ryota Koduka. Meguro’s had his name attached to the soundtrack of every Persona game, though he only composed a selection of tracks for the first game, and contributed even less to the two Persona 2 games (it’s a long story). Persona 3 was his big break as the series’ primary composer, but it was also at a time when he had more or less become Atlus’ de facto sound guy—having composed lion’s share of the music for Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army prior to his work on Persona 3, then working on Persona 4, then capping it off with 2008’s sequel to Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army. This entire body of work exists within a span of five years and eight months. They are all excellent and diverse soundtracks (though united by Meguro’s distinctive guitar work, which appears in all of them) and it represents, for my money, one of the most prolific and fruitful periods of output by an individual in the short history of video game music.
His output slows down after Persona 4—he directed an enhanced port of the first Persona game for the PSP, and in doing so also re-arranged and re-recorded all of the music in that game to better fit the sonic aesthetic established by his scores for Persona 3 and Persona 4. He also did the music for Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, a 2009 DS title that marked perhaps his biggest divergence from the rest of his catalog—it contains no guitar music, instead going for an orchestral score that manages to dodge most of the cliché trappings of orchestral scores. After Strange Journey, his main role within Atlus’ sound team largely becomes that of a “sound director” to the deluge of Persona 4 spinoffs that would follow the game’s release—likely overseeing the compositional work carried out by Kitajoh, who was behind most of the music in the spinoff titles. Otherwise, Meguro’s work following Strange Journey was limited to work by the Persona team—a rerelease of Persona 4 called Persona 4 Golden, a 360/PS3 game titled Catherine, and, at some point in the future, Persona 5.
I give this history lesson on Meguro’s career because it’s important to distinguish how he went from being an Atlus composer to being Atlus’ ace composer to the Persona team’s ace composer. It was likely not for lack of ability that his workload was reduced at the outset of the current decade—I suspect it was to allow him to focus his energy where it counts. Persona 4 was an enormous hit for the publisher both domestically and abroad, and it likely made stars within the company of everyone who worked on it. Persona became a brand of its own, in some ways separated from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise the major players had cut their teeth on, and they gained a level of creative autonomy to pursue strange one-off projects like Catherine and to spend over five years developing Persona 5. Meguro was a part of this process, because he had been instrumental in defining the sonic identity of the Persona series.
This was not something that began with Persona 4, but rather, Persona 3, itself an excellent game worthy of similar praise as that I’ve heaped upon its sequel here—had I played Persona 3 before Persona 4, this would likely be a different essay. Despite having some impact on the music of the earlier entries in the series, Persona 3 was Meguro’s chance to leave an indelible mark upon it. Complemented by a fresh sense of visual design, and whole new approach to game design (each of which would carry forward into Persona 4,) Persona 3‘s soundtrack was a gamechanger both for the company and, to a lesser degree, the industry.
You see, the music in Persona 3 and Persona 4 eschews much of the traditional genre fare in exchange for a strange mishmash of styles of popular music. Elements of jazz, j-pop, hip-hop, electronic music and rock music are thrown into a blender and the resulting concoction is garnished with pop vocals and punched into the game in the easiest-looped form available. It’s a style that meshes well with the series’ bright and colorful UI design and modern setting, and one that could have gone very, very wrong if someone less-versatile than Meguro had been at the helm.
Musical taste varies from person to person, and I’ve heard a number of people on The Internet claim to dislike the musical direction of the Persona series. I think these people are crazy. It’s distinct, it fits, it’s fun and catchy. It was not long into my Persona 4 odyssey that I was humming along with every tune, and each new one I heard was a tiny explosion in my brain. The Persona soundtracks are in very exclusive company as game soundtracks that I’ve sought out for my own music library, joining the esteemed ranks of games like Jet Set Radio. They’re damn good.
Chapter 8: Don’t Worry, ‘Cuz You Ain’t Alone. (Even When You Are.)
I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time, in the years since Persona 4 saved video games, wondering what exactly it is that has and continues to draw me towards JRPGs. I love, play and enjoy all sorts of video games from a variety of genres, but something draws me to JRPGs (So much so, in fact, that I’ve committed to a life-long mission to play every JRPG that I’ve had even a passing interest in, and write about the results!). Past that, I’ve spent nearly as much time trying to figure out what it is that makes me like some JRPGs more than others—what are the characteristics that can elevate a game’s standing in my opinion?
So far, what I’ve got is the following: JRPGs, at their best (and I can’t stress this part enough, because a lot of JRPGs are not at their best), put a major focus on tactical decision-based gameplay, on having an expansive and varied soundtrack (likely to make the long runtime of the average game more palatable), and tell character-focused stories (sometimes rolling this back into the gameplay, by defining each player character in terms of their abilities). Few genres have tried to tackle all three of these at once, and even fewer try in the nightmarish video game hellscape we find ourselves in today.
I’ve covered two of the three bases in terms of how Persona 4 melds a game about making tough decisions with a jammin’ soundtrack, and now I just need to put a guy on first before I hit the homer and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, for me and for you, why Persona 4 was The One. Let’s take a swing at talking about characters.
As previously noted, Persona 4 is more or less a game about friendship. I mean, it’s a game about a supernatural serial murder case involving an alternate dimension inside of the televisions across Inaba, but its core thematic concerns are A) the way media distorts and obscures our perception of reality and B) FRIENDSHIP IS PRETTY RAD Y’ALL. So if you’ve got a game about how cool it is to be friends with cool people starring a protagonist onto whom players are supposed to project some amount of themselves, it follows that the cool people you need to be friends with ought to be doubly cool to make you feel less ashamed that you’re projecting yourself onto a video game hero pretending they are your friends and so that you can sleep at night confident you haven’t made the wrong life decisions.
