Persona 5 only includes a male playable character, and the game’s director has a questionable excuse for that. In an interview with Waypoint, Katsura Hashino explained that players can only assume the role of a man because adding a woman would have been “a huge amount” of work.
“Honestly, to put that [female character] option into the game, we’d have to cut out other things to compensate for the workload, and every time that’s the situation we’ll basically say, ‘it’s not worth it,’” Hashino said.
How this would have been additional work, Hashino doesn’t say. Looking at Persona 3 Portable, the only game in the series that allows players to be a boy or girl, may explain his perspective. The definitive, PlayStation Portable-exclusive version of that game allowed players to choose whether the silent hero was male or female, with minor variations between the two paths.
But the possible relationships they could develop differed accordingly, meaning there was definitely more writing involved. There’s also the matter of designing an entirely new character, one with distinct romantic subplots and character-based interactions. As a role-playing game, Persona 5 has a long, intricate narrative, so dropping a new hero into it could take some big adjustments, even if it’s just a gender swap.
Persona 3’s storyline was apparently well-suited for a female hero, where Persona 4 and the new Persona 5 are not, according to Hashino and his team. His explanation for this is also troubling:
With the way that game's world worked, it was okay for the protagonist to be female. With Persona 4, though, we needed the character to come from a big city to a small country town to be the driving force of the story, and it seemed more natural for a male character to fulfill that role. There are story aspects to this decision, as well.
Persona 3’s story isn’t all that different from those of Persona 4 and Persona 5. All three involve high school students getting into very grown-up kinds of trouble. All three have gruesome, bloody combat, with Persona 3’s characters literally shooting themselves in the head to evoke their namesake fighting demons. All three starring characters who move to a new place, orphaned or otherwise on their own.
We’ve heard this kind of argument made by game developers before, however. Similar statements came from people who worked on Assassin’s Creed Unity, Far Cry 4, Grand Theft Auto 5, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and the unreleased Deep Down. Each one attracted a degree of controversy as a result; Ubisoft’s “increased workload” comments about Assassin’s Creed Unity’s woman-less cast especially prompted a huge backlash, and the company course-corrected by having a female co-lead for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
To his credit, Waypoint writer Sayem Ahmed critiqued Hashino’s explanations within the piece. For as great of a game as Persona 5 is, said Ahmed, its developers still have a great deal of work to do on the diversity and inclusiveness fronts.
“Persona 5 is not an insensitive game, tackling serious issues with great care—no spoilers, but you'll see what I mean several times in the first few hours,” he wrote. “It doesn't feel like too far of a stretch to ask for the smallest diversity with its playable hero, its Joker in the pack.”
We also highlighted the issue in our overwhelmingly positive review of Persona 5, a game that has oodles of style and romancing and fun sidequests, but little in the way of queer representation. With the series’ increasing popularity overseas and with all kinds of players, Hashino’s comments feel especially archaic — and disappointing.