Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Persona 5, Cartoon Cats, Depthless Evil, and Dating Your Teacher.

Strap in. This might get a tiny bit weird.
I write long RPGs for a living. Yet, I am the most jaded RPG gamer in the world. I tend to hate playing them. Yet, I force myself to play a long RPGs, because if you become totally divorced from playing the sort of game you write, you are lost.

That is why I recently spent 92 (92!!!) hours completing Persona V, Altus's cool, quirky, cult-hit JRPG. I didn't play it. I sunk into it, like a warm bath. For 1-2 hours a night, for months, I led my band of oddball Japanese high school students through their routine of going to school, dating, capturing demons, crushing evil, and being the best darn flower salesmen and part-time curry cooks they could possibly be.

It's really weird. When I look back on the obscene amount of time I spent on this game, I remember so many flaws. Storylines that were dull and uninspired. Repetitive dungeons and combats. A flawed translation. A lot of padding. A lot of content that was genuinely disturbing.

Yet, let's be clear, this game took over my brain. It’s the best example I've seen in this medium of a work that is much stronger than the sum of its parts. If you love this genre, it’s really worth playing, at least through the end of the first chapter.

So please allow me to go on about it for a while, as I process the experience and try to figure out why it works. Because it kind of shouldn't.

I freely admit that I can be very juvenile in my video game selection standards.
So What Is This Thing About?

Persona 5 is part of the (deep breath, bear with me here) Shin Megami Tensei media franchise, a sprawling web of books, anime, video games, etc. that have been very popular in Japan for 30 years or so. The last video game in this world to gain traction on my continent was the cool and utterly bananas 2011 puzzle dating game Catherine, which I still believe does not actually exist as it was merely a fever dream I alone experienced.

I want to try to explain what Persona 5 is about in a way that will probably agitate Megami Tensei fans to no end but will actually have a chance of getting civilians to comprehend it.

So you play a teenager in high school. You spend your days deciding what to do. You can study, or work at odd jobs, or go on dates, or hang with friends, or go see movies with your intelligent talking cat.

But you are also a, I don't know, a soul wizard. You are able to travel with your friends to the "Metaverse," which is where everyone's souls hang out. There, you can summon demons called Persona and fight the souls of bad people. If you can beat up their souls enough, you can change them and make them be less evil (or just kill them).

However, these enemies are also able to summon their own Persona demons. But then you can capture and use them yourself, in a process that plays out like Pokemon on shrooms.

So it's a JRPG, combined with an anime dating sim, with heavy Pokmemon elements. I am now stepping out of the way of those of you stampeding toward the exit.

What really sucked me in to this game was the first chapter, where you do battle with that most sinister of foes, your school's volleyball coach.

Just don't forget who, in the end, your real enemy is.
The First Storyline

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was, by video game standards, fantastically written. This means that most of the writing was simply fine, but it has one storyline (the infamous "Bloody Baron") that was genuinely good. In game writing, one good story can go a long way.

In Persona 5, when you learn how to summon demons and punch the souls of your enemies, your first foe is the evil volleyball coach Kamoshida. As a famed Olympic athlete, when he retired from competition, your school eagerly snapped him up as a teacher. And then proceeded to look the other way as he repeatedly assaulted his students, the boys physically and the girls sexually. He's famous, so nobody does anything about it.

You discover that he drove one of his students to attempt suicide. You confront him. He then swears to use his position to get you expelled. Thus begins a race, with him trying to destroy you in the real life while you try to wear down his spirit and change his personality in the Metaverse. If you lose the race, the game ends. Badly.

Let's be clear. Persona 5 is a really dark game. Horrible things happen. Some of the enemies are truly evil. Not evil in an abstract Sauron/burning eye/save the world whatever way, but in a skin-crawly "Yes, this actually happens. All the time." way.

Kamoshida is one of the most loathsome characters I've ever seen in a video game. He is so horrifying because he is so believable. It happens in the real world to the point of being mundane. A game like Tyranny can play with evil all it wants, but it's in a world full of magic and elves and cat people, so who cares?

In Persona 5, the bad guy is, and let's not mince words here, a serial rapist. In a seemingly light dating sim RPG. This is what led me to write this blog post. Video games only rarely tackle this sort of extremely difficult material. So when they do try it's worth figuring out if it worked. If so, how?

