Suburban high school students in Japan have a lot to teach about game design.
When freelancers Leigh Alexander and Quintin Smith strike up a correspondence, they aim to analyze games in the context of their own lives. Which this time around means talk of high school nostalgia, game length and testing the boundaries of what it means to be a Japanese role-playing game.
Below, they take on Persona 4.
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Persona 4
(3 p.m., biology class. The girl next to you slips you a note under the desk. "TO LEIGH" is written on the front in Quinns' unmistakable spider-scrawl. Urgh, that kid is always bothering you. Let's see what he has to say ... Oh, my god! How long is this note!)
Hey Leigh. I'm playing Persona 4! It's that PlayStation Vita and PS2 JRPG where you live through school life in the day, and climb into the TV to fight demons at night. It's incredible.
(What? Oh, that's right. You mentioned it to him at that one party. He was so excited to find a girl who played games. Does anyone see the real you?)
You should play it. I think you'd really, really like it.
Here's the thing. It's staggeringly mundane. Remember how I joked that my favourite game would be "Pro Franchise Simulator '13", where you run an Arby's in some dustball Texan town? And you select employees who all have attributes, so you don't want to put the two chatty kids on the tills together? Persona 4 is the closest thing I've found to that.
In setting the game in a high school, Atlus has made a game that feels commensurately more grown up than other RPGs.
You play this transfer student who's moved from the big city to this miserable Japanese suburb called Inaba, and the daytime game isn't just about how many friends you make, but how close you get to these people. So your part-time job at the daycare centre is super important, because you get to know this single mum.
It all peaks at lunchtime, where your school friends approach and ask if you're coming to basketball practice, or music club, or whatever. But there's so much more. You can go fishing under the town's horrible cement bridge, or try and learn to enjoy black coffee at the café.
After playing all these games set in deepest space and darkest dungeons, it feels like the breath of fresh air it should. What's weird, though, is that in setting the game in a high school, Atlus has made a game that feels commensurately more grown up than other RPGs.
One of the characters you can have in your party is even struggling with his own homosexuality. How cool is that?
BTW, I heard you're going out with Brendan. Are you?
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Persona 4
Wait, are we role-playing again? You really have to give me a heads up before you start these things. We have talked about this. This is not how we're supposed to do our letter series.
It's actually very apt, though. What you have decided to do is provide a brisk, funny opening intended to explain to people what Persona 4 is, in case they don't know. Yet it's totally dishonest; we played P4 together in New York this past winter, you on the PS2 and me on the Vita. It's also silly you expected anyone to believe I, a known JRPG junkie, would need you, a board game geek, to tell me what Persona 4 is.
You're putting on a performance in order to achieve an objective. And, that, on a macro-level, is actually one of the themes of these games. That our inner selves have some link to the broader mysteries of the universe, and that the ways we present ourselves in the world create a system that lends us growth and strength.
In P4, your social links make your various personas stronger. You could look at this as a really inspirational "battle system" — oh, cool, you don't get stronger by lining up in a three-row in the woods and killing mushrooms; you do it through the love and support of the people in your life. Isn't that nice!
I haven't seen this kind of cultural climate around a franchise since my days as a '90s teen.
Except I always thought the subtext was a little sinister. The persona is "the mask you wear to face life's hardships." It's not about being your true self, but about being who you have to be. What's your "true self," anyway? In P4, people's refusal to acknowledge that there are many different sides to themselves actually threatens their lives.
You advance your social links with these kind of difficult, troubled people by telling them what they want to hear, not by confronting them or challenging them to self-examine. There is a "right answer" in every interaction; it takes human bonding and makes it feel like a rather ruthless game.
That's the interesting conversation to have about Persona 4, I think, although of course I agree with you that taking the role-playing game at least partially out of the dungeon and into the hip, culturally-novel high school is exactly the fresh approach the genre needs. People thought the JRPG was dead, and then here comes Persona 3 and 4. People love it. It's probably one of the most viable brands from Japan right now.
Makes me glad to hear, of course, because I grew up on JRPGs, and that's actually kind of a specific fan culture. As the slow death of Japan's industry dominance began to settle over the industry in the last decade, I wondered if there were just fewer people left like me. I didn't understand the backlash against, say, the late Final Fantasy games (but I'm replaying FF8 on my Vita right now, and whoa, now I get it! How did I never realize that game is awful?!).