Persona 4‘s cast of characters is colorful, quirky, and fun, like every other element of the game. Many of them don’t hold up under intense scrutiny—they all have small subplots that are neatly revised as you recruit them into your ranks, at which point they become little more than punchlines for occasional jokes at their expense. If you come to Persona 4 looking for excellent, in-depth character writing that fleshes its characters out, you might be a little disappointed how thin they’ll inevitably end up once their moment in the spotlight is over and they take a step into the background. However, when they’re in their little spotlight, each character is grappling with personal issues that are relatively unique to the genre, the sorts of issues that are common of coming-of-age dramas, and it does a lot to humanize the characters in a way a lot of games do not, even if it’s only a brief, isolated bit of characterization. Persona 4 tells a lot of small, intensely-human stories that are easy to relate to.
There’s also something to be said for how the game’s cast interacts as a group, which is another saving grace of the characterization. Sure, maybe Kanji doesn’t develop much once he’s figured out that his atypical masculinity doesn’t make him any less of a man, but from that moment forward he’s contributing to a group dynamic that’s constantly shifting and evolving as your party grows in size. Nobody’s entirely useless as a function of the group, and seeing the subtle ways a group dynamic will shift with the addition of a new member is always engaging.
It’s kind of hard to describe, but Persona 4 is packed full of characters who are easy to feel good about. It’s a game about teenagers figuring out who they are. Sometimes, we’re not so lucky as to figure out who we are when we’re teenagers. I certainly wasn’t. The appeal of this sort of story is broader that one might expect. They might not stand up to the greatest characters in literature, but Persona 4‘s cast is fun, entertaining, and diverse. At least one of its cast is bound to be personally relevant to damn near anyone.
They have good times in ways that don’t feel cheap or unearned. Any time you finish a dungeon, you can take a sigh of relief and know that your video game friends have earned a much-needed break to hang out and have some fun, and you’ve earned your front row seat. The game’s central loop is built around this cycle of tension and relief, and you feel it just as strongly as the characters do. You feel like an active participant, and reap the rewards just as much as they do. Checking in with “the gang” is almost always just as much fun as playing the (excellent) video game they happen to find themselves within, which should speak volumes to how well the game’s cast functions as a unit.
That’s probably why Persona shines where other games do not. There is a unity and cohesion to Persona 4‘s party that simply doesn’t exist in other party-based JRPGs, where a character might join and subsequently have absolutely no impact on the pre-established group dynamic. It’s likely because Persona 4 takes so much time off to just kick back and have fun with its characters. They’re allowed to take a break from saving the world and be themselves, and that’s where the personalities start to shine.
Again, there’s probably something stereotypically sad about finding joy in virtual video game friendships. I was too busy enjoying myself to worry too much about it. What I will say, in defense, is that these characters were written and drawn by real people. Isn’t that what art’s all about? The artist creates art in an attempt to communicate with an audience, to foster a mutual understanding, and to create and receive validation for and from the people who experience and are moved by that art. Any time you’ve been moved by a fictional friendship, you’ve experienced, in abstract, Persona 4. I am not convinced that the interactivity of the form is enough to turn this from art into something perverse. And with a game this good, who cares how sad you seem for enjoying it?
Chapter 9: Like A Dream Come True.
“And with a game this good…” What an understatement for the game that saved video games. I’ve tried my hardest to convey how revelatory an experience it was for me, but still feel as though I’ve failed. I wrote on a piece of paper in the year 2012, “the kind of gray sky that bleeds its bland into everything beneath it.” I still entertained dreams of being a bad-to-mediocre writer of fiction at this time, and I’d written it to describe the sky outside. I realized, upon turning my head to actually look outside, that it was actually somewhat sunny out. I’d written the line without prompting, because it was how every day had felt for a long, long time.
When I emerged from my cave, figuratively and literally, carefully stepping around the garbage that had accumulated in my room, having heard “Never More” for the first time in my life, the sky of my mind was a little less gray. I knew there was a lot of work left to be done before it would be gone forever. Maybe I’ll never be able to appreciate the sun in the same way that others can. Maybe this is just who I am, maybe I’ll never be “better.” Maybe the sky will always be a little gray. But I finally understood, at that time, that I could move heaven and earth if necessary in an attempt, no matter how fruitless, to see a bluer sky. A path had been laid out before me, and I’d taken the first step. I continue taking steps to this day.
It’s important to enjoy things, and it’s important to love things. To do neither is to deny yourself the ability to be happy. It took longer than I’d have liked, but I’d finally enjoyed something. If my writing 10006 words about it is any indication, I’d finally loved something. Every word I’ve written on this blog is, in some small way, indebted to Persona 4. Most indebted of all is the entire Shin Megami Tensei franchise, which I’ve gotten way-into in the couple of years since I played Persona 4. There is no shortage of words on this blog about the franchise, and no shortage will begin any time soon.
Having re-learned how to love video games, I re-learned how to love nearly every other good thing in my life. I re-learned how to not let the bad things ruin everything else. I began and continue the long process of rebuilding myself. At this point, I’m not even sure if there’s anything left to rebuild—maybe I’ve moved beyond the status quo, and now build anew. Maybe I’m becoming a better person now than I’ve ever been before. I probably won’t know for a few years. Maybe I’ll get back to you on that one.
Perhaps any video game could have reinstated my love for the form. Maybe Persona 4 was just a lucky combination of factors. It doesn’t change the fact that Persona 4 was the game that did it, nor does it change the fact that Persona 4 is an excellent, excellent video game. You’d do well to play it if you haven’t, and if you have, you’d do well to cherish it—as all great games, and all great art, should be cherished.