Persona 5's graphic and interface design is relentlessly cool.
Video Games Have No Limits, But They Have Limits

Here is the quandary: Video games are art, and therefore no element of the human experience, no matter how horrible, is off limits. Yet, video games are mostly adolescent power fantasies, so some topics seem too serious for them to address. Much of human experience, therefore, must be walled off in weenie little indie art pieces that nobody plays.

Now look at Persona 5. It is full of horrifying abuse. And wacky JRPG battles and hijinx. With a rapist gym teacher. And a cartoon cat.

Persona 5 is a financial and critical hit. I have read criticism that there are flaws in the ways it addresses the issues it does, but I have not seen anyone, male or female, seriously say that the game is disrespectful or should not exist. If they did, I would not agree with them.

This is a game full of horrors. It shouldn't work. People should recoil from it. But people don't recoil, and it does work. This is a good spot for some meaty game criticism. How do they pull off this magic trick?

To show how it can work, I'll point out one tiny, vital part of the game: how these traumatized kids get their magical powers.

How Can a Game Have Such Horrible Things and Silly Things Next To Each Other and Not Be a Mess

You might be thinking, "How can an RPG contain material like that and still be bearable and not super-gross and offensive?" Part of it is that, when dealing with sexual assault (and it comes up a lot), Persona 5 never jokes. It treats the topic seriously.

More importantly, they use a bit of a narrative trick, which I want to highlight because I think it works extremely well.

OK, so you play a band of teenagers who gain the ability to summon demons to attack the souls of evil people. Fine. How does this happen?

It's not like Harry Potter. A fat guy with a beard doesn't show up and say "You're a wizard!" and you go off to boarding school.

Here's how it works. You have to be betrayed. Someone has to be truly cruel to you, completely take advantage of your trust and weakness (and you've been weak and trusting in a way only a child can be). And then you have to realize it. You have to enter the Soul World to fully comprehend the magnitude of what has been done to you, and you have to completely lose yourself to rage. When this happens, a mask will appear on your face, the visible form of your still belonging to and believing in society. And you have to rip it off. It's AGONIZING. There is blood. And when it's finally off, you're free.

Here is what it looks like. (The one at 9:17 is pretty good.)

It's intense and bizarre and glorious and totally silly and utterly sincere, in a way that the Japanese do really, really well. It’s full of crazy animations and cartoon cats, but it's SERIOUS. I think it's the secret to what makes the game work.

He never saw it coming.
I Love Tonal Inconsistency

Now I know I am doing a super-crappy job of selling this game. I mean, I promised you a totally bananas adventure where you travel through surreal magic lands summoning demons, and then you return to the real world to be a seventeen year old tending bar before going on a date with your high school teacher.

This is a game with a really inconsistent tone. It can switch from weird and silly to dark and heavy in a moment.

I love that. I think tonal inconsistency is one of the necessary traits of a really good story.

It's not just that, if you never allow your tone to vary, your work is monotonous and grueling. It's that, if you want your work to in any way mirror life (and Persona 5, above everything else, wants to be a life simulator), well, life itself has an inconsistent tone.

Persona 5 is about damaged people trying to recover and build happy lives for themselves. It's about having been exploited and having your trust betrayed, and healing and rising above it and building a life. So when the characters recover from the latest outrage by going out for fried octopus balls, it's not a flaw but the whole point.

Window Into a Foreign Land

Persona 5 is a work of Japanese cultural and societal criticism, focusing on the ways in which old people exploit young people (and young women and girls especially). It can get really rough.

So if this doesn't sound like a place where you want to spend 90 hours of leisure time, I'd certainly understand.

I valued it greatly, though, as a window into another culture. This game is thoroughly and unapologetically Japanese, with Japanese characters commenting on Japanese society, in a very, very cynical way.

Politics in the U.S. in the last year has been a bit, shall we say, unsettling. As a big politics and civics nerd, I really liked stepping out of it for a time to be reminded that other societies have arguments and their own problems. They are the main characters in their own stories.

I love works of art that give a view into foreign mindsets and problems, like how The Witcher comes from a very Eastern European point of view.

Of course, selecting any character as "Best Girl" is offensive and problematic on so many levels, and I apologize for any inference that I ever engage with a sincere work of Interactive Art in such a childish way. Video games, as a true art form, deserve better, and so does humanity.
"Enough of This Serious Nonsense. Get to the Important Part."