I love the fan culture around the Persona games. Clearly people are really into the series and its characters (did you get to check out the fighting game spinoff when we were in Brooklyn?), but they also don't take it too seriously. Fan art, memes, even a @persona_ebooks parody Twitter feed. I haven't seen this kind of cultural climate around a franchise since my days as a '90s teen.
Clearly P4 is onto something. Do you think it can save the JRPG genre? And are you coming to drama club after school?
Circle Y or N and pass this back to me,
PS: How the game deals with gender and sexuality issues is probably enough for a whole separate letter series, and it's definitely been controversial for lots of people (here's one interesting perspective).
PPS: No, I'm not going out with Brendan. I heard you were going out with Brendan. Are you?
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Persona 4
OK. I'll stop trying to be cute. It didn't work in high school and I guess it's NOT WORKING NOW.
You ask me if I think Persona can save the JRPG genre. At the risk of echoing our adventure game letter series from last month, let me ask you this: Is the JRPG worth saving?
I remember when you first instructed me to play Persona 4 at your apartment.
"It takes a long time to get going," you said, guilty eyes slipping from your phone to your coffee. I picked up the pad like some dark gauntlet, dreading what was coming next. It took me 10 hours to hack through the claustrophobic cutscenes and restrictions of the opening of the PS2 edition. Ten. Hours.
I understand the restrictions are a little slacker in the Vita version, but that's still as much time as it takes to finish BioShock Infinite. The opening of Persona 4 really does make you feel like being back at school. You're rolling your eyes and checking your phone, trapped in the backwards institution of the JRPG. Didn't you tell me you once wrote the name of a boy you fancied on your shoes? Kids are amazing.
But that's just the first of a litany of offenses that we look past because it's just how the JRPG "is." The quarter-assed puzzles that had you and me doggedly visiting GameFAQs. The designers pushing their luck with how long you have to spend in the dungeons, only allowing you out when you're gasping for new content. We're in Inaba, yes, but moreso we're in the doomsday landscape of gatekeeping, difficulty spikes, of the grind.
I want to take the question of whether Persona 4 can "save" the JRPG, follow it home after school, give it a black eye and throw its book bag in a river. My question is whether Persona 4 can escape the JRPG, the expectation that these games should be 80 hours long, the low-grade-anime storytelling conventions, the dungeons. The video game dungeon is fast becoming literalised from me. I've spent half my life in this goddamn dungeon! Let me out!
Never mind high school nostalgia. Weren't things a lot simpler when we were writing about Dyad? Is the game good? Will they, won't they? I don't want to spend any more time cracking nostalgia open like I'm shelling a crab.
Let's fast-forward a bit to something more positive. I'm 30 hours into Persona 4, and I'm obsessed. I've worn a Quinns-shaped groove in your sofa. Your cat is asleep on my chest. When did I last feed her? Or myself?
You re-enter your apartment, shaking off rain from outside, startling me slightly because I didn't notice you leave. "I love this video game," I say, not taking my eyes off it. "But I swear, it would be so much better without the dungeon stuff." I remember you telling me you weren't sure it would work.
Guess what I found this week!
Say hello to Monster Hearts. It's a lightweight tabletop RPG where you all play sexy teenage monsters in the Twilight/Buffy style, except designed for adults. You're playing kids dealing with angst, terror, and every shade of love, and not only does it not need the dungeons, I'm told it barely needs an adventure. A good gamesmaster can tell your story with you just interacting with one another.
I want to take the question of whether Persona 4 can "save" the JRPG, follow it home after school, give it a black eye and throw its book bag in a river.
I think we're right to adore Persona 4's small town setting, its human element, how it's so staggeringly different. But I'm similarly sure that the slow, distressing "death" of the JRPG genre isn't a bad thing.
Game designers are onto something with this and The Walking Dead, telling strong stories with a vivid human element. But as critics, why are we shackling these innovations, putting them into the context of dying, tedious genres? Let's praise the success, continue to damn the anachronisms, and see what happens.
And in the meantime, let's play a Monster Hearts campaign. You could be a sexy ghost!
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Persona 4
You are a mean, anti-JRPG bully. I am erasing your name from the insole of my shoe. It now says "AI EBIHARA." Ai doesn't like contrarians; she likes nice boys who do what she wants, so I don't think you have a shot.
To some extent, I can agree with you about why JRPG conventions — grinding, random encounters, sitting through long, non-interactive scenes cluttered with melodrama, tropes or awkward humor, shallow dialogue — are problematic. I think you exaggerate when you say Persona 4's exposition is 10 hours (I count it 'til the first dungeon; you are counting until you have exposure to all the systems), but you are right; it is still too long before it gives you the game.
The JRPG has had problems sustaining its appeal because it's actually a modular little cluster of elements that need to be working well together to feel good. Further, the "correct" balance will appeal to different audiences. Some people hate grinding; I like it — and it's even more granular than that.
I don't think you can blanket-dismiss the complicated appeal even janky, kinda poor JRPGs can have for genre fans. You've played board games that have elements you often dislike, yet enjoyed the game on the whole.
That being said, people are definitely as excited as they are about Persona 4 because it spends most of its attention innovating on the system rather than obeying it. There's nothing nostalgic about it — it feels incredibly modern, and that's what makes it powerful. All our lives we've played games where a boy leaves a town, has adventures in the world, and ends up facing down a demon-god, but this is a game about the town. If RPGs are fundamentally about journeys of maturation, what better setting than the high school?
Persona 4 finds you a city boy in rural Inaba, acclimating to school life and simple daily rituals. You have to balance liminal goals — a menial little job, tedious studies, the choreography of lunch with people you're attracted to — with the essential task of developing your inner world, of delving into yourself and learning to understand others.
I went to high school in a bleakly rural, incredibly confining town. When I got old enough to be allowed to ride my bike to the strip mall or to Burger King, it felt like the world had gotten a little bit bigger. When I was 14 a friend and I used to daydream about stealing her mother's van (driving is easy; we'll just figure it out, right?) and going to Seattle to become grunge band groupies. Yeah. I know.
These felt like momentous, important things, at war with what felt like the equally-momentous obligation to perform well in school, to be liked there (FAILED), to eke out any little spending money I could find to buy CDs or a plaid dress in the mall.
Persona 4 gets into your head and you can't put it down because it refuses to diminish the importance of any one of those things; you are confined and overwhelmed and it offers the fantasy that you can manage it, like if you can master this system you can become, as best you can, who you ought to be in this world.
That's why I have a lot of patience for how confining it is, how very slowly it unspools power and freedom to the player. I don't mind it spends a good couple hours acclimating you into the tone and tenor of Inaba and the people there, because that is the core of what the game is about. If we weren't forced to engage with it — if we were allowed to run off and start becoming badasses from the beginning — it wouldn't work as well.
You totally dented my sofa, you substantial beast. Because you dumped hours into this game.
And I don't mind the dungeons, either. I think they're interesting; I love the idea that we can be charting these overwrought, randomized absurdist halls that represent the insides of the friends we're trying to rescue from themselves. I love the symbolic monster design, the stuff of surrealist nightmares.
You and I once had a conversation about what our dungeons might look like, and what the final boss — a nightmare version of ourselves — would look like. What they'd say to us. Remember it was kind of troubling to think about? I mean, it's not something I want to share with myself in these letters we're going to show everyone.
And yeah. You totally dented my sofa, you substantial beast. Because you dumped hours into this game. It's probably more than I've seen you spend on any game since we started hanging out. You weren't into the story, per se, and you're not a fan of JRPG mechanics, so I'd love to hear you try to define what it was that had you so hooked. I maintain it needs the friction of its systems, the brutal dungeons, for its larger spiritual allegories to feel grounded, but what was it for you?
I like this tabletop RPG you proposed (though I am not going to be a 'sexy ghost' for you; can't I be a cool teen werewolf or something?). But let's stick to video games, for now. Do you like Persona 4's characters? Who's your favorite, and why? And if you aren't busy after school today, you may have a chance to advance my Social Link.
Death is a hunter unbeknownst to man,
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Persona 4
What hooked me on Persona, and who was my favourite character? Ooh, I like Miss Alexander's class. She asks the easy questions.
What gripped me about Persona 4 is everything it does differently. That's why I reacted so venomously when you asked if it could save the JRPG. I don't want it to save a genre. I want it to eclipse it.
I played Persona for the opportunity to get home and eat my elementary school cousin's science experiment out of the fridge. For the comic imagery of my character sat in his room, night after night, reading a book he bought on how to be a "real man." For the fact that your first introduction to a character is the dungeon born out of their mental trauma, as opposed to some heavy twist at the end.
A heartbreaking portrait of youth: my ceaselessly popular protagonist blowing off his friends to go fishing in the river. At night. In the rain.
The tragedy of playing games for a living is that you burn, and ultimately blacken, the part of your brain that lets you be surprised. Persona 4 surprised me. Everything I played it for is contained in the side-quest where you meet the man who's sad that kids don't build models anymore. He gives you a little robot that you can laboriously assemble, night after night, sweating over the desk in your room. Remember? It levels your diligence. "You accidentally glue your fingers together!" "You thought you were missing a part ... but you find it under the table. Phew!"