"Who is Best Girl?"

Makoto. #shotsfired

As for good optional storylines/people to date, a lot of the side storylines are kind of bland. It's kind of a problem, alas. I found the most interesting characters to be Kawakami (teacher) and Tae Takemi (doctor). There's a lot of room for disagreement here. Feel free to point out other good bits of writing in the comments. (Also, be sure to never miss a chance to be mean to Mishima.)

Oh, and as one more aside, I have never liked music in video games. This is the first game I’ve ever played where I really, really liked the music. I still love the main battle theme after hearing bits of it 10000 times.

The Fun of Transgression

One of the coolest things about video games is that they give you the freedom to misbehave. This is one of the unique things about vidya as a storytelling medium. It's one thing to read about someone misbehaving, and another thing entirely to control someone being bad. Even if we know it's not real, when you choose for your avatar to do something crazy or bad, for a moment, it FEELS real.

You play a highly rebellious high school student, and Persona 5 lets you be transgressive in a way a western game could never allow. You can be responsible and do homework and get a job, sure. Or you can get a job as a bartender, or hang out with your alcoholic reporter friend, or, yes, date one of your teachers. (In a storyline that ends up being weirdly sad and touching and is one of the better bits of writing.)

This is just a first bid in picking apart Persona 5.

Be warned. While Persona 5 will allow you to two-time (or 9-time) your girlfriend, there may be consequences.
There's Plenty of Flaws

It's a 90+ hour game, how can it not? It's about 10 hours too long. There's a lot of bland writing and weird translations (in English). The writers had kind of a weird obsession with modeling. The combination of utter weirdness and total sincerity really requires some getting used to. The depictions of gay people are pretty offensive. The character of Akechi (Boy Detective!!!) seems to have been parachuted in from a different, worse game.

But if you care about the art form and the genre, this game is INTERESTING. It swings for the fences. Its reach exceeds its grasp. I haven't even begun to sort out all of the fascinating choices and ideas in this crazy, overstuffed game.

If nothing else, the next time I hear someone gassing on about how, "Video games can't do this," or "Video games can't cover that topic," I can now just say, "Persona 5, fam," and walk off to a more interesting conversation. Persona 5 got me thinking about all the things we can still explore in this young, weird medium, and I'm grateful for that.


Our very non-JRPG games are always available here, and I am on Twitter.


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  2. You have a lot of time to write it, but you don't have time to post a single new screenshot.

  3. I'm always glad to read your perspective on things. This seems like a genuinely interesting game, despite its flaws, which is all you can ask for really.

  4. I assume you're not elaborating on Makoto out of fear of the inevitable Best Girl war? I'll bite.

    The whole game is about people who've been abused by people in authority taking their power back. Makoto's a great exploration of that theme; a person who's spent her whole life doing what was expected of her, trying to be the best she can be... and ultimately realizing all she's accomplished is helping a corrupt system that doesn't care about her, and earning the hatred of the very people she wanted to protect. So she flips the table over, breaks out of the system, and does her damndest to actually do some good for once.

    It's an adolescent power fantasy, sure, but it's mixed in with some great stuff about realizing you haven't been doing anything meaningful with your life, identifying the person you want to become, and working towards that. The real-life part of her story is something everyone can relate to, because everyone spends their teens and twenties, at least, trying to figure it out.

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  18. Very interesting observations here; thanks for writing this.

    Your point about tonal inconsistency is very well taken, and as someone who lived in Japan for five years and taught Japanese literature for five years after that, I'd simply add that Japanese (and other East Asian countries') narratives often feel *extremely* tonally "lurchy" to Western readers/gamers. East Asian audiences seem to tolerate a far greater range of tones within a single artwork, and a far more dramatic swing from the sublimely goofy to the gut-punch tragic in no time at all. (Hong Kong cinema is full of these dichotomies, as are a great many Japanese manga, anime, and video games.)

    One of the best things about reading stories or playing games from a very different culture is, as you say, the opportunity to realize or at least be reminded that storytelling mores are not necessarily universal. There's enormous diversity in the kinds of stories human beings can find satifying (this is why I think the Campbellian monomyth is basically hooey, anthropologically speaking).

    Anyway, thanks again. I enjoyed reading it.

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