This is what I'm talking about when I say I want Persona 4 to be more than a JRPG, more than these interlocking "systems" you talk about. It's the same reason I kept visiting the game's bleak-ass concrete riverbed to go fishing, even though we agreed the fishing was exhausting. A heartbreaking portrait of youth: my ceaselessly popular protagonist blowing off his friends to go fishing in the river. At night. In the rain. Is he a "real man" yet? We're not sure.
I'd argue that Persona 4 succeeds most in these moments where you're coaxed into not playing it like a game. Because that's when it transcends being a game, and becomes the other thing. That thing that all of us lament the absence of in video games every single week. I swear to god, it's here; you just have to wipe away all of Persona 4's systems — TELL GIRL YOU LOVE HER TO RECEIVE MAX LVL. CHARIOT PERSONAS.
Why can't we just tell the girl we love her? There's a reason you chose to try and woo Ai, despite her being horrible to you, and it wasn't for the personas.
My favourite character is Chie, probably. I love the finale of her social link, where she realises that dedicating yourself to personal growth is cowardice, and that it's all meaningless unless you turn around and start fighting — start /using/ this strength you've amassed. That dialogue rang in my head like a bell. Plus, I like strong women.
I've got a question for you. This is for my Level 10 Social Link, for Personas of the Games Writer arcana. You ready?
We've got a game here which defies duplication. It has the unique setting of a crap Japanese suburb, it has an incomparably goofy sense of humour, and it's about kids climbing into a parallel TV dimension to battle psychological demons with literal mythological demons. And in the space of just two games, it's now one of the biggest brands in Japan.
It's a creative car crash, contradicting everything the market might expect. I want you to put on your industry analysis hat for me. What's the takeaway here for game designers?
P.S. If you get me a model robot for my birthday I'm making you paint the sodding thing.
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Persona 4
I was going to make you assemble a model robot in order to receive this final letter from me, but we're way over deadline, so you lucked out.
No, Ai was not about the personas. It was because I like difficult people. I find them to be a meaningful challenge. And Ai is sort of difficult to win over; you have to accept all kinds of abuse from her if you want to be closer to her; when she first offers you the opportunity to be closer, you have to initially reject it. She is, for me, the only character that approximates the difficulty in real systems of human interaction; they're opaque, they're based on guesses, and you can't undo your impression on someone once it's made.
You like Chie because she learns the endless level-grind to nowhere is less important than what you do with the strength you've amassed. You relate to that, I think. So now that we've done all this talking and dissecting, you ask me, what takeaway can we offer game designers?
I don't think systems are as unimportant or as intrusive as you think, but I'll strike a compromise: If designers can learn anything from Persona 4, it's to re-evaluate the way the system serves the story it's designed to tell.
As I said, the RPG is about leaving the familiar from the unknown, and growing stronger along the way. Previously we've seen this done in massive, inhospitable fantasy worlds, where you start out with a Cloth Shirt and end up with the Divine Armor; you start out in Home Village and end up in the God Dimension, or something.
I'm not desperately attached to genre conventions. But before we blow the systems away entirely, I'm curious to see what else we can do with them.
Persona 4's velvet revolution was to say, OK: If this system is about growth and self-discovery, why don't we genuinely ground it in a story about the self? Instead of doing sidequests where you bet on slot machines or race animals, why don't you do sidequests where you feed a local cat or help a girl write a love letter to her crush — you know, real things that are closely correlated to the story of a personal journey?
It took the story this system of mechanics has always tried to convey, and grounded it in the way real, modern life works. I mean, aside from the whole fact where there is a "world inside your TV" or weird ghosts that pick you up in a blue limousine, but. Close.
It's fascinating to think of what other systems — including those yet to be discovered, since you're eager to do away with JRPG as a genre bound by these certain design conventions you hate — could do if they simply recontextualized themselves in this way.
If a strategy game is about managing variables in different centers of power, how could that be more intimate than a map of some foreign war? If a MOBA is about the community among different units as they try to outthink another team, what other meaningful life situations are about clusters of ideals and variables in spiritual opposition? Look how Portal took the omnipresent, saturated concept of solving a problem by pointing a gun at it, and recontextualized that.
Like you, I'm not desperately attached to genre conventions. But before we blow the systems away entirely, I'm curious to see what else we can do with them.
Folding this little note into your locker, now. You feel your relationship will grow stronger, soon.